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Life in Utopia

Life in Utopia

As Denison Magazine’s contribution to the Spectrum Series’ academic theme, “Real Utopias,” we offer a look at a Utopia that exists just 150 miles from campus. This is the story of a small town in Ohio and the people who live there.

photographs by Wyatt McSpadden

A lone rooster stands in light cast by the rising sun

This rooster lives on Chris Prather’s property, but the land might not seem very utopic to him—all the hens have disappeared, likely the prey of local raccoons. The countryside in and around Utopia is a mix of beautiful scenery, welcoming people, and the occasional dilapidated or forgotten building, like this barn (below) on a tobacco farm near Prather’s home.

A weather-beaten, wooden door still hangs on an old farm building

During the Panic of 1819 and the depression of the early 1820s, some people looked to wealthy men with strange plans for a new life in commune towns. Prospective members retreated from the nation’s social, political, and economic turmoil, and the agrarian past seemed a good way out.

Of the dozens of different kinds of communes, those inspired by Frenchman Charles Fourier, were most closely connected to nature. His followers wanted to restore the natural harmony of all living things by establishing phalanxes, or local groups that created their own communes. They represented half of the nation’s 36 reformist communities, most of them located in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys and the Great Lakes region.

Encouraged by the concepts of Fourier, the Fourierite Association of Clermont County—originally composed of 12 families—purchased 1,140 acres for a commune and farm, the Clermont Phalanx, along the Ohio in Franklin Township. The group arrived on May 9, 1844, but by the fall of 1846, its members had all but given up on the project. In the end, the experiment died because of the toll of persistent flooding, jealousy, and “the want of means and the want of men,” wrote one member of the group. Most members returned to the city, but a few remained—six families in total.

A wooden stairway steeply descends into an underground building

Soon after, Warren’s group sold the Utopia property to spiritualist leader John O. Wattles, who moved in with 100 followers who represented the vanguard of America’s occult movement. These folks mixed some traditional Christian beliefs with the new spiritualism—a belief in communication with the dead. The group was dedicated to “dietetic reform” (vegetarianism), women’s rights, and temperance, practices and views that were exceptional and controversial at the time. In her writings, Esther Wattles, John’s wife, did not reveal what they believed, other than generalities, nor did she say why they built a church underground. She wrote that a dozen families lived in riverside shanties that stood near a large frame building with many windows. No one suspected that the building would become the site of one of the county’s worst tragedies.

In December of 1847, a flood overtook the village of shanties, and 30 members crowded into one of the new houses under construction. When the house collapsed, 17 of the 32 were killed according to Esther’s journal. Despite death and financial loss, the spiritualists refused to leave, and a few months later, the residents experienced again the river’s wrath. A beaten John and Esther Wattles finally decided to surrender to the river, and John left to scout new commune locations to the west.

Nowadays along the river, Utopia and its original concept remain ever elusive. The Grand Experiment, the commune, never did revive itself. Instead the community became an isolated haven of peace and tranquility known only to the people who live in the area.

An underground church built bu John Wattles and his followers

No one really knows why spiritualist John Wattles and his followers built this underground church in Utopia, Ohio. These days, it belongs to resident Pam Meece, who occasionally lets visitors, like writer Randy McNutt (pictured), tour the mysterious worship space.

Utopia resident Peggy Denham sits on a painted pig statue

“We used to camp out here before we ever moved here. We saw this place go up for sale, we went for it, and, by God, we got it. I just love it out here.”

—Peggy Dunham, resident of Utopia, Ohio

 

A man pushes a sturdy barn door open

 

“It’s sitting next to the river. It’s the campfire at night. It’s the fishing. It’s the shooting stars. It really is utopia. Just look at it.”

—Snook Eschmann, who lives in nearby Linwood, Ohio, but spends most of her summer and fall at a campsite near a bend in the river.

Utopia resident Chris Prather stands in front of a wall of neatly stacked firewood

“This is my utopia.”

—Chris Prather, resident and commercial roofer, who lives atop a hill complete with pear, peach, and walnut trees.

A boy standing outside on the farm, wearing his gray 'Call of Duty' t-shirt

 

Nearly everyone we spoke to in town thought Utopia lived up to its name, including Chris Prather (above), Scotty Jones, Prather’s son, Shane (right), and Willie Franklin (below), owner of the Village Market.

An elderly man sits with his hands folded, Medic Mart shelves in the background

Excerpted from Finding Utopia: Another Journey into Lost Ohio by Randy McNutt. Copyright © 2012 by The Kent State University Press. Reprinted with permission.