Yes, We Have No Pianos

A few years ago I was amused to run across an old Iowa newspaper containing a startling headline which declared, with what I took to be mock-outrage, that the region’s pioneers had been "Commies!”  I saw the item while I was tracking down information about Vinson Perry Davis, who had been Thomas Lovewell’s brother-in-law, before becoming his father-in-law in 1866.  For those new to the story, Thomas’s first wife Nancy was Vinson Davis's sister.  Thomas's second wife, Orel Jane, was the youngest daughter of Vinson and Julana Davis.  The Davises probably arrived in Clarke County, Iowa, a year or two before Thomas and Nancy Lovewell settled in nearby Ringgold County, along with Thomas’s brothers William and Solomon.  The Davis family also did not come to Iowa alone, but in tandem with a few neighbors who shared their lofty ideals and high hopes of working side-by-side in equal measure, and partaking equally of the bounty of their new land.

An article by H. Roofer Grant called “Utopias That Failed: The Antebellum Years,” published in Western Illinois Regional Studies, summarizes what little information survives about the brief social experiment in communal farming that took place in Clarke County.    

Another southern Iowa Utopia was the Hopewell Colony, a tiny settlement located in Clarke County's Doyle Township…  The colony was organized at mid-century in the Des Moines River community of Farmington, approximately twenty-five miles upstream from the Mississippi, when a dozen families sought to create Utopia by taking advantage of the cheaper, yet fertile prairie lands 110 miles to the west.  Hiram Lamb, a twenty-year old member, reached the Clark County site in early 1851 and immediately constructed a house of hewed logs.  Shortly thereafter the main Farmington body arrived and officially founded Hopewell (later called Hopeville).  But the colony disintegrated by 1852.  The only extant explanation suggests that "every man wants to boss his own work and do as he pleased.  It was but a waste of time to try to work together, so they soon scattered onto farms of their own.”

The August 2, 1951, “Centennial Issue” of the Osceola Sentinel, added a few details about Lamb’s arrival at Hopeville, including a snippet of gossip about what may have been the first sign of discord:

Hiram Lamb entered the land in East Hopeville before the Farmington group arrived and his was the first house erected on the present town site early in 1852.  It was of hewed logs and had a shingle roof.  Folks thought he was "putting on airs" with such a fancy house.

In a speech delivered at Osceola in 1909, a former Sentinel editor who had been a little girl when the Hopewell group lived in Clarke County, had this to say about what she remembered of the colony’s bleak, final days:

At one time, before wheat ripened or corn was hard enough to grind, the second summer, probably 1852, they all lived ten days without bread. Nobody had money to buy anything, there was no town anywhere to go to, no place where stores or supplies of any kind were.  They lived that time on beans, new potatoes, etc.  

One year after arriving in Iowa, Vinson Perry Davis was president of a colony with no members, other than himself.  Communalistic societies that endured tended to be sectarian, such as the Amana Colonies of German Pietists who settled in east-central Iowa in 1856.  Cemented together by their shared religious faith, as well as economic interdependence, the Amana settlements’ communal bond would see them through nearly eighty years, until the group voted to incorporate in the 1930’s.  The longest-lasting secular utopian community was an Icarian settlement near Corning, Iowa, which disbanded in 1898, after struggling to hang on in some fashion for forty-six years.  

The Icarian movement was the brainchild of a French philosopher named Étienne Cabet, who devised a strict set of rules and principles for his colonists to follow.  They were not allowed to smoke tobacco or drink alcohol, and were required to marry as soon as possible, since Cabet foresaw the trouble that could arise from the presence of a few unmarried adults.  Above all else, colonists were to practice the principle of equality in everything, and privilege to no one.  This extended to the possession of pianos, as a prospective colonist discovered when he wrote Cabet to ask if he might tote one to their new home.    

The piano question would require long explanations.  Some day each family can have its own piano; but today the Community does not give one to anyone, because [otherwise] it would be necessary to give one to everyone because of our principle of Brotherhood and Equality, and because this thing is impossible, we cannot even tolerate one among the wealthy members who might bring one along, whereas we cannot give one to the poor who would like one but who could not have one, or other dispensable niceties; this would be inequality, and a kind of privilege which would arouse jealousy and envy and which could disrupt brotherly harmony.  Hence we have no piano.

The Iowa Icarians would get by without their pianos.  They would also get by without their founder.  Étienne Cabet was expelled from his own colony in 1855, and died in St. Louis the following year.

© Dale Switzer 2023