Volunteer Utopias: Intentional Communities in Tennessee Find New Attention at the Tennessee State Museum
October 3 to November 30
by Stephanie Stewart-Howard
When you read the words “intentional communities” these days, it’s likely you’ll assume they’re in reference to elite havens on the Gulf Coast or gated neighborhoods in tony suburbs. But a new exhibit running October 3 through November 30 at the Tennessee State Museum highlights four planned communities that aimed at creating Utopian societies away from the worst impulses of industrial and economic upheaval. Created between 1825 and 1971, each intended to show the world that something better was possible—some successfully, others less so. Those four communities—Nashoba, Rugby, Ruskin, and The Farm—all left lasting impressions on the Volunteer State.
Nashoba, founded near Memphis in 1825 by Scots-born Frances Wright, was intended to emphasize the need for abolition and racial equality. It came about, according to curator Graham Perry, at a time when social reform thrived in the wake of the newly minted Industrial Revolution, and Wright saw hope in the burgeoning U.S. democracy. She had ties to Robert Owens’ New Harmony, Indiana, Utopian movement and hoped to realize similar success here. Wright’s failing health in 1828 brought a premature end to the experiment.
Rugby also had its roots with a British ex-pat, Thomas Hughes, who hoped with the colony to address the social decline he saw stemming from the country’s rapid industrial growth. The late-Victorian community thrived on a notion of gracious living without the threat of industrialization; rustic, yet refined and educated. Perry says that in the 1960s local residents made a concerted effort to preserve relics of the community, including photos and papers which help make up the exhibit.
The Ruskin Colony, meanwhile, took inspiration from John Ruskin and the thinkers who inspired the Pre-Raphaelite artistic movement. Founded in Dickson County by newspaper owner J.A. Wayland, it served as a response to the economic depression of 1893, echoing a rise in populism across the United States. Founding the Ruskin Colony to be a true Utopian Socialist community of the type promoted by Eugene Debs and his ilk, Wayland and company strove to create a model community. Ultimately, however, infighting among the group’s leaders brought it down.
The Farm, built by Stephen Gaskin and his wife, Ida May, in 1971, has been a paean to innovative agricultural and technological thought for forty years now. “Gaskin’s attitude was that the world is what it is, but we can make it better,” says Perry. “They wanted to build a society where people shared. It wasn’t as much anti industrialist as pro return to the earth. They created some amazing things, like a solar generator from a motorcycle engine. They just didn’t want the technology to be wasteful. They were very forward thinking.”
The geography of Tennessee and its live-and-let-live attitude—a farm in one hollow, a moonshiner in the next, no one minding the other—helped make the state especially appealing to the community founders, says Graham Perry.
The State Museum exhibit showcases artifacts, photos, engraved pictures, and more from each community, underlining both success and failure. “I think it’s important for people to come into this exhibit with an open mind,” says Perry. “Open enough to have preconceived notions about idealist Utopias challenged. These people all did some innovative things and used practical means to battle the socio-economic trials of their times.”
Tennessee’s Intentional Communities: Examining The Farm, Nashoba, Rugby, and Ruskin will be on view through November 30. For more information, visit www.tnmuseum.org.
My job was to tell, through pictures, the story of our family’s lives and our community’s efforts to an audience throughout the world. Respect, dignity, and the true tale of why we were doing this were the constant themes.
– David Frohman, Photographer, The Farm