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Oneida Community Mansion House, Sherrill, NY

The Oneida Community, established in 1848 by Vermont-native John Humphrey Noyes, was a religious commune. It was a highly controversial commune for its time. In a nutshell, Noyes believed in complete communalism, to such extreme that the family unit (marriages and parent-child relationships) was broken down and “shared.” The group was banned from many Upstate cities– members were even run out of the city of Utica in a near-riot– for “corrupting public morals.”

Mansion House Sign

Mansion House Front

Mansard Roof and Side

I had become greatly interested in the history of the Oneida Community after discovering and reading A Yankee Saint: John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community by Robert A. Parker, years ago. Still curious, I had read Pierrepont Noyes’ My Father’s House: an Oneida Boyhood. The two books presented two vastly different views of this so-called utopian society. The book on John Noyes, founder the Community and father of Pierrepont, cast a glowing light on the Oneida Community. Pierrepont’s book was quite the opposite. It was written from the viewpoint of the child, forcibly bereft of maternal love and raised as cattle in an experiment hailed by leaders around the world (and socialists like H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle).

Pierrepont’s is quite the book about the dark side of socialism, particularly hard for the more vulnerable members of the group (i.e., young women and children). Needless to say, when John Noyes died, the Community fell apart. The children of “stirpiculture” had no desire to continue the eugenic socialist experiment of their fathers.

Pierrepont, the “black sheep” of the community, grew up to rescue the family’s business and made it into the world-renowned Oneida flatware company that we know today. I understand that Pierrepont Noyes was a generous CEO, giving his employees fair pay for fair work (compared to the other misers of that era), offering no-interest loans for employees to buy houses, and hosting company picnics and outings. The area of Sherrill and Oneida are quite prosperous to this day. Streets are clean and houses are beautiful. There remains a sense of community and cleanliness in these small towns.

Although the Community was a bit nutty when it came to Biblical doctrine, there is something to be said for their Yankee ingenuity and work ethic. They built an entire culture upon these acres of former Indian land. I was especially awed by the grand style of architecture.

Architecture

The house is Empire style, which was popular in the mid-1800’s. The French mansard roof sets it off nicely. The slate shingles, if you can see them in the picture below (or click the picture for a larger photo), are different colors and set in pleasing patterns. The detail of the work is most admirable. Apparently, the Community members did all the work themselves. John Noyes routinely sent out his young men to places like Italy, to learn the art of fresco and sculpting for example, and the young men would return to apply what they had learned at the Community.

Mansard Roof

A lovely courtyard is at the back of the complex. The cafeteria-like dining hall and kitchen are back here, separate from the living quarters.

Mansion House Courtyard

Each member of the Community had his or her own small room, similar to a dormitory room like colleges have today. A large shared living room, dining room, and a two-story theatre-room (where they often held recitals and plays for their entertainment) are in the main complex. Pierrepont Noyes recalled in his book that as a child, he never noticed the uniqueness of a kitchen built separately from the living quarters of a house. (Although, this is common in the south and southwest of the country, where the problem of cold weather doesn’t affect it as much). It was only as an adult, when he began visiting with others in the town (the “Gentiles” as the Community called the townsfolk), that he entered a house and was bombarded with the stale smells of cooking from the kitchen off the parlor room. I don’t know why I so particularly remember this part of the book. Perhaps it is because I don’t like kitchen smells in any room besides the kitchen.

At any rate, the kids and I wandered the grounds around the house, and I continued to give them some brief history of the Community.

Here’s a door into the lower part of the house. I love doors like this (under a porch). It looks so adventurous and secretive!

Mansion House Side Porch

Here’s the front door, the front hall, and a snapshot of the interior.

MH Front Door

MH Front Hall

MH Hallway

The Mansion House offers tours of the complex (I had been through once before so I didn’t do it this time). Visitors can see the Jesse Kinsley Braiding Room for free, though, so we went into that.

Jesse Kinsley was raised in the Community. She was a gifted craftswoman, and created beautiful rugs, wall coverings, and linens. Some of these creations and some of her furniture is on display.

Kinsley Braid

Kinsley Furniture

The Mansion House is now a high-end apartment building. It is nice to see that the place is being kept up and still has the lovely herb garden in the front yard.

MH Garden

Sources:
www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-77557520.html
dictionary.reference.com/search?q=stirpiculture

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About the Author

I've been traveling throughout New York State since I got the travel bug after touring the Herkimer Home on a school field trip as a youngster. We've been blogging about our travels since 2006 and have visited over half of New York's 62 counties so far.

Comments (9)

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  1. Suz says:

    Wow, what a beautiful group of pictures and a bit of history that I didn’t know about. I’ve so enjoyed your blog since I found it, but particularly this post. It was very interesting to me that you were able to read two books about the Oneida community from opposing viewpoints on it’s effectiveness and functioning. Also, I never knew the connection to the flatware company! Thanks as always for the great insight.

    -Suz

  2. If there’s one things that New York has plenty of, it’s history and social movements. The Oneida Community was fascinating to study. The architecture of that era is outstanding, too! Thanks for visiting, Suz! :)

  3. YOUR ARTICLE ABOUT ONIEDIA COMMUNITY IS TOO LONG, NO ONE IS GOING TO WANT TO READ THAT, I DIDN’T, I JUST SKIMMED THROUGH IT. DON’T MEAN TO BE RUDE, BUT THE ARTICLE IS TOO LONG AND YOU SHOULD SHORTEN IT! THANKS ANYWAY, IF YOU LISTEN TO ME. BUT WHAT SHOULD I SAY, YOU DID YOUR BEST!

  4. Justin Devlin says:

    This brings back some old and very fond memories. I used to live in that beautiful house when I was 12. It was quite the place for a young lad to have adventures in. I can still hear my friends and my footsteps echoing through the Big Hall…

  5. Toni McK says:

    Too long an article?? I guess some people have a short attention span. I loved every word and would have even loved more. My cousin’s wife is related to some previous residents so I am fascinated.

  6. BetteDolan says:

    Too long? I didn’t think it was long enough, I could have continued reading for another hour and scanned another 100 photos. Very interesting, very informative….Thank you!

  7. Marshall says:

    Thanks for the nice photos, and general interest.

    But I do find your overall view of the commune a bit superficial and judgmental. Of course, it’s just your opinion, but Pierrepont Noyes is not the only view of the Oneida experience. I’m not exactly sure what your statement “Although the Community was a bit nutty when it came to Biblical doctrine” really means? Some would say that conventional biblical doctrine is a bit nutty. Yes, perhaps what you say about woman and children is true from one perspective, but women had rights and a role in this community that they wouldn’t have in the outside world for 75 yrs. or more. And your statement that the community fell apart after Noyes died,is just factually incorrect-check it out.

    In many ways it was a successful community, and a fascinating experiment in an alternative way to organize society. Even after the commune proper ended, the community thrived,and their successful business life, set an example for a more humane capitalism we could use today.

    • Hi Marshall. By “nutty” Biblical doctrine I’m saying that Noyes simply used certain sections of the Bible to “prove” that his ideas of society were correct, when in fact they were far far away from fundamental New Testament values (and the New Testament is the revelation of the Old Testament, despite the foibles of the people in history).

      The community (aka, “commune” as you call it) DID fall apart after Noyes died. Actually– it fell apart before he died. He moved to the Niagara area, where he tried to continue a small semblance of the community, but it all petered out. The next generation forsook their parents’ “open marriage” and “stirpiculture” ideas and chose traditional values again.

      Certainly the view of the community is not exclusive to Pierrepont Noyes’ definition. But history is history. The Oneida Community may be a “fascinating experiment” to men who could enjoy their sexual freedom seemingly guilt-free, but to the women and children it was not stellar (which explains why the children grew to forsake the philosophy of the community).

      Thanks for your comment but I can’t agree with anything you’ve stated. You elude to a number of things in your comment (women’s rights? what rights did they have? the right to wear pantaloons??) but back it up with no facts, just speculative opinion.

      Sorry, I don’t intend to be unwelcoming or rude to your comment, but the entire idea behind the community is loathsome to me and ignites a certain passion. That, and I am well aware of the history about the movement. Thanks again for your opinions.

  8. […] participation as the only Iroquois tribe to support the Americans during the Revolutionary War. The Oneida Community Mansion House in the nearby Kenwood suburb of the city is a fascinating museum of the 19th century utopian […]