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