The variety of Iowa’s intentional communities on display throughout this series is stunning. From Icaria to Vedic City, each had their own philosophy and reasons to come to Iowa, but some definite themes emerge. The key similarity between most of these communities is simple: timing. Utopianism in Europe peaked during the 1830s and 1840s – the same time that settlement in Iowa was hitting its stride. These communities, secular or religious, sought out cheap land free from outside influence, and Iowa was the place to be.
Of course, Iowa wasn’t the only frontier in the mid-19th century, but it was probably the safest. The Amana people first considered Kansas for their new home after New York, but the simmering conflict over slavery likely influenced their final destination. The Icarians attempted settlement in Texas, but the harsh conditions played a role in the failure of that first colony. Iowa was lacking in outside influences, safe from war, and temperate enough to support occupation. The land was cheap, plentiful, and fertile. What better place to establish your utopia?
The outlier here is, of course, Maharishi Vedic City. Transcendental Meditation wasn’t exactly popular in the 1840s, after all. I would argue, however, that this community’s arrival came down to many of the same forces as earlier settlements. When Parsons College closed in 1973, there was suddenly a comfortable new home just when the rising TM movement needed it. Cheap, fertile land, with limited outside influence and enough open space to expand – not that different from everyone who came before them after all.
Although I hope this series has given a wide range of Iowa’s intentional communities, it isn’t nearly all of them. Pella, Buxton, Granger Homesteads, New Mellery Abbey, Des Moines University of Lawsonomy, East Street Gallery, River City Housing Collective, Love Holy Trinity Blessed Mission, and Kindred Community are just a few of the groups and communities that I had neither the time nor the space to cover here.
As a final note, if you would like to hear a different angle on several of these communities, I would recommend the Talk of Iowa story “Is This Heaven? Iowa’s Utopian Communities” here. This story covers Pella, the Amish, Icaria, Vedic City, and the Amanas through interviews with experts, including a few of the people I consulted with myself.
Thank you to everyone who helped me throughout this project, especially Thomas O’Donnell, Paula Mohr, Ted Grevstad-Nordbrock, Saundra Clem Leininger, Peter Hoehnle, and Jon Lipman.