Thursday, January 18, 2007


Nothing like a road trip through unfamiliar territory to raise plenty of questions. While debunking one Polk County, TN legend I stumbled upon an even better story concerning one of my favorite topics, a failed utopia. I suppose any time you mention "utopia" the addition of the word "failed" is redundant, but nonetheless...

Around 1850, Rosine Parmentier came to the Sylco Mountains of Polk County to establish Vineland, "a unique experiment in social living." With the help of a New York associate, she bought 50,000 acres of land and encouraged French, German, Italian and Austrian colonization. They had great plans for a winemaking industry, but it went sour and the colony dispersed. Contemporary Polk County family names like Beckler, Miolin, Nocarina, Genollic, Sholtz, Pace, and Chable are indicators of this vanished settlement.

Closer to home, I was already familiar with the visionary village of Whittier at the border of Jackson and Swain Counties. Clark Whittier, cousin of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, came here in 1881 and purchased 60,000 acres with the intention of creating the world’s largest temperance colony. "It is my wish, and I so move," he said, "that we start operations here upon the principles of the Word of God, including all morality, especially temperance and prohibition of the strongest form."

An 1886 newspaper article was profuse with praise: No other town in North Carolina or any of the Southeastern States has ever accomplished so much in so short a time. … Five stores, a grist mill, a brick yard, two steam saw mills on the town site, are in operation. ... No lots are sold in Whittier without an agreement to improve them. Prohibition prevails on the whole property. This, the largest temperance colony in the world, and the largest single enterprise by one man in the United States, is attracting attention all over the country. (Highlander, Feb. 19, 1886)
One of the most colorful stories of a mountain utopia dates even farther back. It was in the 1730s amidst the Overhills villages of the Cherokee in eastern Tennessee. A German Jesuit, Christian Priber planned to build a settlement in the Indian territory open to all fugitives, servants, slaves, and felons. His design was "to bring about a confederation of all the southern Indians, to inspire them with industry, to instruct them in the arts necessary to the commodities of life, and, in short, to engage them to throw off the yoke of their European allies of all nations."

Governor Oglethorpe's forces considered Christian Priber to be an agent of the French seeking to alienate the Indians from the English traders, so they arrested him and brought him under guard to be examined by Oglethorpe. He found Priber to be an excellent linguist, speaking English, Dutch, French, Latin and Indian, and to have in his possession two manuscripts: a dictionary of the Cherokee language to be published in Paris; and a book entitled Paradise, containing principles for a commonweath based upon natural rights. Oglethorpe imprisoned Christian Priber at Frederica for life, and the remains of Priber and his books were subsequently lost.

This just scratches the surface of the Priber saga. You’d like to imagine that those books survived and are stored away in a trunk somewhere. But the books, and Priber’s dream, are as long gone as the temperance colony on the Tuckasegee and the vineyards of Vineland.

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