This blog entry includes a few firsts; it is the first time I (this is Luke) am writing a blog entry, I also brought my wife on this trip and it is also the first time that Chris and I traveled outside of Rochester to visit a place. I feel as though it is important for the reader to realize that the “burned over district” is generally thought of to encompass the area from Albany to Buffalo, but more often is from the central NY area to the Finger Lakes. While Chris and I are going to include many sites in Rochester, NY, the blog is not exclusive to Rochester sites. Yesterday we traveled, in not so nice weather, to Oneida, New York (east side of Syracuse) to visit the Oneida Community Mansion House. (This site is also down the street from the Turning Stone casino where we also had a spiritual experience because my wife won $300!!!)
After calling ahead to make sure a tour was still being offered (Chris and I have had bad luck with tours being cancelled), Chris, my wife and I arrived in what to me seemed to be a secluded neighborhood that had the Oneida Mansion House at its center. We eventually made our way inside and were greeted by a very nice woman who Chris had spoken to on the phone and was therefore expecting us. Due to the weather this woman shared that she thought that nobody would be visiting the house today, but she was glad we had come. The three of us were also happy since we thought we would have a personal tour all to ourselves. Our guide eventually arrived a few minutes after us and introduced himself as Walter. Walter lead us upstairs to the “Big Hall,” asked us to have a seat and began to share with us the history of the Oneida Community. I am also going to share that history, but my version of it will be much shorter and concise, and it should also be noted that within the history of the Oneida Community, there are many other related people, places and things that the reader will have to investigate on their own, since this blog is only so long.
The Oneida Community was founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848 and lasted until 1881. Many consider the Oneida Community to be the longest-lasting, most economically successful, and best known Utopian communities in American history. The community was dedicated to creating Heaven on earth in daily life and in the surrounding world. Noyes subscribed to a religious belief known as Perfectionism, which professes that Jesus had already returned to earth during the First Jewish-Roman War and the sack of Jerusalem in the year 70. Because of Christ’s second coming had already occurred, Perfectionists believe it possible for them to bring about Jesus’s Millennial Kingdom themselves, and be free of sin and perfect in this world, not just Heaven. This in a nut shell is what Noyes preached; with the only nuance being that he was more perfect than anybody else. Noyes was an ordained preacher and attended Yale Theological College, but due to his “heretical beliefs,” Noyes was eventually thrown out of Yale and had his license as a preacher revoked. Noyes started a community in Putney, Vermont, but eventually he and several of his followers moved to Oneida, New York.
At its peak, the Oneida Community had over 300 members, consisting of men, women and children of all ages, who all lived in the 93,000 square foot mansion house. Men and women were treated equal (which was very revolutionary for its time; this is after all pre-Civil War America and women were second-class citizens), and rotated their jobs every 30 days. Noyes believed that work should be fun, and the longer you do the same job, the more redundant and boring it becomes. The community supported itself through many different forms of commerce, but eventually started to become quite prosperous through the manufacturing of silks, animal traps and eventually silverware, ie. Oneida Limited silverware which nearly everyone in America owns today. The community was very ahead of its time and had indoor plumbing with flush toilets in the 1850s, when the patent for a flush toilet didn’t come out until 1890s. Those traps they made have evolved into today’s modern mouse trap, and they also created the Lazy Susan and a wringable mop bucket long before these inventions became the norm in society. In fact, the community never patented anything because they were communists, and whatever one individual created belonged to everybody else anyways, so they did not see a point in it. Due to this practice of communalism, no one owned any private property, and attachments to anything or anybody was frowned upon, which leads to the next thing that the community practiced, which they called complex marriage, meaning that everybody was married to everybody else. Since even attachments to spouses and children was not permitted, everybody raised the community’s children, and everybody could have sex with whoever they wanted to have sex with, as long as each partner was willing. Sex only occurred between one man and one woman, and were called “interviews.” However, if an individual had sex with the same person too often, they would be encouraged to look elsewhere. Sex was had for the enjoyment of it, and not exclusively to procreate. In fact, Noyes developed the theory of male continence, which is the practice of having sex and not ejaculating, which in the community was a form of birth control. Eventually Noyes began to control who had sex with who, and began to flirt with the idea of eugenics and creating a perfect race of people. Noyes called this stripiculture, and 58 children or “stripicults” were eventually birthed this way. Noyes also brought the practice of mutual criticism to the community, which is where a lone individual sits in front of the entire community and his or her defects are criticized by the community, as a means of helping the individual become more enlightened to strive towards perfection in the eyes of God (or Noyes, depending how you look at it). Community members were also vegetarians, prohibited from smoking or drinking, and were very well educated, with most members able to speak several different languages. The average community member lived into their 80s at a time when the average life expectancy for the area was only 50-years-old.
Walter walked us though the house and showed us many different aspects of the community. The surprising thing to learn though is that people still live in the Community Mansion House. Originally, the descendants of the community continued to live within the house after the community was eventually disbanded. It was only until the 1990’s that the Mansion House was eventually opened up to the general public to live in. In addition to the 35 apartments that exist within the house today, there are also 9 hotel rooms and there used to be a full-on restaurant. The grounds of the community are also very large and we were told are quite beautiful in the Spring time, however we could see nothing due to the snow.
John Humphrey Noyes eventually left the Oneida Community in 1879 in the middle of the night after learning that a warrant for his arrest had been issued and he was going to be charged with statutory rape. In addition, a rift within the community began over the issue of sex, with two polarizing camps that were at odds with each other. Noyes absconded to Niagara Falls, Ontario and only ever returned to America when his body was buried in the cemetery attached to the Mansion House.
Our tour eventually came to an end, and lasted much longer than we had thought it would take. By the end of our tour, Chris, my wife and I had been joined by seven other individuals. We all briefly hung around the gift shop, and I then made a comparison out loud to everyone of John Humphrey Noyes to Hitler due to trying to create a master race, and also the Oneida Community to David Koresh and the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. These comparisons went over like a fart in church, so we left.
Two things of note as we left:
-To anybody considering going to visit the Oneida Community, it is a fascinating place with an extensive history. But I think the visit would be more worth the time spent on a nice spring or summer day.
-It was not lost upon me that the Oneida Community and even Turning Stone exist on former and current Native American lands. Chris and I have nothing on our list of places to go to that are Native American, even though we have talked about going to Ganondaga. If anybody knows of anywhere we can go, we would appreciate it.