The Illustrated Map of America's Worst Utopias

The road to weird food communes and sex cults is paved with good intentions.

(Graphic by Michelle Enemark)

There are many who want to believe that a utopia—a perfect society, an ideal world—can exist. Even in America.

Yet, as quickly as leaders eagerly build utopias, they often crumble in a glorious heaping mess. Some fall to sex scandals, others toil in hunger, while many are struck with bad luck. From nudist colonies to bioterrorist cults, we map and explore six of the most disappointing and unfortunate utopias in the United States.

The Home Colony and the Radical Nudists

The Pacific West was riddled with an assortment of communitarian settlements in the late 19th century, including names such as "Freeland" and "Equality". But, none are quite as remembered as Home—an independent group of free love supporters and anarchists who were later involved in a great nudist feud.

On February 1896, three anarchists seeking individualistic freedom roamed to a quiet, small inlet 10 miles across the Puget Sound from Tacoma, Washington. Here is where they established the Home colony. The leaders, George H. Allen, L.F. Odell, and Oliver A. Verity, had previously been members of the failed commune Glennis in south Tacoma. They collected the last remaining dollars left from Glennis to start Home. “The founders backs were as strong as their idealism, and they quickly erected a few cabins on carefully marked plots carved from the forest,” Charles Lewarne wrote in the journal Arizona and the West.

It started off as a quaint community, growing to about 90 residents by 1901. There was a small store, believers had private homes on leased two-acre plots of land, and a small newspaper. In its later years, over 200 people called Home their home. The free-spirited philosophy attracted radical celebrities, freethinkers, anarchists, communists, food faddists, radical feminists, free-lovers, cross-dressers, and nudists, and others who did not fit in with mainstream society. Throughout Washington, people often gossiped about the colony’s “horrible sex orgies” and lewd obscenities, wrote Steward Holbrook in The American Scholar.   

Home was left in peace, until the famous 1911 Great Nude Bathing Case, when fissures within the community began to form. Nude bathing had been a normal excursion for a decade at Home without attracting any trouble. The local authorities received a complaint about male and female anarchists bathing nude together, and arrested half a dozen colonists. The trials made the front page of many newspapers. Jay Fox, a radical Homeite, wrote an editorial titled “The Nude and the Prudes” landing him in jail, and sparking a free speech debate. Home eventually broke apart, when World War I hit and anarchism faded.  

Rajneeshpuram Red Vermin and Salmonella Salsa

In the 1980s, people throughout Wasco County, Oregon had heard of the notorious “Red Vermin” or “Red Rats.” For six years, the spiritual Rajneeshpuram utopia plotted extravagant schemes to take over towns and invade local governments, launching the first and largest bioterrorism attack in the United States.

The Rajneeshpuram colony in The Dalles, Oregon originated overseas in 1970 in Poona, India. Baghwan Shree Ranjneesh, known as the “sex guru,” created the spiritual movement Osho, which supported an odd mixture of capitalism, meditation, ethnic and dirty jokes, and open sexuality. By the 1980s, he had tens of thousands of followers in India. Ranjneesh and his aid Ma Anand Sheela were set on establishing a utopia for the followers in the United States, Ma Anand Sheela informing the Portland Oregonian that they were seeking “a desert kind of land, away from the people so people’s neuroses did not have to bother Bhagwan’s vision or work… a place which was our own.”

They came upon the Big Muddy Ranch in Wasco County, a 64,229-acre property of hills and streambeds, which was named Rajneeshpuram. Ranjneesh’s utopia promised spiritual reassurance, all the comforts in the world, and worldly recognition and achievement. Approximately 7,000 followers came to Rajneeshpuram. The growing utopia consisted of a 4,200-foot airstrip, fire department, restaurants, public bus transport system, and sewage reclamation point. The utopia even created its own zip code, 97741.

The members, donning all red, worked on communal farms and relentlessly protected the area. The “Peace Force” carried submachine guns and drove around the ranch with a Jeep equipped with a machine gun. Ma Anand Sheela, who was named Queen of Rajneeshpuram, armed herself with a .357 magnum. “They were impatient, insistent, and implicitly threatening, and often directly confrontational,” Carl Abbott wrote about the Rajneeshees in Pacific Historical Review.

In 1983, the Red Vermin started taking over nearby towns and tried to weasel representatives into government positons to gain control of the area and independence. Locals grew resistant and began to worry about the Rajneeshpuram utopia’s presence. Then, Wasco County turned into a battle zone when the Rajneeshees wanted to expand their city up on a mountain but city officials rejected the request. Enraged, the Rajneeshees bused in 2,000 homeless people to vote Rajneeshee members into the county government. However, the county did not recognize the homeless as voters.

The Rajneeshees then came up with an extravagant backup plan: poison the restaurant salad bars in the area with salmonella to prevent locals from voting against them. The Red Vermin created a brown liquid mixture of salmonella, carried it around in bags labeled “salsa,” and contaminated wherever they could—salad dressings, produce, water. After the salmonella salsa raid, 751 people fell ill, 45 were hospitalized, and two Oregon officials got sick. Thankfully, no one was killed.

Locals suspected that the salmonella plot was the Rajneeshees doing, and voted against their candidates. But salmonella was the least of Oregonians worries. Later, the government investigated the ranch and found a full-blown bioterrorism lab with salmonella “bactrol disks,” papers on how to create explosives and military biowarfare,” and an assassination plan against the United States Attorney for the District of Oregon.

Because of the scandal, Ma Anand Sheela and the leaders of Rajneeshpuram fled the country, causing the utopia to collapse in 1987. The Osho movement lives on in small pockets around the world.  The only reminders of the horrifying reign of the Red Vermin are those still-operating restaurants in Oregon that were victims of the salmonella contamination.

Octagon City: The Short-Lived Extravagantly Designed Vegetarian Utopia

Imagine living in a completely octagonal world. You leave your eight-walled house to work in your octagonal barn that is built on one of eight farm lot wedges of an octagonal plot of land. At the end of the day, you may convene to the townhouse building, another octagonal structure located in the center an octagonal village—one of four that comprises a large Octagon City.

While this may sound like a futuristic world, the Octagon City was an elaborately planned and designed utopia in 1856. Journalist, entrepreneur, and vegetarian Henry Clubb created the octagonal haven so people could live in an anti-slavery and vegetarianism lifestyle. Though Clubb and the Octagon Settlement Company put in a lot of effort into the colony, it is one of the shortest lived utopias in American history, lasting a few dismal months.

About five years before the Civil War, Clubb read of the debates on which states were going to support slavery as the United States continue to settle the west. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Clubb became one of many who sought land in Kansas and claimed an area in the western bank of the Neosho River west of Fort Scott to be the site of his Octagon City. Inspired by Orson Fowler’s octagon house architecture, the Octagon City would have a central park with eight radiating roads that divide the octagonal land plot into wedged farm lots. The main octagonal building in the central park would contain the market, school, townhouse, and church. The shape was intended to create “distinct urban and architectural forms to bring about individual and social reform,” wrote Irene Cheng in a report about geometric utopias.

Clubb advertised the utopia to be rich with water-power, timber, coal, mineral resources, scenic prairie hills, and pure springs. Some ads even stated that two full crops of corn could be produced within the year. About a hundred people were sold on the Octagon City, and vegetarian blacksmiths, farmers, carpenters, and other emigrants came to the utopia. But when they arrived, the followers were met with disappointment. Many of the structures that had been described in brochures had not been built, and the pure springs were all but a trickling creek.

“Not a house [was] to be seen,” Miriam Davis Colt, a member of the Octagon City, later recounted. “The water is so low in the summer-time that one can walk over it on the stones.”    

The colonists faced rough conditions. The land was infested with mosquitos, and settlers became ill with chills, fever, and flu-like epidemics. There were frequent thunderstorms and the springs dried up. Octagon City also faced immense pressures from nearby pro-slavery activists groups and Indian tribes who stole crops. By the spring of 1857, only four of the original settlers remained. Many of the elderly and children died, and those that could left. Today, the only landmark of the Octagon City is the small stream that is still known as Vegetarian Creek.

Starving in Fruitlands

Despite its name, the lack of food led to Fruitlands’ demise.

English Transcendentalists and abolitionists Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott, the father of Little Women writer Louisa May Alcott, founded Fruitlands in June 1843. It was a quaint community that comprised of a 90-acre farm and small farmhouse overlooking Nashua Valley in rural Harvard, Massachusetts. Alcott, a member of the radical Nonresistance Society, believed in the “systematic oppression of all human institutions opposed to divine law.” He and Lane created the Fruitlands utopia to escape the corrupt society, and built an economy based on simplicity.

There were approximately 14 “spiritually elite” residents of Fruitlands. The settlers bathed in cold water, wore linen and canvas, didn’t use artificial. They produced little, believing living in excess was a sin. The limited production also enabled them to remain independent and avoid temptation of embarking in trade. But of all their practices, Fruitlands followers were most strict about their vegan diet. “Neither coffee, tea, molasses, nor rice tempts us beyond the bounds of indigenous production,” Charles Lane wrote. “No animal substances neither flesh, butter, cheese, eggs, nor milk pollute our tables, nor corrupt our bodies.”

However, the settlers did not realize how difficult it would be to produce food and farm with such restrictions. The settlers couldn’t use manure to help fertilize crops or animals to improve labor. Citizens grew malnourished and realized the challenges of farm life. Disputes among leadership eventually led to Fruitlands demise in 1844. Louisa May Alcott, who was six years old when the Alcott family lived in Fruitlands, later wrote about the stresses of living in a utopia in a satirical editorial, “Transcendental Wild Oats.”     

Upton Sinclair’s Helicon Home Colony

“I have lived in the future,” wrote Upton Sinclair. “I have known those wider freedoms and opportunities that the future will grant to all men and women.”

From 1906 to 1907, the famed author of The Jungle—an exposé of the Chicago meatpacking industry—lived in a colony in Englewood, New Jersey to escape familial responsibilities and be among creatives. After becoming successful from his book, Sinclair announced the idea for the Helicon Home Colony, or Helicon Hall, in June 1906 in The Independent magazine. He sketched a plan for a cooperative colony that would support communal child raising, cooking, and living.

“Helicon Hall can in part be viewed as a progressive solution to the mundane servant problem,” wrote Lawrence Kaplan in American Studies.

There was a rigorous screening process for the applicants, including a restriction against those of color. “The colony should be open to any white person of good moral character,” the application stated, Helicon Hall specifically excluding blacks. Taking up an old boys’ school, 46 adults and 15 children came to Sinclair’s utopia. A board of women directors took turns supervising the children, and were paid a monthly fee. Children were encouraged to play and explore freely. Having less responsibilities with childrearing and cooking, men could pursue more creative endeavors. It’s said that Sinclair created the colony so he could spend more time thinking creatively and less time caring for his son and wife.

Helicon Hall was not immune to bad press as New York newspapers gossiped that the commune was a sex cult. It wasn’t created to be a free love community along the lines of the Home colony in Washington, but Sinclair did have mistresses and even introduced one to his wife in hopes of gaining her approval. She wasn’t happy of the news, and he broke off all his relationships with other women. The true fall of the Helicon Home Colony was in the early morning hours of March 16, 1907. Sinclair woke to the smell of smoke, and by the time he realized the state of the building it was too late. All he and the residents could do was stand in the cold snow and watch Helicon Hall be consumed in flames. It is suspected that the fire could have been arson, some residents having found dynamite in the cellar and removing it without any suspicions.

“I look back on Helicon Hall today, and this the way I feel about it,” he reflected in 1962. “I have lived in the future and all things about me seem drab and sordid in comparison."

The Rugby Colony: A Community of British Culture in the American South

In the late Victorian England, land was inherited by the eldest son often leaving educated, wealthy second sons with nothing. In 1880, Christian socialist Thomas Hughes decided to remedy younger sons’ problems by creating a utopia in the United States where they could own land. Hughes started the Rugby Colony, which has been called “England’s Second Colonization of America” and a new wave of English immigrants in America’s south, wrote Brian Stagg in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly.

At its height, there were 400 inhabitants in Rugby, which consisted of literary and dramatic societies, tennis courts, a church, a school, a well-stocked library, business and residential houses, and the Tabard Inn hotel. There were a total of about 45 buildings. Hughes, who had contributed $75,000 into developing Rugby, attracted press and worldwide attention. There was certainly bad press, such as London’s Daily News accusation that Hughes simply started “pleasure picnic.” Nonetheless, Rugby’s well-funded community experienced several years of “shimmering glory,” wrote Stagg.

However, funny enough, there were disputes among the colonists over land titles, and some had a difficult time becoming accustomed to the United States. Then, in late 1881, there was a typhoid epidemic which killed seven of the colonists. Because of the outbreak, the press wrote of the colony’s “unhealthfulness,” deterring other settlers from coming to Rugby. Another tragedy hit in 1884, when the Tabard Inn burned down. In a last ditch effort, Hughes built a tomato cannery to keep the colony going, but the residents were not experienced enough to produce enough tomatoes. By the 1900, the entire colony had been deserted and only vestiges remain in the town of Rugby, Tennessee.

All graphics by Michelle Enemark.

Update, 9/14: An earlier version of the story misidentified Charles Lane as Charles Land.