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Gentleman Holding Rugby Brand Tomatoes

The Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) presents the exhibit "'The Happiest Days of My Life': Searching for Utopia in Tennessee," featuring the histories of several utopian communities in Tennessee, including Nashoba, Ruskin, Rugby, and The Farm. Most of these social experiments began and ended in the nineteenth century, but The Farm, founded in 1971, continues to thrive today.

We hope to challenge the visitor with a number of questions: How should one define utopian communities? Do they develop when groups of people with similar beliefs concerning religion, politics, national identity, ideology (or a combination of these things) band together and find a common ground? What leads people to pursue certain ideals in isolation from mainstream society?

This exhibit will explore these issues and examine how and when several utopian communities in Tennessee began, developed, and modified their goals and structures. We will explore what led some communities to flourish, at least temporarily, and, more poignantly, why most utopian experiments have ultimately failed.

Map of Utopian Societies before 1860, from the Atlas of American History

Map of Utopian Societies

A map of Utopian Societies before 1860 shows dozens of communities that were founded as far back as 1684.  For centuries, people have sought idealistic societies based upon the common good.

An Undiscovered Tennessee Utopia!

Recently a patron wrote to TSLA seeking information about a wealthy Dutch widow, Minette Storm-van der Chijs, who attempted in 1856-1857 to purchase 450 acres of property in Tennessee for an agricultural colony. Her intention was to provide a home for orphaned Dutch youth who faced a difficult future in the Netherlands, which was experiencing an economic slump. The loss of the potato crops during the 1840s had led many Europeans to immigrate to America, beginning around 1847.

In 1857 Storm - van der Chijs traveled to Tennessee to scout for land for her project. Writing from New York State, she penned a letter to Dutch newspapers on October 14, 1857, conveying her enthusiasm for starting a new colony. Her letter reads, in part:
For the past fourteen days I have stayed again at the Frisian family (Worp van) Peyma, who received me so kindly last year. I have just arrived from my third visit to Tennessee, accompanied by an experienced engineer who I took along to get his opinion regarding my plans to develop land and start a colony. I do not regret this difficult and costly trip, because I am indebted to this man for his ideas regarding the building of a sawmill as well as of factories. In general he shared my opinion regarding the advantageous lay of the land and bemoaned the fact that the Hollanders had settled mostly in the Northern states, while the Southern states offer so much more prosperity since the growing season is longer and the harvest more abundant….If my plans to found a colony in the slave-state of Tennessee succeed, I will have the wonderful prospect that through Dutch capital and Dutch colonists, Tennessee could become a pearl in the crown of a free America. The example of free laborers will have a positive effect on the Negro population and by the ever expansion of the colony, Christian charity will gain the upper hand over the misery of slavery.”

By 1859-60 a building was erected on the site, but the farm manager was killed at the beginning of the Civil War. As a result, this utopian project never came to fruition.

If you have any idea about where this land purchase took place in Tennessee, or have access to any other information about this colony that never began, please contact exhibits.tsla@tn.gov.