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Bill Thayer

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Brigham Young

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Old Illinois Houses

John Drury

reprinted by
The University of Chicago Press
Chicago and London, 1977

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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John Reynolds
This site is not affiliated with the US Military Academy.

[image ALT: A photograph of a three‑story rectangular wood frame house, with a gabled roof pitched at about 40° and two chimneys. It is the Icarian Apartment House in Nauvoo, Illinois.]

Frederic J. Dornseif

Icarian Apartment House, Nauvoo, Built 1850's.

 p89  In a French Communist Utopia

When the Mormons left Illinois in 1847 for their great exodus to Utah they completely abandoned their once-populous city of Nauvoo on the Mississippi River. Cobwebs appeared over doorways and weeds sprang up in streets. Once the largest city in the state, with a population of more than twelve thousand, Nauvoo became a true "ghost town." But this desolate condition did not last for long. In a few years it was taken over by a large band of French Communists called the Icarians, and here they attempted to set up a utopian community.​a

All that survive today of the Icarian colony are two frame apartment houses and a stone school. The apartment houses stand in weather-beaten contrast to the older and sounder-built brick houses and buildings of the Mormons. Here and there through the town, however, are other evidences of the Icarian occupation — sturdy old limestone wine cellars built into the sides of gullies and depressions. Although the French Icarians remained at Nauvoo for only a decade or so, they established a wine-making industry which survived them and is today one of the two principal activities of Nauvoo, the other being cheese making.

Built sometime in the early 1850's, the Icarian communal houses are of interest both for their historical associations and as primitive forerunners of the modern apartment house. They are plain frame structures,  p90 two stories high and gable-roofed. In the many rooms of these houses lived the Icarian families — married couples were allotted one room and single men were housed two in a room. Children over seven years of age were reared in the colony's school and allowed to visit their parents only on Sundays.

"The Icarians," says the Nauvoo Guide, written by the Illinois Writer Project, "bought twelve acres of land and built several tenements and a large assembly hall which contained a communal kitchen, refectory, women's workshop and sleeping quarters." The two surviving apartment houses stand at the northwest corner of Mulholland and Twelfth streets on the "Hill" in Nauvoo. This is the newer section of the town, the older section, where most of the Mormons built their houses, being called the "Flat." The Icarian communal houses, however, stand on part of the site of the great temple erected by the Mormons in the early 1840's, which had been destroyed by fire and storm. Near the apartment houses stands the old Icarian school, which was made of stone from the ruined Mormon temple. It is now conducted as a school by the Catholic church in Nauvoo.

This Icarian colony, one of the earliest of several attempts to set up utopias in Illinois by various European groups, was founded by Étienne Cabet, a leading French jurist who had been influenced by the teachings of Robert Owen, who also was to found a utopia in America — at New Harmony, Indiana.

"Cabet, a cooper's son, had early identified himself with the proletariat," says the Nauvoo Guide. "Convinced that an economic system based on the tenet 'From each according to his ability and to each according to his need' would operate to the advantage of all, he had expressed his beliefs in True Christianity and Voyage to Icaria, volumes that won a considerable band to his form of Communism. Cabet felt that Communism should be patterned on the moral teachings of Christ, rather than on a rigid mechanistic framework."

Cabet continued to be re-elected president of the colony each year until 1856, when dissension broke out among his followers. He was defeated for re-election that year and, after making an unsuccessful attempt to regain his lost position of leader­ship, retired with some two hundred followers to St. Louis. He died a short time after his arrival there and was buried in the presence of only a few of his adherents. With the outbreak of dissension among the Icarians and withdrawal of Cabet, the colony did not last much longer.

Thayer's Note:

a The Icarian experiment and their stay in Nauvoo is well described in Ruth A. Gallaher, "Icaria and the Icarians" (The Palimpsest, II.97 ff.)

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Page updated: 2 Mar 12