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Thursday, May 30, 2024

The NEW New Harmony

New entrepreneurs and residents help this Posey County river town embrace reinvention

Nestled on a wooded Wabash River shoreline in Posey County, New Harmony is a unique setting in Southwestern Indiana, distant from some modern conveniences but where history, culture, and nature take center stage.

The around 700-resident town, founded in 1814 and site of early social living experiments, is undergoing a reinvention of sorts, led by entrepreneurs and newcomers who aren’t native to New Harmony but were pulled in by its charm and distinct character.

There’s still much timeless familiarity here: the Roofless Church, Harmonist Labyrinth, Harmonie State Park, and Red Geranium restaurant are the same treasures they’ve always been. Visitors, however, can also discover plenty of “new” in New Harmony — colorful shops, an eclectic mix of events, and food and drink choices that are worth the 40-minute trek from Evansville.

Photo of Michael and Mary Beth Guard by Zach Straw

• Practical Meets Whimsy at Capers Emporium •

Michael and Mary Beth Guard looked at New Harmony from afar and saw opportunity and intrigue. Both grew up in nearby Southern Illinois and knew the area. But after making their lives and careers in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and after Mary Beth’s mother relocated to New Harmony about 10 years ago, the couple felt a calling.

“This town grabs people,” Mary Beth says. While visiting, “we found ourselves saying to each other, ‘I feel so relaxed.’ … It was amazing. And within a few hours, we were just driving around town saying, ‘I wonder how much houses go for.’”

Wonder turned to action. In 2016, the couple bought a historic building at Main and Tavern streets. The former Independent Order of Odd Fellows lodge dates to 1915 and was under the stewardship of Indiana Landmarks then. It had been a dance hall, deli, and grocery store over the years, but it was empty and in disrepair. The Guards went to work, piecing together a business plan that centered on community and their love of cooking.

Photo of Capers Emporium by Zach Straw

Capers Emporium is the result. Opened on June 30, 2018, at 602 Main St., the sidewalk-level storefront sells everything from kitchen gadgets and gourmet food items to puzzles and pajamas, while also hosting a variety of cooking classes. A glass fusion studio and kilns in the basement followed two years later.

Along the way, the Guards decided to make the building’s upper level their own home — a colorful, attractive loft that, like New Harmony itself, blends nostalgia with contemporary touches. (Read more about their apartment.)

Mary Beth says she’s always loved spending time in the kitchen, dating to her Carmi, Illinois, upbringing, and Capers Emporium is a perfect setting for her to cook and share.

“My mother, when I was in sixth grade, said, ‘I can’t find those golden porcelain dishes that Grandmother gave us.’ And I said, ‘Oh, they’re in my hope chest. You weren’t using them.’ I always loved dishes. I loved to entertain, I loved to cook. I wanted to bring people back into the kitchen, but we fell in love with this town, and we wanted to have a store that would give people one more reason to come to New Harmony, and it would also contribute to the locals and give them a place to go to have fun and to shop. We hope we have done that. And after all those years of very serious work, I get to be a kid again.”

Photo of Jeff and Cindy Smotherman by Zach Straw

• Antiques Find New Life at The Barn •

New Harmony snatched up Jeff and Cindy Smotherman, as well. About 20 years ago, the Tennessee natives and lovers of farm antiques ventured to New Harmony’s annual summer antique show, wound up relocating to the town a short time later, and have been community champions ever since.

Their business ventures are right next to their Brewery Street home in the center of New Harmony. At 403 Brewery St. is The Barn by Jeff and Cindy Smotherman, which retails antique farm signage in a structure that dates to the late 1800s and once was New Harmony Implement Company and a John Deere tractor sales outlet.

The other is New Harmony Cottage. The Smothermans rented the building as a gift shop and spa after buying it, but it is now a popular Airbnb with a rustic air. Everything in the unit is about New Harmony, right down to the books on the shelves.

As an Airbnb, “we make four times as much as we were when we rented it,” Jeff says. Cindy, who Jeff credits for doing most of the work on the Airbnb, adds, “It’s perfect for a couple of nights.”

• Culinary Adventures on the Menu at Say’s •

Photo of Say’s by Zach Straw

After a career in restaurants that took him to New York City, Indianapolis, Indiana, and elsewhere, Patrick Schuette, too, felt New Harmony’s calling. He owns Say’s, a restaurant at 500 Church St., in the same building as Sara’s Wine Bar.

Patrick’s parents, Kent and Suzy, had owned a German restaurant in Lafayette, Indiana, while he was growing up. But the family was close with longtime New Harmony arts patron and town advocate Jane Blaffer Owen — Kent Schuette, a former landscape architecture professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, was hired to work in 1998 on the Cathedral Labyrinth at 309 North St. The Schuettes wound up buying a house in the community in 2001.

Photo of Patrick Schuette
by Zach Straw

An Indiana University graduate, Patrick eventually settled in New Harmony, and in 2022, he worked on a vision for food at Say’s that would pair well with the drinks and atmosphere offered by Sara’s, while complementing New Harmony’s longtime restaurants.

Say’s eclectic, upscale menu includes a list of sandwiches, salads, and rotating entrees that recently have included choices such as vegetable massaman curry, chicken enchiladas, chop steak, beef lasagna, and pork ragu.

Schuette also updated the space’s decor, and he latched onto the name Say’s — a nod to Thomas Say, an early 19th century New Harmony resident who is considered the father of North American entomology. Say’s Firefly is Indiana’s official state insect.

“I was thinking about legacy and there are so many people who have come to New Harmony to do their passion, to live through their work,” Schuette says. “And (Say) was someone who did that. When we were throwing around names, that kind of came up and kind of flowed off the tongue and was perfect.”

• Passion for Collecting at Artefakts •

Photo of Artefakts by Zach Straw

The town 26 miles northwest of Evansville makes significant contributions to regional art and history, which has enticed many transplants to plant roots there. Among them are Teresa and Pat Smith, who came from Central Illinois and had been visiting New Harmony since 1999. What started as frequent visits became a plan to open a shop in New Harmony.

“There is something going on here, and we wanted to find out what it is,” Pat says.

Both had worked in antiques in their former lives and transferred that skill to New Harmony in the form of Artefakts, a gallery at 507 Main St. After they bought the space in April 2023 from Larry and Patricia Gosh, the Smiths enjoy running a shop as they had in the past. Artefakts opened on July 4 and displays eclectic items for every walk of life, including clocks, coins, art, musical instruments, oriental rugs, jewelry, and more.

Photo of Teresa and Pat Smith by Zach Straw

Pat says the goal is to “pass on 48 years of collecting art and artifacts.”

Since moving there, Teresa says “everybody has been so welcoming.” People like Mary Beth Guard, she adds, “remember everyone’s names and make you feel welcome.”

The Smiths also enjoy the many visitors that come to visit during big annual events like Kunstfest, a German culture-themed arts festival in September. First Brush of Spring ushers in its namesake season with painters spread through town painting in the open air. The antique festival continues each June, and during Christmas, New Harmony takes the whole month to celebrate with parades, home tours, a tree lighting, music, shopping, and more.

“It’s a very active community for a small town,” Teresa says.

• Old & New at Lowry Hollow •

Photo of Lynn Clark and Lowry Hollow by Zach Straw

Also close to Downtown is Lowry Hollow, a shop of antiques along with garden and home decor at 617 Main St. The building dates to the 1830s and is one of three original Robert Owen-era buildings still standing. Horsehair plaster used during construction is still visible. When the woman who owned the shop retired, Lynn Clark, a former speech pathologist, bought it and reopened Lowry Hollow, a shop she started in New Harmony around 2011, in October 2023. Her commute now is so short, she sometimes bikes to work.

Clark describes her shop as “A mix of old and new.” She is a Southern Ohio native while her husband, Ron, who leads history tours in town, is from Central Illinois. Clark named the shop after a road she grew up on in Ohio, but she wanted a place for the community to come together, so the shop hosts art shows, poetry readings, and family-fun crafting events.

• New Harmony Groups Working Together •

There are many groups steering New Harmony forward. The New Harmony Business Associates — started in the 1970s — has more than 40 volunteers who help promote merchants and community events, led by the group’s Education and Activity Fund.

The University of Southern Indiana’s Historic New Harmony program demonstrates the small town’s history through educational and cultural programming, maintenance of historic properties, and the New Harmony Gallery of Contemporary Art at 506 Main St. Centered around the Atheneum Visitors Center at 401 N. Arthur St., visitors can book walking tours or explore the small town’s history via tram, a recent addition to the program. The tram is one of the many vehicles seen around town, including golf carts, which can be rented.

The New Harmony Artists Guild provides arts education and collaboration in the region by collaborating with more than 100 artisans from several artistic fields. The Under the Beams concert series attracts talent from around the world to perform at Murphy Auditorium.

Indiana Landmarks also has been involved with historic preservation in New Harmony, as has the Working Men’s Institute. Dating to 1838, the institute has served the community as a museum, library, and archive.

New Harmony is a “town that continues to recreate itself,” Lynn Clark says, and its newest residents embody that spirit wholeheartedly. From the original Harmonist settlement to its arts boom under Jane Blaffer Owen’s patronage, all who helped shape and create New Harmony into what it is today carry forward its enduring spirit. Case in point, Clark’s favorite part of New Harmony is the people.

“Everybody supports each other so much,” she says.

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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