Armchair Travel ~ An Intentional Community, Oneida, New York

The Mansion House at the Oneida Community in Oneida, New York


It seems so long ago that my husband John Gibbons and I were able to just take off for a day trip or a weekend away when time allowed, how ever the spirit moved.  I find myself recalling our last fall adventure and the final stop at Oneida, New York to visit the Mansion House before returning home to Bedford.

The Mansion House was a place I had wanted to visit for several years since college days, after reading about intentional communities and utopian ideals in the United States.  Living near to Fruitlands, Brook Farm, and Walden, I had visited those sites and read about Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, as well as the Shaker communities in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.  When I read a biography of John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida community, I was fascinated by the idea of “communalism.”

Basically, communalism means shared possessions and property, and the Oneida community took that a step further and lived in “complex marriages,” rather than monogamy, sharing the upbringing of the children. Long before “it takes a village to raise a child” became a mantra, the Oneida community was doing just that by everyone raising the children and sharing responsibilities equally.  It seemed to me at the time that women were treated with more equability in Oneida in the 1800s than in our larger society in the late 1900s at the time of my reading about Noyes when the ERA was being challenged and failing in different parts of the country.

The heyday of the Oneida community was from about 1848 to 1880 and involved about 300 people – 240 adults and 60 children – in residence.  Noyes was a religious man but did challenge contemporary society views not only of property ownership and child-rearing but also gender roles and work.  The community focused on life-long learning and robust health, believed in self-denial for the good of the whole, and developed a work ethic that led to one of the most impressive manufacturing companies of the 20th century, the Oneida Silver Company which became Oneida Limited after the community dissolved in 1881.

When visiting the Mansion House and the surrounding grounds at Oneida, one is taken with the bucolic setting as well as the architecture. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, the buildings employed Italianate and Victorian Gothic architectural styles, which were “perceived to align with their occupants’ communal sensibilities.”  Standing in the curved driveway approaching the main entrance, I could see deer grazing in the side yard, heedless of danger or threat.

The Oneida Community manufactured iron animal traps, and also silk thread

Inside one pays a small admission in the bookshop before touring the house, beginning with an orientation exhibit across the hall, then one can meander throughout the first floor to various rooms highlighting the weaving, crafts, animal traps, furniture, and other manufactured items of the community. The Oneida manufacture of animal traps and silk thread especially ensured their connection to the larger community.

One can see the nursery kitchen as well as the Great Hall and the library, the latter two spaces still in use today. The Great Hall can be rented for weddings, banquets, and receptions, and the library serves as a welcome spot for overnight guests to read and relax.

A non-profit organization now oversees the Mansion House, which has been continually inhabited since 1862. In addition to the museum and dining and meeting facilities, the Mansion House offers residential apartments and overnight lodging with complimentary breakfast. Just an hour or so west of Albany, the Mansion House in Oneida is an easy drive for an overnight getaway and well worth the travel back in time.

Click this link if you’d like to learn more about the Oneida Community.


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