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Icaria

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

You are familiar with the kingdom that was lost for want of a nail. In Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1856, it was the butter.

By then, Nauvoo was home to a group of French colonists, the Icarians, who were attempting to build an Eden on the prairie under their leader, Etienne Cabet. Nauvoo had been abandoned by the Mormons who left for Utah following the murder of Joseph Smith in 1844.

The rag-tag band of five hundred Icarians who had come up the Mississippi to Nauvoo in the spring of 1849 must have thought Nauvoo was the Promised Land. Their group had been decimated by disease and dissention on their way over from France and cheated by land agents in New Orleans. Their trip up the river had been stopped by ice floes, forcing them to walk the last twenty miles to Nauvoo. Here, instead of the wilderness they expected, they found a whole city complete with grand streets and brick homes and public buildings, waiting for them to move in.

In this rich bend of the Mississippi, under a philosophy of putting community before self, they prospered, living communally, sharing their wealth and their talents for music, farming, wine and cheese making. "We are making the most grand work that the world will ever see," boasted one of the Icarians.

Then came the butter. In their communal dining room, butter was passed on a single plate down the row of diners, each one taking as needed. There came a day when the plate reached the end of the table empty, forcing the last few diners to eat dry bread. Cabet tried to solve the problem by giving each person a single pat of butter, but that was to admit that greed had entered Eden. There was grumbling. It was discovered that some members had secretly kept heirloom jewelry rather than put it in the common store. Volunteers for community work details grew fewer and fewer until a day came when only one showed up. By 1856, when Cabet was voted out of his own experiment, half the community would not speak to the other half. Small groups left Nauvoo for central Iowa, for New Orleans, and California until Nauvoo again lay virtually abandoned—a Promised Land still looking for more promising people.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.