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Etienne Cabet's Utopian Dream


July 27, 2011
Every place has a story to tell. Sometimes the stories are obvious in the landscape; walk around Forest Park, and much of its biography is visible. Look at some of our oldest streets and alleys; they bear signs of the very founders of our communities, routes our earliest settlers took, names that evoke our past. Sometimes the stories are buried beneath the years' changes, so that it requires a historian, an archeologist, or teller of tales to reveal what lies beneath.

A stretch of Manchester Avenue's industrial corridor lingers without a clue of its links to France of the 1840s, when a practical dreamer named Etienne Cabet promulgated the concept of a society that would flourish without money or individual property. Called the Icarians, Cabet and his followers moved to America and eventually found their way to St. Louis.

In 1858, the Icarians purchased 39 acres in Cheltenham "six miles west of St. Louis on the Pacific railroad." (That would be around Manchester at Hampton.) The property is described in a contemporary journal as "a charming parcel of prairie and woods, of white and green buildings, and a small river traversed by a fine bridge." Bearing little resemblance to the scene we would now encounter, it seemed the perfect area to build that secular utopian society Cabet envisioned.

For a little while, the community did flourish, but many factors were aligning to fracture the Icarians. Etienne Cabet had died before the move to Cheltenham and differences, both political and social, divided his followers, leading to the withdrawal of several dozen people from the community. Contributions from supporters in France were in a decline, and with many men joining the Union Army after 1861, income within the group also plummeted. By 1864, only eight families remained in Cheltenham. That March they sadly retired from their Cheltenham hopes, some to a new settlement in Iowa and some absorbed into the greater St. Louis area.

A relic of this Icarian community remains at Etienne Cabet's gravesite in the New St. Marcus Cemetery (7901 Gravois Road at River Des Peres Boulevard). Restored by the French Society in the 1960s, the monument tells us of the dreams that saw a brief fruition down in Cheltenham, a reminder that humanity has always striven for the best and sometimes succeeds, however temporarily.

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