Welcome to Utopia

On June 3, 2010 · 9 Comments

I don’t always understand how blog topics develop in my mind. This time curiosity led me to wonder if anyone had ever been bold enough to name a town Utopia. I had no idea that a book would be published during the same week focusing on the same place, but I’ll get to that later. Life is full of odd coincidences like that.

This quest seemed no different than any other. Put simply, I enjoy counterintuitive geographic placenames. It might be an inexplicable term, a palindrome, or simply a funny sounding phrase. Something catches my eye and it pushes me towards the search engines to see if I can crack the code. I like to learn the story behind the story.

The Town

Utopia exists, or at least a town in Texas goes by that name. It’s a rather unusual definition of utopia unless an isolated settlement on the outskirts of the Texas Hill Country would be considered the embodiment of paradise. Maybe it is. I can think of lots of places that would have less legitimacy.

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The evolution is a bit clouded but I’ve tugged on a few threads and I’ve deciphered a plausible explanation. Several sources point to an earlier name, Waresville, dating back to the 1850’s. Texas had only recently joined the United States. Some of those Waresville settlers relocated about a mile north in the 1870’s and platted a new town. They’d hoped to call it Montana but that was taken by another Texas town. The residents settled for Utopia instead (does this mean that Montana is better than Utopia?). Waresville, meanwhile, largely disappeared over time although a few vestiges still remain.

That doesn’t answer the question, though. That explains why it’s not Montana, but why Utopia? I don’t know precisely but I have a theory. A socialist utopian movement called La Réunion arrived in Texas in 1855 and they settled near present-day Dallas. Their name lives on in the Reunion District of downtown Dallas and in its landmark Reunion Tower.

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Reunion Tower — Socialism in Texas?

Other communes were established on the same basic set of socialist principals. The most well-known was probably Utopia, Ohio (aha!) near Cincinnati, which is essentially a ghost town today. Another one of those communities was going to be located near present-day Utopia, Texas. Organizers even purchased 47,000 acres for that purpose. However this was a stillborn settlement and the commune never formed. La Réunion collapsed right around the same time and interest waned.

I think it’s plausible that Utopia, Texas was named after the attempted socialist colonization that failed to ignite twenty years earlier. It would have been within their collective memory in 1884 when they learned that their first choice wasn’t available. I can’t know this for certain and I would be glad to defer to anyone who has access to better historical records, but I’m posing that as a theory and a possible explanation.

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Incidentally they have a sense of humor. What else would explain Paradise Pizza in Utopia? Perhaps that’s a trait passed down by their forbearers.

The Book

I was quite surprised to learn, as I researched this topic, that a book went on sale on June 1, 2010: "Welcome to Utopia: Notes from a Small Town." The author is Karen Valby and her book builds upon an article she wrote for Entertainment Weekly several years ago, delving into the lives of some of the local residents. If you’re curious:

I am a voracious reader but I don’t often get an opportunity to read an entire book. I read about one book a year, usually history-related. Will this be the one? Who knows? However, if Ms. Valby every stumbles across this page and wants to send me a copy…

On June 3, 2010 · 9 Comments

9 Responses to “Welcome to Utopia”

  1. pfly says:

    In researching did you discover the neighborhood of Utopia in Queens, New York City? The combination of “Utopia” and “Queens” gives me cognitive dissonance. There’s a little article about it here, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/21/realestate/if-you-re-thinking-of-living-in-utopia-queens-a-neighborhood-aspires-to-its-name.html — I like the historical anecdote, “The name Utopia goes back to the turn of the last century when the Utopia Land Company was formed to build a cooperative community in Queens for Jewish families living on the Lower East Side looking for a better life in what was then still the country,” and, “But the developers went bankrupt before any work took place. Thereafter, Utopia survived in name only.” …figures.

  2. Mike Lowe says:

    Great post as always…

    I can tell you from personal experience that that part of the Texas Hill Country is a lot of scenic and topographic fun in a sports car. I’ve done several trips through there in my Miatas. Colorado folks would yawn but I love the area.

    Utopia is at the southern fringe of the fun area, IMHO. Of course the scenic stuff continues to the south; I don’t want to insult fans of Hwy 90. The northern neighbors of Uvalde county (Utopia, etc.) can provide a day’s worth of car fun.

  3. Joshua says:

    As one who grew up in Queens (Flushing) I know of Utopia Parkway, but don’t think I ever referred to this neighborhood as “Utopia.”

  4. Cyndi says:

    I live in Dallas but have a small home in Utopia. I run away as often as I can because it is truly paradise. Floating in the Sabinal River, watching magnificent Axis deer, just swinging in a hammock or laying on a blanket looking at a zillion stars is Utopia for sure.

  5. diane says:

    I’ve lived in Utopia for 64 years…the first postmaster, who came to the area for his ailing health and felt he was healed by swimming in the Sabinal River every morning, named the town Utopia based on the book by Sir Thomas Moore describing the “perfect’ place. Come to our museum sometime and you can get the whole straight of the story!

    • @diane: Thanks for the straight story. So it turns out my socialist utopian theory is full of hot (and apparently healing) water! 🙂 I’d love to visit the museum someday and I’ll put it on my list for the next time I’m visiting with my relatives in San Antonio and Austin.

  6. Kim says:

    I was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs. My grandparents were from Chicago but settled their own piece of heaven called the B & R Ranch on the outskirts of Utopia, TX after they retired. I spent many summer vacations there during childhood and have the sweetest memories of my time there. The Sabinal river bordered their ranch it was a wonderful way to spend the day floating and soaking in the river.

  7. Maribelle says:

    In reference to the note by Diane, that first postmaster was my great grandfather or great, great grandfather, (possibly last name Barker, I’ll have to look it up & let you know) but he did come for his health & found the water healing & HE DID NAME THE TOWN UTOPIA! There was a book researched & written probably about the 1980’s about the history of the town & the postmaster. My mother who has since deceased, contributed information to the author then.
    I will have to find the records.

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