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.
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.
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:
- This is the Entertainment Weekly article from 2006.
- This is the book as listed on Amazon.
- This is an interview with the author in the Austin Chronicle.
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…