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Griffin's harmonic convergence on the lost highway

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
Griffin Norman manages the Black Lodge Coffee Roasters in New Harmony, Indiana.
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NEW HARMONY, Indiana – Prior to rolling into the picturesque and historic town of New Harmony, here in southwestern Indiana, I saw a highway sign telling motorists that Louisville, Kentucky – my ultimate destination on this trip – was 237 miles away.

2.3.7.

Yeah, this was going to be one of those trips. More like a journey where there were more questions than answers.

But this trip from Oklahoma City to Louisville was to be a laid back affair. Time spent with my dad who had lived in Louisville in the mid-1960’s. And a way for me to do more research on Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson and a chance to try some great, locally-made bourbon.

But along Interstate 64, which takes one through southern Illinois and into Indiana, we decided to stop in New Harmony. But not before noting that this stretch of interstate, between St. Louis and Louisville (sync with "Louis/Lewis"), has a lonely and "lost" quality I couldn't quite put my finger on. It was decidedly different from many other interstate journeys I've taken (although I felt some similarities in this one to a recent one that took me to Texas, as noted in "Well we all shine on ..." in Dust Devil Dreams).

A sign of things to come. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

GRIFFIN

One stop I wanted to make was in Griffin, Indiana, a town just across the Wabash River into Indiana. I really didn’t know what to expect. I had checked Google Maps and noted that there was a “West Street” in Griffin, which interested me, considered “West” and “Griffin” are two-thirds of my full name.

Griffin, Indiana, located off of Interstate 64, has seen better days. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

Anyway, we drove around the quiet and largely empty streets of Griffin until we came upon a small memorial park and noticed two signs noting important aspects of Griffin’s history.

The first was the discovery of a large oil field in 1938. The second was about the utterly devastating “Tri-State Tornado” that struck Griffin on March 18, 1925 at 4 p.m. The destructive power of this tornado that started in Missouri, crossed Illinois and ended in Indiana was mindblowing, with 76 fatalities and hundreds more injured. Homes and businesses were leveled, flattened and turned to splinters.

What was particularly eerie was as I was reading the sign, at approximately 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, the tornado sirens went off. It was a test, but the winds were blowing hard this particular day. Unsettling, as I stood there in this small town with a sad history. Looking around, seeing little more than a post office, a few small businesses and a largely empty diner, it seemed that Griffin’s best days were long past.

And we later learned that the Griffin area had been hit by a tornado in February. Ripped up trees and a few damaged structures in the area were noted by this reporter. And we thought we had left Tornado Alley for a few days. This region is plagued with them as well.

Actor Bill Paxton visited Griffin, Indiana in the mid-90's to learn about tornadoes while preparing for his role in Twister. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

NEW HARMONY

One feels exceedingly welcome in New Harmony, Indiana. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

But Griffin was only a stop. A curious one at that, but we had our final destination to reach – New Harmony – just seven miles south of Griffin, here in Posey County.

Before my arrival I really didn’t know much about New Harmony. Yes, I had heard of New Harmony but knew nothing of its unusual history and its equally unusual present.

And my first sign, driving into town, was seeing a sign on a small business near downtown reading “Black Lodge Coffee Roasters.” I did a double – and triple – take. What? And this just a few days before the highly-anticipated airing of Twin Peaks: The Return on Showtime.

A shocking sight in mysterious New Harmony. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report) 

After all, the last we knew from the original Twin Peaks (1990-91) was that Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) was trapped in the red-draped Black Lodge (after pursuing Windom Earle who had kidnapped Twin Peaks Beauty Pageant Queen Annie Blackburn, played by Heather Graham, and taken her into the Black Lodge) and that his evil doppelganger had escaped into our “reality” to wreak murder and mayhem.

The final lines were of the Evil Cooper maniacally laughing and saying, “How’s Annie? How’s Annie?” 

That line would come back to me when I was able to visit the Black Lodge Coffee Roasters (with its black and white triangle-shaped “peaks” inside a larger triangle which included an “all-seeing eye.”

I wanted to go in and get some “damn fine coffee” and maybe a slice of cherry pie. But Black Lodge – owned by a couple from Nashville named “Chevalier” - had closed for the day already.

Talking to a maintenance worker across the street, employee Cindy Crews, who was scrubbing green gunk off of the white picket fence running along the main street – she told me that the building housing Black Lodge had been several businesses before and was owned and operated by the University of Southern Indiana in nearby Evansville.

Connie Weinzapfel, the retired director for Historic New Harmony, said, from her golf cart, that she loves New Harmony and has a home here now.

Oh, and she said the name of the old building was the Cooper House.

Yeah. Cooper House. Imagine that!

But more on that in a bit.

New Harmony, as I would quickly learn, had the feel of a movie set, almost. The store fronts (The Yellow Tavern, Sara’s, etc. …) had a surreal, empty quality on this mid-week afternoon. I would later find out from a local that Posey County tests their tornado sirens at particular times, and in Griffin, it just happened to be 1 p.m. on Wednesdays. Hmmm …

Those swirling vortexes are always nearby, it would seem. It was here in New Harmony, we were told, that the actor Bill Paxton (who died recently) found a sort of second home, having discovered this magical place while researching the Tri-State Tornado of ’25 while preparing for his role in the 1996 Oklahoma-set film Twister.

At Sara's, in downtown New Harmony, where we had a delicious lunch, employee Judy Axton Smith told us that her father was 15 years old when he lended a hand to help in the aftermath of the Griffin tornado of 1925.

"He said straws were driven through boards," Axton Smith explained, while standing near a wall of historical pictures showing the devastation caused by the Tri-State Tornado that obliterated Griffin.

Judy Axton Smith works at Sara's in New Harmony and her father helped in the aftermath of the Griffin tornado in 1925. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

And labyrinths. Did I mention that the symbol representing New Harmony is a labyrinth? This is my kind of small town. Cute, weird and a little too quiet. But the denizens of New Harmony are quite friendly and the stores and bars close down early. Don’t expect to find an open bar in New Harmony on a Wednesday night. Had to go to the Marathon gas station and buy some Two Hearted Ale, brewed up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Ernest Hemingway would like this beer, I bet.

He would also like New Harmony, I expect, up to a point …

The labyrinths loom large in New Harmony, as I discovered. A labyrinth, dear reader, is different from a maze in that a labyrinth is a pattern with a single path that leads circuitously to the center, while a maze has multiple paths, intersections, choices and  … dead ends.

New Harmony had a cute, dead end quality. Visiting the Atheneum, a sort of visitor’s center for all things New Harmony, Red Dirt Report learned from USI’s New Harmony-based Community Engagement Manager Erin McCracken Merris, that the Pennsylvania-based religious group of German immigrants – “the Harmonie Society” – came to this remote, largely unpopulated corner of America to live in freedom and peace, worshiping in their own way as Harmonists.

“They were seeking religious freedom … and they came here and they believed in the Second Coming of Christ. They were celibate. They established a community where they made wine, they made furniture and all these different things that” would allow them to trade.

“They built 180 buildings in about 10 years,” McCracken Merris explained. “They went to church several times a day. They believed in a utopian society where everyone had their own jobs and worked together as a community.”

New Harmony's Roofless Church. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

And spiritual freedom was embraced, ultimately, as evidenced by New Harmony's remarkable Roofless Church, designed by Philip Johnson and dedicated in 1960 - open to the Indiana skies and embracing all faiths. A sacred place, once I visited.

But after 10 years in New Harmony, “they were called back” to Pennsylvania and established a new town back there.

Asked about the New Harmony labyrinth, McCracken Merris said the "Cathedral Labyrinth" and the "Hedge Labyrinth" are important for healing and spiritual renewal. 

The Cathedral Labyrinth near the Atheneum. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

And Kari Mobley, with Visit Posey County, the local tourism office, also offered us some information about this charming community, telling Red Dirt Report about 18,000 people coming to the Atheneum alone, and many more into New Harmony proper. Some of them quite well known.

"There's a gentleman in town who actually became very good friends with (Paxton). And (Paxton) was going to be coming to our upcoming Arts in Harmony festival ... but ..." Mobley said. "We've actually had quite a bit of famous people out here that I've learned about. Willie Nelson, the Beach Boys, Meryl Streep ..."

Red Dirt Report asked McCracken Merris and Mobley what the "best local mystery" was in New Harmony. They chuckled and said, "It depends on who you ask." They struggled with an answer, however, with McCracken Merris deftly changing the subject.

And Harmonists had a particular fondness for labyrinths. I found that somewhat mysterious - and something well promoted. 

Local information sheets tell visitors that “The Original New Harmony Labyrinth was composed of bushes, vines, and flowering plants, and was intended to serve as a place of spiritual contemplation and meditation. In the center was a circular log house with a concealed door that opened to reveal an elegant and peaceful interior.”

And this was from 1814 to 1824. The Harmonie Society would go on to sell their land to a man named Robert Owen and the labyrinth “was gradually absorbed into the surrounding native vegetation.”

Interesting. A new labyrinth was made near the site of the old labyrinth. And one can see above the bumble-bee infested hedges. And the small stone temple in the middle. Seeing it all struck a deep chord with me. I also walked the flat, stone labyrinth path near the Atheneum as storm clouds rolled in and the winds blew. I remarked to my companion that it felt like that scene out of Something Wicked This Way Comes when the evil carnival rolls into the small, Depression-era town in Illinois. It was all quite surreal – and very Twin Peaks-y.

A path in the Hedge Labyrinth in New Harmony. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

And that could account for the fact that the local java joint is called the Black Lodge for Pete Martell’s sake!!

Our digs at the New Harmony Inn were comfortable enough, although it had the feel of a college dormitory or a nicer camp facility. No fuss. And the Red Geranium, with a genuine Pablo Picasso painting was recommended to us – located adjacent to the inn.

What was interesting about the Red Geranium, that I couldn’t get out of the local visitor’s center boosters was the fact that this restaurant was allegedly haunted and that table 213 supposedly levitated off the ground, according to one eyewitness.

What entity was haunting the Red Geranium? It wasn’t very clear to anyone we spoke to. I watched table 213 intently. No levitation commenced, even though two male German tourists spoke loudly, while sitting at 213, the entire time I was there. Perhaps they scared off the spirit?

And while our bartender David struggled to make us a drink, he had no trouble telling us his rather startling experience a few years ago when he was closing up the restaurant.

He showed me a small staircase leading to a door, which was closed when I was there. David said he was up there putting something away and an “entity” seemed to push him down the stairs – not unlike a bouncer throwing out an unruly clubgoer – and all the way across the restaurant to the hostess station near the entrance. He was utterly convinced it was something like a ghost – and an unhappy ghost at that.

The haunted staircase at The Red Geranium. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

And while no overtly paranormal things would take place while I was in the Red Geranium or in the adjacent New Harmony Inn, the place did have a certain feel about it.

THE BLACK LODGE

Perhaps it was what Annie Collins, local resident, told me the following morning while grabbing some fair trade coffee at New Harmony’s aforementioned Black Lodge Coffee Roasters in the Cooper House (allegedly known by that name because a "cooper" had his business in there some time ago, according to the local spokesfolks we talked to.

Yes. Annie. If you can believe it. 

New Harmony resident and Black Lodge regular Annie Collins. (Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report)

She was an exceedingly friendly person. She said she grew up in neighboring Gibson County and calls New Harmony home - a town made up of a mix of longtime locals and transplants. 

Collins said something very interesting, once I told her that I sensed something about New Harmony. It was different. Like things were going on just out of eyesight - but there, nevertheless.

Collins replied that it is "very thin" in New Harmony. I caught her meaning. That veil between our existence - and the next - is thin. The Native Americans reportedly had sacred mounds here hundreds of years ago. You could sense it.

The coffee house manager, Griffin Norman, had lived in Nashville before moving to New Harmony nearly a decade earlier. While some people got the coffee house's Twin Peaks connection, many did not. That was the case with some of the people in New Harmony that we spoke with. But Norman and the owners (a husband-wife team who were not there this particular morning) made sure to have Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks soundtrack music on hand - and Norman was more than willing to cue it up for us, helping to set the mood. Not exactly the "Double R Diner," but still ... 

All in all, our visit to New Harmony, Indiana was very interesting and informative. I felt as though I did not even have enough time to explore all the fascinating aspects of New Harmony and its bucolic surroundings. I am most assuredly looking forward to a future visit. After my time in New Harmony, I see why Bill Paxton made the town a sort of second home. 

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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