Ever wonder about that stone bank building at the corner of routes 343 and 22 at the center of Amenia village? If it looks to you like it came from another world, you’re right. In 1860, Dutchess County was the birthplace of the Brotherhood of the New Life, one of the many "alternative communities" born during the great American spiritual revival of the mid-nineteenth century. The Brotherhood began in Wassaic, and grew onto additional property in nearby Amenia where, after accumulating a sizeable amount of capital, the group founded the First National Bank of Amenia and built that stone building.
The Brotherhood’s founder was Thomas Lake Harris, a hypnotic and otherworldly minister who cobbled together his own eclectic set of beliefs during an evolving career. Harris started out as a young preacher in Western New York, where he became known for the poetical passion of his oratory. Then he embraced spiritualism, claiming to be in touch with the angels and publishing three books of poetical revelations dictated while in trances during his visits with dead poets in heaven.
Thomas Lake Harris in is late seventies. credit Courtesy Bart Casey.
Soon he declared that he had spirit-traveled to celestial communities on Mars, Jupiter and other planets—all part of his training to become the pivotal go-between between fallen man and the Deity.
By 1859, at age 36, Harris was the leader of New York City’s Church of the Good Shepherd, an independent, progressive and well-heeled congregation holding Sunday services in the chapel of New York University in Washington Square. Followers included Horace Greeley, future presidential candidate and editor of the New York Tribune, as well as wealthy heiress Jane Waring, daughter of a successful New York State stove manufacturer.
Harris traveled around the South on the eve of the Civil War and in Great Britain after the Crimean War. The civil and social unrest he witnessed convinced him that the tumultuous period was beginning,which would precede the final struggle between Good and Evil, itself the precursor to the second coming of Christ. To counter this cataclysm, he convinced a close inner circle of followers to pool their money and buy property in Dutchess County where they could prepare for the changes to come and become ready to play leading roles saving mankind in the new post-apocalyptic order.
For a brief period in the years before founding the Amenia settlement, Harris had been co-leader of a failed utopian community in West Virginia. Here he learned that any community attempting to set up a new world order should have only one leader—and a well-funded one at that. Sound finances and savvy business practices became his hallmarks. At the start, Harris’s main benefactor and deputy was Jane Waring, the heiress, who contributed millions of dollars in today’s money to the community. Jane also ran the farming operations, having grown up on a farm with her agriculturalist brother George, manager of Greeley’s farm in Chappaqua and lead sanitary engineer for the draining of Manhattan’s wetlands and the ensuing creation of New York’s Central Park. Joining from New York City and contributing commercial expertise came several experienced businessmen with their families, During the Civil War three large families arrived from Georgia, escaping the depradations of that battle-ravaged state and adding the proceeds from the sale of their properties and slaves. From Britain came Arthur Cuthbert and his fiancée, Emily Fawcett, to be married in Amenia by Harris; Cuthbert would become Harris’s lifelong disciple and biographer.
This founding group spent their days in healthy manual labor building the first house in Wassaic, which was located across from the famous Gridley kilns, on the wooded hillside overlooking the deep gorge creek of the Wassaic River, just off today’s Route 22. Today, forest has grown over the original stable’s grounds and garden. An early member recalled that the structure was "a very fine one at the time, and known locally as the House in the Woods." Evenings were spent in "right breathing": reaching out for contact with the celestial realm, where Harris was already a frequent visitor and confidant of the archangels. As more people came, new properties were bought around Mill Pond, on today’s Lake Amenia Avenue, where the Brotherhood operated a mill as a first base of commerce in the community. Jane Waring then planted the Brotherhood’s vineyards on the adjoining hillside, near today’s Silo Ridge Golf Course.
The stone bank building in Amenia built by the Brotherhood, now a branch of M&T Bank.
credit Courtesy Amenia Historical Society.
As the community flourished, Harris decided they should spread the word more to local villagers about the great changes to come. To do this, his New York City disciples helped Harris found the First National Bank of Amenia, installing the prophet as president. At first, the bank was a modest one-room wooden structure with an imposing safe, a welcoming woodstove, and a wealth of chairs for townspeople to rest on and chat. Eventually, in 1865, the bank built its distinctive five-sided stone building now gracing the main street of the village.
More exotic members began to arrive. J. W. Hyde, an expert winemaker from Missouri, joined with his wife Lucy and son John to take over vineyard operations. In London Emily Fawcett Cuthbert talked up Harris to her close friend Lady Maria Oliphant, and soon this widow of the chief justice of Ceylon petitioned to join the Brotherhood. Before long she brought along as well her son Laurence, a prominent writer, war correspondent and member of parliament. The Oliphants brought wealth and an implied endorsement for Harris from the highest levels of British society, where they were friends and intimates of ministers, aristocrats and the royal family. And when Laurence completed his probationary period in England and arrived in Dutchess County, he brought with him a group of Samurai students on a secret mission from their lord in the southern Japanese province of Satsuma to learn the mysterious ways of the West. They were, in fact, some of the earliest visitors from Japan to ever come to the USA, and several went on to high office as ambassadors for the modern government set up by Meiji-era Japan; one even became minister of education.
Since everyone joining the Brotherhood contributed all of their worldly funds, the safe at the First National Bank of Amenia might well have been bursting at its seams. By 1867, it was decided the entire group should re-scale itself and relocate to larger properties 400 miles to the west on Lake Erie, , at Brocton, New York, where a more sizeable wine business could be cultivated. So, after a successful birth and seven-year childhood in Dutchess County, the Brotherhood moved on to adolescence in Brocton, and eventual adulthood in Santa Rosa, California, where from 1876 to 1934 it became a leading Sonoma County winery on the fabulous Fountaingrove estate. One family, disgruntled with Harris’s leadership, eventually returned east to Washingtonville, in the Hudson Valley, where as competitors to Harris they took over the oldest winery in the country and renamed it after the Brotherhood. This winery is still in operation today.
Harris’s later years brought scandals about sexual shenanigans and financial deceptions, casting a permanent cloud over the reputations of both Harris and Oliphant (who broke with Harris as well and went on publishing bestselling books about his exotic travels). At its inception in Dutchess County, however, this colorful community was full of hope and idealism. Writing in 1930, Robert Martin, who grew up in the Brotherhood, addressed questions about any possible "lax morals, or improper conduct" in the early Dutchess County days. He stated then they were all "a straightlaced, God-fearing band of men and women" intent on leading mankind to salvation. However, Martin didn’t pull any punches about his final assessment of Harris and the Brotherhood for his somber ending to the story, where he judged Harris "a charlatan, with feet of the most ordinary clay" who eventually squandered the members’ money and dashed their dreams of glory.