University of Southern Indiana

Robert Owen 250th Creative Writing Contest

Celebrating Robert Owen’s 250th Anniversary
Historic New Harmony’s Global Creative Writing Contest

Sponsored by the Working Men's Institute
In Partnership with Indiana Poet Laureate, Matthew Graham

Guest Judge: Matthew Graham – Indiana Poet Laureate


During his 35 years in southern Indiana, Matthew Graham has been a respected and recognized writer, teacher, and advocate for poetry and the arts. Having recently retired from the University of Southern Indiana (USI), he has taught all levels of creative writing, contemporary literature, and worked with multicultural and international students in freshman composition. Among other community service Graham has worked with diverse writing groups such as high school students and community writing groups.

Matthew Graham is the author of four books of poetry, most recently The Geography of Home (Galileo Press, 2018). His work has earned numerous national, regional and local honors and awards, including a Pushcart Prize, an Academy of American Poets Award, two grants from the Indiana Arts Commission, and the Artist of the Year Award from the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana.

While at USI, Matthew co-founded and co-directed (with Thomas Wilhelmus) The Ropewalk Writers' Retreat, a summer program that brought national and international writers to New Harmony, Indiana for 22 years, and the Ropewalk Visiting Writers Series, which brought prominent fiction and non-fiction writers and poets to the USI campus for free public readings. The list of participating writers includes the present U.S. Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo.

Visit his Indiana Poet Laureate site.

Honorable Mention (18+) 
Charlie Gaston, 85

"Robert Owen: Protector of Workers"

How can I connect Robert Owen of two and a half centuries ago to the present day? Well, here it goes with a little background on the author. I was born on March 23, 1936 in Bloomington, Indiana and had a normal childhood living in a town of 18,000 with similar sized Indiana University. My parents moved out of North Carolina in the 1930’s. My connection with Owen will come up through my mother’s side in Gaston County, North Carolina.

Gaston County was a hot bed of cotton mills, powered by water converted to steam. My mother was the oldest of eight children. When her father was a ten-year-old boy in the 1880’s he worked in the mill on the spinning machinery turning cotton to cloth. It was a very unsafe environment. There was no way to shut down the machine if any part of your body was trapped by it. Unfortunately, at ten years of age, my grandfather lost three fingers and a thumb to the cotton mill machinery. He survived and was able to go back to work and worked himself up to become the supervisor of the whole factory. I remember as a child visiting my grandparents in the best house because all laborers lived in factory owned houses.

The mill was across the street from my grandfather’s home and still today I can feel and hear the mill running day and night. When Granddad came home I would watch as he lit up his Lucky Strike cigarette, unbelievably holding it with his severed thumb and fingers. I remember the dark brown stains on his fingers from the nicotine and how he would come home and listen to WWII news, ending with President Roosevelt’s fire side chat.

Well gentle reader, come along with me as I lead you to Robert Owen, who was a pioneer in child labor in Scotland.

Robert Owen worked his way up the cotton mill ladder through his wife’s father, David Dale. David Dale was a capitalist with no interest in stopping child labor. The Dale name would serve as a middle name for Robert Owen’s children. David Dales’ factory had the biggest child labor force, bringing in pauper children from the surrounding large cities. These children were called “apprentice workers” until they reached the age of fifteen and were then forced out on their own and replaced by more ‘pauper workers.’ David Dale’s workers were suffering long hours and low wages. Housing was appalling, dirty and small.

Now Robert Owen comes along to marry David Dale’s daughter Caroline and start the great child reform movement with better learning and educational conditions. When Owen took over, he wasn’t an absent owner. He witnessed their misery and increased worker pay and better living conditions by adding rooms or second stories to the factory owned houses. He built schools and even paid wages when demand was slack!

Reader, you can see the man Owen developing into a leader of human rights and his success gained him wealth. Being a leader in worker rights, other mill owners were resentful. As Owen spread his word to London to get laws changed, his opponents spoke out. Parliament passed nothing to help his cause!

Owen’s workers were proud and worked hard in return for removing their misery. The company books showed success. The biggest social benefit was that he made the happiness of the entire community who saw pride in their efforts.

Gentle reader let’s now catch up with my grandfather in Gaston County. We left him in his big mill home listening to FDR on the radio and smoking a Lucky Strike. This man sired eight children, my mother being the oldest. In 1914, he was appointed superintendent of the largest mill in Gaston County – a title he would carry until the 1940’s. One other event would again injure him. As the unions were beginning to organize in cotton mills, my grandfather was injured by the clash between works and scabs. As I write this story at the age of 85, the constant mill noise of my visits to my grandfather is my way of remembering the past!

Let’s get back with Owen and his New Harmony catastrophe. Around 1816, Owen read a local journal by John Molish of a German Utopia in Pennsylvania called Harmony. This became his newfound interest in America, staying with him until 1825.

Father Rapp pulled out of Harmony, PA and traveled by horse to the Vincennes, Indiana land office buying 6000 acres on the Wabash River. This community would be called New Harmony and was built in ten years by six hundred Rappite followers.

Owen followed the movement of this group over the years. To his great surprise an agent, Richard Flowers called on Owen in New Lanark to offer him the 6,000 acres on the Wabash River. Flowers made the sale. Owen, on the way to America, stopped at every major city to promote his New Harmony – a town living and sharing as equals with no sign of religion, but plenty of speech, singing and dancing.

As knowledge of the Owen purchase got started – people were on the move west by the wagon loads to the new commune to live and work equally. Owen stayed a year making and changing rules, ending up in a great state of confusion - equal to a runaway horse. Soon, Owen pulled out and went back to England, leaving his young son in charge. Owen would come back one more time, but complete failure was in order. Even his money partner, Maclure stayed a few years, but he too disappeared to Mexico. Maclure crossed the 13 states as a geologist and later Owen’s sons would follow – making New Harmony the birthplace of geology.

Science and arts would have a lasting effect over socialism Today we in New Harmony feel the effects of both, with people visiting from around the world to feel the magic and great history of this place.

I came here in the 1960’s to study the construction of the Rappite’s prefab method of putting together the homes. In turn, I took the method of 1814-1824 to Bloomington. The truss roof was my first introduction to house building in the 1960’s.

Changing from builder to organic farmer in the 1970’s, I took breaks from the farm. I would bicycle the 140 miles to New Harmony. In 1998, I was captured by the unusual feel and purchased a 1860 home and found myself walking in their footsteps. Now today we know Owen as a success!

I join you gentle reader, as I too seem to be carrying the torch of the past! But really, is it the past?

First Place (13-17) 
Claudia Esmaela Ghaderpoor, 15

Shrouded in evils
Built upon foundations
Of muck and grime
And casted away into
The mouth of hell,
A forsaken cause.
The land to be called

A vessel for paradise
Taken from hell?
The world shook and reeled
With laughter. They watched
In silent mockery as he dipped
His hands in ambrosia
And steeled his resolve
To forge a land called

Yet the cleanse anticipated
For the land was not one
Immersed in bloodshed.
He took his hands and built
A new foundation, a promise
Of comfort for the troubled
Souls encased in debauchery.
Shunned by the world, here
Lies the flourishing bud called

What makes a savior and
What makes a man? For
One who toiled and strove
For the providence brought
Not by divinity's grace but
By the hands of man.
Who sought to challenge
When all the world gazed
In passive indifference.
Who realized his ventures
Of a land called


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