Living In the Midst of a Utopian Community

My grandfather, Frank Carl Mesle was born in Buffalo, NY on March 18, 1884 and died in Sherrill, NY on August 24, 1964.  His parents left Germany three years before his birth.  His father, Franz Mesle, died when Frank was 9 years old.  His mother, Kate Kirsch Mesle raised 4 children alone.

He had only a limited education when, at age 13, in 1997, he was hired to be an errand boy by Oneida Community, Ltd.  It changed his life forever.  By age 16 he was a plant foreman.  In 1914, when the company moved its headquarters from Niagara Falls to Sherrill, NY, Frank was one of many employees making that move.  In 1915, my grandparents moved into their house, just up the hill from the plant, where they lived until their deaths.

Because our “cousins trip” to New York was focused on family history, Sherrill was one of our primary destinations.  All the cousins remember happy visits to Sherrill, wandering the streets in and around their home at 166 Willow.  We visited again in July, 2012.  The house looked the same as it looked  on my last visit 50 years ago.

Frank was a pioneer in electroplating processes that revolutionized the production (and quality) of silver-plating.  Ultimately, he rose to the position of Superintendent of the Plating Department.  He directed silver plating of artillery shells in World War I and the silver plating of aircraft bearings in World War II.  He served as Editor of The Monthly Review and in 1926 became President of the American Electroplaters’ Society.  He received the Society’s Founder’s Gold Medal in 1929, 1938, 1940 and 1943. He received the key to the city of Toronto, Canada, during an international conference of electroplaters.

For many years Oneida, Ltd. was a major producer of high quality silver plate flat ware.  Ultimately, it became unable to compete with foreign products. My grandfather had a significant role in the company’s successes and would have grieved the company’s losses.

The company was good to granddad and he was good for the company.  When Sherrill became a self-governing city in 1916, he was elected to Sherrill’s original governing Commission.  In 1917 he was elected a member of the Board of Education of Sherrill’s public schools.  He was President of the PTA, Superintendent of Schools, Counselor to Boy Scouts and a member of the Library Board.  He was a charter member of Sherrill’s chapter of the Masonic Order and an ordained minister.  He was recognized in the American Men of Science and Who’s Who in American.  He was given the key to the city of Toronto, Canada and was featured in the “Leader’s in the Industry” edition of the Journal of the American Electroplaters’ Society.  He never spoke of these accomplishments.

The above is really just statistical information about a man.  What matters more to me are the factors that shaped the family we are today.  My visit to Sherrill gave me some insight.  When we toured the Community’s Mansion House, the Curator of the Mansion House, described the values of the Oneida Community in words I remember vividly as the morality lessons and beliefs I learned as a childhood.   Granddad joined Oneida, Ltd. just 16 years after the end of the utopian experiment.  By then the radical ideas of the community were in the past. The commitment to working toward perfection on earth continued.  The company–and my granddad–tried to create an environment that provided a high quality of life for the Sherrill community.  If unable to achieve perfection, perhaps, however briefly, they created their own “Camelot”.

Oneida Ltd’s values, and my grandparents’ values, focused on religion, academic achievement, commitment to healthy living, love of music and the arts, hard work and the equality of the sexes. My grandparents’ early letters evidenced their belief in the equality of the sexes. Granddad’s commitment to education resulted in his educating himself as an adult so that he became widely recognized as a scientist and chemical engineer.

The utopian community emphasized that members of the community, and the company, should share the successes and failures of the community.  Oneida, Ltd. embraced this concept by insisting that top management share financial successes and hardships with laborers; taking pay cuts during economic downturns and receiving salary increases only when workers received them as well.  My father still advocates that during economic downturns companies should share available work so all employees will keep a portion of their income.

In supporting the community, Oneida, Ltd. contributed significant resources to develop a park, school, tennis courts, and recreational activities.  The company even created a “swimming hole” in the stream so kids would have a place to swim.  It is still there today, less than a block from our family home.

The values of the community formed the essential elements of my father’s and my grandparents lives.  They dedicated their lives to community, God, and family.  Granddad served on the boards that provided for Sherrill  what the Utopian community believed were essential prerequisites of a “perfect” life.  My grandmother, Mary Lewis Mesle, was also active in the community, was a prolific writer and correspondent and was, like her father before her, active in temperance organizations.  My dad shares all those goals and traits.

The Oneida Community’s utopian experiment ended just 16 years before my grandparents joined the company established by its former members.  As we drove through Sherrill I was overwhelmed with the understanding that the best values established by a utopian community in the mid-1800’s continue to influence the lives and personalities of the people of Sherrill and my own family.   I am grateful for it.

Oneida Community–Where Giants Walked

“Where giants walked”.  Those are the words our tour guide, the curator of the Mansion House in Oneida, New York, used to describe the Oneida Community.  Disbanded more than 120 years ago, the community grounds still emit a feeling both vibrant and tranquil.

I didn’t know what to expect when the “cousins trip” arrived in Oneida.  What we found far exceeded even my enthusiastic expectations.  We spent a night in the Mansion House where our rooms were simple but lovely.  The environment was so much more.

The Oneida Community was founded in the belief that individuals can become free from sin while still here on earth.  Beyond their religious aspirations, their practical reality involved a focus on hard community labor, culture, music, art and literature.  These values resonated throughout the community.  Beautification of the grounds of the Mansion House and of the surrounding community are evident today.

While much of the Mansion House is plain, befitting a society based on de-emphasizing private property, there was an emphasis on beauty of the common areas.  The great hall that was a central meeting area demonstrates the community’s commitment to perfection in its culture and art.

The grounds are lovely, incorporating gardens, simple fountains and open areas surrounded by trees.


Artistic endeavors were encouraged.  The museum displays beautiful art such as this unique braided rug that are  wonderful works of craftsmanship.

The library was a focal point of daily life, filled with books that were identified as incorporating all of the knowledge important to a learned community.  It remains a great place to visit and study.

While long disbanded as a religious community, descendants of community members continue to live in the shadow of the Mansion House.  While their homes are not elegant, they are as graceful, well-groomed and inviting as the people who live there.

Welcome to “Utopia”.

Oneida Community: From Utopian Community to Silverware Manufacturer

Founded by John Humphrey Noyes in 1848, the Oneida Community was based on the premise that individuals can be free of sin and perfect on earth, not just in Heaven.  The community practiced what has been described as “Bible communism”, in the sense that it practiced a form of communal property based on a belief that freedom from possessions facilitated achieving perfection.  At its peak, shortly before it dissolved in 1881, it had a membership of 306.  While the community has been disbanded well in excess of 100 years, descendants of the members continue to live in apparent harmony and grace in the shadow of the Mansion House, which was at the center of community life.

The Mansion House consists of a cluster of buildings sitting in a campus like environment where members of the community lived and prospered.

None of the members of my family were members of the Oneida Community, but it is, nonetheless, a part of what shaped our family values.  Because my  grandfather worked for the Oneida Silver Company, he and my father, aunt and uncle were surrounded by former members of the community and were constantly influenced by the best of its values: equality of the sexes, cultural advancement, education and hard work.

To facilitate the complete integration of women into the life of the community, women rejected the heavy petticoats and restrictive clothing of outside society and wore short, but modest, dresses over long pantaloons. Women were included among the leadership of the community. Men and women shared work duties, rotating among those duties so that each person shared in more routine and more specialized tasks, as well as sharing traditionally male and female tasks.

Criticism of members of the community was considered a significant aspect of the goal of achieving perfection.  Primary reasons for criticism were what was considered inappropriate “special love” such as love of a mother for her birth child that exceeded her love of the children of other women.  I am told that the unwillingness of the community to recognize the inevitability of close ties between a mother and her own child was one of the reasons for the downfall of the commune.  Victorian values in the outside world may have been another. Squabbling among members surely also took a toll.

Pride, vanity were often the subject of criticism.  Individuals called for criticism by leaders of the community were expected to remain silent, accept the criticism and use the criticism as a means of furthering their efforts to obtain perfection. This lovely hall served as a center for cultural events, concerts, meetings but also the location for individual criticism.

For many years the community prospered due to its farming, silk and canning operations, but more important as a primary producer of animal traps.  After the commune disbanded the founders and their descendants remained closely connected financially and geographically.  By about 1899, the former members of the commune, under the leadership of P.B. Noyes, son of the founder, acquired a failing silver ware company. Oneida and its employees, including my grandfather, Frank C. Mesle, moved the company from Niagara Falls to Oneida where the company prospered through hard work and innovation.

Many utopian values were incorporated into the life of the company, particularly the concept of sharing wealth and sharing economic challenges.  Executives of the company were given raises only when raises were given to line workers. In periods of recession and depression, all employees shared the available work such that while their hours and their incomes were reduced, no one bore the overwhelming burden of difficult times.

The company reached the height of its financial success in the 1980’s but its revenues declined, and the company essentially disappeared, due to its inability to compete with foreign flatware.  But many of the best the values of the community continue to this day.  Literature, culture, music and hard work resonate throughout the community.  Beautification projects can be seen in Oneida and neighboring Sherrill, NY. even today.

In Search of My Roots–the Lewis Family

At 6:50 this morning I am off on a great adventure.  My sister and I fly to Boston.  We pick up our rental car there and have charmed three cousins to meet us in New York?  In New York we plan to spend three days with cousins, searching for our roots.  We have not been together as a group in more than 50 years.  What a treat.

From the late 1700’s until the early 1900’s, 5 generations of our family lived in and around Norwich, Chenango County, NY.  My great-grandfather, Horatio Lewis, and his brothers, Hiram and Harris, owned mills in the area.  Here is a picture of their mill in Pharsalia, NY., before it was destroyed in a fire in the late 1880’s.

Tuesday morning we will drive to Norwich.  Our agenda is to visit the Mt. Hope Cemetery to try to find the Lewis and Terry Family Plots, located in Section A. I thought it would be relatively simply until I learned that Section A is 10 acres.  Well, we can only try! Since our family members were among the first people buried there, I am hoping we have a chance.  Then on to the Guernsey Memorial Library and the Norwich Historical Society.

Wednesday we drive to Sherrill, NY, where my grandparents lived by 1912.  Granddad was superintendent of silver-plating operations for Oneida Silver, back in the day when it was a power to be reckoned with in Oneida County.  We plan to visit the family home on Willow Road, walk down to the school and the plant on the same road.  Dad (on the right), his brother Dick (the baby) and Aunt Dot (on the left) were all raised in the house in Sherrill.

We will spend one night in rooms at the Mansion House, the home of a utopian community that eventually founded the silver company.

In the midst of indulging my family history adventures I hope to catch up on years of missed time with my cousins.  Hopefully, we will see some wonderful places, share great memories and return home refreshed and armed with photographs for new posts.