The project was presented at the White Sands International Film Festival last year the final event of the project. It’s been four years since we finished the production.  I have received many comments from people.
“Thank You For Making It! For me personally, to watch a serious film of Newborough/Oahspe/Shalam is the answer to a dream of many years. So I'm perhaps biased, but I do feel that by any measure it is a well-conceived, crafted and executed piece of work.”  Peter Andrew, United Kingdom
“Your production is a scholarly, factual representation in the best journalistic tradition.  It was very well done in every way.  Beautiful photography, elegant costuming, balanced interviews, fine reenactments with a good cast.  We thoroughly enjoyed it. The archive photography was a wonderful touch.  The production was obviously the result of an exacting and demanding schedule, and it shows in the fine results. Thank you so much for doing it.” Bob Pavlosky, New Jersey

About the story

Utopia on the Rio Grande© is a story of one man’s grand vision of a better world and his ambitious attempt to forge a new social arrangement.  Following the historical timeline, the film starts with founder John Newbrough’s revelations and his writing of the massive 800-page “New Bible,” Oahspe. His message spread across the east with mixed results.  He reached other seekers who were looking for alternative solutions to the problems of the times. They accepted its vision for a new age, one that would place babies and orphans at the center of human advancement.  Newbrough formed in small group of Faithists in New York City (1882) where they formulated a plan for developing an intentional community in Mesilla Valley, New Mexico.  The story tracks the various stages of the pilgrimage from early developments through hardships encountered in the southwest. Through reenactments, and feature interviews, the film documents the triumphs and heartaches experienced by the band of idealists as they struggled to overcome enormous difficulties and cultural barriers. The struggle to build a utopian community culminates with the sudden, tragic death of its prophet and the eventual collapse of the mission.  Utopia On the Rio Grande@ captures a unique characteristic of 19th century American life when alternative lifestyles and progressive ideas were being explored.  

This documentary provides a filmic expose of a unique community that has been largely ignored or overlooked by historians and communal studies researchers.  It will educate and entertain viewers about this unique southwestern community and address some of the struggles faced by alternative thinkers in American history.  As a subtext, the film reopens the discussion about impulses that are common to all peoples and communities – the desire to make the world a better place to live.

Utopia On the Rio Grande features interviews with nationally recognized historians and communal studies scholars, regional authors, museum curators, archivists, researchers, and agricultural experts.  It provides a substantial display of period images thanks to the Rio Grande Archives at New Mexico State University.  In addition, the film features local actors for extensive reenactments of historical events. 

Anyone who has an interest in John Newbrough and his Oahspe bible will want to see this film for its historical perspective on his revelation and life journey.  Those interested in southwestern history will also find this film to provide a fascinating slice of 19th century American life.  

A Peace Colony - “For the perfection of Man.”

Act I introduces the audience to the founder and spiritualist leader, John B. Newbrough and fills in his life story.  It introduces some of the prominent social issues of the time as they relate to Newbrough’s sense of mission.  His dramatic spiritual encounters prompt him to write a massive “new bible” and distribute it to like-minded people.  He develops a following and links the ideas and moral appeals of the book to his personal interest in solving the world’s problems. He and his small band of followers organize and set out to create a children’s colony in the Mesilla Valley of New Mexico.

Act II opens with the arrival of the faithists in the valley as they begin to settle at the bend of the Rio Grande River in 1884. They are not prepared for the hazards that await them – the flooding river, lack of constant irrigation water and a skeptical population.  Forging ahead, Newbrough and the community succeed in building living quarters and a main building with the help of local Mexicans.  Trouble among the community begins to brew.  Many followers found the work hard and, since it was voluntary, stopped contributing altogether. Lacking a good organizational model, Newbrough continues to believe that the team can unite under the single idea of building a home for homeless and abandoned babies resulting in a new generation of enlightened people.  But they are not convinced. Some leave and others file a law suit claiming they are equal partners in ownership of the land. They lose the suit and leave the colony as well.  Newbrough and Andrew Howland continue on, dismissing the colonists who won’t work, paying their way out.

Act III begins with John and Francis Newbrough leaving for New Orleans to gather babies. After two years in the southern city, they return with 10 babies. Newbrough makes another trip to New England for three more.His mission in full swing, Newbrough and Howland complete work on the Children’s house and begin the task of raising the orphans. In the second year of the effort Newbrough contracts the influenza (the Grippe) from a woman who arrives from the east to help.  The influenza quickly spreads and everyone becomes very ill. Newbrough tends to the others and eventually becomes too weak to stand. Collapsing, he dies of pneumonia two days later in April of 1991.

Act IV – Andrew Howland and Francis Newbrough decide to continue on with the mission and launch an ambitious development plan.  Two years after Newbrough’s death Howland marries Francis and they continue the work expanding the farming enterprise.  But the colony continues to struggle with newly admitted followers who fail to catch the vision. Howland’s business model falters and he cannot develop a viable market for their produce and goods.  In one final attempt to save the farm, Howland creates a corporation and solicits investors.  The “Shalem Planting Company” fails to attract enough capital.  New homes are found for the orphans and Howland closes the doors of the colony in 1901. Six years later Andrew and Francis sell the land and depart for California where they reside for a time before returning to El Paso.

I began working on this project nearly three years ago when looking for a film
project. I was fascinated by the history, the prophet and the colony. The 58-minute film was shot in 720x24p HDV and postproduction is being done in Final Cut Studio II. I was fortunate to have local re-enactors from the Friends of Fort Selden assist in the reenactment shoots staged at the Double Eagle Restaurant in Mesilla, the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Museum, and at John Smith’s desert hacienda. The arrival scene took 14 hours on one of the hotest days of the year. John, Russell and Crystal were a huge help in bringing this part of the project together and in making these scenes believable. Likewise, local performer, composer and actor, Bob Diven provided the charisma needed to bring John Newbrough back to life. 

I believe I picked the perfect topic for exploring spiritualism in the 19th century. What a fascinating figure John Newbrough produces for the screen. His story is powerful and compelling while also being tragic and sad. One of the things that made doing this film so rewarding is it involves so many local people. These interviewed include: Linda Harris, Pat Beckett, Jon Hunner, George Lockhart, Leslie Fletcher, Harry Wiley, LesLee Alexander, Joan Greer, and Senator Mary Jane Garcia.  I also traveled extensively to do special interviews with scholars including: Lawrence Foster, Susan Martinez, Virginia Howard, Jonathan Den Hartog, and Tim Miller. Local re-enactors were invaluable in their dedication to bring this story to life. Bob Diven does a masterful job of portraying John B. Newbrough.  John Smith and Crystal Schneider make their acting debuts as Andrew Howland and Francis Van DeWater.

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John Smith as
Andrew Howland
Bob Diven as
John B. Newbrough
Exploring land at a bend of the 
Rio Grande
Setting up camp  alongside the river
Andrew Howland
John B. Newbrough

A film about a little known colony of idealists who set out to change the world.