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Harmonists in the field raking hay

Harmonist History

A picture of George Rapp. He has a long gray, chin strap beard, a maroon/purple top and a maroon/purple gnome looking hat.

In 1804, the followers of the Separatist George Rapp (1757-1847) emigrated to America from Iptingen (near Stuttgart in Württemberg) in southwest Germany seeking religious and economic freedom. About 800 farmers and craftsmen followed their leader to Butler County, Pennsylvania where they built the town of Harmony. Ten years later they migrated westward to Posey County, Indiana founding a second town named Harmony, which today is known as New Harmony.

In 1824, the Harmony Society returned to Pennsylvania, this time settling in Beaver County along the Ohio River, eighteen miles downriver from Pittsburgh. There they founded the town of “Oekonomie,” or Economy. Leaders purchased 3,000 acres of land with rich soil for farming. The location was ideal for shipping Society products to markets on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and to the West in the newly settled areas on the frontier.

Economy was planned for efficiency. After twenty years in the United States and the experience of building and operating two other towns, the Society’s leaders had a clear understanding of the community needs. The church and the houses of George Rapp and his adopted son Frederick (1775-1834) were located at the center of town. Business locations included a store, post office, mechanics building, wine cellar, warehouse, and granary. The Feast Hall, used for communal dinners and concerts, with the Natural History Museum on the first floor, was also located in the center of town. Directly surrounding the center were members’ houses, eighty of which survive. At the outer edges of the community were livestock barns and stables, a tannery, textile mills, blacksmith shop and other buildings.

The Harmonists developed a simple, pietistic lifestyle based upon the early Christian Church. They turned over everything they owned to the Harmony Society when they became members. Everyone worked together for the good of the Society and received, in turn, what he or she needed to live simply and comfortably. Because they expected Christ’s Second Coming to Earth at any moment, they adopted celibacy in 1807 in order to purify themselves for the Millennium – Christ’s 1,000-year reign on Earth.

Flour mill and cotton factory

While the religious aspects of the Society held little importance for the nation’s political leaders, its success in “placing the manufacturer beside the agriculturalist” did arouse interest as an accomplishment held in high regard in the early nineteenth century. National leaders like Thomas Jefferson viewed this as the ideal plan for America’s economic and political future. This ideal would create a national economy that would thrive in both agriculture and industry, independent of foreign influence.

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A portrait of a Harmonist man and woman. Both are wearing cloaks and hats. The image is sepia and old.
A harmonist woman surrounded by trees and bushes

The Harmonists created, adapted, and adopted the new technologies of their day giving them a competitive edge in the growing early American economy, particularly in textile manufacturing—wool, cotton, and silk—and agricultural production. By 1825 they had constructed textile factories powered and heated by steam engines. They built shops for blacksmiths, tanners, hatters, wagon makers, cabinetmakers and turners, linen weavers, potters, and tin smiths, as well as developing a centralized steam laundry and a centralized dairy for the community. Later, they perfected the technology of silk manufacturing, from worm to fabric, for which they received gold medals during exhibition competitions in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Frederick Rapp was recognized as the driving force behind the Harmony Society’s business ventures. His insights were valued to the extent that in 1828, Rapp, who corresponded with political leaders in Harrisburg and Washington D.C., was subpoenaed to testify before the United States Congress in support of a bill for higher tariffs on imported goods. However, his declining health prevented him from testifying in person.

The Society’s financial success and self-sufficiency stirred the interest of economists and social reformers in the United States and Europe. Among Economy’s many important visitors was prominent German economist Friedrich List, who visited Economy in 1825 and observed the community at work. The same year, British social reformer Frances Wright stayed for several days, seeking guidance from Frederick Rapp as she planned a community for freed slaves in Tennessee. German royals also visited, as did President Zachary Taylor while in office.

Despite the Society’s economic success, time and events brought about its decline. In 1832, one third of the members left Economy under the leadership of Count de Leon, a self-proclaimed prophet. Following the uprising and departure of these disgruntled members and the death of Frederick Rapp in 1834, the Society became less open to the outside world and less active in the political arena. After Father Rapp died in 1847, Romelius Baker (1793-1868), Jonathan Lenz (1807-1890), and Jacob Henrici (1804-1892) became trustees of the Society. The Harmonist leaders turned to new business ventures, investing the Society’s substantial assets into railroads, oil, coal, lumbering, and building the town of Beaver Falls and its industrial complex. Eventually their economic vitality, like their membership, waned.

The Society’s interest in accumulating wealth was not for greed or material gain. Funds were necessary to provide for the needs of the members and to pay workers hired to look after the orchards, fields and livestock, or to work in the laundry and bakery. The residents of the region relied on them to provide employment in the business and factories the Society underwrote. In addition, some charities and religious groups from across the nation and the world sought financial help from the Society.

In 1885, Lenz wrote that if the Messiah should not return before the last member died, the Society’s assets were to go to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and be used for charitable purposes or to pay the state’s sizeable debt. Less than ten years after the death of Henrici in 1892, the Society’s remaining assets, estimated to be worth several million dollars, were engulfed in legal battles. These battles were between non-member relatives of Society members who had already successfully argued in court that the Society was not a charity and, therefore the Commonwealth was not entitled to receive its assets. The court case was won by former Society schoolteacher and music instructor, John Duss (1860-1951). By the end of the nineteenth century only a few Harmonists remained. In 1905 the Society was dissolved, and its vast real estate holdings sold, much of it to the American Bridge Company who subsequently enlarged the town and renamed it Ambridge.

Ultimately, the remaining six acres of Economy and associated buildings became the property of Pennsylvania in 1916, and in 1919 became Old Economy Village, a state historic site. Today, these six acres, surrounded by Ambridge’s National Register Historic District, are administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission as a National Historic Landmark site. The historic site, which contains the restored historic structures and garden built between 1824 and 1830, originally was the religious and economic hub of the Harmony Society. The buildings, grounds, library, archives, and original artifacts are a memorial to the Society’s commitment to the religious discipline and economic industry that built their American Utopia.

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