History

Pilgrims were not the only settlers who came to America seeking religious freedom. One such group of pioneers came to Ohio and founded Zoar Village, one of the most notable experiments in communal living in our nation’s history.

A group of German Separatists left southeastern Germany to escape persecution for their religious beliefs. The Separatists thought that the church should be simple and bereft of all ceremony; they emphasized a mystical and direct relationship with God.

The group of 300 arrived in Philadelphia in August 1817 and was befriended by Quakers, who provided shelter and helped them find work. But it was the goal of the group and their leader, Joseph Baumeler (later Bimeler), to establish their own community in America.

They soon contracted to buy a 5500-acre tract of land along the Tuscarawas River, agreeing to pay the purchase price over a period of fifteen years. Small groups of Separatists began leaving for Ohio as soon as they could afford to move, and the first cabin in the new village was completed by December 1, 1817.


AN EXPERIMENT IN COMMUNAL LIVING

The settlers called their new community Zoar, meaning “a sanctuary from evil”. Named for Lot’s Biblical town of refuge, the village was to be their sanctuary from religious persecution. At first, however, life for the settlers was far from heavenly.

Food was scarce the first winter. Because some families had not yet cleared their land or bought tools, they had to work on neighboring farms to feed themselves. The next season, each Zoar family cultivated its own acreage, but yields were insufficient to feed themselves and pay the land debt. Thus, in 1819, the original plan of private land ownership and cultivation was scrapped and the commune was born.

Under the new system, Baumeler remained the community’s leader. All property and wealth were pooled and held by an organization known as the Society of Separatists of Zoar. Each member was to follow the decisions of the society’s trustees; in return they received food, clothing, and shelter. The new communal economy, the thrift of its members, and Baumeler’s business acumen enabled the society to pay its debts and build a surplus by 1834.

Zoar’s political organization was simple and democratic. Men and women had equal rights. The chief ruling body was the annually elected board of trustees. Most Zoarites had regularly assigned tasks to perform; those who did not, assembled daily to receive their assignments from the trustees.

The village grew. Crops flourished. Cattle and sheep farming prospered and new houses and shops were built. The Tuscarawas River powered a sawmill, a flour mill, planning mill, and woolen mill. Brick and rope making were developed as local industries.

By the mid-1830s, Zoar virtually was self-sustaining. The farms produced more food than was needed, and many products – such as flour, meat, hides, eggs, poultry, and butter – were sent to other towns for sale. The Tinshop and foundry manufactured a variety of goods for general sale. The Zoarites were contracted to build the portion of the Ohio and Erie Canal that crossed their land, which added to the society’s income. By 1852, the society’s assets were valued at more than $1million.

Skills in gardening gave Zoar one of its most interesting features: the magnificent community garden, laid out with geometric precision over an entire village square. The garden was planted to symbolize the New Jerusalem described in the twenty-first chapter of Revelation. A Norway spruce at he center of the garden symbolized eternal life; circling the spruce was an arbor vitae hedge, representing heaven. Twelve juniper trees, one for each of the apostles, formed a third concentric circle. A circular walk enclosed this area, with twelve radiating pathways symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel

AN EXPERIMENT DISSOLVED

The basic religious beliefs shown in the garden’s design bound the villagers together, as did Joseph Baumeler’s leadership. When Baumeler died in 1853, however, the society never fully recovered from the blow. Although the Zoarites lived and labored as a communal body, Baumeler had been the group’s spiritual leader and business administrator even before their arrival in America. His energy and foresight largely were responsible for Zoar’s success. After his death, the people’s initiative gradually declined.


The social and economic environment was changing as well, and this, too, and major impact on the community. The coming of the railroad in the 1880s brought more of the outside world to Zoar, and the rise of mass-production industries made Zoar’s smaller businesses obsolete. With easier access to the outside world, younger members drifted away to make their fortunes, and religious orthodoxy decreased.


In 1898, with a growing number of Zoarites expressing their desire to disband and divide any remaining assets, the society was dissolved. Common property was divided among members, with each receiving about fifty acres and $200.

AN EXPERIMENT REMEMBERED
Today, the village remains a quiet oasis away from the confusion of modern life. Many of the public buildings have been restored and, together with private homes and shops, reflect the inhabitants’ love of color and symmetry. Even now, Zoar retains the simplicity and charm with which it was endowed by its settlers.


The Ohio History Connection began acquiring and restoring some of the original town buildings in 1942. Since, then, the society has continued to reconstruct and restore parts of the village, reproducing parts of Zoar as it appeared the days of its greatest prosperity.

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