Lined up in a row, on top of a counter, are neat piles of coffee, sugar, flour and grain. Each pile contains enough food for every member of each family unit. At the end of the day, one member of each family would gather at the Assembly House and be awarded food for their family’s labors. Those ages 3-14 would spend the day in the community’s school. Everyone else was expected to meet once a week and find out what the family job would be; jobs were anything from threshing the wheat to baking the bread. These jobs were for the benefit of the entire society. No one was a lone island; everyone worked together, played together, lived together, ate together and worshipped together. They were part of one of the most successful communal settlements in American history. They were the Society of the Separatists of Zoar, aka “Zoarites”.
Please note that this is not my typical post. This is an excerpt from a very detailed report on Zoar Village I wrote for a course in graduate school. I normally don’t go into so much detail on this platform, but I thought for anyone who finds the idea of a communal settlement interesting, you will enjoy this. (I even included a list of cited sources for all you nerds out there!) I also think after you read this, you’ll definitely be planning a trip to Zoar Village.
Founding and History of Zoar Village
In 1817, a group of 200 Separatists from Wurttemberg, Germany founded the town of Zoar in an effort to escape religious persecution in their homeland. They, who later became known as the Society of Separatists of Zoar (aka “Zoarites”), arrived in this small, rural northeastern Ohio area with a desire to purchase land and live out their Pietist beliefs. The Pietism movement demanded a purer, moral life, and did not believe in many of the state church’s Lutheran beliefs. For example, Zoarites were punished for not sending their children to the Lutheran-run schools and believed many of new hymns were too worldly. Their desire was to worship God by their own definition, without persecution. Early founders chose to name the town Zoar, as Zoar was the name of Lot’s biblical refuge (Genesis 11).
Due to economic hardship, the Zoarites believed that communal living was their best chance at survival. Their leader, Joseph Bimeler, 53 men and 104 women signed the Articles of Association, essentially renouncing all their rights to property ownership and agreed to live by the regulations of the society. The society believed that signing this document was in support of their Christian faith, which was to live out the concept of Christian love and support of the common interest. Some of their beliefs included gender-equality, pacifism and anti-slavery sentiments. These were common beliefs as part of utopian groups. In 1822, the society adopted a policy of celibacy out of economic necessity. In order to pay off their debt of the land, they needed all able hands, so caring for infants and children would limit the number of women who could work. Even though policy was lifted in 1830, but it seemed Zoarites didn’t mind this rule as they believed marital relations to be a “necessary evil.”
“Principles of the Separatists” on display in Zoar Village
Example of one of the shared bedrooms
The village had the following buildings: a church, a bakery, a tin shop, a blacksmith shop, a store furniture shop, weaving houses, sewing houses, a pottery, multiple mills, a brewery, a large garden, a green house and residences.
The Greenhouse adjacent to the garden. This was primarily used as a haven for relaxation after a busy working day.
One of the village’s homes
In 1832, the State of Ohio allowed the Zoarites to conduct business, pass laws and own common property. They then adopted a constitution with 1824 articles. The constitution outlined their democratic process for elections, membership rules and membership categories. An example of one of these Articles was that if someone wanted to join Zoar, they participate in a one-year probationary period. If voted in, they were allowed to join.
In another effect to pay off their debts, the Zoarites spent a large part of the 1820s helping to dig seven miles of the Erie Canal. The village received many visitors, due to its proximity to the canal. Some of the visitors were simply there because of curiosity.
“Public curiosity always has demanded news about communitarian groups and the movements that spawn them. Their unorthodox beliefs and practices, isolated and sometimes mysterious or threatening character, potential solutions to societal and metaphysical problems, and the secrets of their economic strengths and weaknesses perpetually attract attention.” (Powers and Andrus, 2013). In 1833, the Zoar Hotel was erected in order to accommodate these canal travelers. A huge expansion project was completed in 1892 that doubled its size with a Queen Anne addition. In 1882, a railroad station opened up in Zoar, making it even easier to visitors to come.
The community prospered for many years in agricultural and industry. Bimeler reinvested many of the community’s profits in society enterprises, and by 1853, the society’s holdings were valued at more than a million dollars. After he died, the practice of reinvesting the profits was not continued. Economic decline and internal dissention lead to their disbandment in 1898.
The Ohio Historical Society (today known as the Ohio History Connection) acquired many of the properties and restored them in order to preserve the nucleolus of the village.
Significance of Zoar Village
“The Period of Significance extends from 1817 to 1898. The Zoar Historic District is an intact example of an early 1800s utopian community. Its architecture and well-documented history reflect the village’s important contributions to the understanding of communal societies of 19th century America. The exceptional integrity of the architecture and setting of the village serves as an intact physical legacy of the Zoar community.” (Powers & Andrus, 2013)
Utopians believed life was better and more economically stable within their groups than in the main society of the country. It is estimated that there were 270 utopian communities in the United States between 1787 and 1919, including some well-known groups such as the Shakers and Mormons. Not many have survived as long as the Zoarites with as much success as they saw.
The village is significant for two main reasons: its themes of 19th century social history and utopian movements, and its Germanic architectural heritage. Because the Zoarites were from Germany, the properties constructed to be part of the village have uniquely German (and European) details. For example, flat clay roofing tile, known as “beaver-tail” was commonly used in Southern Germany. This tile was manufactured between 1820s and 1840s and was used on several of the buildings in the village. Another example of German influence was how they stored their food. They constructed vaulted stone cellars under many buildings, and construction techniques like this were found in Rottenacker and Wurttemberg, Germany, where many of the original Zoarites lived.
Example of one home in Zoar
Themes of 19th century social history and utopian movements are one of the main reasons this village is significant. For example, the United States (and specifically Ohio) provided this community with freedom of religion. They were able to live out their unique traditions and religious beliefs in Ohio, without persecution from the German Lutherans of their homeland. This pattern of seeking religious freedom is a pattern you see throughout American history. At a time when women were beginning to band together for the cause of suffrage, this society’s view towards gender quality and the role of women was unique. The society treated women as equals. In fact, some outsiders would criticize the women of Zoar for having “stout arms.” Women were expected to do the same work as men, so their “strong arms” came from threshing the wheat.
The Village Today
“While Zoar has some historic sites with interpretive components, they are limited, and the community does not feel like a museum, but rather a functioning rural village that is primarily residential in character.” (Powers & Andrus, 2013).
The village of Zoar has retained much of its original historic structures and buildings, as well as the famous Zoar Garden. The village of Zoar historic buildings are part of a site maintained by the Zoar Community Association in partnership with the Ohio History Connection. Admission to walk through the buildings part of the living-museum cost $8. However, there are still 75 families who live in some of the homes around the main part of the village. These homes were built between 1817 and present-day.
Unfortunately, the town was threatened with extinction in the early 2000s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discovered the persistent flooding problems were due to a deteriorating levee. The levee was constructed in 1930s and the engineers recommended allowing the Levee to fail and flood the village. In 2012, the village was placed on an annual list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
The Zoar Community Association began a campaign to “Save Historic Zoar” which was successful. Now, they run under the campaign, “Preserve Historic Zoar.” Recently, Zoar Village has received recognition in many ways. In 2016, the village was named a National Historic Landmark, which makes it one of 73 in Ohio. In May, Zoar made the list of best small towns to visit in 2017 by Smithsonian Magazine. Zoar was also featured in issues of Early American Life and Timeline Magazine.
In October, the village will debut Heimafest, a festival which celebrates Zoar’s heritage. The festival will include speakers, a historic photo collection, German music, a performance by Tuscarawas Philharmonic and the debut of a one-woman play by a Zoar descendant.
Map of Zoar Village given to visitors
Zoar Village has erected four Ohio Historic Markers. According the Ohio History Connection, there are over 1,500 unique markers throughout Ohio that “tell the state’s history as written by its communities” (Ohiohistory.org). These historic markers represent important people, places and events that shaped the state of Ohio’s history. The markers in Zoar not only tell the stories that have shaped their small community, but how it has impacted Ohio and in turn, the rest of the United States.
Zoar Village has four Ohio Historic Markers outside the following buildings/area: Garden, Cemetery, Town Hall and Meeting House. Each one is unique and tells important details about the Village.
Baker, J. (2017, May 20). Zoar celebrates National Historic Landmark designation at Maifest. Times Reporter. Retrieved from http://www.timesreporter.com/news/20170520/zoar-celebrates-national-historic-landmark-designation-at-maifest
Baker, J. (2017, May 6). Zoar makes Smithsonian list of best small towns to visit in 2017. The Repository . Retrieved July 25, 2017, from http://www.cantonrep.com/news/20170506/zoar-makes-smithsonian-list-of-best-small-towns-to-visit-in-2017
Glaser, S. (2017, May 13). Historic Zoar, Ohio’s one-time communist village, thrives in bicentennial year. The Plain Dealer. Retrieved July 25, 2017, from http://www.cleveland.com/travel/index.ssf/2017/05/historic_zoar_ohios_one-time_c.html
Historic Zoar Village. (n.d.). Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved July 25, 2017, from Historic Zoar Village
Historic Zoar Village. (2017, February 1). Historic Zoar Village featured in magazines. Times Reporter. Retrieved July 25, 2017, from http://www.timesreporter.com/news/20170201/historic-zoar-village-featured-in-magazines
Mansky, J., Johnson, L., & Sparks, J. (2017, May 2). The 20 Best Small Towns to Visit in 2017. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/20-best-small-towns-visit-2017-180962925/
Powers, B., & Andrus, P. (2013). National Register of Historic Places Registration Form – Zoar Village: Zoar State Memorial (pp. 4-41) (United States, United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service).
Rosenberg, G. (n.d.). Historic Zoar Village. Retrieved July 25, 2017, from http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/historic-zoar-village
Stephens, S. (2017, May 28). Ticket to Write: Zoar Village an ex-‘utopia’ with charm. Columbus Dispatch. Retrieved from http://www.dispatch.com/entertainmentlife/20170528/ticket-to-write-zoar-village-ex-utopia-with-charm