For two decades I have resided in the Pittsburgh area and for two decades I have heard tales of the wonders of Old Economy Village but had never managed a trip to visit it in person. That all changed last Friday when we were invited to join friends who are PA Virtual families for a field trip to Old Economy Village. A good portion of our co-op attended and it was fun to catch up with friends. Thanks to a state grant received by the cyber school admission was free (an unexpected blessing!) which just added to the enjoyment of the day.
Upon arriving we had the opportunity to stroll around the Visitor Center and become better acquainted with the history behind this Beaver County gem. Here is an brief overview of the Harmonites who settled and developed this historic community we know as Old Economy Village.
“In 1804, the followers of the Separatist George Rapp (1757-1847) emigrated to America from Iptingen (near Stuttgart) in southwest Germany seeking religious and economic freedom. Nearly 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. There they founded “Oekonomie,” now better known as Old Economy Village. It was here that the Society gained worldwide recognition for its religious devotion and economic prosperity.
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 Millenium – Christ’s 1,000 year reign on Earth.
The Harmony Society successfully “placed the manufacturer beside the agriculturalist,” 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 be a national economy that would thrive in both agriculture and industry, independent of foreign influence.
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. 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. In 1847 Father Rapp died. Although the Harmonists leaders turned to new business ventures – railroads, oil production, and building Beaver Falls and its industrial complex – their economic vitality, like their membership, eventually waned.
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. Six acres of the Society’s original holdings, along with seventeen buildings, were acquired by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1916.
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 seventeen 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 16,000 original artifacts are a memorial to the Society’s commitment to the religious discipline and economic industry that built their American Utopia.”
Once all families had arrived we were led from the Visitor Center to the village, where we stepped back in time 150 years, by walking through the doors of the Feast Hall into historic Old Economy.
Old Economy Village is comprised of 17 historic buildings and various “stations” that function as a living history experience. We had the opportunity to split into self -guided groups and tour the village independently. Many of the buildings had volunteers in period dress demonstrating skills from that time period and sharing more about the history of the Harmonite people.
Other locations offered fun, interactive, hands-on activities common to that time period that the kids could participate in and experience first hand.
In my group I had my four kiddos (Grace was at work), as well as other friends from co-op. They enjoyed moving from station to station, learning about life in the early 19th century from the fascinating and engaging volunteers dressed for the part.
Here are some of the places we visited during our tour of Old Economy Village:
Feast Hall / Museum Building Built in 1827, the first floor showcased a Natural History Museum (now recreated) open to the Society for free and to the public for a ten cent admission fee. Harmonists gathered on special feast days for communal meals or for musical performances in the second floor Feast Hall.
Here the kids were able to experience school as a 19th century student, complete with a handwriting lesson using a quill and ink.
George Rapp Garden
Visitors to Economy described George Rapp’s garden as “neatly laid out in lawns, arbors, and flower beds.” The 1831 Pavilion once featured a wooden statue carved by American sculptor, William Rush. The current figure was made in the 1950s. Also built in 1831, the Grotto’s rough exterior belies its elegant neoclassical interior. Harmonists viewed this building as a metaphor for their Society – rough on the exterior but refined inside.
The gardens were our final stop for the day and everyone enjoyed strolling these beautiful grounds, inhaling the intoxicatingly sweet scents of the garden.
Baker House, Garden and Family Shed
Storekeeper R. L. Baker, his mother, and sister lived here. Following George Rapp’s death, Baker, Jonathan Lenz, and Jacob Henrici led the Society and maintained their business ventures. The Baker House is a typical Harmonist dwelling. Every household had its own garden, even though food was provided by the Society. The shed was vital to the household as a food storage area, tool and wood shed, chicken coop, cow stall, root cellar, and outhouse.
In this part of the settlement the kids got to walk through the herb garden and learn about its preservation, as well as try their hands out at egg gathering and cow milking.
Pumps were located on Economy’s streets in various locations. Water was distributed through wooden pipes from a spring on the hill east of town. This pump is a reproduction, plumbed to the city water supply. Visitors are invited to experience wash day at Old Economy.
The water pump was one of the biggest hits of the day. Everyone was impressed with the hand pump and had fun attempting water hauling and hand washing the laundry.
The woodworking tools that helped build and furnish Economy are exhibited in this original wood frame building.
The volunteer who was demonstrating his craftsmanship in the cabinet shop was a delight. He was a retired school teacher who loved sharing his knowledge with the kids and engaging them in what life would have been like for the settlement’s cabinet makers in 1830, including letting them see how cabinets were constructed and allowing them to try out some of the hand tools.
This structure was built in the early twentieth century as a garage for the site’s caretaker. It was later converted into a blacksmith and cooper shop for demonstrations. The original structures for those trades were located elsewhere in Economy, outside of the site’s present boundaries.
The two gentlemen who ran the blacksmith shop were equally engaging and we were all fascinated with their work as they created beautiful, decorative hooks as they spoke of their trade.
This is the original Harmonist Street, where visitors can roll hoops, walk on stilts, and play games of graces.
But the cobblestone street was the biggest hit of all. Home to the old fashioned games available for the kids to try out and play, this was the epicenter of activity for our group. I had a hard time pulling Tyler away once he discovered this stop on our tour of Old Economy.
It was an absolutely delightful day at Old Economy Village. It took me two decades to make it there but hopefully we will be returning in a more timely manner, with Toby and Grace in tow…
What a lovely day to visit such a lovely place!