Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The Harmony Society was a religious communal group that immigrated to the United States in 1805 from Württemberg, Germany. Members established their first home just north of Pittsburgh in the small community of Harmony, Butler County, near Zelienople. After ten years the Harmonists moved to the Indiana Territory and established their second community which they also called Harmony, now known as New Harmony, on the Wabash River in the southern part of the state adjacent to Illinois. After ten more years they returned to the Pittsburgh area and established their third and final home which they named Oekonomie, or Economy, the present-day community of Ambridge, in Beaver County.

The founder and first leader of the Harmony Society, Johann Georg Rapp (1757-1847), was a charismatic dissident of the Lutheran Church who worked as a weaver and vinedresser. One of the main industries he chose for the Society was wine-making, but members also made beer, whiskey, brandy, cider, and Boneset cordial which they used for medicinal purposes. Usage of alcohol changed according to the customs of the areas in which the Harmonists lived. In Indiana they tended to drink beer and cider but kept wine for use as a medicine; the Harmonists in Economy enjoyed wine with important occasions or served it to distinguished guests. For the return trip from Indiana to Pennsylvania Society leaders had a steamship, the William Penn, built which they launched at Pittsburgh on November 27, 1824, christening it with Wabash wine that members had made and bottled.

After the first settlers arrived in America they found grapes growing in the wild, but wine made from them tasted nothing like what they were accustomed to in the old country. They had to either import wine or attempt to make good-tasting wine from native or imported grapes. The climate, soil, and seasons all differed from what they experienced in Württemberg. The Harmonists were among the first groups in the United States that endeavored to develop a genuine American wine.

Society members corresponded with American wine pioneers with whom they also bought and sold grapevine slips which are small shoots or twigs cut for growing or grafting new grapevines. One of these individuals was Nicholas Longworth (1783-1863) of Cincinnati, Ohio. A native of Newark, New Jersey, he moved to southern Ohio in 1820 where he developed the finest truly American wine. He contracted German laborers to grow grapes according to their customs and purchased the fruit of their lands. Longworth is known as the Father of American Winemaking because of his Harmony Society leader Johann Georg Rapp. success in cultivating and marketing Catawba wine. In the 1850s a journalist writing for the Illustrated London News claimed his sparkling Catawba “transcends the Champagnes of France.” The Harmonists also visited the Swiss who settled at Vevay, Indiana, in 1802 to cultivate grapes and make wine, to learn about their wines. (Vevay enjoys the distinction of being the home of the first commercial winery in the United States.) They also corresponded with John Francis Buchetti of Glasgow, Kentucky, about viniculture.

Almost as soon as the foundations of Harmony were set Society leaders petitioned President Thomas Jefferson on December 31, 1805, asserting their land was “too small, too broken and too cold for to raise vine.” They solicited the federal government to grant them thirty thousand acres of land. In less than a month, on January 29, 1806, the U.S. Senate passed a bill allowing Rapp and his adherents to purchase land in the Indiana Territory to promote the culture of the vine for the express purpose of making wine. The U.S. House of Representatives debated the bill, asking why land should be given away cheaply to foreigners when Americans could benefit from the opportunity. Representatives also contended wine was a luxury, not a necessity. The house bill was defeated on February 18, 1806.

In 1807 the Harmony Society laid four acres of vineyards, one of which was “situated on the face of a steep hill, on the north side of the creek, and converted into a number of terraces, supported by walls of stone, in the same manner that they cultivate the hills in China.” Business leader and Georg Rapp’s adopted son Frederick (Reichert) Rapp (1775-1834) wrote in October 1807 that the vines planted that spring were growing well, but that the Society could not obtain good vines in the region. They “gather[ed] the best out of the bushes.”

The Society imported Madeira but made what was called high wine which at the time was considered to be very good. The Harmonists sent six bottles of wine to Pennsylvania Governor Simon Snyder (1759-1819) in 1813 and everyone who drank it praised “the juice of Pennsylvania vines.” General Andrew Porter (1743-1813) remarked it resembled Old Hock (an English term for German wine, primarily Rhine). “No one doubts,” wrote Snyder to the senior Rapp, “that your wine after it has aged several years will justly be preferred to the imported wines.”

By 1814, the year it began relocating to the Indiana Territory, the Harmony Society was growing at least ten different types of grapes; members believed the Burgundy was the best. The Cape and Madeira grapes grew well but they weren’t suitable to their needs. Harmonist wine resembled Rhine wine the most. The Society determined growing grapes was not good in Harmony because the winters were long, the weather unpredictable, and the spring months too chilly.

The Harmony Society commenced moving to the Indiana Territory in autumn 1814 and by March of the following year had planted a new vineyard. There were three vineyards on two hills and one on a plain. Many visitors remarked about the commanding view of the community from the vineyard hills. On March 24, 1817, Frederick Rapp wrote to David Shields of Washington, Washington County, an agent and attorney for the Harmonists, with instructions for planting grapes. “They must be planted out in rows and 3 inches apart, in an oblique manner from 9 inches to a foot deep below sat in the ground, and above the upper most eye must be even with the earth. A mild with sand intermixed soil is the most suitablest….” During its Indiana decade the Society’s reputation as a successful vine grower blossomed and many individuals requested vines and slips.

The Harmonists grew vines they brought from Harmony, Pennsylvania, and from the Swiss at Vevay, Indiana, but they also made wine from the wild grapes that grew on an island in the Wabash River. Nevertheless, they still searched for the best grapes for making wine and believed that there was no other place than Germany to obtain them. In 1816, Frederick Rapp wrote to an acquaintance in Vaihingen, Württemberg, to request twenty-one different varieties of grapes. From 1821 to 1823 Harmonist members Romelius Langenbacher (who took the name R. L. Baker) and John Reichert traveled throughout Germany to collect inheritances due members. While there they acquired and shipped grapevines from the Neckar Valley and returned home with Rhine wine. Although they were received late for planting in Indiana, the vines from Germany were planted and growing by June 1823.

On February 8, 1820, Baker wrote to Henry Eddy, editor of the Illinois Gazette, describing the Society’s successes and failures with vine growing and how to make wine.

“The Climate &c of this Country is better suited to the Vine, than that of Harmonie in Pennsa., a still more Southern Latitude would be more congenial, provided the good soil is deep and strong to keep moist in long dry seasons, a loose thin sandy ground will not do, even with us here. The present extent of our Vineyard is about ten acres, and the greater part of the vines are too young to bear, and many were imported from Germany, France, Spain, Italie &c. whereof the proper mode of managing in this Climate and soil, has not been discovered yet, only two or three kinds have been productive with us, and bore abundantly this two years past, though being mixed with other vines on the same ground, we cannot give an accurate estimation of the production per Acre the time is too short for a certain Result, it requires four years from the planting of slips until they bear grape. The proper trimming and cultivating of vines is impossible to describe, the necessary method is different with most every kind of vine, soil and climate, and can only be discovered by a well experienced person, by making many and often fruitless experiments for several years, although the vines may grow well and bear some grape, yet never or seldom produce that abundant crop, which we have known in Germany, where the proper cultivation, soil, and climate has been found out to perfection for every kind of vine, there the production after a good season was from 30 to 36 Bbls. [barrels] of wine per acre.

“Here we cut our grapes as soon as they are full ripe some in the forepart of September. These are good to eat. Others we gather in October and make the best wine of them, then they are bruised and put in tubs, until the juice has settled to the bottom and the recrements to the top, which separation will take place in warm weather in two or three days, then the juice is tapd off, and the recrements pressed out, and put in Bbls not bungd up [tight] until the wine has undergone its fermentation, and then it is fit for use, but the older the better. Nothing requires more patience and longer perseverance, and if successful, nothing produces nor pays better for Labour than the cultivation of wine.”

The Harmonists encountered difficulties making wine from wild grapes. For example, in 1823, “Last night [George] Fleckhammer looked after the wine barrels, the ’22 wine is working and is so wild that we took out a pail full, now it is doing better,” Georg Rapp wrote to Robert Owen (1771-1858), a Scottish social reformer and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. After the sale of New Harmony to Owen a French vinedresser tasted wine left behind by the Harmonists and remarked that Rapp’s vintners did not understand the art of making wine, and that in time he would make much better wine. (The Harmonists had taken the best wine with them to their new home in Economy.)

One hurdle the Harmonists faced in Indiana was that ready markets were not available to sell the wine. They sent wine to different places to try and sell it, including Shawneetown, Illinois, where they had a store, New Orleans, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, among other places in the East. The lack of markets is one of the reasons they left New Harmony to return to Pennsylvania in 1824.

In Economy, George Rapp had a terraced grapevine hill in a garden behind his house which rose in a semicircle and ended in a bower. The hill was created in 1824 by mounding the dirt dug from the cellars of the store building and other structures. One could walk through arches of grapevines in Rapp’s garden and within a year, by November 1825, before his own house was completed, the vines had grown nine to ten feet high. Unlike the previous two settlements, it was decided to extend the growing season by employing the warmth of the buildings at Economy. A friend to the Society, Lutheran minister William A. Passavant (1821-1894), a native of Zelienople, observed in 1840 that grapevines had been trained on the sunny sides of most of Economy’s residences.

For at least a decade after moving to Economy, Wabash wine was served to visitors. Some liked it, others did not. The reviews were decidedly mixed.

In 1826 Prince Carl Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach (1792-1862) visited the wine cellar beneath George Rapp’s new house. “They let me taste a very dark and strong wine which was prepared from wild grapes which grow on the island in the Wabash,” he wrote. “For the first three years, they said, the wine could not be drunk because of its bitterness; since that time – and it had been in the barrel more than 8 years – it has so improved that it now reminded one of the old Hungarian wine.”

Lewis David Von Schweinitz (1780-1834), botanist, mycologist, and great-grandson of Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), founder and bishop of the Moravian settlement at Bethlehem, visited Economy on July 15, 1831, recalling that the elder Rapp “offered us several kinds of wine which he made here and on the Wabash, some of which were good but by no means comparable to the wine of our Bethlehem vineyards.”

Four months later, in early October, Hungarian writer Sandor Boloni Farkas (1795-1842), best known for Journey in North America, published in 1831, paid a visit to George Rapp at Economy. “Before the meal,” Farkas wrote, “the old man offered us some wines made by the Society, which came from their earlier settlement by the waters of the Wabash. American wine is similar to the strong Hungarian ones, but it is heavier, more oily, and harder to digest. Americans have not yet advanced far in viniculture, for, though, Economy and Italy share the same latitude, and the heat is sometimes as burning as in Italy, there are nevertheless several cold spells because of the many forests and great waters; the nights are cold, frosts and pests appear, and the grapes do not always develop well.” With a nod to promise, he added, “But America will win over nature after the clearing of the forests.”

After sampling the Harmonists’ Wabash wine in 1836 British geologist and geographer George W. Featherstonhaugh (1780-1866) wrote, “Such a murky and distressing cordial I certainly never tasted before; but as it had been so long in bottle, and I could not find it in my heart to act unkindly to anything belonging to my venerable host, I made a grand effort, and bolting it to the last drop, declared, with my teeth on edge, that I had drunk a great many delicious wines in various parts of the world, but that I had not supposed there was anything exactly like that in America. Touched with my eulogium, the old gentleman grasped the bottle, and said, ‘Mein lieber Kind, du wirst ein anderes Glas haben!‘ and instantly poured me out a second, which he insisted upon me swallowing.”

In 1836 the Indiana Farmer, published in Indianapolis, reported the Harmony Society had ten acres of vineyards, made forty barrels of wine each year, and produced 175 barrels of currant wine for domestic use as medicine. At that time the Harmonists cultivated Madeira, Burgundy, Cape, Isabella, Catawba Sweetwater, and Tokay grapes among others. Over time they added wines made from other fruits. During the second half of the nineteenth century, they made wine from Isabella, Catawba, Concord, and wild grapes, but also from cherry, currant, strawberry, crabapple, elder blossom, elderberry, and dandelion. A 1903 list of vintages bottled in the 1890s and early 1900s included Catawba, Concord, Miner’s Seedling, Delaware, Riesling, Raspberry, Currant, Elderberry, Blackberry, Strawberry, and Cherry. Extant wine labels also include Shaker and Delaware and Quince wines.

Following the Harmony Society dissolved in 1905, barrels of wine were left in the wine cellar located in the Mechanics Building. After Prohibition, it was discovered the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which acquired the six-acre complex in 1916, may have been one of the largest holders of illegal wine during the thirteen “dry” years promulgated by the National Prohibition Act (known informally as the Volstead Act) passed by Congress on October 28, 1919. Works Progress Administration workers dumped the wine out onto the floor of the cellar about 1940. However, it might have been at this time that twenty-six bottles were filled with 1873 vintage wine. This wine remains in the collections of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) which administers, in association with the Friends of Old Economy Village, the complex as one of two dozen historic sites and museums along the popular Pennsylvania Trails of History®.

John S. Duss, trustee of the Harmony Society from 1890 to 1903 and author of The Harmonists: A Personal History, published in 1943, recalled the early years of the transition of the Society’s property. “In 1919,” Duss wrote, “an Act was passed by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania and approved by Governor [William Cameron] Sproul designating the Economy property as a state memorial to be known as ‘Old Economy,’ and designating the preservation, restoration and maintenance of the property to the Pennsylvania Historical Commission.” The Pennsylvania Historical Commission was succeeded by the present-day PHMC in 1945.

Today at Old Economy Village visitors can stroll the grounds of the Harmony Society, see grapevines trailing on the buildings, walk down the long flight of steps to the wine cellar, located beneath the Mechanics Building, and see the many winemaking artifacts that still remain from the Harmony Society’s long era of viniculture. On the side of the Mechanics Building thrives a pink Catawba grapevine which is well more than one hundred years old, possibly dating to the 1870s. It is a rare living artifact of a time in the nation’s pioneering wine-making history.


For Further Reading

Arndt, Karl J. R. A Documentary History of the Indiana Decade of the Harmony Society, 1814-1824. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1975.

___. Economy on the Ohio, 1826-1834. Worcester, Mass.: Harmony Society Press, 1984.

___. George Rapp’s Harmony Society, 1785-1847. Cranbury, N.J. Associated University Presses, 1972.

___. George Rapp’s Years of Glory, 1834-1847. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1987.

___. Harmony on the Connoquenessing, 1803-1815: George Rapp’s First American Harmony. Worcester, Mass.: Harmony Society Press, 1980.

Bole, John Archibald. The Harmony Society: A Chapter in German American Culture History. Philadelphia: Americana Germanica Press, 1904.

Duss, John S. The Harmonists: A Personal History. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Book Service, 1943.

Knoedler, Christiana F. The Harmony Society: A 19th Century American Utopia. New York: Vantage Press, 1954.

Reibel, Daniel B. Old Economy Village: Pennsylvania Trail of History Guide. Harrisburg and Mechanicsburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and Stackpole Books, 2002.


Plan a Visit!

Although visitors to Old Economy Village cannot sample the Harmony Society’s vintage wines, they can tour the historic site’s impressive wine cellar, with its towering vaulted ceiling, beneath the Mechanics Building. The vault, one of three, was the main storage cellar used by the Society’s vintners. The cellar is approximately twenty feet deep and holds large casks, or double tuns, several of which have a capacity of twelve hundred gallons. These barrels were made by the village cooper. Even though alcoholic beverages – unlike the Society’s wool and silk – were not profitable for the Harmonists, they retailed surplus beer, hard cider, wine, and whiskey.

Old Economy Village contains a visitor center and sixteen historic buildings and structures constructed between 1824 and 1831, in addition to gardens. The buildings include the Feast Hall and Museum Building, Community Kitchen, Cabinet Shop, Granary, Store and Post Office, and the residences of George Rapp, R. L. Baker, Frederick Rapp, and Jonathan Lenz.

Old Economy Village is located at Fourteenth and Church Streets in Ambridge.

Sarah Buffington is curator of Old Economy Village.