Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
A view from the garden pavilion of the houses of Harmonist leaders George and Frederick Rapp, with the church tower looming in the back. Old Economy Village/Photo by Sarah Buffington

A view from the garden pavilion of the houses of Harmonist leaders George and Frederick Rapp, with the church tower looming in the back. Old Economy Village/Photo by Sarah Buffington

One hundred years ago, on February 3, 1916, the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas, in an escheat case, awarded the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 6 acres of land that had been part of the town of Economy. World War I was raging in Europe, and with the United States’ entrance in the war the following year, the state had little time or money to deal with a newly acquired historic site. In 1919 the commonwealth placed the property under the custody of its six-year-old Pennsylvania Historical Commission (PHC), now the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, whose duties at the time consisted primarily of the placement of historical markers. Now PHC possessed its first historic site, Old Economy, which would officially open its doors to the public in 1921.

 

The Foundations of the Harmony Society

Old Economy Village was the home of the Harmony Society, a religious community from the Germanic state of Württemberg. It was there in the 1780s that a young man, Johann Georg Rapp (1757-1847), read the Bible and became disenchanted with the state Lutheran church. He soon began holding religious meetings, gathering a large pietistic following by the end of the decade.

Johann Georg Rapp was the founder of the Harmony Society in 1805 and served as its leader until his death in 1847. Old Economy Village

Johann Georg Rapp was the founder of the Harmony Society in 1805 and served as its leader until his death in 1847.
Old Economy Village

Suffering persecution in their homeland, Rapp and his followers decided to move to America, where they could freely practice their own religion. The group, which may have grown to more than 10,000, began to break apart as they struggled to move away from Württemberg. Starting in 1803 about 800 to 900 people made the trek across the ocean.

The group built a town in Butler County, Pennsylvania, in 1804 and named it Harmony. The Harmony Society was officially founded there the following year and was established as an entrepreneurial community. Members worked for the society and surrendered their property to it by signing a covenant. In turn, all of their basic needs – food, shelter, clothing and medical care – as well as education and religious instruction, would be met.

The Harmonists believed that Jesus Christ would return to earth in their lifetime. They were the chosen people who would survive the wrath before the Millennium, rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem, and live and reign with Christ for 1,000 years. They sought to live according to principles they believed would prepare them for this time, which by 1807 included celibacy.

In 1814, needing better access to trade routes for their industrial endeavors, the Harmony Society moved to Indiana territory and founded New Harmony. In this new place they faced many hardships, leading them a decade later to return to Pennsylvania, where they established their third and final home, Economy.

Rapp considered his community to represent the Sun Woman in the Wilderness, described in the Book of Revelation, wandering until the time passed when Christ returned. He prophesied the Second Coming of Christ several times, including September 1829, after which he coincidentally received a letter from the secretary of Bernhard Müller (1788-1834), a self-proclaimed Messiah who called himself “Count de Leon.” Müller apparently managed to temporarily convince Rapp that he was the incarnation of Christ, and in 1831 he arrived at Economy. This was short-lived, but when Count de Leon left the following year, approximately a third of the Harmony Society resigned to follow him.

 

Harmonist Capitalism

The Harmonists began life in America as an agricultural-based community, growing grapes, grains, corn and potatoes. Within five years, they industrialized by establishing textile and grist mills and selling to the outside world. They also produced wine, beer and whiskey for sale. The society continued a symbiotic agricultural-industrial enterprise until members grew too old to work, at which time the society turned to investing.

A small group of tailors and seamstresses made the Harmonists’ clothing, so it tended to look similar. Styles stagnated in the early 19th century. Women’s clothing was modest and not revealing. This particular dress survives in the collection of Old Economy Village. Old Economy Village

A small group of tailors and seamstresses made the Harmonists’ clothing, so it tended to look similar. Styles stagnated in the early 19th century. Women’s clothing was modest and not revealing. This particular dress survives in the collection of Old Economy Village.
Old Economy Village

Living communally, the Harmony Society accrued a great deal of wealth in a short amount of time and was able to loan money to people and businesses in need. As some of these entities defaulted on the loans, the society took over the properties, often retaining the borrowers as managers. Eventually, the Harmony Society acquired investments in railroads, coal, oil, lumber, banking, pottery, cutlery, bridge building and the town of Beaver Falls.

Jacob Henrici (1804-92) served as head trustee from 1868 until 1892, presiding over a period of great economic growth and investment. Henrici, however, often operated the companies at a deficit so that people could keep their jobs. As the celibate Harmonists continued to age, more outside employees were needed to work in the fields and industries at Economy.

 

Financial Wrangling

The Harmony Society dwindled rapidly in later years. When John Duss (1860-1951) became a junior trustee in 1890, half a year after joining the Harmonists, he began to look into the society’s finances and found them in disarray. In 1892 a thorough accounting of all of the holdings indicated there was no hard cash to back anything up. Shortly after Henrici’s death on Christmas 1892 Duss, now head trustee, and his counsel began to quietly sell off the society’s assets.

Before long a group of nine Harmonists brought legal action against Duss claiming he was in error and did not have the authority to sell off Harmonist assets. Descendants of Harmonists who had died also came forward saying that they were owed their part of the fortune. Others preyed upon the society by joining for a year so that they could leave with a percentage of the wealth.

Meanwhile, Duss pursued his ambition to be a great conductor, traveling in the 1890s with his “Harmonist” band of hired musicians. In summer 1902 he rented the Metropolitan Opera House orchestra and hired two famous opera singers, performing every day. Afterwards he decided to take the show on the road.

By April 1903 there were eight Harmonists remaining. Three of the youngest, aged 50 to 62, conveniently decided to leave at the same time for $75,000 each. Now only John Duss, his wife Susie (1859-1946) and three elderly members were still Harmonists. All they had to do was wait, and they would become the holders of a great deal of wealth.

In May 1903 John Duss resigned from the Harmony Society, taking with him $500,000 severance pay that he could use to compensate his musicians. He performed the 1903 season with the orchestra in New York City’s Madison Square Garden, introducing water to the building to recreate Venice, complete with gondolas and bridges.

 

Economy reached its economic zenith during Jacob Henrici’s tenure as senior trustee, but the celibate Harmonists were dying off. This view was shot around the time of Henrici’s death in 1892. Old Economy Village

Economy reached its economic zenith during Jacob Henrici’s tenure as senior trustee, but the celibate Harmonists were dying off. This view was shot around the time of Henrici’s death in 1892. Old Economy Village

Susie Duss was now the head trustee, so her husband still had some control of the Harmony Society. By the time the society quietly closed on December 13, 1905, with only Susie Duss and Franz Gillman (1828-1921) still remaining, much of the Harmonist lands and interests had already been sold.

 

The Final Reckoning

It took almost a year before two locals informed the auditor general of the Harmony Society’s closure. Thus began an escheat move for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to gain control of the Harmonist property. After many delays, the question was finally asked in 1910 in a court of law whether the Harmony Society was a religious organization. If it was, all property should then belong to Pennsylvania.

Papers were served on the Dusses and Franz Gillman. Their lawyer, D. T. Watson (1844-1916), knew that the Harmony Society was religious and charitable; however, there were other issues at hand. First, the Harmony Society’s articles of agreement stated that the members would live with all things in common. It never stated that it was a religious organization. In a court of law, the actual language of a legal document was critical.

 

The Harmonists operated several industrial enterprises, such as this lumber works, photographed around 1890. Old Economy Village

The Harmonists operated several industrial enterprises, such as this lumber works, photographed around 1890. Old Economy Village

Second, the society had a right to own property without limitations, even as a religious organization. The selling of property beginning in 1893, no matter how large, was legal. When the society closed, most of the former Harmonist land was already in the hands of others. The state could not take the land away without compensation.

Finally, the Dusses lived in Florida when the court case started. They believed that a Pennsylvania court had no jurisdiction over them; however, the property was in Pennsylvania and could be seized by authorities.

Ultimately, in a joint resolution of the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1915, it was decided that the state would compromise for the two main blocks of land in the town of Economy and $15,000 to cover legal expenses. In February 1916 the verdict in the Beaver County Court of Common Pleas awarded this to the state and proclaimed that the Harmony Society was never a religious organization. This declaration is still on the books.

 

The Beginnings of the Museum and Restoration

The Harmony Society Historical Association (HSHA) was founded in 1917 to open the site for historic tours. By an Act of the General Assembly, PHC entered into a contract for preserving and maintaining Old Economy, supported by HSHA in 1919. The site formally opened to the public on May 26, 1921, with about 5,000 people in attendance.

Restoration of the George Rapp House in 1957. Old Economy Village

Restoration of the George Rapp House in 1957. Old Economy Village

The grounds of Old Economy included 16 buildings that remain today. The Great House, now known as the George and Frederick Rapp Houses, was the home of the society leaders and their families. The adjacent Feast Hall hosted the Harmony Society’s four to six annual feasts and was the site of an art and natural history museum. The Mechanics Building was at various times a shop for tailoring, shoemaking and possibly printing. The Store held a post office, doctor’s office and wares for sale to the public or free to the Harmonists as part of their covenant. Two private family dwellings remained: the family houses of R.L. Baker (1793-1868), store manager and head trustee from 1847 until 1868, and Jonathan Lenz (1807-90), wagon maker and junior trustee. Also extant were the Warehouse, the Summer Kitchen, the Community Kitchen, the Cabinet Shop, the Carriage House and John Duss’s garage (now interpreted as blacksmith and cooper shops), as well as two garden structures, the Grotto and the Pavilion. A few other buildings on the property were torn down or moved early in the 20th century.

Restoration of the buildings and grounds at the historic site began with fits and starts. Money was not allocated right away by the state for preservation. It was up to the local citizens and HSHA to find the funds for preservation. One of the earliest efforts, beginning in 1921, was the restoration of the George Rapp Garden by the Garden Club of Allegheny County.

By 1936 the state finally appropriated $10,000 for maintenance or restoration. In that same year architect Charles Morse Stotz (1899-1985) featured the buildings of Old Economy in his book, The Early Architecture of Western Pennsylvania. Subsequently in 1937 he and his engineer brother, Edward Stotz Jr. (1896-1964), were appointed for the restoration of Old Economy. The project lasted 28 years.

Harmonist books, records, furniture and equipment that had been held by the Dusses were conveyed to the state in 1937. The Works Progress Administration’s Museum Extension Project oversaw artifact cataloging and archival arrangement from 1939 until 1941. Restoration work was slow during World War II because most of the PHC administrators were involved in the war effort. In 1943, however, the garden pavilion was torn down and recreated, because the original stone was spalling too badly and was in danger of collapsing.

The successful play, Man’s Reach, performed at the site, helped raise funds for restoration efforts.. Old Economy Village

The successful play, Man’s Reach, performed at the site, helped raise funds for restoration efforts. Old Economy Village

In 1956 the Harmonie Associates (now Friends of Old Economy Village) was established to support the historic site, replacing HSHA, which had become defunct prior to the war. Its first mission was to raise money to help with the restoration. To do this, they hosted a play by Gladys L’Ashley Hoover called Man’s Reach, which was a performance that moved from place to place on the historic site. The play was a dramatic presentation of the history of the Harmony Society from its beginning until the schism of 1832. The narrator’s closing remarks put it in a modern context: “The story of the Harmonists is the story of all Mankind – Man’s ceaseless search for understanding of himself in relation to the Infinite. . . . It is our search today.” Presented from 1956 until 1961, the play was very well received and won an American Association for State and Local History Award of Merit.

Several buildings had been closed during the last three years of the ongoing restoration; they officially reopened to the public in 1965. That same year, the historic town that includes Old Economy became a National Historic Landmark. In 1985 it became a part of the Economy Historic District, listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

 

Programming and Research in the Modern Era

Beginning in 1965, under the leadership of site director Daniel B Reibel (1929-2012), Old Economy moved forward in many ways. Most of the collection of 16,000 artifacts was cataloged using a new methodology of numbering. More historic buildings were restored and opened for visitation. Also for the public, several annual events were initiated, including Erntefest (now Autumnfest), a harvest festival in September, and 19th-Century Christmas (now Christmas at the Village) in December.

National Geographic, in its February 1972 issue, featured an education insert that highlighted Old Economy’s live-in program for schoolchildren, bringing national attention to the site. In this program, children stayed overnight in the Harmonist buildings, prepared food in historic ways, performed 19th-century chores, made old-time crafts, and came together to feast on the food and share their new knowledge with other participants. The Teenage Docent Program was another innovative experience for youth, in which participants learned about guiding tours and helping to maintain the historic site. This program morphed into the Young Harmonist Program that continues today.

Groundbreaking research on Harmonist music has been conducted at Old Economy. Here Harmoniechor performs in 1971. Old Economy Village

Groundbreaking research on Harmonist music has been conducted at Old Economy. Here Harmoniechor performs in 1971. Old Economy Village

Leading scholars have conducted research in the archives at Old Economy through the years, publishing definitive books on the Harmonists and their culture. Karl J.R. Arndt (1903-91), professor at Louisiana State University, began researching the Harmony Society in 1940, when he first visited old Germantown, Louisiana, where log buildings had been long abandoned. Inside the ruins he found old papers and books from Johann Georg Goentgen (1791-1858), secretary to Count de Leon. Arndt’s research brought him to Old Economy, where he found the resources to begin his career-long writing project to record the history of the Harmony Society in 10 books and countless articles. The interpretation of the historic site is largely based upon his research.

Richard Wetzel wrote his dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh about the music of the Harmony Society. This work was later published in 1976 as Frontier Musicians on the Connoquenessing, Wabash, and Ohio (Ohio University Press). During his time at Old Economy, he developed a program to recreate the Harmony Society’s music. In 1974 a grant was received from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts to present Lobgesang (Song of Praise) in concert at Old Economy, performed by the Harmoniechor and the Duquesne University Orchestra. Performances of original Harmonist music were recorded in 1969, 1982 and 1984 and released on vinyl in two volumes entitled American Communal Music of the 18th and 19th Centuries. Harmonist music continues to be an important part of the interpretation at Old Economy Village.

Organized by the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, Raising Our Sites was a program sponsored by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities from 1993 to 1996. It allowed Old Economy Village to research the role of Harmonist women through the translation of documents written in old German script. One result was the 1998 publication of German recipes from the archives in Hilda Kring and Lieselotte Keene’s From the Harmonist “Küche” (Harmonie Associates).

Frederick (Reichert) Rapp was the adopted son of George Rapp and one of the society’s leaders. His bedroom was restored in 2014. Economy Village/Photo by Patrick Griffin

Frederick (Reichert) Rapp was the adopted son of George Rapp and one of the society’s leaders. His bedroom was restored in 2014. Old Economy Village/Photo by Patrick Griffin

Other areas of Harmonist culture have been researched at the site in recent years. In 2007 Alice T. Ott wrote her dissertation about the religion of the Harmony Society, a very complex subject not easily explained. Her work was published in 2014 as The Sunwoman in the Wilderness: The Religious Beliefs and Practices of George Rapp’s Harmony Society (Emeth Press). In 2010 Philip Zimmerman published the history of Harmonist furniture, Harmony in Wood: Furniture of the Harmony Society (Friends of Old Economy Village). In 2011 Eileen Aiken English published Demographic Directory of the Harmony Society (Richard W. Couper Press), listing the biographical data of all 1,745 known Harmonists.

Several projects have been implemented at the historic site to aid in the interpretation of the Harmony Society. The Harmonists had operated a public natural history museum between 1827 and 1850. Beginning in 1995 site director Raymond Shepherd researched the museum and had it recreated in its original location in the Feast Hall, with the exhibit opening in 2002. The next year a new visitor center was completed to better welcome the public, relate parts of the Harmonist story not easily relayed at the historic site, and house artifacts in a climate-controlled atmosphere. In 2007 the Kinderhaus, a Harmonist house with three-quarter-scale reproductions of furnishings, was opened to provide children with a hands-on experience at the site.

Many archeological digs were conducted at Old Economy throughout the 20th century, mainly to determine the 19th-century interpretation of George Rapp’s garden and outbuildings. The garden had been restored between 1961 and 1964 by landscape architect Ralph Griswold (1894-1981). Recent research into historic documents revealed the types of plants that were grown and the arrangement of the garden, leading to further excavations in 2007 in preparation for a future garden restoration.

The recently restored parlor was George Rapp’s drawing room. The painting, Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple, based on Benjamin West’s masterpiece, reportedly has been in this room as far back as 1829. Old Economy Village/Photo by Sarah Buffington

The recently restored parlor was George Rapp’s drawing room. The painting, Christ Healing the Sick in the Temple, based on Benjamin West’s masterpiece, reportedly has been in this room as far back as 1829. Old Economy Village/Photo by Sarah Buffington

By the late 1980s the buildings were showing the need for additional restoration. To prepare for this, 10 volumes of historic structures reports for all of the buildings were written in 1990 by Marianna Thomas Architects and the Clio Group. Much had been learned since the initial restoration, especially the need to interpret the buildings in the context of their German roots rather than from the Anglo-American perspective that prevailed in the first half of the 20th century. The largest restoration project this time was in the George and Frederick Rapp Houses. Following two decades of research, the houses were closed for two years of interior restoration. They finally reopened in November 2014.

This year marks the centennial of Old Economy Village as a state historic site. The occasion will be celebrated with an exhibit about the past century and special programming throughout the year. After a century, the site continues to offer a rare glimpse, with ever-increasing insight, at the world of a unique communal society that remains for Pennsylvania a representative of its heritage of religious diversity and entrepreneurial spirit.

 

For more information on tours, events and programs at Old Economy Village, call 724-266-4500 or visit the Old Economy Village website.

 

Sarah Buffington has been curator at Old Economy Village in Ambridge, Beaver County, since 2002. Her article “A Century of Wine: Viniculture of the Harmony Society” appeared in the Summer 2012 edition of Pennsylvania Heritage.