Pittsburgh's Old Economy Village

By Frances J. Folsom

Located a few miles north of Pittsburgh on the shores of the Ohio River is the small steel mill town of Ambridge, home to Old Economy Village, a National Historic Landmark.

Founded in 1824 by the leader of the Harmony Society, Father Georg Rapp, Old Economy was a prosperous village inhabited by members of the Harmony Society until 1906. In 1804 Father Johann Georg Rapp (1757 – 1847) and his adopted son Frederick along with eight hundred of their followers consisting of physicians, teachers, farmers and craftsmen immigrated to America from Iptingen near Stuttgart in Southwest Germany.

They came to America seeking relief from the religious persecution they had been subjected to in Germany. Father Rapp and his Harmony Society sought economic freedom, the opportunity to own land, and to establish businesses. Father Rapp formed the foundation for the Harmony Society in 1785 in Iptingen. The Society, or Harmonites as they were known, believed that Christ would come to earth again in their lifetime. And that Christ’s second coming would bring a thousand years of world peace.

To cleanse themselves while waiting for his return, the Harmonites abstained from using

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alcohol and tobacco. Like the Shaker Community the society’s members practiced celibacy living as brothers and sisters in communal houses.

Old Economy Village was the last of three towns that Father Rapp and his society members founded. The first was in 1804 on their arrival in America. They settled in Butler County and named the town Harmony. In 1814 wanting more land the society moved to Indiana where they put down roots along the Wabash River. There they started a second town also called Harmony (now New Harmony).

Ten years later, wanting to return to Pennsylvania to buy more land, the Harmonites sold the town. It was bought by two wealthy businessmen, William Maclure and Robert Owen, who established a utopian community where education and social equality would prevail.

Maclure and Owen brought in world-renowned naturalists, scientists and geologists such as Thomas Say, Charles-Alexander Lesueur and educator Joseph Neef an advocate of the Pestalozzian method of teaching. To preserve the town’s utopian legacy the grass roots organization, Historic New Harmony partnered with the University of Southern Indiana and the Indiana State Museum in prompting cultural and educational programs regarding New Harmony’s history. All this came from the humble beginnings of the Harmony Society and the dream of two entrepreneurs; William Maclure and Robert Owen.

Returning to Pennsylvania in 1824 Father Rapp and the society purchased four hundred acres of land in Beaver County. They named their new village Oekonomie for Old Economy. Through the years their land holdings flourished to 2,000 acres – 1,500 of which were orchards.

In 1826, Father Rapp built a stunning Federal Georgian-style home for himself and his adopted son and daughter, Frederick and Gertrude. Inside are several pieces of handmade Harmony Society style furniture which is similar to Shaker furniture in its beauty simplicity. Under the house is a cave where the Rapps and the Harmonites are said to have hidden $1 million dollars.

Lining the streets are shop buildings that housed blacksmiths, milliners, weavers, carpenters, furniture makers, tanneries; a steam operated communal laundry and a general store.

Gertrude Rapp organized several women Harmonites in perfecting something almost unheard of in America at that time; silk manufacturing. They did this by growing beds of silk worms and spinning their threads into silk. Another business the women had was Redware Pottery, now a collector’s dream as it is no longer made.

On the banks of the river the Harmonites built textile factories where they manufactured thousands of bales of wool and cotton. These along with boxes of handspun silk and Redware Pottery were loaded onto steamships and shipped down the Ohio River to cities as far away as Boston, New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans.

Inside the cavernous feast hall is the Museum of Natural History with exquisite wildlife exhibits. The mechanics building, community kitchen, cabinet shop, store and post office each display tools and goods that would have been used in the daily lives of society members.

News of Father Rapp’s religious preaching, his leadership of the Harmony Society and their founding of Oekonomie spread across America and Europe. Famous people such as Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor and the Marquis de Lafayette came to meet him and to see for themselves the workings of this communal society.

Today only six of the society’s original 2,000 acres remain. By 1906 their numbers had dwindled due to members leaving and the vow of celibacy, which, like the Shaker Community, was a major reason for the demise of the Harmony Society.

Walking the narrow streets of Old Economy Village, stepping inside any of the seventeen remaining historic buildings and having costumed docents create living history is like stepping back in time to 1824.

For further information:

Old Economy Village www.oldeconomyvillage.org

Visit Pittsburgh www.visitpittsburgh.com

 

 

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