Germans Write History in Pennsylvania
New World Utopia: Old Economy Village, Pennsylvania
History comes alive in Old Economy Village
(© Old Economy Village)
The 19th century was awash with groups creating new visions of community, but few were as well-rounded and successful in the New World as the Old Economy Village, founded by followers of German Christian separatist Georg Rapp. In 1804, the members of the Harmony Society followed him from the town of Iptingen, near Stuttgart, to Pennsylvania, eventually settling a town they called Harmony.
The community they built on the banks of the Ohio River just north of Pittsburgh became known the world round for its rare combination of strict religious devotion and widespread economic prosperity. Basing their lifestyle on the early teachings of the Christian Church, members of the community worked together for the common good and lived simply and comfortably as they waited for Christ’s Second Coming.
Beyond their pietistic way of life, they embraced what would become known as the German work ethic, successfully developing a society based on both agriculture and manufacturing. President Thomas Jefferson himself modeled his ideal plan for America’s economic and political independence from abroad on what he saw happening at Old Economy Village. The Harmonists were equally skilled at adapting and adopting 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.
Although the commune foundered by the turn of the 20th century – many of the Harmonists had devoted themselves to celibacy – Old Economy Village became a historical landmark site that still welcomes thousands each year.
Old Economy Village
Dutch Country, Pennsylvania
The "Dutch" in Pennsylvania Dutch refers not to the people of the Netherlands, but to the German-speaking ("deutsch") religious sects that first settled in the area nearly three hundred years ago. Today, three groups, the Amish, the Mennonites, and the Brethren still carry out their lives much as they did in centuries past. With a focus on simple lifestyle that forgoes technologies and spurns the modern conveniences most of us rely on, these groups live very family-centered lifestyles outside of mainstream culture. All three groups share the Anabaptist belief that calls on worshipers to make a conscious choice to accept God. They also believe in brotherhood, the authority of the Bible, and the importance of family.
The Amish are perhaps the most widely recognized – and widely misunderstood– group of the three. Dressing in the simple, unadorned black clothing of their forebearers, they carry out their daily farming without electricity, cars, motorized equipment, and other modern tools. The Old Order Amish is the strictest of these groups.
The Amish have their roots in the Mennonite community, and came to Pennsylvania as part of William Penn’s holy experiment of religious tolerance. The first large group of Amish arrived in Lancaster around 1720. Before fleeing from the mountains of Germany and Switzerland, the Amish had already begun to hold religious services in their homes, to evade persecution by Catholics and Protestants alike.
The Amish make no images of themselves, seeing photography as an open and unacceptable act of pride. This has made the Lancaster County tourism industry that blossoms around their communities an interesting exercise in diplomacy. Nevertheless, the Amish are now such a strong pillar of Lancaster County economic life that it is easy to meet Amish by doing business with them or visiting one of the Amish-run stores.
German-speakers will be fascinated by the way that the Amish have sustained their use of both their dialect, which is a 19th century dialect said to be similar to Plattdeutsch, English, which is used for business, and high German, which is taught in schools and used in religious services.