Harmonists Farmed Site
Of Indian Village for Much of a Century
Historical Trajectory Followed to an End
We’ve seen how Logstown, the Indian village site near Pittsburgh, was visited by the likes of George Washington, Meriwether Lewis, Charles
Dickens, Chief Guyasuta and even batman’s namesake.
In this final post on Logstown, we’ll see how its most anticipated visitor never arrived — at least not yet.
We’re talking about Jesus. The one from Nazareth.
The Harmonist Society established a happy and phenomenally successful commune on 3,000 acres around the abandoned Indian town, all in anticipation that Christ would arrive on Sept. 15, 1829.
They expected to go with him to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem, and walk with him for 1,000 years before the Final Judgment.
Imagine how tidy and productive your home or community would become, if you knew such a judgmental visitor was coming? That’s what happened at the place we now call Old Economy Village.
The Harmonists were pious Germans. They called their commune Oekonomie, understood to mean a divinely inspired economy.
That inspiration took them far beyond what you might normally expect of a commune. The hippie communes of the 1970s made candles. These people made much of what was being made in the U.S., and a great deal of wealth — more wealth than the U.S. Treasury.
Well. . ., that comparison to the Treasury has a caveat. It refers to the Panic of 1837, which eventually drained the coffers of many governments and banks. So, during that period, it happened that the Harmonists were sitting atop more silver and gold than most anyone else.
They didn’t start out rich, though. Capitalists and economic thinkers from throughout the world came to see how they did it.
The Harmonists got wealthy by a devotion to work, investment rather than spending, and the wisdom and good luck to be where a startup called the United States was booming to life.
Married Farm and Factory
Under the direction of a bigger-than-life leader, George Rapp, and his adopted entrepreneurial son, Frederick, they efficiently merged agriculture and manufacturing. Few, if any, had placed factories next to farms before.
They raised sheep for wool, used new-fangled steam-powered machines to spin and weave it, created products, and then they distributed and retailed them. The market was favorable. Continued difficulties with Great Britain made woolen goods expensive and highly profitable in the growing United States.
They took those profits and built enterprises that included: cotton, silk, wine, coal, oil, railroads, banks, and real estate ventures.
Well-healed Europeans traveling around North America had to go to Niagara Falls, of course, but they also went to Oekonomie.
In 1826, only two years after the Harmonists built the town from nothing, the Duke of Saxe-Weimar wrote:
“Mr. Rapp conducted us into the factory again, and said that the girls had especially requested that visit that I might hear them sing . . . The girls sang four pieces, at first sacred, but afterward, by Mr. Rapp’s desire, of a gay character. All the workmen, and especially the females, have very healthy complexions and moved me deeply by the warm-hearted friendliness with which they saluted the elder Rapp. I was also much gratified to see vessels containing fresh sweet-scented flowers standing on all the machines. The neatness which universally reigns here is in every respect worthy of praise.”
Didn’t Marry Men and Women
Only 600 people lived at the commune, and they were supposed to avoid baby-making intimacies. Jesus was coming, you know.
Further, Rapp didn’t seek out new followers. That meant outsiders had to be hired as business boomed, and as the commune members aged and died.
So, what happened when Jesus didn’t show up on Sept. 15, 1829? Not much.
The date obviously was wrong, but Harmonists couldn’t have felt too disillusioned. Surely, Jesus would be coming in their lifetimes. Even better, he’d come in Father Rapp’s lifetime, and he was getting really old.
Besides, all they had to do was look around to see that their devotion had not been wasted
True, they were denied sex and intimacy. But, they were living amid flower gardens in neatly arranged two-story frame and brick houses. Most people in Pittsburgh were living in one-room log cabins.
Harmonists got food, clothing, shelter and camaraderie at no charge. They would be cared for in sickness and old age, and, if they decided to leave, they knew they could get a sizeable piece of change — their vested interest in the Harmonist enterprises.
Not Married to Sites
George Rapp first brought his followers from Germany (the Lutheran state there didn’t like them much) to Butler County in 1804. He established Harmony, his first commune. It did very well, but George and Frederick had bigger ideas.
They moved the Harmonists to 30,000 acres along the Ohio River in Indiana, calling it New Harmony.
It also did very well, but it was more acreage than they needed, it wasn’t close enough to markets, and it was flat and damp and very unlike their native Germany.
So, while in Pittsburgh on business, Frederick heard that 2,400 acres was for sale around Logstown.
The Rapps never had trouble finding buyers for their profitable communal villages, and they promptly unloaded New Harmony on one of the many rich men of the time interested in social reform through utopian living.
Harmonist attorneys — they never did anything without them — may have been the ones who dug up old plans by someone to build a new town over the Indian village.
Those plans are on display at Old Economy Village, which has been a state-operated historic park since 1919.
Logstown Might Have Become Greensburg
Colonel Isaac Melcher hoped to get his planned town designated as the seat of then-sprawling Westmoreland County.
It was crucial for town creators to get such a designation from the state Legislature.
People wanted to live and work around county seats because that is where the courthouse was. Believe it or not, attorneys and legal paperwork were probably even more prevalent than today.
Why? Well, for one thing many marriages involved dowries, and they could get quite complicated. Not just when couples married, but more so when one of them died. And, that happened a lot.
In addition, land on a restless frontier changed hands frequently. You want to be near a courthouse for that.
So, even before settlers arrived, attorneys were waiting for them.
Westmoreland County already had a county seat, Hannastown, but Indians burned it down in 1782. That was the year before the Logstown plans were drawn up and filed.
Melcher died before getting the crucial county seat designation, but it probably didn’t make a difference. The Legislature opted to keep the county seat pretty much where it had been.
As Hannastown smoldered, Forbes Road (now Route30) was re-routed and a new town was built along that. Appropriately enough, they called it New Town. It became the county seat. We know it today as Greensburg.
Now back to Logstown.
The Chimney Field
You may recall that Major General “Mad” Anthony Wayne established the nation’s first basic training camp there in 1792. It’s purpose was to train young men to effectively exterminate Indians who continued to infest areas to the northwest of Pittsburgh.
He created The Legion of the United States. It successfully killed Indians, destroyed their villages and crops and cleared the way for settlers. No place benefited more than Pittsburgh, which proudly called itself the Gateway to the West. It still does.
The soldiers never returned to Legionville, as the camp was called. Hundreds of structures, mostly dormitories, sat abandoned.
By the time the Harmonists bought it, two decades of weeds, weather and floods had cleared most of Legionville away.
They allowed neighbors to continue farming it for a while. Then, they tilled the soil where young George Washington was given his Seneca name, Conochtaurus, meaning Devourer of Villages.
Harmonists referred to the field as “the chimney field,” said Sarah Huffington, curator at Old Economy Village. It was studded with the remains of 20 or 30 Legionville hearths. Maybe a Logstown hearth was among them.
Time Overtakes Oekonomie
Time and the Ohio River continued to sweep by.
Still, no Jesus.
It was 1847. Father Rapp was 89 years old, and not well.
Followers gathered around his sickbed, but not because they expected him to die.
They were waiting for Jesus to enter the room.
Their leader took a breath and expressed some amazement.
“If I did not know that the dear Lord meant I should present you all to him, I should think my last moment’s come.”
It came. Jesus didn’t.
Some disillusioned left the commune, but the society carried on for a half century more, gradually petering out and then dying a slow death in courthouses as people battled over its assets.
Eventually, the state got the center of the village to operate as a historical museum. You should go there.
The “chimney field” and much of the land around it grew much taller chimneys. The Harmony Society sold it in 1905 to the American Bridge Co., one of the companies J.P. Morgan consolidated under the banner of the U.S. Steel Corp.
Ambridge gets its name from the bridge company.
It and subsequent factories helped the area get its look of a wasteland today, but Ambridge/Baden is slowly planting seeds for new companies.
In fact, you can still go to Logstown to do some trading.
Don’t bring furs, though. Bring your used car or truck. Wright Chevrolet Buick GMC has it’s new dealership there now.
If you visit Old Economy Village, you can learn about when a man who-called himself Count Leon (no relation to me) challenged Rapp’s teachings and took 250 of his followers to create another Garden of Eden, one where sex was not frowned upon.
You can also learn something of Rapp’s mystical beliefs, including alchemy.