Did you know… Old Economy Village?
Continuing series on the history of socialism in the United States
Last week we looked at Robert Owen and the Harmony Society, attempting to form a socialist utopia in the United States. This week, we look at another attempt by the Harmonists, coming to Pennsylvania, this time settling in Beaver County along the Ohio River. There they founded “Oekonomie,” now better known as Old Economy Village.
the financial end of the Harmonists – he bought Rapp’s failing Indiana
settlement. George Rapp was the religious end. Born in Lutheran Church
in 1785 and was promptly banned from meeting. The persecution that Rapp
and his followers experienced caused them to leave Germany and come to
the United States in 1803. Rapp viewed himself as a modern day prophet.
Rapp was a Pietist, and a number of his beliefs were shared by the
Anabaptists, as well as groups such as the Shakers.
Rapp’s religious beliefs and philosophy were the cement that held his community together both in Germany and in America – a Harmony Society. Experiencing persecution, he persuaded his followers to pool all their resources, share alike for the common good, and emigrate to America.
Economy was the third and final home of the Harmony Society. In 1824, leaders purchased 3,000 acres in Beaver County on the Ohio River, eighteen miles downriver from Pittsburgh. The soil was rich for farming and the location was ideal for shipping Society products to markets on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and to the West in the newly settled areas on the frontier.
The Society’s financial success and self-sufficiency stirred the interest of economists and social reformers in the United States and Europe. Among Economy’s many important visitors was prominent German economist Friedrich List, who visited Economy in 1825 and observed the community at work. The same year, British social reformer Frances Wright stayed for several days, seeking guidance from George’s son Frederick Rapp as she planned a community for freed slaves in Tennessee. German royals also visited, as did President Zachary Taylor while in office.
But paradise didn’t
last long. Within six years, members grew dissatisfied with Rapp. He
took control of all property, and advocated members practicing celibacy.
Rapp was the spiritual and financial leader, and dissent was not
Soon the arguing became violent.
Many lawsuits sprang up relating to the monetary claims by former Society members who did not feel properly compensated for their time and labor, other cases concerned the ownership and sale of property Society members left in Württemberg, and legal complications from fines and payments made to avoid militia service.
Rapp was called a tyrant and Society members his slaves. During elections, the Society was seen as a monolithic voting block which caused political ill feelings and generated animosity against Rapp. He was accused of killing his son Johannes – who died in an industrial accident.
Following the uprising and departure of disgruntled members in 1832 and the death of Frederick Rapp in 1834, the Society became less open to the outside world and less active in the political arena. The discontent came from the perception that hard work was not rewarded, that distribution of assets was unfair, and there was no future. The families of members sued the group and the entire society was engulfed in legal battles, until finally a lawsuit by member John Duss, a school teacher, ended the experiment. Assets were divided among members, and six acres with the town buildings were given to the state of Pennsylvania, which still operates it as a historic site.