In honor of German American Heritage Month, we would like to share a brief history of Zoar, Ohio, a small village that was founded by a group of German separatists.
The Society of Separatists of Zoar was founded in 1817 by a group of German separatists in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. They migrated to Ohio from the state of Wurttenburg in southwest Germany near Switzerland. The leader of the group was Joseph Michael Baumeler (Anglicized Bimeler). Approximately 300 people followed him from Germany. They arrived in Philadelphia where they received assistance from Quakers. Bimeler purchased 5,500 acres on the Tuscarawas River for $16,500.
In 1819 the Zoarites organized a communal society that was run by three elected trustees. All adult men and women voted for the trustees and signed a pact to follow their rules and renounce ownership of land and possessions. In 1833 they were incorporated by the State of Ohio as the Society of Separatists at Zoar. New members were allowed to join; members did choose to leave and occasionally members were expelled. Their system of government and communal ownership of their property and belongings operated with few changes until the Society was dissolved in 1898.
Joseph Bimeler led religious services until his death in 1853. The services were simple, consisting of a “discourse,” silent prayer and many hymns. Zoarites believed people should have a direct relationship with God and eschewed ceremony. The garden in center of the village held religious meaning. They practiced pacifism, but 14 men did leave the village to join the Union Army during the Civil War. Attendance at religious services dwindled in the late 1800s.
Daily Life in Zoar
Celibacy was practiced from 1822-1829 because the labor of all adult members was needed to establish their village. To pay for their land, the Zoarites contracted with the State of Ohio to build 7 miles of the Ohio and Erie Canal that was on their property. By 1834 the village had a store, hotel, warehouse, grain mill, saw mills, flour mill, blast furnace, and wool and linen manufacturing. Crops included wheat, corn and other grains. Livestock included cattle, sheep and horses. The Society sold excess products to their neighbors and employed non-members in many of its businesses.
After 1829 children over 3 were housed in nurseries and cared for communally. This allowed more adults to work in Zoar’s fields and mills. This practice did not continue after 1860. The Zoarites operated their own school which taught in both German and English until 1884.
The canal brought visitors to town and in 1882 the Wheeling & Lake Erie Railroad came directly to the village. Tourism provided income as the Society’s other businesses stagnated, but exposure to the outside world increased dissatisfaction among the members with life in Zoar.
In 1898 the remaining members of the Society of Separatists elected to end their communal ownership of businesses and property in Zoar. Assets were divided among the members or sold with all members receiving a sum of cash and piece of property. Public buildings, such as the town hall, school and meeting house, became the property of the incorporated village. The end of communal living also brought an end to the Zoarite religion. After dissolution services in the meeting house were presided over by a German speaking minister and the meeting house became a German Reformed Church.
Zoar in the Twentieth Century
In the 1920s Zoar residents restored the garden and protested moving the town out of a flood plain. Instead the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a flood wall around the town. In 1941 the Number One House, once occupied by Joseph Bimeler and the Zoar trustees, and the Garden House became a state memorial. Eventually many more former Separatist buildings became state owned. Private individuals and the Zoar Community Association have also worked to restore buildings.
Were the Zoarites Unique?
They shared similarities, like pacifism and communal living, with groups like the Shakers and other German separatists groups who founded communities in the United States. Their religion was unique because it was inspired by the teachings of Joseph Bimeler. The longevity of their communal system, from 1817-1898, is impressive and the village as a place where people live and work today lives on. The Village is jointly operated by the Ohio Historical Society and Zoar Community Association. Click here for more information about visiting.