Main Street of Historic Zoar Ohio | Courtesy of The Ohio Historical Society

Main Street of Historic Zoar Ohio | Courtesy of The Ohio Historical Society

 

 History of Zoar

In the early 19th century, a group of religious dissenters refused to practice the state religion in their native Germany, insisting that salvation is an individual practice that doesn’t require clergy or sacraments. In addition, they were pacifists, refusing to go to war, an unheard of violation in that day. For their beliefs, they were brutally persecuted. Their property was confiscated, their children were taken from them, and they were imprisoned and flogged. Still, they persisted in their convictions. Finally, in 1817 Joseph Bimeler, with the help of Quakers in England and Philadelphia, led about 300 of them across the Atlantic to the New World.

The group, who called themselves the Society of Separatists because they separated from the Lutheran church, founded the village of Zoar, named for the place where Lot had found sanctuary. Shortly after arriving in the then-wilderness, they realized that many of the women and older people couldn’t survive on their own so they decided to become communal, combining and sharing their assets from that day forward.

Tuscarawas River

Tuscarawas River | Courtesy of The Ohio Historical Society

In a few short years these hard-working settlers had tamed the wilderness into productive agricultural farmland, built homes and established businesses—a flour mill, saw mill, wool factory, iron furnaces, tannery, foundry, garden, hotel, and livery. For themselves, they built a sewing house, weaving house, bakery, cobbler shop, blacksmith shop, cabinet shop, dairy, barns, and store. When they completed the seven miles of the Ohio Canal that came through their land, they paid off their mortgage with the proceeds.

Their success was due in large part to their early period of celibacy that freed the women (who outnumbered men two to one) to work alongside the men. After marriage was again allowed and children were born, once more they needed the women’s help in the fields and shops. To free the women from childrearing, they established dormitories to house the children, who lived in them from the age of three until fourteen when they left to become apprentices to whatever work they were assigned. The children never returned home again.

Thus, the Society prospered, selling their goods up and down the Ohio Canal, and attracting wealthy visitors from nearby Canton and Cleveland to their hotel and traders to their Canal Inn. But their very success was also their downfall, bringing the outside world into their sheltered community.

Bimeler cabin

Bimeler Cabin | Courtesy of The Ohio Historical Society

Later, the civil war divided the settlers. The younger men, like to other German immigrants, fought for the Union, violating the community’s pacifist beliefs. Then the railroad brought more visitors and the industrial revolution made their hand-made goods obsolete. Finally, in 1898, the Society disbanded, dividing the property among the remaining members. Zoar remains a historical site. Find out more about Zoar today.

But all was not perfect in this Garden of Eden. Why? Joseph Bimeler, who was both their secular and religious leader, kept tight control over the community, even retaining the deed to their entire property—more than 5000 acres—in his own name. A woman in Philadelphia was so incensed by his behavior that she warned her fellow Quakers about him. “Bimeler,” she said, “has so infatuated them that they look on him as another Moses.” So, as time passed, the Society soon became just as rigid and just as authoritarian and just as restrictive as the religion they had fled.

This is when my stories begin.