You’ve probably already figured out that Ambridge, since you’ve never heard of it, doesn’t boast five star resorts or restaurants. It’s a place that, as they say, if you blink, you miss it. But it does have something that history and/or religious buffs may find intriguing: Old Economy Village, a National Historic Landmark.
Last Sunday, my family and I visited; it’s only about 45 minutes northwest of downtown Pittsburgh and just a bit farther from the Ohio state line. Old Economy was the home of a religious group, the Harmonists, from 1824-1830. Eventually members either left or died by the early 1900’s, and since the group believed in celibacy, there no one to carry on their practices. Their goal of living in “harmony” with earth and God in an American Utopia apparently wasn’t meant to extend into the next century.
However, the 800 German-born Harmonists were known as one of the most successful, self-sustaining, Christian communal groups on record. They gained world-wide renown for their devotion, prosperity, and social organization. The concept behind their organization began with their leader, George Knapp, who believed that he knew the exact date of the second coming of Christ. Therefore, his creed centered on a society focused on preparing themselves. Members turned over all possessions and finances to the group, with the assurance they would have lodgings, health care, and enough food to live simply for the rest of their lives. That was probably the reason why they immigrated with Father Rapp to the United States. In return for their keep, members worked 10-12 hours a day to produce goods that were sold. At one point, they were so rich that the American government borrowed money from them!
Harmonists adopted Thomas Jefferson’s advice of placing the manufacturer beside the agriculturist. Growing most of their food and making their own wine, they also hand-produced quality goods and industrial products used by many in the eastern United States. Harmonists constructed factories to produce cotton, woolen and silk (which were powered by steam engines) and had little reason to deal with the “outside” world.
Within the 16 block walking tour (designed in a large square), those knowledgeable about antiques will find themselves in a utopia of their own. The former houses of George Knapp and his son each contains about 7 rooms filled with original furniture and cabinets, handmade at the village’s wood making shop. (There are also hidden cubbies where cash and membership agreements were stashed.) The rooms are simple, with only handmade quilts for decoration and hand-painted religious canvases on the walls. Beds were short, rugs weren’t used, and plumbing was not yet a luxury. Venturing around the perimeter, a guest will be able to enter their post office, printer shop, dairy, blacksmith, doctor/dentist office, hat/shoe/tailor shop, general store, winery, school, museum, library, and carriage house-complete with the original town fire truck and hearse. These buildings are mostly connected as townhouses are today, with private residences scattered throughout, all of which are enclosed by a high fence around the village.
The main street still has its original cobblestones, which horse and buggies traversed down to the Ohio River a block away, lugging merchandise to be shipped on the waterway. Living closely with nature, the center of the area was truly the “village square”, a socializing place for inhabitants. A lovely central fountain, surrounded by exquisite landscaping, fruit and vegetable gardens, and flower beds, can be overlooked by benches-and George Rapp’s back porch. At the end of it is the feast hall, where all Harmonists gathered at least six times annually for concerts, anniversaries (such as the Last Supper), or-as the tour guide offered-whenever there was any “dissention.”
One has to wonder about the lives of the Harmonists, but regardless of one’s beliefs about Communist-style livelihoods or religious “cults”, it’s hard not to admit that their history and their mementos are fascinating. Old Economy Village is definitely worth a stop if you find yourself in the general area. It is closed on Mondays, and costs $7 per adult and $5 for kids over age 6, but offers AAA discounts. (If you opt for the self-guided tour, you will not have access to the private residences due to security reasons.) For additional information, photos, and directions, check it out at www.oldeconomyvillage.org.