Old Economy Village preserves and presents the life, thought, and material culture of the Harmony Society, a highly successful and entrepreneurial 19th century religious community. Old Economy Village is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and is actively supported by the Friends of Old Economy Village which is a non-profit community-based organization.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission works in partnership with others to preserve the Commonwealth’s natural and cultural heritage as a steward, teacher and advocate for the people of Pennsylvania and the nation.
Old Economy Village, a National Historic Landmark, tells the story of the Harmony Society, one of the oldest and most successful religious communal groups of the nineteenth century. The Society sought to create a utopia inhabited by German Lutheran separatists who subscribed to the mystical religious teachings of their leader George Rapp (1757-1847). In Economy, they waited for the second coming of the Messiah.
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.
Economy was planned for efficiency. After twenty years in the United States and the experience of building and operating two other communities – Harmony, Pennsylvania, (1804) and New Harmony, Indiana (1814) – The Society’s leaders had a clear understanding of the community needs. The church and the houses of George Rapp and his adopted son Frederick (1775-1834) were located at the center of town. Business locations included a store and post office, mechanics building and wine cellar, warehouse and granary. The Feast Hall, used for communal dinners and concerts, with the Natural History Museum on the first floor, was also located in the center of town. Positioned directly around the center were members’ houses, eighty of which survive. At the outer edges of the community were livestock barns and stables, a tannery, textile mills, blacksmith shop and other buildings.
While the religious aspects of the Society held little importance for the nation’s political leaders, its success in “placing the agriculturalists beside the industrialists” did arouse interest. Frederick Rapp was recognized as the driving force behind Harmony Society’s business ventures. His insights were valued to the extent that in 1828, Rapp, who corresponded with political leaders in Harrisburg and Washington D.C., was subpoenaed to testify before the United States Congress in support of a bill for higher tariffs on imported goods. However, his declining health prevented him from testifying in person.
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 Frederick Rapp as she planned a community for freed slaves in Tennessee. German royals also visited, as did President Zachary Taylor while in office.
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. George Rapp became the spiritual and business leader of the Society until his death in 1847. Subsequently, Romelius Baker (1793-1868), Jonathan Lenz (1807-1890), and Jacob Henrici (1804-1892) became trustees of the Society. The Society’s substantial assets were invested in the country’s coal, oil and railroad industries.
The Society’s interest in accumulating wealth was not avarice. Funds were necessary to provide for the needs of the members and to pay workers hired to look after the orchards, fields and livestock, or to work in the laundry, bakery, and the residents of the region who relied on them to provide employment in the business and factories the Society underwrote, particularly in a town north of Economy, Beaver Falls, which they founded. In addition, some charities and religious groups from across the nation and the world sought financial help from the society.
In 1885, Lenz wrote that if the Messiah should not return before the last member died, the Society’s assets were to go to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and be used for charitable purposes or to pay the state’s sizeable debt. Less than ten years after the death of Henrici in 1892, the Society’s remaining assets, estimated to be worth several million dollars, were engulfed in legal battles. These battles were between non-member relatives of Society members who had already successfully argued in court that the Society was not a charity and, therefore the Commonwealth was not entitled to receive its assets. The court case was won by former Society schoolteacher and music instructor, John Duss. Ultimately, however, the remaining six acres of Economy and associated buildings became the property of Pennsylvania in 1916, and in 1919 became Old Economy Village, a state historic site.