Ten years ago, I was sifting through hundreds of boxes of manuscripts and photographs at the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library. For three months, I reprocessed The Society of Separatists of Zoar Records (MSS 110) and the Jack and Pat Adamson Collection (MSS 1276). As I inventoried, arranged and described these one-of-a-kind archival treasures, I learned a great deal about the self-sufficient, talented residents of the Tuscarawas County community that today is threatened by an aging levee that keeps floodwaters at bay.
Lately, I haven’t thought much about the Bimelers, the Ruofs and the other families who made their homes at Zoar. That changed last Friday, when we stopped by Zoar on our drive through northeastern Ohio.
After being persecuted for their religious beliefs, a group known as the Society of Separatists left southeastern Germany and emigrated to Philadelphia in 1817. Later that year, they contracted to buy a 5,500-acre tract of land on the east bank of the Tuscarawas River in Ohio. There, they founded a community and named it Zoar, meaning “a sanctuary from evil.”
Under the direction of their leader, Joseph Bimeler, the Zoarites created a communal society where all property and financial resources were pooled. In return for following the decisions of Society trustees, members received food, clothing and shelter. As Zoar grew, the community established a sawmill, a flour mill, a woolen mill, a cider mill, a tin shop, a brewery, a bakery, a foundry and a tannery. It also made rope and bricks. Later, the Separatists built the Zoar Hotel to earn additional income for the Society by welcoming visitors like President William McKinley. They also operated a post office and opened a general store. The community was almost entirely self-sufficient by 1834.
The industrious Zoarites also dug seven miles of the Ohio and Erie Canal on the portion that crossed their land. When canal traffic between Massillon and Dover began, the Separatists built a tavern, hotel and adjacent blacksmith shop on the canal in 1829. In 1837, the tavern became the home for the family who operated the Zoar flour mill. In 2011, it was purchased by new owners, restored and became the Canal Tavern of Zoar, a restaurant that serves traditional German dishes like Erbsensuppe, Spaetzel, Bratwurst, Winzersalat and Kohlrouladen.
While Bimeler’s death in 1853 had a profound impact on the Zoarites, the advent of the railroad, the rise of mass-production and other indicators of changing social and economic times spelled real trouble for the Zoarites by the end of the 19th century. In 1898, they decided to dissolve the Society, also ending the Separatist religion. Today, the 12-block historic district includes private residences, businesses, and ten buildings that have been restored as museums by the Ohio Historical Society. The settlement is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is locally managed by the Zoar Community Association.
To enhance the beauty of their surroundings, the Zoarites planted a distinctive community garden that symbolized the New Jerusalem. A Norway spruce at the center of the garden represented eternal life. An arbor vitae hedge, representing heaven, surrounded the tree. Twelve juniper trees, one for each of the apostles, formed a third circle. A circular walk with twelve radiating pathways representing the twelve tribes of Israel surrounded the area. Although some vegetables and fruits were grown here, the garden was mostly filled with flowers. A house built on one side of the garden was the home of Simon Beuter, the gardener, and his family. You can still see this Lustgarden, or pleasure garden, and its accompanying garden house and greenhouse on Main Street, between Third and Fourth Streets.
A seven-pointed star was another recognizable symbol of the Separatists. Der Signalstern represented a comet or star that was seen in Europe in the early 1800s and was thought to foretell the end of the world and Christ’s return. When Zoar’s Number One House was built in 1835, a Zoar Star was inlaid on the ceiling above the central stairway.
Also known as the King’s Palace, the red brick and sandstone house was originally intended as a home for the Society’s elderly members, but it became Bimeler’s home until his death. Since 1935, the Number One House has been a museum that contains furniture, clothing, tools, pottery, baskets and other artifacts used by the Zoarites.
Located on the southeast corner of Park and Third Streets, the Bimeler Museum was built in 1868 and was the home of William and Lillian Ruof Bimeler. Floods in 2005 and 2008 damaged the building, causing the foundation and walls to crack and the barrel-vaulted cellar to partially collapse and settle six inches. Efforts are currently under way to repair the house, which involves lifting it, taking out the old foundation, rebuilding the foundation and putting the house back down on it. In this video, OHS archaeologist Bill Pickard describes how the Bimeler Museum’s foundation is being repaired.
Adjacent to the Bimeler Museum, you’ll find Number Five Sewing House, the former home of the Jacob Kuemerle family that dates from the 1840s. Today, monthly rug weaving classes are taught in the building.
The Zoar Stitchery and Westbrook’s Cannery also operate businesses here. You can sample some of the hand-made, old-fashioned canned goods that Westbrook’s produces, such as caramel apple jam, horseradish pickles, pepper butter and zucchini relish. Westbrook’s also has a presence at Celebrate Local, an Easton Town Center store that showcases the best of Ohio-produced handmade and artisan goods.
One of Zoar’s first buildings is located between Main and Park Streets, on the north side of Fourth Street. This was Joseph Bimeler’s first home, and it also served as the first meeting house. Today, it’s the oldest home still standing in Zoar, and it is privately owned.
The Bakery, located on the northwest corner of Main and Fourth Streets, was built in 1845. The heating area at the side of the oven door was constructed of handmade Zoar bricks. Today, you can still purchase the bakery’s signature German black bread when the bakery is open. You can also see the German Tettnanger variety of hops, the plant that gives beer its flavor, growing on the outside wall of the ovens at the bakery. Now, we have to use our imagination to picture what they look like during growing season, but it’s worth knowing about for next year.
Reading the Late Summer/Fall 2012 issue of The Zoar Star, the Zoar Community Association’s newsletter, I learned that the Zoarites are believed to have used German Rhizomes, a root-type plant from which hops are produced. They grew their hops in a large field north of the village, and also grew barley for use in the Zoar Brewery, which was located on the far northwest corner of the village. The Zoarites sold the excess beer that they made not only at the two taverns in town, but also to farmers in the surrounding area. They also shipped kegs via canal boat.
The Zoar Store, the 1833 building on the southwest corner of Main and Second Streets, is home to the Zoar Community Association’s gift shop. There, you can purchase several items made by hand in Zoar, such as hand-woven rag rugs, fruit-shaped candles, hand-forged nails, and tin icicles and stars for your Christmas tree. This year, Zoar is offering a hand-crafted clay ornament commemorating the clay horn that summoned the Zoarites to work seven days a week. One Christmas morning, the horn cracked when a trustee blew it. The trustees took it as a sign, and Christmas was no longer a work day in Zoar. You can see the original horn in the Number One House.
Springhouse Primitives, also located in the Zoar Store, sells hooked rugs, needlework supplies, wool, pottery, tinware, Moravian stars, Zoar Wash House Soap, and other handmade 18th- and 19th-century reproduction goods. The store’s owner, Kim Klingaman, is an artisan who hand-sews penny rugs from hand-dyed wool. She was listed in the 2010 Early American Life Directory of Traditional American Crafts.
The village of Zoar sits at the base of a levee to hold back potential floodwaters. Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers almost 75 years ago, the levee needs major repairs, and Zoar is threatened by it. In June 2012, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included Zoar in its 2012 List of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The Corps is studying three options: to repair the 75-year-old levee protecting Zoar; to relocate the village to higher ground; or remove the levee entirely and let the area flood, which would require the demolition of 80 percent of the village that is in danger. The Zoar Community Association believes that the only option is to preserve Zoar intact, where it is.
As part of its Environmental Impact Study, the Army Corps of Engineers invites members of the public to tell it why Zoar should be protected and preserved. The Zoar Community Association’s “Save Historic Zoar” campaign provides more information for those interested in contacting the Corps by mail, by e-mail or by telephone.
To learn more about Zoar, check out Zoar: An Ohio Experiment in Communalism, published by the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society in 1952. Zoar Blue is Janet Hickman’s 1978 book for young adults about two young Zoarites caught up in the turbulence of the Civil War.
I’m partial to A Singular People: Images of Zoar, by Kathleen M. Fernandez, since I helped this former site manager of Zoar track down previously unpublished photographs from Ohio Historical Society Archives/Library collections to include in this 2003 book published by Kent State University Press. Kathleen also used historic primary-source quotes from journalists, diarists and other visitors to Zoar to caption those photos.
Finally, track down a copy of Zoar in the Civil War, published by Kent State University Press in 2007. Based on previously unpublished material from the collections of the Ohio Historical Society and the Western Reserve Historical Society, the book is written by Philip E. Webber, professor emeritus of German at Central College in Iowa, a friendly and enthusiastic scholar who has the most elegant handwriting you’ll ever see. If you read Dr. Webber’s acknowledgments, you’ll find my name thoughtfully listed there for my “efforts that went beyond expectation.”
If you’re especially curious about Zoar, visit the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library to research unique manuscript and audiovisual collections pertaining to the community. Searching for “Zoar” in Ohio Pix, OHS’s online database of historic photos, will yield over 160 interesting results, including Zoarites harvesting crops, working with hops and tending the Zoar Garden. My favorite is a parade of Zoarite girls pulling younger children in baby buggies past Joseph Bimeler’s home.
The Zoar Store and visitors’ center is open Wednesdays through Sundays through December. From November through March, site tours are available with advance reservations. Throughout the year, Zoar also offers blacksmithing classes, lectures, a Civil War re-enactment and behind-the-scenes tours. This weekend, Zoar is celebrating the holidays with horse-drawn wagon rides, a visit from the Christkind, live reindeer in the Zoar Garden, Zoarite treats from the bakery, musical entertainment in the historic Zoar Church, private home tours, and more. Westbrook’s Cannery will be stirring apple butter outside on both days.