Zoar, Ohio

From Ohio History Central

Zoar, a small community in Tuscarawas County, was founded by a group of German separatists in 1817. These separatists, who soon became known as Zoarites, were originally from an area of Germany known as Wurttemberg. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they had separated from the official German religion, the Lutheran Church. Separatists faced severe persecution in Wurttemberg, including confiscation of their properties and imprisonment. The group's leader, Joseph Bimeler (or sometimes spelled Joseph Bäumeler), decided to bring the separatists to the United States.

When the separatists arrived in Philadelphia, they had few resources. The Society of Friends (Quakers) in Philadelphia helped the separatists to find jobs and eventually loaned them the money to buy land in eastern Ohio. Several members of the group traveled west to the land in the fall of 1817 and began to construct the community's first buildings. Ultimately, the rest of the separatists, approximately two hundred in all, arrived at Zoar in the spring of 1818. The separatists chose to name their town Zoar after the Biblical account of Lot, who escaped to Zoar from Sodom in the book of Genesis.

The community of Zoar was not originally organized as a commune, but its residents had a difficult time surviving in 1818 and early 1819. As a result, on April 19, 1819, the group formed the Society of Separatists of Zoar. Each person donated his or her property to the community as a whole. In exchange for their work, the society would provide for them. Both men and women signed the original document creating the society. Women had equal access to political leadership and had the right to vote in elections. Women also were not prohibited from holding office in the society, although no women were ever elected to these positions. Additional modifications to the society's organization were made in 1824 and a constitution established in 1833.

In the decades following the establishment of the Zoar commune, the Separatists experienced economic prosperity. The community was almost entirely self-sufficient and sold any surpluses to the outside world. In addition to agriculture, Zoar residents also worked in a number of industries, including flour mills, textiles, a tin shop, cooper, wagon maker, two iron foundries, and several stores. The society also made money by contracting to build a seven-mile stretch of the Ohio and Erie Canal. The canal crossed over Zoar's property, and the society owned several canal boats. The canal traffic also brought other people into the community, who bought Zoar residents' goods. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the community was quite prosperous.

Joseph Bimeler died in 1853. Although Zoar was still economically prosperous, the members' commitment to the society's original goals began to deteriorate in the second half of the nineteenth century. Over time, many of the original residents died. The younger generation did not have memories of the persecution back in Europe or the society's early struggles in Ohio. The outside world influenced the community more and more, as strangers traveled to Zoar and stayed in the town's hotel. In 1898, the remaining members decided to dissolve the society, and the Zoarites divided the property among themselves. It was the end to the communistic experience at Zoar. Throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Zoar has continued to exist as a small town in rural eastern Ohio. Today, the Ohio History Connection operates a portion of the town as a historic site. A number of the Zoarite buildings are restored and are open to the public.

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