Zoar, Ohio – Society of Separatists

A Midwestern German cupboard, possibly southern Indiana, mid 19th century

p4A ItemID E8865930
A grain-painted stand with a single drawer and turned legs, America, mid-19th century, found in Zoar, Ohio

p4A ItemID E8857861
Midwestern Secretary Bookcase in Figured Walnut, American (possibly Oldenburg, Indiana), 19th century

p4A ItemID F7999162
CONTEMPORARY ZOAR HANGING SHELF by Michael Reed, Ohio, late 20th century

p4A ItemID F7964932

Zoar

In the 1810s, a group of German religious separatists left Wurttemberg in what is now southwestern Germany, after several decades of separation from the primary church in the region, the Lutheran Church. After years of persecution and oppression which included imprisonment and property seizures, the separatists, under the leadership of Joseph Bimeler (sometimes Baumeler), decided to flee to the United States in the hopes that they could establish a new community there.

One can only imagine how uncertain things were for them, a group of nearly 200 native Germans, when they arrived in Philadelphia as immigrants in dire financial straits, but fortunately, they gained the attention of the Society of Friends, Philadelphia’s large Quaker population, and before long, Quakers had helped them to find jobs and some stability. After a time, they decided to relocate to eastern Ohio, at which point the Quakers loaned them money to purchase the land they found – 5,500 acres in Tuscarawas County.

A few members of the group headed west in the fall of 1817, where they began building before weathering their first Ohio winter, and the remaining members of the group joined them in the spring of 1818. They would name their community Zoar from the biblical story of Lot, who fled to Zoar from Sodom in Genesis, and they would become known as Zoarites.

The community became so tightly knit not by original intent but by necessity. The first few years of the settlement were very rough, so in the spring of 1819, the residents formalized what had essentially become a commune already by creating the Society of Separatists of Zoar and turning all property over to the Society. (Women were also permitted to sign, to hold office and to vote.) Over the next fifteen years, the arrangements would be further formalized.

Zoarites would eventually be self-reliant and prosperous. In addition to the community’s agricultural production, they would also operate mills and foundries, manufacture textiles and wagons, and run a variety of stores, supplying the community’s needs and selling any surplus goods to those beyond the community. They would later sign on to build a portion of the Ohio and Erie Canal, which would help pay off the last of the loans for the property and would bring profits from the canal boats they owned and operated as well as from the increased traffic in the vicinity of Zoar.

By the second half of the 19th century, communal spirit in Zoar began to decline. Joseph Bimeler died, prosperity had brought the outside world closer, and younger members, who had never experienced the religious persecution in Europe or the hardship and sacrifice of the early settlement, were less invested and connected. By 1898, the community voted to dissolve the society and divide up the property and assets, but Zoar continues to exist as a village and today several of the society’s original buildings have been restored and gathered into an historic site for visitors.


A carved schrank, Zoar, Tuscarawas County, Ohio, mid 19th century, cherry, walnut, and poplar. (p4A item # E8977195)

A number of artifacts of the early settlement still survive, primarily furniture with Empire and Biedermeier influences, but other items like coverlets and earthenware pottery occasionally turn up as well. (Furniture pieces are frequently seen with diamond panels, fairly typical of Midwestern Germanic furniture, but especially so of Zoar furniture.) Although their popularity is rather regional, Zoar-related objects are quite sought after, both by collectors who still live in Zoar and have an interest in local items and by collectors of Midwestern material. Provenance often makes firm attributions, but as there were a number of Germanic separatist communities throughout the Midwest, particularly in Ohio and Indiana, all heavily influenced and deeply rooted in Germanic craft traditions, further scholarship is necessary to draw clearer distinctions between the communities’ wares.


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