Celebrate America’s Religious History – Visit Two Fascinating Heritage Parks

For an unusual and enlightening travel experience, explore the melting pot of historic religious settlements that helped to define American culture. Among them are two exceptional heritage parks: Zoar Village and Ephrata Cloister. Both provide a fascinating window into America’s living history.

***Zoar Village in Zoar, Ohio***A group of about 200 German Separatists founded this Ohio village along the Tuscarawas River in 1817 as a refuge from the religious persecution they had suffered in their homeland. Naming their settlement Zoar (pronounced zohr), after the Biblical town where Lot sought refuge from Sodom, they came full of hope and determination. As too often happened in early America, they also came unprepared for the financial burden associated with establishing a new life. Two years after their arrival, out of economic necessity, the village became a communal society called “The Society of Separatists of Zoar.”

By combining their resources and working for the good of all, the Zoarites found the road to success–relatively quickly, in fact, although not in the usual ways. The Ohio & Erie Canal was being built, and the Zoarites contracted to dig the seven miles which passed through their land. The pay was good, enabling them to completely erase their substantial debt. More importantly, the canal opened up their area to commerce, and the Zoarites became entrepreneurs, operating canal boats, attracting tourists and selling a variety of products to outsiders. The result was staggering: by the mid-1800s, this small group of religious dissenters had accumulated assets worth over one million dollars. In 1898, the Society finally was dissolved by membership vote; the property was divided; and Zoar became just another small country town where residents worked for their own reward.

Thankfully, most of the historic buildings have survived as unique reminders of a very interesting past. While many are now private residences and businesses, ten are managed by the Ohio Historical Society and showcase various aspects of Zoarite life. They include Number One House (which was the home of leader Joseph Baumeler and two other families), the Greenhouse and Gardener’s Residence and Kitchen/Laundry/Magazine Complex, plus the Blacksmith Shop, Wagon Shop, Tinshop, Zoar Store, Bakery, Dairy and, last but not least, Bimeler House Museum (representing the commune’s final decade). Plan on a leisurely visit and guided tour. The buildings are exceptionally varied and well appointed.

Zoar Village is located on SR 212 about 3 miles southeast of I-77 in Zoar, OH. Take I-77 exit 93 to 198 Main Street. Open April-October–weekends April-Memorial Day; Wednesday-Sunday Memorial Day-Labor Day; weekends after Labor Day to October 31. Admission charged. http://www.ohiohistory.org/places/zoar

***Ephrata Cloister in Ephrata, Pennsylvania***Celebrating its 275th anniversary, this devout Protestant community thrived on the spirit of one man, Conrad Beissel, who believed in an intensely personal union with God and also stressed the importance of music for both body and soul. Beissel became one of America’s earliest composers of hymns and anthems, as well as the publisher of America’s first book of original compositions, Turtel-Taube. Initially a preacher for the German Baptist Brethren in Germantown, Pennsylvania, he had left the Brethren to pursue his own form of spiritual mysticism in 1732. Many Brethren, attracted by his magnetic personality, joined him at Ephrata (pronounced EH-frah-tah) Cloister.

Beissel and his followers shared a life characterized by strict discipline and intense self-denial in preparation for Christ’s return to earth. Though many were married, celibacy was viewed as ideal for achieving a reliable channel of communication with God. Living quarters were small and austere, typically with a wood bench for a bed and a wood block for a pillow. Idleness was frowned upon; so the days were very busy. Assigned individuals tended the gardens, orchards and grain fields; manufactured cloth from Cloister-grown flax; made and mended clothes; worked in the sawmill, gristmill or paper mill; produced books and hymnals in the printing shop; created poetry, music or decorative writing called Fraktur; and, of course, prepared meals and took care of all other community needs. When the chores were done, their focus turned to religious activities such as evening choral singing and communion.

Stimulated by Beissel’s devotion to his cause, the Cloister prospered. By 1750, it had about 300 members. Sadly, after Beissel’s death in 1768, the community began to dissolve. In 1770, only 135 members remained. And yet, after all were gone, their unique world was protected by others, simply because they cared. Today much of what Ephrata Cloister created remains for the world to see and ponder. Ten of the original buildings have been restored and furnished to re-create the atmosphere of this eighteenth-century communal village. Fascinating!

Following an introductory film in the Visitor Center, tours are conducted by costumed guides. Special events are held throughout the year. Ephrata Cloister is located at 632 West Main Street in Ephrata, PA. Take I-76 west to exit 21, Route 222 south to Ephrata and then Route 322 west for about 2 miles. Open daily except major holidays. Admission charged. http://www.ephratacloister.org

By: Suzanne and Craig Sheumaker
Excerpted from new travel guide “America’s Living History-The Early Years,” Red Corral Publishing, May 2007, http://www.AmericasLivingHistory.com Suzanne and Craig Sheumaker, Authors.