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Walking down one of the main streets of the present manufacturing town of Ambridge, one suddenly finds oneself in a different world. On the left, surrounding an entire block and extending to the river front, is a stone wall. At one corner, next to the river, is a porter's lodge, and on another corner, now used as a dwelling house, is what was formerly the stables. Fronting the street is a handsome brick structure of solid, and yet graceful proportions.
The buildings have nothing about them which suggest any period of American architecture. The one on the left is a long hail which was used as a dining room. The house in the center was the headquarters of the Society; and the house to the right, the Great House, where the founder of the Society lived.
Across the street stands a building which is beyond all question the most notable building in the whole Pittsburgh area, indeed, in Western Pennsylvania or Eastern Ohio. The moment you look at it you imagine you are in some city of medieval Germany, or perhaps that you are entering upon one of the famous Tower Bridges of Switzerland or Germany. It is the venerable Church of St. John. The walls near the ground are of massive stone, the superstructure of finely wrought brick. But the glory of the church is its tower. The tower is square for some distance above the roof of the church, and then takes an octagonal form with two superimposed cupolas.
Standing on the ample balcony, one sees the Ohio in the distance, and all around him, mingled now with hideous modern houses, the splendid buildings, public and private, of America's most interesting, and perhaps most successful, communistic society. The name "communistic" has an evil odor today. But there was nothing about this famous community to suggest the godless communism of today, save that its members had all things in common.
The Harmony Society first established itself in this country at Harmony, in Butler County. But in 1814, because of their remoteness from navigation, and the severity of the winters at Harmony, they removed to Indiana and established New Harmony in a fertile valley of the Wabash River.
Here again they prospered, and their numbers were added to by 130 immigrants from their native Wurtemburg. In 1825, plagued with the malaria in the bottomlands of the Wabash, and annoyed by unfriendly neighbors, they sold their village and the lands to Robert Dale Owens, the dreamer of New Lanark, for $150,000, and established a new settlement which they called Economy on the Ohio River, much of the area of which is now within the town of Ambridge.
At Economy the members of the Society quickly prospered. They had expert builders, craftsmen, and agriculturalists. Houses, shops, mills, factories, halls and best of all, the noble church rose quickly where before the Ohio had washed the banks of a virgin wilderness. Every house had its garden, and in the rear of the Great House, where George Rapp, the head of the Society lived there was a community garden, with fountains, arbors, and fruit trees.
The Pittsburgh district was just then in the beginning of its great development, and the Harmonites, which was their legal name, or the Eèonomites, as they were popularly known, gave substantial aid to the opening up of the country by financing the building of railroads and canals.
They were the liberal patrons also of education and the fine arts, the grounds on which Geneva College now stands being a donation from the Society.
At Beaver Falls they established a cutlery and imported five hundred Chinese coolies to work in the mill. Well do I remember whistling to keep my courage up when some night errand took me through the burial ground of these Chinese on a hilltop at the upper end of Beaver Falls. When the Chinamen had all disappeared, the bodies of these celestials who had been buried at Beaver Falls were faithfully and religiously transported to far off China.
The land on which the Economites built their interesting and successful commonwealth was purchased from the estate of Ephraim Blame, the father of the celebrated Republican statesman and orator, James G. Blame, who went down to defeat in his campaign for the presidency, known as the "Rum and Romanism" campaign, because of the famous and fatal alliteration of a Presbyterian minister; Dr. Burchard, who was speaking at a reception to Blame during the campaign in Brooklyn.
James G. Blame, because he was in Congress so long from Maine, is not popularly associated with Pennsylvania, but he is a product of Western Pennsylvania, and the ruins of the house in which he was born can still be seen - at least, ten years ago they could be seen - not far from Brownsville.
One of the interesting buildings still standing at Economy is the Great Hall, where the Society held three annual festivals, the Anniversary Celebration, the Harvest Home, and the Lord's Supper. On these occasions there was much feasting and singing, and before the celebration of the Lord's Supper, all members of the Society were reconciled one to another.
The Economites were intensely religious. Father Rapp was a devout premilennialist and many of his fol lowers at the time of his death in 1847 could not believe that he would die before the Lord came again. The members of the Society followed each one at length in the way of Father Rapp, "not having received the promise," and not having seen the Coming of their Lord.
In 1832 250 members of the society withdrew, taking much of the strength and the finances of the Community with them. A certain Bernhard Muller, the bogus Count de Leon, arrived in Pittsburgh, and sending messengers ahead to Economy, announced himself as the "Anointed of God, the stem of Judah and the root of David."
This imposter succeeded in winning many adherents and threw the whole community into strife and dissension. When he and his followers withdrew with their $100,000, they purchased 800 acres of land at Phillipsburg, further down the Ohio, and the site of the present town of Monaca. The fake Count de Leon met his end in Louisiana where he died of cholera.
Standing in the lofty bell tower of the church, I put my hand on the lip of the great bell, which was cast in Pittsburgh in the year 1836. Even the slightest caress of the hand evoked the sweetest melody from the bell; and listening to the pleasing cadence of the bell I thought of these simple, devout and highly capable Harmonites, who there had built up one of America's most flourishing communities.
Who knows but that the way to arrest and check the flood of paganism now pouring through America will be to establish communities like this; not with some of their extravagant ideas, nevertheless, communities whose members shall be taught all the useful occupations, where the arts will be cultivated, and where moral and religious principles shall be recognized and insisted upon as the foundation of true order and happiness.