Historical Markers
Old Economy Historical Marker
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Old Economy

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
PA 65 in Ambridge, across from site

Behind the Marker

In 1825, George Rapp and his followers left their New Harmony settlement on the banks of the Wabash River in Indiana to return to what they hoped would be more auspicious circumstances in Pennsylvania. According to Rapp, this settlement, named Economy, would end their wanderings for he believed Jesus would come in four years to take the Harmonists to live with him in Heaven. The group originally came from Wurttemberg, Germany, to Pennsylvania in 1804 seeking religious freedom and built their first settlement, Harmony, north of Pittsburgh.

In 1815 Rapp and his followers moved to the Indiana Territory and built New Harmony on the banks of the Wabash River. Ten years later, they returned to Pennsylvania, not too far from their original home. Economy would remain their home until the religious society ceased to exist in 1905.
An 1890 view of Economy, during its declining years. By this time the few remaining members were guided by John S. Duss (inset).
The Main Street of Economy, PA, circa 1890, and photograph of John S. Duss (inset).

In 1824, Rapp paid $150,000 for a heavily wooded parcel of land on the banks of the Ohio River, less than fifteen miles from Pittsburgh. An advance team of ninety followers then headed east from Indiana to clear land, lay out the town, build homes, a church and school, and otherwise prepare for the others, who would arrive the following year. Within a few years the 750 Harmonists created an economically self-sufficient village, a lively and prosperous center of commercial and industrial activity.

In the 1830s, Economy included a blacksmith's shop, brewery, carpenter's shop, cotton, wool, and flour mills, hat factory, saddle maker's shop, sawmill, shoemaker's shop, a silk weaving factory, a slaughterhouse, soap manufactory, tannery, whiskey distillery, and winery. Their businesses became so successful that the Harmonists employed outsiders and sold surplus goods in Pittsburgh and throughout the Ohio and Mississippi River basins.

This photo shows the interior of the Cabinet shop as it is today.
Interior of the Cabinet shop, Old Economy Village, Ambridge, PA, circa 2000....
Although their businesses prospered, the Harmonists faced a spiritual crisis when Christ did not appear, as Rapp had predicted, in 1829. But the faithful held onto their hope that the Son of God would arrive soon. A letter from a member of the flock in Germany raised hopes, for according to the message, "the anointed of the Lord" would reveal himself to the community in order to prepare them for the kingdom of heaven.

Rapp had long preached that this special messenger would be "the Lion of Judah," and in 1831 a number of the settlers at Economy believed he had finally arrived in the person of Bernhard Muller, who had led a group of fifty immigrants from Germany to join the holy community at Economy. Calling himself "Count Maximilian de Leon"–Leon is the Latin word for lion–Muller questioned Rapp's teachings and asserted that the faithful did not need to remain celibate. He soon assembled his own group of disciples. The resulting power struggle came to a head in 1832 when 500 members of the community voted to stay under Rapp's guidance and 250 elected to follow Muller.

By mutual agreement, Muller's followers took only their clothing and household items, relinquished all claims to the Society's property, and left with a financial settlement of $105,000. They then built their own utopian Christian settlement ten miles downstream at Phillipsburg, at the site of present day Monaca. In 1833 Muller and his followers left New Philadelphia, as the community was called, for Louisiana, where they founded a new settlement near Natchitoches.
Image of the exterior of the Hotel
The Harmonist Hotel, Economy, PA, circa 1890.

Although Rapp's religious community at Economy survived the crisis, it was never quite the same after the split. The Harmonists became more suspicious of outsiders wanting to join their community and turned away many potential converts. In 1834, the faithful suffered the loss of Father Rapp's adopted son, Frederick, who had been the person most responsible for their early economic success. The founder of the faith, Father Rapp, died thirteen years later in 1847, at the age of eighty-nine. On his deathbed, Rapp was still convinced that he would personally introduce his followers to God at the Second Coming. After Rapp's death, more people left Economy. Within a few months, only 288 men, women and children remained at the holy village.

Between 1852 and 1862, the Harmonists closed or sold off their silk weaving factory, cotton mill, and whiskey distillery. As the celibate members grew too old to work their own farms, they rented out land and hired outsiders to do much of the remaining labor. Father Rapp's treasurers had invested wisely, placing the religious society's money in coal mines, oil fields, oil refineries, and railroads. Between 1860 and 1890, the Harmony Society devoted some of its wealth to charitable work that included adopting orphaned and unwanted children and taking in poor people. It also sent money to other Christian utopian communities, including the Hutterites, who had settled in South Dakota, and the Templars or Zionitic Christians, who were settling near Jerusalem in Palestine.
Black and white exterior of buildings along the water
Harmonist drilling operation at Tidioute, PA, circa 1870.

As old leaders passed away, community cohesion began to crumble and the spirit of communal ownership broke down. In one case, the heirs of Elias Speidel, who had left the Harmonists to marry in 1828, sued the organization for $30,000. The case went all the way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where the Society eventually prevailed. Economic depressions that swept across the nation in the late 1800s drastically reduced the value of the Harmonists' investments. Acrimony over who was to blame for the community's decline darkened the few remaining years of the society's life.

In the 1890s, as the few living members grew old, they came to rely very heavily on the assistance and judgment of John and Susie Duss, a husband and wife whom they had recently admitted to the faith. In 1892, John Duss saved the organization from financial ruin by selling much of the community's property and liquidating other assets to pay off the Society's debts. He then joined the board of trustees. Some allege that from this position of power, Duss misappropriated the society's funds for his own pleasure. Considering himself a man of no small musical talents, Duss in 1903 took the New York City Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on a coast-to-coast tour as their "guest conductor"–at the community's expense. In his absence, his wife took over the board.

By the time Duss returned in 1905, Susie had convinced the two other members of the board to dissolve the Harmony Society and grant all its assets to her. After an eleven-year legal battle, the courts in 1916 divided the estate between the Dusses and the Commonwealth, which used its share to establish Old Economy Village as a museum and lasting memorial to the Harmony Society.
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