Zoar Village, Two Centuries After Founding, Survives The Floods

Jun 2, 2017

Scott Gordon, mayor of Zoar Village, was driving a tractor when I caught up with him. It was the weekend Zoar celebrated the opening of its new art museum, and the dedication of the town as a National Historic Landmark.

Before the crowds could arrive though, the 77-year-old mayor had to clear some debris from the roads. That's actually pretty fitting for the leader of Zoar, a village that - from its founding through the end of the 19th century - operated as a communal society.

“There’s still only about 175 people here," Gordon says. "Not that you don’t still get some complaints.”

Founded In Famine

Zoar was founded 200 years ago this year, when 150 members of The Society of Separatists of Zoar settled on a parcel of land in northeast Ohio. A German religious sect that had broken off from the Lutheran Church, the Zoarites were pushed to the bottom of society as Napoleon began to invade Germany in the early 1800s - in large part because of their nonviolent beliefs.

In 1817, Gordon says, the Zoarites fled their swamp town for the United States, where a group of Quakers took them in and sold them land. They came at a daunting moment: A volcanic explosion in Indonesia, two years earlier, had kicked off a global famine.

Due to a lack of sunlight and a drop in temperatures worldwide, crops were difficult to harvest.

“They were in like a survival mode when they came here, and they decided the only way they could survive was pull their resources and become a communal society," Gordon says.

Under the rules of the commune, Zoarites wouldn't have money or personal property; rather, Gordon says, all the crops and goods produced by the town would be distributed evenly among families.

(These rules were eventually affirmed by no other than the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1853 in favor of the town against a family that wanted to leave the commune and cash out their shares.)

Top: Joseph Bimeler's house, one of the two remaining structures from Zoar's founding in 1817. Left: The Zoar Hotel, which was constructed in 1833. Right: Zoar Church, constructed in 1853.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg

The structures of the commune are still visible in the town today. Walking around the small village, Gordon points out numbers on each house. Those numbers were assigned to residents for the purposes of collecting produce and products.

Luckily, Gordon says, the Zoarites were skilled laborers.

“My ancestors - I'm a descendant actually - my ancestors ran the woolen mill. Kappel was their name," Gordon says. "And on the other side, the Sturm side, he was a wagon maker.”

Zoar eventually established flour mills, cider mills and breweries. But the turning point for the young society, Gordon says, was the construction of the Ohio and Erie Canals.

When the canal was being built in 1825, the entire society pitched in - digging up seven miles of land and using the money to pay off debt and buy more land. Another wave of society members joined in the 1830s. From then, Zoar was self-sufficient. The town calls itself one of the country's most successful communal societies.

The canal allowed the technologically advanced town to ship things like fruit and grain to Canton, Akron and up to Cleveland. At its peak, Zoar boasted some 300 residents.

"They had all their needs taken care of," Gordon claims. "Not too many complaints."

Celebrating its 200th anniversary this year, Zoar Village only has about 175 residents.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg

Turning Outward

When Zoar established itself, Joseph Bimeler was its charismatic leader. Bimeler directed the town's religious pursuits as well as its industrial ones, giving dissertations from his home that he claimed were related directly from God.

Bimeler died in 1853, and for the most part, the church died with him. Over the years, the Zoar Church integrated itself into existing congregations, eventually becoming a United Church of Christ.

Though the town trustees continued to keep the society alive for almost half a century longer, Gordon says that no one could lead like Bimeler. After the Cleveland, Tuscawaras Valley and Wheeling Railway arrived in 1875 - flooding the town with summer tourists - Gordon says villagers really began to "grumble."

"It changed Zoar - whether good or bad - but nevertheless it did change," Gordon says.

With ample opportunities for work and leisure in the surrounding areas, villagers no longer needed or wanted the seclusion of Zoar. So the town trustees decided to dissolve the commune, divvying up the property equally to all residents and auctioning off livestock.

The town continued pretty much as normal after that - until about one decade ago.

Near Destruction

Walking around Zoar Village, it's hard not to see the levee. It looks like a large, grassy hill curling all the way around the town. 

Zoar Levee was built in 1937 to protect the village from water impounded upstream of Dover Dam.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg

Zoar sits within what the Army Corps of Engineers calls a "flowage easement." When the Army Corps constructed nearby Dover Dam and other projects in the 1930s, the government maintained the right to impound water upstream in these flowage easements.

In most cases, the government bought and moved communities that fell within these zones. But Ohio wanted to preserve Zoar, so it constructed a levee around it.

“In Zoar’s instance, what we know is that it was chosen for a levee because of the cultural and historical value it could provide the region," says Aaron Smith, a senior project manager for the Army Corps.

Smith oversees projects in Ohio, West Virginia and other states. He says it's pretty normal for Dover Dam to push water to its flowage easements, and almost always Zoar Levee stops the water there.

An aerial view of the Zoar Levee, including where an emergency rock blanket was added in 2008.
Credit Army Corps of Engineers

But in 2005, a huge rain storm and large snow melt pushed a record amount of water against that levee, for a duration it had never seen before. The levee had to hold back another large amount of water in 2008.

Both times, the water started leaking through, underneath the ground.

“We saw concern that the foundation under the levee might be eroding," Smith says.

That was cause for panic in the town.

“There was an emergency situation here that the levee could possibly breach," Gordon recalls. "And if the levee breached, it would flood the whole village.”

Villagers were on 24/7 evacuation notice in case the levee failed. Gordon says residents had to make a list of the stuff they would take with them and what they'd leave behind.

The Army Corps, at the cost of $1.9 million, worked around the clock to put in place a rock blanket on the knoll, which would stabilize the levee.

While the Army Corps undertook a risk assessment for the levee, they was forced to consider alternatives to repairs, including moving the village or destroying it entirely. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Zoar as one of the country's most endangered historic places in 2012.

Luckily, Smith says, the situation turned out to not be so dire. 

Smith says the Army Corps study found the levee's condition wasn't as dangerous as previously thought, and lowered the urgency of the project. Already they've installed $7 million worth of relief wells along the levee, which will reduce pressure, and added another station to pump water back over.

Aaron Smith of the Army Corps of Engineers stand in front of Zoar Levee and two of the newly-constructed relief wells. He's overseeing the $8 million project to permanently secure the levee's safety.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg

Now, Smith says they're beginning to budget for a longer-term fix that would add a filter and armor underneath the ground, preventing soil erosion. Provided their $8 million proposal is approved for the 2019 fiscal year, Smith estimates the project will take about two years to design and a year and a half to build.

“Really, from a visual standpoint, when everything’s said and done, you won’t see much," Smith says. "It will be an unexciting project to ribbon-cut, other than we’ve reduced some significant risks.”

A Complete Circle

Inside Zoar's old sewing house, built sometime in the 1840s, Nancy Gordon Wyatt is preheating an oven and boiling a pot of lye. 

She's making the famous Zoar Pretzels.

"My recipe came from my great-great-grandmother," Wyatt tells me, "and she passed it along to her daughter, then her daughter, then her daughter, then me."

Wyatt is the sister of Scott Gordon, and like him was raised just outside Zoar Village. She says these pretzels - crispy on the outside, soft on the inside - come from the Württemberg area of Germany, the same region as the Zoarites.

Though her mother kneaded the dough by hand - exactly 621 times - Wyatt uses a KitchenAid mixer, before letting the dough rise twice. The actual cooking is a delicate dance: A few seconds in the lye bath, onto the tray, sprinkled with sea salt, then into the oven, and out after just a few minutes.

Nancy Gordon Wyatt holds up a freshly-baked Zoar Pretzel, which she says comes from a recipe passed down from her great-great-grandmother.
Credit Gabe Rosenberg

It takes her three hours to make 32 pretzels, which is why she only bakes them now for special events, like that night's museum opening.

Between batches, Wyatt tells me she's seen a resurgence in interest in Zoar since the levee made national news. And just last year, the town - with the help of the Ohio History Connection and the Army Corps survey - won the designation of a National Historic Landmark.

Baking the Zoar Pretzels, she says, is her own contribution to preserving the town's legacy.

As Zoar celebrates its bicentennial, she tells me that feels like a complete circle.

“When you’re a part of Zoar, and know the history, you want to pass it on," Wyatt says. "So hopefully, after I stop baking, maybe somebody else will take my place.”