Sunday, January 24, 2010

Successful Communism in the Village of Zoar, Ohio?

The Society of Separatists established a flourishing communal village at Zoar, on the banks of the Tuscarawas River, in the early 19th Century. Were their decades of success due to their communistic form of governance or were other factors at play? And how we can apply the history lessons of Zoar to today’s business world?

The History of Zoar, Ohio

Zoar was settled in 1817 by German immigrants fleeing religious persecution in Southern Germany. Having previously renounced the official religion of Germany, Lutheranism, the Separatists suffered confiscation of their properties, imprisonment and flogging, leading to their immigration to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Arriving with few resources, the Separatists were aided by the local Quaker population, who housed the immigrants and loaned them $1,500 to purchase 5,500 acres in the Ohio wilderness of Tuscarawas County. Ohio, which had become a state in 1803, was still lightly populated and portions of the state were still owned under military land grants.

Several separatists traveled to Ohio in the fall of 1817 to establish the settlement, while the remaining immigrants following in the spring of 1818. During this time, the settlement was named Zoar, after the biblical town that Lot fled to after leaving Sodom.

Approximately 200 Separatists, now also called Zoarites, settled in Zoar. In addition to building houses and establishing their farms, the Zoarites worked to create an income to repay the Quaker loans. However, the Separatists were largely unskilled in the trades of the day, and their number included many older people. During the first winter, many Separatists were forced to hire themselves out to neighboring farmers to learn the trade and to earn an income to pay for their land loan. Some Zoarites even remained in Philadelphia, in order to apprentice and learn a trade.

Originally, each member family of the group was given their own share of the land, and then expected to pay back their share of the Quaker loan. By early 1819, the inequality in age and ability prevented some Zoarites from being able to pay their share, while others were much more successful. Further, a number of Separatists were living off-site, working outside of Zoar in order to be able to pay their share. To head off failure of the community, the Separatists decided to pool their personal resources and create the Society of Separatists of Zoar, a communal society.

The Zoarites Articles of Association required each person to donate their personal possessions to the Society. In return, the Society, through its elected directors, would take care of each person. Women were equal participants in the Society, with a vote and the ability to hold office (although no woman ever held an office). Later, in 1833, the Society incorporated under Ohio law, and also adopted a full constitution detailing duties and membership requirements.

Now working together as a group, the Society worked to indentify goods that they could produce and sell to neighboring communities so as to raise funds to repay the Quaker loans. And, the Zoarites also continued to clear and improve their communal land.

However, their initial efforts at communal living were not a success, as the reorganization had not solved the lack of productive ability among the settlers.

In 1821, salvation arrived with the Ohio and Erie Canal. The State of Ohio purchased a right-of-way through the Zoarite land, and, a few years later, paid the Zoarites $21,000 to dig the canal. This stroke of fortune allowed the Zoarites to not only repay their loans, but also establish a local industry capable of providing agricultural and industrial goods for the world outside the Society. In fact, at its zenith in 1853, the Society owned several canal boats, operated many businesses and expanded their land holdings, worth a million dollars in aggregate.

However, in 1853, the charismatic leader of the Zoarites, Joseph Bimeler died. Bimeler was elected leader of the Separatists as they were leaving Germany, and held that position until his death. Also the spiritual leader, Bimeler taught that industry and thrift was the way to heaven, to which every Zoarite aspired as the “chosen ones”.

Although the society weathered the storm of Bimeler’s passing, it did not fare as well with the industrial revolution. Stuck in pre-industrial revolution communal thinking, the various industries become less competitive in the marketplace by producing only old-style hand-manufactured goods. By 1898, the Society, now much less prosperous, divided their common property and disbanded.


In some ways, the life cycle of the Society of Zoar mirrors other communal societies in America, such as the Shakers. Prior to the 20th Century, local livelihood opportunities outside of the commune were limited and communal societies formed a welfare safety-net. A widow with children could join a communal society and be assured of food, shelter and a livelihood.

But, although outside converts bolstered the Shakers’ numbers well into the 20th Century, outside converts were rare at Zoar.

Religious communes were not unusual in the 19th Century, as many religious groups immigrated to America together. Certainly, gaining the full commitment of everyone in your organization was vitally important to a successful community, especially as these communities tended to be located close to the frontier and, thus, were required to be somewhat self-sufficient. In addition to being shunned by other society members, a lazy Zoarite might be destined for eternal damnation. This common religious belief system cannot be under-estimated as a factor in the success of Zoar.

But how was their form of Communism successful for so long?

First, the Zoarites practiced small “c” communism. Directors were publically elected every year as part of a great annual meeting. All members of the society had a voice, and could run for office. So, the Society ran as a democracy in terms of political oversight.

Second, here again in history, the work of a single person greatly influenced the success of the Society: Joseph Bimeler

By all accounts, Bimeler was an honest, plain man with a natural talent for leadership. He not only led the Separatists to Zoar, but also led them to prosperity. The original settlers and their immediate successors not only shared a deep religious conviction but also remembered the persecution of their homeland and the years of struggle to create Zoar. Bimeler, somewhat of a Moses figure, earned the life-long title as agent-general, directing the business of the commune, as a direct result of that success.

In addition to supervising the Society, Bimeler was also the chief religious leader. As such, he was no doubt able to mold and direct the community’s thinking. Although he never wrote a sermon, saying he preferred to come to the pulpit with an empty mind to be filled by God with a sermon, he held powerful sway on the community.

One example of this sway was his preaching in opposition to marriage in the first decade of the Society. Although marriage was accepted in Zoar, it was not encouraged as a general practice until about 1830. This radical change was brought on by Bimeler’s own marriage to a young woman who had caught his eye in 1828.

Another example of his unique position in the Society was his home, which was the grandest home in Zoar. Considered as fine a home that could be found on the Western frontier at the time it was built in the 1830’s, Bimeler lived in the grand home with his wife until his death.

When Bimeler died in 1853, the Society at Zoar was a thriving business town, with businesses and property worth approximately $29 million in today’s dollar. By the end of the century, The Society of Zoar was divided up, with a rough total worth of $8 million in today’s dollars.

Why the decline?

When Bimeler died, there was no one who could take his place as both the administrative and the spiritual leader of the Society. As the early Zoarites died, the newer generations did not relate to the suffering of the early Separatists, nor did they find powerful spiritual leadership to motivate them in their daily lives.

Further, the Zoar business model at Bimeler’s death was based on the canal economy of the day, which included small-scale handmade manufacturing industries. While the early, struggling Zoarites embraced the new canal-based economy, the later- and wealthier- Zoarites did not embrace the industrial revolution of the later 19th Century.

Zoar became stagnant, both spiritually and economically. And, in an interesting turn of fate, Joseph Bimeler’s grandson, Levi, was the loudest voice in support of dissolution of the Society in the 1890’s. In 1898, every member received land, a house and cash, in order to make it on their own in the new century.

Lessons for Today

In today’s business world, replacing a charismatic founder is a very difficult task, in some cases an impossible task. Does anyone believe that Berkshire Hathaway would be nearly as enticing without Warren Buffet? Or, that Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants would be as good without the founder? The personality drives the business.

Certainly, the arrival of the Ohio and Erie Canal saved the Society at Zoar, but, then again, luck plays a part in business today, especially in new industries. Why did Google become Google, but other search engines fail? Partially, at least, luck played a role.

When a charismatic founder leaves the business, through choice or by death, the business cannot remain in a time capsule. Rather than stick to all the old ways, it must grow, and change and find its new business “mojo”. This does not mean rejecting the past, but rather building on it to meet the future. The daily “religion” of that business must be new and fresh to those who come along after the founder has left the business.

The founders, like Bimeler, take risks and grow the business in the early days. Later, the founders tend to stick to the status quo, partially due to human nature and partially due to past and current success. But a business must change and grow, or else it will eventually die like Zoar.

And there are lessons for today’s business teams, since charismatic team members affect internal business operations too. A successful salesperson, a fabulous operations manager or a highly efficient administrative assistant are difficult to replace successfully. Again, that team needs to grow and change in certain ways to both allow the new arrival to successfully integrate into the team and also to keep the team moving forward. At the team level, it might not even be the official team leader, but rather the unofficial leaders whose leaving causes problems.

People are not cogs in a wheel. Everyone has their own strengths, experiences and weaknesses. Why think that a team or business, which is made up of individuals, should be exactly the same forever, no matter who is in the leadership role?

Sounds simple, but such narrow thinking happens all the time in business today.

More than any form of government, Joseph Bimeler established the success of the Society of Separatists at Zoar. Through his own leadership ability, the benefits of a strong religious tradition and the arrival of the Ohio and Erie Canal, he was able to create the foundations for success. After his death, the Society lacked the inner mojo to adapt to the future and slowly faded away, like so many businesses founded by a charismatic leader.

History of the Zoar Society, by E. O. Randall, Second Edition, 1900, Published by the Press of Fred Heer, Columbus, Ohio via Google books.

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