Ohio Life

Saving a Historic Treasure

Residents of Zoar fear flooding will eliminate their special heritage

The village of Zoar is no stranger to strife. The German separatists who founded this northeast Ohio hamlet in 1817 faced famine, financial hardship and a bitterly cold winter as they settled on 5,500 acres bordering the Tuscarawas River. But adversity did not deter the assemblage of 53 men and 104 women from their objective: To create a communal society based on religious freedom and egalitarianism. They followed a doctrine that included division of church and state and equality for all.

Today, the tiny Tuscarawas County town (population 193) offers homage to that perseverance. Over the last 70 years, 53 buildings — ranging from a blacksmith’s shop to a bakery to a schoolhouse — and private homes have been painstakingly preserved and meticulously restored with help from the Ohio Historical Society, the Zoar Community Association and residents. Some 16,000 tourists travel to the village each year to take a turn churning butter, crafting hand-dipped candles, weaving rugs on a vintage loom and tasting food prepared during 19th-century cooking demonstrations. But sadly, there’s a chance that tide may soon turn. Zoar is once again in the midst of struggle. Only this time, it’s a battle against a force of nature so severe that the danger of extinction looms. The village’s nightmare began in 2005 and continued in 2008, when winter storms caused water from the Tuscarawas River to back up against a 76-year-old levee. The resulting seepage caused significant flooding throughout the 16-block historic district, drenching basements and rendering roads impassable.

To guard the embankment against erosion, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers initiated steps that included fortifying it with 37 tons of gravel, installing a generator at the levee’s pumping station and constructing new water collection systems. But those were just interim measures. The agency deemed the embankment to be a Dam Safety Action Classification 1, meaning the need for repairs is “urgent and compelling.” The corps is in the middle of a multiyear study to determine how best to manage the problem.

There are no easy answers. Myriad options are being analyzed, including fixing the levee, which could require millions of dollars and significant construction; moving 90 percent of the historic structures contained in the flood area to higher ground — or allowing the federal government to purchase the village with the intention of perhaps demolishing much of it.

Clearly, the latter two solutions hold the least appeal for Zoar residents, fiercely proud of their town’s storied past and location. Last spring, village officials asked the National Trust for Historic Preservation to weigh in. And it did without hesitation: In June, the nonprofit organization added Zoar to its 2012 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Since 1988, the trust has used its annual register to raise awareness about the threats facing some of our country’s greatest attractions. (Last year, Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota and New York’s Ellis Island Hospital Complex were also among the sites included.)

“Zoar is a treasure,” explains Jennifer Sandy, senior field officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Chicago office. “The village is nationally significant and filled with wonderful stories about immigration, the American Experience and the way so many of our ancestors created their own communities.

“Visiting Zoar,” she adds, “is like a trip back in time. Since no modern buildings intrude, you get a clear sense of what life was like back then.”

Beverly Crank agrees. A 40-year resident of the neighboring town of Bolivar, she relishes afternoons spent volunteering as a costumed interpreter in Zoar. The past melds with the present as Crank describes the town 150 years ago: Villagers, she explains, named their colony after the Biblical town where Lot sought refuge from Sodom. Along with the iconic seven-pointed star of Bethlehem, the separatists chose the acorn from which the mighty oak grows as their symbol of strength. They eschewed baptism and confirmation, and did not celebrate holy days, except for the Sabbath. Zoarites tended their own land, spun their own wool, made their own clothing and manned their own flour mill, iron foundry and general store, and earned $21,000 for digging the seven-mile stretch of the Ohio & Erie Canal that passed through their hamlet.

“The society was almost entirely self-sufficient, with members pooling their resources to meet each other’s needs,” explains Jennifer Donato, site manager for Zoar’s historic district. “As a result, the community became an important economic force and trading center for the region. Residents exported goods that included beer, butter, cheese, grain, tools and woolen fabric north to Cleveland and south to Portsmouth.

“In the mid-1800s,” she adds, “the group’s assets totaled over 1 million dollars. It was an ingenious way to survive.”

Needless to say, it didn’t take long for Zoar to become a mecca for travelers interested in learning what the lifestyle was all about. Like visitors of yesteryear, today’s tourists enjoy meandering the quiet pathways of the community garden, located in the village square. Planted by Zoarites in 1829, it symbolizes the “new” Jerusalem that’s described in the Book of Revelation. The 2 1/2-acre plat is replete with a dozen juniper trees (symbolizing the 12 Apostles), a 90-foot-tall Norwegian spruce representing eternal life, and beds of peonies, lilies, phlox, hibiscus and hydrangea.

By all appearances, Zoar was its own utopia. But in 1898, as a new century approached and contemporary trappings of a modern age intruded, members voted to dissolve the society.

Their history has remained unthreatened. Until now.

Aaron Smith, the Army Corps of Engineer’s lead planner on the Zoar study, appreciates the town’s significance.

“The village is a pretty unique asset,” he says. “We understand the anxiety the problem is creating.

“We’re looking for a [solution],” Smith adds, “that has the best benefits, not the one that’s least costly.”

To reinforce the town’s importance, Donato, mayor Larry Bell and Zoar Community Association President Jon Elsasser have launched a Save Historic Zoar campaign. The crusade includes contacting the Army Corps of Engineers to lobby for preservation. For more information, visit savehistoriczoar.org.

History Programs
The Zoar School House sets the scene for discussions and demonstrations
led by Ohio historians. Topics include:

Feb. 2: “Ohio Women and the Civil War Home Front”
March 2: “A Sorrowful Journey: Indian Removal from Ohio”
April 6: “Billy Yank: Life of Soldier”
May 4: “Zoar and the Quakers of Kendal, Ohio”
June 1: Civil War cavalry presentation
July 6: “The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Pursuit of John Wilkes Booth”
Sept. 7: “Sojourner Truth”
Oct. 5: “History Myths”
Nov. 2: “Cholera Epidemics”

Don’t Miss
Experience 19th-century life in Zoar by participating in these special events:

Feb. 20, Mar. 9 and 13,  Apr. 11: Learn to weave on a two-harness floor loom. Students will make a finished project to take home.
Apr. 20: Zoar Community Association presents a garden-themed dinner at the Zoar School House and an auction of items for home and garden.
Apr. 27: Beginning blacksmithing class explores the craft’s basics.
May 23: Watercolor painting class, held on Thursdays for six weeks, focuses on Zoar architecture.
July 7: Family Fun Day gives visitors a chance to experience 1850s life in Zoar. Hands-on activities include a scavenger hunt and getting to know the animals in a petting zoo.
Aug. 3-4: 40th Annual Harvest Festival and Antique Show features a juried craft show, quality antiques, an art show and horse-drawn wagon rides.

For more information, visit historiczoarvillage.com or call 330/874-3011.