The Harmony Society Cemetery

I’m getting married this autumn, and I recently found the dress of my dreams at a local shop in a hamlet north of Pittsburgh, that goes by the name of Zelienople.  It’s a quaint town, where the main street is actually called Main Street.  It has such a strange name, and I’ll admit I’ve always wondered where it came from; was it Native American, or Dutch or perhaps even Pennsylvania Dutch?  It’s exotic spelling actually has a rather anodyne history.

Western Pennsylvania attracted a lot of German* immigrants in the first wave of immigration to the States formerly known as Colonies. (Sorry, bad Prince reference).  They settled all over the state, but particularly in the western portion of Penn’s Woods (along with the Irish).  One of those immigrants was Baron Dettmar Basse, who made the arduous journey in pursuit of wealth, liberty and happiness, and purchased land just north of Pittsburgh in Butler County.  His eldest daughter’s name was Zelie, (just add the -ople, a Greek suffix derived from polis and added to names of cities and towns to denote government and administration) and you have the name of the town which grew up around his property.  The land Baron Basse bought was wild and untamed; the Natives had been displaced years before, the forest was thick and dense and there were few other settlers in the area.

Baron Basse did have some company up in the county that Pittsburghers call The Great White North. Just a short walk from what is today downtown Zelienople, the Harmony Society had set up shop on their first commune in the New World, known as (unsurprisingly), Harmony.  The Harmony Society, or, Harmonists, Harmonites, or Rappites, (as they were lead by Johann Georg Rapp), left their home in the Duchy of Wurttemberg due to religious persecution by the resident pious Lutherans.  His followers, known as Separatists, isolated themselves from the mainstream religion and continued to grow in numbers.  They eventually emigrated to the United States (the whole freedom of religion thing was a major draw) and became neighbors to Baron Basse.  I am unsure how neighborly they actually were.

So since I was traveling by myself to try on my dress, and therefore would not be patronizing the amazing Harmony Inn (another post on that later!), I felt the need to make the 45 minute trip even more worthwhile.  I knew most of the cool little museums in the area would be closed by the time I was done with my fitting, so I found something that would hopefully not be closed, the Harmony Society Cemetery.

I know it’s unintentional, but doesn’t that ominous gate look like a WWI German soldier’s helmet? Just saying.

As cool as that sounds, I was definitely disappointed. Mostly because I couldn’t go through the cool swinging stone door and look around; when I pushed on it, it refused to move.  I’m not sure if it was locked, or the post was rusted.  Not that there was a lot to see, as the Harmonists did not use tombstones, preferring to instead use rocks to cover their unmarked graves.  However, according to the Butler Co. website, there is 1 marked grave, that of the son of founder Georg Rapp, Johannes Rapp.  I couldn’t see his stone while peering over the edge, unfortunately.

Historical marker with the full German text (and translation) of the original inscription.

I’ll admit that the weather was perfect though; overcast, chilly and windy; approaching dusk on a Friday in March.  There was no rain or snow, but it was threatening.   I only wish I got more pictures from different angles.

View from peering over the wall on my tip toes.

Just wishful thinking, but I’d be curious to snap some pictures at night, and see what the camera picks up that my eyes can’t.  Perhaps next time?


*I have to make the point that Germany as we know it wasn’t even a united state until 1871, if my memory serves me right.  I’ve just never been comfortable lumping these people under the title “German” when that did not exist; they were Saxons, or Bavarians, or citizens of the Duchy of Wurttemberg, etc. We do not call the mercenaries who fought for the British in the American Revolution German, we call them Hessians, because they were from Hesse!

Sources and further reading:


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