The history of the Thumb’s Ora Labora Michigan colony in the 1860s generates intense interest. It was a grand experiment. Establish a religious community of like-minded folks in the Michigan wilderness and create a viable town. It was stuff that reality TV shows like Survivor started. The fact that the colony lasted as long as it did is amazing.
Several years ago I established a new site, ora-labora.org, to house research and digital assets specific to the religious colony. However, maintaining two sites is a lot of overhead and I had invested a lot of improvements in Thumbwind. So as a result over the next weeks, I’m moving all the “Ora” content to Thumbwind.com and placing it in its own dedicated area.
The following is the first of five posts covering the initial formation of the colony starting in 1862. The research is from primary sources housed at the University of Michigan and translated from Old German. I have taken a bit of liberty with some historical fictionalization in order to weave a story from the bits and pieces of letters and meeting minutes. However, the dates and events all are from these primary sources. I hope you enjoy reading it has much as I have researched and authoring it.
Part One – A New Society Begins in East Saginaw Michigan
It was a bitter fall day in late November. It seemed only a couple of days ago that Herman was enjoying a warm spell. The bright red leaves from the few maples on the river had already fallen. Now he stoked the fire in the parlor and waited for his guests to arrive. They had made significant progress. Over the past several days, he, his brother Edward and H. Mens made a detailed inspection of several hundred acres on Wild Fowl Bay. This was land that his church had pulled together from the State of Michigan. With funds of $25 from each member, they held an initial 700 acres with homestead options of about 6,000 more. They found a nearly ideal spot in the thick forest and cedar swamp in which to clear the trees and set up the hamlet. Herman was anxious to report on their progress.
This was the first meeting of the Christian German Agricultural and Benevolent Society of Ora et Labora. He was reviewing the Homestead document that Emil Baur had received from the land office in East Saginaw only a few days before. Emil was sent by the Harmony Society in Economy, Pennsylvania, to establish a colony where its members would pray and work and live according to the Methodist Church discipline. Ora Labora was to expand the thriving Pennsylvania colony and drawn to Michigan with the promise of land and plentiful resources. When at last, they all met in the parlor, Baur, Herman Edward, and Men’s agreed to send workers to the newly selected site to clear the land for the initial settlement. Each of the local men would get $1.50 a day plus food. The fallen trees were to be used for the settlers to build the first lodges of the colony. Time was critical; the land would have to be clear for an encampment in preparation for the new immigrants that were to arrive in the Spring.
German Settler Exodus from Ohio to Michigan
It was a stormy early spring day in 1863 on Michigan’s Saginaw Bay. The wind howled fresh from the northeast bringing large swells and froth in from Lake Huron. In the early hours of the morning, the schooner rounds the tip of Michigan’s Thumb on its final leg of the voyage, having left from Cleveland two days before. The captain is careful to avoid the rocky shoals at this point in the journey. They sailed past the waters that have claimed many ships near Pointe Aux Barques, a rocky outcropping penned by French mapmakers in the 1600’s meaning “Boat Point.”
On deck, the 28 families notice that the winds quiet down, and the lake has calmed as they pass to the south of Charity Island with its tall white lighthouse. A finger of land jutting out into the lake, known as Sand Point, breaks the wind from the north. A crew member points to the shore and tells the passengers that the US Army encamped Sand Point for several years. The army was surveying the Bay and Lake Huron to make its first set of official charts.
The ship quietly slips into Wild Fowl Bay. The tall virgin pine and oak trees lining the beach and loom over the ship as it anchors. Sensing another storm. The crew and the men push the cows and oxen up on deck then heave them overboard to swim to shore. The crew takes on the task of lowering the longboats, passengers, and possessions and row to shore. The families make their way to the sandy beach and gather stones to build a small altar to give thanks for their safe journey. This “altar of dedication” was then used from then on for religious services as the colony grew. Their new home, the Ora Labora colony, was now in the initial days of its core mission to “Pray and Work.”
Utopian Religious Communes of the 1800s
It was 15 years before they arrived at Michigan’s Wild Fowl Bay that the planning for the Ora Labora Michigan religious colony began. Utopian religious communes were established in the burgeoning communities on the edge of wilderness areas. The Harmony Society, founded in Germany, recruited Emil Baur to look for a new German Religious colony based on the success of its site in Pennsylvania. The Harmony Society settlement was self-sufficient by textile miles producing cotton and woolen garments. It also had a sawmill, a tannery, and cultivated wine from its vineyards and made distilled spirits.
Emil came to Michigan on and off starting in 1847 when much of the state was still wilderness. Still, the new country was rapidly being bought up by speculators. Michigan was encouraging settlement by German farmers by distributing pamphlets printed in German about available land and made an example of the Frankenmuth settlement. This impressed the Society’s leadership, and they urged Emil to return to Michigan to complete his search for a suitable community. Baur needed to a large tract of land away from the temptations of the city, and he needed it cheap. He found Huron County in Michigan’s Thumb ideal. With $20,000 from the Society and $25 from each settler family, he could cobble together several hundred acres of land with options on 3,000 more on the eastern shore of Saginaw Bay in 1862.
Michigan’s Wild Fowl Bay Was Not A Garden of Eden
The site of Wild Fowl Bay was only 30 miles from the bustling lumber town of Saginaw, yet the area was still untouched. White pine and oak towered high and created a canopy over the forest floor. Wild fruit was plentiful. Blueberry’s, plums, grapes, wild crab apples, both red and black raspberries, strawberries, and cranberries found conditions ideal near the marshy areas. Deer were plentiful, and the bay abounded in fish. He discovered that shoal bottomed lake schooners could navigate close to shore, and he could build a pier for shipping. There was plenty of government land at $1.25 an acre. The colony could buy a substantial holding and have room to expand.
Once upon the shore local legend speaks that each of the weary travelers took a rock from the shoreline and made a small altar. They said prayers and gave thanks for their safe delivery to their new home on the edge of the wilderness.
The families gathered their belongings from the beach and followed the Baur through the forest. The encampment area had been painstakingly cleared the year before by local labor. Situated about a half-mile inland from the bay, the settlement had already been planned on paper. In pure German efficiency, the main street was plotted, and each homestead cabin had its place for a future building effort. The colonists spent the first part of the year clearing more land, draining marshy areas, and erecting log houses.
Successful Utopian Communities of the 1800s
|The Harmony Society||100 Years||1804-1904|
|Saint Nazianz||42 Years||1854-1896|
|Bethel & Aurora||36 Years||1844-1880|
Ora Labora’s Initial Success
By the summer of 1863, the colony started having its first visits by benefactors who had supported and invested in the effort. Rev. Jakob Krehbiel, a pioneer of German Methodism, was much impressed by the scene as he came by steamer ship up Saginaw Bay. He found the Union flag flying over fourteen log homes for its twenty-eight families. He also found the soil sandy, and many areas left to drain, as the land was low almost to the water level of the nearby bay.
The settlers lived in blockhouses arranged in two straight rows and providing shelter for about a hundred persons. Each family ate at its own table but received provisions from the general store on credit. Fruits and vegetables were scarce. The community-owned several cows, but the nearest market for butter and eggs was fourteen miles away. The major part of the colony’s income still came from lumbering and not farming as much of the land was yet to be cleared. The settlers traded with local Indians for essential food provisions such as venison and fresh fish.
The Ora Labora Michigan Colony Grows Quickly
With the homes built, the men made a homemade sawmill. This enabled them to utilize planks instead of logs for other buildings. Tables and benches appeared in the common eating area. Men finished the roofs of the homes with wide, hand-hewn shingles called shakes, split from oak logs. The children gathered the smooth stones from the beach for the chimneys chinked with mud. The colony was starting to look like a town.
As the settlers of the colony become more organized, a work routine was agreed upon and established. The settlement awakened at 5 am with the blowing of the horn. At 5:30, Morning Prayer was held. Breakfast was at 6:00 am. Twice a day, the colony gathered to worship. In February 1863, they agreed that the working hours were from 6:30 am to noon, then 1:00 to 6 pm Saturdays all work ceased at 3 pm to prepare for the Sabbath. In April, a cemetery was established as the colony had its first death, a five-year-old little girl. A mill was also approved to be built for grinding of wheat and rye flour. The colony had taken its first steps and it looked promising.
- Ora Labora: Experiment in Communal Living, Caseville Historical Society, Unpublished.
- Translated Letters of Ora Labora from Dr. Robert Conway. Private Collection.
- Ora Labora — A German Methodist Colony. Parts I & II, May 1982, Adrian College
- The New History of Michigan’s Thumb – Utopian Experiment on Saginaw Bay
Questions About Ora Labora
The Ora Labora Michigan colony appears to have been founded and operated so that members could combine work with prayer, and live according to the Methodist Church discipline.
During the mid to late 1800’s, there were several movements to promote and foster religious and communal societies. They were not specific to Germany, but wealthy and ruling families.
During the late 1800’s, there was a movement by wealthy barons in Europe to establish Jewish colonies all over the world. One of the barons was Moritz de Hirsch, who made his fortune in Russia’s railroads under the Czar. Hirsch’s solution was to establish colonies for Jewish agriculture.
In the United States, German immigrants near Pittsburgh established a successful religious colony called Harmony. Its success led to other colonies being established, including Ora Labora.
Continue the Ora Labora Michigan Story
- Part Two: The Colony Grows and expands in 1863
- Part Three: Ora Labora Faces a Looming War
- Part Four: The Civil War Years Cripples the Colony
- Part Five: The Final Vibrant Days of the Colony 1866
- Letters from Ora Labora 1862 -1898