Trace Magazine

Collection of Ora Labora Letters Discovered in Ohio

In this month’s issue of TRACE Magazine, it was revealed that the Archives of Michigan is now in possession of a collection of Ora Labora letters. These correspondences are written in English and German by Emil and Bertha Baur and other family members. The letters were found in Cincinnati in 1974 and sent to the Historical Society of Michigan in 2018. In 2019, the letters transferred to the Archives of Michigan.

The number and overall content of the Ora Labora letters are still under review. Each has to be scanned, transcribed, and translated, some of the content pre-dates the establishment of the Ora et Labora colony in 1861. The religious colony was located just north of present-day Bay Port on the shores of Wild Fowl Bay.

Ora Labora was Not the First Name of the Colony

The letters were written in cursive in an old form of German called “Kurrent”, or colloquially “Deutsche Schrift“. Archivist Leslie Edwards is working Professor Emeritus Patrick McConeghy, formerly of the Department of Linguistics & Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages at Michigan State University, along with volunteers and graduate students, to convert the collection to English. A painstaking and lengthy process. Their focus is first on those letters that appear to relate to the Ora Labora colony.

Emil Baur
Emil Baur, ca 1870. The Emil and Bertha Baur Papers, MS 2019-90, Archives of Michigan

One historical nugget already found in the letters was Emil Baur’s early references to the colony. One draft letter dated March 13, 1862, revealed the initial name for the colony as “der deutsche christliche Hinderwälderwohlthätigkeitsverein”. This translates today as “German Charitable Backwoodsmens’ Benevolent Society”. The official name eventually became the “Christian German Agricultural and Benevolent Society of Ora et Labora” or “Ora Labora” (pray and work).

This collection of Baur Papers date from 1848 through 1905, and consists of; letters and family photographs. The topics include Baur family letters, Emil Baur’s work as an educator and agriculturalist in Ann Arbor, his religious writings, the German colony of Ora Labora in Huron County , and the work of Baur’s sister, Clara, and his daughter, Bertha, at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.”

When the project is completed portions of the translated collection will be available online at Michiganology.org.

To read the original article go to the Backwoodsman Correspondence in TRACE.

Interest in Ora Labora is Growing

Initial research on Ora Labora is credited to Florence McKinnon Gwinn of Caseville. In 1922, she published an article entitled “A Community Experiment” in the book Pioneer History of Huron County, Michigan. It was published by Huron County Pioneer and Historical Society. It provided an overview of the colony and is considered the starting point for most researchers on the topic.

In April of 2020 Hamilton College published, American Communal Societies Quarterly an article entitled; The “Christian German Agricultural and Benevolent, Society of Ora et Labora” by Dr. Walter A. Brumm provided an examination of the major reasons that Ora et Labora failed to thrive. The article also offers an excellent list of sources. The publication also contains a manuscript containing a brief history of the colony written by founder Emil Baur. Baur offered his own reasons for the colony’s demise.

Thumdwind’s Historical Fiction Stories of Ora Labora

Ora Labora Cover Art

My interest in the colony has resulted in the writing of an on-line series of historical fiction revolving around the Michigan Thumb colony. The story is based on translated letters from the colony in a private collection. This series takes readers on account of the rise and fall of Ora Labora during the 1860s.

Ora Labora – A Lost Colony In Michigan’s North – Part I – Ora Labora is known as “Christian German Agricultural, and Benevolent Society of Ora et Labora” (Pray and Work), where it’s parishioners could combine work with prayer, and live according to the Methodist Church Discipline. They were founded in 1861 on Michigan’s Wild Fowl Bay in the Thumb.

Ora Labora – A Lost Colony in Michigan’s North – Part II – of the Ora Labora story takes place in the summer of 1863. The colony building is rapid and progress exciting in Michigan’s north. But the looming effect of the Civil War is about to impact this fledgling German religious colony.

Ora Labora – A Lost Colony in Michigan’s North – Part III – of the Ora Labora story brings us to 1864. The rapid growth of the colony was costly and the society needs funds to grow. It was time for drastic measures. The raging war in the south was turning in the North’s favor.

Ora Labora – A Lost Colony in Michigan’s North – Part IV – of the Ora Labora story starts during Christmas 1864. The Colonies funds and provisions are low and its leader Emil Baur is begging his benefactors for loans to make it through the winter of 1865. With the war in its closing days, the colony is hopeful.

Ora Labora – The Final Days Of The Colony 1866 – Part V – Ora Labora’s final viable year as a religious colony in the wilderness of the upper thumb of Michigan was 1866. We reveal the final desperate attempts to keep it going.

Other Ora Labora letters Stories and Research

Emil Baur Cabin
Emil Baur Cabin

Emil Baur Provided Relief To The Indians Residing At Ora Labora After The 1871 Great Fire – In October of 1871, a great forest fire swept across much of the Thumb region including the section of Michigan that included the lands of the former colony of Ora Labora. The colony was in the process of being disbanded and the lands sold off, but large holdings remained including some cabins and buildings.

Plans Underway For Cabins From Ora Labora Colony To Be Restored – Planning is underway by the Pigeon Historical Society to relocate and restore two cabins originally located in the Christian German Agricultural and Benevolent Society of Ora et Labora.

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Archives of Michigan is now in possession of a collection of "Ora et Labora" colony letters written in English and Old German by Emil and Bertha Baur and other family members. They were found in Cincinnati in 1974 and sent to the Historical Society of  #Michigan in 2018. They are in process of being prepared for availability online.- Ora et Labora, Ora Labora.
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