If you grew up in Pittsburgh, you probably remember visiting historic Old Economy at some point during elementary school. You probably remember thinking it was going to be some lame old boring educational place, and then finding yourself oddly fascinated with its weird story, and going on to tell everyone you meet for the rest of your life how you had the most amazing bread ever known to man out of this weird old brick oven.
However, in the event that you didn’t live here before the age of ten (like my husband), I will explain to you why Old Economy is the coolest historical place of all time.
Back in the day (which my teacher-friend assures me is an appropriate time setting to use in nonfiction writing), the Harmony Society left Germany in search of religious freedom and eventually found their way to Ambridge, PA. There, they started the charming little community of Old Economy Village. It was basically a neat little socialist-like town where everyone worked together for the good of themselves and their neighbors, and everything would have seemed fairly normal if it wasn’t for the fact that they decided that Christ’s return to earth was approaching quickly, and therefore took a vow of celibacy.
So this is why today, there are no Harmonists living in the place, and we can go and tour their perfectly-maintained little village and learn all about how neat-o and difficult things were in the 1800s. If you’re a lucky kid, like me, you can even go to summer camp there, and learn all sorts of cool things like how to grow herbs and play with a stick and hoop and participate in a bucket brigade!
Oh, and don’t forget, on parents’ day on the last day of camp, you get to bake bread in that crazy old brick oven.
So since my husband didn’t move to Pittsburgh until past the age when your teachers thought you’d sit still to learn about the Harominsts, he’d never gone. And this year, we almost lost our little treasure because of cuts in funding (it’s run entirely on volunteer efforts, by the way), and once we found out that they’d received a grant to stay open, I decided I had to take him.
Each year, they decorate the village for Christmas, and since there is no electricity, it’s usually open daylight hours only. But on one Saturday, they were open in the evening for the annual tree lighting, and we went with my mum to see this magical event!
What follows is an incredible lot of pictures, so you can see the wonderfulness of Old Economy.
This is the program for the evening, which gives you a helpful map and lists all of the performances by carolers. (There is even a performance by one of the local Ukrainian church choirs, so you know I was all over that!)
You can walk through all of the old shops and businesses that are still in order as if the owners might walk in tomorrow and pick up where they left off. This is the doctor’s office, which also doubled as a pharmacy and dentist’s office.
And I’m crazy about old medical stuff – I love reading ancient medical texts (nerd, I know), and even more, I love seeing the stuff that they kept casually on the shelves in olden times. I couldn’t make out the actual names on these bottles (you aren’t able to walk close to the shelves), but I’m sure there are some nutty things there, like cocaine or moldy Demerol.
Then we went to the candle-making room. When I went to summer camp here, we made candles by dipping the long wick in hot wax in that big vat behind me. We had to walk around the room 26 times in a little row, dipping each time we passed the vat, so we made up alphabet games to help us remember how many more times to go before it was a candle.
Our next stop was the blacksmith shop. Since we all play World of Warcraft, we were all pretty excited to see blacksmithing up close and personal. Let me just say this: it takes a lot more time in real life than it does in game. Wow. And this guy was just making nails and hooks, no +300 stamina armor or anything.
The blacksmith here was making nails for horseshoes. It was super neat to see. Apparently, there is a Pittsburgh blacksmithing society, and the people who volunteer at Old Economy are members of that, so they actually know what they are doing.
And then we were off on a real carriage ride! These horses even had sleigh bells!! I was nerding out big time over this. There is nothing cooler than the clip-clop sound of horses’ hooves mixing with sleigh bells.
And our final stop for the night was the Great House, where the Harmonist founder, George Rapp lived. For Christmas, they decorate each room of the house to represent a different country’s traditions. This is, of course, my favorite room: the Ukrainian Christmas setting. After a day of pierogie making, seeing this made us even more excited for Christmas!
We had such a lovely time at Old Economy. I would really like to take Michael back in the summer at some point, so we can experience the herb garden and the fresh bread, and also their fascinating wine cellar. They don’t have any wine anymore, but they do have a barrel so big you can climb in it! However, it’s underground and was one of the places that was closed on our trip this time.
If you’ve never seen Old Economy, when their season begins again in the spring, you should absolutely make a journey. There are so many incredible things to learn, and there is that eerie-but-not-scary feeling that old places have, like the spirit is still alive and thriving somehow. Oh. And you really, really have to try the bread!