Ora Labora: A Lost Colony in Northern Michigan

Updated on September 5, 2019
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Mike is an author of tales, tastes, and fun in northern Michigan. When he is not messing around on the Great Lakes, he is writing about them

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 fell. Now he stoked the fire in the parlor and waited for his guests to arrive. They had made great progress. Over the past several days, he, his brother Edward and H. Mens made a detailed inspection of the 3,000 acres on Wild Fowl Bay that his church had pulled together from the state of Michigan. They found a nearly ideal spot in the thick forest and cedar swamp in which to clear and setup the hamlet. They were anxious to report on progress.

This was to be 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. It was an expansion of the successful Pennsylvania colony and they were drawn to Michigan with the promise of land and plentiful resources. Emil, Herman Edward and Mens 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. Time was critical, the land would have to be clear for an encampment in preparation for the new settlers that were to arrive in the Spring.

Michigan Loggers in the 1800s
Michigan Loggers in the 1800s | Source

The German Settler Exodus from Ohio to Michigan

It was a stormy early spring day in 1863 on Michigan’s Saginaw Bay. The wind howled from the northeast bringing large swells and froth in from Lake Huron. In the early hours of the morning, a 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 of the journey. They are in waters that have claimed many ships near Pointe Aux Barques, a rocky outcropping penned by French map makers 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. A finger of land jutting out into the lake known as Sand Point breaks the wind from the north. They have arrived in Wild Fowl Bay. The tall virgin pine and oak lining the beach and loom over the ship as it anchors. The crew and the men push the cows and oxen up on deck then heave them overboard to swim to shore. After the task of lowering the long boats, passengers and possessions 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 for religious services as the colony grew. Their new home, the Ora Labora colony, was now in its initial days of its core mission to "Pray and Work".

Emil Baur Founder of Ora Labora
Emil Baur Founder of Ora Labora

Fashionable Utopian Religious Communes

It was 15 years prior to their arrival at Michigan's Wild Fowl Bay that the planning for the Ora Labora religious colony began. Utopian religious communes were being established in the burgeoning communities on the edge of wilderness areas. The Harmony Society, founded in Germany, recruited Emil Baur to look for a site of a new German Religious colony based on the success of its own colony in Pennsylvania. The colony was self-sufficient by with textile miles producing cotton and woolen garments. It also had a sawmill, a tannery, and produced wine from its vineyards and made distilled spirits.

Emil came to Michigan on and off in starting in 1847 when much of the state was still wilderness, but the new state was rapidly being bought up by speculators. Michigan was encouraging settlement by German farmers by distributing pamphlets printed in German about available land and settlements like Frankenmuth. This impressed the Society's leadership and it encouraged 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, he was able to cobble together approximately 3,000 acres of land on the eastern shore of Saginaw Bay in 1862.

Bread Oven and Store
Bread Oven and Store

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 found 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 large holding and have room to expand.

Each family 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 true 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 1800's

The Shakers
231 Years
The Harmony Society
100 Years
90 Years
81 Years
70 Years
Saint Nazianz
42 Years
Bethel & Aurora
36 Years
33 Years
33 Years

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 greatly 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 common store on credit. Fruits and vegetables were scarce. The community owned a number of cows, but the nearest market for butter and eggs was fourteen miles away, and 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.

Clearing the Forest
Clearing the Forest

The Michigan Colony Grows Quickly

With the homes built the men build a crude 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 up on and established. The colony awakened at 5 a.m. with the blowing of the horn. At 5:30, Morning Prayer was held. Breakfast was at 6:00am. Twice a day the colony gathered to worship. In February 1863, they agreed that working hours were from 6:30 am to noon, then 1:00 to 6 p.m. Saturdays they all work ceased at 3pm 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.

Oxen Team
Oxen Team

Did you know anything about this religious colony before reading this?

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Sources Consulted

  • Ora Labora: Experiment in Communal Living, Caseville Historical Museum, 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 & Answers

  • Was there a significant movement in Germany in the 19th century for an Amish type of lifestyle?

    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.

  • It doesn't appear Harmony was Methodist. Did Ora Labora convert after arrival?

    The colony appears to have been founded and operated so that members could combine work with prayer, and live according to the Methodist Church discipline.

© 2018 Mike Hardy


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