Ora Labora - A Lost Colony In Michigan's North

Updated on April 13, 2018
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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.

The German Settler Exodus from Ohio to Michigan

It was a stormy early spring day in 1863 on Michigan’s Saginaw Bay. The wind howls from the northeast bringing 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 Point 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
Emil Baur

Fashionable Utopian Religious Communes

It was 15 years prior to their arrival at 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 recruited Emil Baur to look for a site of a new German Religious colony based on the success of its own colony in Pennsylvania.

Emil came to Michigan on and off in starting in 1847 when much of the state was still wilderness, but 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 can 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. He arranged for labor to clear a portion of the land for an encampment in preparation for the new settlers that were to arrive in the Spring.

Bread Oven and Store
Bread Oven and Store

Wild Fowl Bay Was Not A Garden of Eden

Wild Foul Bay was only 30 miles from the 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 planned were the main street would be and each house plotted. 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 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 to the waters 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 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 6:30am 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 little girl. A mill was also approved to be built for flour.

Oxen Team
Oxen Team

Next...Rapid Growing Pains

Establishing a utopia in the wilderness is work. In our next post we cover some of the challenges settlers face to bring a bit of home to the wilderness.

Ora Labora - Utopia in the Wilderness - Part II

If you really are interested in this topic check out our site dedicated to Ora Labora research.

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

© 2018 Mike Hardy


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