It’s Wednesday morning. I call Old Economy Village in Ambridge to see if they have any tours lined up for today. Roberta Sunstein says “Yes, we have school tours today. It would be a good day to shoot.”
We’re gathering material for my new Pittsburgh History special that I’m calling RIGHT BESIDE THE RIVER. It will be a hodgepodge of stories about some very interesting places right beside a river in the Pittsburgh area.
When we first started looking around for ideas for this show, back in November, Bob Lubomski (cameraman) and Kevin Conrad (editor) and I (producer) went out to Ambridge to have lunch and check out the fabled Police Station Pizza on Merchant Street in Ambridge, but it never opens before 5 PM, so we grabbed some lunch in the cool nearby bar called Bamboo, then we wandered over to Old Economy to see what we could learn, and we loved the place. That’s when we first met Roberta, who’s the Museum Education Supervisor for Old Economy Village.
Old Economy Village is a historic and carefully preserved neighborhood in the town of Ambridge. It was founded in the 19th century by a bunch of German immgrants who followed the unusual teachings of Father George Rapp who convinced hundreds of people to come to America with him to establish an ideal community, a community where everything would be shared, but where everyone would remain celibate, awaiting the end of the world when Christ would return to build a temple in Jerusalem, and they would all help in that effort. They called themselves Harmonists or, in German, die Harmonie because they were expecting to achieve Divine Harmony with Jesus Christ.
Today, a glorious Spring day, the village is full of schoolkids on tours and it’s much livelier than it was last fall. There’s lots of activity to shoot, and lots of guides in Harmonist dresses leading the roving packs of children in and out of the old buildings. Bob says that there are great comments from the kids all around him. His favorite: a kid who hears that there’s going to be an egg hunt says “Are they gonna teach us how to lay eggs?!” Our intrepid audio man (and tireless young colleague) today is Glenn Syska who has worked with Bob and me on almost all the shoots for this production.
The guides in their blue and gingham garb remind me a bit of nuns, and since all the Harmonists here did take a vow of celibacy, maybe the women were somewhat nunnish. The men too. It was a devout religious community.
Bob and Glenn are at maximum power, trying to catch the tours, nearby and across the courtyards, hoping to capture some of the pre-lunch excitement. We’re getting hungry too. When the kids all gather at picnic tables beside the main garden, we start to take a break too but then decide to do one interview before lunch. Lettie McHale has been our main guide all morning, and she has some good things to say about Old Economy. Most of the guides are old hands at answering questions from tourists, and nothing seems to surprise or startle Lettie.
I ask her if this isn’t all a bit like Williamsburg, and she says, “Like Williamsburg, but better. Williamsburg is a re-creation. This is all original: all the buildings, all the artifacts, all the decorations, all was left here by the Harmonists. Everything is real.”
Roberta and her colleague Sarah Goodman (who’s in her Harmonist costume) suggest we lunch at a little Greek place nearby called the Ambridge Italian Villa. “But they’re really Greek. They’re not very fast but the food is good,” Roberta tells us. I say maybe I can sweet-talk them into speeding things up a bit. We go there and love the place. Glenn gets a spinach omelet! Bob gets roast chicken. I take the waitress at her word and get the best thing they serve: a gyro. Roberta gets a gyro too, and Sarah gets the burger-of-the-day special. It’s called a Hoo-Ha burger or something like that. Everyone is happy. It’s a lot of food.
By the time we get back to the village, it’s time to go to the Lutheran church. We had made an appointment to meet the parson there, and he welcomes us, knowing that we want to climb up to the top of the bell tower to get some bird-eye shots of Old Economy. It’s a climb, up several steep flights of well-worn stairs. Oddly, the stairs are more worn the higher we go. The last flight is a little scary. I’m the fattest guy on the crew, so I’m most terrified of breaking a stair, smashing through the floor and coming to a bloody and splinter-y end down in the main part of the church.
Sarah has been up the stairs before and decides she’s not going with us. Roberta however has not been up there and says she’s coming along.
It’s a great view. You can even see the Ohio on the far side of village, just beyond where Route 65 cuts through today. When you’re up close to the clock (one of the oldest in Western Pennsylvania) it’s more obvious that it has only one hand: the hour hand. People in the 19th century had a more leisurely attitude about time. Meet you whenever.
The afternoon is not as beautiful as the morning, and the crowds of crazy kids are gone. We keep shooting.
We interview Sarah in the garden, and she’s a great talker. She knows her Harmonists and how they compare with Shakers and Quakers. She and her husband are apparently avid Civil War re-enactors (and World War II re-enactors too — I didn’t know such things even existed!)
Then we also get her to talk a bit about the grotto, the odd little building in one corner of the formal garden. Outside it looks like something from a South Sea island. It’s a stone structure with a zany thatched roof that looks like a wacky hair-do on top of the place. It’s rustic and rough outside, but inside it’s very finely decorated in pastel shades like a formal sitting room. I don’t know: the surprise interior wins me over. There is some history painted in panels on the wall, but the ceiling is beautiful and the simple juxtaposition of rustic and refined enchants me. It’s my favorite spot in Old Economy.
But before we leave we meet up with another guide named Rita Dobson — we had met her last Fall on our first visit — and she leads us to the old economic wine cellar. The Harmonists were not against drinking wine, and when they produced more than was needed, they sold the excess, and it was one of the products that helped make them very prosperous as a group. Rita gave a great tour, and our only regret was that there wasn’t a bottle hidden down there for an end-of-the-day celebration.
By the time we finished with Rita’s interview, the village was closed, and it was time for all of us to start for home. Return to the twenty-first century.