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WQED TV producer and PITTSBURGH Magazine back-page writer writes about his current work and assorted other things.

Harmonizing on the Ohio

May 15th, 2009 · 13 Comments


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.police-station-pizza

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.dsc02135

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.  dsc02085We’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.sideofbuilding

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. dsc02094 “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.cockeyedchurch

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.  dsc02119Oddly, 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.dsc02110

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.dsc02099

The afternoon is not as beautiful as the morning, and the crowds of crazy kids are gone.  We keep shooting.dsc02091

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!)dsc02141

Then we also get her to talk a bit about the grotto, the odd little building in one corner of the formal garden.  dsc02166Outside 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.  dsc02173There 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.dsc02182

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.dsc02201 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.endofday

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.

Tags: "Right Beside The River"

13 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joelene // May 20, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Love that clock! That little building you liked is pretty cool and I’ll be sure to check it out when I take the kids this summer. You’ve convinced me to go. I’ll be sure to eat at the (Greek) Italian place too.

    Now, you tell me how the Harmonists stayed celibate with all that wine flowing? A people of strong resolve, I say!

    (Glad you didn’t fall through the stairs. I’d miss you!)

  • 2 Bonnie Jeanne // May 27, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    When we visited a while back we were told the clock has only an hour hand so that people couldn’t count the minutes before the end of a work day. I like the “meet you whenever” theory better.

  • 3 Larry Slater // Jul 30, 2009 at 10:16 am

    Wonderful piece all around. Roberta atop the church tower has that Wuthering Heights look about her! Clearly both Rick’s crew and the OEV staff put a lot into this visit – and it shows in the end result. Rita, Sarah and all the rest deserve some serious congratulations.
    Btw, have been looking for a great little place to eat in Ambridge ever since the Silk House Cafe closed. Now I know where to go!

  • 4 Michael // Jul 30, 2009 at 11:19 am

    Great review of Old Economy Village, Rick. Thank you. And thank your photographer; he got some wonderful shots. Glad you survived the climb to the clock tower. Can’t wait to see the show.

  • 5 Myron M. Miller // Jul 30, 2009 at 11:24 am

    How do I become a “member” of this blog? or is it necessary. I want to send some photos or material. How do I attach photos or other info?

    I am descended from the Shriver family. Peter Shriver was the brother of my ggg grandfather John Shriver of Adams County, Pa. In 1806 Peter took his family into the society, with a commitment (which he kept) to provide $8,000 to the Society. There is still a Shriver home (of Peter) in Harmony, Pa.

  • 6 Linda // Jul 30, 2009 at 12:17 pm

    Love to come and visit, when is it the least busy?

  • 7 Karen Trimmer // Jul 30, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    I took my grown daughters and grandchildren to Old Economy this summer. I was there as a young child and sure didn’t remember all the interesting fact about it. I believe my daughters and I learned more than the children but all enjoyed. I also love the clock and the grotto and the fact that the children do get hands on experiences even if they are make believe items.

  • 8 jim miller // Jul 31, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Rick: I haven’t run into since you did the piece on Moon Lorn for ‘Houses Around Here’. The Old Economy site deserves good exposure; I well recall spending time there one day and wanting to live there.

  • 9 Patty C. // Jul 31, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    Thanks for showcasing a place I love and think is one of the best historic sites in our Country.Can’t wait to add Right Beside the River to our Rick Sebak Collection!

  • 10 Patty C. // Jul 31, 2009 at 2:05 pm

    Thanks for showcasing a place I love and think is one the best historic sites in our Country. Can’t wait to add Right Beside the River to our Rick Sebak Collection!

  • 11 Karla // Jul 31, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    Linda, now that school is out you can have a lovely uncrowded tour almost any day except Monday when Old Economy is closed. It is lovely and peaceful and you can take your time checking it out. But it is alot of fun to come when there is a major event too and hundreds come out to enjoy the Erntefest fall festival or Chritmas in the Village. I am really glad Rick and his crew “discovered” Old Economy Village and Ambridge too. They really have a gift in opening our eyes to the things around us every day that we seem to over look.

  • 12 Mary Janovick // Aug 1, 2009 at 1:28 pm

    Mike and I love visiting Old Economy. Last year we went to the Erntefest and toured the historical buildings, noticed the lovely gardens and ate some delicious food at St. John’s Lutheran Church .The food was homemade by the ladies of the church.We took a Harvest pie home.It was delicious! Also, you can get a glimpse of the church as you pass by the window leading into the interior of the dining hall of the church. It is a wonderful experience for all age groups.
    At the village the staff was very knowledgeable, helpful, and friendly.The Store Building, Granary, Museum of Natural History, Rapp House and gardens are so interesting.It seems you can picture in your mind how the Harmonists actually lived, worked and dressed. We admired their way of life for their hard work and community living.They were self-sufficient in every way of life.
    Since we enjoyed previous visits we joined the Friends of Old Economy to support programming. This will give us the opportunity to bring our grandchildren and children at various times of the year at reduced admission prices.This Christmas we are anticipating bringing our children & grandchildren to Christmas at the Village!
    The gardens are truly beautiful to tour. It can give you ideas as to what you’d like to grow in your own flower,vegetable and herb gardens.
    So, be sure to become a member of Friends of Old Economy and take time to visit the village soon!

    Mike and Criss Janovick

  • 13 Michael // Aug 2, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    Rick, you have such a way with words. As I read your blog, I can hear your voice in my head. You took what we told you; you put your own spin on it and it comes out so much better. It’s so down to earth. So, the next time I’m giving a tour I just might have to steal a few of your lines. Thank you again for visiting us and telling the story so well.

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