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LOST COLONY OF EBENEZER

"Where are the weak of will, the strong of arm, the clown, the boozer, the fighter -- all, all are sleeping on the hill.

"Where are the tender hearts, the simple souls, the loud, the proud, the happy ones -- all, all are sleeping on the hill."
-- Edgar Lee Masters in "Spoon River Anthology"

In West Seneca 150 years ago, a people of peace and prayer passed through -- a Community of True Inspiration
Christian Metz and Martin Trautman, Jacob Somer and Wilhelmina Doerr -- these are the people who, 150 years ago, led hundreds to the Niagara Frontier from their German homeland, all in search of a dream.

They brought with them their own special skills as farmers and laborers, millwrights and brewers, bakers and printers, machinists, furniture makers and cloth weavers.

They joined families with now-familiar surnames like Frey, Urban and Menzinger and worked side by side with the Zubers, Kleins, Zimmermans and Mayers in a personal pursuit -- not wealth but freedom from religious persecution and the right to exercise their own "inspired" lifestyle.

Today all that remains of this structured religious society are a few well-preserved buildings, the names they gave their communities and the forgotten gravesites of those they left behind.

These Germans began to arrive in 1842, a year far removed from the first wave of religious migrations that provided a steady flow of both suffering humanity and opportunists from Europe to America in the late 1600s and the early 1700s.

The German newcomers did not need to fear attacks from marauding Indians or starvation in a western wilderness. That was for other colonists heading to the unconquered frontier thousands of miles away. Their greatest fear was an encroaching urban civilization that refused to let them live their lives as they chose, that refused to give them "space."

Today they are known as the Amana Society, a thriving community of some 2,000 members living on a 40-square-mile farm on the prairies of Iowa. Made prosperous by the 1934 development of their first "Amana"
appliance -- a beverage cooler -- by Amanite native George Foerstner, there is little to compare their community today with the refugee sect that first settled in Western New York.

In the early 18th century, under the leadership of Eberhard Ludwig Gruber and Johann Friederich Rock, they were known as the Community of True Inspiration, protesters against the ritualism they felt had crept into the Lutheran Church.

They organized congregations in Germany, Holland and Switzerland, wielding the power of their revelations and religious inspiration to nurture an ever-growing following of non-conformists, publicly opposing ceremony in the church and advocating what they called a "testimony of spirit."

By 1750, after the deaths of Rock and Gruber, the movement began to fail, but in 1817 a Strassburg tailor named Michael Krausert started reviving it. It was not an easy time. The Inspirationists found themselves moving from community to community in Germany, seeking the space and privacy they needed to practice their beliefs.

The late West Seneca historian and author Frank J. Lankes wrote "Prosecution followed persecution as their defiance of the church developed into a defiance of civil law." Indeed, the followers of the Community of True Inspiration refused to take oaths, refused to serve in any military capacity and refused to send their children to the orthodox schools.

Predictably, the established church retaliated with bitter and persistent persecution, subjecting them to ridicule at every opportunity. Their meetings were broken up, their literature burned in public and their members stoned in the streets. Despite all efforts to destroy it, the community grew in its faith and its determination to find a place where it could survive, and thrive, in peace.

When they arrived in Western New York in 1842, they brought the tenets of the inspired teachings of their founders with them.

The first group, about 800 Inspirationist dissidents, used their private resources to acquire more than 5,000 acres of Buffalo Creek Reservation land, in what is now West Seneca, bounded by modern-day Seneca Street and the Buffalo Creek valley.

It was here they vowed to build their new religious colony in a new world.

Between April 1843 and October 1845, 572 colonists -- individuals and families -- made the brutal 62-day Atlantic crossing from Europe. Hundreds more came in the next few years as fair summer sailing weather made trips possible, according to the writings of early colony historians Christian Metz and Gottlieb Scheuner.

Their new colony was called the Community of Inspiration at Ebenezer.

Lankes wrote that the elders of the Ebenezer Society, as it became commonly known, selected that name from the First Book of Samuel 7:12, which reads "Then Samuel took a stone, and set it between Mispeth and Shen, and called the name of it Ebenezer, saying, Hitherto hath the Lord helped us."

There was no doubt that the Inspirationists needed help.

Records in the West Seneca Historical Society indicate that life for the colonists in early Ebenezer was not easy, nor was it intended to be.

The Society retained religion as the sole purpose of existence. The many and varied talents of its members, whether used in agricultural or industrial enterprises, existed only to provide the community with a means to make a livelihood that would allow the members to live apart from the world and devote their time to their religious ideals.

The Society was heavily into agriculture and created farms, community wagon shops, pottery shops, printing shops, cabinet shops, forges for tools, three grist mills for grinding grains (one located in each of the three "districts" of Ebenezer, now known as Gardenville, Ebenezer and Blossom) and breweries. They also manufactured their own oils for table use, soap, clothing and virtually everything they could to meet their needs.

With some 2,200 acres under cultivation and in pasture by 1855, the flats along the Cayuga, Buffalo and Cazenovia creeks were highly productive, leaving them with much surplus grain after the needs of the colony had been met. The elders took charge of any commercial profits derived from the community's labors, all of which went to the benefit of the community. What they could not grow or manufacture, they reluctantly but pragmatically obtained from merchants who came from nearby Buffalo to sell, buy and trade.

"The Society operated on a communal basis," noted Lankes, "and shared the labor and the fruits of that labor."

The homes of the Ebenezer colonists were comfortable but spare. Early documents from the Amana Society in Amana, Iowa, describe them as differing from average dwellings "in that they contained neither kitchens nor dining-rooms. There were no facilities at all for cooking -- the homes were no more than a series of living-rooms and bedrooms."

Lankes pointed out that kitchens weren't necessary since all dining was done on a communal basis. Neither was there any uniformity of design to the homes; some were two-storied, some a story-and-a-half and others low and rambling. "Not all were of timber frame construction," he wrote. "Some had brick walls."

An example of their work can be seen today in the Christian Metz home, a West Seneca landmark which still stands on Union Road near Indian Church Road, in what was then called Middle Ebenezer.

Colonists had no problem deciding where they wanted to live, since that choice was made for them by the community, depending on their needs.

"Families were assigned to living quarters by the Elders," wrote Lankes. "Each unrelated person in the community had his own small apartment consisting of a sitting room and bedroom, a thoughtful concession to the privilege of privacy. An unusual feature of each community was the 'brothers house' -- a building housing the bachelors of the community."

All meals were taken at the kitchen-houses, smaller buildings that held about 40 or 50 people, since the Society discouraged large gatherings. Part of the present-day Fourteen Holy Helpers Catholic Church in West Seneca is a former Inspirationist kitchen-house. The original brick is a slightly different color from the church's additions.

Men, women and children sat at separate tables, and no talk resembling conversation was allowed. Records indicate their food was wholesome and plentiful, but there was also the admonition "Eat not to dullness."

The Inspirationist, noted Lankes, "was an early riser and his day was long. This is not to say that he exhausted himself -- far from it. His pace was deliberate, he had time out for mid-morning and mid-afternoon refreshment as well as a long lunch period at noon. Numerous religious services interrupted his working year and he needed no vacation. Prayer meeting followed soon after the evening meal and thereafter his time was his own."

Because the community as a whole took care of all the member's needs, there was no tinkering around the house required, no patching, no gardening and no wood chopping.

Their religious gatherings were highly structured and controlled. The operative phrase was "piety."

Any external evidence of a church was absent from the meeting halls where services were conducted. There were no pulpits, belfrys or bells. No stained glass windows or pews as we know them. As Lankes noted, "No crosses, crowns or anchors, or imagery of Christianity." A Society meeting house still stands today -- the Heritage Inn, a restaurant on Union Road not far from the Metz home.

The Society recognized three spiritualist groupings: First, Middle and Third. In the Third order, there was a further division "by separating the men and boys from the women and girls." Services were held simultaneously, but in separate rooms at the meeting house. The service members were permitted to attend was determined by their degree of piety.

The degree of piety was measured in annual ceremonies of "spiritual examination." Each colonist was examined and assigned to the appropriate order.

As harsh as certain aspects of the Inspirationist's life may have appeared in Ebenezer, historians agree that their structured lifestyle did not mean they lacked life's "essentials," especially for the men. Amana Society records describe the male colonist as "wearing plain clothing; wide full-front trousers, plain leather boots or shoes and a coat with lapels. His head gear was of somber color and conservative character but never stylish. His beard was clipped and he wore no mustache. He drank beer, wine, hard cider and schnapps, and was a user of tobacco."

By 1859, the Ebenezer Society began feeling the squeeze from surrounding communities, especially Buffalo, with its growing German population and a less than pious lifestyle.

They began selling off their holdings to private interests in 1859 and, by 1863, the last of the Society members who chose to leave had made their move to the isolated prairies of Amana, Iowa, and another chance to be left alone with their religion. Those remaining behind stayed true to the faith under the guidance of Barbara Heinemann, who followed Christian Metz as spiritual leader (called the Werkzauge) of the community. After she died in 1883, the Society faded into the neighboring communities.

The Inspirationists' brief stay in West Seneca left no testimony of their passage more poignant than the three cemeteries and the remains of the worshipers they left behind.

"The Society of True Inspiration," says Mildred Eiss, a retired West Seneca head librarian and historian with the Ebenezer Cemetery Association, "did not believe in headstones for their dead. They used simple wooden crosses which, unfortunately, rotted away with time, and the exact location of their individual graves has been lost forever." (Other reports say they also used plain stone markers, but those were later scattered.)

A review of records kept by the Amana Society in Iowa shows 135 members of the Ebenezer Society who died between 1844 and 1863. They are listed only by name, the date of death and the place of the burial.

Most of the deaths, it must be presumed, were natural and quiet. Others were unexpected, violent and tragic enough to be recorded in several documents stored in the West Seneca Library and the town's historical society.

One such record describes the outbreak of cholera in the community. On the morning of July 17, 1849, eight or 10 men and women rode out to Gardenville from Buffalo on horseback. They were "very frivolously dressed," says one report, and rode "crazily around the place."

To say the Buffalo party-people weren't wanted around by Society members is an understatement. Not only was their apparent attempt to have a good time an affront to the ideals of the Inspirationists, but word had come down of a reported outbreak of cholera and they had no desire to have any contact with strangers from anywhere.

Buffalo had already given up 900 lives to the disease, but Ebenezer and other outlying communities had few reports of the devastating illness.

The party left Gardenville for lower Ebenezer, where one of the riders, a young woman, apparently sick with the fever, fell in the yard of a colonist. She was taken to Buffalo in a cart but two local fatalities were attributed to the disease shortly after that contact.

Within the next few months 16 more colonists died of cholera and the colony was staggered by what it called "the destroying angel." The community completely quarantined itself until the epidemic ended in June 1850. By then, cholera had killed 30 more Society members.

They were neither the first nor the last to die on the community's long sojourn from Germany to Iowa.

On June 19, 1845, Jacob Somer died in Lower Ebenezer and he was the first buried in the cemetery there, which is still in evidence on Main Street in West Seneca, just east of Mill Road.

According to Elder Metz, an "old Indian cabin had occupied this ground, outrageous deeds had been committed there and many horrors had been seen. A special prayer session was held by the Elders and members at the site on the side of the road to bless it as a safe and peaceful resting spot."

Indeed, the legend of the aged Indian "witch" who lured a young warrior into her cabin before brutally murdering him can still be heard in West Seneca. Reportedly, she escaped to Canada but was brought back by members of her tribe and burned to death in her cabin for her crime.

It is said that the Elders of the Society ordered that no burials would take place on that portion of the cemetery that held the witch's cabin.

"After the Society left," recalled Mrs. Eiss, "it was agreed that the Town of West Seneca would take over the care of the cemetery for its own use and that a red cedar fence (in later years painted white) would be constructed around that portion of the land containing the remains of the colonists. That was done, and the fence lasted nearly a century before disappearing in the 1940s.

As with two of the three cemeteries, there are markers and tombstones dating from the early 1860s and beyond, from succeeding communities, but they are not related to the Society.

On May 9, 1849, Andrew Plocher, a woodworker and joiner, left his home in Lower Ebenezer to work on a new house at the Schudt property on the south side of Cazenovia Creek about a half-mile west of Union Road.

He never reached the worksite.

A search was made and his body was found face down in the mud of the creek. His right arm and neck had been broken. The Elders concluded that the youth had attempted to cross a gully on the trunk of an old tree, but it collapsed and caused a landslide that carried him into the fast moving waters of the creek.

He joined Jacob Somer in the Ebenezer cemetery on Main Street.

Nine-year-old Rosina Kurz, daughter of Gottlieb Kurz, was drowned in the ditch near the Kurz brewery on Clinton Street on Aug. 28, 1852, in the little stream that enters the millrace in the immediate rear of the Union Fire House in Gardenville.

She was buried in the Society's Gardenville cemetery, a site remembered only by a few who call it the "old cemetery" at Island Park, off Union Road across from the Heritage Inn and hard by Buffalo Creek near Clinton.

The specific locations of that cemetery and the graves of at least 52 members of the Ebenezer Society, including that of little Rosina Kurz, are lost forever. Landfill and bulldozers have finished the job that years of natural erosion and neglect began.

"I am certain," said Mrs. Eiss, "that there were never any disinterments from that site, so I assume that their remains are still there somewhere."

The third Society cemetery (Blossom) is now run by St. Paul's Lutheran Church and is located next door to Mayer's Cider Mill on Seneca Creek Road. St. Paul's has maintained the cemetery for its own use and the property is clearly marked at the road with a sign recognizing its origination as an Ebenezer Society cemetery.

There too, however, the actual gravesites have disappeared.

"When the Society buried its dead," says Town of West Seneca Historian Rita Pinto, "it began the burials to the rear of the property and then brought the newer burials forward, as do most cemeteries today."

Sadly, the rear of the Blossom cemetery site runs along the bank of a deep creek bed. Erosion and the passage of time have seen numerous slides. The burial sites originally used by the Society have almost all been washed away and covered by the man-made refuge that half-fills the creek bed below.

Small postscripts such as these make up what we know about the remains of the 135 men, women and children who were left behind as their Inspirationist brothers and sisters moved on.

The Inspirationists were -- and perhaps still are -- a band of wanderers, a cult based in religion and not bound by tradition. They were just passing through but they left their mark on the history of Western New York, their footprints in our time, and their dead as a payment on their future.

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