Minden Press-Herald

Wednesday
Oct 01st

Significance of Germantown

This week I am rerunning an earlier Echo that tells the story of the Germantown Colony. While I don't think this story can be told too much, I am running the story this week for a specific reason.

The Friends of the Germantown Colony Museum are attempting to put together a list of all surviving descendants of the colonists.

So, if you are one of those descendants I would appreciate it if you would get in touch with me at 318-464-0510 or at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it so we can add your to the list.

Here is a brief account of part of the story of Germantown.

During the early years of the 19th century European society was in turmoil. Old national orders such as the French Empire had fallen. A charismatic leader, Napoleon, threatened to unite the entire continent under his control. Throughout the region the accepted loyalties to local rulers and institutions were under question.

Thinking men in all areas of the continent began to reexamine the entire structure of the social, political and economic order.

This questioning was particularly prevalent in areas of the old Holy Roman Empire that are today part of the modern nation of Germany.

The residents of the area around the province of Württemberg were mostly members of the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic faith was predominant throughout most of what is now Southern and Western Germany.

It was in Württemberg that the questioning of the old order led to the emergence of an organized movement within the Catholic Church to restructure society. This movement became known as the Harmonist Society.

Under the leadership of George Rapp, the Harmonists would found several settlements in the United States during the first half of the 19th century.

These settlements intended to put into practice the utopian ideals taught by Rapp and other leaders. Three major settlements were eventually founded; scholars have researched and documented the history of the first two, New Harmony, Indiana and Economy, Pennsylvania, and established their place in our social and economic history.

Unfortunately scholars have neglected the third settlement, the Germantown Colony of Louisiana, which was ironically the longest-lived of the trio.

The volumes of work done on the New Harmony and Economy settlements have largely documented the ideals of these colonists.

The purpose of this article is to add illumination to the story of Germantown, its own leader, the mystic Count Leon, and help establish Germantown's rightful place as an equal partner with the two better-known German religious utopian experiments.

Monarchs of the tiny kingdoms in the German-speaking areas of Europe viewed these religious utopians as threats to their power.

As the era of revolution would show, these small kingdoms were obsolete relics of feudalism and were open to such threats.

However, the small sized Utopian movement proved easier to control than the widespread democratic movements that arose later.

Government officials simply asked Rapp and his followers to leave the country or give up their ideas. They came to the United States where they first settled in Butler County, Pennsylvania before relocating to Southern Indiana where the Harmony settlement was founded in 1814.

Rapp and his followers remained at this site until 1825 when the Scottish idealist Robert Owen bought the town.

The "Rappites" returned to Pennsylvania and established the Economy community north of Pittsburgh. Owen renamed the Indiana settlement New Harmony, removed the religious aspects of the communal living system, and shifted the emphasis of the community to literary and cultural pursuits.

The society went out of existence in the 1850s. Rapp's Economy colony flourished for a few years but fell to internal squabbles before the Civil War.

But what of Germantown, how was she created and what makes her significant

In 1831, a unique figure arrived in the Economy Colony with his followers.

This man was known by several names: Maximilian Bernhard Ludwig, Bernhard Müller, Maximilian Bernhard Lewis, Count Maximilian Leon Proli, and several other titles including the "Lion of Judah." However his followers knew him as Count Leon and that is the title we will use.

Leon was the uncle of Empress Marie Louise of Austria, the second wife of Napoleon and had ties to royalty throughout Europe.

He used these ties to stay in Europe long after authorities had expelled most other Utopians. He eventually gained a devoted group of followers who followed him to the United States.

Interestingly, Leon had just settled his disputes with local monarchs and said the leading of God caused his departure to the United States.

A vision he received in 1816 revealed to Leon his role as a prophet. By the time of his departure for America, Leon had about 100 followers including such prominent and learned men as Dr. George Goentgen who had been chief librarian of the City of Frankfurt.

What did these followers of Leon believe? Their doctrine in detail is a complex and organized system of intricate tenets given by their leader. A brief summary of Leon's ideas would include the following ideas.

A new world order will replace the existing world society signaling the beginning of the millennium era referred to in the Bible.

In preparation for the coming new era, of which Count Leon is to be the leader, believers should organize themselves into communal settlements.

In these colonies believers would share all in common and await the return of the Lord and the start of the millennium.

Leon said God had revealed to him that Christ would return first to North America and establish the true Christian church there because of the freedom of religion in the United States.

Leon contacted Rapp in Pennsylvania and asked to join the colony. He expressed his views to the older leader and Rapp was receptive because many of Leon's ideas coincided with his own.

He welcomed Leon to Economy. Unfortunately, soon after Leon arrived, his charisma attracted a following among the community residents that rivaled Rapp's.

As Leon's support grew a civil war erupted in the colony. The battle spilled over into the courts and lead to a separation.

Leon and his followers, who now numbered almost a third of the colony, along with a court award of $105,000 left Economy and established the city of Phillippsburg on the Ohio River in 1832.

This group, called the New Philadelphia Congregation, built many impressive brick buildings at the site, which is today the town of Monaca, Pennsylvania.

Economic problems arose at Phillipsburg, largely caused by Leon's reliance on religious tenets and his failure to grasp financial realities.

Under the threat of additional lawsuits, Leon decided to remove his followers to a new location, further west and closer to the latitude of Jerusalem.

On September 1, 1833, Leon and his followers started down the Ohio River in search of a locality nearer to the place where God would reveal himself.

On February 4, 1834, the party landed at Grand Ecore, Louisiana, on the Red River opening the final saga of their journey. This first Louisiana site, while closer to biblical latitudes, was unhealthy. An epidemic of Yellow Fever broke out and claimed many members of the settlement.

Most notable of the victims was Count Leon himself, who died on August 29, 1834. His death, strangely enough, probably extended the life of the colony.

The remaining settlers attempted to stay at the Grand Ecore site, which they renamed as Gethsemane. However, the unhealthy conditions combined with flooding which destroyed much of the settlements including the cemetery, forced them to relocate.

In 1835, the colonists bought land further north in Claiborne Parish on high ground removed from the river. This was hilly land much like their home territory in Germany.

The site, a few miles north of the present day city of Minden, Louisiana, was the final home of the colony.

The city of Minden was founded later, in 1836, by Charles Veeder of New York, who had a German family background.

Some historical evidence indicates that Veeder met the Germantown settlers in Kentucky as they headed down the Ohio River. This contact might have influenced his choice of a site for a town, since he came to the area with a steamboat load of goods for sale, suggesting he had some knowledge that settlers were already in the area.

At Germantown, freed from the control of the overly idealistic Leon, the colony began to prosper. Leon's widow, the Countess Leon, Dr. Goentgen and John Bopp, the business manager, assumed the leadership of the colony.

While the colonists were still bound by their earlier pledges to follow the religious teachings of Count Leon, the day-to-day operation of the settlement took on a more practical edge and became very successful.

Cotton was planted and the leadership carried on fairly extensive real estate deals. A community store became the center of the life of the colony and the communal experiment continued.

The town featured five houses besides the Bachelor Quarters for the unmarried men. (An interesting religious teaching of Leon forbade marriage until the return of Christ; this teaching was later ignored by the colony.)

Other building included the store, a community kitchen, a school taught first by Goentgen and later by William Stakowsky, and several barns, work sheds and outbuildings.

The colony had its own shoemaker, tinsmith, smokehouse, cotton gin, saw mill, carpentry shop, blacksmith and even its own saloon.

Settlers planted fruit orchards and grew mulberry trees. The mulberry leaves were used to feed silk worms that produced thread used to make cloth.

The community raised sheep, cattle, chickens, geese and other animals. The colony was a self-sufficient island.

In fact, the products of the colony were exported to the nearby community of Minden, including peach brandy made from the fruit in the colony's orchards.

Perhaps the most significant export of the colony to its frontier neighbors was culture. The members of the community were educated and trained in all areas of the arts.

Dr. Goentgen had an impressive library that unfortunately was lost after the colony went out of business. The Countess was a trained musician who wrote beautifully handwritten musical scores to avoid the cost of commercially printed music. She designed a practice board called a digitorium that she used to teach piano to her students before the colony could get a real instrument.

After a piano was gotten she taught many young ladies of Minden how to play. Later, Mr. Stakowsky began traveling to Minden on a regular schedule to teach music lessons to the residents of Germantown's neighboring community.

These Europeans brought a little of the culture of the Old World to this frontier outpost. The members of the colony continued to practice communal living.

Each member had his or her role in the community and each shared in the fruits of the colonies efforts. Community wells and washhouses were built. The colony continued to prosper into the 1850s.

During these years a new settler, Dr. F. O. Krouse came to the colony and shared the business management of the colony with Bopp. The economic stability of the colony for all these yeaars is one of its outstanding qualities.

In 1861, the Civil War broke out and this conflict that split our nation also proved to be the death of the Germantown colony. Germantown settlers never owned slaves but took no official side during the war.

While the colony welcomed and sheltered deserters and fugitives from the Confederate army, some of its most prominent members, including Dr. Krouse, joined the Southern forces.

The differences that began at this time only widened as war continued. After the war ended the economy of the South was ruined. The hard economic times spelled an end for the experiment in communal living.

In 1871, a financial settlement was made between the members and the Germantown colony formally disbanded. Most members remained in the area and set up individual homesteads. The land where the colony sat became the home of the Krouse family. Descendants of this family and others still populate the area today.

After the colony disbanded many artifacts of the original settlement were unfortunately scattered among the descendants or allowed to suffer the eroding effects of nature. In the struggle to survive the hardships of everyday life the unique heritage of these settlers was largely forgotten.

Buildings of the colony fell into disrepair. The library of Dr. Goentgen and the valuable furnishings and artwork he and the Countess owned disappeared or was destroyed. It seemed that all memory of the colony might fade away.

Fortunately during the 1940s the colony came to the attention of two individuals who can be regarded as saviors of the heritage. Dr. Karl Arndt, a professor of German Language at Louisiana State University, began doing work at the colony site in the late 1930s.

Although he later shifted his work to the entire Harmonist movement and Rapp in particular, he established the role of Germantown as a historical equal to the settlements at Harmony and Economy.

Later, in the 1940s, Mrs. Rita Moore Krouse married a descendant of Dr. Krouse. She spent years of painstaking research finding out about both the theory and the fact behind the Germantown colony.

It was largely through her efforts that the Krouse family took the lead in establishing the Germantown Colony Museum on the site of the original settlement in 1975.

But what is the unique nature of Germantown? Many arguments can be advanced to answer this question.

Some might cite the influence on the population of Webster and Claiborne Parishes. The descendants of these cultured and hardworking people today occupy many posts of influence particularly in the educational system.

Others might cite the German heritage of the colony. In the Anglo-Saxon culture of North Louisiana these German settlers added to the cultural mix and attracted other Germans to the area. Their lasting legacy can be seen in the human landscape and the day-to-day lifestyle of area residents today in areas such as cooking and other traditions.

While these factors are important they are not the great historical significance of Germantown.

The greatest historical significance of Germantown is its creation and existence as a religious utopian experiment.

The third member of the trio of German utopian colonies, it was longer-lived and more economically successful than either of its rivals.

Harmony, founded around 1814, passed to other hands by 1825 and lost its religious nature less than 20 years after its founding.

Economy kept its religious nature until the early 1850s, but its entire existence was less than 30 years.

Germantown managed to survive from its founding in 1836 until 1871, a life-span of more than 35 years. Even in its death, it could cease operation on its own terms, not forced out of existence by creditors or outsiders.

The significance of Germantown is the lesson it teaches regarding the struggles between utopian communal ideals and the economic realities of our society.

The compromises that the leaders of the colony after Leon made to keep the colony prosperous make the pragmatic form of utopia more interesting and worthwhile of study than either of her better-known sister communities.

John Agan is a local historian, an instructor at Bossier Parish Community College and a published author. His column appears Fridays in the Minden Press-Herald.

Last Updated ( August 05, 2011 )  

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