Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ephrata Cloister, Ephrata, Pennsylvania

Meryl and I both visited Ephrata Cloister with our families when we were kids, so it has been many, many years since either of us had been there.  We decided on a recent trip that we would go to Ephrata Cloister - this time together (no, we did not know each other when we were kids).

Ephrata Cloister is an historic site in the town of Ephrata, Pennsylvania. It is a restoration of the original settlement of this area which was settled by one man, Conrad Beissel, who came there to live in the forest in solitude and lead a solitary religious life. This was 1732. While his desire was to be alone, others came and joined him to also live in "solitude" and be taught and follow this man's very individual religious beliefs. There were two very important things that Conrad Beissel believed and
taught - that Saturday is the main day of worship and that there is no place in this life for earthly marriage if one was to one day unite with God. By 1750 there were 80 celibate men and women - called Brothers and Sisters and known jointly as the "Solitary" - living together in the Cloister. Others came to live surrounding the Cloister who believed in some of Beissel's teachings but had families and lived on their own farms. These families were called the "Householders". The two groups lived benefiting each other and made up one religious community.

As the group went along they continued to grow, bringing in the unfortunate and those who needed to be cared for and in this way increasing the community's population - in addition to the children who were born to the "Householders". Some were taken in to become Brothers and Sisters who had children before and those children would grow up to be Brothers and Sisters. One might call this a "religious experiment" and as it turns out this experiment was very successful as the community still following the teachings of Conrad Beissel continued into the mid-20th Century. Eventually in 1813 the last celibate member died and the Householders formed the German Seventh-Day Baptist Church continuing Conrad Beissel's teachings and worshiped and lived here until 1934.There are descendents of the original settlement that still live in this area and in the town of Ephrata. The site was acquired by the State of Pennsylvania in 1941- after a long and sad dispute by rival leaders of the community  as to what should become of the property and happily the land and the remaining buildings were preserved as a historic site and museum.

The site, museum and restored original buildings are open to the public Mondays to Saturdays from 9 am to 5 pm and Sundays from Noon to 5 pm. There is an admission charge. You park in a small parking lot near the gift shop that is outside the admission area but still part of the original property. The parking was no problem for the Roadtrek. A larger RV would have to take up a number of the limited number of spaces that were in the lot.

Across from the gift shop, seen above behind the Roadtrek and cars, is a path that leads to the Visitors Center. In the lobby of the Visitors Center you are greeted by one of the employees who is dressed in the everyday form of dress of the Brothers and the Sisters. You pay your admission at the desk and you are invited to see a film about Ephrata Cloister. This building also contains a one room museum of artifacts from the settlement and a lot of information about the people who lived here.

Visitors Center

Tours are given on a schedule and you will be taken on a guided tour of the main and largest remaining building of the Cloister - the Sisters' House and the adjoining Meeting House. You are taken on the tour by a guide dressed in the traditional Cloister robes that were worn every day by the Brothers and the Sisters.

Sister in robe on left and Brother in robe on right

The Householders dressed as most everyone else dressed in the 18th Century and while part of the community and observed some of the rites and beliefs, they lived what is a much more normal existence of colonists in Pennsylvania.


We had an excellent guide. He was very knowledgeable of these people, the Cloister, and the period, and he answered every question that we had for him. Having been on many tours of many historic sites, Meryl and I both agreed that he was one of the best guides we have ever had at any of them. He took us through the Sisters House and told us about life in the community. These people kept themselves very busy every day coming up with things that were in demand in the neighboring communities. They started a printing press and the business ran for fifty years. They printed a 1500 page book for the neighboring Mennonites called the Martyr's Mirror. This was the largest book ever printed in colonial America. Music played an important part of the lives of these people and worship services - which could take place at any time - incorporated this music that was very unusual in composition - then and now. At the conclusion of the tour of the Sisters House, you are taken into the adjoining Meeting House where you will see where the people worshiped and where you will hear some of the hymn music that filled this room centuries ago. These were very disciplined people and everything that they did was done to discipline their minds and soul. They sat and created detailed calligraphic writings and created hand-illuminated books and inscriptions. Everything that was done was done in anticipation of joining with God.

The Sisters House with the Meeting House on the right
 In the Sisters House you will see work areas, cooking areas, and sleeping quarters.  For the 18th Century and a community cut out of the forest, the Brothers and the Sisters buildings and houses were ahead of the times. There were stone sinks in the some of the walls that drained outside the building. These were filled with a bucket of water.

Indoor Sink
Fireplaces each contained a soup kettle -

Something that we have only seen at historic sites where the predominant population was a religious community is a piped plumbing system. We have seen this at Moravian settlements in Pennsylvania and North Carolina - and it was here too at Ephrata Cloister. Most colonial towns and cities did not have this.

The pump is connected to a series of pipes that have been bored out of long logs and connected together and these feed the pump from the water source. The water is pumped by hand and collected in buckets and then brought to the houses or buildings. Here this pump is in front of a house set into a hill. The first floor of the house is below in the back and that floor contains a bake oven to used to bake for the community and each person consumed about a pound of bread a day. This was a very busy place baking to keep up with the need. Water is essential to baking and water came from the pump and was poured by bucket down a hole in the wall of the house.

From here it went down to a large barrel with a tap at the bottom for the bakery's water supply.

Now, if you are thinking how innovative these people were, you are right. But it was not all "modern" convenience. Remember that these people lived a life of devotion and to remain humble, they did not enjoy many comforts. The beds of the Brothers and Sisters were no more than a narrow wood shelf coming out of the wall and their pillows were small blocks of wood. The Householders did not live this way and lived in their own homes that were furnished as many similar homes were furnished in the 18th Century. They had real beds and feather pillows. The contrast between the Brothers and Sisters with the Householders is very interesting. The Householders held many of the same beliefs but lived very much as most colonists - and into the 19th Century Americans lived. Yet these two groups of people who lived very different lives combined in this single Cloister.

Two Sisters slept in this room on these boards.
Once you complete the tour of the Sisters House with your guide the rest of the buildings, houses, and grounds are a self-guided tour. You are given a brochure with full descriptions of what you are seeing. You can go into most of the houses on your own and there are signs explaining what you are seeing. There is one nice feature here - if you have a cell phone with unlimited minutes. There is a phone number to call to hear a very detailed description of what you are seeing. Each spot with a phone connection, has an index number posted. You call the phone number and enter in the index number to hear the presentation. It was very well done and you could back up the talk and listen over if you missed something that was said.

As you tour the grounds you are seeing restorations and sites where buildings that are long gone once stood. One of the buildings to go inside on your own is the house that Conrad Beissel lived in.

Conrad Beissel's house

There is a lot to see. Aside from what I have spoken about so far, you will see the Weaver's House, The Academy (a private school for the Householders' children in 1837), God's Acre (the cemetery), The Physician's House, the site of the Brothers House (long gone), The Printing Office, The Carpenter's House, and the Stable.One of the last buildings you will go into will tell you about how the community evolved through three centuries and what happened to it at the end in the 1930's. The high school pennant shown tells you how far these people came in 200 years.

During the Revolutionary War, these people did not join in the fighting - though you will hear the story of one man buried in the cemetery who was thought to have gone to fight, but further documentation shows that he did not go against his families wishes and remained. Ephrata Cloister was not left out of the war, however. In the winter of 1777 to 1778 parts of the Cloister served as a hospital to care for wounded soldiers. Outside of the grounds - along a hiking trail off the parking lot, you can see the site of a mass grave where Revolutionary War soldiers that died at the hospital were buried. This is within Mount Zion Cemetery and the site is marked by a large monument monolith.

Ephrata Cloister filled an afternoon and we never did make it to the gift shop which closed as we were just finishing seeing all that there was to see. The Cloister is open all year. There are candlelight tours at Christmas time. There are special, scheduled, evening musical programs in an Amphitheater on the grounds where the Cloister Choir sing Cloister hymns.

We enjoyed the Ephrata Cloister very much and are very glad that after all of the years, we decided to go back - this time together - and with a far greater understanding of the period to get a great deal out of what this site has to offer. 

There is a website. The address is Ephrata Cloister, 632 West Main Street, Ephrata, PA 1752. The phone number is (717) 733-6600. Come to Ephrata Cloister on Route 322 either from the south or the north. If you don't know what you are looking for, it is easy to miss the entrance. There is a sign at the entrance. From the south on 322, turn left, from the north, turn right.

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