Ora Labora: Michigan’s Failed Utopian Society of the 1860s
“Utopia: an ideal place or state. Any visionary system of political or social perfection.”
This is what German immigrant Emil Baur had in mind for an area of land in the Michigan Thumb…..the state’s first Utopian community where everything is beautiful and at peace.
Baur was impressed with the Harmony Society from Pennsylvania, who had set up their own Utopian communities. The hope of these communities was to “elevate their life, give them a different experience than they otherwise would have”.
Taking his cue from the Harmonists, Baur called his projected Utopian community the Christian German Agricultural and Benevolent Society Ora et Labora (over the years, the name was shortened to ‘Ora Labora’, Latin for ‘pray’ and ‘work’).
In the 1860s, Baur was drawn to the Michigan area for the farmland, hoping for agriculture to help grow his Utopia. He bought a few thousand acres of Saginaw Bay swampland in the Huron County area for his residents to farm, but first they had to drain the swamps and cut down the trees to make way for crop fields.
Ora Labora had a good thing going and was growing, now up to 300 residents. Unfortunately for Emil Baur and his new Utopia, the Civil War, which began in 1861, implemented the draft and soon every Ora Labora man who was able-bodied was called on to become a soldier.
The number of Ora Labora residents nose-dived. The majority of men who were called upon to fight were never seen again in Ora Labora.
Also unfortunate was the fact that the men who went to fight were the ones who knew the most about farming. The rest of the colony didn’t have the necessary experience or know-how. With little or no crops, Ora Labora was hurting for finances. It wasn’t long afterward that the rest of the community decided to pack it in and find a life elsewhere.
After 5 years, Ora Labora was no more.
Dejected and disillusioned, Emil Baur made a new life for himself as a teacher and began work in Ann Arbor. He passed away in 1894, thirty years after his personal Utopia disintegrated.
The area is now known as the town of Bay Port in Huron County.
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