Ora Labora: The failed 19th century utopia in Michigan’s Thumb | Michigan Radio
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Ora Labora: The failed 19th century utopia in Michigan’s Thumb

Sep 11, 2019

Agriculture has a long history in Michigan and continues to be one of the state’s top industries. And for one 19th century utopian community in the Thumb, it was half of the equation to living a godly life.

A German immigrant named Emil Bauer founded the state’s first utopian community. He called it the Christian German Agricultural and Benevolent Society Ora et Labora. Today, it’s more commonly known as Ora Labora (the Latin words for pray and work).

We talked to state archivist Mark Harvey with the Michigan History Center about the origin story of Ora Labora, and what caused its eventual collapse.  

Emil Baur came to America from Germany in search of religious freedom. He connected with a religious group from Pennsylvania called the Harmony Society. The Harmonists had set up successful utopian communities themselves, centered around their Christian faith. 

“And it was something that would hopefully elevate their life, give them a different experience than they otherwise would have. Especially in the 19th century, when life, you know, for many wasn’t very elegant. It was just hard work,” explained Harvey.

Baur thought he could build a similar utopian society around agriculture in Michigan, and had financial support from the society to seek out a location for another community. 

“This was a time when Michigan was really promoting their land, and Michigan was really recruiting hardworking German immigrants, and so it seemed like a match made in heaven," said Harvey.

In the early 1860s, Baur purchased thousands of acres of land near Saginaw, in what is now known as Bay Port. However, much of the land was swampy wilderness. That meant residents had to drain the land and cut trees to make it viable for agriculture.

Harvey says at the height of Ora Labora, the colony numbered around 300 residents. But after the Civil War draft started, those numbers quickly dwindled. Every county had to supply a certain number of men to the draft, and Harvey says most of the colony’s able-bodied men ended up fighting in the war and never came back.

Between the draft, the colony’s lack of farming experience, and financial pressues, Ora Labora couldn't sustain itself. And so, fewer than five years after Michigan's first utopian society founded, it disbanded and the members of Ora Labora went their separate ways. Emil Baur made his way to Ann Arbor, where he became a teacher and lived until his death in 1894. 

This segment is produced in partnership with the Michigan History Center