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Day Tripper: History Comes Alive with Harmony Museum, Events

Many of the original buildings still stand in the town that the German Harmonist Society founded in 1804.

Nestled in Butler County about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh, Historic Harmony makes it easy to learn a wealth of information about the bygone days of Western Pennsylvania without driving far from home.

Designated as a National Historic Landmark town, Harmony recognizes and honors the Native American, Harmonist and Mennonite settlers of the area with Historic Harmony Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and maintaining the Historic Harmony Museum and the traditions of early pioneers.

“Our main museum is located right in the town, but we have eight sites that we maintain,” said John Ruch, president of Historic Harmony. “We also have activities all year round to attract folks to our area.”

Led by German pacifist George Rapp, the Harmonist Society founded Harmony in 1804. The group settled in the area and was organized as a commune until 1814, when it outgrew the available land and moved west. Mennonites then moved into the area, Ruch said.

The town still has many of its original buildings, including the , which was built in 1809 as a warehouse and granary. Today, the museum depicts the everyday life of Harmonists and Mennonites through its displays and settings.  

The historic society also sponsors events throughout the year, including a German dinner in October and the WeihnachtsMarkt, a Christmas market, in November modeled after the yuletide markets in Germany. Other events are a Christmas dinner and Silvester, the German New Year’s Eve celebration. Silvester is celebrated at midnight German time, which is 6 p.m. here.

The history of the town began long before the Harmonists and Mennonites claimed the land. A young George Washington and his men traversed the area in their historic 1753 expedition. Only 21 at the time, Washington was chosen by the governor of Virginia to demand the French end their occupation of land in what is now Butler County. During this famous expedition Washington nearly drowned crossing the Allegheny River. 

Because of its rich history, there are other organzations that pay tribute to Harmony's heritage, including Washington Trail 1753, a nonprofit that partners with Historic Harmony. On Nov. 26, the groups will sponsor an event replicating a small part of Washington’s travels.

With a guide leading them through a section of Washington's Trail, participants at the event learn about the future president’s travels. Mark your calendars now because the event often fills up fast.

“We don’t purport to follow his exact trail, but our goal is to educate people about his travels and how it relates to the history of our area,” said Martin O’Brien, the group's chairman. “It is a fun way to show people where he may have gone and for them to see the types of terrain that he walked though.”

While traveling through the Harmony area, be sure to stop and visit some of the historic cemeteries. Reading the gravestones offers people a great deal of information about the early settlers.

For more information, visit Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau or call 1-866-856-8444. Call the Historic Harmony–Harmony Museum at 724-452-7341.  

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