It’s hard to go wrong with a festival that celebrates food. Food festivals abound throughout the state of Ohio, especially in summer and fall, but one of the first to take place in the calendar year is Bretzelfest in the small village of Zoar.
Soft pretzels known as Brezeln or Brezen in Germany, are baked to perfection inside brick ovens. Soft on the inside with a deep brown outside, they are absolutely delicious — especially dipped in a little coarse mustard. They are perfect for Lenten, as they contain no yeast and therefore don’t rise. Which is why Bretzelfest takes place annually on Good Friday in Zoar, Ohio.
Don’t you wish you could pop a little bite of history in your mouth while you read this?
Zoar, Ohio (just south of Canton and Akron and east of Ohio’s Amish country) is a beautiful village founded by German separatists in 1817. Roughly 200 immigrants left Germany because of religious persecution and formed a communal settlement in the Ohio countryside.
The community centers around a beautiful “lust garden” in which the tall pine tree symbolizes Christ and the 12 smaller trees surrounding it, the Apostles.
The Zoar worshippers originally met in the log home of Joseph Bimeler until 1853 when the current Meetinghouse was completed.
Becoming a member of the Zoar society was a serious commitment. In return for food, clothing, and shelter, members gave up all their money and property for the good of the communal society. Several families inhabited each home and the homes were actually numbered. That made it easier for the town to distribute tin pails of milk, butter, and flour to each of the 26 numbered homes.
But, as often happens in a communal society, there was some dissent. For instance, a person leaving the society was left with nothing — no money, no property, and no payment for all the labor done while living there.
Later, the Zoar Separatists embraced celibacy so that the women could continue working. Their community may have begun to dwindle as a result, but tourism moved in.
The Ohio – Erie Canal
A small museum is housed in one of Zoar’s buildings. The Ohio-Erie Canal was very important to the Separatist community and is probably the reason that this communal society lasted as long as it did.
The community built this 7-mile canal by hand. Everyone in the community — women included — dug the canal with shovels. The canals were important connection between Lake Erie and points south. The Zoar Society owned four canal boats at one time, which enhanced their prosperity and enabled them to be self-sufficient and flourish.
This opened a route for commerce that profited the Zoar community greatly. Merchants in the Cleveland area began shipping their products to Zoar and tourism in this small Ohio town began to flourish, resulting in the need for the stately Zoar Hotel.
Today, Zoar’s annual Bretzelfest draws tourists. Most people immediately gravitate to the Bakery to wait for a bretzel warm from the original brick oven.
But pretzels aren’t the only thing to enjoy during Bretzelfest; the town opens up for the season. Visitors can purchase wristbands to take self-guided tours through many of the historic buildings to see how the Separatists lived.
The rooms were sparse, but tidy. The number of beds in each room give you an idea of how families shared living space.
What makes Bretzelfest fun, too, is that Easter eggs are hidden throughout the town. We saw several children hunting for plastic eggs. Each had a small piece of candy or prize inside. We enjoyed finding them hidden in each place we toured. A whimsical reminder that this was a holiday weekend.
Descendants of Zoar’s founders decided to abandon the Society in 1898. A team of surveyors divided the property, and Zoar became just another small Ohio town. But the homes and gardens have been restored and the village draws tourists year-round. A number of Bed & Breakfasts are available in several of the historic, numbered homes. It’s a beautiful place to wander through leisurely and to explore one of the canals that northeastern Ohio is known for.
We went for the pretzels, but I’d love to go back and spend a little more time imagining life there years ago.
What would draw you to Zoar? The pretzels? Or the history?
How fascinating! I love soft pretzels so that would definitely be the main draw for me, but I also enjoy historic tours (like one I did of a Shaker village in KY years ago) so I bet I would like that part of Zoar too.
It was a nice day trip. I have Shaker Village in my sights, too.
What a fun tour, I would love to also explore and check out this place and of course have some of those pretzels
There was quite a line for pretzels since they were being warmed in the brick oven. But definitely worth the wait!
What an interesting piece of history. I always enjoy discovering these (almost) lost traditions.
Thanks, Karen. Me, too! I love learning about a people/community I’d never known about before.
The pretzels seem to be part of this unique history. A fascinating account Juliann.
Thanks, Roy! Yes, they’re still baking pretzels in those old brick ovens. Such a fun little history nugget in this very unique community.
It still amazes us how many places lay just beyond our journeys. When our daughter attended college near Columbus, Ohio, we spent time exploring the Amish region to the east. it looks like we turned back too soon and missed a visit to Zoar. Thanks for showing us around.
Don’t feel bad; I’ve lived in Ohio most of my life and had never heard of Zoar before, either, despite having been to Amish country several times. But I’m glad there are still so many of these amazing little gems to discover in our country. Now seems like a great time to do it!
What a great tour! Loved this post and all the information it contained!
Thanks! A little armchair travel is always a good thing, I think. 🙂
Fascinating! I was aware of the Ohio and Erie Canal, but knew nothing about its history or the people of Zoar or their connection to the canal. And it looks like they did a lovely job of preserving there bit of the past. Definitely worth a visit someday. But I’m hoping those pretzels are available throughout the year in case I don’t get there during a Bretzelfest!
I am pretty sure that the pretzels are part of the bakery’s usual offerings, but regardless, the history of the Zoarites and them digging the canal by hand is fascinating!