Minimalists Today: The Hermitage & the Mahantongo Heritage Center


“As Harmonists, our goal is to live in harmony with the spirit and the earth at every moment.”

– Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf

This morning, I came across a fascinating story, They Built It. No One Came. from the Sunday New York Times. The article tells the story of two men who tried to create a commune where members would live off the land and farm with Colonial-era tools. It didn’t work out, and they now call the property the Hermitage.

The men, born Michael Colby and Donald Graves, were inspired by an 18th century all-male religious community called Christiansbrunn. It was based on communal ideals developed by Moravian Church leader Nicholas Ludwig Zinzendorf, who believed in the spiritual values of an agrarian life (and sex, but that’s less relevant to minimalism).

“We insisted on living in a physical world imbued with spiritual beauty where nothing was mundane and every object was a reflection of the divine.”

– Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf

Michael and Donald met in the 1970s at a gay-consciousness-raising group in Salt Lake City. They eventually began thinking of starting an intentional community in a rural setting and moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. In 1988, they bought 63 acres in the Mahantongo Valley in central Pennsylvania and changed their names to Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf.¹

At first, they slept in a travel trailer in the barn, which was the only building on the land. Soon they began to rescue period cabins and structures in the area and move them to the site. They also acquired sheep, cattle, goats, turkeys, ducks, geese, chickens, cats and dogs. Star and Bright, a pair of oxen, took over plowing duties.

“It took many years to realize we are not communalists but hermits. We went from being a cloistered brotherhood to a hermitage.”

– Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf

The Zinzendorfs had high hopes for their planned intentional community. They “knew it was only a matter of time before brothers flocked to join” them. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.

Few were interested in joining the community, and since colonial-era agriculture is labor intensive, the lack of commune members was a big problem. The community that had inspired them had 88 men, not two.

Eventually the Zinzendorfs realized that Christiansbrunn had a few things going for it that they didn’t: charisma and religion. Not only were neither of them charismatic leaders, but they didn’t have a solid religious base. They had an earth-centered spirituality that evolved over time.

Since they weren’t able to build the intentional community they’d hoped for, they decided to host artists’ retreats, residencies and other gatherings. Eventually, they decided the empty commune would be a hermitage.

“We decided to turn everything into a showcase for the valley’s heritage. After all, there was no place where one could see what made the Mahantongo Valley of central Pennsylvania so unique in its isolated development.”

– Christian and Johannes Zinzendorf

Now in their 60s, Christian and Johannes have reconfigured their lives again. They’re no longer a couple and live in two separate houses on the property.

They’ve sold most of their antique tools. The remainder are housed in the barn, which has been turned into a museum, The Mahantongo Heritage Center. The Center includes furniture, housewares, paintings, textiles and other Pennsylvania Dutch relics.

Although most of the livestock is gone, the Zinzendorfs still raise turkeys and grow and process flax into linen. They give presentations about processing flax and have made some videos showing how it’s done.

They’ve also written a couple of books. The Big Book of Flax: A Compendium of Facts, Art, Lore, Projects and Song was published in 2011. They’re still looking for a publisher for their memoir.

Ordinarily, the museum and grounds are open for tours only by reservation. According to their website, though, their annual open house for 2015 will be Sunday, August 9 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Major buildings and the museum will be open for tours, and Johannes will do “a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch bake day at the 200-year-old bake oven.”


¹ Christian later changed his name again, to Zephram de Colebi, but to keep the story-line easy to follow, I’m sticking to Christian.

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