Monday, May 19, 2014

A Communist Utopia: Nineveh, Missouri

Sometime before the 1920 U.S. federal census was enumerated Margaret (Semple) Muir moved from O'Fallon, Illinois, to Nineveh, Missouri. For the first time since immigrating to the U.S. in 1887, she owned her own home. Her granddaughter, Alice Muir (my grandmother), was living with her. I learned about Nineveh in Eugene Morrow Violette's book entitled, History of Adair County:

"In 1849, the most unique settlement in Missouri, was founded. It was composed of a small group of German communists who came from Bethel, Shelby County, Missouri. In order to get a proper appreciation of the settlement at Nineveh, it will be necessary to say something about Bethel and its founder, Dr. William Keil.

Dr. Keil was born in Prussia in 1811. He grew up to young manhood in his native country and became a milliner. He came to America in 1835 or 1836 and after living in New York he went to Pittsburgh. He practiced medicine in both those places with some degree of success, though it is not certain he ever attended medical school. Shortly after he reached Pittsburgh he was converted in a revival held by German Methodists and he joined their church. In 1839 he was licensed as a local preacher; his success and enthusiasm as a class leader had recommended him as a suitable candidate for this higher rank. Very shortly, however, he broke with this church. During the absence of a regular paster he is said to have ascended the pulpit one Sunday and preached for two hours. In this sermon he attacked the ministry very severely for their acceptance of salaries. At the close of this sermon he asked all those who believed in his inspiration, to rise to their feet. Many rose.  This marked the beginning of his following, and for over thirty years he maintained a strong hold over a considerable group of people. 

William Kiel; image courtesy of Wikipedia

After joining and leaving the Protestants Methodists with his following, he began sending enthusiastic young men as representatives of his ideas into other parts of Pennsylvania and into Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, and Iowa. Their efforts were not without results. Many accepted his ideas and believed in him as an inspired leader and teacher. It was about this time Keil began thinking about establishing a colony somewhere. When his plans were announced many followers sold  their property and made preparations to join him. An attempt was made to put the colony on the basis of a constitution, which had been drafted by some of those who had joined the movement, but this was rejected by Keil. His own imperious will became the law to which all gave a willing and enthusiastic obedience. 

In 1844 he sent a committee called "spies" to Missouri to find a suitable place for a colony. They chose land in Shelby County, which became known as Bethel. Four years later the colony decided to establish a branch settlement in Adair County. They selected the farm of David Ely on the Chariton river and purchased 160 acres. They also knew coal abounded in this area.

Later more land was purchased until the colony owned 2,100 acres. In the spring of 1850 about 25 people came from the Bethel colony and began founding the new colony."

This is how Violette described how Keil's followers lived:

"A steam mill was installed to ground flour, wheat in other grain. A saw mill was also installed and much lumber was gotten out. A tannery, shoe shop, blacksmithing, wagon shops, and a carpenter shop were also erected and put into operation. Some coal was mined but the work was done by hired labor.

The net proceeds of these various industries, including the farm, was put into a general fund. Surplus earnings were used to expand the operations of the colony. Each member of the colony was a stockholder in every concern. Common places were provided for livestock. The men who had families lived in separate houses, but the unmarried men lived in the "large house," which was also used as a hotel and colony store.  

From the colony store each family would draw each week its share of provisions, the share of each family being determined by the number in it. There was no choice of articles or goods. Every family got the same kind of provisions; the difference was in the amount only. The clothing was made from cloth made from by the colony and everyone got a share of it. Special purchases could only be made by those who had realized something from the sale of such commodities as butter and eggs. These commodities were about the only things that could be sold as private property. The proceeds from the sale of other things went into the general fund.

There were only ever about 150 colonists in Nineveh. When William Kiel died in 1877, the colonies established by he and his followers quickly dissolved."

Nineveh coal mine; photo from History of Adair County

Nineveh remained something of a backwater until 1901 when the Iowa and St Louis Railroad laid tracks nearby. The Manufacturers' Coke and Coal Company opened several mines in the area soon after and began mining on a large scale at that time. By 1910, 652 people lived in the city, which was incorporated in 1904.

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