During the depression of the mid-1890s, there was a rise in the number of communitarian groups throughout the United States. American utopianism was nothing new. A rash of these groups had formed in the 1830s and 1840s, and many more following the Civil War. Yet, one small group stood out at the end of the nineteenth century—Jacob Beilhart's Spirit Fruit Society—which eventually settled in Ingleside, Illinois.
The charismatic Jacob Beilhart (1867 - 1908) was born on a farm in Columbiana County, Ohio. This portrait was taken in 1904 for the Cincinnati Enquirer. (Collections of the Lisbon (Ohio) Historical Society)
The Spirit Fruit Society is considered by some to be the longest lived utopian society in the United States, existing from 1899 to 1930.
Though raised as a "fire and brimstone" Lutheran, Jacob's search for truth lead him to faith healing and the possibilities of mental suggestion and self-sacrifice. "Spirit Fruit" was Jacob's view of "true life" for the "tangible fruit of the Universal Spirit."
Jacob's message included the importance of doing good works; the teachings of Jesus, who represented the perfect, unselfish man; the glorification of "female qualities"; and the need for marriage reform. Unlike other founders of communitarian groups, Jacob made no attempt to attract converts. He also allowed his members to come and go as they pleased—some staying permanently while others only visited for days or months.
Jacob's promotion of "free love" gave him the most trouble, and was decades ahead of what Americans were ready to accept. His "free love" philosophy included the right for consenting adults to change partners, but not have more than one partner at a time, and was tolerant of homosexuality. The intent was to create an atmosphere of tolerance, not one of promiscuity. However, this lifestyle brought negative attention on the Society, and forced Jacob out of Lisbon, Ohio and into the big city of Chicago where his message was more tolerated.
By 1905, the Spirit Fruit Society was able to buy property near Ingleside along Wooster Lake. The 90-acre site was perfect for farming, beautifully situated on the lake, and was close enough to Chicago that Jacob could preach there and interested individuals (including journalists) could ride the train out to the Society's farm. View of Wooster Lake from the front steps of the Society's Temple.
There were never more than two dozen members at a time, and they were very devoted to Jacob's beliefs, especially the notion that the human spirit could attain health and peace called "Universal Life" through a strong work ethic.
Shown here are several of the original members of the Spirit Fruit Society. From left to right: Virginia Moore (in men's clothing) who was Jacob's lover, Lou Beilhart (Jacob's wife), Mary Beilhart (Jacob's sister), and an unidentified woman, circa 1898. Lou seemingly tolerated Jacob's affair, but eventually left him, although they never legally divorced. Photo courtesy of H. Roger Grant.
The members built by hand their home along Wooster Lake, which they called the "Spirit Fruit Temple." It was a 60 x 80 foot cement block structure complete with personal space for each member. Both men and women members dug by hand tons of gravel from the west bank of the lake, and hauled 500 loads of it "across the ice on sleds in very cold weather" to build their dream.
In 1908, the unthinkable happened. Jacob "took sick" with acute appendicitis. Though a doctor from Waukegan was brought in to operate, peritonitis set in, and Jacob died three days later. In keeping with the simplicity of "Universal Life," his followers placed his body in a homemade oak casket and buried him in an unmarked grave. The site of Jacob's grave is now inaccessible on private property.
Despite this great loss the colony continued. Perhaps this fact more than any other makes the Spirit Fruit group unique. Historically, communitarian experiments headed by a single individual dissolved if anything happened to that leader. The Spirit Fruit Society remained in Ingleside until 1914, and for unclear reasons headed west to California where they bought an abandoned olive grove property near Los Gatos. The Society's membership dwindled, and the final blow came in 1930 when Virginia Moore died of cancer.
The Society's Temple in Ingleside was "rebuilt" in the early 1940s and became the Wooster Lake Health Resort (above) —a non-sectarian health clinic which offered "the profession and the public the most accepted and approved hospital equipment" available. (LCDM 91.20.9)
Shown at left is one of the rooms featured in the health resort's promotional booklet, circa 1945.
In 1995, the former Temple and sanitarium burned to the ground. It had been vacant for years. The site has since been developed as a residential subdivision.
Physically, very little remains of the Spirit Fruit Society. Remnants of the Temple in Ingleside were collected by the Lake County Discovery Museum, and some photographs and other documentation donated to the museum by the former caretakers of that site. But the utopian Society's success is evident in terms of its longevity, the personal growth of its members, and that the group achieved its goal of "practicing goodness and thoughtfulness and turning the other cheek."
For an in-depth look at Jacob Beilhart and his Spirit Fruit Society, I strongly recommend H. Roger Grant's book Spirit Fruit: A Gentle Utopia.