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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Beilhart's Spirit Fruit Society

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. (Dunn Museum 91.20.9)

Above 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 Bess Bower Dunn Museum (formerly Lake County Discovery Museum), and photographs and other documentation were donated to the museum by the former caretakers of the 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 recommend H. Roger Grant's book Spirit Fruit: A Gentle Utopia.


Marcella said...

Another wonderful post! I was excited to read some Ingleside history as a life-long resident. This sleepy little town is more interesting than I though. Thank you!

D_Dretske said...

This is a wonderfully interesting chapter in Ingleside's history. I hope you get the chance to read H. Roger Grant's book on the Spirit Fruit group.

1 Lake Bed Owner of Wooster Lake said...

Great History!

We live in a 105 year old home on private Wooster Lake. From previous owners' children now elderly, we have been provided all kinds of memorabilia and information about the home and Wooster Lake.

This history will fit in well with our collection!

soupy1029 said...

I am "late to the game" on discovering Wooster Lake info. My great grandparents owned a summer home there. Reuben & Jessie Kittle spent their summers on the Lake. Does anyone have an idea on how I might discover where the home is/was?
They called their home or the area Oak Knoll, Four Oaks or Four Knolls.

vic said...

You did a fine job on this Spirit Fruit Farm. I lived on the Bellevue Place Sanitarium property from 1949 to 1968. My Dad, Burton Bowgren, was the business manager. When Mom died in 1993 my Dad left. I loved the fruit orchard, the big red barn and the big sanitarium. Vicky.

Shawn Ford said...

Very interesting. I had posted an article from around 1910 of the spirit fruit colony on facebook a while ago. The article did not speak kindly of them and said they all ran about barefoot and mentioned the founder was a classmate of Teddy Roosevelt.

Robin said...

When I was 9, I was a camper at Henry Horner Day camp. I don't know how, but we came across this abandoned home ad I think it was the home mentioned in this article. There were a bunch of little cottages surrounding the home that could have probably fit a bed. Not sure what they were used for.

When we went into the house, there were newspapers from the 1960's on the floor and beds with straps on them. That's really all I remember.

Robert Cayet said...

There is a man made cave structure with steps chiseled out. It is in the woods on the east side of Wooster Lake in the Silver Glen subdivision. Not sure if it is theirs but it overlooks overgrown farmland.

Diana Dretske said...

I'm not sure of the location you're describing, but it sounds like an ice house or root cellar.

vic said...

I lived on Bellevue Place from 1949 to 1968, My Dad left in 1993. Up by the big old barn there was a root cellar, steps faced west. Up at the old farm house at the far southeast end of the property was steps going down to the basement of the 2 story home torn down. The sanitarium had a deep basement also especially where the heating boiler sat.

Anonymous said...

The old Beilhart woods are beautiful to walk through. However that "deep basement" as described above or something similar to it is still there on site, never filled in. The location is very near the parking area. The giant hole is top-covered with some kind of plate(s) where one section can be opened with a plate that lifts off. I have no idea why the village who took ownership years ago never took care of some of the hazards on it. Wandering off the main path can bring you unexpectedly right on to this hole. Please be very careful on this property.

Unknown said...

They used to have a wine cellar. Maybe that is it.