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Bethel colony 150 years ago is a lot like Heartland today

Wendy Brumbaugh

Not so long ago, Charles Sharpe said God told him to build a Christian communal society in Shelby County. More than one hundred fifty years before, Wilhelm Keil said he came to the same place the same way.

Walter Kamphoefner said that conviction is why Kiel’s colony survived when other organized communities failed. He studies 19th century German colonization of the West at Texas A&M.

“I mean there were a couple of organized groups that came in the 1830's but they ended up not being very successful, giving up their group organization very quickly. In fact, almost before arriving.”

He said it was an unstable time of westward expansion.

But Kiel’s Bethel colony survived with organized labor and strict rules. Each family was given a house, and each family worked as much as they could.

For visitors, there was the Colony Hotel, built in 1844. Now, Wendy Brumbaugh owns it.

Brumbaugh is on Bethel’s governing board. And her family goes way back.

“It would have been my great-great grandfather – owned a leather shop, operated a leather shop in Bethel.”

Her family donated land that would become the town’s cemetery too. But they lived just outside of the colony, like Brumbaugh does now.

She said she can’t legally call her hotel Inn Harmony a bed and breakfast because she doesn’t live there. But that’s what it looks like. It’s a red brick rectangle with only handmade quilts in the four bedrooms.

“My mother owns a quilting shop in Bethel. And so some of them she’s made, some of them I’ve made. Some of them are heirlooms.”

Her grandmother’s quilt is 150 years old. Brumbaugh said the hotel has come full circle.

“During the life of that building, it has been a doctors office. A makeshift hospital during the civil war.”

There’s now has a big screen TV. But Brumbaugh said her visitors come to go back to a simpler time of the Kiel’s colony.

After the charismatic leader died, in the late 19th century, the colony’s rigid structure dissolved.

Brumbaugh sees similarities between the christian communal living spaces separated only by time. She teaches financial education classes at Heartland.

“Charlie Sharpe has a lot of children, disadvantaged children. And the school there – they have some pretty strict rules. And, as I understand it, Dr. Kiel had some pretty strict rules.”   

Brumbaugh works for MU Extension as a family financial education specialist. She’s also a distant cousin of Sharpe. 

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