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Discover Mid-America — July 2006

The Colonies embrace their cultural heritage and artistic traditions

by Terri Baumgardner

In the upper Midwest, nestled along the Iowa River, is a rare historical destination — The Amana Colonies.

German immigrants settled in the southeastern portion of Iowa in 1855, and built seven villages within a 17-mile radius. Today, The Amana Colonies are revered for their cultural heritage and traditions, lost arts, architecture, historic preservation, farming, religious and communal landscapes.

The seven villages are: Amana, East Amana, Middle Amana, High Amana, West Amana, South Amana and Homestead. With a total population of about 1,500 people, many of the citizens are descendents of the original settlers.

Although technology has changed greatly over the years, such a fact isn't apparent in many parts of the Amana Colonies. Shown at left is a basket weaver from years past; on the right is a broom maker still practicing his craft. (photos courtesy of Amana Colonies Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Amana Heritage Society)

The villages are brimming with antique shops, artist studios, museums, landmark historic sites, family-style eateries, and quaint bed and breakfast inns. Just a day's drive from anywhere in the Midwest, The Amana Colonies are located on I-80 near Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

"When people come here, they'll know they're in a different place," said Lanny Haldy, The Amana Heritage Society's executive director.

"Most of the Midwest is a classic grid system, every mile is a road. In Amana that system breaks down, one communal road circles the villages. That's why the landscape is so different. Plus, it straddles the Iowa River so we have the river valley, the bluffs, and the timber up in the highlands. It is a very pretty place."

The History

In the 17th and 18th centuries, a group of Germans broke away from the Lutheran Church and founded the Church of True Inspiration. Fleeing religious persecution in the 1840s, a group of 800 people pooled their resources and journeyed to New York to begin a new life.

"One of the things that sets them apart is they believe very much your relationship with God is personal," said Kristie Wetjen, The Amana Colonies Convention and Visitors Bureau's Executive Director.

"It doesn't need church steeples and stain glass windows, it's an inner experience. Another thing is they believed God worked through certain people as instruments, like a prophet."

By 1855, the German immigrants settled in eastern Iowa where they built a communal society, The Amana Colonies. They chose the name, Amana, from the Bible's Song of Solomon for it's meaning "to remain true".

"All property was held in community," Wetjen said. "Everything was owned by The Church. No one person owned a house, farm or business. Everything was established for the common good of society."

In 1932, The Amana Colonies' ended their communal era.

"The Amana Church still exists today even though the communalism ended," Haldy said. "The Church said, 'We don't want to have the economic responsibility', so they gave that to the Amana Society Corporation, which has the economic assets of the communal system.

“The religion goes back to Germany, it goes back all most 300 years, the Church will celebrate its 300th anniversary in 2014."

The Amana Colonies Today

Although Amana Colonies' residents reflect a contemporary lifestyle, they still live in historic villages that highlight the communal era of their society.

"The Villages today are a mix of old and new," Wetjen said. "There's new construction but you will see old architecture, sandstone, brick and wood clapboard structures."

The villages are set apart by acres of farmland, yet, the landscape is absent of farmhouses and barns. That's because the communal era established a community barn in each village.

"In 1932, when the communal era ended, all property was put into a for-profit corporation called Amana Society Incorporated," Wetjen said.

And The Colonies do not have a city government.

"No government has ever taken the place of the communal society," Haldy said. "The Villages have no city government, it's all under the county jurisdiction. Amana is in Iowa County, which is a county in Iowa. The State of Iowa recognizes The Colonies are in a unique position so they passed special legislation. They let us create a Land Use District, essentially it is a zoning and historic preservation district. It is a board of elected trustees."

In place of a city government, The Amana Colonies utilize citizen volunteer groups.

"We're small," Haldy said. "So there are people forming small organizations, getting things done. For major projects, we go to the County Board of Supervisors.

The Historic Sites

The Amana Colonies' historic sites tell the story of the German immigrants and their communal lifestyle.

"We still have the only operating woolen mill in Iowa," Wetjen said. "In 1855, the Colonies purchased a block of ground, which grew into 26,000 acres and is still intact. It is the largest contiguous farm in Iowa. The Amana Colonies is the largest national historic landmark in Iowa with over 400 buildings."

A major landmark in the colonies, the smokestack from Iowa's only operating woolen mill still stands tall giving the skyline a distinct look. (photos courtesy of the Amana Heritage Society)

It all begins with the Amana Heritage Museum in Amana. The museum offers an overview of The Amana Colonies in its exhibits and video presentations. The historic building also houses a library and archives collection.

The Communal Kitchen and Cooper Shop in Middle Amana reveals the communal lifestyle. Women were assigned jobs in gardening and cooking in a communal kitchen for each village, preparing five meals daily for village residents.

"Amana Colonies are known for their family style dining, an offshoot of the communal era," Wetjen said. "Weinerschnitzel, veal breaded and fried. Bratwurst, knockwurst. Jagerschnitzel, breaded pork. And sauerkraut is always on the table as is pickled ham and pie. You never go away hungry."

The communal kitchens also point to an unusual historic architectural landmark of the Amana Colonies' homes. The houses did not have kitchens because residents dined in the communal kitchens. And the homes were built for extended families.

"These Amana houses, their bigger than most," Haldy said. "Because extended families lived in them. My grandmother lived upstairs in the house I lived in."

The High Amana General Store is housed in a historic 1858 sandstone structure that served as a general store during the communal era. The museum site sells merchandise while the Homestead Store Museum in Homestead tells the history of the Amana Colonies' commerce.

High Amana General Store: operating as a dry goods mercantile for over 100 years. (photos courtesy of Amana Colonies Convention & Visitors Bureau)

"A lot of times people think the communal colonies were isolated and self sufficient," Haldy said. "In fact, communal Amana used commerce to reach the rest of the world. They had woolen mills, sold wool fabric across the United States. They also printed calico they bought cloth from mills in the southeast, used Indigo dye to make calico fabrics. The dye made it dark blue, the cloth would be blue and the patterns would remain white, red, yellow or light blue. They created their own patterns."

The Communal Agriculture Museum in South Amana is housed in an 1858 community barn, one of the Amana Colonies oldest architectural structures and features antiqued methods of construction using pegs and beams. The museum exhibits tools and photographs from the communal farming era.

"Communal Amana grew the same crops as other Midwest farmers," Haldy said. "But what is unique is the barns are in the villages. That's why the landscape is so open — all barns are part of the villages. People worked the farms and lived in the village. That's why the villages are spaced the way they are, so it wouldn't take a half a day to get out in the field and back."

The Amanas' way of farming also reveals historic European farming methods though today their farming methods are among the most high-tech.

"It's village to field or open field farming similar to what was done in Europe in the 1800s," Wetjen said. "Each village has a barn complex, and farmers operate from one central location.

“Today, it is super high-tech, one of the most high-tech farms in the nation. A lot of companies send technology to test here. We operate the largest cow-calf operation in Iowa. That's where you've got cows that are bred and have calves, then sold. At any given time, we operate a large feedlot so we feed cattle for other companies. Between the feedlot and cow/calf operation, we have 7,000 to 9,000 cattle on the land. All beef cattle, yes, you can buy steaks. One of the traditional shops was a meat shops and that is still in existence. We're known for our hams, steaks, bratwursts."

The Amana Community Church Museum in Homestead is housed in an 1865 Saal. The Church's 141-year-old architecture is highlighted in a presentation, as is the Amana Church's religion.

Even though residents of the villages live modern lifestyles, their Sunday services offer a peak back into the early days.

"The women wear a black shawl and bonnet to church," Wetjen said. "The church looks like it did 150 years ago, very stark wood benches. It has separate entrances for men and women, and they sit on separate sides of the church. The church is a group of elders, men and women, who oversee the church and rotate on who gives services. During the communal era, residents went 11 times a week to church. Now, we just go on Sundays. We still have a German service provided on Sundays, and one in English."

The Homestead Blacksmith Shop in Homestead is an original blacksmith shop. During the communal era, the blacksmith hammered all the nails, horseshoes and other iron necessities for the villagers.

"We have it set up for a working blacksmith," Haldy said. "It's the same tools that's been in there for over 100 years, and the blacksmith does demonstrations.

“It was a village-size blacksmith shop, so we moved in old printing equipment. It's also our goal for it to become a print shop for demonstrations. If we could find someone to make the commitment, we'd print our own fliers, labels off of the old presses."

The Lost Arts, Shopping and Dining

The Amana Colonies are rich in artisans who practice the lost arts, such as the blacksmith and handcrafted furniture.

"The original furniture shop is still in existence," Wetjen said. "We still have handcrafted solid oak, cherry and walnut furniture. There are two other furniture manufacturers who still work the same way. Woolens are still made here."

One such art is handmade pottery, hand knitted items and a tinsmith.

"He makes items out of tin," said Joanna Schanz, a member of the Amana Arts Guild and a basket weaver. "There's a very special star shaped cake pan, cookie cutters, buckets, a lot of it is old stuff he's reproduced. And we have a rug weaver that makes traditional carpets."

And Schanz still hand-weaves baskets.

"I learned from the last active basket weaver in the Amana Colonies," said Schanz, who owns the Broom and Basket Shop in West Amana. "There are other basket weavers. We weave using cultured willow, we grow and harvest willow for baskets."

In 1972, Schanz revived the art of hand crafting brooms and wanted to learn to weave baskets. So she sought out Philip Dickel.

"In 1932, when the Amana Colonies made the change, he took willow sticks out of the communal willow patch and planted them in his backyard," Schanz said. "He came to the shop and planted willow next to the shop. It takes three years for a willow patch to establish. On the third year, he showed me how to harvest and sort willows to length. Then, he sat down, wove a basket and had me weave a basket. I worked with him until he died."

Many lost talents can be discovered at the Amana Colonies such as this woman practicing the art of rug braiding. (photos courtesy of the Amana Heritage Society)

A handmade basket takes about six to eight hours to weave, and ranges in cost from $35 to $250 each.

The Philip Dickel Basket Museum Gallery in West Amana showcases historical baskets from The Amana Colonies and from across the United States.

The Amana Colonies are also rich with painters.

"Carl Flick studied with Grant Wood," Schanz said. "You can see the influence in his paintings. This year's festival is making that connection, Grant Wood, he did the famous painting ‘American Gothic,’ the farmer and his wife with the pitchfork."

Antique shops are sprinkled about the Amana Colonies, too, such as Mary Anne Erenberger's Erenberger Antiques in Amana.

"My shop is strictly primitive, pre-1900 original surface," Erenberger said. "Some are of German origin, but what we have is more New England. They settled in New York and came here in the early 1850s, some of the furniture would have come from Germany, but more of it is from New York or made here. But it's very German."

Erenberger's shop is situated in an 1856 house, the shop next door is Renates, which carries a variety of antiques. Like most antique shops in the Amana Colonies, both Erenberger's Antiques and Renates sometimes shelve Amana antiques such as quilts.

"The quilts made here were from one piece of fabric," Erenberger said. "It's the way they were stitched, you can tell the pattern. When you think of a quilt, you think of tiny pieces of fabric sewn together. Their quilts are one piece of fabric and the stitching makes the style of quilt."

Erenberger also notes the settlers did a lot of winemaking, and the seven villages are sprinkled with wineries. Village streets also are lined with meat markets and family style eateries.

But whether you visit the Amana Colonies for shopping and dining, or simply to take in the historic sites, you're sure to walk away with a unique historical perspective.

"You can learn two important lessons," Haldy said. "One is the power of religious faith, how people can do things beyond themselves for the goal of community. The other lesson is simply that there are other streams, other ways of living than the individualistic way, which people think is the way of the United States.

“The notion of American individualism has to be tempered with American cooperative nature. Communalism is a much neglected aspect of American history."

Terri Baumgardner is a Blue Springs, MO-based writer.

The Amana Colonies host an array of festivals and events, including:

Abend GalerieTour, July 7: Amana artisans host workshops, free.

Tour de Brew, July 15: A 30-mile bike ride from Iowa City to Amana's Millstream Brewing Company, registration required.

Christmas in July Arts and Crafts Show, July 15-16: More than 150 exhibits of handmade arts and crafts.

Abend Galarie Tour, Aug. 4: Amana artisans host workshops, free.

Festival of the Arts, Aug. 12: Both traditional and contemporary Amana Colonies' artisans demonstrate and sell their fine and folk art.

Farm Progress Show, Aug. 29-31: An agriculture trade show highlighting technology.

Abend Galerie Tour, Sept. 1: Amana artisans host workshops, free.

Yard Market Day, Sept. 2: Antique shops host yard sales.

Amana Artisans Studio Tour, Sept. 15-17: Folk artists and crafters open their studios to the public.

Volksmarch, Sept. 23-24: A traditional German folk walk of the Colonies.

Oktoberfest, Sept. 29-Oct. 1: Traditional Bavarian autumn festival held at the historic Festhalle Barn.

For more information on the Amana Colonies and festivals, call 1-800-579-2294 or go to

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