Arts & Culture

Amana in World War I: Exhibit commemorates complicated chapter of colonies' history

"Amana Boys" have been re-imagined in art

Artists were invited to create original works based on photos of World War I veterans from Amana in exhibit at the Amana Arts Guild in High Amana, shown on Thursday, March 29, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Artists were invited to create original works based on photos of World War I veterans from Amana in exhibit at the Amana Arts Guild in High Amana, shown on Thursday, March 29, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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AMANA — The pacifism that kept Amana Colonies residents out of America’s wars was one of the casualties of World War I, when even with religious exemption stamps, nearly 50 young men shipped out to various fronts domestic and overseas in 1918.

Four died: one in France, one on a ship en route to France and two in training camps stateside.

A century later, their photos, stories and memorabilia are showcased in an art and history exhibition being unveiled Thursday at the Amana Arts Guild in High Amana and the Amana Heritage Museum in Amana. Free open houses will be held at both sites from 5 to 7 p.m.

Photos of the Amana Boys, as the soldiers were known, have been re-imagined in more than 30 paintings, sketches and collages for “1918: Pacifistic Patriots of the Amana Society During World War I Art Project.”

The majority of the artworks are hanging in the second-floor gallery at the Arts Guild center. It’s located in a repurposed 1858 Amana church, where the architecture is a work of art, as well.

The other pieces are exhibited at the Amana Heritage Museum, along with memorabilia ranging from letters and dog tags to headlines decrying the Amana draft exemption. In one corner lies an Amana coffin draped with the flag of George Hug, who died at Camp Devens, Mass., and is buried in his hometown of High Amana.

When the guild’s call for artists went out, exhibit organizers were thrilled with the quick response. They were even more thrilled when they saw the finished portraits.

“Oh my gosh, there are a lot of talented people that helped out with this,” was the initial reaction from Jon Childers of Middle Amana, the heritage society’s executive director. “It is really amazing,” he added.

“I think they did an excellent job,” said arts guild director Deborah Hawkes of South Amana. She’s proud that her grandfather, Fred Setzer, and his brothers Albert and Theodore are depicted in the collection, as well as her school-bus driver, Rudolph Pitz.

Several of the artists are related to the men in the photographs, including Stephanie Rettig, whose portrait subject was her great-grandfather, Carl F. Rettig Jr.

Childers pointed out that a couple of the male artists bear a striking resemblance to their ancestors — especially artist Sam Cutler, who drew his great-grandfather, Adolph Moessner. “That could almost be (Sam) standing there,” Childers said, pointing to Moessner’s photo beneath his portrait.

World War I was an especially difficult time for Amana residents, Childers said, since they were not only scorned for their military exemption status, but also for their German heritage. Despite their loyalty to their adopted country, they suffered negative press, threats of violence and even an angry mob from Marengo who marched toward the colonies “with guns a-blazing,” Childers said. Marengo’s sheriff convinced them to back off.

But on the homefront, the colonists had been supporting the war effort through goods and money.

The woolen mill produced 35,000 blankets for the war effort, gave to the Salvation Army and Red Cross, made flagpoles and bought war bonds, giving the equivalent of $2,000 per Amana resident, Childers said.

“We knew that not believing in war, we could still be loyal,” Childers said.

Since the Great Change of 1932, when the communal way of life ended but the pacifist church remained, joining the armed forces has become a personal decision, Childers said, noting that more than 164 men and two woman served in World War II.

If you go:

  • What: “1918: Pacifistic Patriots of the Amana Society During World War I Art Project”
  • Where: Amana Arts Guild, 1210 G St., High Amana, and Amana Heritage Museum, 705 44th Ave., Amana
  • When: Thursday to October; more commemorative events will be planned throughout the year
  • Exhibit opening: 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, both sites; some artists will attend; free admission
  • Admission: Regular admission at the Amana Heritage Museum is $7 ages 18 and older; free under 18
  • Information: Amanaartsguild.com and Amanaheritage.org

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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