Exploring Amana Colonies: Rooted in history, embracing the present

Visitors stroll down 220th Trail, the main street in Amana on a sunny July day. The seven Amana Colonies attract visitors year-round, for shopping, festivals, dining and recreation, showcasing a mix of German and American heritage. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Visitors stroll down 220th Trail, the main street in Amana on a sunny July day. The seven Amana Colonies attract visitors year-round, for shopping, festivals, dining and recreation, showcasing a mix of German and American heritage. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Nestled among the scenic byways of the Iowa River lie seven villages where the past merges peacefully with the present.

Founded in 1855 by members of the Die Gemeinde der wahren Inspiration — Community of True Inspiration — the Amana Colonies provide a glimpse into a communal way of life that lasted until the Great Change in 1932.

Today, the villages of Amana (often referred to as “Main Amana”), East Amana, West Amana, South Amana, Middle Amana, High Amana and Homestead are a National Historic Landmark where tourism is, at minimum, a $20 million industry, according to David Rettig, executive director of the Amana Colonies Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Specialty shops line the main street of the main village of Amana, an easy walk where visitors can visit wine shops, bakeries, a chocolate shop, restaurants offering everything from wood-fired pizza to family-style feasts, clothing boutiques, fine arts and crafts, antiques, lodgings and the Millstream Brewery and Brau Haus.

The woolen mill and furniture shop are destination stops for handcrafted goods, and other Old-World attractions include the Amana Meat Shop & Smokehouse and the Festhalle Barn, a site for celebrations from Maifest in May and Oktoberfest to the Tannenbaum Forest during the holidays and Winterfest in January.

All of the colonies have a “shop street,” Rettig said. And while many of the shops needed to sustain each village have closed, a variety of stores and museums remain. Visitors can step back in time to see a communal kitchen and cooper shop in Middle Amana, a church museum in Homestead, a broom and basket shop in West Amana that’s home to a photo-ready giant walnut rocking chair and a century-old hearth oven bakery in Middle Amana.

Each village has its own personality, Rettig said, and the structures reflect the brick, sandstone and wood available there. In a move both practical and frugal, the wood wasn’t painted or treated, making it easier to see which boards needed replacing. Paint was expensive, and trees were free, he said.

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Trellises on the sides of many homes and shops served two purposes: growing grapes for jams, jellies and wines and providing shade from the sun.

“It’s amazing how much thought they gave to everything,” he said. “Nothing was wasted. Everything was used.”

Recreation abounds, as well, with five miles of trails connecting the colonies, beckoning walkers, hikers and bikers past views of Lily Lake and the Mill Race canal that generated power for flour and textile mills. The Old Creamery Theatre moved from Garrison to Amana in 1988 and offers comedies, musicals and dramas from spring through December.

DIVING INTO HISTORY

“To understand the Amana Colonies, you have to understand a little bit of history,” Rettig said. “The Amanas are here because of religious reasons. My ancestors were involved with this, and they years ago decided that the only way this would work is to have a communal society.”

Doing so would even-out the differences between the rich people and peasants in their group, Rettig said, and keep them all together in their community of believers. To escape religious persecution, Christian Metz led 1,200 followers to America beginning in 1843, settling on 5,000 acres near Buffalo in western New York. They called themselves the Ebenezer Society and all worked together for the common good.

Needing more land, they moved westward to Iowa. They purchased 26,000 acres in the fertile Iowa River valley, which offered the natural resources needed to sustain their communal, agrarian way of life, as well as the freedom to worship the way they chose. They purchased the nearby town of Homestead in 1861 to give them access to the railroad for importing and exporting goods.

Residents were provided homes and meals at more than 50 communal kitchens, and in return, worked in various jobs from farming and gardening to skilled labor like blacksmithing and furniture making. Children and the elderly worked, too. Villagers attended church 11 times a week, children attended school year-round until age 14, and some boys were sent to college to become doctors, dentists or teachers.

“Of course, you had to have some sort of income,” Rettig said, so in addition to farming, the villagers created a woolen mill and a calico fabric factory. The woolen mill still operates in Amana, but the calico factory fell victim to World War I, since the indigo dye came from the German enemy nation.

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“The Germans wanted to continue to sell it, so they had loaded it up on a U-boat, and the U-boat was captured off the East Coast of the United States, carrying this dye,” Rettig said.

After the war, demand for the calico fabric waned, and the factory closed.

The forward-thinking villagers eventually found a profitable niche in refrigeration, which led to Amana becoming a household name in refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners and microwave ovens. The plant, built in 1934, still operates in Middle Amana and is owned by Whirlpool Corp. The smokestack from the original building remains on the grounds, Rettig said.

“We get lots of people who come to the colonies, and they can find out nothing about the history and still enjoy themselves while they’re here,” Rettig said.

To gain the full Amana experience, however, he recommends touring the Amana Heritage Museum, a building complex facing Amana’s Main Street, with its entrance just around the corner, at 705 44th Ave. It’s open daily, April 1 to Oct. 31, then Saturdays in November, December and March.

A short film introduces visitors to the Amana history and way of life, and various rooms in the three 19th-century structures are full of artifacts showing everyday life, from childhood to adulthood, with schoolbooks printed in the Amanas, toys, craft displays and photos of somber weddings. The original wash house and woodshed contains everything from tools to an outhouse.

“I fully believe that people who take the time to learn a little bit about the history and to realize what makes the Amanas unique far more enjoy the experience,” Rettig said.

IF YOU GO

HISTORY: Amanaheritage.org/museums

ATTRACTIONS: Amanacolonies.com

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CELEBRATIONS: Festivalsinamana.com

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