Amana Colonies, Iowa
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Did You Know … ?
- Residents of the Amana Colonies conducted their first English-language church services in 1961.
- George C. Foerstner founded Amana Refrigeration in Middle Amana (1934).
- Amana introduced the side-by-side refrigerator (1949) and was first to patent a self-defrost unit (1954).
- Population in the Amana Colonies topped out at 1,813 in 1881.
- Amana’s founders created several villages to make it easier to farm all their land.
Utopia on the prairie
The Amana Colonies, a cluster of seven villages in east-central Iowa, were founded beginning in 1855 by German Pietists seeking to practice their religion in relative isolation. For nearly 80 years, this utopian society maintained an almost completely self-sufficient economy based on farming, handcraft skills and a communal lifestyle. Theirs became one of the world’s longest-lived communal societies.
In that period, property and resources were shared. The community provided housing, medical care, meals (in 55 communal kitchens), jobs (assigned by the village council) and education through age 14.
Eventually, however, Amanians outgrew the communal system. In 1932, they created the Amana Society, Inc., a profit-sharing corporation that issued shares to all church members. A privately held business, it owns and manages the community’s 26,000 acres of farm and forest lands. It also owns and manages some in-town businesses and functions as the local utility company. Despite these changes, Amanians kept their church.
The seven villages (Amana, East Amana, High Amana, Middle Amana, South Amana, West Amana and Homestead) were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. They attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, visitors who are fascinated by the area’s unique history, lured to villages that strongly reflect another era and attracted by the reputation of Amana restaurants and crafted products.
The foods, crafts as well as festivals are clearly tied to the villages’ German heritage. The meals are hearty affairs built around locally raised foods. The villages’ specialty businesses include a still-operating 1857 woolen mill, an original furniture and clock maker, a rug weaver, quilt shop, broom and basket maker, as well as winemakers and a brewery. And the historic general stores are, well, generalists.
As to colony festivities, they include a spring Maifest; lots of activity centered on the Christmas holidays, and, predictably, an Oktoberfest — a very lively one at that. In addition, the Amana Heritage Society sponsors annual events that promise further insight — and pleasure — including meals, in historic settings, that highlight local food traditions.
Finally, Middle Amana is still home to the Amana refrigerator maker, originally an Amana Society business and now Whirlpool owned. It doesn’t offer factory tours.
Things to do for Venturers
- Form a team, and enter the Eisenmann Contest at Amana’s Oktoberfest. This involves rolling kegs, sawing logs, walking a balance beam with full beer steins and holding full beer steins at arm’s length longer than anyone else. Harder than you think.
- Or turn your talents to the Oktoberfest’s brat eating contest.
- Cycle the Amana Colonies Gravel Bike Route B, a 17-mile roundtrip outing starting in Middle Amana and taking riders to West Amana, a village that offers several excuses to stop for sightseeing, shopping or a rest.
- At Amana’s Winterfest in January, enter the Great Amana Ham-Put (that’s tossing a ham, as in a shot put) or enter the log sawing competition.
- Also, schedule yourself for the Winterfest Communal Kitchen Breakfast, when the Amana Heritage Society fires up the wood-burning hearth in the Communal Kitchen Museum in Middle Amana for a communal-style breakfast.
- Hear what the guide has to say about religious practices at the Amana Community Church Museum in Homestead. Then, attend a church service, keeping church customs in mind.
Things to do for Centrics
- Overnight in a historic hotel or a historic communal building now providing accommodations.
- Consider the handcrafted furniture on offer in locally owned shops, or order custom work. Or, prowl the antiques stores. Then, get a few necessities at the Broom and Basket Shop in West Amana. Or, shop for quilts and traditional Amana rugs in South Amana.
- Taste the locally made beer and wine where they are made.
- Attend Amana’s Wurstfest — a brats and brews affair in early summer. Promising Iowa’s “wurst education,” hosts invite revelers to enter Wurst University, which provides a suitable T-shirt and four sausage vouchers “to sample your way to graduation.”
- Attend an Amana Heritage Society meal, such as the Homestead Progressive Dinner or the Annual Harvest Dinner and Silent Auction.
- Celebrate spring watching the Maipole dancers at Amana’s Maifest. Or, come round much later for pre-Christmas festivities, some indicative of an Amana Christmas of old.
Things to do for Authentics
- Book a theater performance presented by the professional Iowa Theatre Artists Company in Amana. Or, choose the professional, not-for-profit Old Creamery Theatre, also in Amana.
- Spend time at one or more museums for background on the Amanas: Amana Heritage Museum, Amana; the Communal Kitchen Museum, Middle Amana, and/or the Communal Agriculture Museum in a restored barn, South Amana.
- Eat in one of several restaurants that specialize in the traditional home-style Amana meal.
- Shop for Amana meats at the Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse, in business since the Iowa colonies were founded in 1855, or “pickled everything” at the Amana General Store. There are more general stores, too.
- Watch the looms in action at the Amana Woolen Mill, Amana, and take a self-guided tour. Then, cruise the salesroom for something that suits you.
- See blacksmithing, printing and bookbinding demonstrations at the old Homestead Blacksmith Shop.
For more information, consult the Amana Colonies Convention and Visitor’s Bureau at www.amanacolonies.com