Amana settlements showcase community life and hybrid German culture
In the late 1800s, millions of German-speaking people emigrated from Europe to the United States, many settling in the Midwest. Wisconsin became home to a large percentage of these newcomers, most of whom quickly integrated and became Americanized.
But a group known as the Mystic Pietists – an offshoot of the Lutheran Church – settled in eastern Iowa in 1855 and lived communally in what are known as the Amana Colonies. – a collection of seven small villages in the fertile valley of the Iowa River, not far from Iowa City.
Although the inhabitants voted to abandon their communal roads in 1932, many of their descendants continue to live in the villages and welcome visitors. This means that travelers can still get a sense of what life was like for the early Amanans, who lived in a simple way that revolved around their religion and hard work. They took the name of their community from the Song of Songs in the Bible. It means “to believe faithfully”.
“They were unique,” David Rettig – whose ancestors moved here in the late 1850s – told me during a recent visit. “It was the longest community experience in the United States, so it’s definitely a special place. And it has a different feel. It’s not German, but it’s not really American either. C He’s a hybrid that’s been on his own for most, spoke German first and developed on his own.”
Main Amana is the largest village of the seven small communities and is home to several German restaurants that serve traditional family-style dishes. The town has a wide main street and manicured courtyards and gardens. It has an excellent museum, furniture store and meat store run by the Amana Company, which also owns 26,000 acres of land in the surrounding countryside. There are also private hostels; chocolate, leather, clothing and other stores; as well as two wineries and the oldest microbrewery in Iowa.
Many houses in the village were built with reddish sandstone quarried north of the town. Other buildings are of brick and still others were originally constructed of unfinished wood. Many of them have trellises outside for vines which provide shade in the summer and fruit for jams, jellies and wine.
Families lived together, but the houses had no kitchens as residents ate in communal dining halls where meals were prepared by women and girls under the direction of a “kucherbaas” or chef.
My children and I stayed in a B&B known as the Village Guest Suite, which used to be a communal house. Built in 1856, it was called the “Zimmershop” and was Main Amana’s first carpentry shop.
“During the communal days, each village had all the necessary infrastructure to be self-sufficient,” said Rettig, executive director of the Amana Colonies Visitor and Convention Bureau. His office is in a large repurposed corn manger.
“Each had a baker, a carman, a cooper, a butcher, a carpenter and a cabinetmaker,” he said. “The villages were modeled after what they knew in Europe, so people lived in the towns and farmed the surrounding land. The large barns are still standing and one here in Main Amana, called the Festhalle (Festival Hall), was a dairy barn which is now used for weddings every weekend when the weather is nice from May to October.”
Rettig said the group – which believed God could speak through prophets – was founded in 1714 in south-west Germany and was known as the Community of True Inspiration. Members were persecuted by the authorities and some were imprisoned and stripped of their property.
“The (Pietists) thought the mainstream religions were too involved in government and other aspects of life,” he said. “They thought religion should be spiritual. The authorities didn’t allow members to practice certain professions, but they could farm and work in woolen mills, which is one of the reasons we have one here. today.”
Over time, the small sect gathered in the German province of Hesse, near Frankfurt, because it was more tolerant, he said. They rented estates and some lived in Ronneburg Castle, from which one of Main Amana’s restaurants takes its name. By the 1840s, however, persecution increased and the elders decided to move to North America, where they purchased land outside of Buffalo, NY.
To bring all of the approximately 1,800 subscribers to the United States, they pooled their resources. Upon their arrival, they began to live in community, a way of life that lasted nearly 100 years. As Buffalo encroached on their colony, they moved to Iowa.
To stay in the community – where all members’ needs were met – Rettig said members had to go to church 11 times a week, work hard and behave well.
His parents were born in 1919 and 1920, so they spent the first 12 years of their lives under the communal system. German was their first language. At the time, men were discouraged from marrying until age 24 and women until age 21.
Although the colonies were self-sufficient, they were affected by the Great Depression. Members were also leaving the colonies, attracted by the freedoms of the outside world. So in 1932, Amanans voted overwhelmingly to end communalism by giving shares of the newly formed Amana Society to members. They were able to use those shares to buy their homes and start businesses, Rettig said.
When I visited the Main Amana Museum, I asked the female guides what the villagers did for fun. They looked at me, laughed heartily, and reminded me that the colonies were founded on a philosophy of godliness and hard work. However, old photographs on the walls showed children sledding in the winter and playing outside in the summer.
Visitors are welcome to attend church on Sunday mornings in Middle Amana, where some of the service is still offered in German. But no visit to the colonies would be complete without a family meal at Ox Yoke or Ronneburg restaurants, which serve plentiful German cuisine. My kids and I had dinner at Ox Yoke and lunch at Ronneburg. The pancake breakfast with rhubarb and strawberry sauce was a favorite.
Although Main Amana is the most interesting of the settlements for visitors, Village Guest Suite owner Virginia Dubberke said the outlying villages — each about two miles away — are worth driving through. Several have general stores, and she buys her pastries from the Hahn Bakery, which still uses an old brick oven. She also highly recommended a visit to the museum and the woolen mill, where blankets, clothes and other objects are still made in the old fashioned way.
More information: Upcoming events include a Rhubarb Fest on June 4 and Oktoberfest, which attracts over 40,000 people, in the fall.
To see amanacolonies.com or call (319) 622-7622.
Getting There : The Amana Settlements are approximately 270 miles west of Milwaukee via I-94 and Route 151.
Brian E. Clark is a writer from Madison.