Amana Colonies – Iowa

Iowa City, IA

We’ve made our way south into central Iowa where we are staying at a nice COE (Army Corp of Engineer) park called Sugar Bottom Recreation Area.  Fellow bloggers John and Sharon (On the Road of Retirement) stayed here in June and recommended it.  The park is along the Iowa River just north of the Coralville Dam.

Sugar Bottom is the largest of a number of nice campgrounds surrounding the reservoir created by the Coralville Dam.  Most sites are water/electric but there are also a few full hook-up sites.  Sixty percent of the sites are reservable on-line while the rest are first come first served.  We had a reservation for a gravel, water/electric site but found that one paved full hook-up site was available when we arrived, so we were able to take it.  The site appears a bit small in the pictures but with the “V” layout we have good privacy from our only neighbor and a wide lawn between us and the road.

The Amana Colonies are located about 20 miles to our west, so one day we drove over for a visit.  Like many who have heard of the colonies but never knew much about them, we thought it was an Amish settlement, similar to those found in Lancaster County near our former home in Pennsylvania.  It turns out the only similarity that the people of Amana had with the Amish is that they were of German descent and very religious.

The Amana Colony is seven villages on 26,000 acres.    The villages are named Amana (or Main Amana), East Amana, High Amana, Middle Amana, South Amana, West Amana, and Homestead. The villages were built and settled by German Pietists, who were persecuted in their homeland by the German state government and the Lutheran Church.  Calling themselves the Community of True Inspiration, they first settled in New York near Buffalo in what is now the Town of West Seneca.  However, seeking more isolated surroundings, they moved to Iowa in 1856. They lived a communal life there until the mid-1930s.

Our first stop was at a small visitor center in Amana where we purchased tickets that gave us entry into various spots in the colonies.  We then moved just down the street to visit the Amana Heritage Center and Museum.

Entrance to the Amana Heritage Museum

Side view of the museum located in the former schoolhouse

The museum is located in two adjacent buildings.  The entrance is in the village’s former schoolhouse.  It contains a room filled with old photos and displays as well as a small theater where we viewed a brief but informative video on the history of the colonies.  Following the video we were instructed to cross a small yard and enter the main part of the museum located in a former family residence called the Noé House.  The Noé House, built in 1864 of locally produced brick, was originally a communal kitchen and later a doctor’s residence (Dr. Noé).

The Noé House

The various rooms in the house were filled with memorabilia and old photos depicting life in the commune.

The laundry room

A note on a bulletin board outside the museum that said Lily Lake was in full bloom.  We didn’t know what that meant until we drove by the lake a few minutes later.  We discovered that the lake is covered with lily pads in full bloom!

We drove just a few miles west to Middle Amana where we visited a communal kitchen.  There was no cooking in the homes of Amana citizens.  Instead, people originally ate together in groups of thirty to forty-five.  Communal kitchens, each with their own gardens, hosted meals.  Men would sit at one table while women and small children would sit at another. Prayers were said in German before and after meals.  Meals were not considered social affairs so conversation was discouraged and diners were expected to eat in 15 minutes (no time to waste, there was work to be done!).

There were as many as fifty-five communal kitchens in the Colonies: sixteen in Amana, ten in Middle Amana, nine in Homestead, six in South and West Amana, and four in East and High Amana.

View from across the street

Old photo of the communal kitchen

Almost the same view today

Women preparing food on the porch

The same porch today

The long kitchen sink

The communal kitchen concept eroded some time around 1900, as married residents began to eat in their own homes.  Food was still cooked in the communal kitchens, but housewives would take the food home.  Kitchen staff and single residents still ate in the communal kitchens.

Serving area – there are two tables in this room

Across the street from the kitchen is the cooper shop.  The coopers in the communal Amana Colonies produced tubs, barrels, and other containers used throughout the community.

We continued west about three miles to High Amana for a visit to the High Amana General Store.

Everything from tires to Amana beverage coolers to souvenirs has been sold at the High Amana Store.  It gained importance in the 1920s as the manager expanded the merchandise to include bicycles, radios, and other popular items. Now called the High Amana General Store, the building has remained essentially unchanged as the merchandise and the store’s role in the community have changed. The pressed metal ceiling, long sales counter and other fixtures date to the 19th century. There are antique display cases in which gifts and Amana Colony made crafts are displayed, a hand pump, original patterned ceilings and other traditional decorations and furnishings. There is a kerosene pump inside for filling lamps and stoves. This pump is one of the oldest functional antiques in the store.

In 1931, in the wake of the Great Depression, the Great Council (the governing body) disclosed to the Amana Society that the villages were in dire financial condition. The Depression was particularly harsh in the Colony because a fire badly damaged the woolen mill and destroyed the flour mill less than ten years earlier.  At the same time, Society members were seeking increased secularism so that they could have more personal freedom.  The Society agreed to split into two organizations. The non-profit Amana Church Society oversaw the spiritual needs of the community while the for-profit Amana Society was incorporated as a joint-stock company. The transition was completed in 1932 and came to be known in the community as the Great Change.

Today the Amana Society continues to own and manage some 26,000 acres of farm, pasture and forest land.  Agriculture remains an important economic base today just as it was in communal times. Because the land was not divided up with the end of communalism, the landscape of Amana still reflects its communal heritage.  In addition, over 450 communal-era buildings stand in the seven village.  In 1965 the National Park Service designated the Amana Colonies as a National Historic Landmark.

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25 Responses to Amana Colonies – Iowa

  1. Thank you for taking us along on your tour of the Amana Colonies. We saw signs for it on our travels through Iowa and I’ve always wondered what we missed by not stopping.

  2. Joel says:

    I am originally from Cedar Rapids, thus have been to Amana many times Glad to see you enjoyed it. I am curious, in your last two blogs I noticed you had a manual satelite dish on the ground in addition to one your roof?

    • placestheygo says:

      Good eye, Joel! Yes, we are using our manual dish because the board went out on our rooftop dish. We are having a new HD dish put on in August…finally! We really enjoyed our visit to Amana and learning the ins and outs of the community.

  3. Debbie L says:

    Someone recommended we go there once we get out further north. At this rate, I’m not sure it’ll happen anytime soon! So we really appreciated this tour!!! I didn’t see mention of Amana Appliances. Wasn’t that a business, too?
    Great site, sky is so blue!

    • placestheygo says:

      Debbie, here is little bit of info from Wikipedia on Amana Corporation:
      The Amana Corporation is an American brand of household appliances. It was founded in 1934 by George Foerstner as The Electrical Equipment Co. in Middle Amana, Iowa, to manufacture commercial walk-in coolers. The business was later owned by the Amana Society and became known as Amana Refrigeration, Inc.[1] It is now owned by the Whirlpool Corporation.

      George Foerstner, a member of the Amana community, started his Electrical Equipment Co after The Great Change took place in the Amana Communities. The present day Whirlpool factory is on the ground the old wool and flour mills stood.

  4. Sherry says:

    This is another place I’ve always wanted to visit. I’ve read several blogs about it over the years but this is the best and most complete. I really loved your then and now pictures. Amazing how well they have kept these towns and buildings. Thanks so much for increasing my desire to see them.. You might also like the Shaker Villages which are in the east from Kentucky to Maine. The National Parks have a website with links to them.
    Not too long ago there were three Shakers still l iving at Sabbath Day Lake in Maine. We found Pleasant Hill Kentucky to be a wonderful stop.

  5. Looks fascinating! Makes me curious as to the Amana folks lifestyle in todays world.

  6. Jeff says:

    Great history lesson, the NPS looks to have done a good job of restoration/display of the Amana life.

  7. heyduke50 says:

    I hope you two found the brewery in the Amana Villages while you were there…

  8. Jim and Barb says:

    Interesting post. It is amazing that they were able to build such fine houses in the 1850’s in such a remote location. As I was reading it I was thinking that this self-contained community was probably not impacted by the Great Depression so I found it interesting as I read on that they were indeed impacted. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Marsha Weaver says:

    We love COE parks.
    Thanks for the history lesson. I have never heard of Amana Colonies. I love looking at the old photos. Gives me a much better fell for what actually went on in those buildings.

  10. Gay says:

    What an awesome place to tour! It’s so neat and tidy. Love the old brick buildings. Great info John and Pam…thanks!

  11. Jodee Gravel says:

    This is one of the many reasons why this life style is so wonderful. Iowa has cool things to see – this is a lovely surprise! I really want to visit the colonies now. I was thinking the communal kitchen thing was sounding pretty good until the whole 15 minute thing 😦 Thanks for all the great information and photos to help tell the story.

  12. LuAnn says:

    I have heard of the Amana Colonies but have never visited. I too always felt that they were much the same as the Amish. Thanks for the history lesson.

  13. Laurel says:

    I agree with Jodee—a communal kitchen sounds pretty appealing (not having to cook every night! sharing cooking/cleanup with other people!). But not being able to relax and converse at a meal, and having to eat within 15 minutes? I’d get demerits (or whatever happened to transgressors) at my very first meal. Thanks for the great tour—this is a place that’s been on our list when we ever manage to make it to the Mid-West. I would love to browse that General Store!

  14. Sue says:

    Great and very interesting post guys. This is a “museum” I’d really enjoy visiting. I’ve heard of the colonies,of course, but never really knew anything about them. Certainly merits a stop if we’re in the area. I loved seeing the historical photos juxtaposed with real time pictures….brought the story home to me. Thanks!

  15. We would have learned and enjoyed more if we toured this place with John 😦
    But you are so lucky with the blooming lilies! when we were there the migrating Pelicans put on a good show.
    If you are in for a hike in the area there are trails at F.W Kent State Park.

    • placestheygo says:

      Actually, MonaLiza, you wouldn’t have learned anything from John:) This was a place I wanted to visit after picking up a great booklet on the communities. I read all about the history so we were well prepared. Thanks for the hiking tip. We have five miles of trails here where we are staying, but so far it has been way too hot and humid.

  16. rommel says:

    High fascinating! And what a way to live! It would be nice to live in a communal place. They probably live more at peace.
    I’ve seeing a lot of lily pad posts lately. I also just went to one last weekend. This is the season for lilies?

  17. Nancy says:

    What a neat lesson with such beautiful photographs. I never heard of this colony. Thank you for educating me! Loved it!

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