The Amana Colonies are a group of settlements of German Pietists in Iowa, USA, comprising seven villages. Calling themselves the Ebenezer Society or the Community of True Inspiration, die Gemeinde der wahren Inspiration, they first settled in New York state near Buffalo in what is now the Town of West Seneca. However, in order to live out their beliefs in more isolated surroundings they moved west to the rich soil of east-central Iowa (near present-day Iowa City) in 1855. They lived a communal life until the mid 1930s.
Today, Amana is a major tourist attraction known mainly for its restaurants and craft shops. Included in the shops are woodworking shops, wine shops, and even a brewery called Millstream. The colonies as a whole have been listed as a National Historic Landmark since 1965.
In September 1842, a committee led by Christian Metz traveled to America in search of land on which to relocate. The members purchased a 5,000 acre (20 km²) site in western New York, near Buffalo, and by the end of 1843, nearly 350 Inspirationists had immigrated to the new settlement, which they named "Ebenezer," meaning "hitherto hath the Lord helped us."
From the start, in order to facilitate all members of the community to come to America and live together, all property in Ebenezer was held in common. The initial plan was that, after some time, the land would be divided among the people according to their contribution of money and labor. However, leaders saw that the disparity in wealth, skills and age would make it difficult for all to purchase a portion of land--the community would fall apart as a result. Therefore, in 1846, a constitution was adopted which established a permanent communal system. Any debate on this was resolved when Metz spoke a divine pronouncement endorsing the communal system after he had visited a similar communal society in Ohio.
Ebenezer flourished. By 1854 the population reached 1,200 people. Six villages were established, each with mills, shops, homes, communal kitchens, schools and churches. To accommodate this growth, additional land was purchased, but more was needed. However, the booming growth of nearby Buffalo inflated the price of land. Furthermore, the community leaders perceived a threat from the economic development around them. It was felt that capitalist and worldly influences were bringing about a growing interest in materialism and threatened the spiritual focus of the Inspirationist community. The leadership decided it was time to move again--this time to the unsettled west.
The Community of True Inspiration was incorporated in 1859 under the name of "Amana Society" and existed for over seventy years as a religious society operating without pecuniary profit and providing food and housing for its members, who worked on community farms, community enterprises and ate in communal kitchens.
(Source: Rettig, Lawrence L. (1975). Amana today : a history of the Amana colonies from 1932 to the present. South Amana, Iowa: Amana Society, ISBN ?)
The Kuechenbaas, the kitchen boss, was one job a woman could hold. The Kuechenbaas had a high status similar to that of an elder. She was responsible for planning meals and allocating supplies like eggs to families. More common positions held by women were in the kitchens, communal gardens, and laundry, among eight occupations. Men on the other hand had 39 different jobs to choose from, including barber, butcher, tailor, machine shop worker, and doctor. People were not paid for their jobs with cash, but were given allowances of credit that they could use at the Amana shops.
Children also participated in jobs, such as harvesting and agricultural duties for boys and kitchen work for the girls. Children stayed with their mothers until they were two years old. Then, the child would have to attend Kinderschule until the age of seven. At that point, the child would attend school five and a half days a week, all year round until the age of fourteen or fifteen. At school, they shelled, cleaned and graded seed corn, picked fruit, and studied reading, writing and arithmetic.
Amana was known for its hospitality towards outsiders. Members would never turn a person in need away. They would feed and shelter hobos that would pass through on the train. Some would even be hired as laborers. They would receive good wages, a permit home for the length of their stay and three meals a day in the communal kitchen. Hobos were not the only outside help. Amana would hire many outside laborers to do industrial and agricultural jobs. They worked in the woolen shop, the calico-printing shop or one of the many others.
Two groups governed the Amana Society. One was the Board of Trustees. The Board had thirteen members who were elected from the Council of Elders, the second governing group. Election day was the first Tuesday in December. Men who signed the Constitution, widows, and females who were over thirty years old and were not represented by a man, were allowed to vote. The Council of Elders was confirmed by the Board of Trustees. There were also local councils.
Another important governing aspect of the society was the church, which was run by the Board of Trustees. Children and their parents worshiped together. Mothers with young children sat in the back of the church. Other children sat in the first few rows. Men and women were separated during worship: men on one side and women on the other side of the church. Older people and the “in-betweens” who were people in their thirties and forties had to attend a separate service. The service that members attended and where the members sat was a statement of their status in society. Services were held eleven times a week and did not include musical instruments and hymn singing.
Two men, Gruber and Rock, started this religious group. They traveled to Germany and to Switzerland preaching about Jesus Christ and his teachings, they disagreed with the Catholic faith's method sermonizing. They didn’t believe that the Catholic Church taught the exact word of the bible, so they thought themselves to be a reformed movement of true faith. They believed that God used certain people as his tool so that they could teach his word to others; the name of these individuals was Werkzeug (instrument). This derived from the time of the biblical prophets like Joseph and his brothers. Today church still gathers on Sunday mornings in both German and English. Visitors are welcome to join in on services if desired. During church services, they sing songs that were written by their church founders.
In 1931, the community found itself in a crisis. In addition to the social strains of communal living, the community had suffered several economic setbacks in the previous decade. The Amana Society had lost an important source of revenue when its calico print works closed after World War I. A fire in 1923 extensively damaged the woolen mill and completely destroyed the Amana flour mill. Also, the Great Depression had shrunk the market for the Society's agricultural products.
The Elders presented the membership with a choice: either they could return to a more austere and disciplined life or they could abandon the communal system. However, the results of the votes were not conclusive. On June 1 1932, the members elected to retain the traditional church as it was, and to create a joint-stock company (Amana Society, Inc.) for the business enterprises, to be operated for profit by a Board of Directors. This separation of the church from the economic functions of the community--the abandonment of communalism--is still referred to by Amana residents today as the "Great Change".
The Amana Society, Inc., corporate heir to the land and economic assets of communal Amana, continues to own and manage some 26,000 acres (105 km²) 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 villages--vivid reminders of the past.
The most widely known business that emerged from the Amana Society is Amana Refrigeration, Inc., which is a subsidiary of Whirlpool Corporation. They are one of the leading manufacturers of refrigerators, freezers, electric and gas ranges, home heating and cooling products and Amana microwave ovens. Amana's products are sold in more than one hundred countries worldwide. This national leader in the production of refrigerators was founded by an Amana native, George C. Foerstner at the time of the Great Change. The first beverage cooler, designed for a businessman in nearby Iowa City in 1934, was built by skilled craftsmen at the Middle Amana woolen mill. In the decades that followed, the mill became the site of this large, now private, plant producing refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, and in 1965, introduced a new product--the Amana Radarange microwave oven. Today, the 19th-century woolen mill smoke stack still rises over the modern plant.
The Amana Church continues to be a vital part of the community. A visitor to Amana today would do well to visit an Inspirationist cemetery. Surrounded by pine trees to symbolize eternal life, the cemeteries continue to express the Inspirationist ethos of equality, humility and simplicity. As they have been for over 140 years, members are buried in order of death with plain, uniform headstones. Like the cemeteries, the Amana churches are much as they were when built 125 years ago. The building exteriors are unpretentious; no steeple or colored-glass windows declare that the edifice is a house of God. Inside, the unfinished wood floors, plain pine benches and unadorned walls echo the tradition of humility and piety. Men still enter and sit on one side of a central aisle; women on the other. Worshippers come early for quiet contemplation. English language services were introduced in 1960, but in both German and English services the order of worship has changed little over the years: a reading from Scripture; a reading from a testimony from Rock, Metz or Landmann; hymns that would be recognized by a congregation of a century earlier.
Today, heritage tourism has become important to the economy of the Amana area. There are a few hotels and bed and breakfasts to keep tourism alive. They also have a winter fest every year.
Historic preservation efforts by several local nonprofit organizations, as well as the Amana Society, Inc. in conjunction with land-use and historic preservation ordinances attempt to preserve the natural and built environment of Amana.
There is also a collection of sites some south. However, it has nothing to do with the Amana Colonies and is merely a stopping point for interstate travelers.
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