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[graphic header] The Amana Colonies: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary of a unique historic communal society in eastern Iowa

The Amana Colonies today - pictured here are original farm implements and one of the many of the traditional Amana buildings that have been preserved
Photograph courtesy of the Amana Colonies Convention and Visitors Bureau

At the turn of the 21st century, the Community of True Inspiration is approaching its 300th year of existence although the Amana of today differs from that of a century before. By the 1930s, the communal system in Amana had generated stresses which it could not resolve. Many community members found the rules associated with communal living to be petty and overly restrictive. Regulations governed most aspects of daily life including dining, dress and leisure activities. Many young people wanted to be free to play baseball, to own musical instruments or to bob their hair in the new style. Families wanted to eat together at home rather than in the communal kitchen dining rooms. Although members received an annual spending allowance, many people felt theirs was inadequate and were frustrated by their inability to enjoy more material goods. Increasingly the elders were unable to enforce the rules.

The Amana Woolen Mill, c.1920, before it was damaged by fire three years later
Photograph courtesy of the Amana Heritage Society

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. And the national economic depression had shrunk the market for the Society's agricultural products.

The Elders presented the membership of the community with a choice: either they could return to a more austere and disciplined life or they could abandon the communal system. Significantly, dissolution of the church was not considered as an alternative. But most members also recognized that their community had changed and that they were probably incapable of returning to the strict life of early communalism. Many people no longer equated their faith with the social mores dictated by the Community. Furthermore, many members felt that communalism itself was no longer a

Headquarters of the newly established Amana Society, Inc., c.1936
Photograph from "Seven Villages Practicing Modified Capitalism," printed by the Amana Society in 1936
necessary tenet of faith of the church. On June 1st, 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 referred to by Amana residents still today as "the Great Change."

Today, the Amana Society, Inc., corporate heir to the land and economic assets of communal Amana, 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 villages--vivid reminders of the past.

Aerial view of the Amana Refrigeration plant in the 1970s, note the narrow brick smoke stack rising above the plant buildings
Photograph from "The Amana Colonies," printed by the Amana Society in 1974

The most widely known business that emerged from the Amana Society is Amana Refrigeration, Inc. 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 1967 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 Amana 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

Interior of the Community Church Museum, which still retains its unfinished wood floors, plain pine benches and unadorned walls
Photograph by Shannon Bell
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. 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.


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