What are the Amana Colonies? That was what we said when we saw that this was one of the things listed as a “must see” for Iowa. It was only thirty minutes from our reserved state park. We arrived at the park around 2 p.m. and since our spot was available only after 5 p.m, we parked the RV in a parking lot and headed off.
We tried to read about the Amana people on our way there. Here’s the short version – the Amana religion started in Germany and identified people called Werkzeug (which means “instrument”) who can communicate directly with God. To escape persecution, they relocated to Buffalo, NY. After living there for a short time and seeing the area around them fill with new settlers, they again relocated to remote Iowa to live independently, away from civilization.
They maintained their self sufficience through their belief that “if they couldn’t produce it, they didn’t need it.” To further the community’s independence from the local influences, they lived communally – no individual kitchens – one kitchen for them to eat together and also shared homes to live together.
It is often thought the Amana society is similar to the Amish which is not accurate other than the sects German heritage and history, and their independence. The Amana people, however, use electricity, drive vehicles and embrace technology but since they live separate from civilization (though children did attend local public schools) they were often misunderstood.
In 1932, as a result of the depression, a fire in one of their mills and of all things a youth uprising, the colonies were faced with a decision to become more connected or to further withdraw. On June 1, the members elected to retain the traditional church as it was, and to create a joint-stock company (Amana Society, Inc.) for all business enterprises which would be operated for profit by a Board of Directors. Stocks in the company were distributed to the members based on tenure, family size, etc. and the homes were sold and “decommunilized”.
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”.
Today each colony features their own shops, inns, museums and wineries. We happen to get Amana (the largest colony) at 3:00 p.m. on Monday, July 4th. We, of course started at the local brewery – for ROOT beer. As we walked around, we noticed more and more closed signs. Okay, we know it’s a holiday but when you community depends on visitors, why would the shops close early?
This has been an ongoing frustration with us a we tried to visit other small towns where everthing is closes immediately at 5 p.m. If stores want to sell stuff, you need to be open after 5 p.m. to be available for people who getting off work, visitors and others. It doesn’t seem these citizens have completely grasped the concept of “marketing,” but I guess they’ll learn about it sometime this century.
We did find a few other stores open – a General Store in High Amana. The friendly senior behind the counter was very helpful and, since her son-in-law was a member of the society, knew a great deal about the culture and history. We even bought a book detailing the history of the Amana people as we were so intrigued by our conversation. We also stopped by one of the only other stores still open – a bakery for delicious cinnamon raisin and cherry loaf bread.
While the religions are different from the Amish and Mennonite of Ohio and Indiana, the Amana community shops and goods seemed reminiscent of Amish Country. So if you like that kind of thing, Amana is for you – but remember only available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for holidays which it will close at 4 p.m.