Religious History Sunday: American Utopian Experiments – The Amana Colonies

In 1855, a group which had been founded in Germany and later came to America to escape persecution, moved to Iowa and established six villages which came to be known as the Amana Colonies.  If the name “Amana” sounds familiar or makes you think of appliances and home conveniences, read on to find out how this utopian experiment has evolved over the years.

The time period when the group was founded was marked by religious fervor which gave rise to many groups who considered themselves “Pietists”.  One thing that all Pietists had in common was their belief that God, through His Holy Spirit, could inspire people to speak.  In 1714 a group called The Community of True Inspiration was founded by J.F. Rock (a saddle maker) and E.L. Gruber (a former Lutheran minister), both of whom had become disenchanted with the direction of their church.

The Inspirationists would not serve in the military, take oaths required by the state, nor send their children to state-run schools.  As a result, the group came under fire and moved to a different area of Germany, residing in a castle for a time.

ronnenburgThe persecution continued, however, and when economic conditions in Germany deteriorated the Inspirationists finally left Germany in 1843 and headed to America.  The Inspirationists were led now by Christian Metz and Barbara Heinemann, and their group purchased 5,000 acres near Buffalo, New York (remember from past articles this area was referred to as the “Burned Over District”) where several other utopian communities had been established.  A few hundred people eventually grew to some twelve hundred people, finding a way to work and live together in a community they called the “Ebenezer Society” (from “thus far has the Lord helped us.” 1 Samuel 7:12).

The group outgrew the land they had originally purchased, and needing more, began to look westward.  In 1855 the group migrated to Iowa, and taking the name of their new community from Song of Solomon 4:8, named it “Amana” (meaning “believe faithfully”).  Six villages were established about one to two miles apart in an area along a river which measured twenty-six thousand acres.  The villages were: Amana, East Amana, West Amana, South Amana, Middle Amana and High Amana.  Later, in 1861, the village of Homestead was added which provided the communities access to the railroad.

Members migrated to Iowa as land and property were sold in New York.  A new constitution was adopted which would govern the colonies in Iowa, providing for the following:

  • Each family had a home and all necessities.
  • Everyone had a yearly purchase allowance from the village general store (items priced at cost), so no one received a cash income.
  • Medical care was provided.
  • Everyone had a job in the community assigned by the Elders.  By around age 14, all women began to perform duties such as cooking, gardening and laundry.  Young men would begin working in the fields, craft shops, or mills – and sometimes they were sent outside the communities to pursue education in professional fields such as medicine or pharmacy.

The Amana villages shared some distinct characteristics, but also were distinguished by clear differences.  For instance, most of the villages consisted of 40 to 100 buildings – church, school, bakery, craft shops and a general store.  Barns and other agricultural buildings were always situated on the edge of each village and communal kitchens serving 30-40 people each were part of all communities.  Each village, however, was laid out differently.  (Click image below to enlarge)

amana picsFor instance, the original village of Amana resembled a typical German town with a winding main street and several side streets, while the village of Middle Amana followed a more typical America square block layout.  South Amana was known for brick buildings while sandstone was prevalent in High Amana.  The closeness in proximity of each village allowed the community to still be close to the spiritual leadership without becoming an urban area – something that the group believed encouraged immorality.

The Amana colonies became well known for their wool and calico factories, and they did not shun modern technology as did some other utopian groups.  By 1908 the woolen mill produced a half million yards of fabric annually and the calico mill printed 4,500 yards of fabric daily.  Flour mills processed the communities’ grain, and crops such as potatoes and onions were shipped to area markets.

calico mill_amanaWhile the Amana communities prospered, their focus was still on the spiritual, of living a godly life.  To engender that, church services were held eleven times a week: every evening; Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday mornings; and Sunday afternoon.  In addition to celebrating the traditional Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter, other special observances were held.  One such observance was a renewal of each member with the community where elders would question each member as to their spiritual condition and encourage them to continue living pious lives.

Elders, of course, were always men, chosen through inspiration and who also led the meetings in each village.  Collectively, all villages were governed by a Board of Trustees which were elected by adult members.  When Barbara Heinemann Landmann died in 1883, the board functioned without so-called divine authority for some fifty years.  By the early 1930’s the communal system, however, began to deteriorate as many members found the rules to be over-burdensome and restrictive.

After World War I the calico operations were closed, and in 1923 a fire destroyed the flour mill and significantly damaged the woolen mill.  With the onset of the Great Depression, demand for their crops also decreased.  Faced with these stark realities, the Elders presented alternatives to the community: return to the more austere original way of disciplined life or leave the communal system altogether.  On June 1, 1932, the members voted to retain their traditional system and form a joint stock company called the Amana Society, Inc.  The express purpose of the company was to bring all business enterprises under one umbrella to pursue profits as directed by a Board of Directors.  This move, later referred to as the “Great Change”, separated the church from economical functions, thus ending the communal system.

Today the Society still manages the 26,000 acres of land and agriculture remains an important industry, and over 450 communal buildings from the original era still stand in remembrance of their communal past.  The most famous enterprise to emerge from Amana Society, Inc. was Amana Refrigeration, Inc.  Around the time of the “Great Change” member George A. Forestner founded the company, producing the first beverage cooler for an Iowa City businessman in 1934.  The woolen mill at Middle Amana grew into the large private enterprise that manufactures, refrigerators, freezers, washers and dryers, dishwashers and microwave ovens.  Amana products are now marketed by Whirlpool Corporation.

amanaREFRIDGToday, the Amana villages are officially designated as a National Historic Landmark and known mostly for their craft shops and restaurants.  Thousands of people visit annually to see a place that still embraces the past in many ways.  If you’re interested in visiting some day, go to this site for more information.

Everyone have a great day — someday it will be history!

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© Sharon Hall (History Depot), 2013.

3 Comments

  1. Fiery interesting, just bought Nana a “Amana” dishwasher yesterday.

    Reply
  2. I read somewhere that they donated woolen products to the Union during the War

    Reply
    • I saw something that said they sent wool to both sides — that would probably be more plausible since they didn’t join the military and preferred to remain neutral.

      Reply

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