Living in Community….the Amana Colonies

*Post written by Mona Meyer, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Librarian.

One of the collections within University Archives and Special Collections is Communal Studies. The Communal Studies Collection began in conjunction with the Center for Communal Studies, which promotes the study of contemporary and historic communal groups, intentional communities and utopias. The key word is intentional. These communities were/are deliberate attempts to live communally, with shared goals and economies. This blog is one of a continuing series….you can search for the phrase Living in Community to find others.

Christian Metz home in West Seneca, NY. Image found here.

This blog will talk about the Amana Colonies, primarily in Iowa. The story starts in Germany in the early 18th century. “Germany [was] in the midst of a religious movement called Pietism, [and] two men, Eberhard Ludwig Gruber and Johann Friedrich Rock, advocated faith renewal through reflection, prayer and Bible study. Their belief, one shared by many other Pietists, was that God, through the Holy Spirit, may inspire individuals to speak. This gift of inspiration was the basis for a religious group that began meeting in 1714 and became known as the Community of True Inspiration. Though the Inspirationists sought to avoid conflict, they were persecuted for their beliefs.”i They moved to the German state of Hesse, a more liberal area. By 1749 both Gruber and Rock had died and the movement faltered. It was revived in 1817 by Christian Metz and Barbara (Heinemann) Landmann. Due in large part to its strong pacifist stance, they were once again unwelcome in Germany, and led by Metz, they immigrated to the United States in 1842 and settled near Buffalo, New York, establishing the Ebenezer Society, “a communally-organized settlement where they could be economically self-sufficient and spiritually free. By the middle of the 1850s their numbers had increased to such an extent they required new land for their community. Land shortages, as well as the disruptive influence of nearby Buffalo, encouraged the Inspirationists once again to move westward. They left New York in 1855.”ii

Over a period of ten years the group (1,200 strong) sold their New York property and moved to east central Iowa (some 30 miles southwest of Cedar Rapids). This would be their final home, and they named it Amana after a place name in the Bible book of Song of Solomon that means to remain true, to believe faithfully. There were eventually seven villages: East, South, West, High, Main, and Middle Amana, and Homestead. Homestead was a town they purchased so as to have access to the railroad. Villages varied in size from about 100 residents to 400, and each was roughly, at least, self-sustaining.

Contemporary “tourist” map of the Amana Colonies. Image found here.

Life was truly communal in Amana. The community provided all residents housing, food, education, a job, and medical care. Adults received an amount of annual credit to purchase items in stores, etc. that were not otherwise supplied. No one, other than outside hired help, received wages. Families lived together in homes, but these houses did not include a kitchen. Meals were taken communally; each village had a number of communal kitchens, each of which fed 30-40 people. You were assigned to eat at a certain kitchen, and men ate at one table, women and children at another. Each kitchen had its own garden, and was the sole province of a Küchebaas or “kitchen boss,” always a woman (and the kitchen was often named after her). The boss was assisted by other assigned women and young girls. Meals were served at a set time–no coming to dine when you merely felt hungry!

Contemporary view of the Ronnenburg Restaurant. This building once housed the Zimmerman Kitchenhouse. Image found here.

Metz and other leaders were those to whom God sent special inspiration. They were called Werkzeuge, or “instruments of the Lord.” “The prophecy of these human “instruments” was divine authority for the Inspirationists. They followed the inspired advice of the Werkzeuge unquestioningly and made their commandments into law.”iii Daily life was managed by trustees and elders. Each village had its own centrally located church, with 11 church services each week in additional to special services. “Unpretentious, the churches were indistinguishable in appearance from the appearances from the homes and other buildings. Inside, the white-washed walls, bare floors, and unpainted benches were a testimony of the simplicity of the Christian faith. Women, wearing black shawls and bonnets, sat on one side of the church, men on the other. There were no musical instruments. Hymns were sung, and the messages of the elders were from the Bible and from the testimonies of the founders and leaders of the church.”iv As you can see from the pictures below, it would be very difficult to identify these as churches!

Homestead (Amana) church and dwelling, April 29, 1979. CS 662-034sc-0006, the Don Janzen Collection
Rear view, Homestead (Amana) church, April 25, 1996. CS 662-034sc-0097, the Don Janzen Collection
Interior view, Homestead (Amana) church and dwelling, October 9, 1996. CS 662-034sc-0114a, the Don Janzen Collection
West Amana church, April 30, 1979. CS 662-034sc-0035, the Don Janzen Collection

Education for a young Amana resident began at age three, with attendance at the Kinderschule, or “child school.” “Predating modern child care centers by over a century, the Kinderschule were essentially day care facilities where young children were watched over and cared for by a few women selected for the task. Generally, very few children at a time would be in Kinderschule, so the buildings were small and set in a secluded part of the village. Each of the Kinderschule were surrounded by a wooden fence, provided, as more than one former student noted, to keep the children from running away. [It] was equipped with a swing, books, and, of course, a myriad number of toys.”v These children were in day care so their mothers could return to work in (usually) her assigned kitchenhouse,

From ages 5 to 14, children attending “learning school,” Lehr Schule. Lessons combined typical things like “reading, writing, and arithmetic,” as well as knitting taught to both boys and girls during an activity period called Strickschule. There were periods of manual training or Arbeitschule (“work school”) for older children to help with gardening and farming. Rigorous religious education (at least in the early years when these schools were independent of the state) included cathechism and Bible history. School was in session year round, six days per week, no holidays or breaks. Teachers were always men, chosen by elders, and staying on the job for many, many years. “Instruction in the schools remained in German, and German was the language spoken by the children as they played in the school yard. As early as the 1870s children were taught English grammar, and surviving copy books from the period suggest that they diligently practiced writing in English from Appleton’s Grammar. However, before World War I, English was not emphasized. Many residents, beneficiaries of English instruction as children, never learned how to speak the language and spent their entire lives within a predominately English-speaking nation unable to speak the language. One woman, recalling her English instruction in school, noted that she never really learned to speak English until her son married a woman from outside the community. To learn grammar was one thing, to actually speak it, another.”vi

Amana Colonies school, April 30, 1979. CS 662-034sc-0057, the Don Janzen Collection

After 8th grade, most children’s schooling ended and they were given their adult work assignments. Girls began working in kitchenhouses, and boys began a trade or agriculture. A select few boys (never girls) began high school via correspondence courses for two years, and then possibly went on to more education outside the community. More education was strictly on a needs basis….if a community needed a doctor, then a boy might be sent to train for that, but it the community had a sufficient number of like professionals, this would not occur. After training (paid for by the community), it was expected the newly graduated advanced student would return to the community and share his skills without pay, as all other community workers. With time, many Amana education practices were forced to change. World War I ended the emphasis on the German language (no good, LOYAL American would speak/write in German). As education came more under control of the state of Iowa, religious education ceased, teachers had to be certified, and textbooks were standardized.

Werkzeuge Christian Metz died in 1867 and Barbara Heinemann Landmann in 1883. No other “inspired instruments or leaders” came forth in Amana after that time, although the colonies continued to exist and thrive. Elders and trustees kept things running, but they did not have the same respect as the werkzeuge did–after all, the elders and trustees were appointed by humans, not divinely inspired by God. This did not cause the end of the communal way of life, although it undoubtedly contributed. “People had been planning for a reorganization for some time but the final change came June 1, 1932. The reorganization is often referred to by Amana people as “The Great Change.” There were numerous reasons to change the structure of the business and social system. There had been a disastrous fire in 1923 which destroyed the flour and woolen mills in Amana, causing substantial loss of capital. Young people were leaving the community in order to find better jobs and get a higher education. 1932 marked the third year of the Great Depression — orders for woolen goods and farm items were being canceled. Most importantly, the religious and economic life of the community was separated. The Amana Church continued to be the religious focus of the community and the Amana Society Corporation guided the business activities. People were given shares of stock in the corporation which they could sell if they wished. Some purchased cars and homes and other necessities of a non-communal lifestyle. A high-school was built so that children could continue their education. People began to work for wages, cook their own meals, and individualize their homes.”vii

Amana continues today, probably in large part as a tourist attraction. Many of the things that made the colonies thrive in their heyday now attract visitors: delicious food, wine and beer, German ambience, beautifully crafted items, museums celebrating the heritage, etc. Church services very similar to the original are conducted in German and English, with visitors welcome. A canal dug over a period of two years of very hard labor, 1865-1867, “furnished direct water power for [two] woolen mill[s]…for a cereal meal, a print shop for calico cloth, a starch factory, saw mills, machine shops, millright shops and threshing machines.”viii Although these industries no longer operate on water power, the woolen goods they produce, in particular, are still highly prized. And now this is a “hot spot” for fishing! The building now seen by this canal is Amana Refrigeration. It was begun by the Amana Society Corporation after the “great change,” and introduced a number of firsts over the years: first upright deep freezer (1947), first side-by-side refrigerator (1949), first bottom freezer (1957), first consumer microwave (1967), first clothes drier with a stainless-steel drum (1992), first refrigerator with a dry-erase surface (2007), etc. It is still in operation, but since 1965 is no longer owned by the Amana Society. Enjoy the pictures of Amana below….maybe you’ll want to visit it one day!

View from Middle Amana toward Amana showing canal and refrigeration plant, March 8, 1997. CS 662-034sc-0130, the Don Janzen Collection
Better view of refrigeration plant, April 30, 1979. CS 662-034sc-0060, the Don Janzen Collection
Museum of Amana History, January 26, 2001. CS 662-034dc-0003, the Don Janzen Collection
Restored kitchenhouse, now the Communal Kitchen Museum,in Middle Amana, March 8, 1997. S 662-034sc-0146c, the Don Janzen Collection
Homestead General Store, April 29, 1979. CS 662-034sc-0007c, the Don Janzen collection.
West Amana General Store, April 30, 1979. CS 662-034sc-0032, the Don Janzen collection.
Street scene in High Amana, April 30, 1979. S 662-034sc-0044, the Don Janzen collection.

Sources Consulted

Amana Brand History: 80+ Years of Innovation. website

Amana Colonies.  Encyclopedia Britannica online.

Amana Colonies: Most Frequently Asked Questions.  University of Wisconsin Eau Claire.

The Amanas Yesterday: Seven Communal Villages in Iowa.  Historic Photographs collected by Joan Liffring Zug, with text edited by John Zug.  Amana, IA: The Amana Society, 1975.  (booklet located in CS 021-9, the Amana Colonies collection)

History of the Seven Villages: Amana Colonies.  Amana, Iowa Visitors Bureau.

Hoehnle, Peter.  “The Schools of the Amana Society, 1776-1932.”  (Paper written for an independent study class  May 8,1999, and located in CS 021-11, the Amana Colonies collection)

Richling, Barnett.  “The Amana Society: a History of Change.” Palimpsest, v.58:no.2, March/April 1977, p. 34-47.  (located in CS 021-5, the Amana Colonies collection)

End Notes

i History

ii Richling, p. 36

iii Richling, p. 34.

iv Amanas Yesterday (unpaged)

v Hoehnle, p. 12

vi Hoehnle, p. 15

vii Amana Colonies: Most Frequently

viii Amanas Yesterday (unpaged)

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