Perhaps the most famous communal experiment in Iowa, the Amana Colonies are seven villages in eastern Iowa. Today, they are a National Historic Landmark and the Amana name is attached to home appliances, but for decades they were home to a religious community that explored a pragmatic and successful approach to communal life.
Germany to New York (1714-1855)
The Amana story begins in 18th century Europe as part of the Pietist movement in the Lutheran Church, which emphasized devotion and personal religious experience. In 1714, several Radical Pietists, including Eberhard Ludwig Gruber and Johann Friedrich Rock, founded the Community of True Inspiration. The Community, scattered across Germany and Switzerland, believed in Inspiration: that certain people could receive and present messages directly from the Holy Spirit. These Werkzeuge, or Instruments, delivered testimonies to guide the community in religious and secular matters. This theology was similar to that of the Quakers in England, but the Inspirationists rejected any commonality between the groups.
Eight Werkzeuge were recognized in the Community’s early years, but after the Rock died in 1749 it didn’t recognize any others for 68 years. Between 1817 and 1818, however, three people emerged as Instruments, including carpenter Christian Metz (1794-1867) and serving maid Barbara Heinemann (1795-1883), who would lead the Amana Colonies’ development.
In the following years, the Inspirationists, facing persecution in Germany, gathered on a number of estates under Metz’s leadership. Here, they established the small village groups, communal land development, and mixture of industry and agriculture that would later become hallmarks of the Amanas. “That’s when you get the beginnings of the communal system,” said communal historian Peter Hoehnle, an Amana Church Elder and descendant. “[The Inspirationists weren’t] formally communal in Germany… It’s not really clear what they shared and what they didn’t, but after 1828 they begin referring to themselves as ‘Die Gemeinde,’ The Community. All the record books start in 1828.”
The Community began moving to America in the early 1840s. It purchased 7,600 acres of former reservation land near Buffalo, New York and established eight villages, including two in Canada. These communities were collectively called Eben-Ezer. Around 1,200 followers made their way there, and the Community had significant means thanks to a number of wealthy members. A communal system was established to more efficiently support the journey.
Hoehnle said the group intended to retain this system for only two to three years, but it quickly recognized communalism’s advantages. Eben-Ezer benefited from economies of scale, an enclosed self-sufficient community with little external influence, and a sense of equality (at least on paper). The Community also made an effort to provide work for all members fit to their abilities, including both agriculture and a variety of industry. Metz gave several inspired testimonies stating that communalism was necessary for the group’s religious survival, and it was soon made permanent in the Eben-Ezer constitution.
Despite prosperity and growth, it soon became clear that New York could not serve as a permanent home. The Community’s land was limited and Buffalo’s growth was bringing external influences to the cloistered religious community. After exploring options in the Midwest, the leaders found land in eastern Iowa that could better meet the Community’s needs. The move to Amana began in 1855.
The Seven Villages (1855-1932)
The Community took its time selling its New York property and purchasing land in Iowa, ultimately turning a profit on Eben-Ezer – an unusual feat for intentional communities moving their homes. Eventually, the group established six villages and purchased a seventh on 26,000 acres along the Iowa River. Here the settlers found everything its fledgling society could ask for: ample fertile land, waterpower, lumber, stone quarries, rail lines to nearby markets, and, perhaps most importantly, isolation. They called the site Amana, a word in the Song of Solomon that means “remain true.”
The first village, established in 1855, was Amana, the center of the colonies and often referred to as Main Amana. Here they built a woolen mill, a flour mill, a calico factory, and a variety of craft shops, making it the most industrial of the villages. The group founded the agricultural town of West Amana, in the far northwest corner of the property, in 1856, followed by South Amana to the southwest, along what became the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The following year, High Amana was established as a midpoint to better connect Main and West Amana. In 1859, the smallest hamlet, East Amana, was established on hilly land to raise sheep. In 1861, the Community bought the existing town of Homestead, south of its property, for $11,500 (around $340,000 in today’s dollars). Homestead both rounded out the territory and provided a depot on the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad. Finally, the society built Middle Amana, eventually home to a second woolen mill and the only print shop in the colonies, in 1862 between Main and High Amana.
Historian Dolores Hayden described Amana’s seven villages as “the best-planned communistic settlement of their era,” with a diverse economic base and a well-managed nesting of communities at the household, neighborhood, and village level (Seven American Utopias, p. 253). Blocks in each village were small communities, with much of the activity turned inward on networks of “foot streets” between residences, communal kitchens, and churches.
Villages themselves were largely self-sufficient, and each had blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, and other shops to meet most of their residents’ needs. Besides food, work, and housing, the Amana Society provided health care and education for all residents. Although no one earned wages, their needs were generally met through communal funds and each family maintained a yearly line of credit at their village general store.
Architecture in the villages was sturdy but unadorned, following from a religious distaste for worldly beauty. Houses resembled traditional single-family homes, but were divided into suites for three to four families each, similar to Icaria’s two-family homes. Buildings were simple and consistent, and even churches resembled stretched-out houses. Amana was long known as a settlement without church spires.
The Community always chose locally available materials. Builders in West Amana, for instance, tapped the nearby sandstone quarry for much of their construction. Throughout the colonies, sandstone, brick, and unpainted wood were common construction materials.
Churches and Kitchens – Religion and Life at Amana
As may already be clear, religion was central to life in the seven villages. “We are a church all the time, even in our homes,” was a common expression (Hayden, Seven Communal Utopias, p. 242). Members attended 11 church gathers each week. The simple German-language services included a cappella hymns and readings from both the Bible and inspired testimonies. Men and women sat separately. When they were alive, Amana’s two Werkzeuge would regularly give new testimonies.
Until he died in 1867, Metz made many of the religious decisions, with support from a group of lay church elders. Although Barbara Heinemann Landmann remained an Instrument until her death in 1883, she never approached Metz’s power or influence, and elders smoothed the transition to an Amana Church without inspired leadership. Even while Landmann was living, the elders routinized scheduling of celebrations such as Holy Communion (Liebesmahl), children’s services (Kinderlehre), Renewal of the Covenant (Bundesschliessung), and Spiritual Examination (Unterredung). Previously, Metz had scheduled all of these at his discretion. These moves likely contributed to the community’s survival.
Belief in simplicity and piety fed into every aspect of Amana life. Homes were decorated modestly and pictures were forbidden. Clothing was humble and women wore caps and shawls. Although individual gardens and flowers were quite common, Barbara Heinemann Landmann issued an inspired testimony decrying ornamental trees in 1880. The most notable exception was evergreens surrounding the village cemetery, a feature maintained today.
Marriage in Amana was a somber affair, and the society’s religious tradition frowned upon it as worldly. In the community’s early days, marriage was only permitted at age 24 for men and 20 for women. Even then, it was only allowed with permission from the colony leadership and a restrictive waiting period. Marriage and childbirth both led to reduced religious standing. Barbara Heinemann Landmann actually lost her inspired status for a time after her marriage in Germany. These strictures loosened in later years and some 82 percent of community members married despite them.
Education in Amana was also linked to spiritual commitments. Children attended school six days a week year-round until age 16, but subjects were limited. Charles Nordhoff quotes one resident in 1874: “Why should we let our youth study? We need no lawyers or preachers; we have already three doctors. What they need is to live holy lives, to learn God’s commandments out of the Bible, to learn submission to his will, and to love him” (Communistic Societies, p. 34).
The Amana people were pacifists, and paid fees to avoid the Civil War draft and fought for exemption and non-combat roles during World War I. As a result, a mob marched on South Amana from nearby Marengo in 1918. Although it was turned back before reaching the community, this was the peak of general anti-Amana sentiment from the society’s neighbors. The insular German culture provoked suspicion, and neighbors believed pacifism meant more of their own children were sent to the war.
Besides religion, Amana life revolved around communal kitchens. “It seemed like they were always going to church or eating,” Hoehnle says. There were 52 dining halls throughout the villages, including 15 in Main Amana alone. Each served 30 to 50 people three meals a day. A female Küchebaas (kitchen boss) ran each and other women staffed them. Each had a garden and received regular deliveries of other provisions. According to Hoehnle, meals were so structured that one could predict what they might be eating years in advance.
Governance and Business
After Christian Metz died, the colony’s governance fell entirely to the Board of Trustees, called the Bruderrat (Council of Brothers). The 13 members were elected each December by all men over 21 and unmarried women over 31. Although formally democratic, a review of the history reveals clear trends. “It’s a theocracy,” Hoehnle says. “You were not on the Bruderrat unless you were an elder.” No one lost their elections, and most members also managed business or farms. This group met monthly to make a variety of decisions, including determining church schedules and granting permission to marry (after a semi-arbitrary waiting period).
Below the Bruderrat, village councils assigned jobs and set work schedules. Each business had a foreman or manager who directed their assigned workers.
Besides the farms, major enterprises included wool production and calico printing. The farms hired workers – often other German immigrants. These outsiders reportedly did more work than the Amana residents, who frequently stopped for church services or meals. Other businesses included a variety of tradecrafts, including clock making, printing, and brewing.
All money was kept in a common treasury and went to caring for society members and supporting the colonies’ industrial and life functions. The group often paid for poor families in Germany to come join the settlement. When the Werkzeuge were present, new members could be admitted unilaterally by inspired testimony. Otherwise, new members had to show a genuine religious commitment and serve a two-year probation to prove their dedication to community principles. New residents were also asked to invest their personal cash holdings in the common fund.
The Great Change and Modern Amana (1932-Present)
After more than 70 years of stability and relative success, Amana may have seemed bound to remain as it was forever. The villages had survived the loss of their charismatic leadership, weathered two major wars, and maintained a comfortable economic base through external economic hardships. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to last.
The major sign of trouble came in 1923, when a disastrous fire struck the Amana flour and woolen mills. Debts were already rising in the farm recession after World War I and lax accounting meant the Society didn’t realize just how much trouble it was in. The Amanas had withstood a number of outside economic troubles, but the Great Depression was too big to survive by simply hunkering down and relying on communalism.
On top of all of this, outside influences had caught up with the colonies, and younger people were pushing the village borders. Religious authority was weakening and membership had begun a slow decline. In general, commitment waned among the second and third generations. A few individuals recognized that communalism would care for them no matter how hard they worked, and began to feign illness to dodge the hard work of maintaining the colonies.
Calls for change began in 1930 among a small group of professionals, many of whom had been educated outside the colonies. Soon, the Bruderrat selected a committee to explore the society’s situation and find the best route forward. In a 1931 test vote, 74 percent of members voted for reorganization, including majorities in six out of seven villages. The ballot also included a letter spelling out harsh sacrifices that might be required to maintain the communal system.
As the movement toward reorganization continued, the committee set four criteria for the plan:
- Preserve the Amana Church
- Care for the elderly
- Establish procedures for residents to acquire their homes
- Establish procedures for residents to acquire employment
A plan was developed that would split the Amana Society in two: economy and religion. On February 2, 1932, 96 percent of voters approved the plan and the Great Change began.
Economy: Amana Society, Inc.
A vote of the members established the Amana Society, Inc. as a joint stock company and profit-sharing entity to manage community goods. Over the next few months, properties were appraised and new lot lines drawn. Members received one membership share apiece, which entitled them to health care and burial services and profit shares based on their time of service. Meanwhile, national commentators editorialized the collapse of “communism” at Amana, ignoring the formation of a healthy cooperative.
The Society started with a great number of businesses, including the farms, mills, general stores, various shops, and the former kitchen gardens. Managers tried to continue employing members who wanted to work, although they were paid only 10¢ an hour at first (roughly $1.90 today). Rent-free housing, medical bills payments, and wholesale pricing at the general stores continued until January 1933. Many men simply continued to do their previous job while women either moved into the workforce or became homemakers. Residents could use their stock shares to purchase their houses over several months, and those who couldn’t afford them paid a minimal rent.
The Society closed the communal kitchens on April 11, 1932, leaving families to feed themselves for the first time. Some company property, including kitchen equipment, was auctioned to members and bought with credit on their stock shares.
The company hired an outside business manager, Arthur Barlow, who deserves some credit for the Amanas’ success after the Great Change. He encouraged new construction to continue in the historic Amana style and trained residents for new positions rather than hiring outside workers. The Society also elected to maintain a large green space buffer around the villages, including the largest privately owned timberland left in the state today. While the company quickly added new gas stations and other profit-generating businesses to its portfolio, many shops closed. Residents were encouraged to engage in private enterprise.
Perhaps the most famous brand to emerge from of the Amana Society, Inc. is Amana Refrigeration. George Foerstner founded it in 1934 as The Amana Electric Company, and the Society later owned it for 15 years. The company made the first upright freezer, and, after Raytheon purchased it, produced the first popular commercial microwave oven. Amana Refrigeration deserves credit for some of the colonies’ growth and success in the 20th century, Hoehnle says. The major employer brought new residents and kept the old ones around. The Amanas have also been home to other technical developments, including testing for some of the first non-combat GPS systems and developing a successful cow effluent methane digester.
Religion: Amana Church Society
The Amanas’ religious side was preserved in the Amana Church Society, entirely separate from business matters. It owned the churches and school buildings and almost every resident was still a member. Religious matters hardly suffered in the Great Change; while Metz preached the necessity of communalism for survival, it was never truly dogma.
The biggest effect over time was the church’s loss of some of day-to-day control of community members. Trustees no longer had to be elders, and the number of services per week steadily declined. Today, the church offers two Sunday services, Sunday school, a Wednesday evening prayer, and an informal Saturday worship at buildings in Main and Middle Amana.
For a time, couples continued asking Church Elders for permission to wed, but strictures around marriage quickly loosened. In summer 1933 celebrants danced at an Amana wedding for the first time.
Other church practices have also modernized: services are now offered in English as well as German; women were permitted to be elders in 1987 and women rarely wear the traditional cap and shawl. But the church still retains other traditions: men and women sit separately, hymns are sung a cappella, and inspired testimonies are still read at every service. Today, the church has around 285 members, some of them converts to the “nondenominational” Christian organization.
Amana in Context
The Amana Colonies success, before and after the Great Change, resulted from the community’s structure. Before the transition, they benefitted from the communal system while maintaining a diverse economic base across the seven villages. Many such communities fade after the death of their charismatic leader; a strong religious hierarchy helped the Amanas survive. The community emphasized economic sense as well as faith, and was careful to ensure a market for its goods.
The Great Change produced a new structure, ready to face the challenges ahead. It preempted the loss of youth that led to Icaria’s decline and ensured members would remain, at least for a time: if they left the area, they lost their benefits. The Amana Society, Inc. and the Amana Church Society persist today, touching the lives of both Amana residents and visitors.
Amana stands out among intentional communities as one of the most enduring, largest, and well-known – at least for the Amana appliance brand. The Inspirationists avoided any obvious association with other communal experiments, but there is evidence of connections to the Society of Separatists in Zoar, Ohio, the Harmonists, the Shakers, the Oneida Community, and the teachings of Fourier (all communities I’ll likely discuss more on this blog). Certainly, people interested in communal experiments have made Amana one of their stops since well before the Great Change.
The Amana Colonies were declared a National Historic Landmark in 1965. Today they are home to around 1,600 people, about a third of whom are descendants of the original residents. The Amana Society, Inc. operates a handful of enterprises, including one of the largest contiguous farms in the state and a variety of heritage tourism businesses – a major industry, especially in Main Amana. The community remains engaged with its cultural roots in a variety of ways, notably through the Amana Heritage Society.
Sources and Further Reading
- History of the Seven Villages, The Amana Colonies
- The Communistic Societies of the United States by Charles Nordhoff (Book, 1875)
- “Community in Transition: Amana’s Great Change, 1931-1933” by Peter Hoehnle (In The Annals of Iowa, 2001)
- Amana: The Community of True Inspiration by Bertha M. H. Shambaugh (Book, 1908)
- Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975 by Dolores Hayden (Book, 1976)
- “Postcharismatic Authority in the Amana Society: The Legacy of Christian Metz” by Jonathan G. Andelson (Chapter in When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements edited by Timothy Miller, 1991)
Special thanks to Dr. Peter Hoehnle, former President of the Communal Studies Association, past President of the Amana Church Society, former board member of the Amana Society Inc., Amana Church Elder, and Amana descendant, for an interview on January 19th, 2020 and his help throughout the creation of this article.