Time to head south to avoid what’s left of winter. Driving through southern Minnesota and Central Iowa was much easier — no snow to speak of.
We arrived at our customary destination in West Des Moines for lunch and a gas re-fill before heading east to the Amana Colonies.
The Amana Colonies sounds like a place out of the past — and to a degree it is. It was founded in 1855 by German “Inspirationalists” seeking religious freedom and good farmland. Amazing how economics and religion have been and continue to be driving forces for change. The community established a commune of six villages (Amana, West Amana, East Amana, Middle Amana, High Amana, South Amana) within their 26,000 acres of farmland.
For nearly 80-years everything was shared — communal kitchens and dining halls instead of homestead kitchens and dining rooms; jobs assigned based on need or skills; housing was shared by family members and/or individuals. Sound utopian — well it was. Farming and calico wool production supported most of the community’s needs — woodworking, the brewing of beer and making of wine provided ancillary funding.
Churches are located in the village-centre. Puritan in appearance these brick structures lack steeples or stained glass. Members are sit plain wooden benches backed with wooden rods.
These “Inspirationalists” must attend 11 required services a week. In the past leaders were deemed “Inspired” for their wisdom and humility (they were also all male). Today the community recognizes no “Inspired” leaders. Leaders are elected by the community. They will lead church services and fill a governing role over the community as a whole. Church services are simple by design lasting approximately 40-minutes; a service involves a bible reading, a singing of a hymn or two and a homily of sorts–then back to work.
In 1932, the Great Depression fomented significant changes to the Amana Colonies. The disasters that impacted the agricultural industry undercut the communal way of life. To offset this threat the Colonies abandoned much of its communal structure in order to maintain order and to retain families–particularly young people. The leaders established the Amana Society, Inc. a profit-sharing corporation that owns and manages the farmland, the mills, and other large businesses. The stock in the business is owned by the residents. Private enterprise was then openly encouraged. Interestingly, the changes did not impact the Amana Church.
A visit to the colonies can last a day or a week depending on the time of year and the effort one puts into it. Off-season is much quieter and affords one the opportunity to have lengthy conversations with the shop owners and residents. Staying in a B&B also fuels one’s interest. My home base was Die Heimat B&B located in the hamlet of Homestead a couple of miles from Amana. Homestead was established by the Colonies to gain access to existing rail-lines. It’s a bustling community of 150 residents that boasts a gunsmith, a metal sculptor, an antique dealer, food retailer and of course, the Die Heimat. You will notice that the building is a bit haphazard in appearance:
This architectural design is purposeful. Throughout the Amana Colonies houses twist and turn as if designed by a contortionist. Truth be told, as families grew in size housing additions accommodated need. Not always pretty, the structures were built with typical German engineering. Most are built with no inside bearing walls — the perimeter walls carry all the weight. Until the early 1930’s no house contained a kitchen or dining room since those were housed in communal buildings. So it was fairly easy to “gut” a house or add a room or two. Although many homes are quite old many have been updated a include a kitchen and dining area.
In my view the main village of Amana holds the quaintest buildings:
It also has the wood-working and woolen mills that anyone can tour:
For those who prefer touristy places to visit there are the typical fudge, coffee, clothing and toy shops. Unfortunately in the off-season most are closed. But, if you love antiques (real antiques not collectibles) the Smokehouse Square Antique shop was a real find (and the only shop willing to be open at this time of the year). The proprietor was hoot and quite the talker. My companion thrives on these shops plus both it enabled her to warm up before we headed to the next village. For me this was my favorite find — can you guess why?