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Spotlight: Amana Colonies

Get a taste of Old World craftsmanship in the heartland

Born out of a Utopian Dream, the Amana Colonies were a collection of six communal villages established in Iowa by German settlers. The collective ethos has been replaced by private enterprise, but the villages themselves have been preserved as the legacy of a bygone way of life.

A full community of German religious refugees arrived in eastern Iowa in 1855 and pooled their resources to buy 26,000 acres of bottomland along the Iowa River. They built villages where members received a home, medical care and schooling in exchange for work. A seventh village was added in 1861 to provide railroad access. The settlers called their village “Amana” from the biblical phrase meaning “remain true.” The Amana Colonies would be one of the longest lasting communal societies in the world.

Even as the Amana Colonies leaders realized their communal way of life was becoming unsustainable, they took measures to showcase their heritage. The Amana Society was established to manage the farms and the mills and preserve the Colony’s heritage. That is why when you visit the Communal Kitchen and Cooper Shop, it looks the same as when the last communal meal was served in the Colony in 1932. And the High Amana General Store smells of homemade soap, dried herbs and kerosene lanterns much as it did in 1858.

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Amana Today

Tours begin at the Amana Heritage Museum, where a video explains the idealistic journey from Germany to Iowa and provides an overview of the fertile landscape. The simple but masterfully-constructed meetinghouses, which were built at the center of each village, are on display. These served a vital role to the self-sufficient members of the community. Five different custom tours are available, each focusing on one aspect of life in the Colony.

The Amana food artisans and craftsmen may no longer be working for the community, but they provide insights into this way of life for the thousands of visitors looking to experience this unique slice of the American Dream. The Millstream Brewing Company, Iowa’s oldest brewery, has revived the art of hand-brewing Old World-style beer. The Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse is always stocked with locally produced sausages and cheeses, using the same recipes handed down since 1855. The Ackerman Winery and the Heritage Wine Cheese & Jelly Haus sell award-winning products from the vine in side-by-side shops on Main Street. On busy days, the fresh bread and sweet cinnamon rolls in Hahn’s Hearth Oven Bakery sell out before lunchtime.

Working Amana

During the communal era, 39 different jobs were assigned to provide for the needs of each village, which ranged in number from 40 to 100 houses. The name Amana grew to be synonymous with quality and that handcrafted excellence can be purchased in the Amana Woolen Mill on 48th Avenue and the Amana Furniture Shop next door in a building that once produced some of America’s finest calico cloth. The 1895 granary has been put to use by quilt makers using heritage fabrics in their needlework. The Broom and Basket Shop uses an old “kicker” broom winding machine that was used to craft its German Willow baskets and floor sweepers.

Entertainment for the Colonists often meant stage productions with homemade props. The Old Creamery Theatre is the oldest professional theater group in Iowa, having put on its first live performances in 1971. The troupe has been entertaining in the Amana Colonies since 1988, presenting musicals, dramas, comedies and children’s shows on the 300-seat Main Stage and the 70-seat Studio Stage every Wednesday through Sunday.

The Amana Heritage Museum is a window into the region's past.

Outdoors, the Kolonieweg, or Colony Way, is a path that wanders past Lily Lake, cropland and pastures as it links Amana, the largest village, and Middle Amana. The Amana Colonies Convention and Visitors Center rents bicycles to ride through the villages; the restored passenger depot serves as the trailhead. Golfers can tee it up at the Amana Colonies Golf Course. Consistently ranked as one of the top public courses in Iowa, the rolling hills not only present a sporty challenge to golfers, but also harbor some of the best wildlife spotting in Amana.

The events calendar in the Amana Colonies is always bursting. Visitors should circle the Maifest, where the celebration of spring takes on a decidedly German flavor with dancing, demonstrations and arts; Oktoberfest where the Burgermeister taps the first keg at the Festhalle Barn and pours free beer until the keg is empty; and Winterfest, where Amana shows off its silly side with the Winter Wreath Toss, the Great Amana Ham-Put and the Best Beard Competition. The best bet is not to stray too far from the open fire chili cookout. In summer, the Hawk A Model A Club summons more than 100 of Henry Ford’s best Model A automobiles from five Midwestern states to strut their horsepower on Main Street for Model-A Day.

For More Information

Amana Colonies Visitors Center
Iowa Tourism Office