Whenever I’m motoring across the country in my RV trying to get to a destination, I often use truck stops or Camp Wal-Mart for quick overnight stops. But, I also try to interject some interesting stopovers to break up the long days.
Such was the stop I made this summer as I was motoring across the Hawkeye state. After driving across Iowa on I-80 and seeing nothing but corn and soybeans, I decide to make an overnight stop in the little town of Marengo, Iowa. This was a familiar place. I did an overnight stay in Marengo when I did RAGBRAI in 2006. I can attest that there’s not much in this little town of 2,500 people other than a great grocery store. But, just five miles away from Marengo are the Amana Colonies.
I saw the Colonies highlighted on a map as I was planning my route home from Colorado. I did a quick check with Mr. Google and decided to take part of a day to check it out.
The Amana Colonies are actually seven little villages nestled together in east central Iowa. I had assumed they were something akin to Amish or Mennonite communities. But after a little more research and a quick visit, I found out that I was wrong. Like the Amish and Mennonite, the people originated mostly from Germany and were persecuted for their religious beliefs, which were unique. And like the Amish and Mennonites, they came to the US seeking refuge. But those were the only similarities.
A Communal Living Experiment
The people who formed the Amana Colonies were Pietists and called themselves the Community of True Inspiration. They believed that God, through the Holy Spirit, guides and directs people through prayer and contemplation. Their religion was more individual than based on group rituals. These Inspirationists believed that If you got an idea for something or some action, then it had to come from God.
The first group of 800 members settled near Buffalo around the 1830’s, but quickly found they needed more space. So, in 1856, they acquired 26,000 acres in Iowa and resettled there. They formed into seven communities that today are called the Amana Colonies.
The key thing about these Inspirationists that made them different from the Amish and Mennonite was that they believed in true communal living. The community owned all the land, all the buildings, and all the means of production. The communities built their own houses, made their own clothes, built all there furnishings, and grew their own food.
For this to work under Iowa law, a corporation was formed to own all the property – all land, buildings, livestock, and equipment. If you were an Inspirationist and lived in Amana, the only thing you owned were some personal items and the clothes on your back.
The communities (i.e. the corporation) were governed by an elected Board of Trustees. There were also a Council of Elders in each little village. The Trustees and Elders assigned individuals to jobs. Men usually worked in the factories, as tradesmen, or on the farms. The few brightest were sent to secondary schools to learn medicine or the law. Women worked in the schools, in gardens raising food, in the communal laundry, or in the kitchens. Yes, all meals were provided and were taken in communal kitchens. The Trustees also assigned individuals to furnished living quarters and they provided health care.
There were no homeless, destitute, or unemployed people in the communities. The Trustees ran the churches, they approved all marriages (which were not encouraged), and you had to marry from within the communities. If you lived in the Amana Colonies, you really had to buy in 100% to the communal concept. If you didn’t play by the rules, then you were expelled.
The colonies produced more goods and food than they could use. They also were not totally economically self-sufficient. They sold their excess in markets and stores for currency, which they used to buy items that they didn’t make. It all worked pretty good for about 80 years until the market crashed in October 1929. Essentially, with the crash, the markets for their goods vanished.
In a short time, the financial condition of the communities became dire. Also, members were seeking more freedoms from the communal constraints. So, in 1931, the communities voted to dissolve the communal aspects of the Amana Colonies.
One corporation was formed to manage the churches and another, the Amana Society, retained ownership of all the farm land. Members all received shares of stock in the Amana Society. The profits were distributed to the shareholders as dividends. The buildings and trade shops were all sold to members and the communal kitchens were closed. Health care continued to be provided by the Amana Society. Members continued to work on the farms but they were paid as laborers.
Amana Colonies Today
When you visit the Amana Colonies today you get to see the buildings that were made in the villages and the farm land. But, there’s no more communal living. There is a visitor center with a small museum and one of the communal kitchens is open for display. Most of the buildings are now privately own. At the visitor center, I asked how many were still owned by descendants of the original Inspirationists. Only about 1/2 was the answer given.
Today many of the buildings in the largest village center of Main Amana are retail shops. The villages are very pretty and well maintained. It’s nice to stroll down the side walks and gaze at the historical buildings. But it’s a little deceiving.
I thought that these shops in Main Amana would be selling locally produced goods or artisan wares made by the Inspirationist descendants. But, I was wrong. Only the cheese is made with locally grown dairy products, the wine is made locally, and the meat in the meat shop is locally grown (but it is sent out for processing and packing). Everything else comes for where ever retail stuff is made these days – mostly overseas.
I went into the leather goods store and asked if items were made locally? Nope – the items were mostly from Asia. Same with the General Store and the bookstore. The bakery does sell items baked in the store but my guess the ingredients come from elsewhere. There are also two restaurants that specialize in German food.
My Take on the Amana Colonies
When I planned this stopover, I was expecting to see a way of life in the Amana Colonies much like you would see in the Amish areas of Pennsylvania. What I found was some nice small historic looking villages, a historic legacy on display, and retail shopping implanted inside the vestiages off what the Inspirationists way of life used to be. It’s all very nice – but it’s a tourist destination and just not what I was expecting.
I did learn something about communal living and got to see a little bit of what is was like. If fact, during the 1800’s, there were several of these utopian community experiments that sprung up as people searched for an ideal way of life. Some were base on religious beliefs other where based on one particular charismatics beliefs. Most of these communities failed and disappeared without a trace.
But the the Amana Colonies endured the longest and left their mark as one of the longest running communes in the US history. If the Crash of 1929 hadn’t occurred, I wonder how long it would have endured. My guess is that as a generation was added, the desires for more personal freedoms would have eventually led to its demise.
The Amana Colonies are a pretty place to visit. They’ve done well at preserving the historical and quaint rural feel of the villages. When you drive through you get a sense of what a rural Iowa village from the 1800’s looked like. You won’t find popular franchise businesses, fast food places, or strip malls in Amana. The rural country side is also pretty – mostly corn, soybean, and hay fields which is typical of rural Iowa.
Here’s a dashcam video of driving through three of the villages.
Overall, this was a good stop where I was able to get off the highway and learn something new. There are plenty of free parking lots in Main Amana (the main shopping area) and they can easily accommodate RVs. If you’re crossing Iowa on I-80 have some extra time, it’s worthwhile to get off the Interstate and pass thru just to see the villages. If you or your wife is a shopaholic and like countrified knick-knacks, then it’s a must see stop 😉
P.S. A fellow blogger wrote a nice article about visiting the Amana Colonies. You can see it here – Amana Colonies. Her article gives a good description of what it’s like to visit the Amana Colonies today.