Amana Colony – The Community of True Inspiration

By the 1860s the Amana Colony, as it came to be known, consisted of over 20,000 acres of land on which seven villages had been established. The villages were spaced just a few miles apart, roughly in the shape of a rectangle, and were named according to their location: West Amana, South Amana, High Amana, East Amana and Middle Amana, in addition to the original village of Amana. The town of Homestead, little more than a few buildings, was purchased by the Inspirationists so that they could have a depot on the new railroad line.

Coloring History by Legends of America

Amana villages each consisted of 40 to 100 buildings. The barns and agricultural buildings were always clustered at the village edge. Orchards, vineyards and gardens encircled the villages. Typical houses were rectangular two-story buildings of wood post-and-beam construction, brick, or sandstone. Each village had its own church, school, bakery, dairy, wine cellar, craft shops and general store. There were also a number of communal kitchens in each village where groups of about 30-40 people ate their meals.

Although all Amana villages are similar, each has its distinctive aspects. The original village of Amana, for example, is reminiscent of a German town with its meandering main street and side streets. On the other hand, the last village built — Middle Amana — displays a very American square block layout. South Amana is known for its predominance of brick construction–boasting even a brick granary and chicken house; in West Amana and High Amana sandstone buildings prevail. Tiny East Amana was not much more than an agricultural outpost, while Amana hummed with industry. The railroads’ influence on the villages is evident in Homestead’s single street and the split in South Amana — upper and lower.

The Amana settlement pattern of seven villages allowed the Inspirationists to easily access all their farm land. Just as importantly, it avoided a large urban setting which they felt encouraged immorality. Still, the network of small villages maintained an overall unity and kept everyone close to the spiritual leadership.

Amana, Iowa Woolen Mill

Amana, Iowa Woolen Mill

The Inspirationists established mills and shops according to their old-world skills. Amana’s woolen and calico factories were among the first in Iowa and quickly gained a national reputation for superior quality goods. The Inspirationists did not avoid the use of new technologies and, in fact, are known to have contributed innovations of their own to the textile industry. By 1908, the two woolen mills (in Amana and Middle Amana) were producing about a half-million yards of fabric a year and the calico factory printed 4,500 yards of its famous cloth each day. Two flour mills (in West Amana and Amana) processed the community’s own small grains as well as those of neighboring farmers. Crops of potatoes and onions were shipped to Midwest markets. Profits from the mills and farms was used to purchase goods from outside the community.

Of course, for the Inspirationists, all this economic activity was subordinate to their religious purpose, to live a godly and pious life. To assist them in this, church services were held 11 times a week: every evening, Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday mornings, and Sunday afternoon. The Community also observed Easter, Christmas and other Christian holidays. In addition, the Inspirationists in Amana held several special services during the year. Of these, the annual renewal of the covenant between each member and the community, and Holy Communion were the most important. Holy Communion was actually held at times determined through inspiration until the death of Metz in 1867 and thereafter, usually every other year. A yearly spiritual examination was held over several months with the Elders visiting each village in turn. Each member of the community came before the Elders and was questioned regarding his/her spiritual condition and admonished to lead a more pious life.

The church Elders, always men, comprised the leadership in the community. During the time of the Werkzeuge, Elders were chosen through inspiration. The Elders conducted the church services in each village. Some Elders were chosen as Trustees who managed the economic aspects and daily life of the villages. Up to this level, each village functioned independently. Collectively, the villages were governed by a Board of Trustees, 13 Elders elected by the adult members of the community. This board directed the overall affairs of the community. Following the death of Barbara Heinemann Landmann, the last Werkzeug, in 1883, the elders and Trustees functioned for nearly 50 years without the support of divine authority. They showed a remarkable degree of flexibility to allow communal Amana to become one of America’s longest-lived communal societies.

At the turn of the 21st century, the Community of True Inspiration is approaching its 300th year of existence although the Amana of today differs from that of a century before. By the 1930s, the communal system in Amana had generated stresses which it could not resolve. Many community members found the rules associated with communal living to be petty and overly restrictive. Regulations governed most aspects of daily life including dining, dress and leisure activities. Many young people wanted to be free to play baseball, to own musical instruments or to bob their hair in the new style. Families wanted to eat together at home rather than in the communal kitchen dining rooms. Although members received an annual spending allowance, many people felt theirs was inadequate and were frustrated by their inability to enjoy more material goods. Increasingly the elders were unable to enforce the rules.

In 1931, the community found itself in a crisis. In addition to the social strains of communal living, the community had suffered several economic setbacks in the previous decade. The Amana Society had lost an important source of revenue when its calico print works closed after World War I. A fire in 1923 extensively damaged the woolen mill and completely destroyed the Amana flour mill. And the national economic depression had shrunk the market for the Society’s agricultural products.

The Elders presented the membership of the community with a choice: either they could return to a more austere and disciplined life or they could abandon the communal system. Significantly, dissolution of the church was not considered as an alternative. But most members also recognized that their community had changed and that they were probably incapable of returning to the strict life of early communalism. Many people no longer equated their faith with the social mores dictated by the Community. Furthermore, many members felt that communalism itself was no longer a necessary tenet of faith of the church. On June 1st, 1932, the members elected to retain the traditional church as it was, and to create a joint-stock company (Amana Society, Inc.) for the business enterprises to be operated for profit by a Board of Directors [Use of American currency began January 15, 1933]. This separation of the church from the economic functions of the community — the abandonment of communalism — is referred to by Amana residents still today as “the Great Change.”

East Amana, Iowa barns

East Amana, Iowa barns

Today, the Amana Society, Inc., corporate heir to the land and economic assets of communal Amana, continues to own and manage some 26,000 acres of farm, pasture and forest land. Agriculture remains an important economic base today just as it was in communal times. Because the land was not divided up with the end of communalism, the landscape of Amana still reflects its communal heritage. In addition, over 450 communal-era buildings stand in the seven villages — vivid reminders of the past.

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