Recharge your batteries and get a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season at the Amana Colonies. Step back to a simpler time, the Colonies are a magical place right out of a Charles Dickens novel with the beautiful stone buildings, family-style food and the tranquility and beauty this historical Iowa spot has to offer.
The first weekend of December during the Prelude to Christmas, stores stay open late and the streets are candle lit making the villages look like a holiday card. We are farmers and this time of year, the crops are out of the fields and we often head to Amana to restore a bit of peace after the hectic harvest season and immerse ourselves in the Christmas spirit.
The Prelude to Christmas offers a variety of activities celebrating the traditions of these historic villages. The Amana Colonies are a group of settlements made up of 26,000 acres in Eastern Iowa. Those that settled the Amana colonies held the belief that like in Biblical times that God would inspire and communicate with an individual they call a Werkzueg, which means instrument. German Pietists settled the seven villages, East Amana, High Amana, Middle Amana, South Amana, West Amana, and Homestead the comprise the colonies.
Calling themselves the Ebenezer Society or the Community of True Inspiration, they first settled in New York near Buffalo in what is now the town of West Seneca. However, in order to live out their beliefs in more isolated surroundings, they moved west to east-central Iowa in 1855. They lived a communal style life until the mid-1930s. The colonists lived together for eighty years in an almost completely self-sufficient because they had many skilled craftsman and members in farming occupations.
Today, Amana is a major tourist attraction known for their German-based family style restaurants and the hand crafted shops. Although not a commune lifestyle these days those in the Amana Society share stock and profit sharing and are an integral part of the Amana community. The colonies have been listed as a National Historic Landmark since 1965. Both the Amana Heritage Museum and the Museum of Amana History offer details about the historic aspect of the colony.
It is easy to see the German influence when visiting the holiday events during the Prelude. The Festhalle barn that was once a dairy barn is located in Amana, the largest of the seven villages. In this beautiful barn, local vendors and organizations decorate their trees and bring Christmas alive with what they call “the Tannenbaum Forest of trees” along with the impressive seventeen-foot German-style Christmas Weihnacht Pyramid tree that stands stories tall.
During most Preludes there is a home tour where Amanaites opened up their homes allowing visitors and curious locals a look in. Most years there are five to six offerings on the list. Our favorite was a house we toured a couple of years ago that started life as a granary built in 1925. A very talented man converted the granary to a home.
There are agricultural influences all through the villages and they have made the most of them. The Amana Colony Visitors’ Center has a beautifully restored corncrib in its center. The corncrib was built in 1945 and was restored using over 10,000 board feet of hickory harvested from Amana timber. The Visitors Center offers tickets to the home tours and also is a place to find out what is going on in town at the time of your visit. There are a few theaters in town and you might want to see if any of the entertainment options are up your alley.
Even though we have been coming to Amana for years, each visit we still find something to peak our interest. The streets of Amana are lined with picturesque buildings and on our last visit we noticed a Windmill building tucked back behind a cluster of buildings. Built in 1880 there is a plaque on the building that says they don’t know the original use for this building but it was used to manufacture a feed additive for hogs from 1908 to1932 so the building is commonly called the “Hog Powder House.”
Be sure to stop by the Amana General Store, built in 1858, it is a prominent historic landmark in the village of Amana. Until 1932, the store served the community with all of their material needs that the communal society did not provide. Today, the General Store offers merchandise from far-off places, as well as many Amana and Iowa made products.
The colonies are also known for their great meat, cheese and wines. There are several antique stores and the Smokehouse Antique Mall which is near the Amana Meat Market and the woolen mill that is still operational today.
Besides the fun and unique shopping opportunities, part of the charm for us is the family style dinners a tradition was born from the old communal kitchen days and still continues. My husband Keith can’t travel within an hour of Amana without stopping for one of their famous meals.
We make a point eat one night at the Colony Inn and another at Ox Yoke Inn or the Ronneburg. All are delightful. They also offer an amazing Amana breakfast. All three restaurants are located in the village of Amana.
There are several lodging options, but our favorite is to book a room at Zubers Homestead Hotel. Located in the town of Homestead, Zubers offers 15 guestrooms. Each room is decorated to match something special about Iowa whether it is the culture, heritage or people. Breakfast is offered along with the overnight stay. What we really like is that Zubers offers the privacy of a hotel with the charm of a bed and breakfast.
The hotel began as the Homestead Hotel in 1862. The Zuber history shares, “At that time it had 15 rooms and one bathroom upstairs, with a large kitchen, dining room and residence downstairs. From 1949 – 2004, the hotel took on a new life being purchased by Bill and Connie Zuber who turned the hotel into “Bill Zuber’s Dugout Restaurant.”
Bill Zuber was a famous baseball player. He was a pitcher with an 11-year Major League Baseball career between 1936 and 1947 where he pitched for the Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators, New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. After the Zubers sold the restaurant, it was purchased by David and Yana Cutler who decorated and changed the restaurant back to a hotel. In May of 2013, the hotel was bought by Brian and Bonnie James. The hotel is a romantic getaway with woods and the old fashioned small village the only scene outside your window.
Besides Zubers there are also some amazing bed and breakfast options like the Taste of Home which was a great choice as well. There area also hotels in nearby Williamsburg where you can find the more traditional outlet mall shopping options.
We recommend taking time to fit in one meal at Myers Grill in nearby Williamsburg. This is a hard to find treasure that we learned about when staying at the Taste of Home. We almost drove past the restaurant, it is located in a driveway and the grill is a converted garage. Chef Michael Myers is usually dressed in full out chef gear and you will likely be waited on by his wife Tracey Myers who will probably bring you an erasable board showing the specials of the day.
The food is amazing in this unexpected diner with concrete floors, graffiti on the walls and decorated with racing memorabilia. Myers Grill & Catering is located at 303 S. Highland Street, Williamsburg, Iowa 52361. They offer dining and catering services. The phone number is 319-668-2321.
When the Prelude to Christmas is over, shops are still decorated and the villages alight with holiday cheer. The next big event is Winterfest on January. Head to Amana for a bit of respite and relaxation and get into the holiday spirit! If you can’t make Amana during the holidays, there are more festivals and events year round. For more information about the museums and tourism in the Amana Colonies, call the Visitors Center at 800-579-2294.