Traveling to the Amana Colonies is like stepping back in time. The history of the Amana’s is unique and makes this a special place. This was a great trip for us because right now, during this pandemic, we are keeping travel regional, so we won’t have to worry about quarantining once we return home. To get from central Illinois where we live, to the Amana Colonies in east central Iowa, we traveled by automobile, stopping only at a rest stop for a bathroom break. Not wanting to make any other stops along the way, we had packed drinks and snacks and filled the car with gas. We ate breakfast before we left, and were happy to note that this was only a five-hour drive from our home.
Our first stop in the Amana Colonies was the Communal Kitchen Museum and masks were required during the tour. The Communal Kitchen Museum tour docent, Jon Childers, Executive Director of the Amana Heritage Society, explained the history of how the Amana Colonies came were established by German immigrants who arrived in America, and settled in Iowa farm country. “We were a church group that could no longer live in Germany,” said Childers. Because of their Pietist beliefs, (that God, through the Holy Spirit, inspired individuals), they became know as the “Community of True Inspiration.” They lived near the Ronneburg Castle in the Province of Hessen in what was then South West Germany. They found refuge there for a time, but eventually were required to move due to religious persecution and economic depression. Childers explained that five families, with a lot of wealth and bright business people, helped fund the group. He added that they never meant to start a communal existence; it just started out that way to help with the funding. “Originally we were only going to be communal for three years, but it worked out well so we remained communal.”
The group came first to New York around 1844, according to Childers. Here they pooled their resources and purchased 5,000 acres near Buffalo. They called themselves The Ebenezer Society. They formed a constitution formalizing the communal way of life. But as more farmland was needed, they started searching in the west and finally found more suitable land in Iowa. They named their new home “Amana” after the Song of Solomon, which means ‘remain true.’ Iowa was the perfect place to settle, explained David Rettig, Executive Director of the Amana Colonies CVB, and said that the land in Amana reminded the immigrants of their homeland around Ronneburg Castle in Germany. Over time, six villages were created in the fertile Iowa River Valley on around 26,000 acres: Amana, East Amana, West Amana, High Amana and Middle Amana. The village of Homestead was added in 1861, giving the Colony access to the railroad. At the height of the Amana Society, around 1890, the population peaked at about 1,800 members.
Most of the German settlers were skilled craftsmen and farmers and they used what they produced. They also produced viable items to sell, which provided money to buy anything they could not make. “We produced woolen goods and sold them all over the country. We planted onions, potatoes and French green beans and sold the extra’s,” Jon Childers said. David Rettig also added that the Amana Colonies had a Calico mill and were famous for their Calico and handcrafted products. He shared a story from the Amana Museum where a German submarine was stopped off the east coast and they found it was carrying dye for the Amanas to create calico during World War I!
The Communal Kitchen Museum is now a National Historic Landmark. What is now the Communal Kitchen Museum, belonged to the Ruedy family for years, and was sold to the Amana Heritage Society. It came with the residence, a kitchen, a washhouse, a woodshed and a chicken house. The Communal Kitchen Museum was established in 1932, when the Great Change occurred, and the Society stopped their communal living style.
During the communal life all meals were prepared in the communal kitchen. “They built 55 communal kitchens, and each had two rooms,” Jon Childers said. The Communal Kitchen that is now a museum is the last intact, communal kitchen in the Amana Colonies. While some of the other buildings that were once communal kitchens still exist, they are not complete like this one. Built in 1863, the Ruedy communal kitchen served around 40 people in the immediate community.
The kitchen was ruled over by a kitchen boss. “There was also a vice boss or Fitz boss plus three girls between the ages of 14-22 or so. These young ladies washed dishes, cooked, served, and rotated jobs in the kitchen. “My grandmother worked in this kitchen for six years,” John Childers shared. All in all, three meals and two coffee breaks were served. “Sometimes the women would take a snack out to the fields,” John Childers added.
There were Communal Gardens and all vegetables came from the gardens. Meat came from Amana farms and was butchered within the colony. Connie Zuber Baugh, whose family were proprietors of a local inn, and who has been involved with the colonies for years said, “During oral interviews some of the ladies would say, ‘We got up at four a.m. and it was the same routine every day.” They added that they didn’t know anything any different. While some of the women indicated they would have liked to have known something different, or had other options, others found comfort in the same routine day in and day out. “I would have loved to be a kitchen boss and know what I was going to do every day,” John Childers said.
On the day of our tour, a typical Amana meal of boiled beef, potatoes, horseradish, cottage cheese, pickled beets, and rhubarb cake was served. David Rettig said that he has only found another meal like this, and it was in Vienna. Changes in the meal plans had been made due to COVID-19 and what had been scheduled as an indoor sit-down meal was changed to a take-out meal, which was still delightful. The takeout meal was served so that visitors could either take the meal home or eat it outdoors on a picnic table. We did the latter. Interestingly, another group eating at a nearby table, socially distanced from us, was also from Illinois!
Family style restaurants in the Amana Colonies, the “Ronneburg” and the “Ox Yoke Inn,” serve family style meals that David Rettig said are a Germanized version of what was once served. While visiting, we ate dinner and breakfast at the Ronneburg. The tables were marked off and socially distanced, and the servers and staff were all wearing masks, and they had hand sanitizer at the door. It was actually a great marketing use of space where they placed items for sale on the tables that were marked off due to social distancing.
We stayed at the Village Guest Suite, a former 1865 communal residence and “zimmershop,” (carpenter shop). With three guest suites, and only two occupied, this allowed us to have a totally isolated stay during our overnight visit that was hosted by the Amana Colonies CVB.
NOTE: If traveling in the Amana Colonies, masks are required, and you need to check to see if tours are open, in accordance with COVID-19 updates.