Historical Overview

Many visitors to the Amana Colonies feel as though they are stepping back in time. The influence of the past is felt in the built environment, in the landscape, and in the community. Over nearly 160 years, nature and culture – including the religious, economic, and ethnic background of the community – have interacted to create the place we know today.

Amana Society History

The Amana Colonies were established in 1855 by a communal religious society, the Community of True Inspiration. The group had its roots in Germany, having been founded there in the early 1700s. A Protestant sect, the Community of True Inspiration members believed that God continued to speak through people as he had with the prophets of the Old Testament, a belief that placed them at odds with the Lutheran Church. The Inspirationists came from a variety of backgrounds, but banded together to live in Hesse-Darmstadt, one of the more liberal of the German provinces, to escape religious persecution. At several estates that they rented, the Inspirationists operated woolen mills and farmed to support the community.

When, in the face of increasingly difficult conditions in Germany due to wars and economic problems, the Inspirationists moved to New York, they established a similar arrangement and pooled their resources to form a communal society. At Ebenezer (today West Seneca, New York) they operated a woolen mill on the banks of Buffalo Creek and lived in a group of small villages located on 5,000 acres of agricultural land.

In Ebenezer, the community divided its members into six villages: Upper, Lower, Middle, and New Ebenezer in New York and Canada Ebenezer and Kenneberg in Ontario. While they did not have to worry about persecution for their religious beliefs, problems arose as the land around them filled with farms and towns, making it difficult to maintain their separation and limiting their expansion. Elders of the church began to look for new land in the more sparsely settled West. After a failed effort to find land in Kansas, a trio of elders made a trip to Iowa, starting out from Muscatine in 1854. They came upon the Iowa River valley, near where main Amana is today and, one of the elders wrote, "We felt very homelike in this valley."

The ethnic and religious background of the community members helped define what made the land along the Iowa River so attractive to them. It looked like farmland of Germany and New York, with gently rolling hills, a river, and forests. The valley also offered the separation they sought, with plenty of room for the growing community. The closest towns, Marengo and Oxford, lay some distance away, with larger towns, such as Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, much farther away. Because the river was not navigable and the nearest road ran along the uplands to the south, the valley did not have much traffic passing through it.

The elders also looked for a place that offered many of the resources they would need, limiting their reliance on outsiders. The Iowa River valley had timber, crop land, pasture land, a river, ground water at easily reached depths, limestone and sandstone, and clay. The Inspirationists began buying land in the river valley in 1855. They eventually purchased about 26,000 acres, including the town site at Homestead, which provided access to a railroad built in 1860.

Historians who have studied the Amana Colonies attribute part of the community's success to its environment. Finding a place so well-suited to their farming and manufacturing experience, with an ideal balance of isolation and connection with the outside world, and enough land to support the community, the Amana Society was protected from a number of stresses that would have undermined their communal, religious, and ascetic foundations. The communal society survived for nearly 80 years in Iowa and the Amana Church Society is still an important community institution.

In 1932, facing economic difficulties and dissatisfaction with its communal organization, the Amana Society members voted to disband the communal society and form a profit-sharing corporation in which each member of the society held stock. The newly formed corporation, also known as The Amana Society, continued to farm and run businesses in each of the villages, but with a goal of earning a profit rather than supporting the community. Many of the craft-based businesses, such as broom-making and shoe-making, were closed and new, tourism-based businesses begun. The farms shifted their production away from a mix of subsistence and cash crops to crops bound for outside markets or the cattle and hog feedlots. This process accelerated in the post-war era and the business model today includes a mixture of agricultural, light manufacturing, and tourism-based businesses.

Amana Society & Land

The environment in which the Amana Society has thrived resulted from the combined effects of glaciers, wind and water erosion, fire, and its continental climate. These forces created a varied landscape of uplands, hills, and river valley covered with a mix of wet and mesic prairies and forests, with ideal growing conditions for the crops the community would grow.

The uplands, located above the river valley on the southern portion of the Society's land, were formed by glaciers during the Pre-Illinoisan glaciations, which ended about 500,000 years ago. The glacier smoothed the topography as it moved across the landscape. Since the glacier's retreat, water has carved clefts into the land, leaving gently rolling hills. In the 1850s, most of the uplands were covered by a mixture of wet and mesic prairies. Mesic prairies predominated, with their long-stem grasses that covered the land. In places where depressions and drainage patterns left wet soils, wet prairies supported plants suited to those conditions, such as sedges and switchgrass.

Oak woodlands grew on these open prairies. Fire sweeping across the prairies, ignited either by lightning or Indians seeking to clear land for garden plots or to drive game for hunts, helped keep the oak-dominated stands clear of low-growing brush and saplings that would compete for water or sunlight. Evolved in conjunction with fire, older oak trees have a thick bark that protects them from fire and younger trees can grow back after a burn.

On hillsides, located along the northern and southern edges of the river valley, hardwood forests grew more thickly because the protection the slopes offered from fire. Fire moves most easily uphill, so upland prairie fires did not often travel down the slopes. Also, the relatively damp river valley did not produce fires with the intensity that would do significant damage to the hillside forests.

The river valley, carved out by the erosive action of the river over hundreds of thousands of years, had several landscape features. Terraces, at the base of the hillsides, provided a bit of level land above the floodplain. The river valley had wet and mesic prairies, like the uplands, and wetlands with standing water much of the year. Plant and animal communities associated with these different landscapes varied according to the seasonal and annual drainage patterns.

When the Amana Colonists came to the Iowa River valley, they made use of these different landscape features and ecosystems. Though none of the uses was exclusive, generally the Amana Society has put particular types of land to the same general uses. On the terraces, the society located six of its villages. This distributed the community out over the farmland that would support them. On mesic prairies, they, like other Iowa farmers, plowed under the prairie grasslands and planted crops. Over time, about a third of the Amana Society's land was turned into crop land. On another third of the society's land, including much of the wet prairies, the community fenced off pastures for sheep, horses, cows, and hogs. Some native prairie was initially left in place in the pastures because the plants that grew there provided good forage for the livestock. Over time, most of the prairie has been replaced by introduced forage crops or small grains, such as oats. Much of the hillside land and some of the river bottom land were left as forests. This last third of the Society's land remains, for the most part, in timber. The community has used the timber resources for fuel and for construction, and for making furniture, wagons, barrels, and other items.

Over time, the Society has modified the landscape. To supply power the woolen mills, saw mills, and other small industries in Amana and Middle Amana, the Society built a 7-mile mill race that carried water diverted from the Iowa River near South Amana to powerhouses near the mills before emptying into Price Creek, a tributary of the river. The mill race blocked water flowing across the valley toward the river. To drain this land and other low areas, the Society dug ditches and, later, laid tiles and pipes to carry the water away more quickly. This dried out the land, making it more suitable for crops and other agricultural uses, but also reduced wetland habitat.

A break in the mill race levy not long after it was built in the 1860s led to the formation of the Lily Lake. When the water flooded the wetland on the north side of the mill race, between Middle Amana and Amana, it formed a lake. The lake offered a means to store water to power the mills when the river ran low, a source of ice before refrigerators replaced iceboxes, and a place for recreation. Today, it is an attraction for visitors to the Amana Colonies and home to a number of native plants and animals.

Plowing under the native prairie and replacing it with row, forage, and small grain crops removed native plants and drastically changed the habitat available for animals. Some animals have adapted to the new conditions, but many have struggled as native prairies were removed over the last two centuries. Since the catastrophic floods of 1993 and 2008, efforts have been underway to replace some of these prairies and wetlands for wildlife habitat. The difficulty of keeping the land dry enough for farming makes wetland restoration work more attractive.

For over a century, the Society harvested trees from its lands for fuel, construction, and manufacturing, relying primarily on natural reseeding to replenish the stands. Beginning in the 1970s, the Society began a tree nursery and replanting program that has since planted thousands of seedlings grown from seed gathered in the forests and purchased from the U.S. Forest Service. The species that are replanted are native to the valley, but not all native species are used. The Society plants species that are economically valuable and that won't become "weed" species. The absence of fire has created a situation where almost all of the seedlings that get established are able to grow, causing competition problems in which valuable species are outcompeted by faster growing species.

Limestone and sandstone outcroppings in Amana represent the remnants of an ancient sea floor, a relic of the sea that periodically covered the land that would become Iowa hundreds of millions of years ago. The Amana Colonists quarried the stone from outcroppings above the terrace on the north side of the valley (just above where 220th Trail runs between West Amana and Amana today). Sandstone quarried from the hillside was cut into blocks (it is soft enough to be cut with a hand saw until it hardens with exposure to air) and used for building foundations. Limestone was ground into powder and used to make mortar for the many brick buildings in the Amana Colonies. Clay deposits in several locations around the villages provided raw materials for making bricks.

Adjacent to the villages, about 400 acres were dedicated to kitchen gardens. Women in the communal kitchens used the produce from the gardens to feed the entire community and the hired hands on the farm. Many of the vegetables and fruits were preserved for winter use. In addition to the gardens, the farms grew about 230 acres of potatoes each year. Grape vines in fields and on houses provided juice for jellies and for wine. The Society allotted 12 gallons per adult male and 6 gallons for each adult female each year until Prohibition halted wine production. Schoolchildren tended apple and cherry trees in orchards in each village. Each kitchen had a henyard and the farms kept dairy herds for milk. Small cattle herds provided beef, but a local preference for pork led the Society to raise large numbers of hogs.

The types of crops grown on Amana Society lands have changed over time. Prior to the 1930s, when the farms relied on horse and oxen power for most farm work and a number of animals were raised for local consumption, a substantial portion of the farms' crop land had to be used for forage crops. Another portion of the acreage was used to supply the communal kitchens. After the Change in 1932, and as the farms adopted more tractors and other machinery to carry out farm work in the 1930s and 1940s, the crops grown also changed. Along with the operational changes came the introduction of hybrid corn. These new varieties increased the financial return of growing corn by increasing yields. At the same time, more livestock on Amana farms and in the Midwest were being raised in feedlots, where they were fed grains such as corn, instead of spending most of their lives in pastures. This increased demand for corn and other grains, making it more attractive to plant.

Just as introduced crops had replaced native plants, corn, and later, soybean, replaced the diverse crops grown when the farms focused more on subsistence than on the market. Increasingly, adoption of corn and soy led to the introduction of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and more intensive use of the land. Developments in agricultural machinery and chemicals led to their increased use and a greater impact on the environment. In the postwar era the Amana Society also stopped raising sheep, hogs, and dairy cows and focused their efforts on beef cattle, including their own herd and those of other farmers who sent their cattle to Amana to be finished in feedlots.

This trend toward mechanization and homogenization of crops and livestock operations occurred throughout the United States. The Amana Society Farms have followed national trends in many ways, but it has also been able to modify the trends to fit local circumstances more than most farms. The Amana Society has left most of its timber land in forest. The Amana Society owns the largest private forest in Iowa, with the many of its 7,000 acres registered with the Iowa state Forest Reserve Program. Where possible, crop lands are surrounded by buffer strips that reduce erosion and protect local waterways. The Farms have been involved in a number of studies that have aided in native animal reintroductions, invasive plant eradication, and other scientific investigations. Land has been set aside for wetland and prairie restoration.

Though the Amana Society's land is no longer communally owned, its history continues to shape land use in the Amana Colonies. Community members' financial stake in the company ensures that the effects of land use decisions are noticed by stakeholders. Likewise, many community members' families have lived in the Amana Colonies for generations and they know and value the land. This local investment and involvement has tempered the demands of the market and allowed the Amana Colonies to remain the unique place that it is.

To learn more about the Amana Colonies' history, see the Teacher Resources or visit the museums of the Amana Heritage Society.