by Deanna Tolliver
Imagine this: a slowly meandering river lined with tall overhanging trees, a patchwork of small family farms, and gentle hills with lovely views. Quick—where are you?
Iowa! Yep, it’s not all corn and soybeans.
This particular landscape I’ve described is what you’ll find if you visit the Amana Colonies, located along the Iowa River in the southeastern part of the state. And it’s become one of my favorite places to visit.
Yes, it’s THAT Amana, of appliance fame. The company is still there, and is now owned by the Whirlpool Corporation. But there’s much more to this area than kitchen appliances.
There are seven Amana colonies: Main Amana, Middle Amana, High Amana, East Amana, South Amana, West Amana, and Homestead, each connected, except for East Amana, in a loop. Many people mistakenly think that the colonies were established by Amish or Puritans, but that is incorrect. They WERE a group seeking freedom from religious persecution, beginning as a group in Germany called “Pietists.” In 1843, the group left Germany for New York. Seeking better farmland, and because the group had grown, they moved to Iowa in 1855. “Amana” was chosen as the name because it means “remain true.”
Life in the Amana colonies was totally communal: Kitchens provided all the meals, clothes were made by members, homes were provided as well as schools for the children. Almost everything the members needed for everyday living was made by them and supported the colonies: food from the farms, wool for clothing from their sheep, clock making, handcrafted furniture, a brewery and more. At one time, more than 50 communal kitchens provided three meals a day.
Special emphasis was put on quality handcrafted items, and that became a hallmark of the Amanas.
But in 1932, the communal way of life was set aside, seen as a barrier to individual goals, and the Amana Society was formed. It’s a profit-sharing group, put in place to manage the businesses developed by the colonies, including the farms and cattle, furniture, woolen products, German foods and more. (Click here for more on Amana history, and here for information on current-day Amana.)
The colonies are on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, visitors can see this unique history preserved at the seven Amana Colonies. Each colony has its own attractions. For example, in High Amana, the General Store is almost unchanged from when it was established in 1857. You’ll find an interesting assortment of vintage games, handmade soaps, delicious mustards (I stock up for holiday giving), books and more. The Amana Arts Guild is also in High Amana, and there you can find other unique “Handmade in Amana” items such as baskets, quilts, brooms, rag rugs and much more.
One of my favorite shops anywhere is in South Amana: Fern Hill Gifts and Quilts. Located in an original brick Amana home, gift items including quilts and delicious fudge are on the first floor, but the second floor houses the quilt/fabric shop. There’s a great variety of quilt kits, flannels and other fabrics, and I tend to stock up when I’m there. (Attention quilters: I suggest going alone or only with another quilter because you will be there longer than you think.)
Main Amana is, well, the main colony. It’s a good place to start your exploration because the Amana Heritage Museum will give you the best background on the history of the colonies. Then, head to the Amana Visitor’s Center, for information on where to go and what to see. Your choices are many and include shopping at another general store, another great quilt shop, or for woolens, books, antiques, chocolates, meats, wines and more.
I suggest spending at least two or three days in the area exploring Amana. And don’t forget to visit the surrounding areas as well. The small town of Marengo, about 12 miles west, is where you’ll want to go for groceries, as the only “food store” in Amana is a convenience store. The colonies are less than a 30-minute drive from Coralville and Iowa City, and there you’ll find all the big box stores as well as anything else you might need. In tiny Norway, Iowa, just to the north about 12 miles, is the Iowa Baseball Museum of Norway. Why, you may ask? It seems Norway (Iowa) has produced “prolific numbers of college and semi pro players, seventeen Minor Leaguers, and four Major Leaguers.” The museum is free but is open only a few hours each week, so check before you go.
Where to stay? The Amana RV Park and Event Center is less than a mile from Main Amana. It’s a very large campground, with full hookups and pull-through sites, and can accommodate almost any size RV or rally. A couple of large Morton buildings are often home to events during the year, including weddings, dog shows, rock shows, etc. Seasonal sites are offered. Across the road from the campground, within easy walking distance, is The Old Creamery Theatre Company, offering an eclectic but professional choice of performances.
In Marengo, the Sudbury Court Motel and RV Park is a smaller park (20 sites) but also offers pull-throughs and full hookups.
If your travel plans are in early spring or late fall, be sure to check with both campground offices to make sure they’re open, as both close during the cold months.
As they say in Amana: Wilkommen (Welcome), reflecting the German heritage. As you might imagine, Oktoberfest is a big deal here. This year the celebration is October 5-7, and plans include beer, brats, log sawing, rugby (!), live entertainment, craft demonstrations and much much more.
For bicycling enthusiasts, there are miles and miles of bike trails. Prefer to walk? Take the trail around Lily Pond, or the three-mile trail between Amana and Middle Amana. The Visitor’s Center can tell you how to arrange a guided van tour. Or ask about the Walking Stick Adventures around the colonies.
I hope you can visit the Amana colonies soon (read here for more). I try to go back every year!