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Want Just a Bite to Eat at the Amana Colonies?

  • Ted Landphair

You'd probably want to eat one of each of these desserts from the Ox Inn, but it's doubtful you'd have room after endless earlier helpings of food.

You'd probably want to eat one of each of these desserts from the Ox Inn, but it's doubtful you'd have room after endless earlier helpings of food.

Then keep driving, for its tables are groaning boards

In the Midwest state of Iowa, not far from the Mississippi River, there's a cluster of seven villages where, six days a week, buses from several states unload tourists.

The settlements are what remains of the Amana Colonies, one of America's most notable communal religious societies. Visitors come expecting to eat like . . . well, like the pigs for which Iowa is famous, for the Amanas' reputation for serving plates piled high with food is legendary. They come to see and purchase quality crafts.

And quite a few come expecting to catch a glimpse of people in plain black clothes like the Amish back East, who live without electricity and ride in buggies behind slowly trotting horses. The Amana Colonies are still very much a rural proposition. This is sunset outside the village of High Amana.

The Amana Colonies are still very much a rural proposition. This is sunset outside the village of High Amana.

That's the one area in which they'll be disappointed, for the Amana society never rejected modern conveniences. In fact, these little communities even turned out Amana-brand electric refrigerators and freezers before the company was bought by a big corporation in 1965.

It was a search for a kind of Utopia — a place where people could share their labor and its bounty — that led to the founding of the colonies 155 years ago. The Amana people were members of a German religious sect called the Inspirationalists who had fled Europe.

In Iowa, they founded a village called Amana, which was the biblical name for a river that flows through Syria. The Inspirationalists believed God spoke through common men and women, not professional clergy. To this day in their churches, lay elders run the services. The Amana settlers were mechanical artisans as well as farmers. Their sturdy Amana-brand appliances were regarded as works of fine craftsmanship.

The Amana settlers were mechanical artisans as well as farmers. Their sturdy Amana-brand appliances were regarded as works of fine craftsmanship.

The Amana people did not own their homes; the community provided everyone with food, jobs, even credit at the general store. Money was never exchanged.

This system lasted a remarkable 77 years, until 1932, when the communal system was abandoned, in part because young people rebelled against the sect's strict ways.

You still find some communal touches, like the huge helpings of cottage cheese, cabbage salad called sauerkraut, meats, and gooey desserts, served family-style to visitors who get to eat like famished Amana farmers.

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