The Amana Colonies (1859 – 1932): Utopian Communities Founded in the U.S.


Introduction: The Amana Colonies were one of many utopian colonies established on American soil during the 18th and 19th centuries. There were hundreds of communal utopian experiments in the early United States, and the Shakers alone founded around 20 settlements. While great differences existed between the various utopian communities or colonies, each society shared a common bond in a vision of communal living in a utopian society.

The definition of a utopian colony, according to Robert V. Hine, author of California’s Utopian Colonies, “consists of a group of people who are attempting to establish a new social pattern based upon a vision of the ideal society and who have withdrawn themselves from the community at large to embody that vision in experimental form.” These colonies can, by definition, be composed of either religious or secular members, the former stressing (in the western tradition) a community life inspired by religion while the latter may express the idealism of a utilitarian creed expedient to establishing human happiness, with a belief in the cooperative way of life.

The more familiar non-monastic religious communal movements typical in Western society have generally originated from a deliberate attempt among various Christian sects to revive the structure of the primitive Christian community of first-century Jerusalem, which “held all things in common” (Acts 2.44; 4.32). The Shaker, Harmony/Rappite and Amana experiments, as well as the Oneida community and Brook Farm, find their origins in the European Protestant Reformation and the later Enlightenment.

Origins of the Colonies of Amana

The Amana Colony in Iowa was established by German-speaking European settlers who belonged to a religious group known as the Community of True Inspiration, which traces its origins to Himbach, Germany in 1714. Community founders J.F. Rock (1678-1749) and E.L. Gruber (1665-1728) were among many Europeans seeking a more meaningful religious experience than they felt the established churches provided. Like many others, Rock and Gruber maintained that the Lutheran Church had become bogged-down in intellectual debate and formalized worship and thus neglected the spiritual needs of the congregation. An increasing desire to return to the basics of Christianity gained popularity in the doctrines articulated by this movement, known as Pietism. For Pietists, religion was a personal experience with an emphasis on sincere humility and earnest study of the Bible. The Community of True Inspiration was one of several groups which emerged from Pietism.

Rock, a saddlemaker, and Gruber, a former Lutheran minister, believed that God still spoke through prophets as described in the Old Testament. The Community of True Inspiration was founded on this belief. The new prophets were called Werkzeuge, or instruments. The divine pronouncements through the Werkzeuge were recorded by scribes and printed in collected volumes.

The Inspirationist beliefs attracted many followers and congregations were established throughout Germany and surrounding regions. Because Inspirationists declined to perform military duty, take state-required oaths, or send their children to church-run schools, the congregations were often in conflict with church and governmental authorities. Many members of the Community of True Inspiration were punished with fines, imprisonment and public beatings. Nevertheless, the Inspirationist movement flourished through the mid-18th century. However, by 1750, there were no longer any Werkzeuge and both Rock and Gruber were dead. The movement declined and faded in the midst of European wars and economic depression.

War and famine, compounded by sweeping social and economic changes, devastated Germany in the early 1800s. Farmers and craftspeople in particular were affected by high rents, taxes and a new wave of industrialization. Many people, including a tailor named Michael Krausert, took comfort in religion. Krausert studied the words of J.F. Rock and received inspiration in 1817. This event revitalized the Inspirationist communities and attracted a new following. The Werkzeug Krausert was soon joined by two others, Barbara Heinemann and Christian Metz. Metz emerged as the guiding force of the community during its crucial years of growth and relocation to America.

During the 1820s and 1830s, Metz consolidated the community in the relatively liberal province of Hesse-Darmstadt in Germany. Congregations from Germany, Switzerland and Alsace moved to join the new communities in Hesse. The community leased large estates and castles within a few miles of each other. Both rich and poor lived together and shared in the social and economic life of the group. Although not communal, this arrangement helped to predispose the Inspirationists to the formal communal system which would be established in America and Amana.

The Move to America

By 1840 there were nearly 1,000 members of the Community of True Inspiration, many living on the estates in Hesse. This growth took place in spite of persecution from German officials. The government, closely tied to the Lutheran church, viewed the Community’s theology as a political threat. Even in Hesse, Inspirationists were fined for their refusal to send children to state schools. Rising costs and rents and several years of drought aggravated the conditions on the estates. Metz and other leaders realized that they must seek a new home for the Community in America.

In September of 1842 a committee led by Christian Metz traveled to America in search of land on which to relocate the Community of True Inspiration. They purchased a 5,000-acre site in western New York, near Buffalo, and by the end of 1843 nearly 350 Inspirationists had immigrated to the new settlement, which they named “Ebenezer,” meaning “hitherto hath the Lord helped us.”

From the start, in order to facilitate all members of the community to come to America and live together, all property in Ebenezer was held in common. The initial plan was that after some time the land would be divided among the people according to their contribution of money and labor. However, leaders saw that the disparity in wealth, skills and age would make it difficult for all to purchase a portion of land–the community would fall apart as a result. Therefore in 1846 a constitution was adopted which established a permanent communal system. Any debate on this was resolved when Metz spoke a divine pronouncement endorsing the communal system.

Ebenezer flourished. By 1854 the population reached 1,200 people. Six villages were established, each with mills, shops, homes, communal kitchens, schools and churches. To accommodate this growth, additional land had been purchased, but more was needed. However, the booming growth of nearby Buffalo put land prices at a premium. Furthermore, the community leaders perceived a threat from the economic development around them. It was felt that capitalist and worldly influences were bringing about a growing interest in materialism and threatened the spiritual focus of the Inspirationist community. The leadership decided it was time to move the community again–this time to the unsettled west.

Editor’s Note:  The above portion is taken from the files of the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior – (Accessed: 8/21/2015)

The Founding of the Amana Colonies

Farms and factories were established in the Buffalo, New York area. As the community of Ebenezer prospered it outgrew its land holdings. Another committee was sent to inspect the land in the state of Iowa in late 1854. There, along the Iowa River, they found acres of rich soil, good timber, water, limestone, sandstone and clay necessary for establishing a new community. The first village, Amana, was laid out in 1855. By 1863 six more villages had been established. Each had its own school, farm and craft industries to make it virtually self-sufficient. The communal way of life was continued in Amana much like it had been in Ebenezer. All property was held in common. Families were assigned housing in buildings owned by the Society. Each individual worked at a designated job. Religious life was the strong unifying factor

The new colony was originally to be named Bleibetreu, German for “remain faithful”. However, residents found difficulty properly pronouncing the word in English. Instead, the Inspirationalists settled on Amana, a Biblical name with similar meaning. Under Iowan laws, the Community had to incorporate as a business, so the Amana Society was founded as the governing body in 1859. Shortly thereafter, the Community agreed to adopt a new constitution. The resulting ten article document was very similar to the amended Ebenezer Constitution.

One early problem for the settlers was the lack of rail access; the nearest station was in Iowa City 20 miles away. However, in 1861, the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad built a railroad station in nearby Homestead. Recognizing the need for the rail connection, the Community purchased the entire village of Homestead. This brought their land holdings to 26,000 acres: 10,000 acres in timberland, 7,000 acres in cultivated fields, 4,000 acres in grazing land, 500 acres in settlements, and 100 acres in vegetable gardens. Most of the land is in Iowa County, with approximately 1,700 acres in Johnson County.

By 1862, five more villages were laid, bringing the total number to seven. Each village had between forty and one hundred houses, a church, school, bakery, dairy, wine-cellar, post office, sawmill, and general store. Every able-bodied man was expected to serve in the fire department, and each village had its own fire department. Most houses were two stories and built with local sandstone, which has an unusual hue. They are mostly square with gable roofs.

The last of the 1,200 Inspirationalist settlers from New York arrived in 1864. By 1908, the Community had grown to 1,800 and owned over $1.8 million in assets.

Life in Amana until 1932


The Great Council of the Brethren, also known as the Board of Trustees, oversaw the affairs and conduct of the Amana Society. Trustees were expected to tend to the internal affairs of the Society as well as its external business interests. Trustees were elected annually by popular vote from the Elders of the Community. The trustees would then elect out of their own a President, Vice President, and Secretary; incumbents were usually re-elected. The group met alternately in different villages on the first Tuesday of each month. Each June, the Trustees were expected to keep the Society informed of the general condition of its affairs. The Great Council also served as the high court of the Community.

Each village was governed by a group of seven to nineteen Elders. Decisions would be made for each village by a group of these Elders led by one of the Trustees. This governing board was known as the Bruderrath. Elders were selected based on their piety and spirituality. Werkzeug had the authority to appoint Elders, but at times when there were no such individuals, they were selected by the Great Council. The Bruderrath had the authority to appoint foreman for each industry. Individuals could petition the Bruderrath if they sought more money, a larger house, or a lighter work load. The Head Elder had the highest level of authority in each village, even over the Bruderrath trustee.

Individuals were provided with an annual sum of $25 to $50. This money was expected to be spent at village stores. Members who failed to budget adequately would be admonished by the Community. If the member did not mend his ways, they could be expelled by the community. Members who were expelled or voluntarily left the Community would receive all of the money they had invested into the common fund plus interest.


Originally,  marriage was only permitted “with the consent of God” though the Werkzeug. Marriage was considered an example of spiritual weakness. Ceremonies were not joyous affairs but were instead designed to impress the importance of the task upon the couple. Childbearing was similarly discouraged. Views on marriage gradually liberalized, and the Great Council was later given the authority to approve marriage. Men were not allowed to marry until they were twenty-four. If the Great Council found no fault with the union, then the couple could be wed after a years’ wait. An Elder would bless the marriage and the community would provide a wedding feast. The Community did not recognize divorce, and second marriages (even in the case of a widow) were considered particularly reprehensible. A citizen would be expelled from the community for one year if they married an individual outside of the colonies, even if the partner wished to join the society.


There was no cooking in the homes of Amana citizens; instead, citizens originally ate together in groups of thirty to forty-five. Communal kitchens, each with their own garden, hosted meals. Men would sit at one table while women and small children would sit at another. Prayers were said in German before and after meals. Meals were not considered social affairs so conversation was discouraged.

There were as many as fifty-five communal kitchens: sixteen in Amana, ten in Middle Amana, nine in Homestead, six in South and West Amana, and four in East and High Amana. The kitchen boss (German: Küchebaas) was tasked with kitchen operations: cooking, serving, preserving, and chicken husbandry. Kitchen personnel were appointed by the Bruderrat. Communal kitchens were usually large, two-story structures with an attached residence for the Küchebaas. Kitchens typically had a large brick hearth stove, a wood or coal burning oven, and a 6-foot (1.8 m) long sink. Though kitchens originally had to bring water from the nearest well, they were the first buildings to be connecting to the colony waterworks. Kitchens were named after the Küchebaas. The communal kitchen concept eroded some time around 1900, as married residents began to eat in their own homes. Food was still cooked in the communal kitchens, but housewives would take the food home. Kitchen staff and single residents still ate in the communal kitchens.

Each kitchen operated individually and had different practices. However, menus were largely standardized across the colonies to prevent any residents from receiving more than their fair share. Saturday night would offer pork sausages or pork rinds, boiled potatoes, cottage cheese with chives, bread with cream cheese, and streusel. The noon meal on Sunday was rice soup, fried potatoes, creamed spinach, boiled beef, streusel, and tea or coffee. Menus changed with the seasons; for example, more beef and pork was served in the autumn and winter because it was easier to keep fresh meat.


Common positions held by women were in the kitchens, communal gardens, and laundry, among eight occupations. Men on the other hand had 39 different jobs to choose from, including barber, butcher, tailor, machine shop worker, and doctor. Children also participated in jobs, such as harvesting and agricultural duties for boys and kitchen work for the girls. Children stayed with their mothers until they were two years old. Then, the child would have to attend Kinderschule until the age of seven. At that point, the child would attend school six days a week, all year round until the age of fourteen or fifteen. At school, they shelled, cleaned and graded seed corn, picked fruit, and studied reading, writing and arithmetic. Amana was known for its hospitality towards outsiders. Members would never turn a person in need away. They would feed and shelter homeless that would pass through on the train. Some would even be hired as laborers. They would receive good wages, a permit home for the length of their stay and three meals a day in the communal kitchen. The homeless were not the only outside help. Amana would hire many outside laborers to do industrial and agricultural jobs. They worked in the woolen shop, the calico-printing shop or one of the many others


Another important governing aspect of the society was the church, which was run by the Board of Trustees. Children and their parents worshiped together. Mothers with young children sat in the back of the church. Other children sat in the first few rows. Men and women were separated during worship: men on one side and women on the other side of the church. Older people and the “in-betweens” who were people in their thirties and forties had to attend a separate service. The service that members attended and where the members sat was a statement of their status in society. Services were held eleven times a week and did not include musical instruments and hymn singing.

Amana and the Outside World

Amana would interact with the outside world in two ways, buying and selling. Each village had a center of exchange where all goods were purchased. By the 1890s, these stores were buying a great amount of goods and raw materials from the outside world. Just Middle Amana alone had more than 732 invoices from outside companies. Amana purchased anything deemed necessary to run the society efficiently, such as raw wool, oil, grease, starch, pipes and fittings. Most of the grain was purchased from the outside for their flour-mill and the printing establishment used cotton goods from the southern states. This brings into question whether Amana was truly an economically isolated society.

The Great Change

In March 1931, in the wake of the Great Depression, the Great Council disclosed to the Amana Society that the villages were in dire financial condition. The Depression was particularly harsh in the Colony because a fire badly damaged the woolen mill and destroyed the flour mill less than ten years earlier. At the same time, Society members were seeking increased secularism so that they could have more personal freedom. The Society agreed to split into two organizations. The non-profit Amana Church Society oversaw the spiritual needs of the community while the for-profit Amana Society was incorporated as a joint-stock company. The transition was completed in 1932 and came to be known in the community as the Great Change.

Amana since the Great Change

The Amana Society, Inc., corporate heir to the land and economic assets of communal Amana, continues to own and manage some 26,000 acres of farm, pasture and forest land. Agriculture remains an important economic base today just as it was in communal times. Because the land was not divided up with the end of communalism, the landscape of Amana still reflects its communal heritage. In addition, over 450 communal-era buildings stand in the seven villages—vivid reminders of the past. On June 23, 1965, the National Park Service deemed the Amana Colonies worthy of distinction as a National Historic Landmark. When the National Register of Historic Places was founded a year later, the Colonies were automatically listed.

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: www. – (Accessed: 8/21/2015)




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