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GARDENING the Amana Way
By LAWRENCE L. RETTIG
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS Copyright © 2013 University of Iowa Press
All rights reserved.
THE COMMUNITY OF TRUE INSPIRATION
Google the word "Amana" and you'll quickly discover that it's associated with an amazing assortment of items. Falling under its rubric is an Islamic mutual fund, a collection of appliances, the name of a Hebrew mountain, a street in Honolulu, an academy in Georgia, a society, a corporation, a place in Iowa. It's the latter three in this litany that relate to our exploration of gardening in Amana.
Amana's gardening legacy is built upon a rich history that reaches back in time to the early eighteenth century. The year 1714 found Eberhard Ludwig Gruber and Johann Friedrich Rock deeply dissatisfied with the orthodox Lutheran faith in the German province of Hesse and with the clergy who expounded it. Gruber and Rock wanted a more personalized religion, one that resembled the tenets of Pietism, a popular movement sweeping Europe at the time. They believed in the divine inspiration of the Bible and, more importantly, that God could and would communicate His will through inspired prophets still today. Gruber and Rock became those prophets.
Calling themselves Inspirationists, the duo preached their doctrine of divine inspiration throughout Germany and as far south as Switzerland, founding small cells of the new sect as they went. During the remainder of the century, the movement ebbed and flowed.
The early years of a new century saw a strong and growing revival of Inspirationism. So vigorous was this renewed enthusiasm that authorities and the general citizenry often viewed the movement as a threat to established socio-religious norms. They shunned the established church and believed that God could communicate directly with them through the divine inspiration of some of the sect's leaders, called Werkzeuge (in this instance, meaning "tools of the Lord"). On occasion, Inspirationists were flogged, stoned, spat upon, or even jailed when they dared to venture out into the streets.
This persecution grew so severe that members of the sect began to abandon their homes and band together for mutual support and protection. A sympathetic prince in the province of Hesse opened his castle, the Ronneburg, to the beleaguered folk. Here they lived, gardened, and ate as a community, pooling their resources. When there was no longer room to accommodate the continuing influx of members, the community purchased other estates in the surrounding countryside to house them.
Persecution continued to be an issue, compounded in 1842 by a catastrophic crop failure. It was during this time that a new and charismatic leader, Christian Metz, arose. In one of his divine testimonies, he declared that salvation for the movement lay across the sea to the west. This was interpreted to mean the United States, most likely because large-scale emigration to the United States was in progress in Western Europe during the 1830s and 1840s. More important, though, was the fact that the United States represented the embodiment of religious tolerance.
In 1842, several leaders from the Inspirationist community set sail for the state of New York. In short order, they purchased a tract of land just west of Buffalo totaling about 5,000 acres, later acquiring 3,000 more. Progress was swift. By 1843, the elders had laid out three small villages that the increasing flow of immigrant Inspirationists soon filled to capacity.
The governing elders ultimately organized six villages as the communal Ebenezer Society, making official the lifestyle that was born of necessity in their German homeland. Elders in the new communities ruled the enterprise and assigned members to the tasks at hand. In choosing to live communally, members of the Ebenezer Society joined a growing list of communal and utopian societies taking root in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The 1800s alone produced almost 200 such endeavors. Many were ephemeral, fading from the scene in just a few years.
Ebenezer, surviving dissonance and disease, actually grew and prospered for nearly fifteen years. Elders ordered additional villages built to accommodate the continuing influx of Inspirationists from Europe. By 1854 the population topped 1,200.
As one of the main ports of entry for immigrants, the city of Buffalo was booming. This eventually posed a dilemma for the Ebenezer Society. The increase in the Society's population over the years required continued expansion, but the available land in the area had become much more expensive due to Buffalo's westward growth. Elders who ran Ebenezer also worried that the close proximity of a large city's "worldly" society would have a negative impact on the Society's morality and spirituality. Once again, the elders came to believe that salvation lay to the west.
In November of 1854, the community elders appointed an inspection committee and charged it with finding a new home for the Ebenezer Society. On one of these searches, the committee journeyed westward to Iowa City, located in the east central part of the new state of Iowa. They chose an ideal site approximately 25 miles to the west with the help of local land agents who accompanied them in their search and gave them advice. The soil in this area was extremely fertile, the bluffs above the river valley were heavily wooded, and there were sandstone outcroppings for quarrying and clay deposits suitable for brick making.
The elders soon made the official decision to move Ebenezer to Iowa. The move was a gradual one, accomplished over a period of eight years, from 1855 to 1862. In that same period, the Inspirationists' new home grew to encompass seven villages located on 26,000 acres, much of which consisted of ultra fertile farmland and lush forests. Amana was the first village built, named after a mountain mentioned in one of the biblical songs of Solomon. Five of the six other village names have the name Amana as an appendage: East Amana, High Amana, Middle Amana, South Amana, and West Amana. Homestead, the seventh village, was already named when the Inspirationists bought it. It was an outpost with a rail connection considered advantageous to the economy of the new communal enterprise.
Settling the Amanas, as the villages are called collectively, was generally an orderly process in which the elders reigned supreme over both secular and religious affairs. Residents lived in assigned quarters, ate in communal kitchens, and worked daily—with the exception of Sundays—at their assigned tasks. Each village had its own church, farm fields, farm animals, orchards, vineyards, kitchen gardens, kitchen houses, school, bakery, dairy, wine cellar, post office, sawmill, and general store. The elders located woolen mills and flour mills in the villages of Amana, Middle Amana, and West Amana.
As in Ebenezer, the elders set up an official government, producing a constitution and a new name, the Amana Society. During the next seven decades from 1855 to 1932, the members of the Society lived a simple, religious, communal life of isolation. Farms, factories, stores, crafts, and communal gardens prospered.
A typical day in the life of Amana Society residents, during this time, began with breakfast at the communal kitchen to which elders assigned them, with about forty members to each kitchen. Then it was off to the assigned tasks for the day. That might be preparing the rest of the daily meals; hauling manure to the fields; planting and tending crops; making baskets, tin ware, or pottery; smoking meats; tailoring clothes; doing leather work; making cherry and walnut furniture; or working in the woolen and flour mills or in the calico factory. There was generally a work and food break at mid-morning and again after the noon meal at mid-afternoon. During the growing season, workers in the fields and in the kitchen gardens got special attention from the kitchen sisters, who prepared their snacks delivered by horse and wagon to wherever the laborers happened to be located in the fields.
After the evening meal, the day wasn't yet over. Elders conducted prayer meetings every evening at various locations around each village. There were also religious services in the main church building on Wednesday and Amana Villages showing Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens location. Sunday mornings and sometimes in the afternoons as well. Not counting religious holiday observances, there were generally eleven services in each village every week.
It's important to note that life in the Amanas was definitely not all work and church attendance with no play. In the spring, summer, and fall, members went on picnics, went fishing, gathered bouquets of wild flowers, and took long walks in the countryside during their spare time. The more adventurous among the younger men went swimming in the various ponds, in the seven-mile-long millrace built by the colonists to power woolen mills and smaller enterprises, and in the Iowa River that meandered through the valley. In the winter there was ice-skating, sled riding, and gliding about in a horse-drawn sleigh. The whole year through, the kitchen workers sang as they worked. The men sang in choruses called Sängerbunde and did wood-crafting, and everyone read books—primarily the Bible, the testimonies of the Werkzeuge, and other religious works printed by the Print Shop in Middle Amana. Nonreligious reading was available, but only in school books and in a few other more secular materials passed on from family to family.
The list of leisure time activities wouldn't be complete without a word about baseball, originally a forbidden leisure time activity. As part of the youth rebellion of the 1920s, young men played the game surreptitiously on makeshift diamonds in the woods. Eventually, community elders dropped their opposition, and the first real ball field appeared in Middle Amana in the late 1920s.
The heavily structured society changed little during this period. But a changing world outside the confines of this isolated society eventually broke down its barriers. New technologies like the automobile, the telephone, and the radio represented serious challenges to the secluded Amana Society.
By the 1920s, visitors in automobiles were flocking to the Amanas—breaching the Society's social barriers—to spend the day among these quaint folks who dressed in dark clothing and called each other Bruder and Schwester (brother and sister). Following an old Germanic dictate that visitors must be welcomed, fed, and housed if necessary, word soon spread through the region about these gracious folks, their wonderful food served in their communal kitchen houses, the quaint architecture, and the bucolic setting.
The proverbial Pandora's Box had been opened. Although the village elders—charged with seeing to both the spiritual and the physical needs of their fellow members—tried to stem the flow, it was not to be. The younger members, especially, liked what they saw. Compared to the colorful clothing that visitors wore, their dark pants, dresses, and suits—standard issue in the Society—seemed drab and lifeless. Female visitors with bobbed hair drew the interest of the Society's younger women.
It wasn't long before members realized that a little forbidden capitalism would earn them pocket money. They sold visitors fruit from their trees and gardens or perhaps a piece of beautiful walnut furniture that they could do without. A parlor organ or a crystal radio set might then mysteriously appear in the family living room. Hard feelings began to grow between the haves and the have-nots.
By the mid-1920s, it was obvious to almost everyone that the communal lifestyle was seriously threatened. Young folks yearned for the standard of living they observed outside their community's borders. Eventually, it came to open rebellion. Even though it was considered a sin to do so, young women began to bob their hair. Young men often refused to work, saying they were ill and couldn't carry out their assigned duties.
Village elders worked long and hard to find a solution. They realized that maintaining the society that they established so long ago in Ebenezer was no longer an option. Too many factors worked against that option: loss of charismatic leadership, gradual abandonment of the philosophy of isolation from the outside world, and financial problems aggravated by social unrest locally and a deepening economic depression nationally. On June 1, 1932, the old order came to an end. Put to a vote by the Society's adult population, a new plan was approved by over 90 percent of the voters.
Gone were the Gardebaas, the Kichebaas, the Farm Mennetscher, and their staffs mentioned in chapter 3. A far more secular society came into being, almost the antithesis of the communal life members had led. The old society morphed into one that was a joint stock corporation organized for profit. The new corporation issued shares to members over the age of twenty-one, according to the number of years they had served the communal enterprise. Another share, the Class A share, was restricted to a single share per person. It served as the voting share and assured that no one person or group could buy up shares and gain control of the corporation. Tacked onto this share was a holdover from the communal life that provided the bearer with free medical, dental, and burial services.
Known as the Great Change, this venture transformed the Amana lifestyle forever. For the first time in Inspirationist history, the new Articles of Incorporation separated church and state. The newly formed Amana Society, Inc., served as the corporate entity, and the new Amana Church Society continued to serve the spiritual needs of the community. Services were still conducted in German, and women continued to wear their traditional black church garb: a cap that tied under the chin, an apron, and a shawl.
This radical transformation was just what the people needed. Men who refused to work due to illness experienced miraculous recoveries. They sought out jobs in the new corporation or commuted to nearby Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. Cashing in nonvoting shares plus a steady hourly wage allowed them and the rest of their compatriots to purchase automobiles and the houses and lots where they were already living during the Great Change. They had to set up kitchens in their homes since the communal kitchens closed when the new order took effect.
Private enterprises that weren't part of the new corporation began to appear in the various villages. Perhaps the most notable was Amana Refrigeration, Inc., a producer of appliances founded by Amana native George Foerstner. Both Amana Refrigeration, Inc., and the Amana Society, Inc., had their ups and downs. Although neither one much resembles its earlier corporate image, both are still in business today.
The modern Amana Society corporation split its Class A stock one hundred to one in 1972, the new shares no longer bearing the privilege of free medical, dental and burial services. Old Class A shares were still honored, but new issues no longer carried those benefits. From time to time, it has divested itself of a business operating under its umbrella but has also added new ones. Foerstner's Amana appliance factory has been sold numerous times since its founding. At the time of this writing, it's owned by the Whirlpool Corporation, considered the world's leading manufacturer and marketer of major home appliances.
And what of the people who call the Amana villages home today? They lead lives very similar to people in other small towns and villages across the country. The population numbers have remained remarkably steady over the years, fluctuating between 1,500 and 1,800, currently at approximately 1,700. What has changed is the composition of that population. "Outsiders," as Amana natives tend to call them (though generally without any derogatory connotation), make up a good portion of today's Amana villages. Marriages to outsiders, the pursuit of higher education, and the search for good, meaningful jobs have depleted the native population. Actually, outsiders generally embrace Amana's culture, both present and past. They're often active in preserving and promoting both cultures.
It's important to note that the arts (especially painting in various media) have blossomed in the post-communal era as have music and numerous crafts. I find it amazing that so many artistic talents had lain dormant in communal Amana and now have found their expression in the post-1932 culture. Outsiders have contributed to this trend, adding their artistic interpretations of Amana as well as pursuing their favorite crafts and learning new ones.
As I write this, the economy here is subdued, as it is across the whole country. Amana Society, the corporation, paid no dividends this year as a result. But tourists still visit in droves, and the countryside in this lush river valley is as beautiful as ever. All pastures and forestland owned by the Amana Society comprise a game preserve that supports a wealth of plant and animal life. Those erstwhile communal garden plots today support lots of grassy lawns and pastures, flowers common to everyday gardening in the Midwest, and a smattering of vegetable gardens.
Excerpted from GARDENING the Amana Way by LAWRENCE L. RETTIG. Copyright © 2013 University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS.
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