Iowa: Amana Colonies

The Amana Colonies are the longest-surviving utopian community in the United States. They consist of Amana, Middle Amana, South Amana, High Amana, East Amana, West Amana, and Homestead. The Amana Colonies are a National Historic Landmark.

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The Amana Colonies are the most successful of the several utopian communities founded in the United States during the nineteenth century. The Amana Colonies, originally known as the Community of True Inspiration, are the only nineteenth century utopian community still in existence. The Inspirationalists, as the community members were known, faced persecution in their native Germany in the eighteenth century for their rejection of traditional Lutheran religious doctrines. Eventually the Inspirationalists settled in Iowa, erecting seven villages laid out on 26,000 acres. The architecture is simple and functional, with each village having a linear arrangement. The Amana Colonies were reorganized in 1932 under the Amana Society, and they were listed as a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

History of the Community of True Inspiration

The history of the Amana Colonies began in 1714 in southwestern Germany. Johann Friedrich Rock and Eberhard Ludwig Gruber began attracting followers to their nontraditional doctrines and broke from the Lutheran Church. Rock and Gruber believed that God revealed himself through intermediaries, either prophets or inspired persons. Gruber was a member of the Lutheran clergy and Rock the son of a Lutheran clergyman. Both men were disenchanted by the direction of the Lutheran Church when they started to meditate together. Gruber and Rock believed that divine guidance came through certain individuals endowed with a “miraculous gift of Inspiration.” Through these Werkzeuges, as these individuals were called, the Lord spoke directly to his followers. Werkzeuges were considered passive instruments in the hands of the Lord. This doctrine is still known as the Community of True Inspiration, although there have been no Werkzeuges since 1883.

The followers of Gruber and Rock preached their message throughout Germany, Switzerland, Holland, and other European countries. Because the followers of Rock and Gruber did not believe in baptism, desired their own school system, and refused to bear arms for Prussia, they faced persecution in their homeland. Despite the public castigation, the number of followers began to multiply. At times they sought refuge by renting large estates in Ronneburg in the province of Hessen, since that province possessed the most liberal government in eighteenth century Germany. However, the Inspirationalists faced persecution there as well. French troops and Russians constantly plundered their property.

The plundering took its toll, as did the deaths of the original leaders. Gruber died in 1728 and Rock in 1749, causing a decline in membership around the mid-eighteenth century. By the beginning of the nineteenth century only a few large congregations remained. Gottlieb Schneuner, a contemporary writer, suggested that there were other factors that contributed to the society’s decline. The preaching styles of the current elders, the fact that persecution had ended, and the general upheaval in Europe at the time that impaired communication networks all negatively affected the number of followers. The decline continued until 1817, when Michael Krausert became Werkzeuge. Krausert was a journeyman tailor from Strasbourg who, seeking inspiration, found the writings of Rock. According to tradition, a revival ensued after the Lord spoke to Krausert and he started preaching the doctrines of the Inspirationalists. A few months after Krausert’s conversion, Christian Metz, a carpenter, and Barbara Heinemann, a servant maid, also received the “gift of Inspiration” and became Werkzeuges. This revival threatened the established authority, and once again the Inspirationalists faced persecution. There was also internal conflict, as the elders were hostile to Krausert, and he soon left the community. Metz and Heinemann then assumed leadership of the community, reorganizing the followers of what was now known as the New Community.

Heinemann became a powerful influence in the community, although she had started as only an uneducated servant. She sought out the community after seeing visions; the community hesitated before allowing her in their circle. She learned to read with the Bible as her textbook. Still, Heinemann, because she was an outsider, was at one point banished from the community for marrying someone from outside the community. Twenty-six years later, she was again summoned by the Lord, and she stayed with the community until her death in 1883. During the time when Heinemann was absent, Christian Metz, a native of the community, was endowed with the “gift of Inspiration” and became the spiritual leader upon the group’s relocation to Iowa. A man of commanding presence and pietism, Metz was greatly revered within the community along with Heinemann.

Still facing milder forms of persecution, the members had two alternatives: return to Lutheranism or leave the country. Once again, the community flocked to Hessen. Metz founded a colony here at the cloister of Marienborn. Three other estates were soon used as refuges, and it was the proximity of the groups that dictated the need for communal living. The Inspirationalists prospered until war broke out in Europe, bringing about a need for men to serve in the army. In addition, landlords increased rents to raise money for war. These conditions were exacerbated by a drought. During this time it was revealed to Christian Metz that he would lead them to a land where they could live in peace and liberty. In 1842 the Inspirationalists set sail for the New World.

The Community of True Inspiration in the New World

Arriving in New York, the group journeyed to Albany and then to Buffalo. The Inspirationalists purchased five thousand acres of land from the Seneca Indians and established four colonies in America and two in Canada. These colonies became known as the Ebenezer Society. In 1843, although it was not originally part of its religious doctrine, the Ebenezer Society adopted a provisional constitution in which the members agreed to organize as a communitarian society to signify their unification in a new land. The constitution provided that all the clothing and household goods should be held in common, while the prosperous members were to cover all expenses, receiving a proportionate share of the whole as security. This constitution would be virtually the same one adopted at Amana less than two decades later. At the time of the constitution’s establishment, the Inspirationalist community was decidedly not communal. The intention of the community was to live simply as a Christian congregation. Originally, members were to pay into a fund; each person would receive a share of the land proportional to his or her contribution. Soon it was evident that the economic disparity between members prohibited some from purchasing land. Sheer necessity dictated that the Inspirationalists form a communal society.

Eight hundred members moved to America, most from the artisan and peasant classes. The Seneca Indians were at first hostile to them, and the group had to acquire assistance from the U.S. government to expel them. The society prospered, but the acreage was not large enough to support its growing numbers. The society’s mills and factories had gained a reputation in the outside world, and by 1854 the society realized the necessity of relocating. Christian Metz led a committee of four elders west to Kansas, but they did not achieve their goal of finding suitable land. A new committee was then formed that purchased an eighteen thousand-acre tract in Iowa.

The Amana Colonies

The colony began a ten-year removal, ultimately increasing the size of its holdings to twenty-six thousand acres. Amana, or Bleibe Treu (German for “remain faithful”), was the first village erected in 1855. West Amana, South Amana, High Amana, East Amana, and Middle Amana followed. Homestead was purchased for its link to the railroad in 1861, a cause of concern because of outside influences. Twelve hundred persons relocated to Iowa and settled in these towns that were designed much like German villages, with forty to one hundred houses arranged in a linear pattern and few streets extending off the main road. Barns and sheds occupied one end of town and factories the other, with orchards and gardens throughout. Of the town’s twenty-six thousand acres, five hundred were occupied by factories and villages, one hundred by gardens and orchards, ten thousand by timberland, seven thousand by cultivated fields, and four thousand by grazing land. Hotels became a necessity after curious travelers began to visit the Amana Colonies in the mid-nineteenth century.

In 1859, the Community of True Inspiration was incorporated under Iowa law as the Amana Society, adopting a constitution similar to that of the Ebenezer Society. The declared purpose of the society was to serve God “according to His law and His requirements in our own consciences, and thus to work out the salvation of our souls, through the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ, in self-denial, in the obedience to our faith and in the demonstration of our faithfulness in the inward and outward service of our community.” The Inspirationalists formed the Amana Society to preside over all secular and sacred functions of the Colonies. This elective body of thirteen elders was the high court of appeal for all disputes and constituted the Great Council of the Brethren–the high governing authority in spiritual affairs. Each village was governed by a board of seven to nineteen elders who supervised the work in the village according to the mandates of the Great Council and the Board of Trustees.

The Inspirationalists’ belief in humility and functionalism is evident in the structures that they erected. Many were built between 1850 and 1880, and most continue to be used today. The buildings are very similar in style: two stories in height, sturdy, rectangular, with gabled roofs, and made of brick, clapboard, or sandstone. Decoration is minimal except for porches or wooden hoods over doorways, simple brick hoodmoulds, and sills on the windows, all painted white. Most of the houses retain their original gardens, and many have wooden trellises attached to the walls.

Needing water to power their woolen mills, the Inspirationalists dug their own six-mile-long canal that gave them access to the Iowa River. Each village was self-supporting, having its own farm department, bakery, slaughterhouse, ice house, store, blacksmith shop, wagonmaker shop, harness shop, and other necessities for a rural farm economy. There was a degree of specialization in some of the villages: Amana, Homestead, and Middle Amana each had a pharmacy, and Middle Amana had a printing office. Food for the communities was prepared in large, communal kitchens, and each village had a church building. The church was the focal point of each village, located in the center of town. Women and men sat on opposite sides during the church ceremonies, which today are still conducted in German. Masses have retained their original form since 1714, with no musical accompaniment and communion services held every two years. As many as eleven church services a week were held until 1961.

The community kitchens were probably the largest buildings in the villages. The rooms accommodated thirty to fifty people at a time, and bakeries were often located next door. Agricultural buildings were clustered at the ends of the villages. These buildings were framed, clapboarded, shingled, and painted white. Outside each village was the village cemetery, protected by pine trees. Members were buried in the order of their death. Each family was assigned a living quarters, where they could keep such personal property as they were permitted to acquire with their small allowances. All the men and women worked for the society, either in farming or in smaller industries.

Men’s clothing was made by the village tailor; historians describe the clothing as “plain.” Women made their own dresses in dark blue, black, or what is known as Amana calico. The waist and skirt were sewn together in a wide band, with the skirt very full. Women wore a small black cap and a shawl to cover the body. The only headdress was a sunbonnet in summer and a wool hood in the winter. Marriages had to be blessed by the Werkzeuge.

In their industrial and agricultural organization, the Amana Colonists took advantage of mechanization and most modern scientific methods in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Board of Trustees had ultimate power over the agricultural work. A field boss reported to the board. The agricultural products were mostly ryes, barley, oats, corn, potatoes, and onions. The Inspirationalists raised livestock and dairy products not for the market but only for consumption by the community. Despite their willingness to use technology, the Inspirationalists used oxen for heavy hauling well into the twentieth century. Perhaps the best known of the Amana products was the woolens. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Inspirationalists had 3,000 sheep producing wool, and 4,500 yards of calico were printed every day. The woolen mills were the only industry that actively employed women.

The Amana Society and the Amana Colonies Today

Fulfilling the needs of the community was the primary objective of the Amana Society. By 1932 the Inspirationalists realized that the increasingly modern world demanded a reorganization of their communal way of life. Secular and sacred affairs were segregated as the communal kitchens, bakeries, and washhouses were abandoned and the Inspirationalists organized the Amana Society as a joint stock company. Each member received stock entitling him or her to one vote, as well as shares proportional to the member’s length of service. Families received free medical and dental care for their families as long as they continued to work for the society.

Today the Amana Society manages Iowa’s largest farm and private forest, in addition to its businesses. Each village has numerous restored restaurants and shops selling traditional German crafts and food. Some of these are the Amana Furniture Shop, Amana Woolen Mill, Amana Meat Shops, Amana Stone Hearth Bakery, Amana General Store, and Amana General Store Appliances. The majority of these businesses are located in the original buildings, though they have been modified for their current uses. Three nineteenth century buildings in Amana house the Museum of Amana History, while the Community Church Museum and the Communal Agriculture Museum are in Homestead and South Amana, respectively.

For Further Information

  • Neubauer, Allyn, ed. The Amana Colonies: Featuring Seven Historic Villages. Amana, Iowa: Amana Society, 1999.
  • Schroer, Blanche E. Amana Colonies. National Historic Landmark Form. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1976.
  • Shambaugh, Bertha M. Amana: The Community of True Inspiration. Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa, 1908.
  • Strohman, James. Amana Colonies Guide to Dining, Lodging, and Tourism. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1997.