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By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on April 6, 2019


A Brief History of Amana, the Cultural Milieu into Which I was Born


The story of Amana begins in the province of Hessen, Germany, in the year 1714.  In that year the Pietistic Movement gained two enthusiastic new adherents:  Eberhard Ludwig Gruber and Johann Friedrich Rock.  They felt a deep dissatisfaction with the orthodox Lutheran faith and the clergy who expounded it.  Like other Pietists, they believed implicitly in the divine inspiration of the Bible and felt that human spokesmen could still today reveal the divine will of God.


Together with others who shared their religious beliefs, Gruber and Rock founded a new sect based on the promise that God could and would reveal His wishes and guide His children by messages transmitted through inspired prophets.  These prophets, called Werkzeuge (tools), were regarded as passive instruments, directed solely by the hands of God.


Calling themselves “Inspirationists,” the sect began to preach their doctrine of divine inspiration throughout Germany and Switzerland.  The movement had its ups and downs during the remainder of the century.  In the early 1800s, the group experienced a revival.  Paralleling this revival was an increase in the degree and incidence of persecution by various governmental bodies and the general populace. For their mutual protection, Inspirationists from all areas of Germany soon began to band together in the relatively tolerant province of Hessen.  The group occupied much of the space in the Ronneburg Castle near Büdingen and in several other leased estates in the surrounding countryside.


Religious and political persecution became increasingly hard to bear and the cost of land to accommodate the influx of members became more and more exorbitant.  Finally, through the divine testimony of Christian Metz, the charismatic new leader of the Inspirationists, it was made known that salvation lay across the sea to the west.  In 1842, several community leaders set out for New York. They purchased a tract of land near Buffalo and by 1843, three small villages (there would eventually be six) had been laid out and occupied by emigrating Inspirationists.  The new community was organized as the Ebenezer Society.


Choosing to live communally, the Society became one of many other communal and utopian societies founded in the United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  During the 1800s alone, almost one hundred individual communitarian/utopian settlements took root in American soil.  Many faltered, however, and disappeared from the scene within the span of a few years.


For nearly twenty years the Ebenezer Society grew and prospered.  But in the end the old problem of lack of land and the money to pay for it returned to haunt the colonists.  In November of 1854 an inspection committee journeyed westward to the new state of Iowa.  Of all the available lands they saw, a tract along the Iowa River, approximately twenty miles west of Iowa City, pleased them most.  During the next ten years, the Ebenezer Society was gradually moved to Iowa, where its holdings increased to 26,000 acres.


The new community in Iowa was named the Amana Society and consisted of seven villages:  Amana, East Amana, Middle Amana , High Amana, West Amana, South Amana, and Homestead.  For over seventy years the Amana people lived a simple communal life of religious isolation.  Their farms and factories prospered.


But a growing Amana soon wrought inevitable changes within the Society.  William Miller, Society druggist at the time, summed up these changes with great insight when he observed that “the first generation has an idea and lives for that idea.  The second generation perpetuates that idea for the sake of their fathers, but their hearts are not in it.  The third generation openly rebels against the task of mere perpetuation of institutions founded by their grandfathers.  It’s always the same with people.”


Strong influences for the outside were making serious inroads as well.  The coming of the automobile, the telephone, the radio, and other modern agencies of communication made it impossible to maintain isolation.


On June 1, 1932, after eighty-nine years of communal life, the old religiously-oriented order came to an end.  A new, far more secular society was born when over ninety percent of the members voted to form a joint stock corporation organized for profit. This event, known as the “Great Change,” transformed Amana forever.  The church no longer governed the secular affairs of the community and became known as the Amana Church Society to distinguish it from the newly-secularized Amana Society.  Members over twenty-one years of age were issued shares of stock according to the number of years of service they had provided to the old communal society.  With these shares, members could purchase the homes they occupied and the other necessities required by a radically changed lifestyle.  In addition adult members received one Class A voting share, which entitled them not only to vote, but to free medical and dental care and covered all expenses associated with burial.


New businesses not associated with the Amana Society began to spring up in the various villages, since the new order did not prohibit private enterprise.  Perhaps the most well-known of these businesses was and is Amana Refrigeration, Inc.  Begun shortly after the Great Change by Amana native George Foerstner, it is currently owned by Whirlpool.


Today, the Amana Society is a successful corporation which issues revised shares of Class A stock that no longer provide medical, dental, and burial benefits.  However, these new shares are available not only to Amana residents, but to all interested persons.  The seven villages are populated by native Amana folk and “outsiders” as well.  The church continues to evolve as new generations and new ideas take hold.  Services on Sunday mornings are conducted in both English and German.  They retain such original practices as acapella hymn singing, lay preachers, and the separation of men and women in the sanctuary.

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About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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