Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Amana Colonies

The United States has hosted a variety of religious communities over the centuries. Some, like the Amish and Mennonites, have endured over the years; other, like the Shakers, no longer exist.

In Iowa County, Iowa, the Amana Colonies represent a type of communities which not only had a religious nature, but also an interest in economic systems. The Amana Colonies are neither Amish, nor Mennonite, nor Shaker.

Like many religious communities, the Amana Colonies have their roots in Europe and are the result of immigration. Officially titled the ‘Community of True Inspiration,’ they trace their founding to northwestern Germany, when, in the year 1714, the preaching of Friedrich Camisard was organized by two leaders, Jhann Rock and Eberhard Gruber, into a series of congregations.

In 1817, a second wave of leaders - Michael Krausert, Barbara Heinemann, and Christian Metz - gave new momentum to the movement, especially in the regions of Alsace, Hesse, and the Palatinate. The followers developed a separatist lifestyle, refusing to send their children to government schools, swear allegiance to the government, or engage in military activity.

Tired of government oppression, the group began to emigrate in 1842, settling near Buffalo, New York, and organizing themselves under the name ‘Ebenezer Society’ in 1843. In 1855, they relocated to Iowa, purchasing 26,000 acres of land and developing what would eventually become the seven villages known as Amana Colonies. Historian Leon D. Adams writes:

The Amanas and their wines are something out of another world. The colonies are seven Old World villages on the banks of the Iowa River ten miles north of Interstate 80, eighteen miles southwest of Cedar Rapids. An eighteenth-century German communistic and religious sect called The Community of the True Inspiration came here in 1854 from Ebenezer, New York, purchased 25,000 acres of virgin prairie, and built a utopia named Amana, a biblical word meaning “remain true.” Three more colonies, Middle, West, and South Amana, were built two miles apart, an hour’s travel by ox team. High and Upper South Amana were added in between, and the small town of Homestead was purchased outright.

When historians describe the Amana Colonies as ‘communist,’ the reader must understand that this was long before the times of Lenin and Stalin. The word ‘communism’ had not yet taken on the connotations of the oppressive and militant atheism which figured so prominently in the twentieth century.

Instead, the Amanas instituted a pacifistic and spiritual communism, modeled in part after the earliest followers of Jesus. They officially incorporated their organization in Iowa as the ‘Amana Society’ in 1859. Leon D. Adams continues:

Communism survived here for almost three generations. Everything was owned by the Amana Society; the members worked without pay in the mills, shops, and and fields and had their meals together in communal kitchens. But in 1932 the Depression threatened them with bankruptcy, and communism was forsaken for capitalism. The colonists became stockholders of a corporation which paid them wages, and capitalism worked: one of the colonies’ several industries, Amana Refrigeration, has become the biggest maker of home freezers in the world.

The change in economic system did not change the spiritual beliefs and practices of the colonies. They do not baptize in any way, and regard sacraments as purely symbolic.

They have adapted well to modern economic patterns. Their location on a major east-west highway is well suited for the tourism industry.

The five tiny Amana wineries make Piestengel and grape wines in the basements of the owners’ homes. Piestengel is rhubarb wine; the word means pie stalk in German. It comes both dry and sweet, white and pink, and usually doesn’t taste of rhubarb; it has a flavor of its own. Nine tenths of Amana wine is sold to tourists, who taste and buy it in the cellars and drink it in the local restaurants.

In 1973, when Leon D. Adams wrote his account of the Amana Colonies, wine production in Iowa was low, prices for wine were low, and the state government intensely regulated the sale of wine. At that time, Adams wrote:

The tourists are happy to pay six dollars a gallon for the Amana product - double the price of many standard wines - because, in the rest of Iowa, wine to take home can only be bought in the state monopoly liquor stores. A special section of the Iowa law, adopted when Prohibition was repealed, allows the native wineries to sell their homemade wines to anyone, but they are not sold in the state stores. Most Amana wines are labeled “other than standard wine” because to reach their usual 16 percent alcoholic content more sugar must be added than Federal wine regulations allow.

Starting in the mid-1940s, two herbicides or weedkillers known as “2,4-D” and “2,3,5-T” came into use. One sad side effect of these two agents was that they killed a number of types of grapevines, including some of those used to make wine.

In the old days each Amana colony had its communal winery, which provided each family with a daily allowance of wine. Workers in the fields received an extra portion at three each afternoon. “Our village winery was under our church,” recalls Friedrich Ackerman, who owns the South Amana Winery. “But our elders ordered all the barrels emptied when Prohibition became the law in 1920, and the wine ran in ditches for hours.” The vineyards were abandoned during the 1920s, and when the wineries reopened at Repeal, they got their grapes from a vineyard near Fort Madison on the Mississippi. Then the Fort Madison vineyard was ruined by 2,4-D, and most of the grapes since have come from Fred Baxter’s vineyard across the river at Nauvoo.

While the grape sources are important for Amana’s wines, the colonies also produce fruit and rhubarb wines.

One Amana winery has its own vineyard because Ramon and Bette Goerler, who own the Old Wine Cellar Winery, believe they should grow their own grapes as their forebears did. Goerler, a Navy veteran and a graduate of the University of Iowa, planted the vineyard in 1966, six acres of Fredonia, Concord, and Beta grapes a mile north of town.

Writing as he did in 1973, Adams reported the production levels at that time:

In 1880, when the national census of winegrowing was taken, Iowa produced 334,970 gallons of wine, thirteen times as much as the 26,000 the state produces today.

Happily, things have improved in Iowa since then. In 2008, the state produced 186,700 gallons of wine; in 2009 it produced 212,891 gallons; and it 2012 it produced between 243,571 and 296,900 gallons.