Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Visiting the Amana Colonies

Stone house in Amana, Iowa
The Amana Colonies were founded in the mid-19th century by a breakaway sect of German Lutherans who believed in "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" -- without any influence from Karl Marx.

They established seven towns in east-central Iowa and operated them within a completely communalist system for nearly 80 years. Families shared houses; all cooking was done in communal kitchens; parents worked on the farms or in community-owned industries for no pay, but instead received credit at the town's retail establishments. Children aged 1–7 were cared for in a centralized nursery.

Black and white photo of horses on a dirt street, front yards with wooden fences and vegetable gardens, clapboard houses
The main street in 19th century Amana, showing the front yards used as vegetable gardens.
German language ballot
The Great Change ballot,
which was written in German.
It has now been 80 years since the Amana members voted in 1932 for what they call "the Great Change." The vote ended communalism and established a joint stock corporation to share the enterprises, but  separated business from the church and family finances, so that people were paid for their work and everyone cooked for themselves.

When I read the Wikipedia entry about Amana before visiting, it seemed to me that 1932 was an odd time to make such a change. My recollection of the Wikipedia's explanation of the Great Change was that there had been a crash in demand for Amana-made fabrics during the Depression. In the short film shown at the Amana history museum, however, that wasn't mentioned as a reason. Instead, the film emphasized a fire that destroyed their mills during the 1920s. Uninsured against the loss, the industries never recovered.

But a third reason stands out the most in the Amana museum's displays. According to one placard,
Many adults, realizing that they would be provided with food and clothing whether or not they worked, feigned illness or simply refused to work. Many members simply lacked the commitment to the original communal and religious ideals that had been held by their parents and grandparents. In order to continue to manage the farms and businesses, Society leaders were forced to hire an increasing number of workers by the early 1930s.
Younger members of the community, particularly, were influenced by contact with the outside world, even though they didn't have radio. (Rural electrictrification reached Amana in 1936.) The automobile and influxes of tourists put them in touch in ways their parents had not experienced. In the 1920s, young girls would sneak off to one of the non-Amana towns to get their hair bobbed. And "many young people wanted to attend school beyond the eight grades provided by the Society's schools."

The results of the Amana experiment are hard to ignore: In the midst of plenty, people aren't willing to sustain a restricted way of life, even if it does provide for their basic needs. As another placard in the museum put it,
The Amana reorganization was noted across the United States. During the Great Depression, some individuals sought alternatives to the existing economic system of the United States. Individuals who were concerned that one alternative would be a communist system similar to that in the Soviet Union cited Amana as proof that any communistic system would fail. Others, advocating moderate change, saw in the restructured Amana Society a possible model for other rural farming communities.
Today, Amana appears to be primarily a tourist enterprise, though farming and appliance manufacturing are still part of the picture. I'm not sure if it's shrinking, like most of rural Iowa and rural America, or if it's holding its own.

In the museum, there is a collection of art and written notes from Amana school children, created in 2003. One note was particularly poignant for me, given my tendency to romanticize the original goals of Amana's founders:
My Town

I think living in Amana is OK except it needs a Walmart/Mall. I would like it better [with] less tourists. And it needs less Antique shops. Other than that I love school and the town is great! Also the prices need to be a little lower.

It needs a theme park and a cellular center or a huge dome and a Coral Ridge mall/Mall of America.
Child's note with drawings of a clock tower and a domed building

1 comment:

Ms Sparrow said...

What interesting perspectives! Thanks for sharing.