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    Does anyone out there remember what it was like before the world of microwaves? When they first came out, my mother got one right away. At first, she used it for heating water for tea and warming leftover soup or vegetables. She was afraid to use it for much else. They were so expensive at first, I couldn’t afford one as a young bride and mother. But every time I watched “Let’s Make A Deal” on television, I dreamed of winning the door with a microwave behind it.

    This summer, I discovered the Amana Colonies, a historic utopian society located in the rolling hills of Iowa's River Valley. The Amana Colonies were established shortly before the Civil War by a group of German-speaking European settlers who belonged to a religious group known as the Community of True Inspiration. Fast forward to 1934 when Amana native, George C. Foerstner founded The Electrical Equipment Co. to make walk-in coolers. Later owned by the Amana Society, it was renamed Amana Refrigeration, Inc., and then became a division of the Raytheon Corporation. Fast forward a bit more to 1946 when engineer Dr. Percy LeBaron Spencer accidently discovered microwave radiation when his candy bar melted during radar research with magnetrons. Thus, the Amana Radarange Microwave Oven was born. After perfecting his product, it was introduced to the general public in 1967. Our cooking production hasn’t been the same since. 

    There are seven villages included in the Amana Colonies. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, there are more than 30 historic places that illustrate the fascinating history of one of the longest lasting communal societies in the world. Today they are known for preserving and sharing that history of the colonies along with locally crafted foods, gifts, furniture and art. It’s a great place to shop for unusual gifts or souvenirs.

    The Amana Colonies Visitors Center located in the main village of Amana is the best place to start. Housed in a restored corn crib, there are friendly staff members to help with directions and questions. Visitor guides, maps and brochures of the area businesses as well as menus from restaurants are provided.

    They directed us to the Amana Heritage Museum where a 20-minute video tells about life in Amana from the 18th century Germany to the present. The German Pietists were persecuted by the German state government and local church. So they purchased a 5,000-acre site in western New York, near Buffalo. By the end of 1843 nearly 350 Inspirationists had immigrated to the new settlement and named it "Ebenezer," meaning "hitherto hath the Lord helped us." Ebenezer flourished and by 1854, the population reached 1,200. Six villages were established, each with mills, shops, homes, communal kitchens, schools and churches. To accommodate this growth, additional land had been purchased, but more was needed. With no more land available because of nearby Buffalo, they again relocated further west to Iowa where they began another communal system of living in seven different villages, and encompassing over 20,000 acres of land.

    The area offered extensive timberland, quarries for limestone and sandstone and long stretches of prairie filled with rich, black soil. Construction of the first village began in the summer of 1855 and the new settlement was named "Amana," meaning "believe faithfully." The villages were spaced just a few miles apart, roughly in the shape of a rectangle, and were named according to their location: the original Amana, West, South, East, High, Middle and Homestead.

    All members of the community shared in its economic success. The community provided each family with a home and all necessities of life. No one received a cash income. Rather, everyone was given an annual purchase allowance at the general store where goods were priced at cost. Medical care was provided free by the community. In return, each person was expected to work and was assigned a job by the community elders based on the needs of the community as well as the talents of the individual.

    The Amana villages each consisted of 40 to 100 buildings. The barns and agricultural buildings were always clustered at the village edge. Orchards, vineyards and gardens encircled the villages. Typical houses were rectangular two-story buildings of wood post-and-beam construction, brick, or sandstone. Each village had its own church, school, bakery, dairy, wine cellar, craft shops and general store. There were also a number of communal kitchens in each village where groups of about 30-40 people ate their meals.

    The Inspirationists established mills and shops according to their old-world skills. Amana's woolen and calico factories were among the first in Iowa and quickly gained a national reputation for superior quality goods. At the turn of the 21st century, the Community of True Inspiration is approaching its 300th year of existence although the Amana of today differs from that of a century before. By the 1930s, the communal system in Amana had generated stresses which it could not resolve. Many community members found the rules associated with communal living to be petty and overly restrictive. On June 1st, 1932, the members elected to retain the traditional church as it was, and to create a joint-stock company (Amana Society, Inc.) for the business enterprises to be operated for profit by a Board of Directors. This separation of the church from the economic functions of the community--the abandonment of communalism--is referred to by Amana residents still today as "the Great Change."

    The most widely known business that emerged from the Amana Society is Amana Refrigeration, Inc. a national leader in the production of refrigerators. The first beverage cooler, designed for a businessman in nearby Iowa City in 1934, was built by skilled craftsmen at the Middle Amana woolen mill. In the decades that followed, the mill became the site of this large, now private, plant producing refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, and in 1967 introduced their new product--the Amana Radarange Microwave Oven. It originally sold for $495. Now celebrating its 50th birthday, the 19th-century woolen mill smoke stack still rises over the modern plant.

    Other places to visit are the Amana Colonies Antiques Shop, located just across from the Visitors Center housed in an original Amana communal kitchen. There are seven different rooms filled with primitives, toy, quilts and household items. Amazing Grace Antiques and Gifts is located next to the bakery on the Main Street. The Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse is the traditional shop just like when the villages first began and families all ate together in the kitchen houses.  Sample the delicious homemade sausages and other Amana foods while shopping. Take home a jar of the peach or blackberry preserves with an old-fashioned flavor.

    It’s impossible to visit all the villages in one day. There are just so many sights and shops to enjoy. There are several hotels, condominiums, inns and bed and breakfasts for lodging. The only motel in Main Amana is Amana Colonies Guest House Motel. It is so convenient within walking distance of all the major attractions. A complete directory may be found at www.amanacolonies.com

     

     

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    Public Disclosure-- Please Read
    I recently learned of a FTC law requiring web sites to let their readers know if any of the stories are "sponsored" or compensated.  American Roads and Global Highways' feature writers are professional travel writers. As such we are frequently invited on press trips, also called fam trips. Most of the articles here are results of these trips. On these trips most of our lodging, dining, admissions fees and often plane fare are covered by the city or firm hosting the trip. It is an opportunity to visit places we might not otherwise be able to visit and bring you a great story. However, no one tells us what to write about those places. All opinions are 100% those of the author of that feature column.  

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