Gardening in Utopia: Kitchen Gardens in Communal Amana
(Editor's Note:This article was originally published on July 29, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
In 1856, the first of a group of 1,200 German Inspirationists from Ebenezer, New York, (see history below right) arrived in the Iowa River valley in eastern Iowa to make their new communal home. They chose an ideal site with the help of local Native Americans who accompanied them in their search and gave them advice. The soil was extremely fertile, the bluffs above the river valley were heavily wooded, there were sandstone outcroppings for quarrying, and clay deposits suitable for brick-making. Calling itself the Amana Society, the new community would prosper, ultimately erecting seven villages on their 26,000 acre tract of land: Amana (the main and original village), East Amana, High Amana, Middle Amana, South Amana, West Amana, and Homestead. The latter was already in existence and had already been named when the Amana Society bought it.
The church elders in the Amanas (as the villages are called collectively) reigned supreme over both the secular and religious affairs of the villages. Residents were assigned living quarters, ate in communal kitchens, and worked daily--with the exception of Sundays--at their assigned tasks. Each village had its own church, farm fields, farm animals, orchards, vineyards, kitchen gardens, school, bakery, dairy, wine cellar, post office, sawmill, and general store.
A typical day in the life of Amana Society residents began with breakfast at the communal kitchen to which they were assigned. Then it was off to the assigned tasks for the day. That might be preparing the rest of the daily meals, hauling manure to the fields; planting and tending crops; making baskets, tinware, or pottery; smoking meats; tailoring clothes; doing leather work; making cherry and walnut furniture; or working in the woolen and flour mills or in the calico factory. There was generally a work- and food break at mid-morning and again after the noon meal at mid-afternoon. During the growing season, workers in the fields got special attention from the kitchen ladies, who prepared tasty snacks to sustain them for the rest of their work day. The food was delivered by horse and wagon to the laborers wherever they happened to be located in the fields.
After the evening meal, the day was not yet over. Prayer meetings were held every evening at various locations around each village. There were also religious services in the main church building on Wednesday and Sunday mornings (and sometimes in the afternoons). Not counting religious holiday observances, there were generally eleven services in each village every week.
The Society raised almost all of its own food. To that end, kitchen gardens were an especially important component of village life. Each kitchen was assigned a plot of land (usually two or three acres) on which to raise its produce. Villages had anywhere from three to twelve communal kitchens, depending on the size of the village. In all, about 100 acres were devoted to raising produce within the commune.
While the communal kitchen was the purview primarily of the younger women, older women were assigned to work in the kitchen gardens. For each garden there was a "Gartebaas" ("Garden Boss"), one of the older women who was well-versed in the raising of produce and oversaw all aspects of communal gardening on her plot of land. Several women worked in each garden, raising an astounding assortment of vegetables and other produce. The table below lists all varieties raised and how they were used or stored.
The story of Amana begins in the province of Hessen, Germany, way back in the year 1714. Pietists Eberhard Gruber and Johann Rock felt a deep dissatisfaction with the orthodox Lutheran faith in which they grew up . Like other Pietists, they believed 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 beliefs, Gruber and Rock founded a new sect based on the premise that God could and would reveal His wishes and guide His children by messages transmitted through inspired prophets called Werkzeuge (tools).
The newly-formed group called itself The Community of True Inspiration and its individuals Inspirationists. As the movement grew, so did the persecution by the established church and the populace in general. Finally, through the testimony of the Werkzeug Christian Metz, who became the charismatic leader of the group, 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 had been laid out and occupied by the emigrating Inspirationists. They called their new community the Ebenezer Society.
Choosing to live communally, the Society became one of many other communal and utopian societies founded in the U.S. during the 18th and 19th centuries. For nearly 20 years, the Ebenezer Society grew and prospered. In the end, the ever-present problems of lack of land and the money to pay for it caused the colonists to seek a new home.
In November of 1854, an inspection committee journeyed westward to the new state of Iowa. Of all the available lands they inspected, a tract along the Iowa River pleased them most. During the next ten years the Ebenezer Society was gradually moved to Iowa. Taking a new name, the Amana Society, it still resides there today on a 26,000 acre tract of ultra-fertile farm land and lush forests.
The group underwent a radical change in 1932, converting from communalism to capitalism and splitting church and state. Today members of the Society own shares of stock in the new capitalistic venture, the Amana Society, Inc, and most Society members are members of the Amana Church Society as well. My parents and those of my wife were members of both and began their lives under the old system. My wife and I are members of Amana Society, Inc.
Kitchen Garden Photos
Communal Kitchen Recipes
Kartoffelgemüs (Creamed Potatoes)
Gelbe Rübe (Carrots)
Endivie Salaat (Endive Salad)
Rettig Salaat (Radish Salad)
We have a VERY limited supply of seed available every April. The first three readers who contact me using the forum form below will be able to choose one packet each from three of the vegetables listed above. We will mail your seeds to you at the cost of postage.
© Larry Rettig 2009
Discussion about this article: