(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.

Produce Item CommentsAsparagus Planted in beds; young shoots usually harvested until early June; served cooked and creamedBeansPlanted around poles; approximately one bushel per kitchen house meal; excess (1) blanched and dried for winter use, (2) canned, (3) pickledCabbageSown in cold frames; set out in rows; harvested by the wagonful; shredded and fermented; surplus shipped to markets in Chicago; full heads stored in kitchen house earthen basements for winter useCarrots Sown in rows; harvested in fall; some left in ground to go to seed the 2nd year; eaten raw, cooked, and pickled; some stored in basementsCauliflowerSown in cold frames; set out in rows; also sowed in late summer and harvested in fall; leaves tied over heads to prevent bitterness; eaten creamed Celeriac (type of celery with bulbous root)

Sown in cold frames; set out in rows; used extensively in soups; bulbs stored in basements

Celery Sown in cold frames; set out in rows; shaded with boards or newspaper to blanch stalks and prevent bitter taste; stored in basements ChivesClumps planted in beds and propagated by division; chopped leaves used as flavoring Citron (melon) Sown in hills after danger of frost; unpalatable raw; flesh cut in slivers and pickled Corn (sweet)Planted in rows in fields and raised the same way as field cornCucumbers Planted in hills after danger of frost; eaten as salad or pickled in large crocks for winter consumption DandelionEarly spring greens collected in the wild; sometimes raised in gardens and blanched like celery to prevent bitter flavor; eaten as salad with creamy dressing and chopped boiled eggDillSown in beds (will also reseed); used to flavor pickled beans and cucumbers; dried seed also used as flavoringEndive (member of lettuce family)Sown in beds or rows; blanched like lettuce when it began to mature; used in saladsGround Cherry (actually related to the tomatillo) Grown in beds and rows; reseeds prolifically; fruit inside husk was used in pies and jams HorseradishPlanted in rows; propagated by rootlets overwintered in basements; mature roots were scraped and ground into a condiment or chopped, cooked, and creamed as a vegetable; roots stored in basementsKale Sown in cold frame; set out in rows; leaves dried; reconstituted and served creamed in winter; surplus fed to chickensKohlrabi (bulbous stem)Sown in cold frames; set out in rows; sown again in summer for fall crop; eaten cooked and creamed; fall crop stored in basementsLettuce (loose heads)Sown directly into beds; served as salad with creamy dressing and chopped boiled egg Onions* Sown/planted in rows; raised in large fields; three-stage process: Seed obtained from mature onions; seed produces sets; sets planted next year produce mature onions; used in cooking customary vegetable and meat dishes; mature onions stored in basements Peas Sown in rows; creamed when served fresh; rest dried for winter usePotatoes*Planted in large fields; eyes cut from mature potatoes planted in rows; plowed out in fall; served daily in some form at each of the three main meals; stored in church basementPumpkins Sown in hills after danger of frost; harvested in fall and used in pies; stored in basements Radishes Sown in rows or beds; specimens for seed were transplanted; served as a salad or raw; harvested in spring and fall; stored in basements Salsify (root crop)Sown in rows; roots dug in fall; chopped and served as creamed vegetable; stored in basements or left in ground to over-winterSpinach Sown in beds; cooked and ground when served fresh with beef stock and onion; blanched in hot water and hung to dry in kitchen attics for winter useTomatoesSown in cold frame; set out in rows; eaten fresh, canned or made into ketchupTurnipsSown in rows in August; served cooked and creamed; stored in basements

*The Society also raised onions (both seed and bulbs) and potatoes in very large quantities as a cash crop and sold them on the market, generally in the Chicago area. School children were recruited to help with the harvest. These crops, along with sweet corn, were grown and harvested under the guidance of the village farm manager and his crew.


Excerpt from a garden boss' journal dated 1927; The German script was in use in Europe in the 1800s and into the first part of the 20th century. The first three entries read as follows: (line 1) "7 March, 1 cold frame prepared," (line 2) "15 March, 1 cold frame with plants," (line 3) "6 April, 2 rows of lettuce."

Along with growing and harvesting crops, the kitchen garden boss was responsible for saving seeds from each crop and scheduling its planting during the next growing season. She kept a planting schedule in a gardening journal for easy reference (see journal at left).

The rectangular cold frames in the garden plots were constructed of four sections of wood planks approximately one foot high. Since wooden storm windows were used as frame covers, the frames were built to accommodate them. The windows measured approximately 28 inches by 58 inches and were placed on the frames in mid-February so that the soil would thaw out and dry a bit if wet. Once the soil could be worked, compost was added, the soil was raked and leveled and made ready for sowing. Seeds were sown in marked rows. Old carpeting was draped over the windows on particularly cold nights to keep heat from escaping. When the weather was warm, the window covers were propped open with a block of wood for ventilation.

Once the weather warmed to the point where planting in the garden could begin, farm workers tilled it with a horse-drawn plow, raked it smooth, and fertilized it with manure from the village stables and barnyards. The women trampled paths into the soil with their feet and prepared rows for sowing and planting. Both of these activities were accomplished with the help of string stretched taught as a guideline, so that the rows and pathways would be perfectly straight, a testimony to the German penchant for Ordnung ("proper order").


Communal gardening and dining in the Amanas came to an abrupt halt in May of 1932. On June 1st of that year, the old order passed away. A new, far more secular society was born, when over 90% of the members voted to form a joint stock corporation organized for profit (see "Amana History" above). How did such an about face come to pass? There are many reasons. They fall into three broad categories:

1. Loss of charismatic leadership
2. Gradual abandonment of the philosophy of isolation from the outside world.
3. Financial problems aggravated by social unrest locally and a deepening economic depression nationally.

As long as the commune was isolated from the outside world by decree, by language, by religion, and by social customs, its culture flourished. That isolation would gradually break down with the coming of new technology: the railroad, the automobile, the car, the radio, and the telephone. By the 1920s, the outside world was flocking to the Amanas, with their quaint buildings and people, their beautiful, bucolic setting, and that wonderful food in the communal kitchens, served free to visitors. In the end, the residents of the Amana Society wanted to be part of that fascinating, larger world.

The Amanas today are bustling with activity of all kinds. The arts (notably painting, using various media) have blossomed in the post-communal era as have music and numerous crafts. I find it amazing that so many artistic talents had lain dormant in communal Amana and now have found their expression in the post-1932 culture. The economy is subdued at the moment, as it is across the whole country. Amana Society, the corporation, paid no dividends this year as a result. But the countryside in this lush river valley is as beautiful as ever. All pastures and forestland owned by Amana Society, Inc., comprise a game preserve that supports a wealth of plant and animal life. And those good old communal kitchen garden dishes still grace many an Amana kitchen table at mealtime.


Rettig, Lawrence L., Amana Today, Kansas City, Jostens University Press, 1975.

Shambaugh, Bertha M. H., Amana That Was and Amana That Is, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, 1932.

Amana History

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
Courtesy of Amana Heritage Museum
Click photo to enlarge

Plowing and raking the garden in early spring

Laying out rows for planting seeds

Ready to plant potatoes

School children help weed

Note plumbing and water barrels

Cabbages and pole beans

Tending onions

Shredding cabbages for sauerkraut

Communal Kitchen Recipes
(scaled down to family size)

Kartoffelgemüs (Creamed Potatoes)
3 large potatoes
1 tablespoon minced onion
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon flour
1 tablespoon lard
Dash of pepper
Peel potatoes and cut in quarters lengthwise. Cover with water, add onion and salt and bring to boil. When tender, do not drain. Melt lard, blend in flour, and add to potatoes. Add pepper and let simmer for about five minutes more until flour is cooked.

Gelbe Rübe (Carrots)
2 tablespoons lard
1 medium onion, minced
6 large carrots
2 medium potatoes
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat lard, add onion and blend well. Add carrots, potatoes and enough water to cook. When tender, take out potatoes and mash. Return to carrots, add sugar and seasoning, and cook several minutes longer. If more thickening is desired, a little flour may be added.

Endivie Salaat (Endive Salad)
1 quart shredded endive, washed and drained
1/4 cup vinegar
1/4 cup water
1/2 tablespoon salt
Dash of pepper
1 tablespoon lard
1 cup sour cream
1 small onion, minced
Combine vinegar, water, seasoning and lard and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and pour over shredded endive. Let stand for several minutes, then add sour cream and onion and serve.

Rettig Salaat (Radish Salad)
2 bunches radishes
1 tablespoon salt
1/2 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 tablespoon minced chives
Dash of pepper
Wash radishes and slice thin or grate fine. Add salt, mix well and let stand for 1/2 hour. Drain off liquid and add remaining ingredients. Mix well and serve cold.

Weißrübe (Turnips)
6 or 8 medium-sized turnips
1 medium potato
2 tablespoons lard
1 small onion, minced
2 tablespoons flour
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 cups pork broth (may substitute other broths or water)
Salt and pepper to taste
Cook turnips and potatoes until tender. Mash thoroughly in cooking broth/water. Brown onion in lard, add flour and blend. Add turnip mixture and remaining ingredients and cook a few minutes longer.

More Recipes
Homestead Welfare Club, "Traditional Amana Recipes," The Ladies Auxiliary, Homestead, 1948

Communal kitchen worker readies table

My wife and I have established a small seed bank that keeps alive vegetable varieties brought from Germany in the 1800s to Ebenezer, NY, and subsequently to the Amana villages in Iowa. Included are: bean, lettuce, celeriac, citron melon, onion, radish, and salsify. For more information on these vegetables, click here.

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.

Questions? Comments? Please scroll down to the form below.
I enjoy hearing from my readers!

© Larry Rettig 2009