A thick sheet of slush lines 220th Trail, the road that runs through the Amana Colonies. It’s Dec. 13th, 2017, close enough to Christmas that I’m excited, but not too excited, for the seven inches of snow now filling my boots. Naturally, I’ve lost my parents on our annual Prelude to Christmas trip; luckily, I have enough faith they’ll know to find their 20-year-old daughter at the Little Red Wagon Toy Store if we are separated. They’re focused on buying cheese, I, dolls. The spirit of Christmas is alive in my veins, and I’m hoping to find the Grinch hidden in the toy store to win a prize before any 9-year-old who actually deserves a Barbie beats me.
Amana was founded in 1855. Persecuted at home for their Inspirationalist Christian beliefs (stemming from the idea that certain individuals are endowed with divine inspiration from God, acting as his instruments on earth — a branch of the Pietism), refugees from Germany immigrated to New York in 1844, only to find they’d get more bang for their buck with farmland in Iowa. Around 1,200 settlers established six villages across 26,000 acres in Iowa County, just west of Johnson County: Amana, East Amana, West Amana, South Amana, High Amana and Middle Amana; the village Homestead was added in 1861. The name “Amana” was taken from the Bible (specifically, a river and region near Damascus cited in Song of Solomon 4:8).
Skilled laborers, craftsmen and a board of trustees helping the colonies thrive in an economically self-sufficient way, free of industrial America. But by the end of the Great Depression, financial strife and a call for a more liberated, secularist community led to an economic and spiritual “Great Change” in the colonies. The Amana Society was founded, and invested in successful ventures such as a refrigeration and electrical company.
Today, the Historic District of Amana Colonies brings in a large crowd of tourists every year with an array of seasonal festivals. Winterfest, Maifest, Wurst Fest and Oktoberfest are four celebrations that kick off the year with parades, German music and more food than you can ever imagine, all leading to the greatest festivity of the year: The Prelude to Christmas. This year, the Prelude started Nov. 23 and runs through Dec. 16.
The essence of the area can only be described with one word: Gemütlichkeit, a German word that means a “state of warmth and friendliness” — a 19th century term that pairs well with Amana’s 19th century feel. So little has changed, the High Amana General Store still smells of handmade soap and kerosene lamps from the time it was established in 1858. If the presence of original brick buildings, old-fashioned signs, family-style restaurants and more don’t transport you back, the Amana Heritage Museum puts on A Glimpse of Amana Christmas Past every year, which features songs and readings from original Amana settlers.
Although communal life wasn’t fiscally sustainable in the long run, Amana has always had a singular community spirit. Space and resources were shared so that everyone was fulfilled, a sense of balance held together by a strong church life. Today, the unity still stands. Walk into Ackerman Winery, a 63-year-old business, and Bill and Rona will offer you a complimentary tasting of internationally awarded wine. People in the Colonies would give you their coat if it ensured your happiness. The magic of the town is in human connection.
I push my way out the door of Little Red Wagon and make my way to the General Store. It goes without saying that toys should be supplemented with candy and that’s exactly what I plan on doing. Plus, my parents are there, so I figure there’s no harm in making them pay. Upon entering the store, a line of gingerbread houses greet you, buckets sitting in front of each, competing for best in show. Visitors are encouraged to vote for their favorite by dropping a piece of water taffy into the corresponding bucket. I drop three watermelon pieces in for my dad and make my way over to the ornaments. I know if I don’t pick one for our family tree soon, my mom will pick a cell phone to represent me yet another year in a row. I like to think I’m more than my presence online.
Detached from modern consumption, the simplicity of the Colonies lends to its allure. The most inviting event of the season is Tannenbaum Forest, which showcases around 50 extravagant trees each year. Set up in Fest Halle Barn, the Forest has a number of surprises for guests, a coloring booth for kids, a 17-foot German Style pyramid and the main attraction: Santa. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch him at an hour he’s there, seated in a green sled, ready to listen to any holiday request. Even if what you’re asking for is a boyfriend. Even if you’re 20 years old and a sophomore in college. Just make sure you drop a donation at the good will offering at the door before you leave.
Our last stop on the way out of town is the Amana Meat Shop. It’s hard to imagine wanting to leave with more than we already have, but need meat and cheese packages to send to family members who weren’t privileged enough to make it to the Colonies this season. I see it as more of a brag than a holiday greeting — “Look at all the fun we’re having in this quaint, holiday heaven” — but my parents prefer to think of it as a “gift.” Regardless, I appreciate the stop because it allows me to grab free samples of originally curated cheese and perfectly smoked ham I can’t find in big-chain grocery stores.
We walk inside and, immediately, my dad knows somebody there. He worked in Amana for a long time, like his father before him, selling home appliances to potential buyers. It’s the crux of what draws my family to the area. Amana’s never-ending kindness is what kept my father driving 40-minute commutes for 10 years, providing for his family like the town that provided us so much. Love, comfort, smoked ham.
As we drive down 220th Trail, we pass the brick and wood buildings that make the Colonies unlike any other area. Adorned with wreaths and ribbons, the homes and workplaces tell the tale of a community that has survived in the face of a rapidly changing world. German Pietists brought mysticism and traditionalism to Iowa over 100 years ago, and the feeling never left. It stuck in the strawberry jam handcrafted at the Ox Yoke Inn. It stayed behind with the used furniture and trinkets found at Grapevine Antiques. It carved its way in to the heart of the Midwest and left a place you only read about in books. The ones with the iced over Lily Pond. The ones with the neighbors that invite you over for supper. The ones with the luminaire street lights, leading you home.