Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Adventures in Iowa

When tourism professionals travel together, you know we are going to ask the right questions, critique the information we receive, and if the time allows, act on the suggestions of the locals.

Today, we hit a jackpot while driving across Iowa. First of all, let me tell you that Interstate 80 through Iowa is BEAUTIFUL! It's no wonder when people get to Nebraska, they think that we are filled with flat nothingness. After the rolling hills, picturesque farms and beautiful scenery along I-80 in Iowa, I can understand it. In fact, we actually passed through the Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area - Where the Story of American Agriculture Comes to Life. It is absolutely beautiful - the barns & silos, well kept homesteads, quaint towns. I highly recommend a visit.

However, what made the trip truly memorable happened when we stopped right off the Interstate at the Amana Colonies. Now I will be truthful with you - I had been here before and never bothered to ask or explore any further. However, we found out that this particular store really has no connection with the colonies, only capitalizing on the location and the name recognition. Now this is fine, especially because the lady at the counter was more than willing to tell us the story of the Amana Colonies and encourage us to visit.

It is only about five miles north of Interstate and absolutely well worth a trip. We only had time to spend a couple hours, but it could easily be considered a destination, and well worth staying at one of the cute bed and breakfasts or small lodges and spend several days.

The visitor center is in a converted barn, and we were allowed to climb clear up to the third story cupola on the roof and get a picture.
The colonies of Amana are absolutely stunning in the architecture, which remains true to the original development. The history of the settlement comes from their website:
In 1855 they arrived in Iowa. After an inspired testimony commanded the people to call their village, "Bleibtreu" or "remain faithful," the leaders chose the name Amana from the Song of Solomon 4:8. Amana means to remain true. Six villages were established, a mile or two apart, across a river valley tract of some 25,000 acres - Amana, East Amana, West Amana, South Amana, High Amana and Middle Amana. The village of Homestead was added in 1861, giving the Colonies access to the railroad.

The Amana Colonies would become one of America's longest-lived and largest religious communal society.

In the seven villages, residents received a home, medical care, meals, all household necessities and schooling for their children. Property and resources were shared. Men and women were assigned jobs by their village council of brethren. No one received a wage. No one needed one.

Farming and the production of wool and calico supported the community, but village enterprises, everything from clock making to brewing, were vital, and well-crafted products became a hallmark of the Amanas. Craftsmen took special pride in their work as a testament of both their faith and their community spirit. The Amana villages became well known for their high quality goods.

Up before dawn, called to work by the gentle tolling of the bell in the village tower, the unhurried routine of life in old Amana was paced very differently than today. Amana churches, located in the center of each village, built of brick or stone, have no stained glass windows, no steeple or spire, and reflect the ethos of simplicity and humility. Inspirationists attended worship services 11 times a week; their quiet worship punctuating the days.

Over 50 communal kitchens provided three meals daily to Colonists. These kitchens were operated by the women of the Colony and well supplied by the village smokehouse, bakery, ice house and dairy and by huge gardens, orchards and vineyards maintained by the villagers.

Children attended school six days a week year-round until the age of 14. Boys were assigned jobs on the farm or in the craft shops, while girls were assigned to a communal kitchen or garden. A few boys were sent to college for training as teachers, doctors and dentists.

In 1932, amidst America's Great Depression, Amana set aside its communal way of life. A ruinous farm market and changes in the rural economy contributed, but what finally propelled the change was a strong desire on the part of residents to maintain their community. By 1932, the communal way of life was seen as a barrier to achieving individual goals, so rather than leave or watch their children leave, they changed. They established the Amana Society, Inc., a profit-sharing corporation, to manage the farmland, the mills and the larger enterprises. Private enterprise was encouraged. The Amana Church was maintained.

Today the seven villages of the Amana Colonies represent an American dream come true; a thriving community founded by religious faith and community spirit. Declared

a National Historic Landmark in 1965, the Amana Colonies attract hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, all of whom come to see and enjoy a place where the past is cherished and where hospitality is a way of life.

Evocative of another age, the streets of the Amana Colonies with brick, stone and clapboard homes, flower and vegetable gardens, lanterns and walkways, recall Amana yesterday. Our community today is vibrant, celebrating both its past and its future, here today for you to experience.
While the community may no longer be communal, they have definitely carved out a niche for themselves, becoming very successful commercially, while providing America with something it vitally needs - a clean, quiet, peaceful, quaint, picturesque glimpse into our collective past. A hint of what was, what remains in small areas, and possibly what could be.
We visited late on a Sunday afternoon in September, and the streets and shops were still busy with people! That is music to the heart of any tourism professional!

Th Amana Colonies are a National Historic Landmark and the older neighborhoods are protected by the Amana Colonies Land Use District's Historic Districts. Many of the homes and shops date back 155 years to the original construction, and new construction remains true to th "brand" - the look and feel of the area.
The shops range from microbreweries and wineries to candy, antiques, woolens, meats, coffees and teas, brooms and baskets, kitchen assessories, clothes, toys. You name, it is here, and all just deliciously fun to stroll around and find.

North Platte just conducted a Community Assessment with Roger Brooks of Destination Development International. Roger is an expert in helping communities discover their brand (what they want to be known for), and helping them capitalize on it. One of his tenets is that after you discover your brand and begin marketing yourself as that, everything you do has to BE TRUE TO THE BRAND! They have definitely learned the lesson here in Amana, because even their mundane street signs are true to the brand.
During the presentation of Roger's assessment findings for North Platte, he showed slide after slide of how businesses can absolutely turn things around by simply creating curb appeal using inexpensive flowers and creative arrangements. Again, Amana does it!
Every store is gorgeous! Another of Roger's tenets is that 80% of consumer (visitor) spending happens in a pedestrian friendly environment. Even though Amana receives a huge number of visitors and it's easy to get around by car, it is also easy to find convenient parking and spend the day walking from one end of the community to another. It's the only way to experience this lovely town - and we did manage to spend quite a bit of money!
The community doesn't just rely on quaint shops for people to see, they also arrange for lots to do, which is at the heart of any successful tourism endeavor. Throughout the entire year, there are special events nearly every weekend, many of which contain opportunities to get to know the local artisans and residents and learn how to make projects of your own. Their festivals and events have headquarters in numerous large, beautifully restored barns just behind the Old Creamery theater pictured below. The professional theater company offers creative comic and musical productions throughout the year.
And just to reemphasize Amana's commitment to remaining true to it's brand, this is the Casey's store located in the heart of the area. Isn't it fantastic? Convenience yet still not a glaring eyesore taking away from the atmosphere of the area.
And yes, inside it's just a standard Casey's store!
Amana is now definitely on my must-do list as a place to return to and spend considerable time. I hope it's on yours too.

Thanks for stopping by. The coffee is always on.

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