January 15

This Day in History

Old West

Jan 15, 1933:

The utopian Amana colony embraces capitalism

After nearly a century of cooperative living, the utopian Amana colonists of Iowa begin using U.S. currency for the first time.

The wide-open spaces of the West have always appealed to visionary reformers attempting to start new societies. Among others, the Mormons in Utah, the Hutterites in South Dakota and Montana, and the Swedenborgians in California all moved West for the same reason: cheap land and freedom from interference. Most reformers moved west after the Civil War, when travel became easier and the threat of Indian resistance was declining.

As with the Mormons, the Amana colonial movement began in New York. Christian Metz, taking his cue from the writings of 18th century German mystics, established the group in 1842 on 5,000 acres near Buffalo, New York. Metz and his followers were similar to the Mormons in their rejection of the selfish individualism and dog-eat-dog competition of capitalism in favor of a more cooperative economic system. They isolated themselves from national and global markets and built a largely self-sufficient means of meeting their agricultural and material needs. Barter within the community helped them avoid using American currency.

The community's agricultural and craft operations grew so quickly that the members soon found they needed more land than was cheaply available in New York. Like many of other land-hungry Americans, they looked westward. In 1855, the first members began setting up a new colony in Iowa called Amana, purchasing 30,000 acres of contiguous land as a base for their agricultural and craft operations. Amana (located near modern-day Iowa City) flourished in the decades to come. By the turn of the century, the colonists had built seven largely self-sufficient villages with farms, stores, bakeries, woolen mills, wineries, furniture shops, and the other necessities of independent living.

The Amana community thrived for nearly 80 years, but its isolation from the rest of the world inevitably began to wane during the 20th century. In the early 1930s, the colony experienced severe economic problems, in part due to the Great Depression. The people voted to abandon their communal life in 1932, and they reorganized the colony on a capitalist basis with each member receiving stock in a new community corporation. The people of Amana began using American currency in January 1933.

Although it violated the original precepts of their founders, the decision to bring Amana into the national marketplace actually saved the community. Today, the Amana colony is the center of a thriving business empire of woolen mills, meat shops, bakeries, and wineries. Though its original vision is no longer the same, visitors to the colony will still find a communal society dedicated to preserving many elements of Old World life and craftsmanship.

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