Amana: A Holiday Tradition
It was a tradition.
My birthday is early December and as Darling Daughter was growing up our family would take a day trip the first weekend in December every year to either Galena or the Amana Colonies.
I’m not big on birthday parties, never had one, and this was our way of celebrating my birthday as well as officially kicking off the Christmas season. It was one of our holiday traditions.
We would alternate between the two, heading north to Galena one year and then west to the Amanas the next. Galena is about an hour and fifteen minute drive from where we lived during those years. The Amanas are about a half hour more. I’ve since moved and now the Amanas are just slightly over an hour away.
For both, that first weekend is always when they host their big Christmas weekend with all sorts of extra added activities.
The last trip we made as a family was probably 2004, maybe 2005. I’ve been to both towns a handful of times since then, just never that first weekend in December.
Now that I’m retired, the time seemed right to head to the Amanas and relive some of that Christmas tradition.
For those of you not familiar with the Amana Colonies, a quick history lesion. There are seven villages comprising the colonies. They were established in the mid-1800s by German immigrants seeking religious freedom.
These Inspirationists, as they were known, founded a communal society where all property and resources were shared. Adults were assigned jobs by the village council and no one was paid. They shared in everything and were provided what they needed by the village.
More than 50 communal kitchens, operated by the women and extremely organized, provided meals for the villagers. Children attended school six days a week until the age of 14.
The surrounding farmland, owned by the villages, was farmed by the men. Their equipment was stored in the village and assigned out to them as they arrived for work each morning.
They were also artisans, producing wool and calico, as well as many handcrafted items such as clocks. (I’ll talk more about those clocks later.)
Today, Amana, the main village of the seven, is filled with shops, wineries, antique stores and more. Most located in the original buildings constructed by those German immigrants more than 100 years ago.
Even today, people across the country are familiar with the Amana name because of the household products that bear it, some of which are still built in a plant there. One bit of trivia, the Amana Radarange, introduced in 1967, was the first popular microwave designed for home use.
There are four “must sees” on my list whenever visiting Amana, not counting the brewery that is a more recent addition. Two are open all year, the other two are only available at Christmas.
Amana Furniture Shop
The first, open all year, is Amana Furniture and Clock Shop. I told you I’d get back to those clocks. They’re still making them and they are some of the finest craftsmanship you’ll find anywhere.
My absolutely favorite place in all of the Amanas is inside the store. As you pass through the front doors, take a left, walk a short distance and you’ll see a small set of steps that lead up to where they keep the grandfather clocks and, to your right, you can enter a viewing area that looks down into the shop where the magic is made.
As soon as you open the door the smells of sawed and sanded wood enter your nose. If you are a woodworker of any level, you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s the sweetest scent in all the world.
Looking through plexiglass, you’ll see the craftsmen’s stations and the many tools they use in creating the handmade pieces sold in the shop. Below the glass are signs bearing information about the shop’s history.
The store itself is quite large with a full selection of furniture, the aforementioned clocks, artwork and more.
Amana Colonies Bakery
My second stop, regardless of the time of year, is Amana Colonies Bakery and Café. I mean, come on, it’s a BAKERY. Pies, cookies, creampuffs, kolaches, chocolates, breads, and on and on.
I highly suggest making this your first stop. Because it is so popular there is often a line and they do sell out of things during the course of the day. The selection is always best first thing in the morning.
One other tip, especially if you’re going to be in Amana during a busy time. Don’t take 220th Trail, the main street into town. It can be very busy, with visitors walking back and forth across the street.
Instead, take H Street, the next street south of 220th Trail. It runs behind the stores so you avoid all the hustle and bustle of the main street. If it’s not too busy, there’s a large parking lot right behind the bakery, at 4522 220th Trail, that you can park in throughout the day.
That lot was full by the time I got there for the Christmas festivities, but an open grass lot was available with plenty of room just across the street.
The third thing on my list, and the first at Christmas time, is Tannenbaum Forest. It’s the centerpiece of the Christmas activities.
Tannenbaum Forest is located in Festhalle Barn, a restored century-old dairy barn just a block off the main street used for weddings, and community and other events.
This year’s forest featured more than 60 live trees, each uniquely decorated by different businesses, organizations, groups, individuals and families. In addition, there’s a 17-foot German Christmas pyramid, with moving parts, entertainment and a small café.
Tannenbaum Forest is open Friday through Sundays, usually beginning the weekend after Thanksgiving and running to the weekend before Christmas.
Amana Church Holiday Bazaar
The final must-see on my list, and it’s only there that first Friday and Saturday in December, is the Amana Church Holiday Bazaar. Of course, for me, the attraction is the cookies, candies and other home baked goods but they also have handmade crafts and Christmas decor.
I know, I already talked about the bakery but it’s Christmas, you’re allowed to overindulge a bit! I limited myself to a tin of fudge on this trip.
If you want to stock up for the holidays you can even participate in the cookie walk on Saturday. The cost this year was $30 that provides you a box you can fill yourself with roughly four to five dozen cookies, depending on the size of cookie you pick. Best to get there early though, registration is at 9 a.m.
The bazaar is located in a long building, along the alley just north of the stores on the main street.
Three more notes:
If you're a history buff, there's a nice little museum near where you will first turn onto the main street through town. The Amana Heritage Society Museum includes a video telling the history of Amana's seven villages, the Inspirationists who created them and a full house of pieces dating back to the period.
Millstream Brewing, Iowa’s oldest operational brewery, has two locations where you can enjoy its beer. There’s a restaurant, Millstream Brau Haus, near the end of the main street through town, and around the corner from that is a nice tasting room.
I will testify that the beer is good. I often bring some home when I visit and this time was no exception.
Finally, across the street from the Millstream tasting room is the Hotel Millwright. Recently opened, it is located in a converted textile mill. In fact, part of the mill is still in use today and is Iowa’s only remaining textile mill.
I stayed the night at the hotel and do recommend it. The hotel is a modern facility with a restaurant, two bars, large conference center and more. I will definitely plan on staying there again on my next weekend trip to the Amanas.
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