Sunday, February 12, 2012

Iowa by car, pt. 4.

Purposeful living

Near the town of Kalona I saw the name “Yoder” and remembered the famous Supreme Court case of Yoder v. Wisconsin, the case that upheld Amish religious principles in the face of a state’s compulsory school attendance law.  There are Amish and Mennonites around Kalona.  They came from Germany in the 19th Century to farm and try to live the sort of life that God intended.  In trying to live simply and independently the Amish have tried to avoid owning or depending upon electricity or gasoline-powered equipment.  It’s not that these are evil; it’s just that relying on them makes you less independent and more subject to the pressures of the world.  The Amish may hire a car for a special trip, but prefer a horse and buggy for daily use.  As you drive through the countryside, if you pay attention you will notice that some of the prosperous-looking farms aren’t connected to the utility wires: those are Amish.  They are a caution to a world that often seems imprudently interconnected, where a malicious teenage hacker in Tajikistan can loot your bank account or shut down the Northeastern power grid.

I visited with Earl Wright at his antique shop in Kalona.  He showed me old photographs of Amish life and told me that the younger folks like to come by and see their relative’s pictures, though they wouldn’t own the photographs themselves.  When a young Amish man becomes an adult he has been doing productive farm work  --  not just chores  --  for six or seven years, and gets his own farm, so there is none of that aimless drifting that afflicts so many young people in “the world”.  Earl told me that young Amish people were staying and, unlike so many rural areas, the communities were growing.  In an interplay of pragmatism and religious intentionalism the Amish appear to have worked out a life that seems right to them.

North and west from Iowa City are the seven villages of the Amana.  Unlike the Amish and the Mennonites, who were individual farmers, the Amana Society was a collective community, which functioned successfully until the pressures of economic integration with the wider world forced the Great Change in 1932, when families became economically autonomous.  Among other things, the Change required that kitchens be added to the tidy brick and stone homes, as previously everyone had eaten in the community dining room.  Today, about 2500 people live in the seven villages.  Through the Amana Society, members of the community and their descendants still own 25,000 acres of prime Iowa land.

My first contact with Amana was on a cold morning as I was driving around trying to find a coffee shop.  I had about decided that the good people hereabouts must take their morning coffee at home when I came upon the Amana Inn.  Outside, the world was cold, deserted and windswept; inside it was noisy and alive.  I told a waitress that I wanted breakfast and she motioned me to a table.  No one came to take my order.  They just started bringing food.  Orange juice and coffee and potato pancakes and eggs and sausage and bacon and toast and jam and syrup and fruit and honey and hashbrown potatoes and probably some other things that I have lost track of.  I could have fed an Ethiopian village with that breakfast.  And as I, for whom breakfast is normally toast and coffee, struggled to make a dent in this gargantuan spread, the motherly waitresses  --  who were speaking German  --  kept refilling my coffee and inquiring if I needed more of anything.  The bill came to $4.95.  I did not eat the rest of the day.

I visited with Carl Oehl, who owns the Rathskeller in South Amana.  He told me about life in the old days, and how it was now.  He said that some old-timers complain that the place is going to hell, but that’s just because people don’t drive cattle down the street anymore.  German is still spoken at home.  “Kids study it at school and come home and correct Grandma’s pronunciation.”  Carl thinks it’s still a wonderful place to live.

(to be continued . . )


  1. Great stories and insights into the religious communities of the midwest.

  2. I've been enjoying reading all this about my 'home' turf. For the Amish, having a last name of Yoder is about like an American with the last name of Smith. Our neighbor Amish had the Yoder surname but they sold their farm to my parents and moved up north to Wisconsin where most seem to be heading these days.