During the 19th century thousands of Americans formed communal societies. The people within the communes worked for the common good. No one received wages. No one owned property. Over 250 communal groups formed in the United States before 1960. Many of them were very short-lived. Perhaps the most well-known communal society, the Shakers, flourished in the eastern United States. At one point the Shakers had over 5,000 members. Sometimes communal groups were created by people of a particular religious group. Other times people formed communal societies because they were unhappy with the world as it was. They thought that they could create a “utopia,” or perfect world.
Communal groups generally share common characteristics. Usually they are formed for either religious or economic reasons. Historically, religious communal groups tended to last longer and were more successful. Communal groups tend to be small and established in a confined place. They have a lifestyle that is different from that of the people who live nearby.
At least a dozen communal societies formed in Iowa during the 19th century. Most of these groups lasted for very short periods of time. Two, Amana and Icaria, survived for decades. The Amish, while not truly a communal society, are similar to communal groups. They share community labor and provide support among members.
The Amana Society
In 1855 the Society of True Inspiration came to Iowa from what is now Germany, Switzerland and eastern France. The Inspirationists, as the members were called, settled along the Iowa River in Iowa County. They purchased 26,000 acres of land and established seven villages made up of churches, shops and living quarters.
For many years the Inspirationists lived and worked as a true commune. This commune was a supportive community in which possessions and responsibilities are shared. However, over time changes occurred in the way the group lived. In 1932 the Inspirationists formed the Amana Society as a business corporation. The Amana Church Society formed to continue the religious life of the community.
In 2005 the Amana Society, Inc. continues to run many of the businesses. The Amana Church Society is an active religion group. The Amanas are a popular tourist attraction and include a variety of craft shops, boutiques, wineries and a brewery in addition to the famous furniture shops and restaurants for which they have been known for decades.
Followers of a Frenchman named Etienne Cabet moved to Adams County, Iowa, in 1855. They were known as the Icarians. They farmed 3,000 acres of land near Corning. There were rarely more than 75 members in the community. In 1878 a controversy divided the community. The group that broke away failed in 1886, leaving the original group to carry on. But the end for this group also came in 1898.
The Amish were followers of Jakob Ammann and began arriving in Iowa in the 1840s. The originally settled in Buchanan and Washington Counties. The main beliefs of the Amish are pacifism, a refusal to swear oaths, adult baptism, separation from the outside world and an economy based as much as possible on agriculture. A number of Amish groups live in Iowa in 2005. Settlements have been established at Kalona, Hazelton, Milton, Oelwein, Bloomfield, McIntire and Riceville.
Other Iowa Communes
Other Iowa communal groups lasted for only a few years and, in some cases, for just a few months. The Iowa Pioneer Phalanx located near Oskaloosa lasted only about a year. A second group, Garden Grove, existed in Decatur County in 1848, although so little is known about this group that some historians believe that it never got farther than the planning stage. Hopewell, a community located in Clarke County, lasted for a short time before disintegrating in 1852.
Communia was the most successful of Iowa’s secular communal societies. It formed in 1847 but disagreements led to dissolution of the colony within a few years.
The Jasper Kolonie was a small communal group of German immigrants who came to Iowa County in 1851. The members of this colony were members of the Swedenborgian Church. Although no longer an active congregation, many descendants of the colony still live in the area.
New Buda was a small colony founded by a Hungarian count and his followers in Decatur County in southern Iowa in 1850. The colony disappeared within a few years.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints settled in Iowa for a time. A colony called Zarahelma was abandoned when it was determined the land title was worthless. A colony was located at Manti and another in Monona County called Preparation which lasted from 1853 to 1858.
A group not often thought of as communal are the Trappist Monks of New Melleray Abbey near Peosta. The abbey was founded in 1849, and today the monks farm and make furniture and caskets.
- The Iowa Heritage: A Guide for Teachers. Johnston, Iowa: Iowa PBS, 1979.
- Marchand Ross, Marie. Child of Icaria. Corning, Iowa: Gauthier Publishing Co., 1938.
- Schwieder, Elmer and Schwieder, Dorothy. A Peculiar People: Iowa's Old Order Amish. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1975.
- Sutton, Robert P. Les Icariens: The Utopian Dream in Europe and America. Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1994.
- Deborah Gore Ohrn, The Goldfinch 13, no. 4 (April 1982).
- Yambura, Barbara. A Change and a Parting. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1960.