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The American landscape is filled with pieces of history - large pieces and small ones, long-lasting ones and those that remained only a relative moment, some created by man and some by nature. But they all have something to say, and sometimes it's nice to listen.

The ring of seven towns that make up the Amana Colonies, covering 26,000 acres in eastern Iowa, is one of the more interesting pieces. A truly communal, church-based society, formally known as the Community of the True Inspiration, it began in Germany in 1714, a century before Karl Marx was born. The society moved to this country in 1842, when he was just beginning to formalize communism.The group of about 1,200 people moved to Iowa in 1855 and lived a regimen that was far more work than play. There was practically no private property, little privacy and 11 church services a week. Men worked in the fields or at skilled trades, women worked in the kitchens, the gardens and the nurseries. The community provided food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care and care for the elderly until 1932, when the group experienced what is still called "the great change" and moved back into the American mainstream, capitalism and all.

Still, Amana's communal society lasted longer than the Soviet Union and remains a fascinating sidelight to American history as it lives under the new while paying tribute to the old.

By the way, the people of Amana are not Amish.

It's an interesting place to stop for a few days. The area has plenty of accommodations, from basic bed-and-breakfast to a comfortable Holiday Inn, plus campsites.

Restaurants, too, are abundant; one is owned by the widow of former major league pitcher Bill Zuber. But all the menus are similar, and apparently all the meat comes from the same supplier, right in town. The cooks all seem to have trained at the same place, too. It mostly shows German accents, isn't gourmet, but some dishes are quite good. The others are satisfactory, or close to it, with large portions and modest prices.

The best buy I found was breakfast at the Brick Haus, an all-you-can-eat bargain at $5.95 with a wide selection of eggs, dinner plate-size pancakes, bratwurst sausage, bacon and first-rate peach preserves. The meal was excellent in every respect, and the waitress eagerly offered seconds.

A delicious local specialty is pickled ham, served as an appetizer in most restaurants. It begins with baked ham, cut into cubes and soaked briefly in pickling brine, served cold. Tasty with a pre-dinner drink.

Visiting the Amana communities can be a little confusing; six of the towns are named Amana - High, Middle, East, West, South and just plain - and the seventh is Homestead. About 1,650 people live there, and the entire area is a National Historic Landmark. All are close to one another, and their foundation was a practical idea for 1855. Most of the people were farmers, and towns were established so the men could walk every day - to the fields, back for lunch, to the fields again and so on.

Each of the towns had the same facilities. People lived in communal buildings, larger than dormitories but smaller than apartments, and everyone ate together in one dining room. Each community had a church, a bakery and the like, but no private homes. German was the common language.

The Amana people lived - and still live - simply and without ostentation. Even today, the colonies are without a statue to honor Christian Metz, the man who brought the group to the New World, first to an area outside Buffalo, N.Y., then to Amana.

Simplicity extends even to the cemetery, where the people are buried under small, identical headstones and in chronological rows based on date of death. There are no family plots; apparently the thinking was that the people of Amana were so close, and so dependent - and so equal - that one was buried next to someone who would provide part of an eternal family.

The churches are simple, with bare walls and neither ornamentation nor music. From the outside, the churches are slightly larger than their neighbors but without any other differentiation. Men and women sit on opposite sides of the center aisle, the women wearing black caps, shawls and aprons. There were no ministers, either. Each village church was led by lay readers who spoke and led responsive readings.

The best place to begin an Amana visit - after breakfast at the Brick Haus - is at the Museum of Amana History in Amana. A small, rather new building, it provides a fine look at the history of the colonies, with good photographic displays and sufficient information to become familiar with the history of the people.

Amana without a prefix, otherwise known as main Amana, is the busiest of the villages in terms of shops and restaurants, but walking the main street from end to end is an easy stroll. Souvenir and craft shops abound, with all the usual items.

Middle Amana is home to the last active church and to two other of the most interesting spots - Hahn's Bakery and the communal kitchen and cooper's shop. The former, not a museum but an operating bakery, has the finest aroma in the state and some of the best pastries and breads, too, baked in an old-fashioned oven. Time was when the brick oven, its walls three feet thick, was filled with wood, and after the wood burned down and the ashes were swept out, the loaves were inserted. Today, the bricks are heated by gas, but the baking method is the same. The bakery opens at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday and is open until the day's production is sold. Sweet rolls, German pastries, cookies, cakes and bread are available.

The kitchen and dining area, once used by the residents of Middle Amana, display a variety of utensils and the stoves and furniture of the period. It's primitive in terms of today's kitchens, but it obviously worked, and menus show a rather repetitive diet.

Kitchen houses, built on corner lots, were busy places. At the height of the communal period, there were 60 of them in the villages, each serving 30 to 40 people three meals a day. The Kuche Baas, or Kitchen Boss, was in charge, and the women who worked cooking and cleaning rotated their tasks from week to week.

Middle Amana also is home to Amana Refrigeration Inc., begun shortly after the community joined the nation and a major employer ever since, with 3,100 workers. The company became Amana Electronics, and now is part of Ray-theon.

The colonies were forced out of their communal lifestyle by several events. A 1923 fire destroyed the woolen and flour mills, and the Depression finished the economy. When reorganization took place, the Amana Church continued as the religious focus, and the Amana Society Corp. was formed to handle business and economic activities. Residents were given shares of the corporation, and they went to work in nearby towns or bought their own businesses.

Excellent brochures, maps and lists of facilities in Amana and its environs can be obtained by calling the Amana Colonies Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-245-5465.