Thursday, February 21, 2013

Handworks and the Amana Experience

In only three months, virtually all of the top American woodworking hand tool manufacturers will gather in the Festhalle barn in Amana, Iowa for two days of concentrated hand toolery.

Since we grew up in the area, and have visited Amana going back three generations, we though we'd post a bit about Amana itself. If you're coming to Handworks, there is a lot for family and spouses to do while the woodworkers enjoy the show. Before we get into it however, let me clarify something. Amana is communal series of villages established by German immigrants in the mid 1800's. The original founders were separatists from the Lutheran church in Germany and were looking for a place to set up a communal society in America, the land of opportunity. They landed in New York, but soon left and established themselves in Iowa. They are NOT Amish. And yes, this is where Amana appliances are made.

As you drive into Amana (the largest village is technically called Main Amana, but most locals call it simply Amana) you are immediately struck by the traditional architecture. The majority of the buildings are either sandstone or brick. There is a strict code in Amana that all signage must be black and white, so you don't see any garish advertising. There are no McDonald's, no LED displays. Even the gas station/convenience store at the entrance to Amana looks old.

Along the main streets of Amana are dozens of quaint shops filled with everything from hand-made lace to finely made chocolates. There are art galleries, wineries, craft shops, quilting shops, traditional toy shops, and plenty of antiquing opportunities as well. We know of at least one shop that has a special section just for antique tools: Smokehouse Square Antiques.

Speaking of smokehouses, the Amana Meat Shop and Smokehouse is well-known for their smoked meats, sausages, hams and German specialties. They have been doing it since 1855. Try the beef jerky. If you like mustards, you're in luck. Our favorite is the Amana "Champagne" mustard. It's good on pork and pretzels. Lots of German imported fare in this shop as well as locally made cured meats.

If you like wool, blankets, scarves, and other cozy things, stop by the Amana Woolen Mill. This mill was build in 1857 and was powered off line shaft straight from the millrace that still runs alongside the mill. The old warping creel is still in use today and produces wonderful heirloom-quality woolen items. I have an Amana wool blanket on my bed all winter long. It's HEAVY, and incredibly warm.

There is also a fun, quirky little clothing store in the same building as the woolen mill, with interesting clothing items and souvenir-type garments. Nowhere else can you get a 1980's-style blue leather bomber jacket and a turquoise-encrusted straw cowboy hat. No, I didn't actually buy them.

Directly across the street from the woolen mill is Millstream Brewing Company. They are open seven days a week, have a tasting room, and a beer garden outside (that's it above.) They also make really good Root Beer.

Cross the street again, and tucked behind the woolen mill is the blacksmith and machine shop. Again, like all shops in Amana, this one still functions and sells goods for a fair price. This dual-purpose building now serves as a blacksmith shop, producing household items in wrought iron. There is also a custom cutlery shop linked to the blacksmith shop, and they sell excellent hand-made knives. If you're a fisherman, make sure you check out their thin fillet knives. The line shaft in this building took its power directly from a shaft that exited the woolen mill, and then in turn exited this building into yet another workshop, now used for storage (see the shaft, and the shop at left in the pic below)

Past the blacksmith shop you'll encounter a winery, kitchen wares shop, a chocolate shop and a fantastic little toy shop in the basement of the lace shop. Then you find yourself in front of the Amana Furniture Shop.

Amana is primarily known for its excellent solid wood furniture, and this shop carries the tradition of German furniture making from the 19th century into the 21st century. The shop has a spacious showroom displaying their wares, a dedicated clock room, and the woodshop itself features an enclosed catwalk where you can walk right next to worker's benches and watch them as they craft traditional furniture. I've been doing this since I could walk, and I never tire of it.

Down the road a few minutes, in the village of South Amana is the Schanz Furniture and Refinishing shop. That's Norman, Mike and Mike's sons in their shop. A Schanz shop visit should be at the top of your list during the Handworks weekend. This shop features two showrooms full of finished furniture, and you can walk into the shop itself and see the Schanz cabinetmakers busy at work. The Schanz family has been crafting heirloom quality furniture in Amana since the early 1800's. Their furniture is excellent quality, made of solid wood, simple in design and function, and surprisingly affordable. All of the furniture is not only made in the USA, but its made in Iowa! You might want to bring a trailer if you come to Handworks.

In the neighboring village of West Amana, the women of the Schanz family are reviving the lost art of willow and reed basket making, and broom making. The prices are fair. The Broom and Basket Shop is also home to Iowa's largest rocking chair. It's 11 feet tall and 670 pounds of polished Iowa walnut. It will fit an entire nuclear family.

This post could go on for several pages. The Amana colonies are full of rich traditions that still live on today. If your are coming to Handworks, you should allow and extra day at bare minimum to explore all the Colonies  have to offer.

Below is a list of links to some interesting Amana sites.

Amana Colonies: The Handcrafted Escape
The main site for the colonies. Restaurant listings, lodging, shops, etc. Check out the calendar of events for things happening the same weekend as Handworks.

Amana Heritage Society
The site for learning about the heritage and history of Amana. Listings of historical sites and museums. Links for some fantastic vintage photography of Amana.

High Amana General Store
This store retains the interior and exterior look of the original, built in 1857, and still functions as a general store. In the village of High Amana.

My Town Amana Colonies: A blog about life in Amana.
Furniture Making 
Communal Breakfast 
Hamming it Up

There is much much more about the Amanas that I haven't even touched on. Come to Handworks, spend a couple extra days before or after, and see for yourself.


  1. Jameel, thanks for sharing this post. When I traveled to Iowa City a lot for work and we always made it a point to grab at least one meal at the Amanas during the trip. The food is outstanding and we where never disappointed. Looking forward to making it out there again.

  2. Great post. Looking forward to bringing the family to Amana, Jameel.

  3. Jameel,
    Can you look after our booth while we take in the sights?

  4. Hi Jameel,

    I was really hoping to get myself to the HandWorks event before your outstanding post on Amana. Now it's a must for me to get there some way, some how.

    Thanks for the information on such an amazing place!


  5. I hope you do come. Michael. It's a fantastic place.

    Sure Joel, as long as I get some free tools....:-)

  6. I think you should go back and buy that hat and jacket! LOL


  7. Jameel, excellent post!

    The town sounds like it's just my speed. I'll kick myself later if I don't spend some time visiting some of those places while I'm there.

    The only suck-y part of your post was the reminder it is three months away!


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