Monday, January 31, 2011

Made in the USA

These days people are trying to buy American and keep it local to support local economies. I try to do my part by buying eggs from a friend here in town, shopping the farmer’s market in the summer and this year I bought all of my Christmas gifts here in town. It is amazing to think that in a town of about 1,700 people I can find such a variety of things that are made right here. Here in Amana we produce refrigerators, woolens, food, art and furniture, just to name a few.

The other day I went down to one of the places here in town where they make furniture, the Amana Furniture Shop. In the Furniture Shop’s show room I met up with the shop’s manager, Bruce. Bruce gave me the nickel tour of the shop and shared with me what they do.

Amana has always been known for fine handcrafted furniture, there are even books written about it. In the early days of Amana the cabinet makers brought designs and techniques from Germany, but eventually evolved their own style influenced by their new life in America. The Amana Furniture Shop is an extension of that tradition. Today they are housed in the old calico factory, where Amana people used to print the famous blue Amana calicos. Here there are show rooms filled with handcrafted Amana furniture and clocks. As I look through the showroom I like to think about how some of the pieces of furniture are made from trees that Larry and Tim cut down. And, as I learned on the tour, a few of the clocks are even made from wood recycled from Kinnick Stadium, home of the Iowa Hawkeyes!

My tour started out in the wood prep area. This is where they store the lumber that is used to make all of the furniture. The craftsmen in the shop use Walnut, Cherry, Oak and Maple. Poplar is also used in the millwork operation where they make trims. All of the lumber is already kiln dried and ready to use. 

 It is also here that raw lumber is cut down to specific sizes for certain projects. Gregory was running a big machine that cuts down the pieces of lumber in their proper sizes. He worked quickly and precisely, but was tricky to photograph with all his moving around. I also met Karolee here. She seems to be the renaissance woman of the shop, running around doing all kinds of different tasks, from dealing with lumber to screwing doors on to a cabinet.

As I travel through the operation there are a lot of pipes on the ceiling. Bruce tells me that these pipes are taking wood chips and wood dust that is created in the shop outside into a bin where it is collected and then given to the Amana Society farm to use. It’s full circle at the furniture shop.  I also notice that hanging in the wood prep area are pattern pieces. All pattern pieces that are used are cataloged and stored. Some of these patterns go back to the 1950s.

From wood prep we head into the area where the wood is fitted together and glued so it will make nicely patterned large piece of wood. After the wood is dry and the glue is sanded off the top it goes into the shop area. This is the area that has that yummy cut wood smell that reminds me of high school shop.  It is here that each craftsman has his own area to work in with his own tools. I was able to snap a few photos as the guys worked. David, Gary, Rudy and Ron were all on hand and were nice enough to let me take their picture. They worked busily away and tried to ignore me. I thought about letting them know about my new expertise with saws and asking if they would let me use one in the shop, but they seemed very busy and I didn’t want to slow them down.   

Each piece of furniture is made totally by one craftsman, no assembly lines here! They are even still using old world methods like double mortise and tenon joints. About half of what is made here is custom work for people around the country and around the world. The other day a clock was shipped off to Tasmania.

After the craftsmen are finished with a piece it goes off to be finished. Layers of finish are put on by Debbie. It seems to be quite the process. All pieces getting multiple coats with sanding and drying in between. After that they are all done and go to the customer, the show room or into the stock room.

Of course all tours end at the gift shop, and for me so did this one. Back in the showroom the furniture took on a different glint for me. Running a hand across a traditional walnut drop leaf table I am reminded of Amana heritage. Of pioneers seeking freedom in the American dream and how that dream still continues. With most manufacturing going off to other countries and small towns becoming ghost towns as the jobs leave, we are lucky here in Amana to still be vibrant. To be able to enjoy the benefits of living in a small town where you know who brews your beer, who grows your lettuce, and who makes your kitchen table.

Buying local in My Town: Amana Colonies

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Amana Colonies: The Meca of the Mustachioed

One of my favorite parts of Winterfest is the Best Beard contest. Every year men from all over come to Amana to show off their mutton chops, their fu Manchu or their ZZ top beards in order to claim the best beard. This year was no different with twenty-two men lining up to show off their beards for the judges.

 In previous years the judges have seen all sorts of facial hair, from the short and stubbly to the long and luscious. The contest has three categories contestants can compete in: fullest, most unique and best overall. Contestants are asked about their growing strategies, grooming practices and inspiration, which they proudly share with the judges. Judges have even been known to have a hands-on approach during the contest when selecting a winner. This year’s judges included Lalanya Bodenbender from Henry’s Village Market, Ron Heitmann, last year’s Overall Best Beard winner, and Winterfest Ice Princess Jackie McCall.

 This year the guys really seem to get into showing off their beards. They stroked and posed and even had cheering sections to sway the judges in their favor. It seemed to work for Don Alexander of West Amana, who won in the most unique category. Don had a cheering section with custom made t-shirts AND he drew beard extensions on his t-shirt, apparently impressing the judges. The other winners were Ted Schulte of Coralville for having the longest beard, Darrell Langan of Cedar Rapids got the honorable mention for having a thick and full beard and Dave Friedel of Des Moines won best over all.
If you are ever in Amana during Winterfest this is definitely the activity to check out. Not only are the contestants great, but with local radio personalities, Brain and Steele from Khak, emceeing the contest you will laugh a lot. If you love men in beards, this is the place to find them in Eastern Iowa.

Keeping warm in My Town: Amana Colonies

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Communal Breakfast

In Communal Amana (1855-1932) it was the women’s job to cook for their community at their local communal kitchen. In these kitchens it would be the job of one of the kitchen girls to wake early in the morning to light the fire. She would then eat breakfast and then cook breakfast for up to fifty of her neighbors. This last Saturday I had a little taste of that experience.

My alarm went off at , which is late compared to the the kitchen girls used to get up at. I put on an antique wool Amana dress, which was given to me by a High Amana resident, along with a pair of original Amana socks, shawl and knitted winter hood. Properly attired I went out into the cold winter morning and traveled to Middle Amana.  I was feeling very authentic as I stepped into Hahn’s Bakery to pick up the coffee cake for the morning. Going into Hahn’s bakery is a treat in more then one way. Not only does Doris Hahn makes delicious breads and coffee cakes from scratch every morning, but you get to peek at the unique stone hearth oven that she uses to bake the bread in. For you out of town people, I’ll let you in on a little secret. If you want a delicious treat from Hahn’s Bakery; get there early. Doris is normally sold out by , or if you are staying in town for a couple days call ahead and place an order.

Hahn’s is next door to the Communal Kitchen Museum so I didn’t have far to carry the morning’s bread. Luckily Lanny was already there at the kitchen and had started the fire, so it was warm and toasty when I got there. I set out the dishes and bread for our first group of visitors. We were expecting two groups of people to eat that morning, twenty-five at and twenty-five at . It was to be a full house.

The Ruedy Kitchen, which is now the Communal Kitchen Museum, was built in 1862. Like all kitchens in the Amana Colonies it was closed in 1932 with the Great Change. Luckily Ma Ruedy kept this kitchen as a working summer kitchen and it was never renovated like all of the other kitchens in the Amana Colonies. It is the only kitchen in all of the Colonies that remains intact, hearth and all. It became a museum in the 1950s. So it was a great honor for me to be able to use this historic hearth to cook breakfast for the community and visitors on this Winterfest morning. Breakfast was very traditional: fried potatoes, coffee cake, bread with jam but no butter and coffee. No bacon. No eggs. Lucky for me, because cooking potatoes for fifty people was hard enough.

While I was cooking our guest were taken care of by the “kitchen boss” played by Meg Merckens and another kitchen girl played by Darian Childers. After the opening prayer by elder Jon Childers our guest learned the history of the kitchens in the Amana Colonies from Meg all while enjoying hot fried potatoes cooked on a hearth that is almost 150 years old and coffee cake made in an oven that is just about the same age.
By the end of the morning my feet were tired and I was complaining about being hot. (Which I regretted about an hour later). I can’t image what it would have been like standing in front of that hearth in the middle of the summer. It must have been excruciatingly hot. But by the end I was getting into the grove with the hearth, there definitely is a rhythm to using it. There needs to be a certain amount of wood to make proper heat and you need to know where to cook and where to warm on the hearth. With my communal hearth experience I feel like I now have a little piece of communal Amana in my heart. I have put my feet in the dip on the floor in front of the dry sink where generations of women have stood and I have cook breakfast on the same hearth that those women cooked at.  It was a privilege.

Cooking for My Town: Amana Colonies

Friday, January 21, 2011

Does this make me a Lumber Jill?

There I am in 20 degree weather, ankle deep in snow, putting on Kevlar chaps when I hear, “have you ever run a chain saw?” Um, no.

Well now I have, thanks to the Amana Society Forestry department who invited me to take a look at how they spend their work day.  Donning three layers and snow boots, I ventured into the Amana timber and that’s how we get to the part with me wearing chaps. Now, I’m the kind of person who is always looking for just a little bit of adventure. You won’t find me sky diving, but tromping through the snow with the possibility of using a chain saw? Yep, I’ll go for that. So I was really excited to have this rare opportunity.

The ASI forestry department consists of Larry Gnewikow and Tim Krauss. Larry attended school at Iowa State in the Forest Management program and Tim went to Upper Iowa University in the Conservation program. These are two outdoors men who know their stuff and they both are super nice and hospitable to boot.


This time of year Larry and Tim are out there working on tree stand improvement, or TSI. Using chain saws to cut into unwanted trees, like Iron Wood, they then put herbicides on them so they don’t grow back. The chemical is brightly colored so it can’t be missed (and gives the illusion in my photos that the tree is bleeding. Don’t worry. They aren’t.) After I geared up and was shown the safety precautions with the chain saw, Tim pointed out the iron woods to for me to cut down. I learned that TSI is an important job in forestry, because it gets rid of unwanted trees in order to give more room for the wanted ones to grow. Larry and Tim want to make sure there is a proper balance of tree species. The goal with TSI is to create a balanced ecosystem to have a healthy, productive timber.

Along with TSI Larry and Tim’s job includes the planting and harvesting of trees. They plant mostly Red and White Oak, Walnut and Maple. They collect local seeds, like walnuts and acorns, to be planted another year. They plant any where from a thousand to two thousand trees a year and harvest about as many trees as they plant. After felling, these trees are taken to a saw mill and made into lumber. From there the lumber is sold on the open market, though a  percentage does get sold to the Amana Furniture Shop. So if you buy furniture from Amana, it is possible that it was not only made here, but grown here too.

Now amongst all of this serious forestry business, Larry and Tim are a hoot to hang out with. Ask any question about the forestry and Larry will answer it, along with a big laugh. This is definitely the guy I want teaching me how to run a chainsaw; with him its safety first and joke second. Tim seems to be the resident cook and made us up some deer steaks and French fries over the campfire for lunch. I have never seen anyone cook fries over a camp fire. Seeing what they do was great, but lunch was the best part. Honestly now I am quite jealous of Larry and Tim’s job, it was really fun being out there amongst the trees and working and eating with the guys. Though I’m not sure about being out in the elements all of the time. I never did see the sign for the ladies room.

Roughing it in: My Town Amana Colonies

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Carl is Hamming it up for Winterfest

Some folks find comfort in the expression, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” For Amana’s Carl Oehl, change is something he’s familiar with, yet in changing, he’s found a way to remain the same. Born at the end of the communal era in the Amana Colonies, Oehl has literally seen it all, at least when it comes to the many changes that have involved the Amana community over the last eighty years.

Oehl was born in communal-era Amana, and was a part of the community concerned with work, church, and hearty food. Shortly after the Great Change, Opa Carl, as he’s affectionately known, took a job at the Amana Meat Shop. He remarks that they custom butchered for many years until home butchering practices changed, and the mail order business had its start prior to the Great Change in 1932.

“Hotels all over were serving our bacon,” recalls Oehl, “and packages were shipped via parcel post or railway express.” Today, the Amana Meat Shop continues that tradition by filling thousands of orders for hams of all sizes, meat and cheese packs, and other specialty items. He attributes the Internet in keeping the business alive and well, referring to the constant UPS semi traffic loading mail order from the Amana Meat Shop seven days a week during their busy time of year.

In 1968, Carl and his wife, Fern, started the Colony Market Place Restaurant in South Amana. Carl’s love of great food and his desire to work ever closer with the public were the ingredients for his longtime success as a restauranteur. It’s even ironic that the building in South Amana the Oehl family renovated into the restaurant was the village meat market, built of locally-produced brick with a domed-ceiling basement and smokehouse, where you could get just a hint of the smoky aroma from bygone years of curing hams. Ultimately, Carl and Fern sold the Colony Market Place in 1995 and retired, though the thought of retirement for the active couple seemed a foreign concept.

Shortly after his retirement, Carl drifted back to the Amana Meat Shop. “It’s sort of been a magnet for me all these years…I was born just four doors down and still live there to this day,” he explains. Oehl works weekends, especially during events and festivals like Amana’s Winterfest. He can be seen visiting with customers, giving samples, and providing advice on recipes and how to properly cook hams, chops, and other items you’ll find at the Amana Meat Shop. Having lost his wife, Fern, just two years ago, he reiterates, “Being here is my safety valve.” Oehl relishes the fact that he recognizes everyone who is a repeat customer to the meat shop. He also served as the Burgermeister for the Maifest and Oktoberfest in the Amanas. He’s currently the ‘retired’ Burgermeister, though he is still very active in his duties to the various festivals.

When asked about Hammin’ It Up this weekend at the Winterfest, the retired Burgermeister reports, “It’ll be fun. On Saturday, we’ll offer ham carving demonstration and make ham and bean soup for everyone to sample. I’ll show folks what they can do with their ham bones. We’ll have a free drawing for a ham.” He also reminded us that they’ll offer specials on ham salad, pickled ham, hams and ham portions the entire weekend Jan 21-23.” You can even look for a hidden Ms. Piggy.

Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same. From a hardworking teenager, to successful entrepreneur, to retiree, to honoree, and back to where it all started for him seventy years ago, Carl Oehl has seen it all, and he’s waiting to visit with you this weekend at the Amana Meat Shop during Amana’s Winterfest.

Like Carl says "Keep smiling"

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Bottling at Millstream Brewery

Tuesday is bottling day at Millstream Brewery. Yesterday the staff there put up with me taking photos and asking questions as they bottled 400 cases of beer. That is 9,600 bottles of beer or 900 gallons.  A lot of beer, and yesterday was a slow day. During the summer they bottle anywhere from 800 to 1000 cases of beer and pop.
            Feeling like I was in the beginning of Lavern and Shirley show I watched as Tom placed empty bottles into the bottling machine. Off the bottles went to be filled, capped and labeled, then to be picked up and put in sleeves and then boxed. The bottling machine is from the 1950s and was originally used in a Coke facility. Looks like it is still going strong today.
            Millstream Brewery originally opened in 1985, the first brewery to operate in Amana since 1884. In 2000, the current owners, Chris Priebe, Tom and Teresa Albert, bought the business and have been making award winning beer ever since. This past year has been great for Millstream Brewery, they are up 12% in sales and their beer can now be found in bars, restaurants and grocery stories around the whole state of Iowa and not just Eastern Iowa, like in the past. This upswing in sales has allowed them to buy new brewing equipment that allows them to brew beer in half of the time they were before. A new brewing room with shinny new brewing equipment has lead to construction on an indoor seating room with a view of the brewing room.

 In Iowa there is a lot of talk about eating local food and buying from the farmers and producers who grow or make the food near you. Here in the Amana Colonies we are lucky to have quite a few farmers and producers right here in our town. Millstream is just one piece of that green puzzle for me. And just another reason I feel lucky to live in the Amana Colonies.

My favorite beer at Millstream?
John’s White Ale. Try it next time you come to town.

Don’t worry this blogger types responsibly.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Snow Day

Though we did not get as much snow as others around the nation today, we did get a nice dusting that leads itself to some beautiful photographs and outdoor activities. I got up a little early this morning and snapped some photos of the cows in South Amana. The unique landscape here really makes for some fantastic photos, in all seasons.

Off to take more photos of My Town: Amana Colonies