American Sabbatical 016: 9/18/96

Cedar Rapids

Message sent from Yankton, South Dakota: Hopping like frogs in the rain, and it sure knows how to rain out here. I’ll try not to look down on you lowlanders as we approach the 100th meridian, on the long upslope to the top of America. We discovered why Peggy hadn’t been hearing from her colleagues. She has been using the wrong address. The teacher she’d been calling on the phone had been getting hers, but the rest weren’t. We noticed the return receipt feature a little late in the game.. all those pleading missives gone into the digital black hole.. but better late than never. On the friends&family front, however, this connection has been wonderful. We are up and talking to old friends we haven’t been in touch with for years, touching base with near and dear almost daily, and making the local rounds in Bowdoinham, just like visiting at the Town Landing. They weren’t kidding when they hyped this as an electronic village.

Out here on the edge of the Great American Desert this gathering of folks from afar has a deep historic resonance. Today we crossed the wide Missouri, and it was on her banks that the emigrant trains for the Far West made up: in towns like Independence, St. Jo, Council Bluffs. It was here, where the high plains begin, that groups of strangers formed democratic units, elected wagonmasters, fought over routes, wrestled with unfamiliar animals and manners, and started off on their incredible treks. Our e-mailbox has filled up like a marshaling yard on the Missouri bluffs. I feel like there’s a whole train of you following us blindly into the tall grass. Hope we do better than Donner.. but I proceed ourselves. Back to the blow by blowhard:

9/18...Cedar Rapids

Our feet were on fire and our eyes were steaming when we hit Cedar Rapids. And Why Cedar Rapids? you might ask. First because Peggy’s great-grandfather opened a seed store there in the 1880’s, and second because the Art Museum has a big collection of local boy Grant Wood, and the more we looked at Iowa, the more we realized his genius. But, we hadn’t realized that Quaker Oats has a big mill hard by the banks of the Cedar, so we discovered another shrine to visit. Our morning camp ritual begins with Quaker Oats, and now we’ve seen before the beginning.

Back in 1964, when I hitch-hiked to New Orleans at spring break (actually got to Shreveport and some lake in Texas), I ended up walking through Richmond, Virginia, in a sultry noontime. Those days I was smoking Lucky Strikes, and Lo, there was the Lucky Strike factory. I went up and kissed the wall. It seemed right. (And tasted about the way the memory of all those butts does now.) In Cedar Rapids I stood a bit farther back and kissed the oat elevators with watercolors.

Our morning in the Oat City started at the Art Museum, which has to be the most welcoming venue in the biz. A post-deco edifice in loud colors with a soaring lobby, friendly spaces and very lo-key staff. Maybe even ho-key. Which fitted with the art.. definitely corn-fed.

Quaker Oats (Bryce)

Watching the transformation of Grant Wood’s paintings from his early days, you see how a sense of place can be reflected in a style. Wood was no slouch as a French-influenced stylist. His early work was very much in tune with the modern movement, but after his commitment to Iowa (is that an artistic incarceration?), his surfaces flattened, his patterning mimicked the quilted landscape, even his portraits mirrored the openfaced planes of Iowa. The dialogue between place and style informs the outsider. After viewing a couple of rooms of Wood, the Iowa countryside pulls together into a seamless mosaic. In fact, eastern Iowa is very beautiful, once you acquire the vocabulary.

Back in the fall of ‘64 I drove to Iowa City with a native son (John Bean) one dreary November day, and I remember my astonishment while staring at a deadly monotonous landscape to hear him say “Isn’t it beautiful?” I didn’t know whether to laugh or doubt his sanity. Now I get it. He wasn’t crazy.

Iowans aren’t crazy to live in Cedar Rapids, either. These small Midwestern burgs are as hospitable as Bath, Maine, and about as unhurried. Sparkling clean, courteous, industrious, and in this case full of civic amenities and architectural charm, oats elevators notwithstanding. Nobody seemed to mind when locomotives stopped downtown traffic to shift oats wagons around. Maybe that was because the railroad sidings were greenways with solid plantings of flowers along brick walkways. Suited deskjockeys stopped and chatted amiably while the Great Northwestern did its thing. Peggy lingered to dig out the ancestral Foggs at the Hist. Soc. and the Pub. Lib. while I hung out with the Quakers.

(Memo #15)

Sept. 19 - Grant Wood : Regional artist

Who? Grant Wood

What? American regionalist painter best known for "American Gothic"

Where? Iowa (Cedar Rapids Museum of Art)

When? 1920's and 1930's

How? trained in Europe, returned to home state to create art of Iowa

Topics: American art, regional art. Grant Wood. American Gothic. Paul Revere’s Ride. Daughters of the Revolution.

Questions: Can an artist capture and symbolize a region? Can an artist be taken seriously as a regionalist painting his local creek or pasture? Can you acquire naivete? Is the flat quality of Grant Wood’s painting in the actual landscape, or is it a conscious stylistic device?

American Gothic

Iowa is Grant Wood land.. literally. Driving the side roads we came to appreciate his technical expertise in rendering the complex crazy quilt of plowed and planted fields, the hills and hollows, the subtle variations of beige and gold and green. He also caught the way the land at the edges of sight seems to curve, as though you were looking through a fisheye lens. Traveling Iowa makes me think Grant Wood was a skilled painter who captured a specific landscape accurately, not the naive realist or the simple illustrator his critics claim he was.

The museums of Iowa feature Grant Wood and other regional painters. He is the centerpiece of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, a fabulous neo-deco building that mimics in brightly painted geometric shapes a richly ornamented turn-of-the-century stone building attached to it . The ornate capitals and columns of the older building become bold pillars with top “brackets” in the new one. An atrium and glass entries provide light and color.

Spring Corn
(Grant Wood)

The museum’s large Wood collection destroyed several of my preconceptions. Grant Wood did not simply paint flat landscapes and stark portraits; he was adept as a fauve, impressionist, expressionist. He was not a self-educated provincial primitive, but a well-traveled artist who toured Europe, studying and miming the great painters of Europe. A stark portrait of his mother holding a houseplant was a conscious attempt to combine Renaissance portraiture (for example, a distant background and formal pose) with elements of the Midwest (a specific houseplant to symbolize the toughness and hardiness of the region). We saw oils and pastels and lithographs in a variety of styles from different periods in his life. We saw soft French landscapes and bold animal studies and scenes of Iowa farm life.

Hired Girl with Apples
(Grant Wood)

The exhibit text notes that “Grant Wood cultivated the persona of a homegrown Iowa artist. (but) He was, underneath, a sophisticated painter who traveled to Europe four times”, who chose to work and live and teach in Iowa. He believed in art from, of, and for his region.

The three American painters of the twentieth century usually associated with Regionalism are Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart (sic) Curry. All three worked in and painted the Midwest. Curry believed “The artist must paint the thing that is most alive to him.” Grant Wood believed, “everyday rural life had sincere and lasting national meaning.” His paintings certainly convinced me.

What's the role of the artist in his community? Grant Wood started and led an Iowa art summer colony. He also donated many of his paintings to schools, believing that children everywhere should have access to art. Schoolchildren from “his” schools get into the museum free. Grant Wood’s region is richer for regional art.


We’d heard that a “landscape artist” had created a “crop art” installation at the airport, and was going to have an aerial viewing and on-site fingerpointing that afternoon, so we hooked up the implements and turned tractor towards the aerodrome.


Maybe it was a Cropside Happening. Cars driving round and round dusty roads staring at cornfields.. looking for ART? Don’t know, but that’s what we saw. The sheer giddiness of our staring at all this al fresco Grant Woodiness, hoping to find THE BIG EVENT, was too much.

Another Wood


We grinned all the way to Amana. Or the Amanas. Once communal villages settled by German immigrants, they are now a sort of Freeport by the Communal Memory. A Shaker outlet-ville, or Amish mall, if you will. I was having flashes of my mother taking me into every gift shoppe on the Maine coast as a small child, so I took a nap under a tree while Peggy did her snoop thing.

Cheek to fender with the olde Amana quaint goods was the location of the biggest farm implement fair in North America, only in the first stages of setting up, unfortunately. But it was fascinating to see crews heisting harvesters to the top of towers, and performing other feats of showmanship with agricultural devices. But we had to move on. The West was calling.

(Memo #16)

Sept. 19B - Intentional Communities : Amana

Who? Followers of the Church of the True Inspiration and leader Christian Metz

What? seven communities once a self-sufficient communal society

Where? came from Germany, first settled in New York State, moved to Iowa in 1855

When? settled in 1855, end of commune in 1932

How? successful business enterprises

Communal Laundry at Amana

Topics: communes, American utopias / intentional communities, group vs. individual, Maine-Shakers.

Questions: What are the advantages and disadvantages of communes? Can a communal society survive in an individualistic society? Have communes been successful economically? What should happen when a commune or any community dies? How should it be preserved or remembered?


Picture Freeport, Maine, teeming with tourists. There are shops selling a variety of goods, but all with reference to an extinct communal society in Freeport. Descendants of the sect members staff all the shops and museums, and the commune’s buildings are all still there stuffed with knickknacks and retail goods produced in Freeport. This is much what I found at Amana, Iowa. Or, rather, the Amanas.

Southwest of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, are seven villages founded by a group of German immigrants of the Church of the True Inspiration or Amana colony. The sect formed in Germany and over 800 members were lead to America by a charismatic preacher (Christian Metz) to escape religious persecution. They settled first near Buffalo, New York, and then moved to Iowa in 1855 for better, cheaper land with varied resources. Also to escape temptation.

They created a communal society on 26,000 acres of bottomland along the Iowa River where all goods were commonly owned, money was unknown, tasks were performed for the good of the community, often by an assigned group. Every family had a yearly credit allotment at the village store. Every man owed one day of labor to the group at harvest time. They remained German speaking with education and church services in German. German customs and food and crafts and architecture were maintained. The villages were agricultural with all land and equipment held and used in common. The villages typically had barns at one end, mills at the other, with brick family houses along the streets.

The Amanas were ruled first by Christian Metz, then by the Brudderrat (a Council of Elders elected by the people). This group made many decisions that in the wider American society were made by the individual: what your work would be, for example.

Old shoes
(Grant Wood)
The villages were largely self-sufficient. The men were farmers and shoemakers and bakers and tailors and carpenters. Some Amana men were selected to go out and get training as dentists and doctors and pharmacists. Women worked in the communal kitchens preparing food for the 40-50 people who ate together (though they lived in family houses). Women did the gardening and housework (many tasks, like laundry, were done in communal settings). Women’s communal work was made possible by the childcare organized in the villages for preschool children aged 1-5. After age 5 the children went to the village schools (where German was compulsory and the school was divided into study, play, and work periods).

The Amanas allowed for individual choice with supervision. Young people could choose their own spouses, but the decision had to be approved by the leaders. I saw no information on what happened to those who could not or would not follow the Amana way. Did they simply leave? Or was coercion used?

Unlike many utopian societies, the Amana proved to be pragmatic at business, willing to interact with the wider society. When the trains crossed Iowa, the Amanas built a station. The Amanas also launched small enterprises to produce goods for the outside world and bring in cash. Amana woolen good were woven in the villages, cottons were intricately dyed and patterned, both for the world market.

This society grew to seven villages and survived until 1932 when, in an extraordinary action called the “Great Change”, the Amanas voted to become non-communal, capitalistic, money oriented Americans, partners in a profit-sharing corporation.

What really remains of Amana? Memories, curios, a few customs, the buildings, museums. The 7 village churches are still there, with two Sunday services, one in German and one in English. Descendants still live in the houses and the items produced by the commune are now made in privately owned firms.

The villages in another sense are an ethnic mall. Dozens of small village shops hawk Amana goods, traditional bread and rootbeer, furniture and ironmongery and woolens. Amana restaurants sell Amana food, but there are also ice cream parlors and banks. Scores of visitors in shorts and t-shirts walked the streets. The villages host over a million tourists a year. They are the biggest tourist attraction in Iowa.

Once again the Amanas have proved pragmatic, and the villages have survived. This seems to be a lesson of our trip. We have seen extremely depressed rural areas where farming is poor. Iowa had vibrant farming communities. Other rural towns have found gimmicks - Mark Twain in Hannibal; Superman in Metropolis,Illinois; communalism in Amana; or outlets in Freeport. And they have survived.

(Grant Wood)

America spawned scores of communes in the 1800s and continues to create more (for example, The Farm, in Tennessee, which survives from the 1960s). Partly this is due to the difficulty many Americans have with unbridled individualism and materialism. Idealists search for true brotherhood and equality. There is also the perennial problem of balancing the needs of the group with the needs of the individual. Among the best known American utopias are Brook Farm, Oneida, New Harmony, the Shakers, Zoar, Cedar Vale. We hope to visit the sites of extinct communes and living communes.

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