Today I have come to the village of Ronnenburg in the state of Hesse. Ronneburg (population 3,406, latitude 50.28°N) is not actually one village but three; a cluster of red roofs ringed around a castle on a hill –and I am not here by coincidence. I have come here to join up two points on a map.
The other dot is in Iowa, USA. Amana (population 1,634, latitude 41.68°N) is not just one village but seven, pattern-built during the mid 1800s. Laid out like a giant baseball diamond along the Iowa river valley they are forever connected to a spot 7,000 miles away.
How I ended up in Amana actually was coincidence but I’m mighty glad that I did. My guide drove me round expecting the tour to take about an hour; in the end we were out all day. The story he related began here and so I have come to Ronneburg to hear the first chapter.
Getting to Iowa is easy in comparison. To make your way here you must change trains three times, sleep over at the nearest town and then walk seven miles the next day.
Luckily the train journey is spectacular. The trains pass through endless tunnels into a land of tall pines, deep valleys and ruined castles. Riding through these secret hollows it’s easy to imagine Germany as it once was: a patchwork of miniature kingdoms sealed off from the neighbours by geography and princely egotism. The names of the stations are impossibly grand: Siegerland-Wittgenstein, Welschen-Ennest, Gründau-Lieblos, Ysenburg-Büdingen. Nobody can punctuate quite like the Germans and the hyphens run across the map like stitches from a sewing machine.
I spend the night in Ysenburg-Büdingen. Or Büdingen to be precise. These days, the Ysenburg in the name is little more than a ruined castle. This is a shame because the fully hyphenated version had a proud history. Its prince, or rather a long line of princes, play a major role in our story. Today it is yet another vanished kingdom, long since erased from the map of Germany, taking with it the only settlement in Germany to begin with a “y”.
Büdingen is still here and it is a stunner of a town. Its castle is intact and inhabited; the medieval old town is one of the best preserved in Europe. I have been here for five minutes and have decided that the streets within the walls are one of Germany’s best-kept secrets.
I soon find out why. It doesn’t take me long before I realise that this corner of small-town Germany isn’t exactly used to visitors. I order a beer from a pub on the market square.
“You’re not from round here are you?” says the waitress.
That sort of remark that can be friendly or an expression of suspicion. “People are strange” so goes the song “when you’re a stranger.” She is smiling. I hope for the best.
I tell her and she smiles and asks more questions. I share my life story with her before she remembers that there are other customers to serve in her empty pub and she makes her way inside.
I make my way up to the youth hostel and promptly get lost.
“Can I help you?” asks a lady. I tell her where I want to go.
“That’s an interesting accent. Where are you from?”
She directs me and I head up the hill. I have reserved a room and I announce this to the warden. He is expecting me. He has been wondering about my surname and asks where I’m from. He too is friendly, inquisitive and suddenly remembers that he has things to attend to when I launch into my tale. I drink two beers in a nearby pub whose landlord is curious to know where I hail from and then I sleep well.
The next day I pull on my boots and walk the seven miles through the woods to Ronneburg Castle. It is worth the hike. The castle is a beauty and I soon lose myself in its chambers and towers. When I finally find my way out, I sit in the courtyard beer garden. It is a sunny afternoon in May and I have specially chosen to wear my Iowa University T-shirt.
“Say…” says an American voice “are you from Iowa?”
The couple at the next table. I explain that I am not from Iowa but I have been there; they want to know why. They are curious about my accent; they want to know where it’s from. They are here on vacation; they want to know what brought me here.
I tell them about Amana and a long conversation begins. They are from Kentucky. They have never of Amana but Iowa rings a bell.
And now we come to the missing link. I have told them the story and so now I shall tell you. Back in the 1700s Ronneburg Castle sheltered a Protestant sect that eventually found its way to America. The Prince of Ysenburg leased out the castle to them and offered his protection. That he offered the same generous terms as he had previously offered the Huguenots gives one the impression that his motives were less than spiritual but hey; business is business. And the business of 18th century Hesse was religious tolerance.
“America” and “sect” are not expressions which go easily together but it is worth remembering that back then, Germany was not just a patchwork of miniature states but also of religious convictions. Immediately after the Reformation the list of groups was endless: Mennonites, Melchiorites, Zwinglians, Calvinists –all Protestants with differing concepts of protest. In Amana it’s the Inspirationists and they come from right here.
The Inspirationists were difficult customers to accommodate. They lived and farmed as a commune and so needed a large amount of land concentrated in one place. Little wonder then that as the commune grew — and so did taxes and outside persecution — they decided to try their luck in the new world.
Iowa was not their first choice. When the eight hundred or so colonists stepped aboard the good ship Florida they thought they were going to upstate New York, where the society’s leaders had bought 5,000 acres of land from an Indian reservation near Buffalo.
Unfortunately the experiment failed. Spare a thought for 93 year-old Ulrich Murbach, who survived the 40-day sea voyage only to pass away on the train from New York to Buffalo. And that was just the start of their problems. The locals’ business interests conflicted with their own. Buffalo was already populated with German speakers whose morals were much more relaxed than the Inspirationists’ and for some of the brethren the temptation was too much. The group’s leaders called for action and moved west…Iowa calling.
Here, the Inspirationists could become isolationists and live the pure life which God had ordained. It won’t surprise you to know that their lifestyle would be considered weird by modern standards. Among the things banned by their doctrine: sex –both inside and outside of wedlock, baseball and property ownership.
That 87% of colonists married, that the colony survives to this day and that one of them pitched for the New York Yankees tells you that the first two commandments were taken with a pinch of salt, but communal ownership was strictly adhered to. Up until 1932 no house had a kitchen; meals were prepared communally in cookhouses from food produced on communal farms. Fortunately there was plenty of homemade wine to wash it down with.
It would be a mistake to think of Amana as some kind of Amish-style idyll. Amana’s settlers brought new technology from Germany and constantly updated it. Seven years of hard digging criss-crossed the diamond with canals to serve flour and woolen mills. Chimneys rose up above the cornfields; industry is a proud tradition. In 1965, Amana Refigeration Inc. gave the world a gift for which we are eternally grateful: the microwave oven.
They were adaptable. They set themselves up as a joint stock corporation in the middle of the Great Depression and remain so to this day. In 1942 they abandoned their pacifist ideals and fought for the US in the Second World War. Not all survived and the headstones of their graves are a moving sight; German surnames in the Iowa soil at rest under the stars and stripes.
As for the end of the story, there are several.
All of this was bad news for the Meskawi Indians who were forced westwards to make room, right up until there was nowhere else to go. Like most of the New World, Iowa was a patchwork of settlements from all over the old one. Next door lived the Welsh, nearby the Czechs and Slovaks, upstate the Swedes; here, there and everywhere the Scots and Irish. I often wonder whether Europe’s fascination with immigration has its roots in our own bloody expansion.
The colonies are alive and well. They are proud celebrants of all things German and work hard to keep their traditions alive. There is but one church remaining; German-speaking services are still offered. The older generation are still happy to speak German, a language they learned by catching snippets of their grandparents’ conversation. Sadly they will be the last generation to do so unless something changes.
And the Principality of Ysenburg-Büdingen? Well it was incorporated into the Grand Duchy of Hesse, which then belonged briefly to Austria and afterwards to Prussia. In 1949 it became one of the eleven states of the Federal Republic of Germany. It still has a prince, who is 1080th in line to the British throne, although his financial affairs would scare even Sarah Ferguson.
Patchwork identities. I have seen enough and head into the village for a beer.
“You’re not from round here are you?” says the barman.
“Where are you from?”
“It’s a long story.”