Back to the Future

The decline of a once-dominant community offers a cautionary tale for CUs.

October 22, 2012

The Amana Colonies, 26,000 acres of picturesque Iowa farmland, sheltering seven immaculate villages, are up Highway 151 about 100 miles east of Des Moines.

This is the Midwest, the Heartland. The place where the Deere and the antelope play. A warp in time through which, you may, perhaps, be able to catch a glimpse of the future—the future of the credit union movement.

The Amanas were settled in 1855 by the Society of True Inspirationists. The sect was formed in Germany; adopted a communal structure; and had unique, idealistic, and firmly held beliefs—sound vaguely familiar?

The communities were self-sufficient and prospered richly. All things were shared.

Products—woolens, handmade furniture, meats, and wines—were sold to the outside world. A sterling reputation was built upon high standards of craftsmanship and a close attention to detail.

The “Amana” name—remember that refrigerator?—became synonymous with quality and value—sound vaguely familiar?

The Amanas appeared to be the true Utopia, the new Eden. But trouble, eventually, always comes to Eden.

At first, the Inspirationists called it “The Reorganization,” then “The Change,” and finally “The Great Change.”

It started as a murmur, became a grumble, heightened to an argument, and ended in 1932 as a split.

Eighty years of success forced onto the scaffold of change by a diminished intensity of beliefs, a cooling of religious fervor, a forgetfulness of original purpose and vision—sound vaguely familiar?

Their world, however, did not come to an end in 1932. The Amana Colonies continued on.

The communal structure was abandoned; the religious and the secular were separated.

Homes and personal property were divided; stock  was issued in the businesses and agricultural interests.

The Amana Society Corp. now controls and manages the businesses. The Amana Church Society now deals with spiritual matters.

Today, the Amanas are on the National Registry of Historic Places, and the Amana Heritage Society strives diligently to preserve the  cultural heritage of the community and its descendants.

Today, the Amanas are still many things, but mostly the Amanas are a novelty, an oddity, a quaint museum of past hopes and ideas.

Why did this happen?

The guidebook says: The Amanas were “a goal: visioned through faith; created and established by faith; named for a faith and dedicated to a faith.”

And, “the first generation had an idea and lived for the idea. The second generation perpetuated the idea for the sake of their fathers, but their hearts were not in it.

The third generation openly rebelled against the task of mere perpetuation of institutions founded by their grandfathers. It is always the same with people.”—sound vaguely familiar?

Which credit union generation is this? Are you still living for “the idea”? Is your heart…still in it?

JIM BLAINE is president/CEO of State Employees Credit Union, Raleigh, N.C.