In honor of my visit to Taylor County, Iowa a year ago, here’s a short story about some Amana rag balls that I found in an antique store in Bedford. The story is a fictional account, to honor the women and girls that would have sat wrapping rag balls and weaving rugs so many years ago.
The story is one of eight from my book, Wash on Monday.
Amana Rag Balls, Middle Amana, Iowa, 1890
“Aber Vater, muss ich das?” But Father, do I have to? Elsie Ackerman asked, a pout on her face.
“Ja, meine Tochter.” Yes, my daughter, he replied. “You know that the Council of Brethren assigns jobs to everyone in the community. Once you turn fourteen, your schooling is over and you have a job assigned, like we all do.”
“But I don’t want to work in the kitchens. I don’t like to cook and bake all day. And sewing and mending all day isn’t fun either.”
“What you want to do meine Tochter is not the concern of the Council. Their concern is what’s best for the colonies. Most young girls are assigned to the kitchen, the gardens, or the laundry. And with winter approaching, there is little need for help in the gardens right now.”
“I can’t help it the winters here are so cold and snowy that we can’t garden.”
“It’s very mild here. I was a young boy when the Ebenezer Society moved here from Buffalo, New York. Now, that was a place that has a winter. This here is merely a pouf of snow compared to what I grew up with. May I remind you that you’re lucky that I’m in a pleasant mood this evening, or there would be harsh consequences for you speaking back to me in this manner?”
“Es tut mir leid, Vater.” I’m sorry, Father,” a contrite Elsie replied. “It’s just that the thought of working in one of the kitchens to serve three meals and two snacks a day to everyone just sounds like so much cooking. You wouldn’t think we’d need to have fifty kitchens going. Couldn’t I go to work at the mills with you? Working with the blue print cottons would be much more exciting.”
“No. The mills are no place for a young girl. Neither the cotton mill nor the woolen mill. The work there is hard and strenuous. You’ve never been inside where the heat and the smells from the dye vat fill the air with their fumes.”
“Vater, there are some women that work in the woolen mills.”
“No, even if the Council allowed it, I would not allow my daughter to be subjected to a life of this type of labor.”
Elsie’s mother, Emma, entered the small front room, wiping her hands on the dish cloth tucked into her indigo apron waistband. “Carl, let the girl head for bed now, if her studies are completed. The bell will be ringing early in the morning.”
“Off with you then. Gute Nacht, Liebes,” he said, patting Elsie on the top of her blond braided head.
True to her mother’s word, the bell tolling from the village tower rang long before the sun rose. After breakfast, cooked by the women of the community – a task that Elsie did not want to emulate, she headed off for the school house. She dreaded when her school days would come to an end on her upcoming fourteenth birthday.
On her way to worship service that day, Elsie walked slowly around Lily Lake on the way to the small white chapel where services were held in Middle Amana. Each of the seven villages had its own church located in the center. These were simple structures, reflecting the simplicity of the German immigrants that had come to this new country in search of a place to practice their religion free from persecution. The plain brick or stone buildings were void of the flashy stained glass windows and high steeples that many of the other churches in America displayed.
The history of the colonies, starting in Germany’s villages in 1714, was well known to the 1800 residents of the seven Amana colonies. The religious movement call Pietism had many followers that banded together in a common belief of faith renewal through reflection, prayer and Bible study. They believed that God, through the Holy Spirit, inspired individuals to speak. This gift of inspiration, or prophecy was the foundation for the group that became known as the Community of True Inspiration.
When persecution continued, Christian Metz led the community to a new home in a new world, looking for religious freedom, much as the first American colonists were searching for. They pooled their resources and bought 5,000 acres near Buffalo, New York. As the community grew and adopted a constitution and formalized communal way of life, they needed more farmland to support them.
A move to Iowa in 1855 gave them the land they needed to grow and flourish.
While well known to everyone, as this community history was passed down through the years, none of this mattered to Elsie. She was conflicted about not wanting to do the work she feared the elders would designate as her job.
During the quiet worship service, Elsie offered up prayers for a solution to her dilemma. Please Lord, let there be another job for me that’s not in the kitchens. I don’t want to be selfish. You know my heart. But the thought of standing behind a hot stove all day long does not bring joy to my heart. She didn’t know if her quiet pleas were heard, but her heart was eased.
The month passed quickly. Too quickly. Elsie repeated her prayer daily. At the many worship services throughout the week, and at times in between too.
After her fourteenth birthday, she was called to the Council of Brethren. The elders sat, clearly outnumbering her, with stern countenances.
Elsie sat in her seat, hands clasped in her lap in nervousness, yet her head held high in defiance of the meek attitude she knew the Council expected.
“You’re of age now to work for the community I understand,” the elder said, peering over the top of his spectacles.
“Yes, Herr Klein, I am.”
“We have no need of help in this garden at this time of year. And the laundry positions are well filled. Typically we would assign you work in one of the many kitchens in the community.”
“It’s been made apparent to me,” at which he glanced at Elsie’s father sitting beside her, “that you don’t wish to work in the kitchens.”
“No, sir. I was not looking forward to that assignment.”
“You do realize that the work everyone in the community provides – everyone – is for the best of the community as a whole and not for the individual person. That is how we have been able to provide so well for each other and thrive as the Amana colonies.”
“Yes, sir. I understand that.” Elsie’s lip trembled, but she refused to give the elders the satisfaction of seeing her cry upon getting assignment she did not want.
Herr Klein’s look softened as he gazed into her eyes. “However, I do believe we can come to a satisfactory agreement in this unusual situation. As favor grows with our well made goods, especially the calico and woolen fabrics, more people come from around the area to shop at our establishments. We are in need of a larger supply of household items to sell. Our woven rugs are quite popular and our stock needs replenished with more expediency. Instead of the kitchens, I believe we can assign you to Fraeulein Helga, to aide her with her rug weaving and learn the skill yourself.”
A smile spread across Elsie’s face, from ear to ear as her head bobbed up and down. “Oh yes, Herr Klein. That is an assignment I am most excited about. I know some basics already … and I can help with anything Fraeulein Helga needs … and I can be there at first light tomorrow … and I …”
The Elder held his hand in the air, with an unusual smile on his face. The other members of the Council glanced at him with mixed looks of puzzlement and astonishment. He was acting out of character with this unexpected wavering of tradition. “Settle down little one. You can begin your apprenticeship at Fraeulein’s next week, the day after the Sabbath.”
“Yes sir, I will. And I’ll be the best helper she’s ever had. And I’ll learn and I’ll help the community by making many fine rugs with good craftsmanship and care.”
“I’m sure you will little one. Tonight at worship you may want to offer an extra thanks to our Lord for this opportunity, and also for the fine loving father you have, who was willing to intercede with the Council on your behalf.”
Elsie enjoyed her apprentice work with Fraeulein Helga. At first she wrapped many calico strips into rag balls, readying them for the weaving process. Over time, the elder weaver began teaching Elsie, who became a proficient weaver of her own right. Thousands of rag rugs were created under Elsie’s steady and patient mastery of the loom, until the community voted to disband its communal society in 1932. Elsie lived out the rest of her life in Amana, in a house overflowing with indigo rag balls and her woven creations.
The history of the seven Amana Colonies and their origins in Germany, to Buffalo, to Iowa is true. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, hundreds of thousands of visitors a year visit this Iowa area where the community thrived from 1855 to 1932.
Was there an Elsie, a Herr Klein, or a Fraeulein Helga? Maybe not specifically by those names nor in those roles. However, fourteen year old girls were assigned work in the gardens, the laundry or the kitchens. Most 14 year old boys were designated work on the farm, in the craft shops, or were sent to college to be trained as teachers, doctors and dentists.
The Amana Calico Mill was built in 1861. It grew from one building to eight buildings at its height of production in the 1890’s. At its peak, the mill produced up to 4500 yards per day. The British naval blockade during World War I interrupted the import of the German dyes used in the calico production. Not able to maintain the quality of the product they wanted, the community closed the factory. Today two buildings remain, the fire and printing houses, which are used by the Amana Furniture Shop.
And passing through time, remnants of this period of history remain. These three rag balls were discovered in an antique store in Bedford, Iowa on my journey there in 2014. (Now I wish I would have purchased the rest of them.)
Originally, fabric was purchased from the south and shipped to the Print Works, where it was then dyed and processed into “blue print”. Yardage was sold locally and further out by salesman traveling the countryside with sample books. Some calico was cut into strips, wrapped into rag balls and used to make rag rugs. These balls were recently found in an attic in Amana. From there they ended up in an antique shop in Bedford, where I found them. I brought them back to Texas with me, as an Iowa treasure and remembrance of a special trip.
Who cut them into strips? Whose hands touched these, as they worked with the cottons and rag rugs? How did they get stashed in an attic to sit for eighty to a hundred years? These answers we’ll never know. The people have long passed on before us, taking the mysteries of their lives with them. We can see and hold the rag balls they once touched, and only imagine a fictional story of the women or people behind these pieces of the past.