Iowa has a long history of Amish settlement
The Amish in Iowa are found most notably in three locations in the state—near the towns of Kalona, Bloomfield, and in Buchanan County. These three communities make up about half the state’s Amish population.
As of 2023, Iowa’s Amish population is approximately 10,200 people, spread across two dozen communities (Young Center, 2022). Updated July 31, 2023
Amish communities in Iowa include:
- Kalona – Kalona is the oldest Iowa Amish settlement
- Bloomfield – Bloomfield is the largest Amish community in the state. Amish here are of a similar affiliation to those in Kalona
- Buchanan County – the Amish at Hazleton in Buchanan County are one of the more conservative groups in Amish society, though have been changing in recent years
- Small Iowa settlements – numerous smaller settlements exist in Iowa, with about a dozen having been founded in the past 2 decades
Kalona is the oldest and best-known of all Iowa Amish settlements. Founded in 1846, Kalona has a total of 12 church districts today, and a population of over 1,600 Amish people.
The Kalona Amish settlement is set among the rolling hills of Johnson and Washington Counties in southeast Iowa. About 2/3 of the settlement located in Johnson County with the remaining 1/3 in Washington County, clustered around the small town of Kalona (pop. 2,200), a popular tourist town.
The Kalona Amish community is often reported to be the “largest Amish community west of the Mississippi”. In fact, this is not even the largest settlement in the state. And outside of Iowa, the Amish settlement at Seymour, Missouri is larger, with a population exceeding 3,000 Amish as of 2023.
At nearly 180 years in existence, Kalona is in fact one of the oldest communities in Amish society. Over the years, progressive religious movements, out-migration, and periods of increased defection rates (see Miller, The Kalona Amish: Retention and Defection Patterns of the 20th Century) have reduced the Kalona population, resulting in a fairly small Amish community relative to its age.
Comparatively, settlements started at similar times at Arthur, Illinois (1864) and Nappanee, Indiana (1841) are significantly larger in size, with populations of over 4,000 people (Arthur) and over 6,000 (Nappanee).
Farming is popular in this community. Amish farmers here operate standard cow dairies, with a significant contingent milking goats, an animal especially popular in the state for its milk. Some Amish even milk sheep in this community.
Kalona Amish are among the more progressive Old Order groups when it comes to technology. In Living Without Electricity, Stephen Scott and Kenneth Pellman note that Kalona Amish permit the use of propane gas, power lawnmowers, and rototillers. In addition to the majority Old Order presence, there is a small New Order group at Kalona as well.
Kalona Amish are also among the few Amish that allow tractors to be used for field work. However, this is with the stricture that tractors have metal wheels, so as to discourage road travel.
Amish traditionally have felt that tractors, with their four wheels, engine, and steering wheel, are not far removed from automobiles. Allowing full usage of rubber-tired tractors would only encourage eventual adoption of conventional motor vehicles. Those tractors that do venture onto the road in Kalona reveal by a loud clanking noise that they are not fit for high speeds or long distances.
Common surnames in the Kalona community include Yoder, Miller, Ropp, Brenneman, Bontrager, and Gingerich. Amish in the Kalona community are “back-and-forth” with Amish in settlements at Arthur, Illinois and northern Indiana, and most of all, with Amish at the nearby Bloomfield settlement.
Bloomfield is a much younger Iowa Amish settlement located to the southwest of Kalona in Davis County. Founded in 1971, this community is larger in size than Kalona, with over 1,800 Amish people as of 2023. Bloomfield Amish churches maintain a similar, though somewhat more traditional Ordnung.
Amish settlement extends west from Bloomfield up to and beyond the hamlet of West Grove, and up to Drakesville and beyond to the north. At least eight Amish schools and one cemetery serve the Amish of this community.
Amish at Bloomfield are quite entrepreneurial, and operate a wide array of businesses. As far back as 2003, there were nearly 70 businesses in operation, averaging about one per every other Amish household (see Bloomfield Amish Community Address & Map 2003).
Numerous furniture and wood businesses, a bakery, a rug weaver, and a greenhouse are among the enterprises run by Amish (read more on Iowa Amish furniture businesses). Horseshoers (farriers), buggy shops, and a refrigerator business serve the needs of the Amish community, and in some cases non-Amish as well.
Bloomfield is the home of an Amishman paralyzed as a young man, who was later the subject of a book written by his father. Read more on the Bloomfield Amish settlement.
The Amish of Buchanan County differ from their cousins in the southern part of Iowa. Amish from Kalona founded this settlement near the town of Hazleton in 1914, seeking to preserve more conservative church standards. Steven Nolt in A History of the Amish describes the Buchanan County Amish as being among the most conservative in the entire Amish diaspora.
Amish here have been described in the past as among the most tradition-minded of all Amish, using limited technology. Chainsaws, inside flush toilets, pneumatic tools, and tractors for belt power have (at least in the past) not been permitted by the Amish of Buchanan County, though the majority of congregations across Amish society do allow these innovations (see Scott and Pellman’s Living Without Electricity).
However, in recent years the Amish in this community have accepted increasing amounts of change, and it would be inaccurate to call them among the most conservative groups. Acceptance of the SMV triangle, storm fronts on buggies, phone shanties, and pressure lighting place them on a more progressive tier. Amish from the Buchanan County group have founded many settlements outside of this home community, becoming one of the widest-dispersed Amish affiliations.
Amish in Buchanan County also found themselves on the forefront of education disputes in the mid-1960s. It was in Buchanan County that a famous conflict took place in the matter of Amish schooling.
In the mid-1960s, Amish living in Buchanan County found themselves in the middle of a conflict between two rival school districts who were in the course of merging. Locals from the smaller district opposed the merger.
Amish themselves wished to be included in an area of the new district where one-room schools would still be operated. At the time Amish had also come under pressure for failing to comply with increasingly stringent teacher certification standards. The Amish were convinced by the school superintendent to vote in a local referendum in favor of merging, on promise of support for keeping one-room schools.
The Amish vote, which helped the merger measure pass, angered the minority opposition. Authorities eventually took action against the Amish, who had become involved as “unwitting pawns”, as John A. Hostetler describes them, in the larger intra-communal conflict. Amish schools were visited by state inspectors and fines levied against the Amish for employing uncertified teachers (Amish Society, John A. Hostetler, pp. 264-266).
The culmination of the Amish share in this dispute came when the Oelwein school bus arrived to transport Amish children to a new consolidated school, an action which officials expected would solve the problem. A famous photo of the incident shows Amish children scattering into nearby cornfields to avoid the forced bussing.
Amish scholar John Hostetler reports that on November 19, 1965, “school authorities forced their way into a private Amish school in order to compel the children to board a bus to take them to the consolidated town school. The press got wind of impending events and recorded the scene as frightened youngsters ran for cover in nearby cornfields and sobbing mothers and fathers were arrested for noncompliance with an Iowa school law” (Amish Society, John A. Hostetler, p. 264).
The conflict became the subject of worldwide attention, and soon after, the Iowa governor became involved in the dispute, arranging a moratorium of sorts. Outsiders stepped in to pay fines which had been levied against the Amish.
The National Committee for Amish Religious Freedom was organized by sympathetic outsiders at this time as well, and turned its attention to the issue of Amish schooling. The conflict took on a national scope with questions of religious liberty coming under discussion.
Eventually, Iowa’s state legislature changed school code to allow for religious exemptions from state school standards (Amish Society, Hostetler, pp. 267-268). The Buchanan County conflict was a key event on the road to the Wisconsin v. Yoder Supreme Court decision of 1972 which granted Amish and other groups religious exemption from state-mandated schooling standards.
In addition to the three large Iowa Amish settlements detailed above, numerous smaller communities exist in the Hawkeye State. Most of the remaining Amish settlements consist of one, two, or three church districts, meaning a population of anywhere from a handful of families to about 400 at most.
The community at Seymour in Wayne County, founded in the mid-1990s, is the state’s fourth largest, at nearly 1,000 Amish people.
In Van Buren County, near the towns of Milton and Pulaski, one finds an Amish settlement of five church districts, founded in 1969. Van Buren County is also home to a more recent community, founded in 2005 near Bonaparte.
Delaware County, near Edgewood, is also home to a settlement of three districts, founded in 1986. The Mitchell County settlement in the environs of McIntire and Riceville, founded 1975, had grown to two church districts as of 2008, and fifteen years later, remains about the same size.
Other Iowa Amish settlements are found in Lucas, Allamakee, Ringgold, and Decatur Counties. A number of communities have been founded by Amish since 2010, including in Madison and Monroe Counties.
The Amana people
Another Iowa religious group sometimes confused with the Amish are the Amana people.
The Amana people were a German Pietist group also known as the Community of True Inspiration. Seeking respite from religious persecution, they immigrated to New York in the early 1840’s, later moving to the rich farmlands of central Iowa in 1855, about the same time Amish were founding settlements in the state.
Amana people practiced communal living, with property held in common and individuals assigned tasks which they performed for the community. Amana people ate in common and also maintained a degree of plain dress.
A number of villages were founded by the Amana people which bear names such as Amana, West Amana, and High Amana. These villages are only a short drive from the Amish settlement at Kalona, a likely reason (along with the similar-sounding name and German heritage) for confusion between the two groups.
Due to the desire on the part of some members for greater economic and social liberties, the Amana colonies decided to cease the practice of communal property in 1932. Property and business interests were entrusted to a joint-stock company which would manage the business interests of the community.
Like the Amish, Amana people developed a reputation for industriousness, and ran a number of operations including farms, a wool mill, and a mill which produced calico, a woven cotton fabric. The refrigerator and kitchen appliance maker Amana Refrigeration was started by an Amana member in the 1930s.
Today Amana people continue church life but without communal living or other cultural markers which distinguished this society in America for nearly 90 years.
Iowa Amish settlements which no longer exist
Iowa was once home to a number of Amish settlements founded in the mid-1800s, but which have ceased to exist. All of these communities were located in the southeastern region of the state. In most cases, these settlements lost their Amish identity when congregants adopted more progressive practices and beliefs.
The first Amish to settle in what was then Iowa Territory arrived to Lee County in 1840. Numerous Amish came to this settlement from Ohio, as in Iowa they were able to find land at more affordable prices. David Luthy reports that this community ceased to exist in 1870 not because of progressive influence, but due to land ownership issues.
Many of the Amish settlers founded homes on land known as the “Half-Breed Tract”, a reservation claimed by “half-breed Indians”. Eventually Amish moved away because of problems acquiring clear title for their properties. Luthy notes that in this community were Amish with names no longer seen today, such as Klopfenstein, Roth, Bechler, and Goldsmith (Amish in America: Settlements that Failed 1840-1960, David Luthy pp. 115-116).
Other Amish settlements followed in the 1840s and 1850s, including at Jefferson and Henry Counties, Washington County, and Davis County. In each case, within a few decades Amish communities at these locations decisively chose more liberal paths, and became Mennonite bodies, reflecting a common pattern for many Amish across America at the time (Luthy, Settlements that Failed, pp. 116-120).
Iowa, a state with a long history of Amish settlement
Iowa is a state which has long had an Amish presence. Amish first arrived here in the mid-1800s, both from other Amish settlements in North America and direct from Europe.
Today, the three similarly-sized settlements at Kalona, Bloomfield, and Buchanan County maintain a significant Amish presence in the state. Amish have also found Iowa relatively attractive for new settlement, with over a dozen communities being founded since the turn of the century.
For more information, see:
- “Amish Population, 2022.” Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, Elizabethtown College.
- Amish Population in the United States by State, County, and Settlement, 2022
- “The Kalona Amish: Retention and Defection Patterns of the 20th Century”, Erin Miller
- The Amish on the Iowa Prairie 1840 to 1910, Steven D. Reschly
- A History of the Amish, Steven M. Nolt
- The Mennonites in Iowa, Melvin Gingerich
- A Peculiar People: Iowa’s Old Order Amish, Elmer Schwieder and Dorothy Schwieder
- Living Without Electricity, Stephen Scott and Kenneth Pellman
- Bloomfield Amish Community Address & Map 2003
- Johnson-Washington County Amish Addresses 2003
- Amish Society, John A. Hostetler
- The Amish in America: Settlements That Failed 1840-1960, David Luthy
- Amish Settlements Across America: 2008, David Luthy
Photo credits: Kalona Amish buggy – Lee Annette; Amish lamp; Kalona meetinghouse- Don Burke; Amish buggy Buchanan County – Suzanne Woods Fisher; Amish school children- Thomas DeFeo/Des Moines Register; Hazleton moving sale – Carl Oliver