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Omaha Magazine

Winterfest in the Amana Colonies

Dec 16, 2019 03:53PM ● By Hannah Amrollahi

Complaining about winter can be an advanced sport in Omaha. Bemoaning shoveling snow, potholes lying in wait under salted roads, or long drives to ski country can be a comforting bond between Midwesterners just trying to get through the weather.

Fortunately, adventure is not about getting through, and neither is Winterfest in the Amana Colonies, located about 20 miles east of Iowa City.

“Yeah, it’s winter in Iowa,” said David Rettig, executive director of Amana Colonies Convention and Visitors Bureau, “but you need to embrace it, and you can have fun in the cold and snow.”

Winterfest’s tongue-in-cheek atmosphere belies a successful free festival nearing its 10th year. Adventurers can test their mettle against popular Winterfest games such as the Winter Wreath Toss, Great Amana Ham Put, Nagelhauen, Pork Chop Slap Shot, Log Sawing Competition, Ice Cube Launch, or Best Beard Competition.

Best Beard Contestants at Winterfest

“It’s unbelievable to see some of these beards,” Rettig said. “Some are so thick and some so long.”

Competitive participants can heed Rettig’s advice to loosen one’s arm before throwing a five-pound ham and watch teams in the log sawing to gain understanding of the technique.

The logs are collected by members of the Amana Forestry Department, who carefully notch each log for consistent depth. A traditional two-person crosscut saw is provided and requires teamwork over brawn for speed. The winners are celebrated by an appropriate wooden trophy.

Log-Sawing-Competitors at Winterfest

“Come with the attitude that you are going to have fun, because you are going to have fun,” Rettig said.

Athletes can participate in the Amana Freezer 5K run/walk, which loops from Amana to neighboring East Amana and back.

“Some people take it very serious and are out like a shot,” Rettig said, “and some people are out for the run.”

In years past, 300 runners have registered and run the 5K, which is organized by the Amana Trail Association. Contributing funds support the race costs, shirts, and maintenance and expansion of the Amana Bike Trail.

For snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, the Amana Nature Trail, known as the Kolonieweg, is a 3.2 mile loop around Lily Pond and is open year-round. It is dog-friendly and one can expect winter conditions.

Winterfest has another popular walk, which, according to Rettig, “has nothing to do with athletics.” An inexpensive punch card ($2 in past years) can be redeemed at local wineries and Millstream Brewing Co. for seasonal tasters during the Wine and Beer Walk. Dating back to 1884, Millstream is one of the region’s oldest breweries and boasts award-winning European-style beers.

Ice sculptor at Winterfest

With something for the athletes and the foodies, Winterfest rounds out its offerings with family-friendly activities. Ice or wood sculpture demonstrations, ornament and cookie decoration, an “ice fishing” game with a guaranteed catch, scavenger hunt, and nine-hole mini golf course have been offered by businesses and the festival board for free or nominal fees.

If this active schedule has worked up one’s appetite, the Amana firemen offer open-fire chili with proceeds going towards the Amana Fire Department. Local restaurants offer plenty of options. Popular places include Chocolate Haus Dessert and Coffee Cafe, Hahn Hearth Oven Bakery, Ox Yoke Inn, Ronneburg Restaurant, and Millstream Brau Haus.

“Just regular Amana fair,” Rettig said. “Everything is Amana.”

Rettig can trace his family tree to the original German settlers who immigrated to the Buffalo, New York, area in 1842, and then to Amana in 1885 as their community grew. From the late 1800s to the early 1930s, the Amana colonies housed a communal society that offered its members education, health care, and shared essentials, including food and shelter. The modern villages have adapted to changing economies and modern sensibilities while valuing a more insulated past.

“We are Americans, but we have the unique community,” Rettig said.

This community can be seen in the local Amana residents found volunteering or working throughout the festival. With a schedule that typically starts at 11 a.m. and ends late at night with the snowball dance, the games alone can fill someone’s day. There are weather-dependent activities such as the “mush” sledding races, but the festival has never been put off by the weather, even with below freezing temperatures.

“It is Winterfest, so you just never know what you are going to get, but you adapt to it,” Rettig said.

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This letter was printed in the January/February 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Contest Winners at Winterfest