"Oh, you have locked your car door," Rozella Hahn said. "We don't lock here."

I fumbled for the keys, making some excuse for my untrusting behavior. "The cameras," I think I said.

She had agreed to show me around the Amana Colonies. Though she was not descended from the original colonists, her husband had been; her parents first came to the Amanas as day workers.

It was drizzling on and off in eastern Iowa and the farmers were glad of it. The past three years have been droughty and, with 60 percent of the corn crop in the ground, this good germinating rain was welcomed. The clouds had put a damper on the Amanas' annual Maifest, and the streets of Amana proper were empty of tourists. We could easily be stepping straight into the 19th century.

Think of seven tiny German villages transported intact to the rumpled hills of Iowa. Picture the people as industrious, clever, pious. No billboards, no fast food joints and no locked cars. If you superimpose on that picture 3 million visitors a year, you have the paradox of the Amanas.

No, they aren't related to the Amish. They aren't related to the Shakers either. And they are definitely not a museum.

In 1855, 800 "True Inspirationists" settled here beside the Iowa River. They were German Pietists, mystics who believed God sometimes spoke directly to men through prophets, and their leader, Christian Metz, was one such prophet. They left Germany in 1843 because of persecution (and drought), settled for a time in Upstate New York, looked around in Kansas but couldn't find enough good stone for building, and finally plunked themselves down on some of the best farmland in Iowa. Here they are today. (Iowa is said to have 25 percent of the class 1 soil in the world and 26,000 acres of it are owned by the Amanas.)

Their 1855 constitution said that "land purchased here shall be, and remain a common estate and property ... also with all appurtenances also with all the labors, cares, troubles and burdens, of which each member shall bear his allotted share with a willing heart... ."

The Amana Colonies' communism lasted from 1855 to 1932. Last year, when Rozella Hahn told a Russian visitor that Soviet difficulties abandoning communism were analogous to the great change the Amanas had made, the visitor snapped at her, "It's not the same thing at all."

The Russian was probably correct. The Amanas practiced a purer, gentler communism, and one reason so many visitors come here is to see how their life worked and whether their experiment has relevance today.

There are seven Amana villages, each an oxcart journey from the others. Amana, High Amana (built on a hill), Middle Amana, East Amana, West Amana, South Amana and Homestead -- the last colony built to connect the Amanas to the railroad. Homestead provided meals and lodging for rail travelers, and this was, perhaps, the start of the Amanas' tourist business.

Today there are some 1,600 people living in these villages. Amana proper, where most visitors start, is a tidy place that could just as well be in Bavaria somewhere. East Amana has no tourist facilities at all and is, like all the other villages, well scrubbed, with no junk cars and no roadside litter. Many of the old houses in High Amana are built of sandstone: "You can cut it with a chisel, but once it's cut, it turns hard as granite," noted a village resident. Houses in Middle Amana, farther from the quarry, are local brick or unpainted clapboard faded to a gentle gray. When sons married and started families of their own, an addition was built for the new family. Another resident joked, "You could tell how successful a father was by the number of additions on the house."

This early in the year, the trellises on the old houses are bare, but by midsummer they'll be groaning with grapes. The Amanas have always made wines, and in the early days each male received a 20-gallon allotment (women had to make do with 12 gallons). Small wineries still produce wines here, fruit wines as well as rhubarb and dandelion.

In the old days, each village had its own communal kitchen houses, which served 40 to 60 people three meals each day plus two kaffe breaks, and sent takeout to invalids, the frail and women with newborn infants.

One kitchen house in Middle Amana (originally there were 12 in this village) has been restored. The great kitchen garden is gone, but the long porch where women sat to peel potatoes and wash spinach is still intact. The kitchen proper is quite small, cluttered with utensils; the bakeries were separate. The kitchen house dining room has separate tables for men and women; each diner was allotted 15 minutes to eat, and no talking was permitted. (That sounds grimmer than it probably was -- most of the photographs from the early days show a happy people.) Every kitchen had a handyman to split wood and do other heavy work, as well as a female garden boss and the Kuechenbass (kitchen boss), who lived in the house attached to the kitchen.

One kitchen house in each village was assigned to feed the tramps who passed through. Quite a few tramps discovered the Amanas and some became regulars. Among them: Kaese Franz (Cheese Frank), Schokolade Paul (Chocolate Paul) and One-eyed Robert. A kitchen house was also the site of the Children's Communion ("das Kinder-Liebsmahl"), where the kids had coffee cake and hot chocolate in lieu of bread and wine. From the start, the Amanas had day care: Kinderschule started when a child was 2; regular school was 5 1/2 days a week until age 15.

There was a generosity in the Amana, a kindliness that underlay the rigors of their piety. Visitors today sometimes ask to attend Amana Sunday worship services and they are welcome, if they are willing to abide by Amana customs. Women, in traditional caps, sit on one side of the church, the men on the other. Six of the seven Amana churches hold services in German, one service is English. The church I saw reminded me of a Quaker meeting hall. It was austere, well lit, with rows of plain, hand-pegged, blond benches.

It was starting to rain when we stopped at the Middle Amana cemetery: row on row of modest, identical markers. The colonists were buried without regard to status, under these headstones, strictly by date of death. Family and friends followed the hearse to the cemetery on foot. Later in the day, heading for the Cedar Rapids Airport, I passed a more typical rural graveyard, with spires, tombs and thick varicolored headstones. By contrast with the Amanas, it seemed gay, almost frivolous.

In 1865, the colonists built a canal from the Iowa River. Men, women and oxen dug out a broad mill stream, seven miles long, all the way to Amana. Today, that water runs brown and slow. It's hard to look at it and not think how much people can get done when they are of one mind. Amana natives say "We" more easily than most Americans do.

The millrace powered a woolen mill, as well as machine shops, sawmills, millwright shops, a calico print factory, a cereal mill and the farm threshing machines. Though present production at the woolen mill isn't the half million yards it once boasted, you can still buy some lovely woolens here, and the mill is still owned by the Amana Corp.

In 1932, at the height of the Depression, the Amanas voted to end their communal life. It was a separation of church and state. Though the True Inspirationist Church would still guide community worship, it relinquished the economy and a cooperative corporation was formed -- the Amana Corp. Each original colonist received a single share in the corporation (as well as lifetime medical and dental care); other, non-voting shares were awarded for the years of work members had put into the enterprise. The people used their shares to buy their own houses, install private kitchens and convert the kitchen houses into dwellings.

The Amana Corp. still owns all the land around the Amanas, plus the Amana Feed Mill, the Bakery, the General Stores, the Amana Society Heating and Plumbing and the Amana Nordstrom Holiday Inn -- which was designed, by the way, to fit Amana specifications. The corporation does not own Amana Refrigeration; the plant is still in Middle Amana, where it started, but Raytheon bought it some years ago.

It's hard to get a bad meal in the Amanas -- if you like German food. The dining room at the Colony Market Place in South Amana was an old brick vault, arched overhead. I ordered the schlact plate: bratwurst, knockwurst, hickory-smoked ham and, of course, German potato salad, all for $9.45. The beer was Millstream Schild Brau, brewed, naturally, in Amana.

Carl Oehl, our host, came over and sat with us for a bit. Since Carl's an elder in the Amana Society, I asked him how they've managed to keep the colonies from turning into another silly tourist trap. He said with a shrug, "We want to leave it for our kids in the same shape we got it."

Over coffee, I asked Carl if all those visitors bother him and he smiled. "In the morning, when I come to work, people will be out sweeping their sidewalks. And in the evening, when all the visitors are gone, I drive home, just seven miles, and nothing's changed. It's all the same." The Amana Colonies are open year-round; shops are open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with longer hours in the summer. For more information, contact the Amana Colonies Convention and Visitors Bureau, 800-245-5465 or 319-622-6262. There also is a Museum of Amana History in Amana proper, 319-622-3567, which is open from April 15 through Nov. 15.

Donald McCaig's newest book, "Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men," will be published in March by Harper/Collins.