Help from the Hutterites

A visit to my old home in South Dakota last week was particularly bittersweet.

Where's Waldo? Blog editor stands near the remains of her childhood home.

Where’s Waldo? Blog editor stands near the burning remains of her childhood home.

I grew up on a farm. Not quite at the end of the earth but you could almost see it from our place. We moved to town shortly before my 15th birthday, and the farm was rented out. After my parents died, ownership passed to my brother and me. All the land is now pasture or hay land which we’ve continued to lease out.

The old farm-house has been vacant since the mid-1980s. Mother Nature worked hard to take it back during the past 30+ years. Holes in the roof and broken windows let in the elements, not to mention raccoons and other varmints. The barn and other out-buildings, in similar condition, served no purpose. Last week we made arrangements to demolish and burn the buildings.

We hired the nearby Hutterite Colony to do the work. After telling a few friends about the experience, I realized few people outside South Dakota are familiar with Hutterites.

What started as a blog posting about my rural roots morphed into a story unrelated to genealogy.


Hutterites are one of four North American religious groups which trace their beginnings back to the Anabaptist Movement in Europe; the other three are Amish, Brethren, and Mennonites.

As of 2010 there were 59 Hutterite colonies in South Dakota, 47 in Montana, 9 in Minnesota, 6 in North Dakota, 5 in Washington, and 1 in Oregon – plus about 350 colonies in Canada.

In my community the Hutterites are perceived as good neighbors, hard-working and honest.

The following text is taken from Concise Encyclopedia of Amish, Brethren, Hutterites, and Mennonites (2010) by Donald B. Kraybill:

Faced with bitter persecution for their religious faith, some Anabaptists in Europe fled to safe havens in Moravia, in present-day Czech Republic, where the Hutterites formed in 1528. They rejected private property and began sharing material goods in the spirit of the apostolic church… In 1536, Jakob Hutter, an early leader for whom the group was eventually named, was captured and burned at the stake as a heretic.

The early years of Hutterite history were filled with frequent migration and persecution… In 1770 they moved to Russia, and a century later, to the United States.

The Hutterites have enjoyed remarkable growth since they arrived in the United States in the 1870s. Three immigrant colonies multiplied to some 480 colonies, with an average of 100 people in each. Persecuted for being conscientious objectors during World War I, many Hutterites moved to Canada. About three-fourths of the colonies are in the Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Hutterites in the United States reside primarily in South Dakota and Montana…

Hutterites live in large agricultural colonies segregated from the larger society. Colony buildings, clustered like a small village on 5000 to 10,000 acres of land, are often hidden from major highways. Huge tractors pull modern equipment across vast stretches of prairie. A growing number of colonies operate flourishing businesses as well.

The colony lives as an extended family — eating meals together in a common dining hall and sharing laundry facilities. Each family has an apartment with a coffee area, living room, bathroom, and bedrooms. Long barrack-like apartments typically encircle the dining hall and church building. The average family has five or six children. Youth are usually baptized between 21 and 25 years of age.

Hutterites speak an Austrian dialect called Hutterisch. They also learn High German, which is used in sermons and other religious writings. Young people learn English in colony schools operated by public school districts.

Hutterite beliefs emphasize the importance of communal living — sharing material goods, surrendering self-will for communal harmony, and separating from an evil world. Communal property, the hallmark of Hutterite culture, distinguishes them from other Anabaptist groups. Private property, in Hutterite eyes, symbolizes selfishness, greed, and vanity, and causes many other forms of evil. Sharing material goods is seen as the highest form of Christian love…

Apart from a few personal belongings – clothes, knickknacks, dishes, books, furniture – individual Hutterites have no private property. Land, farm machinery, vehicles, and household furniture are owned by the colony. Everyone works without pay. At baptism, members relinquish any claim to colony property. Those who abandon colony life may take only a few clothes and family items.

The Hutterite “experiment” has endured nearly 500 years, making Hutterites the oldest communal group in North America. But communalism is not just an interesting experiment in their eyes; it is a sincere attempt to practice Christian teachings that point to eternal life.

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