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Minnesota Hutterites Continue to Thrive

"Minnesota Hutterites Continue to Thrive." Forum, 19 August 2001, sec. A10.


Susanne Hofer of the Starland Hutterian Brethern community in Gibbon, Minnesota, cleans after the daily community dinner.

Gibbon, Minnesota - Mostly isolated behind thousands of acres of farmland, Hutterite colonies in Minnesota are thriving as they have elsewhere for centuries: by maintaining a culture so different from the outside world that their many children hesitate to leave.

Recent census numbers and a survey of colonies show the number of Hutterites in Minnesota doubled to about 700 during the 1990s. Few outsiders join, so almost all the growth is biological.

"They have sizeable families and they do a fairly good job of convincing their children to stay," said Donald Kraybill, a sociologist at Messiah College near Harrisburg, Pa., who has studied Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren for 10 years.

He estimates 96 percent of Hutterite children stay in their colonies. The few that do leave usually return, he said, unable to survive in an outside world that emphasizes self-esteem and the rights of the individual.

Hutterites reject mainstream notions of diversity, independence and equality in favor of a communal life where all but a few personal trinkets are shared and everyone is taught the concept of "total surrender" to the good of the colony.

Joel Decker, principal of the Starland colony school in this southern Minnesota town, compares people to grains of wheat. Alone, they're fit only for animal feed; together, they can become bread.

Hutterites cling to sermons written in the German of the 1500s. Among themselves, they speak their own Austrian dialect, Hutterisch, although no Hutterite has lived in Europe in a hundred years.

Women wear bright colored jumpers with white aprons and black scarves in their hair; with no makeup. Married men have beards, single men are clean-shaven. All men wear black pants and shirts with buttons and collars. Property records show Hutterites own about 19,000 acres, with each colony averaging 2,100 acres.

Economically, Kraybill said, the Hutterites are as advanced as any of their neighbors. They farm with $80,000 tractors equipped with radios. They talk on cellular telephones. Some colonies advertise their wares on the Internet.

"This is a community that has lived without individual property that has been remarkably successful for hundreds of years," he said. "They are so efficient and are extremely productive."

Though the colonies are doing well - five new colonies were founded in Minnesota in the 1990s, bringing the total to nine - they are nevertheless becoming less isolated.

Farming alone isn't profitable enough to sustain many Hutterite colonies, so they are embracing new industries and exposing themselves to more of the popular culture they have worked so hard to reject.

The Starland colony farms about 1,500 acres, but now makes most of its money from a machine shop that makes tools for farms and industry. The business has opened the colony to the outside world in ways that would be hard to imagine 20 years ago.

One Hutterite spends most of his day on the Internet buying and selling steel. The colony has a Hutterite pilot who flies the men to trade shows throughout the Midwest. The machine business has a Web page, and some Hutterites have their own e-mail addresses.

Decker was unconcerned by the infiltration from the outside world. It's hard for Hutterite children to wander away because the school starts them on the right path, he said. About 40 of the 100 people in the colony attend the school, which includes such modern touches as a computer lab.

They learn from teachers like Jakob Decker, 24, Joel's son, who is one of the first Hutterites to graduate from a public college with a teaching degree. He says Hutterites disagree with many lessons taught in public school.

"It's all about taking God out of education and teaching garbage like evolution," Jakob Decker said. "The homosexual community, they are trying to teach that (homosexuality) should be accepted. I just pass it by. I don't accept it."

For centuries, the schools taught Hutterite kids how to be farmers. Nowadays, the children also learn in a computer lab, evidence that the colony is adapting to changing economies.

As new equipment has reduced the need for manual labor, colonies have been forced to find new ways to put people to work. The Starland colony makes steel tools. The Spring Prairie colony near Hawley in western Minnesota has a printing business. A colony in Alberta, Canada, makes pancake mix.

"It's a matter of economics and efficiency," said Robert Rhodes, a Starland member. "We would rather do our jobs efficiently and spend time with our families. The Hutterites have never tried to live an unmechanized life."

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

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