4 0 M I L E
C O L O N Y , M O N T A N A
THE land along the Little Bighorn river in south-eastern Montana is one of rich farms and sweeping vistas. It is also the home of a group of people who have sought out this remote corner of the West to be alone. The Hutterite community known as 40 Mile Colony has a population of just 28. It sits, as its name implies, 40 miles from the nearest towns: Sheridan, Wyoming in one direction and Hardin, Montana in another.
At 40 Mile the members farm a ranch that covers 50,000 acres. The colony is relatively new, founded in 1981 when another nearby colony became too large. About 120 people are usually considered the maximum number, though founding a new colony is expensive: about $8m-15m, which mostly comes from the savings of the mother colony. A new colony’s early days can be hard. The farm crunch of the late 1980s almost bankrupted 40 Mile, as it did several established colonies in Canada which had to sell land to stay solvent. 40 Mile remains short of both capital and manpower.
Living conditions are spartan out of necessity as much as belief. Buildings are pre-fabricated or post-frame structures with steel sheeting. Even the church, the centre of the colony, is a weather-beaten double-wide trailer with curling veneer and two lawnmowers parked under it. Most of the colony’s cars, pick-up trucks, horse trailers, flatbeds and combines are equally battered. Hutterites have a complicated attitude to modern appliances. Television is frowned on, although some watch it on the sly, and most listen to the radio only for weather reports. Hutterites regard the Internet with suspicion, but at least one colony has its own website. Some use cellular telephones.
Hutterites seek not riches but sustainability. Colonies struggle, but few fail. Older and established colonies “count their money in the millions,” as one member of 40 Mile explained in her lilting English. Montana’s 39 colonies, with 4,000 Hutterites, produce about 60% of the state’s pork, 50% of its eggs, and about 17% of its milk. And yet each month 40 Mile struggles to meet its bills, mostly those of doctors and vehicle-parts suppliers. The colonists have no medical insurance. And if someone comes down with a serious illness? “We just take our chances,” says Henry Walter, 40 Mile’s minister.
But Hutterites thrive on adversity. An easy life, in their view, produces few good Christians. And there are crucial differences between Hutterite austerity and conventional poverty. Hutterites eat well; their homes, though modest, are comfortable; and they enjoy the benefits of an extensive network of friends and relatives bound by an earnest religious faith. Most colony members have never lived in a house with a locked door.
Although the colony grows most of its own food, the colonists are diligent bargain-hunters when it comes to purchasing other goods in the outside world. They barter well and have little fear of dealing with outsiders. The colony’s leaders have hired a retired, non-Hutterite ranch foreman to tend the colony’s livestock. He is paid nothing, but given room, board, a place for his horses, and an ancient Toyota pick-up to carry out his chores. The truck itself was traded with a Crow Indian for a horse. It came without a single piece of glass intact.
Mr Walter, the colony’s master machinist as well as its minister, epitomises Hutterite ingenuity. He belongs to one of the sect’s most learned families, although like most Hutterites he left school at an early age. A contemplative man, as likely to be found ruminating over scripture as over his humming lathes, Mr Walter finds little in the mechanical world daunting, and he has taken care to pass his skills on to his sons. Your reporter watched the three men, with the help of another mechanic, adapt a second-world-war diesel engine to a 1950s road grader, dismantling its fuel pump and making parts they needed from scratch. They did the job astonishingly quickly.
Whatever the task at hand, Hutterite men lay it aside at 11.30 for the day’s main meal, which is eaten communally. The spotlessly clean dining room holds four tables complete with benches. Usually men and women eat at different tables. The women speak almost exclusively in their German dialect, as most in the colony do when conversing among themselves. To an outsider, the women of the 40 Mile Colony seem to be firmly under the thumb of the men. They are required to wear long skirts, blouses with sleeves, and a tiechl or kerchief over their heads. The church excludes them from positions of power, and they are barred from meetings concerning money or colony planning. Yet they show no signs of being intimidated. “Come over and eat” or “Lift this box”—without a “please” or “thank you”—is how they usually address the men.
Women put in long hours. Besides all the usual domestic chores, they also have to perform tasks, such as milking, that are delegated to the men in other colonies. When our reporter visited, one morning was spent canning 133 litres of pears, and one evening cutting up two pigs in the kitchen basement. On the days when a farmers’ market is held nearby, the colony’s women rise at five o’clock and bake 100 pies. Copies of Bon Appetit and Gourmet magazines can be found in the kitchen, but the intricate recipes are rarely tested. Hutterites like simpler fare.
Crows and blackbirds
Despite this self-containment, the outside world is not far away. Interstate 90, the major artery of the northern plains, cuts through some of the colony’s land, and a Crow Indian reservation almost completely surrounds it.
The effort to live apart from a wider world, but also within it, has produced some paradoxical attitudes among the colonists. For all their proud independence, the members of 40 Mile Colony ardently support government crop-subsidies and have bitterly opposed their reduction. Without more subsidies, Mr Walter argues, the family farm cannot survive. But of course, the colony itself is hardly a family farm. As Mr Walter acknowledges when it is pointed out to him, 40 Mile does things on a corporate scale.
Members of 40 Mile have even ventured into open political protest, rare for Hutterites, by joining other farmers at the Canadian border to demonstrate against cattle imports from Alberta and Saskatchewan. The members of 40 Mile believe, as do many smaller American cattle producers, that Canadian imports are reducing the price for their cattle in the United States. This has put them directly at odds with the many Canadian Hutterite colonies which raise cattle. Visits to northern relatives can have their awkward moments, admits Mr Walter.
Hutterites endure the curse of being well-rounded generalists in a world that increasingly rewards specialists. The colony sells milk, grain, beef, wool, vegetables and pastries, as well as colts and hunting rights to other ranchers or visitors. Individual members often find employment by selling services and skills to the outside world in metal fabrication, cattle-hauling and custom sewing. But beef provides the primary income for 40 Mile, and the colony shares the problems of many western ranchers. Its 1,000-strong herd is not big enough for it to wield much clout when it comes to bargaining on price with local slaughterhouses.
The hard-working colonists have an ambivalent relationship with the surrounding Crow Indians, who are not nearly as industrious or prosperous. In August someone torched over 100 thousand-pound bales of Hutterite wheat straw. Then the colony’s new all-terrain vehicle was stolen. Young Indians are suspected in both incidents. But, mostly, relations between the colony and the tribe seem tolerable. Mr Walter describes one Crow tribal elder as “a true gentleman”. The Crow and neighbouring Northern Cheyenne buy some of the colony’s produce, and bring their cars to the repair shop. And the Hutterites accommodate tribal customs when they can—for example, they know that Indians are offended by closed gates.
The colonists are acutely aware that Hutterites and Crow, firmly outside America’s mainstream, are both targets of hostility. “Those Indian kids. They lie. They cheat. They steal. And do you know who taught them? The white man,” fumes one Hutterite elder. Like the Indians, the Hutterites have suffered discrimination. Farmers in Alberta and Saskatchewan have lobbied the Canadian government for years to prevent the “blackbirds”, as Hutterites are sometimes called, from buying more land. Last year an arsonist set fire to $500,000 worth of new lumber when a sister colony tried to settle in nearby Toole County, Montana. As one young Hutterite woman says of the Indians: “They’re different and we’re different and sometimes we face the same troubles.”
One trouble is how to resist the temptations of the outside world. Hutterites still rely on scriptural commentary written between 1545 and 1560 as a guide to everyday life; each Sunday, ministers read beautifully hand-copied 16th-century sermons. But, as Samuel Hofer writes in “The Hutterites” (Hofer Publishers, $19.95), “the world outside the colony door knocks louder and louder.” And, as always, it is the young who are most tempted to stray. Like its sister colonies, 40 Mile loses a continuous stream of young people. Surprisingly, most young Hutterites return, although Mr Hofer estimates that about 20% will choose to stay among the “English”.
The main complaint of the young of 40 Mile is not about basic Hutterite beliefs, or the colony’s way of life, but against restrictions such as the dress code. This affects men too: they must wear black trousers, braces (belt-buckles can lead to vanity) and shirts without pockets. Most also wear hats. “What matters is accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and holding everything in common,” argues one of the colony’s younger members. “The elders are too concerned with stuff that we’re not, like believing that if you don’t wear black pants, you won’t go to heaven. We don’t believe that.”
And yet the elders see it otherwise. According to them, the Hutterites have survived as a community because they are determined to be different, in small ways as well as large. Indeed their community is founded on their profound commitment to this difference, and they have prevailed against the importunities of the outside world, safe in the “ark” of their colonies, only by remaining eternally aware of it.
Source: The Economist, 6 January 2000, print edition