Brothers' Deaths Made Rockport Colony 'Iconic'

Lawrence, Tom. "Brothers' Deaths Made Rockport Colony 'Iconic'" Daily Republic, 5 March 2011, 1 & 6.

Joseph Wipf, the head minister at the Rockport Colony, is pictured at the colony cemetery where two men considered martyrs for their fatal opposition to military service are buried. Photographed by Chris Huber.

Author Joanita Kant titled her book "Gentle People," but it's a violent incident that made a Mitchell-area Hutterite colony famous.

Two brothers who grew up on and lived at the Rockport Colony - about 15 miles southeast of Mitchell - were imprisoned by the American government and tortured for their beliefs during World War I. They died due to the harsh treatment, and Hutterites everywhere know the story, according to Kant.

"No matter where they live, Hutterites know the name and the story of Rockport Colony," Kant writes in the book, her fourth on South Dakota Hutterites. The book's full title is "Gentle People: A Case Study of Rockport Colony Hutterites."

"The name and place are deeply infused with meaning in their worldview," she wrote. "It is the place of the 'Martyrs of Alcatraz.'"

Kant discussed the book and the Rockport Colony during a presentation last week at the Agriculture Heritage Museum at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

"That is a key colony," she said. "It is iconic and emblematic."

Four Rockport Colony residents - brothers Joseph, Michael and David Hofer, along with their brother-in-law, Jacob Wipf - were imprisoned at Alcatraz, the infamous island prison in the San Francisco Bay in 1918.

Alcatraz, famed for housing gangsters and other criminals, was a military prison from 1859 to 1933 before it was converted to a prison for criminals.

The four Hutterites were arrested after they were drafted but declined to serve in the military and refused to wear uniforms. Pacifism is a crucial belief in the Hutterite Church, and Hutterites will not swear oaths to governments.

The Hutterites were starved, beaten and chained to walls, according to numerous eyewitness accounts and printed versions of the story.

They were in dire condition when they were released from cold, windswept Alcatraz. Joseph and Michael died a few days after they were relocated to Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

A military uniform was placed on Joseph after he died, shocking his wife, who had come to the prison to see her husband, and further antagonizing the pacifistic Hutterites.

The two dead Hofer brothers, whose clothing was changed back to their traditional clothing when their bodies were sent home, are buried side-by-side in the Rockport Colony cemetery.

David Hofer was quickly released and allowed to return to the Rockport Colony.

The last of the four imprisoned Hutterites, Jacob Wipf, was finally released from prison on April 13, 1919.

By then, the legend of "The Martyrs of Alcatraz" was spreading through the Hutterite world.

'It was tough'

New stainless-steel markers were erected last summer at the gravesites of the Hofer brothers on Rockport Colony. Just like the original markers, they bear the names Joseph J. Hofer and Michael J. Hofer. The word martyr appears on both markers, just as did on the original markers.The pain of their final months and their deaths at the hands of the government are said to be known by all Hutterites.

"It was tough," said the Rev. Joseph Wipf, the head minister at Rockport Colony, as he allowed two journalists to photograph and examine the graves, which this week were covered in snow.

Wipf said the brothers were the latest in a long line of Hutterites who were killed for their beliefs.
The daughter of one of the slain men came to the colony about 25 years ago to visit the grave of her father, said Wipf, 66. He said he can still see her standing by the grave of the father she never knew, since she was born after he died.

The deaths were the climax of long-simmering tensions.

When World War I was under way, many South Dakotans and Americans were suspicious of the Hutterites, who spoke German and had come to the United States from Russia in the late 19th century. Their strict religious ethic, communal living and successful farming raised further questions.

Once America entered the war in 1917, things heated up dramatically.

Conscientious objectors were not recognized until the closing weeks of the war as the government tried to deal with the issue.

In South Dakota, some Hutterites were seized by mobs and their hair and beards shaved. Ground glass was placed in the flour of the mill at the Bon Homme Colony near Yankton, the mother colony of all Hutterites in North America.

Local newspapers railed against the Hutterites and Rockport Colony residents were threatened and intimidated. In one case, a man was beaten and injured.

The Hutterites tried to adapt and avoid trouble. They spoke German less often and tried not to "look too German," Kant said.

But trouble persisted. Livestock was stolen from the Jamesville Colony and sold at auction, with $16,831.20 in proceeds used to buy Liberty Bonds. Kant was able to locate a sale bill advertising the auction and also obtained a record of the proceeds.

Years later, some of the proceeds from the auction were returned to Hutterites to pay for land in Canada.

As World War I came to a close, tensions were still high. Hutterites, who had been persecuted for their beliefs in Europe and had seen thousands killed by those who feared or hated them, planned another move.

Between 1917 and 1932, 17 of the 18 colonies in South Dakota relocated to Canada, as did one of two colonies in Montana.

A History of persecution.

Manitoba and Alberta were seen as the escape lands for people who had long suffered from persecution. Indeed, the man who helped shape the Hutterite movement, Jacob Hutter, was burned at the stake on Feb. 25, 1536.

Hutter was a charismatic leader who molded a group of fellow believers and formed the Hutterite Church in the 16th century. They are part of the Anabaptist movement, which believes in adult baptism, since they believe only an adult can make the conscious, rational choice to accept Jesus.
Mennonites and the Amish are also part of this segment of the Radical Reformation movement, which felt Martin Luther and other reformers didn't go far enough, Kant said.

Their churches focus more on the New Testament, not the Old Testament, she said.

During the SDSU presentation, Kant explained how the three sects differ.

While all three are conservative religious movements, only the Amish and Hutterites demand their members wear traditional clothing and try to abstain from too much contact with the outside world.
The Hutterites live communally and share all possessions, while the Amish and Mennonites live in family groups. Hutterites, unlike the Amish, allow the use of some modern items for their farming and permit members to use telephones and, in limited ways, use computers, televisions and radios.

"People think we're all the same. We're not. We're different," Wipf said."Joanita does a good job of explaining that. But we are all Anabaptists.

Their God is our God."
Hutter's fiery death was just one of many for the Hutterites in the Middle Ages. At their peak, there were about 40,000 Hutterites in Europe, Kant said.

As they moved from place to place to avoid persecution, many were killed and others left the church. When they settled in the Ukraine after being offered the protection of a count who pledged to honor their lifestyle, there were only about 120 left, Kant said.

"They are technically Germans from Russia," she said. "They never forget they're Germans."

When new leaders took control of their lands, the special treatment of the Hutterites ended. They would be forced into military service and other conditions they could not accept, so they made plans to move to the United States.

"Which they saw as an escape land," Kant said.

Paul Tschetter, an ancestor of Wes Tschetter, an SDSU professor, was among the Hutterite scouts who came to Dakota Territory in the 1870s as the Great Dakota Boom was beginning. Paul Tschetter chose not to live communally and was soon not considered a Hutterite, Kant said. Those people were called Prairieleut.

The Hutterites who chose to live communally did not qualify for the Homestead Act, she said. Instead, they paid cash for their land.

Michael J. Hofer is one of two brothers who died in 1918 after they were imprisoned when they refused to join the military and serve in World War I.
His grave is shown here at Rockport Colony. Photographed by Chris Huber

Most Hutterites belong to one of three main groups: Schmiedeleut, Dariusleut, and Lehrerleut, named for three early leaders. "Leut" is based on the German word for people.

According to, here is a brief explanation of the terms:

  • Schmiedeleut:  The Schmiedeleut, under the eldership of the Rev. Michael Waldner, established the first Hutterite colony (Bon Homme) on North American soil in 1874.  The Rev. Michael Waldner was a schmied (blacksmith); hence the name, Schmiedeleut.
  • Dariusleut: The Dariusleut established Wolfcreek Colony near Olivet in 1875. The leader of the group was named Darius Hofer. Hence, they are called Dariusleut. Originally, the Schmiedeleut and the Dariusleut had a single elder, Schmied Micheal.
  • Lehrerleut:  The Lehrerleut established Elm Spring Colony in 1877.  The leader of the Lehrerleut was a teacher (lehrer), hence their name, Lehrerleut.

The three divisions still exist, and while they share most characteristics and beliefs, there are some minor differences, Kant said. They rarely intermarry, she said.

The Hutterites flourished in Dakota Territory and bought more land and spawned new colonies as the decade passed. But the fiery passions of World War I reminded them of their travails in Europe, and most fled to remote land in Canada.

A return to the US

By the 1930s, as the Great Depression devastated the Midwest, the Hutterites looked like model citizens to South Dakota leaders, Kant said.

"They paid their taxes, caused no trouble and didn't need public help," she said.

Efforts were made to lure them back to South Dakota and other states.

While the original residents of the Rockport Colony, who were Lehrerleut Hutterites, had settled in Canada and had no interest in returning, the land was still in Hutterite hands. The Bon Homme Colony had bought it and in the 1930s it turned the property over to Schmiedeleut Hutterites.

Today, there about 8,000 Hutterites in South Dakota, Kant said. One in 10 rural South Dakota residents is a Hutterite, and their numbers continue to grow, although not at the pace of a few decades ago.

From 1874 to 1879, about 1,265 Hutterites came to Dakota Territory and moved to other colonies in the Midwest and Canada. More than 800 chose not to live communally and left the movement.
That left about 400 Hutterites, who are the ancestors of the more than 45,000 Hutterites in North America.

Their birth rate has slowed since they first arrived here, Kant said.

Numerous published studies point to couples marrying at an older age and increasing, albeit quietly, the use of birth control.

Still, their birth rate is a cause for concern, since it means they need to acquire more land, with colonies set at about 150 people maximum. "It's still way up there," Kant said of the birth rate.

Hutterites refer to a colony as "The Ark," as in the ship that Noah sailed across a flooded planet.

They see themselves as a people apart from others and determined to preserve their ways and beliefs.

Any intrusions into or changes to "The Ark" are carefully weighed, although modern equipment is used for farming and, increasingly, manufacturing on colonies, Kant said.

Televisions are not allowed. Radios are routinely pulled from pickups. The Internet is only used for farming information and while some Hutterite students learn on computers, only the teacher has Internet access, Kant said.

"So far, the delicate balance has hung on just fine," she said.

Jean Morrison is a full-time teacher at the Rockport Colony. An employee of the Mitchell School District, Morrison plans to retire at the end of the school year.

She works with five other full- and part-time educators and said she enjoys it. She finds the Hutterites to be friendly, good-natured and generous people.

"I'd never be able to go back to a regular school," Morrison said.

Wipf was born on the colony and his father and brother have also served as head ministers. He said some of the descendants of the original Rockport Hutterites have come to visit the cemetery and see "the markers," and others have visited land where their relatives once lived, worked and worshipped.
Wipf said tensions that caused the colony to be abandoned have largely been healed.

"We've got some really good neighbors," he said. "Help each other out and that is a very good feeling. If you don't have neighbors, what do you got?"

The Rockport Colony is a large, successful farming operation with numerous barns and other buildings. There are 163 residents, Wipf said, and a daughter colony is being planned for the Howard area.

Developing Friendships

Kant, 64, first encountered Hutterites while she was growing up in Watertown and sometimes spotted them around town, she said during the SDSU lecture.

She knew them by their distinctive clothing and their Germanic accents, but she was unsure exactly what all of that meant.

In 1976, Kant got to know some Hutterites better. She was a young farmwife living outside Britton when a neighbor appeared at her door.

Kant said she could tell from his beard and clothing that he was a Hutterite. He asked her if she had seen a missing Charlois calf and also mentioned to her that she could buy food from the nearby colony.

"So, we developed a friendship," she said.

Her daughter played with Hutterite children. Although Hutterites aren't taught English as young children, it wasn't a barrier, Kant said.

"They still seemed to play well together."

Kant became friendly with the head cook on the colony and soon started work on a cookbook collecting Hutterite recipes.

The book, "The Hutterite Cookbook," was Kant's first step toward a career that has increasingly become focused on Hutterites. The small, self-published cookbook was later republished by a larger firm.

Her other work includes "The Hutterite Community Cookbook," "The Best of Hutterite Cooking," a version of her first book, and "Hutterites of South Dakota: The Schmiedeleut." She has written or co-written several other books.

She earned an undergraduate degree in sociology education at the University of South Dakota, where she was an honors graduate. Kant earned a master's in geography and is now an adjunct faculty member at SDSU while she works on her doctorate in biological science with a plant specialization.

While the death of the Hofer brothers is part of the new book, it's also filled with photos and details of how Hutterites live today. Kant's years of study and the friendships she has developed allowed her access to a world little seen by most non-Hutterites.

She explains their clothing, food and habits and shows how they have evolved over the years. The photos and words also reveal how work is such an important part of their daily lives.

Joanita Kant discusses her decades of research into Hutterites during a Feb.
24 presentation at the Agricultural Heritage Museum at South Dakota State University in Brookings. Photographed by Tom Lawrence.

Wipf said he admires Kant's interest in Hutterites, and she did an excellent job with the book.

"I was the first to read it," he said. "I thought it was very well written.

Short and to the point. She didn't make a lot of words she didn't need."

Kant said even though she is an outsider to them, Hutterites have always made her feel welcome and have shared food and friendship. Her admiration is clear as she talks and writes about them.

"That's why I called it 'Gentle People,' " she said of her new book. "I have found them to be kind and gentle people. There's kind of a quality about that I find very appealing."

Reprinted with permission of The Daily Republic.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller