Counterculture Existence Places Hutterites in Their own Category

Young, Steve. "Counterculture Existence Places Hutterites in Their own Category." Argus Leader, 17 November 2003.

They live on the margins of American society, out of the mainstream with their German language and their Old World dress, isolated as much geographically as they are culturally in their back road, rural settlements.

That makes South Dakota's 6,000 Hutterites unique, said Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist Studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania.

But then, so, too, does their prowess as high-tech agricultural producers.

"The Hutterite story is very interesting from a national perspective," Kraybill said. "They are the longest-surviving communal group in North America. And agriculturally speaking, no other communal group has the weighty impact that the Hutterites do in South Dakota.

"The Amish economic impact is significant, but it's more related to business activity - woodworking and building furniture - than farming, and the Amish don't live communally. So the Hutterites, as far as communal farming groups go, are unique."

In the 1800s, dozens of communes popped up across North America, bloomed for a time and fizzled, Kraybill said. The same was true of the Hippie movement of the 1960s.

Today, other communal groups "are relatively young and, frankly, not many of those continue," he said. "The only other comparative group is the monastic orders, the Jesuits and Franciscans, like that. They're communal, but their primary activity isn't economic or productivity. They're focused on meditation and separation from the world."

Historically, communal groups that wither away are destroyed by their own prosperity, said Jerry Rosonke, who is retired as a sociology professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen.

In difficult economic times, Rosonke said, it just seems easier for people to live and work together for the common good.

"But when times are not so tough, people kind of relax. Individual desires get stronger, and they leave communes like mad.

"If you look historically at other communal groups, they generally leak like a sieve. But for some reason, the Hutterites have been able to hang on. Maybe it's easier to leave the colony and return than it has been in the past," he said.

Many Hutterites do leave and come back, especially among the young men. Perhaps they simply yearn for the familiarity of the culture in which they grew up, observers say. Or maybe the prejudices they experience in the outside world drive them back home.

Because Hutterites separate themselves from mainstream America in their dress and language, they can run into a certain amount of bias, said Meredith Redlin, an assistant rural sociology professor at South Dakota State University in Brookings.

Much of that prejudice is more culturally driven than it is economically, Redlin said. She's aware of situations in Montana when buildings have been burned on Hutterite colonies and where local teen-agers have gone into Hutterite homes at 2 or 3 in the morning to harass people.

"I haven't heard of that happening in South Dakota as much," Redlin said. "But to the extent it does, I would guess it's a combination of several things.

"One, they are perceived as being different. They are counterculture. They are only minimally integrated into the larger society, so maybe there's that sense of, 'You're too good for us.' "

Or it could be related to jealousy and envy, Redlin added.

"In difficult economic times, Hutterites can be viewed as objects of some derision because they are seen as these odd people who can buy up all the land," she said.

That ability to purchase land certainly has sent the Hutterites in different directions than, say, the Amish, Kraybill said.

Though their numbers are four times greater in North America than the Hutterites, the Amish moved out of agriculture 20 years ago and into small business because of high land costs where they live - primarily in the eastern United States, Kraybill said.

Where he lives in Lancaster County, Pa., there are 25,000 Amish, and the price of land is $10,000 an acre, Kraybill said. To purchase a 100-acre farm would cost $1 million just for the ground alone.

"Then you're talking $400,000 to get started with the livestock and machinery," Kraybill said. "The Amish found that, to start a small business, making furniture or whatever, they can get $30,000 through a small loan or by borrowing it within the family, and they can grow it slowly."

That approach has turned the Amish in his part of the country into a significant economic force. But their dollars are mostly generated through business - and through the tourism trade they draw with their horse-and-buggy lifestyle.

Reprinted with permission of the Argus Leader.

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