The Process of Colony Division Among the Hutterians: A Case Study

Peters, Victor. "The Process of Colony Division Among the Hutterians: A Case Study." International Review of Modern Sociology 6, 1976, 57-64.

A distinctive characteristic of the Hutterians is their practice of colony division when a population of about 150 is reached. The parent colony provides land, buildings, and equipment and is then divided into two equal parts with a minister and farm managers in each. In the case cited, the daughter colony was established on a land-base much smaller than is needed for economic survival, which suggests that a trend may be developing toward semi-industrial and commercial diversification.

Most of the historical communal groups in the United States did not have a steady and consistent population growth and consequently did not have to face the problems associated with expansion due to population pressure. The Oneida and the Harmony societies either restricted natural population growth or practiced continence, while the Amanas of Iowa had a sufficiently secure economic base to provide for their natural increase. In some societies the number of converts added were exceeded by the number of members who left the community. While the Hutterians gained very few converts during the period that they have been in the United States and Canada, their phenomenal natural increase made it mandatory for them to make provision for the equitable division of colony populations and assets. This paper is a case study of a colony division in process. The Minnesota Big Stone Colony division may be of special significance in that the Hutterians in this instance are prepared to set up a new colony on a much smaller land base than is customary among the Hutterians. This will mean increased agricultural and industrial diversification which in turn may affect the social structure and texture of the society.

Big Stone, Minnesota: The Process of Colony Division Among The Hutterians

The Hutterians came to North America one hundred years ago.1 During this period the greatest innovation introduced and developed by them may well be the regular and orderly process of colony division. It is undertaken whenever a colony feels that it is approaching or has reached its optimum population. The pattern of colony division is similar among all colony congregations in the United States and Canada. Despite the absence of a clear historical directive the process operates not only effectively but has also universal acceptance among the brotherhood. Colonies grow and divide with an assurance that almost resembles the instinct of the salmon when it takes its course to spawn in fresh water. I have been unable to trace the innovator of this process. Indeed, like some other internal developments among the Hutterians, it most likely was not the brainchild of any one man, but rather a communal decision reached after long discussions.

The Big Stone Colony, the example under study, is located in Graceville in Minnesota, and is branching out to found the Pleasant Valley Colony at Flandreau, in South Dakota. Big Stone itself is an offspring of the New Elmspring Colony (1936) in South Dakota, which, like all Schmiedeleut colonies, traces its history back to the original Bon Homme Colony (1874) in South Dakota.

A few figures and statistics on Big Stone Colony may serve as factual background. It was founded in 1958 when New Elmspring split and nine families, 78 adults and children, made the move to Big Stone. The colony began with 2620 acres of land, which has since been enlarged to 3480 acres, of which 3080 acres are under cultivation. At the present time the colony is also renting 480 acres.

Big Stone now has 22 families, or a total of 143 people. As positions in the various enterprises began to duplicate or double-up and school and dining room became crowded, the colony people began to consider branching out. In the spring of 1974 the colony bought 480 acres of land near Flandreau, SD. It is marginal land and only 150 acres of it are under cultivation. The projected colony, named Pleasant Valley, will be 120 miles south of Big Stone.2

The colony has elected a second minister, which is a mandatory requirement before a colony can consider branching out. The man elected was the “turkey man” Joseph Wollman, age 47. The plans have not progressed to the point where a division of families and assets can take place. No date has been set for the move to the new colony where an active building program is in progress. According to Reverend Samuel Hofer, age 50, the senior minister at Big Stone, about half the people will make the move to Pleasant Valley.

When the colony divides the two colonies will not only have about the same population, but the demographic structure of both colonies will approximate each other as closely as a division of people will permit without separating families. A completed colony division among the Schmiedeleut may be cited as an example. In 1956 the Manitoba colony of Sturgeon Creek had 102 people and Crystal Spring had 94. (see Figure 1)

Figure 1. The Population Pyramids of a Parent and a Daughter Colony After a Colony Division

At the present time men from Big Stone spend days and weeks at Pleasant Valley engaged in building homes, barns for livestock, hogs and poultry, erecting shops, shelters, and feed silos. Men from other colonies may volunteer to help and a small group of women cook the meals and may do some finishing and painting in the houses. Once this building program nears completion the colony will make a careful inventory of all its assets: buildings, land, tools, machinery, grain and feed, and the enterprises such as livestock, poultry, hogs, etc. It will also total its debts, mortgages, and other financial obligations. Assets and liabilities are then carefully divided on a per capita basis. Whether a family will remain at the old colony or move to the new colony, it is assured of maximum economic equity. After these important preliminaries the colony is ready for a population (family) division.

The form of division of assets may be quite flexible. Depending on the needs of each colony it may be possible to divide such possessions as tractors, combines, farm implements, and trucks evenly, and livestock and hogs by headcount. The mode of family division within certain limits may also vary. The division undertaken at the Manitoba colony of Riverside followed the more customary method and was described to me by Reverend John Hofer, the minister at Riverside:

Riverside had two ministers, and these men now prepared two lists of all the families in the community. Care was taken that the heads of families who worked in the same enterprise, with the poultry, or with livestock, or in the carpentry shop, should appear on separate lists. Similarly the size of the family would be considered; each list contained small and large families. An approximately equal number of young and old couples were included in each list. Once completed, these two lists were submitted to the community-congregation for possible adjustments. If any family felt there was a good reason to transfer from one list to the other, it could apply for such a transfer. If the community thought the reason was valid it in turn would approve the transfer.

As soon as the congregation was in general agreement that both lists were about equal in all respects the lists were placed in a hat and das Los, a drawing, decided which group was to remain on the home colony and which one was to leave for the new colony. Since the two colony ministers were responsible for drawing up the two lists, their names on either list could indicate a preference for one particular group. To avoid giving the impression of such a preference the two ministers then drew lots to see which one would remain and which one was to join the new colony. The two ministers at the Riverside colony were father and son, and das Los decided that the senior minister move to Bloomfield, and the younger remain at the mother colony.3

A colony, however, may have a number of families who would prefer to move to the new colony, and an equal number who would favor remaining at the old colony. Unless there are good reasons against such a natural division, it may be accepted by the colony and the branches would follow on these lines. Again, numerically about equal groups may each have a natural empathy for one of the two ministers. In that case the name of each minister may be placed with the respective list and the Los (draw) decides which group leaves and which remains. In operation the pattern for colony division is flexible and other variations of the modes indicated may be acceptable, given that the process be mutually satisfactory and equitable, and neither of the groups is motivated by a wish to depart from traditional Hutterian ways.

The colonies keep in close touch with each other with many marriages taking place between colonies. Figure 2 shows the in and out marriages for one colony, all within the Hutterian society.

Figure 2. Marriages at Sunnyside Colony in Manitoba: Ten males took brides from other colonies; Ten brides left the colony to marry men at other colonies; five Hutterians at Sunnyside married brides from the home colony.

By the time Big Stone is ready to branch out it will have 150 people. Among the Schmiedeleut this is regarded as the ideal population quota. After the division both the old and the new colony will have sufficient manpower. An earlier split could create a labor shortage and impose hardships on all parties. The Dariusleut and Lehrerleut who pursue a less intensive form of agriculture in Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan undertake divisions with much smaller populations. The nature of the land and their enterprises make it necessary for them to have an acreage base that is usually more than twice the size of that of a Schmiedeleut colony.

Largely because of the rising cost of land the Schmiedeleut have within the last few decades still further intensified and diversified their enterprises. The purchase of only 480 acres of land without the prospects of immediate further expansion for a new colony is unprecedented. Since Big Stone is a heavy producer of meats, it was anticipated that Pleasant Valley would base its enterprises on the inflationary rise of meat prices. Some of the people at Big Stone, as well as at other colonies, are frankly concerned whether this somewhat speculative venture will prove successful. The feed raised by most Schmiedeleut colonies is not sufficient to sustain the beef and dairy, hog, and turkey and poultry enterprises, and their own feed supply is supplemented with bulk purchases from neighboring farmers and grain elevators. With the rising price for grain and feed grain and the drop in the price of meats the Hutterians face an unenviable economic squeeze.

The uncertain future may persuade the Hutterians to experiment with commercial and industrial enterprises. Last year a Manitoba colony, Crystal Spring, bought discarded machines and assembled its own alfalfa dehydrating plant. It is competing with large industrial plants for a wide market. The investment, relatively small when compared to the cost of buying land, has proved most successful. The impulse for still greater changes and colony innovations may be attributed at least in part to the new Hutterian relationship with the Society of Brothers.

The Society of Brothers, which originated in Germany, has at present colonies in New York, Pennsylvania, and in England.4 They have always been interested in a merger with the Hutterians. Despite serious differences negotiations are again under way which may result in Hutterian acceptance of the Society of Brethren as a fourth congregation (Arnoldleut). Hutterian leaders have visited these colonies in the east and have been especially impressed with the success of their domestic industrial-commercial enterprises, with the factory located at the colony and the colony also in charge of wholesale distribution. When Dr. A. Khoshkish and I interviewed Reverend Samuel Hofer at Big Stone, who had visited Woodcrest Community at Rifton (New York), we also discussed the feasibility of colony industrialization. Hofer’s response was:

We are thinking about it. We have to get away from the heavy investment in land. Eventually we have to go in the direction of the community in New York which manufactures and markets toys very successfully. We would be better able to use our labor in that type of industry, and we could permit the colonies to grow large before we branch out and still have work for all. 5

It is too early to project a trend in the development at Big Stone. Setting up a new colony of nine to eleven families on a land base of 480 acres, with only one-third of it suitable for
cultivation, is, in the words of Hofer, “something that has not been done before.” The
Hutterians may have reached the crest of colony expansion, at least among the Schmiedeleut. If the anticipated semi-industrial and commercial diversification occurs, we can expect a graphic leveling of Hutterian colony multiplication.


1. In the years 1874-1877 three Hutterian communal owned and operated colonies were established in Dakota Territory. The Hutterians were Germans who had migrated to Russia in 1770, but when a century later that country introduced compulsory military service, they emigrated to the United States. The three colonies were known as the Schmiedeleut, Dariusleut, and Lehrerleut. They became the “mother” congregations of all Hutterian colonies in the United States and Canada. Today the Schmiedeleut have 89 colonies (Manitoba 52, South Dakota 34, North Dakota three, Minnesota one). The Dariusleut have 77 colonies (Alberta 57, Saskatchewan 11, Montana seven, Washington two). The Lehrerleut have 61 colonies (Alberta 31, Montana 16, Saskatchewan 14). That is the total of 214 colonies, of which 63 are in the United States and 151 in Canada.

2. When the land purchase took place the local newspaper gave the event extensive coverage, and praised the Hutterians for their dedication and industry. See The Northern Star, Clinton and Graceville, Minn., April 1974.

3. Peters, pp. 117-118. Variations of colony division as they appear in Bennett, pp. 184-192, and Hostetler, pp. 185-192, are of course equally valid.

4. See Benjamin Zablocki, The Joyful Community, Penguin Books, Baltimore, 1971.

5. Tape-recorded interview at Big Stone, June 19, 1974.


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