Bumping along the remote gravel road to the Rockport Hutterite colony gives me a chance to consider my expectations. I have none. Still, I try to clear my head of any preconceived notions and set aside my ideas of “normal” culture. We crest a hill, my husband and I, and below us, in a valley of the surrounding hills, the neatly organized the colony structures sit squarely. Bland, metal buildings emerge from the camouflage of rolling fields of barley, thousands and thousands of acres of barley at the foot of Montana’s Rocky Mountains. We pull into the community tentatively, unsure where to go, when a dusty flatbed pickup loaded with men and tools, speeds up next to us. Without words, the driver of the pickup motions to a building to the right before speeding off across our path. The men in the bed stare at us long after they’ve passed. Here I already have the sense that I am the other, the abnormal.
The Hutterites are a religious group similar to the more recognizable Mennonites or Amish. However, they value the concept of communal property, which distinguishes them from the others. Apart from a few personal items like clothes and books, each member of the community owns nothing individually. Everything is owned collectively by the colony including homes, livestock, land, and equipment. All members speak three languages—German, English, and their own language—Hutterisch.
Apart from a few personal items like clothes and books, each member of the community owns nothing individually. Everything is owned collectively by the colony including homes, livestock, land, and equipment. All members speak three languages—German, English, and their own language—Hutterisch.
Ben, the colony manager, waits for us. He stands still and tall, hands in the pockets of his dusty, black pants. He doesn’t move, his bearded yet unmoustached face is impassive as we come to a stop beside him. His plaid shirt of muted blues and tans is home-sewn and worn. It buckles slightly beneath the suspenders that traverse his work widened shoulders. He wears a straw hat with a hole in the crown that shadows his face. We step out of the car and he greets us warmly—my husband first then he hesitantly extends his massive labor-hardened hand toward me.
He wastes no time with small talk, but leads us directly into a building—out of the bright sun and into the shady interior where metal sinks and tables line the outside walls of a large room. It’s immaculately clean. A small puddle of water sits near the drain in the cement floor indicating that the room has recently been hosed out. Ben points to a chain line that hangs down from the ceiling and runs the length of the room before explaining that this is where the women hang the chickens and turkeys before slaughtering and dressing them. The Hutterite women, I say, must not be very squeamish, but he doesn’t understand. He remarks instead that the work is easy because there is little bending or lifting involved and the women are happy because of these mechanical advancements.
It is a world of disconnection—modern, cutting-edge facilities and equipment with what appear to be people of a different century working in them. This sense of contrast—modern meeting antiquated—seems to exist where the Hutterite people meet the world they live in. As if on cue, Ben pulls a cell phone from the pocket of his homemade trousers and takes a brief call in Hutterisch before texting a subsequent message to another member of the colony.
Listening to Ben’s Canadian and German accented English, I begin to understand that there is a certain comfort in being able to pool people into groups based on observations. I’m disoriented because I can’t seem to find a reference point here, something I didn’t realize I’d taken for granted elsewhere. Something as simple as identifying an accent, language, race, or custom has a grounding quality. It doesn’t make anything less foreign but somehow more approachable. That point of reference didn’t exist in this place—not in language, dress, behavior—and the ground felt less stable for it.
Ben invites us into his family’s home. We approach a long building of single-story apartments. The men lead the way, and I follow behind. There is not a weed to be seen in the uniform lots of manicured grass and flower beds, not a single piece of gravel on the sidewalk, not a speck of dirt on the metal stairs leading to the front doors. Ben bends down to pick up a small pebble from the grass and tosses it back into the gravel road. Clothes sway on lines in front of each dwelling. In this place, time seems to move slower, enabling perfection in all aspects of colony life. Or at least the appearance of perfection.
We step inside. My shoes, caked in dust and manure from the tour, squeak on the spotless linoleum floor. Ben doesn’t hesitate, trampling in the outside. I cringe but follow, taking careful steps to leave the floor as clean as possible. He issues a no-nonsense tour of the house including the bedroom he shares with his wife, the sitting room, his office, his son’s room, and the kitchen. We pass into a separate part of the house where four young women are bustling around. Ben leaves me with his daughters, urging them to show off their handiwork, and takes my husband elsewhere to talk of crops and bear attacks on livestock.
We five women stand in the central room surrounded by bolts of cloth and sewing machines. This is the women’s domain. They all seem to be similarly aged—late teens or early twenties. They also look very similar, not unlike almost everyone in the colony, with light brown that disappears beneath a black and white polka-dotted head scarf. Although they are all very pretty, their faces are slightly chubby. I can’t tell if this is because of the head covering or just the standard roundness that tends to occur in so many farm-raised kids. I ask their names, but forget them almost immediately, a product of the society perhaps.
Their skirts whisper as they work on small chores while we talk. They never seem to stop moving. They tell me about their boyfriends from other colonies, and show me the dresses they are working on for the next time they should meet. They proudly point out the different stylistic elements—this one with wider shoulders, that one cut differently at the waist—but I can’t really discern much of a difference. Everything is purple, blue, or green floral patterns on a dark background. One of them says they can choose any color they like, unlike the Amish, but they all seem to adhere to what the others wear.
I ask about a large glass case in one of the bedrooms, the inside packed with dozens of bottles of perfume. They all laugh modestly. One sister explains that the case was a coming of age gift built in the wood shop across the road. Each sister contributes to the collection as they have extra money. It seems that even the few personal possessions they have are easily shared. They invite me to sit in what they say is the most comfortable chair and gather around like thirsty animals after a long drought. They have no questions for me, but eagerly answer anything I inquire about. I don’t think they know what to ask me.
They are friendly and polite. One of the women seems to be much more outspoken than the others, and I wonder if she is the oldest sister. She confidently discusses colony politics and the limitation of certain freedoms but brightens when she talks of selling produce at the farmer’s markets. They are proud, and although they are treated as second-class citizens in their own community, they seem perfectly confident in their value. There is a quiet dignity in the knowledge of their own significance, choosing to define it within themselves.
There is a quiet dignity in the knowledge of their own significance, choosing to define it within themselves.
The sun is going down, and we leave the colony. Riding in silence, my husband and I are both processing the experience. I look back to get one final view of the simple realm. It sits down in the valley, part of the land around it, yet separate from the world it’s situated in. Perhaps the only way to truly see the Hutterites is by looking backward in time, custom, and culture. The problem is backwardness can only be perceived by someone who presumes they are ahead. My brief experience with the people of the Rockport Hutterite Colony further engrained that idea and challenged it at the same time. It is a community of contrasts. This divergent world, this mind-blowingly contradictory and confusing place, has made me simultaneously native and alien, not only in their sphere but in my own skin.
Audrey Nelson an undergraduate student at the University of Northern Colorado pursing an English major with a Writing minor. Writing is excruciating, but she really does enjoy it. At least she thinks she does.