A Simpler Life: The Hutterites of Southern Alberta

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Pincher Creek, cornflakes, tractors, Moravia, Christianity, Walmart, flowerbeds, smartphones & Princess Diana.

There is no sign for the Hutterite colony at Pincher Creek in Southern Alberta, Canada. You won’t notice the colony if you are driving by, like most people do, on your way somewhere else. You need to be told exactly how to get there. Off the roundabout, take the second exit, then follow the old back road. Hang a right down the dirt track and keep going until you’re certain you must have made a wrong turn. Only then will you see a sign.

The Hutterites like to keep to themselves. They have no website or email address and the colony does not appear on a GPS device. The Hutterites don’t hold with technology, unless it’s the latest farming machinery. They manage to get by just fine without the internet.

All of that is handmade, but the Hutterites get their coats from Walmart now. They know it’s cheaper than making their own.

If you want to visit, you call up and ask politely. If you are lucky, they will invite you to lunch and afterward show you around. The Hutterites eat together, sitting at long tables, three times a day, 365 days a year. Men sit on one side of the room and women on the other. They eat whatever the women on cooking detail put in front of them, no complaints. If you don’t like it, the only alternatives are a bowl of cornflakes or an empty stomach. They don’t linger over their meals; there’s too much work to do, farming their ten thousand acres. At the age of fifteen, a girl will be given an apron for the slaughterhouse. A boy gets a set of keys to the tractor.

The Hutterites speak accented English to visitors. To each other, they speak a form of German. This is the language that their Central European forebears spoke, and that they continued to speak as they made their way over the course of three centuries from Tyrol in Austria to Moravia to Transylvania to Ukraine, fleeing persecution all the way. They finally arrived in North America in the late 1800s, bringing their language and their unusual form of Christianity with them. They still dress more or less as they did then: checked shirts and black trousers for the men, which is not much different than what most of the farmers around Pincher Creek wear, and long patterned dresses and head scarves for the women, which make them conspicuous outside the colony. All of that is handmade, but the Hutterites get their coats from Walmart now. They know it’s cheaper than making their own.

When the Hutterites speak, the words come slow and steady. They are in no rush to finish a conversation. They might be busy, sorting eggs or looking after the calves, but they’ll pause their work to chat with a visitor. Maybe it’s because when the day is over, the evening meal eaten and the prayers said, there are no screens to swipe, no statuses to update, no podcasts or box sets to catch up on. In other words, they have none of the things that allow people who consider themselves crazily busy nevertheless to drift through several hours each day in a technological haze. The Hutterites are still used to passing the time of day with each other and with strangers—face to face, not with a text message or an email. In fact, they know no other way.

The Hutterites’ hobbies are limited. Music is not encouraged, nor is photography. They use their downtime for gardening tiny flowerbeds (nothing ostentatious), sewing (nothing fancy), crafts (nothing elaborate), reading the Bible (often) and spending time with their families (daily). They go to bed early, because farm work wears them out and they need to be back in the communal dining room at 7 a.m., dressed and ready for breakfast.

It doesn’t look exciting from the outside, but spend a little time and it becomes clear that the Hutterites have as many internal politics as the average office and far more drama. That’s what you get when you live in a colony of two hundred people in the middle of the prairie, most of whom have known each other since they were children.

they still talk a lot about Princess Diana when the rest of the world has moved on.

Make no mistake about it: the Hutterites know what’s going on in the wider world. They are not confined to the colony. They market their eggs, crops and livestock. The women cater parties in nearby towns and the men pick up some decorating work from time to time. Agriculture is a regulated industry and they need to stay on good terms with state farming inspectors. They have reached a cautious understanding with education ministers about the standards their children must attain before they leave school. The day we were there, the older students were going on a field trip to a nearby mine, like any other high school kids in the area. If their non-Hutterite neighbors are in trouble because of fire or floods, they are the first to lend a hand. But they still talk a lot about Princess Diana when the rest of the world has moved on.

An hour after leaving, I am eating a nondescript donut in a nondescript roadside chain. A woman at the next table is flipping through a self-help book. One of her children is glued to a smartphone. The other is demanding candy. Up in the corner of the room, a bright-screened television that the staff is not allowed to turn off flashes out a loop of advertisements.

It makes you think.

It’s not an easy life, being a Hutterite. You need to obey the rules and know how to submit. If you cannot submit, you won’t have an easy ride. There’s little room for the rebel here. But in return for total commitment, you will be given everything you need. That might not be the same thing as everything you want, but it does at least include food, a house, medical coverage—and a community.

The Hutterites may leave their colony if they want to, but they mostly don’t. People on the outside are quick to say that’s because they can’t cope in the real world. But I doubt I could cope in theirs. I think it’s simpler than that. They’re happy there, and they know it.

Camilla Macpherson lives in London with her Canadian husband and their daughter. Her favorite travel destinations include the Hebrides, Hawaii and rural France. Her first novel, Pictures at an Exhibition, was published by Random House in 2012 and has been translated into Dutch and German. She is currently working on her second novel, which is set in Cold War Berlin. Find out more at her website, camillamacpherson.com.

Lead Photo by Dean McCoy

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