The Arrival of the Hutterites in Alberta

Written by: Paul Wipf on Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Posted with permission from Simon Evans
Thank you to Simon Evans and Peter Peller for this interesting and informative post about Hutterite arrival in Alberta.

One hundred years ago, during the early spring of 1918, Paul Stahl and a small group of Hutterite leaders were scouring the country north of Calgary looking for land. After several disappointments, they found a splendid parcel of land along the tiny Rosebud River and purchased nearly 4000 acres from the Calgary Colonization Company. Some men stayed to build barns and residences for the rest of the community. Later, the main group left South Dakota on a special train to join them. There were almost 100 people of all ages, scores of horses, wagons, milk cows, 40 sows, and all kinds of farm machinery and household items onboard. They crossed into the Dominion of Canada at the Emerson Port of Entry and proceeded on the Canadian Pacific Railway to Strathmore. Here, they unpacked their belongings, hitched up the horses and moved by wagon to the new colony site along the Rosebud River, a trek of about 25 miles. After a week of traveling, the refugees finally reached their new home.

The Hutterites are a German speaking religious group with 400 years of history. They are Anabaptists and originated in the Austrian Tyrol during the Reformation in the 16th century. The characteristic that separates them from similar groups like the Amish and the Mennonites is that they live communally. Each family has its own apartment, but meals are prepared in a central kitchen and eaten together. They hold “all things common,” as did the early Christian church described in the Acts of the Apostles. Hutterites own few personal possessions and are not paid wages for their hard work. In exchange, the colony looks after them from birth to death.

Hutterites are passionately committed to pacifism. It was the threat of conscription which prompted their flight from the Ukraine to the Dakota frontier in 1874. Here they enjoyed more than forty years of modest prosperity, where the original three colonies grew to number 15 by 1916. Their productive mixed farms along the James River were distinguished by their stone buildings, herds of geese, flocks of pigeons, and by their flourmills. They had earned a reputation as progressive farmers, and by 1912 several colonies were already using gasoline engines to power cream separators and to provide electric light. Relationships with their neighbours, many of whom were German speaking, were friendly for they shared a common heritage and faced similar problems.

How quickly things can change. When the United States was drawn into the First World War in Europe, the five million Germans who had found new homes in the US became objects of suspicion. In South Dakota, the Hutterites, who spoke German, kept to themselves, and refused to support the war effort in any way. In turn, they were subject to intimidation and violence. Two Hutterite conscripts were imprisoned in Alcatraz and later died from the abuse they suffered. It was time to find a new home in Canada.

The Hutterite immigrants who had arrived in South Dakota had been drawn from three separate communities in Russia. The leader of one group was a teacher and they became known as the Lehrerleut, another was a blacksmith, which gave rise to the name, Schmiedeleut, while the third group was led by Darius Walter, and his followers became the Dariusleut. During their sojourn in South Dakota these three clan groups (leut) grew apart and became endogamous. When the Hutterites were forced to leave South Dakota an important spatial division took place. The Schmiedeleut moved just across the Canadian border into Manitoba, while the Dariusleut and the Lehrerleut moved to Alberta.

By the end of 1919, 11 colonies had been established in Alberta. Seven were Dariusleut and four Lehrerleut. Several of the colonies numbered 100 or more and the next few years were to see several daughter colonies established, albeit at a more measured pace. The colonies varied widely in size, affluence and management skills – just as they do today – but they had survived the trauma of the sudden move, and their continued existence until the present day bears witness to their successful adaptation to their new home.

There were 8 colonies south of Lethbridge. The biggest single land transaction was the purchase of 27 square miles of the McIntyre Ranch by three Lehrerleut colonies. This deal provided enough land for Old Elmspring, New Elmspring and Rockport Colonies. The Spink Colony in South Dakota was the first to establish a Darius clan presence in what was to become the southern core of Hutterite settlement in Alberta. They purchased the 6000 acres Pearson ranch on the Belly River adjacent to the Blood Indian Reserve, and called the new place Standoff Colony.

The 1921 Canadian Census recorded that there were three Dariusleut colonies forming a compact block along the Rosebud River. Already 35 “Albertan Hutterites” had been born and they outnumbered the 20 grandparents who had been born in Russia. A newly constructed flourmill at Rosebud Colony attracted customers from miles around, while a small coalmine at Springbank Colony provided more than enough coal to keep homes and barns warm and to provide steam for the mill.

Public sentiment in Canada, WWI and post-war

As the Hutterites made their escape from South Dakota, so they were met with a rhetorical barrage of hostility from the newspapers of their new country. The prosecution of the seemingly endless war and the tragic losses in Flanders dominated and depressed the public mind. The divisive conscription crisis and the election of the Union government in 1917 had whipped up sentiment against both “the Hun” and “slackers” who were not pulling their weight. In this jingoistic atmosphere, the arrival of the pacifist Hutterites was greeted with derision. Fears of an invasion of German speaking Mennonites and Hutterites were fanned by the hyperbolic inflation of the numbers involved. Bob Edwards of the Calgary Eye Opener remarked, “… it is said that the particular brotherhood which has been wished upon Alberta has two million members…who are coming to Canada.” In fact, James Calder, the Minister of the Interior, told the House of Commons that less than 2000 Hutterites had been admitted to Canada.

Cartoon from the Calgary Eye Opener, September 21, 1918, depicting the perceived flood of undesirable immigrants poised on Alberta’s border. There was no difference between Hutterites and Mennonites in the public mind. (Glenbow Archives)
The Armistice in November 1918 did nothing to diminish the hostility which faced the Hutterites. The year of 1919 saw massive social dislocation clear across the Dominion. Demobilized troops flooded the labour market, while the change from wartime production to the demands of a population at peace caused widespread disruption. As if these difficulties were not enough, the Spanish flu epidemic brought a real and immediate life and death emergency into homes across the prairies. These difficult times do much to explain if not to excuse the hostility and suspicion that greeted the Hutterites.

It had been a daunting achievement to move fourteen communities and some 1500 people to a new country in the face of bewildered incomprehension at best, and more often, open hostility. It had taken remarkable leadership and confident support from the Hutterite community as a whole. None of the new colonies acquired under such difficult circumstances proved to be untenable. They all flourished, and soon their most pressing problem was to find new sites for daughter colonies.

The Hutterites today

Today there are some 180 Hutterite colonies in Alberta, and about 16,000 Hutterites. Colonies are widely distributed throughout the province, from the Peace River Country to Pincher Creek and east to Manyberries, and are easily recognized because of their extensive barns, grain handling infrastructure and secluded residential areas hidden by windbreaks. However the two historic core areas of settlement south of Lethbridge and north of Calgary along the Rosebud River are still easily discernable. The Hutterites make a significant contribution to agricultural production in Alberta. Because of their relatively large labour force and their adherence to mixed farming, they “hit above their weight.” They produce 80% of the province’s eggs, 33% of the hogs, and more than 10% of the milk. Moreover, the growing number of Hutterite colonies add a new element to the cultural landscape of rural areas of the province. While small hamlets and villages have continued to disappear, these Hutterite farm villages of more than 100 people have done something to replace them.

Showing 2 comments

Terry Lempriere said:
On: 20th Sep, 2018 at 12:34

Really interesting. Thanks for sharing Paul.

Kelly Hilhorst said:
On: 14th Jan, 2019 at 10:16

What an informative piece! Thank you.