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Manitoba History: “Graven Images of a Closed Society:” The Huron Hutterite Colony, 1920s

by Roy Ward, Ingolf, Ontario
& John C. Lehr and Brian McGregor, Department of Geography, University of Winnipeg

Number 54, February 2007

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Hutterites first settled in Manitoba in 1919 when they abandoned their settlements in South Dakota and moved north to secure land in southern Alberta and in Manitoba close to Winnipeg. As German-speaking Anabaptists and pacifists who practised communal living they had been subjected to persecution after the United States entered the war against Germany in 1917. For their refusal to serve in the United States Army and their reluctance to contribute directly to the prosecution of the war they had their possessions seized and some of their youth imprisoned and killed.

Huron Hutterites

Susanna, a Hutterian “Mona Lisa,” 1925.
Source: Roy Ward

In 1918 members of the Schmiedeleut colonies in South Dakota purchased land in Cartier Municipality, Manitoba, where they established six colonies (James Valley, Huron, Milltown, Bonne Homme, Maxwell and Rosedale) and resumed their former way of life. There are now 106 colonies in Manitoba.

The photographs in this collection, taken by Charles E. M. Ward soon after the Huron colony was established and published here for the first time, are remarkable indeed. Even today many Hutterites refuse to be photographed and cameras are not commonly found on most colonies. Until recently many Hutterites requested that their Manitoba driver’s licences not carry their photograph as they felt it contravened the Biblical injunction not to make graven images. Thus, in the 1920s the only cameras likely to be found on a Hutterite colony were those owned by outsiders, most likely to be the “English” teacher, the one outsider who had the opportunity to know the community and who was present on a daily basis. Charles Ward was one such teacher.

Huron Hutterites

Locations of the first six Hutterite colonies in Manitoba.
Source: Brian McGregor

To the Hutterites the colony is an arc: a refuge from the pressures of a secular and godless world. Their leaders faced, and still face, a daunting task. They need to embrace the most modern technologies in order to remain competitive in agricultural markets that are increasingly sophisticated and global, while at the same time controlling exposure to popular culture that threatens to erode Hutterite traditional values. That Huron colony had an impressive tractor even in 1924 is not surprising; Hutterites have always eagerly adopted agricultural technology if it does not threaten their beliefs or way of life. Today on most colonies computers are found, they stand alone and Internet access is rare. Similarly, radios and televisions are frowned upon because they are conduits for outside values, but GPS technology, two-way radios, and other gadgets that enhance agricultural productivity have been embraced.

Located in rural areas, away from centres of population, by lessening the opportunities for social interaction with the outside world, colony life reduced the opportunity for outside influences to penetrate the community. Ironically, the greatest threat to the integrity of Hutterite life was to come from two unlikely sources: a reduction in anti-Hutterite sentiments by mainstream society and evangelical preachers who offer a religious alternative to communal life. Now that the outside community is far less hostile than it was from the 1920s to 1960s, there are fewer barriers to interaction with non-Hutterites in surrounding areas, so the colony isolates less than formerly. A more serious threat comes from evangelical groups that proselytize among the Hutterites, promising Christian salvation outside of the constraints of colony life, with access to all the conveniences of modernity that are presently denied to them.

Huron Hutterites

Charles Ward in Hutterite costume, circa 1923.
Source: Roy Ward

Charles Edwin Mile Ward, father of the senior author, was born in 1904 and raised at Portage la Prairie. He graduated from high school then attended a four-month “normal course” which gave him a temporary teaching certificate. His first assignment was to a one-room school house on the Huron Hutterite colony near Benard. There, he taught forty students from grades 1 to 9, over a period of three years starting in 1922. In his spare time, Ward indulged an interest in photography. Among his subjects were girls from the colony; at one point, he was invited to join the colony and marry one of them. He politely refused, opting instead to complete his Normal School training. A succession of jobs in Winnipeg led him back to education, and he taught at Norquay School, Greenway School, Kelvin High School, and Vincent Massey High School, eventually becoming Supervisor of Industrial Arts and Home Economics for the Fort Garry School District. He retained a life-long interest in photography, frequently submitting his photos to amateur competitions. Charles Ward retired to his cottage at Ingolf, Ontario and died in 1993.

These rare photographs may thus be viewed in two ways. They are a remarkable record of life on a Hutterite colony in the 1920s but they represent the thin end of an alien cultural wedge, penetrating into what formerly had been a closed society.

Huron Hutterites

Horse or man? The photo is labeled merely “Bruce.”
Source: Roy Ward

Huron Hutterites

“Will she start?” A group of Hutterite men pose while trying to start their steam tractor, an apparently anachronistic sign of technology within an otherwise pastoral lifestyle.
Source: Roy Ward

Huron Hutterites

“Five beauties.” The facial expressions of these young Hutterite women betray a range of emotions to the camera.
Source: Roy Ward

Huron Hutterites

A panoramic view of the farm yard at the Huron Hutterite colony, 1924.
Source: Roy Ward

Huron Hutterites

The duck pen at the Huron Hutterite colony, 1924.
Source: Roy Ward

Huron Hutterites

The unpainted clapboards of the teacher’s residence at the Huron Hutterite colony lend an air of neglect ...
Source: Roy Ward

Huron Hutterites

... compared to the school house with its fresh coat of paint and pile of split fire wood.
Source: Roy Ward

Page revised: 5 November 2012

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