Sanford School of Medicine School of Medicine

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Life Among the Hutterites

Med Student at Hutterite Colony Colony Leader, Jacob Wipf

Feature Story

Fifty medical students walked from their vehicles to the church, the first stop on their tour of the Oak Lane Hutterite Colony.  

"As the day started, I didn't know what to expect," Mitch McKenzie, said afterward.

But McKenzie and the other third-year medical students couldn't help but notice that the colony seemed a lot like any other small town in South Dakota. It included a church, a school, several homes, several barns and even two wind turbines, powered by a familiar, biting prairie wind on that November day.

The first telltale sign of colony life appeared in the form of Jacob Wipf, Oak Lane's leader. He sported a beard and a black suit. After the students were seated in the church, Wipf told them  English is his second language after German. The students could be forgiven if his Old World manner made him seem like he had just walked off the stage of a production of "Fiddler on the Roof."

Although Wipf did not break into song, he did mix humor in his overview of the colony. "Regardless of what it is, don't wish you would have asked this or wish you had asked that. Ask any questions," Wipf said. "If we don't know or don't want to answer, we will plead the Fifth."  

History of Hutterites

Hutterites are a religious, communal branch of Anabaptists, tracing their origin to the Radical Reformation of the 16th Century. Jacob Hutter, their first leader, and a small group of followers, first committed to their beliefs in Austria in 1528.

"All care for each other," Wipf said in describing the Hutterites' core tenets. "None of us are rich or poor. We are all the same."

Their beliefs led to persecution, and the group fled from country to country to survive. They became known as Hutterites after Hutter was publicly burned at the stake for not renouncing his faith in 1536. "The Hutterite history is filled with persecutions, forced migrations and hardships," Wipf said.

The first Hutterites to settle in the United States formed the Rockport Hutterite Colony near Yankton in 1874. The Oak Lane colony, near Alexandria, was created in 1986 when the Rockport colony grew too large. Oak Lane now has 23 families.

More than 480 years later, Hutterites still believe in communal living. "Everything in Oak Lane is ours," Wipf said. "None of it is mine."

The colony is overseen by a board of directors made of male leaders. Wipf serves as minister and president. All major decisions require a vote of all male members of the church, although Wipf said women are not without their influence. "You know ladies can persuade their husbands, so essentially they vote anyway," Wipf said.

Church attendance is mandatory for children under the age of 15. Attendance is encouraged for everyone else. A church service is held at the end of each work day. Hutterites are baptized in their late teens or early 20s, when they feel they are able to decide what they believe. "They have to be ready to be baptized," he said, adding that baptism is a prerequisite for marriage.  

Dining Hall

After the introduction to colony life in the church, the tour of Oak Lane continued. Another stop was the dining hall and kitchen facility, the province of the colony's women. The equipment is industrial sized since meals must be made for the entire colony to enjoy together. Men eat their meals on one side of the hall; women on the other.

Women begin cooking at the age of 17 and retire from that task at the age of 45. There's no retirement age for washing dishes. Their other tasks include sewing, gardening and caring for children.

On the day of the tour, an impressive number of tins filled with homemade bread had just emerged from the oven. Equally impressive was the pantry packed with canned vegetables, grown at the colony.  


The colony includes a modern school that children attend through eighth grade. It's operated by the Hanson School District. The school includes three classrooms and a large library.

Students learn English and German as well as math and social studies.

Wipf said children also are taught core values as well as how critical it is to make the right choice. "We teach them how important it is to not tell a lie," Wipf said. "Be honest. Be modest."

The hallway included an age-old punishment for one student who acted up. The errant child had been made to write sentences on a poster-sized piece of paper, which was then on public display.

After completing the eighth grade, students can go on to high school and college, but few do. The girls go on to learn their duties like cooking and sewing. Boys rotate through the colony's extensive agricultural operations. "So as they grow up they have been in every field so we know in which field they will fit in best," Wipf said.  


Perhaps the most unexpected facet of the colony is the Hutterites' agribusinesses. The dairy, hog and turkey operations have the latest technology and equipment, including GPS and computers. The yard also includes a blacksmith shop and machine shed, where the combines are housed. The colony farms thousands of acres of corn, soybeans and wheat.

The colony even includes a pheasant farm, which helps ensure success for those staying at the colony's nearby hunting lodge. "Sometimes when there are not enough pheasants around, we will turn a few loose in a hay meadow or something like that so the people that come from the city have something to shoot. Some of them are very particular and want to hunt only wild birds. Most of them don't know we have this here," Wipf said of the pheasant farm. After waiting for the laughter from the students to die down, he added: "That's a nice thing for a minister to say, isn't it?"  

Student Reaction

Several students spent more than one day studying the Hutterites. Derek Kindelspire visited the Rosedale Hutterite Colony near Alexandria for two days after the Oak Lane tour. "In visiting with the people there and touring the colony, it became very apparent how self-sufficient they are," Kindelspire wrote in his diary of his experience. "They grow almost all of the food they consume. This includes meats, potatoes, vegetables, and even milk. They even manufactured some of their own furniture and carts for every family! The women make many of the clothes that are worn by all members of the colony."

Another student, Alese Fox, visited the Old Elm Springs Colony near Parkston. She came away impressed by the tradition and modesty she saw. "It is interesting to acknowledge that our cultures co-exist in the same part of the world and have access to the same resources and yet we live our lives so starkly, drastically, different from one another," Fox wrote in her diary. She disagreed with some of what she discovered like the role of women and the lack of educational opportunity. "But regardless of the vast chasm between our beliefs, they are good people," she wrote. She also said she appreciated their sense of community, altruism and simplicity of their way of life. "I feel I learned as much about myself as I did about their culture," Fox wrote.


Sidebar: It All Started with a Call to the Doctor

The medical school's relationship with the Hutterites in South Dakota blossomed when one of their leaders called the doctor. In the early 1980s, Jacob Wipf of the Oak Lane Hutterite Colony suffered from asthma and called Rodney R. Parry, M.D., a pulmonologist in Sioux Falls, who also was a leader of the medical school. As he treated Wipf, Parry realized Hutterite colonies offered a great way to study the links between genetics and health.

"You have large families with extended generations all at one or several locations," Parry said. "You are caring people and we can collect a lot of data in a short period of time. And the participation rate is fantastic, nearly 100 percent."

Parry and Evelyn Schlenker, Ph.D., professor of basic biomedical sciences, conducted research at nine colonies in the state. Their work added to the body of knowledge of organic toxic dust syndrome, which can occur when grain is being shoveled or grain bins cleaned. They also collaborated with other researchers around the country in a project sponsored by the National Institutes of Health to determine how genetics contribute to the development of asthma.

The Hutterite colonies offered several advantages to the researchers. No one smokes. Most live at the colony their entire lives. And those who change occupations because of their health remain at the colony, allowing for easy follow-up studies. As a result of the research, Hutterites began wearing masks as an important preventative measure for a range of tasks from loading livestock to painting to cleaning grain bins. The research also helped identify the genes responsible for asthma, allowing for better treatment and prevention.? 


Sidebar: Day's Work Becomes Lesson  

Editor's Note: Some of the medical students spent more than one day at a Hutterite colony. For his immersion experience, Bob Burge spent two more days at Oak Lane. Here's an excerpt from his diary describing his second day there:     

Today, the members of the colony had something planned for us that they thought would be a unique experience and something that we could learn from. We slaughtered 22 hogs. It was unique and very interesting but after the first few hogs had been butchered a fortuitous turn of fate transformed the situation into a learning experience for the colony members and a teaching experience for the other student and me.

Throughout the butchering process we could not help but notice the striking similarity between a pig's anatomy and our own. It was not long before we were digging through organs and having an impromptu anatomy review session. Initially it was only our own curiosity that spurred the event, but soon members of the Colony began paying attention and within little time we were giving an entire lecture. We began pulling organs from the waste pile one at a time and carefully dissecting them on a spare table. With each specimen that we recovered we thoroughly explained the anatomical in situ location, the function, the physiology and also many of the common pathologies associated with each organ.

One of the favorites of the younger members of the colony was the heart. We gathered three hearts; one was bisected, one left intact, and the last was separated out structurally attached to the lungs. There was one member of the colony who knew that he had a murmur and was diagnosed with a congenital bicuspid aorta. He said that he never understood his diagnosis before and he was very thankful to finally get such a descriptive explanation. Other favorites of the children included the tongue and the eye. One of the ladies involved in the science department of the school stopped by and was very excited. She especially appreciated a bisected kidney that helped explain the physiology of how urine is made.

Before the night was over, some of the members of the colony had a special request to find two particular structures for some personal reasons. Recently the colony had lost a couple members due to disorders that they never fully understood. One child died from a disorder of the brainstem and an older colony member died from a hemangiosarcoma of the third cervical vertebra. We were able to locate these respective structures and offer some explanation to the conditions and maybe even help give some amount of closure to our viewing audience.

The operation slaughtering all of the hogs ran a little later than we had originally planned and so we missed out on the community meal cooked by the women in the cafeteria. Even though the kitchen would have normally been closed that late at night, some of the women got together to cook for us and we fired up a grill and cooked some pig ribs and shared home brewed wine and good company late into the evening. That day was very enjoyable and will always be saved in my memory as an amazing experience.     

--Bob Burge