Published: June 2006
Solace at Surprise Creek
Thirty-seven years ago, a young photographer came to Montana to document life in a small religious colony. In his heart, he never really left.
Text and Photograph by William Albert Allard
National Geographic Photographer

Summer 1969

There is a man on the moon, thousands of young people are swarming to Woodstock, and thousands more are protesting the war in Vietnam. I'm in central Montana, documenting the lives of a pacifist religious group, the Hutterites, who live in a colony called Surprise Creek. Their lives are far different from mine, and probably yours. And yet this Hutterite assignment will result in a friendship that lasts my lifetime. I'm a young man, married, and the father of four children—two sons, two daughters, all about a year apart in age. Scott, our firstborn, is nine.

Fall 2004

We're not going to the moon now, there's a new war on, and the joke about Woodstock is that if you remember being there, you probably weren't. I'm no longer young, and I have another marriage and another son. Scott is 44 now and beginning to die, but we don't know that yet. At least we try not to think about it.

Today I'm in my pickup truck, my English springer pup beside me, headed for Montana to do a new story about the Hutterites of Surprise Creek. On the way, I stop outside Minneapolis, where Scott lives with his wife and two kids, to spend time with him.

I'm having second thoughts about the Hutterite story, and driving back to Scott's house after a Twins game, I talk to him about it. "Am I going back to the same well by doing a Hutterite story again?" Scott has melanoma; the worst kind. He turned bald early in life, but beneath his Twins cap tonight he has plenty of hair on the sides and back of his head. He still has eyebrows and looks healthy and handsome. "Dad," Scott answers, knowing how close I am to the Hutterites, "when will you ever again get a chance to do something so personal?" "Yeah," I say. "That's true." Just how true neither of us can possibly know, and I leave in the morning for Montana.

Days later in Darius and Annie Walter's tidy frame house at the colony, I feel at home. I've returned to the colony many times over the years, sometimes flying out with my dog Sarah, to bird hunt and visit. I've always stayed at the Walters'. My daughter Terri calls the Hutterites and the Walters "your other family."

Darius, 65, is sitting in his place at the kitchen table. A couple of years my junior, he's one of my best friends. Bearded, as married Hutterite men must be, Darius wears the suspenders Hutterite males of all ages wear. He's heavier than he once was, and more flushed in the face, but he has the full head of silvery hair and the twinkling eyes, warm smile, and keen sense of humor of his late father, Eli, the colony preacher when I first arrived. From his kitchen seat, Darius can look out white-curtained windows across the lawn to a bird feeder and clotheslines. Women's long dresses, skirts, and white blouses, and men's black pants, white socks, and plaid shirts—and all of that again in children's sizes—billow in the fall breeze. Just beyond the yard is a dirt road that threads past the colony's frame houses and nicely appointed trailer homes, the community kitchen and dining room, the church. Running parallel to Surprise Creek, it passes gardens, weathered wooden sheep barns, and stubble fields touched with the first green of winter wheat, then points toward the distant Little Belt Mountains, their upper reaches white with snow.

Darius is gripping a wireless phone, one of two phones in colony homes; the other is in the home of preacher Sam Hofer. On the other end of the line is a man from Texas who has called several times, persistently seeking to join the colony. It's rare for an outsider to become a member; Hutterites don't encourage converts. "You're wastin' your time," Darius says gruffly into the phone. "It's hard enough if you're born a Hutterite. I got guys breakin' the rules all the time. We don't do it and that's that. There don't need to be any 'How come?'"

"How come?" does not apply to the Hutterite world. There's little place here for individualism in dress, thought, or other personal rights most Americans treasure. The colony owns all assets, so there's no private property, no personal bank accounts, few personal belongings—and little privacy. On the other hand, everyone is clothed, fed, and given a sense of belonging.

The Hutterites are one of the oldest communal groups in North America today. Rather than losing young people, their population is growing. Since I first came to Surprise Creek, it has grown from about 50 to 125 members. Now it's branching out. A new colony, Prairie Elk, is being established about 300 miles away in northeastern Montana. Eventually, decisions will have to be made as to who stays and who packs up to start fresh at Prairie Elk.

Darius is proud of the new place—7,000 acres along the south side of the Missouri River. The colony paid 3.2 million dollars for the land, and he tells me the water rights alone are probably worth the investment. He seems more relaxed when I see him at Prairie Elk. When I first met him, he was a farmer. Then, when the old boss at Surprise Creek died in 1994, Darius was voted in to replace him. It's not an easy job. He's the enforcer of many rules and the overseer of colony debts. Every morning he sits in his office just off the kitchen, paying bills, assigning jobs to the men, and managing colony affairs. Sometimes the pressure shows, and I wonder if he'd have been happier staying a colony farmer.

It's late afternoon, and I've fed, watered, and crated my pup in the grass behind the Walter house. I'm surrounded by some of the smallest kids in the colony, boys in homemade caps and jackets, girls in long dresses and the head scarves that cover their braided hair. The little kids address me by my full name when they have a question, and they usually have many.

"Bill Allard, is that Sarah?" It's seven-year-old Rene asking about my dog. "No," I say. "Sarah died. This is Buster." Respectful silence follows, but I know it will end. "Bill Allard," says Gregory, six, "can Buster hunt pheasants?" "Well, he's just a pup. But I'm going to find out." "Bill Allard," it's nine-year-old Ryan this time. "When you go hunting, can I go with you?" "No, not today." They know what I'm always going to say to that question, but they have to ask anyway. I guess I'd miss it if they didn't.

They're going to butcher 300 turkeys this cold morning. There's a lot of killing at a sustenance colony like Surprise Creek, most of it done for colony consumption. Almost everybody helps with butchering. Inside the slaughterhouse, the floor is shiny and slippery, splotched with red. The sweet smell of blood mingles with the smoky odor of wet feathers. Outside the slaughterhouse, young women with long wooden poles stir headless turkey carcasses in a large steel trough of steaming water. Rita, the handsome young mother stirring the trough, has a thin streak of blood crossing her cheekbone, almost like a scratch. It's turkey blood. A splatter. I think of taking my handkerchief and wiping it from her face, but of course I don't.

Spring 2005

In Minnesota, Scott is undergoing treatment. His hair and energy are gone. He can't eat much or keep down what he does eat. He's in pain and can't sleep. The pain lessens and sleep comes when doctors start the morphine. I'm with him for a week in early May on my way to Montana again. We go back and forth to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester a couple of times. In his living room I massage his swollen legs and feet as we watch a ball game on television. When I hug and kiss him goodbye, I say I'll see him on my drive home in June.

In Montana, the spring rains have been generous to the Judith Basin, and it rolls out fresh and green. Square Butte and the Highwood Mountains rise off to the north of Surprise Creek. In the Walter house Debbie is going out to shake the small rug that lies in front of the kitchen sink. I hear the soft padding of her stocking feet as she crosses the floor that always looks spotless. Darius is sitting at his usual place by the kitchen window. "What the hell you holler so loud for?" he's saying to his brother Paul, who's come in to talk about work at the new colony. Many of the men in the colony talk loudly, and there's plenty of arguing, good-natured usually, about the best way to do a particular job—about almost anything, really. Paul and some of the other guys sometimes accuse me of just wanting to hang out with the pretty girls and attractive women and take pictures of them. I suppose they're right in some ways. The women don't talk as loudly, for one thing.

Although women don't have a vote in colony affairs—only the baptized men, the "brothers," do—they share a community among themselves. Their camaraderie may be even stronger than the men's. When the women are gardening or cooking together (they do it all), they often sing. You aren't likely to hear songs from the men in the fields or the cow barns. I sense no female opposition to male domination at Surprise Creek, but maybe I just don't know enough of the women well enough. I ask Annie Marie, Darius's unmarried, 35-year-old daughter, if she resents the fact that women have no say in colony affairs. "No," she says, "I wouldn't want to take the blame if something goes wrong."

The breakfast bell breaks the dawn silence, and dogs commence to bark. By seven, all those who want breakfast are seated. Expressionless faces stare into coffee cups, and there's little movement, even less talk, as the room waits for Darius to say grace. "Wir werden beten"—we will pray—he says, in the Low German that Hutterites typically speak to each other. Somebody coughs on the women's side of the dining room. Silence predominates, broken only by the sound of shifting plates, sliding of bowls, and soft clatter of utensils. Another brief grace from Darius ends the meal and clears the tables of men.

Out in the chicken barn, bare bulbs cast a dim but warm light. David Hofer is feeding the 3,200 laying hens. For 17 years David has worked in this strong-smelling barn, not the most pleasant of places. It may be better than the hog barn, but just barely—both places make your clothes stink. When I'm here in the fall, David sometimes hunts with me. He tells me stories and makes me laugh, and I need that now. "I love it when you come out here," David tells me. "It gets me away from the chicken barn for a while."

Every male at the 10,000-acre colony has a job to do, farming the fields or tending the poultry, sheep, beef cattle, dairy cows, and hogs. In truth, there's not enough work to keep all the men busy and productive. That's the main reason Surprise Creek is branching out. But who will go and who will stay? Ben Walter, who sometimes walks around with dissatisfied eyes—the opposite of his daughter Rose Ana, who always seems to be smiling—tells me, "My daughter's game, but I ain't gonna go. My wife don't wanna go. There's gonna be a battle. I can smell it."

Late this afternoon there's a baseball game going on in a makeshift field behind the colony school. The field is mostly in shadow, but behind the backstop the conical metal grain bins catch the lowering sun and stand like giant chess pieces touched with gold. Boys and girls of mixed ages play. As usual, no score is kept, and the game goes on until other demands halt it. Today a couple of outfielders have to leave to memorize verses for German school. The catcher has to go help unload potatoes.

Colony members sometimes watch ball games on TV in one of the bars in nearby Stanford, and once in a while the two non-Hutterite teachers from the county school system who teach the younger kids bring a television to the school. No radios are allowed in trucks or vans, although radios are found in most homes to listen to news, weather, and the occasional ball game. Some men have cell phones, but these might not meet the approval of the Hutterite elders in Canada. They watch over the behavior of the colonies in their sect and sometimes reprimand bad behavior. Years ago, when local game officials caught a few Surprise Creek young men illegally selling elk meat, the elders came down unannounced and demanded that every gun in the colony be put in a pile. The barrels were bent to uselessness.

Colony life works for most because children are indoctrinated at a young age to believe that every member must submit to the rules of the church. Sometimes a member can't take this life of submission and leaves, but most "runaways" eventually return. I ask one young Hutterite woman, not from Surprise Creek, if she's ever considered leaving. "Many times," she admits. "There must be more in life than this." Then she tells me something quite surprising—she has always wanted to be an FBI agent.

On the last Sunday in May, there is to be a wedding at the colony. Billy Walter, 27, Darius and Annie's youngest son, is marrying Karen Hofer, 28, from a nearby colony. As the wedding day draws near, I take a room at the Sundown, a mom-and-pop motel five miles out on Highway 87. The Walters need space for guests from other colonies. I hear that Billy's sister Linda is not happy with the wedding cake. She says thinking about it kept her from falling asleep last night. I've been having trouble sleeping, too.

Scott died this afternoon, the day before the wedding. I know in the morning he is going to leave us because of a phone call from my daughter Terri, who is with him. His condition worsened so suddenly that it is impossible for me to get to Minnesota in time. I speak to Scott by phone several hours before he passes away, surrounded and comforted by his wife and children, his mother, sisters, and other loving relatives. There will be no funeral; a memorial will be held in two weeks. Now I face the choice of going back to the colony and the pre-wedding activity, or grieving in whiskey and solitude at the Sundown. I call Annie Walter and tell her about Scott. I say I'll be at the colony soon.

When I get there, the house is full of visitors. Annie, always calm and soft-spoken, tells me to go into Darius's office to see the wedding gifts that have filled the room. No one else is in there, and I've seen some of these gifts earlier—linens, various appliances, dishes, cleaning buckets and bottles of detergents, a garden hose—practical items for a practical life. I turn to leave and Darius is behind me like a wall. His eyes are brimming. "I'm so sorry, Bill," he says softly, embracing me. I can barely get my arms around him. I feel his beard against my cheek. For a moment, my heart lurches and my legs want to quit me. I lean into his embrace. Then I have to leave the house to go outside.

In the yard, I see the bird feeder where this morning there were yellow finches. Balloons are tied to the wooden posts alongside the house, and little Carolyn Walter in her new shoes and cool sunglasses is parading among the guests. Her face glows. The broad sky is a brilliant blue with clouds scattered above the horizon like white pillows strewn at random. It's such a beautiful day.

This evening there will be a shivaree—a big meal, singing, beer drinking—but I can't go. Not tonight. I stay for supper and, finally, I go to the Sundown to do what I didn't want to do before.

Fall 2005

"I'm not gonna let 'em split up," preacher Sam says to me as we watch the ducks in the Surprise Creek reservoir. It has yet to be decided exactly how, when, and which members of the mother colony will move to Prairie Elk. "They wanna split up," Sam is saying, "but I'm not gonna let 'em. When you're apart, you're apart, and nobody wants to help the other. First we got to get them debts for the milk barn paid," he says. Surprise Creek is building a new million-dollar-plus barn. Then Sam adds, "Maybe in a couple of years we'll split up."

I'm headed to Prairie Elk on my way back to Virginia, but before I leave Surprise Creek, I have dinner with Sam Stahl and his wife, Bertha. Several years back, their 23-year-old daughter, Kimberly, left in the middle of the night to marry a Hutterite runaway from Canada. As we finish dinner, Sam says, "I told her, 'Sweetheart, he left the colony. What has he to offer you? What's the future?'" Sam's voice lowers to a whisper. "Why couldn't it have been some other way instead of heartbreak and tears and everything else?"

"You know, Bill," Bertha tells me the next morning before I leave for Prairie Elk, "Sam and I were thinking last night that we talked all about our daughter, but we never said anything to you about losing your son. I'm so sorry we didn't." I assured her that was fine. We both know about heartbreak and tears. And everything else. There really isn't much you can say.

Prairie Elk Colony is in northeastern Montana, the Big Empty, the Big Dry. Summer temperatures cross the hundred-degree mark regularly. And in winter it is seriously cold, forty below at times. By late afternoon I'm at the kitchen window of the main house, looking out on the Missouri River, flat and shimmering. On an earlier visit, when Darius and I were in his truck parked by the river, he had said, "Just look at that, Bill. Dirty old Missouri. We have four miles of river." That's a lot of water in country where water is precious.

For now the colony is in the hands of various members of the Walter family. Billy Walter has been farming the new place. He and his bride, Karen, have just moved into their trailer. Joe Walter, who's serving as colony boss for now, and his wife, Annie, live in another trailer. Annie Marie is living in the main house, cooking at the colony kitchen and tending to the needs of some of her brothers and cousins when they're at the colony. Attractive, personable, hardworking, Annie seems like a prize waiting to be found. I tell her I hope she'll find a boyfriend worthy of her. "Sometimes I think maybe I'm just as well off without one," she says.

The young people seem to like it here, with fewer eyes on them. And the locals appear to accept them. The Hutterites' large land purchase could have caused resentment—it has in the past when Hutterites acquired large tracts. "People either like 'em or dislike 'em," says Bill Rathert, the co-owner of a car dealership in nearby Wolf Point. "The rumor is that some of the young guys drink, but that's the same as the rest of the country. I feel sorry for the women, though, 'cause they're kind of confined. But the Hutterites will do anything for you. They're not afraid of working. They're good people."

They are good people, I think, alone in the main house on my last day at Prairie Elk. I see the Corn and Soybean Digest perched on the armrest of the living room couch, and on a small table in the corner are eight well-worn German prayer books, the bindings of several strengthened with tape. Most have the names of the owners: Paul and Rachel Walter, Darius and Annie Walter. . . .

I pull away from Prairie Elk with Buster stretched out on the seat beside me. Geese are coming up off the river, black against gray in the surly sky. The last day at Surprise Creek, when I was saying my goodbyes, I came across five-year-old Jaden Walter playing outside the kitchen. "Bill Allard, where are you going?" he asked. "I'm going home," I told him. As the truck warms up and my road music plays, I think, yeah, that's right. I'm going home—leaving one for another. I'm pretty lucky. And I know I'll be back.