The French Fry Connection

Richard Read

Photos by Kathryn Osker
The Oregonian   October 18, 1998, Sidebar

Maintaining the Old Ways, Doing Business in the New

Hutterites are unlikely traders with Asia, but their culture may help them survive chaos

ARDEN, Wash.—When Martha Wollman gets married in January, she won’t receive a ring. Hutterites don’t wear jewelry, play music or dance.

But if her fiancé’s Hutterite colony in Saskatchewan needs someone to drive a cherry picker, to sew clothes or to cook dinner for 100, Wollman can pitch in. She’s used to putting the community first in everything she does.

Gloria Wollman, 7, hugs Alexander Wollman, 1, as his mother, Dora Wollman, watches during a break from cooking at the Hutterite colony near Warden, Wash. The colony’s 80 members live traditionally but harness high technology as they produce potatoes for Asia’s middle class a half a world away.

“It’s an abnormal way of thinking, that you’re working for the love of the Lord and for your neighbor,” says Frieda Gross, Wollman’s co-worker along a conveyer belt that carries seed potatoes for planting. “That’s why it would be hard for an outsider to join.”

The sect’s leader and namesake, Jakob Hutter, was burned at the stake in Innsbruck, in what is now Austria, in 1536. Living and working communally, Hutterites have survived imprisonment, torture and exile in the centuries since. The Hutterian Brethren in Warden, a tiny Washington farm community southeast of Moses Lake, view Asia’s economic storm as a setback to be overcome through hard work.

The Hutterites might be isolated geographically and culturally, but they depend heavily on Asia as a huge market for french fries. Members of the Wollman and Gross families maintain the old ways while adapting to the new, profiting from fast-food sales half a world away.

Amid the economic chaos, the colony remains serene. Hutterites are, and have always been, survivors. They personify the qualities—specialization, efficiency, adaptability and resourcefulness—essential to the success of any business in times of global upheaval.

From a distance, the secluded “bruderhof”—literally, “place where brothers dwell”—is a scene from a Bavarian watercolor. Tall Lombardy poplars mark the northern and eastern borders of the 40-acre colony, built from scratch since 1970. On a sunny day, Mount Rainier and the Olympics just clear the flat western horizon.

The 80 members live an austere life, holding possessions in common, raising their own food and speaking a Tirolean dialect of German. They hold sermons in contemporary High German and speak English more with a lilt than an accent.

Hutterites, like the Mennonites and Amish, are Christians who split from the Catholic church. They reject infant baptism, recognizing only adult declaration of faith.

Pacifists, the Hutterites came to the United States in 1873 from Russia, where authorities had tried to force them into the military. They fled to Canada during World War I, returning to the United States in the 1930s. About 25,000 Hutterites inhabit about 400 colonies throughout America.

Families live in simple row houses. Children attend a one-room school in the colony’s church; they graduate from high school to farm work. Adults eat hearty meat-and-potatoes meals together, men on one side of the colony’s dining room and women on the other.

Jake Wollman, Martha Wollman’s uncle and corporate president of the colony, explains that the men run the colony. “Yes, we believe the man’s the head of the house,” a woman chimes in, “but sometimes he has the woman’s permission to say so.”

Hutterites carry credit cards. But they don’t buy fancy cars or anything substantial for themselves. Vacations consist of trips to other colonies.

Some Hutterites read newspapers. They don’t have televisions.

Yet personal computers, increasingly necessary for work and education, bring the Internet to the bruderhof. Outside temptations grow.

“We always worry that things on the outside world will overweigh what we have to offer,” Jake Wollman says. “If you want to see heartbroken mothers and fathers, it’s when they lose one to the outside.”

Most locals seem to get along with the brethren, calling them “Hooterites,” or simply, “the Hoots.” Many admit to some jealousy of the Hutterites’ success and of their continued expansion.

Others grumble that the Hutterites don’t withhold payroll taxes because labor is communal. But the Hutterites point out that they do pay property and business taxes, passing up a religious exemption.

Hutterites readily acknowledge that their way of life isn’t for everyone. And they have a tolerant view of those who choose another way. “You don’t have to be a Hutterite,” says farm boss Eli Wollman, “to get to heaven.”