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Life on the plain

This story appeared in The Weekend Australian, Travel & Indulgence on 7-8 Nov 2015.

Lydia Warner’s grey pleated peasant dress is patterned with tiny half-peeled corncobs and worn over a white blouse that, only up close, do I notice is covered in miniscule maple leaves embroidered in pale thread. She has a dark headscarf bobby-pinned over naturally greying hair and black thongs on her feet. “People would freak out if I wore bright green,” she tells us during the tour. “They would think I was cuckoo”.

This eastern side of South Dakota – its miles of straight flat road between vast sunflower and wheat fields interspersed with clumps of fast food restaurants and pay-at-the-pump petrol stations – initially seemed void of human life. But visits to Native American reservations, family-owned cattle ranches, busy country towns and a Hutterite Brethren community reveal a diversity of people firmly rooted in these plains.

Grasslands Hutterite Colony, near Aberdeen, is a self-sustaining farming community of nearly 250 people. Grasslands was founded in 1990 when Long Lake grew too large to support itself and divided. There are six other Hutterite colonies within a 60-kilometre radius and hundreds throughout North America.

Being late summer, food preparation is in full swing. Crates of freshly harvested corn, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts and carrots are lined up to be washed, sorted, peeled, trimmed, dried, pickled, cooked and cold stored by an army of young women whose formal education ceased at 14. In the mist of the cool room we crunch on watermelon and cucumber.

Outside, in the growing desert-dry heat of the morning, a group of small girls play on climbing equipment in brighter versions of the standard peasant dress. Nearby but playing separately, are boys with buzz-cuts wearing shirts and blue jeans with braces.

“We make everything apart from jeans and bras,” explains Lydia Warner. Although born and bred in the American Midwest, she speaks English with a German accent; Hutterite people maintain the dialect their ancestors spoke when escaping persecution in Europe in the 1870s.

We walk through the school, communal laundry and new machinery shed where Grasslands Granite is produced, generating income for the community. On 4000 hectares, part-owned and part-leased, Grasslands have garbage incinerators, a feed mill for turkeys sold at Thanksgiving and Christmas and do all their own building.

My female road trip companion and I are the only ones on today’s tour. We’re invited back to the family home for lunch.

In a spacious lounge room of neutral tones and floor tiles, we discuss the construction of the couch we’re sitting on, the sourcing of speciality fabrics from Mennonite stores and how to make a pattern from scratch. Through the window I see a flock of dark dresses drying around a lone rotary clothesline out on the vast summer-brown lawn between the two-storey housing blocks. Teenage girls ride tricycles along the neat concrete paths.

When an announcement over the PA system requests people eating at home to collect food from the main kitchen, I notice the Warners have no cooking facilities of their own. Though, judging by the chicken and vegetables that arrive, they seem to eat well.

“Too well,” says Warner and motions towards her teenage daughters. “Those are things I grew out of and kept, hoping to get skinny”.

After the meal we see the rest of the house. One daughter shows us some bright fabrics her mother helped her sew into long dresses. She spins in the closet for a photograph wearing her favourite – a striking yellow and black.

Her parents’ bedroom is the last room we see, and the messiest.

“I never make my bed,” Lydia Warner says.

Grasslands Hutterite

Published in travel stories