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In Montana, Chicago is a Hoot

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

In Montana, Chicago is a Hoot

The WISCH LIST

Oct. 2, 2010

You know, I really can’t remember my last dull moment.

Best I can figure, it was probably back in 2002, before I became a columnist and kick-started a life that’s been nothing but crazy coincidences, quirky characters and unique experiences ever since.

My weeks might not always be good, but they almost always are interesting.

And perhaps none more so than last week, when I spent five days driving across 900 miles of Montana, discovering how for one unique segment of locals, Chicago is a Hoot.

And they are too.

The reason I was in Big Sky Country was for a work project that had me visiting 13 colonies of Hutterites – colloquially called “Hoots” – from Great Falls to the Canadian border to Billings to interview the colony leaders about their farming practices.

Now, if you’ve never heard of Hutterites – pronounced HUT-er-ites or HOOT-er-ites, depending on who you’re talking to in Montana – you’re not alone. Until last summer, when I traveled west for a similar project, I had never heard of the religious sect myself.

Like the Amish and Mennonites, Hutterites trace their roots to Radical Reformation of the 16th Century. And since the death of their founder Jakob Hutter in 1536, their beliefs – in particular, a communal lifestyle and absolute pacifism – have sent them on a centuries-long odyssey through multiple countries.

Today, more than 40,000 Hutterites live on colonies of 100 to 150 people in Montana, Minnesota, South Dakota, Washington and Canada. They don’t watch television, use the Internet or listen to radio. They do make their own traditional clothes, construct their own buildings and if I hadn’t been visiting, they would have all been speaking only German to one another.

On the flip side, Hutterites devour newspapers and crack political jokes. They drive pickups, tractors and combines outfitted with fancy GPS systems. And they use cell phones almost as much as your teenager does.

The Hutterites are a fascinating people. However, as curious as I was to learn more about their culture, I was just as interested in learning what they already knew about mine.

Upon my arrival, I was informed that Montana is “Next Year Country.” To which I replied, “So is the North Side of Chicago.”

The Hutterites were talking about crop harvests, while I was talking about baseball. But as it turned out, I discovered they knew plenty about both.

Even though Hutterites have almost no access to electronic media, the men each have favorite Major League Baseball and NFL teams. So, “The Bears” and “The Cubs” were common responses when I asked them what they knew of Chicago.

At Milford Colony, I told one Hutterite that I lived just a few blocks from Wrigley Field, but that my street wasn’t noisy. Flashing a smirk, he responded: “I know why it’s quiet. There’s nothing exciting going on.”

Ouch.

Other Hutterites thought of not athletics, but politics, when it came to the Windy City.

“Obama is from there,” said George, the Farm Boss at Cascade Colony. To which the colony’s Secretary, Peter, chimed in with a laugh: “Are you neighbors?”

Other responses about Chicago ran a gamut of knowledge from “You have that Space Needle” and “Is it hot there?” to “You have a new mayor coming in, don’t you?”

A few men had actually visited Chicago and jokingly asked why they hadn’t run into me before. At Mountain View Colony, one 77-year-old Hutterite even told me had had been to the top of Willis Tower.

“We told him he’d been to the Moon,” his friend said.

After spending a week at the colonies as an alien myself, I knew the feeling.

Montana Hutterite men at Golden Valley Colony
Hutterite men at Golden Valley Colony, Montana