S OUTH DAKOTA: A S I MPLE LIFE

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - El­speth Cal­len­der

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 mi­nus­cule maple leaves em­broi­dered in pale thread. She has a dark head­scarf bobby-pinned over grey­ing hair, and black thongs on her feet. “Peo­ple would freak out if I wore bright green,” she says. “They would think I was cuckoo.”

The east­ern side of South Dakota, with its kilo­me­tres 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 seems de­void 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 res­i­dents firmly rooted in th­ese plains.

Grass­lands Hut­terite Colony, near Aberdeen, is a self­sus­tain­ing farm­ing com­mu­nity of about 250, founded in 1990; there are six other Hut­terite colonies within a 60km ra­dius and hun­dreds across North Amer­ica. My visit is in late sum­mer and 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 young women whose for­mal ed­u­ca­tion has ceased at age 14. In the mists of the cool room we crunch on wa­ter­melon and cu­cum­ber.

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

“We make every­thing apart from jeans and bras,” ex­plains Ly­dia. 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 for kitchen benches and fire­places, gen­er­at­ing in­come for the com­mu­nity. On 4000ha, part-owned and part-leased, Grass­lands has rub­bish incin­er­a­tors, a feed mill for tur­keys sold at Thanks­giv­ing and Christ­mas, and res­i­dents 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, we dis­cuss the con­struc­tion of the couch we’re sit­ting on, the sourc­ing of fab­rics from Men­non­ite stores and how to make a pat­tern from scratch.

Though 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 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. Though, judg­ing by the chicken and veg­eta­bles that ar­rive, they seem to eat well. Af­ter the meal we see the rest of the house. One daugh­ter shows us some bright fab­rics her mother has helped her sew into long dresses. She spins in the closet for a pho­to­graph wear­ing her favourite, in strik­ing yel­low and black. Her par­ents’ bed­room is the last room we see, and the messi­est. “I never make my bed,” Ly­dia con­fesses.

Hut­terite women re­turn from work on the land, left; two girls play in the fields, above

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