A Narrative History of the Montana Heritage Project

Building bridges in Harlowton

Nancy Widdicombe

Harlowton High School

“I have learned much about the Hutterites in the past four weeks,” said Jeff Eagleton, one of Nancy Widdicombe’s ten English IV students. “The Hutterite people have lived in the shadows of many different stereotypes. They are seen as a simple kind of folk who fear change, enjoy nothing, and live very sheltered lives. The truth is that the Hutterite people do not take part in the many things the ‘outside world’ takes for granted, but they enjoy being alive and everything they do.”

Jeff reached that thoughtful conclusion after the class conducted an in-depth study of area Hutterite colonies. They chose that focus after asking which community groups were overlooked or less understood than others. In early discussions, students owned up to their own limited if not biased understandings about these neighbors. So they began their research by watching documentaries and reading secondary histories of the Hutterites in Europe and North America. Students wanted to grasp the historical context that had brought the colonies to the Upper Musselshell Valley.

By Christmas, Nancy and her students had contacted the Duncan Ranch, Martinsdale, and Springwater colonies and been invited to continue their local research with onsite visits that would include interviews and conversation with members of those colonies. In fact, students were invited to colony Christmas programs. By January, class members had outlined the specific questions that they wanted to pursue during their quarter of concentrated work.

The three colonies invited students to learn about their beliefs, history, and lifestyle. The class quickly found that each colony had its own personality and patterns. But they also were coming to understand commonalities: primary beliefs, the basics of colony organization, the substance of daily life, and the organization of work and the roles of various members. Students were able to spend a full day at one site and additional time at the others. They were invited to shoot a wide range of photographs. Students peeked into German and public classrooms, watched women preparing food, documented state-of-the-art electronic farming practices, visited churches or meeting halls, and toured private apartments. Colony members readily shared information about their days.

Students also learned more about Hutterite schooling from the District School Superintendent and district-hired teachers. The three colonies enjoy a somewhat unusual inter-local agreement that brings public school teachers to the colonies for kindergarten through eighth grade instruction.

After the site work, the class began analyzing their information, organizing images, and divvying up topics to be presented in a self-published book as well as in two different PowerPoint presentations. Both gifts of scholarship benefited from student Betsy Suckow’s professional-caliber photography.

On March 22, students invited the entire Harlowton community to a program that they organized. Although Nancy feared that the turnout would be far smaller than that elicited by previous projects, more than 120 area residents poured into the Youth Center to hear and see what the students had learned. She was especially thrilled that representatives from the colonies also attended.

The following week, students took their program to each of the colonies so that more community residents could see the work that resulted from their assistance and information.

Mariah Breding found that “the Montana Heritage Project opened a door between two cultures. Through the project, all of us in the English IV class became bridges between two communities.”

Wylie Galt expressed his hope that the project “will help some of the rumors and myths be put to rest” and that “the Hutterites will be able to live with ‘the outside world’ with better understanding.”

Student photographer Betsy Suckow said that she had “learned much about our similarities and differences and to look beyond what the eye sees.”

Nancy Widdicombe was most pleased with how her students came to be better reporters and historians. “They discussed among themselves how important the ability to observe and record, without judging, is in this world.”

To print a final report for the year-end binder, click here.
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