The elegant signs being produced by a small religious community in the heart of the New England are the talk of many towns.

Story By Amanda Burdon

It's an industrious scene in the converted woolshed on Danthonia, a one-time soldier settler block just 25 kilometres east of Inverell, in northern New South Wales. Bearded Lester Wright deftly glides a router to form an elliptical panel while spectacled Nancy McKernan, in peasant dress and head scarf, rhythmically shark, shark, sharks her chisel to sculpt a traditional bow shape. In an adjoining room an all-female team of artists is seated, quietly painting handcrafted lions and family crests and native animals that leap from colourful prepared mounts. Twenty-three-carat gold leaf has already been painstakingly applied to some of the names chiselled in the panels. The intricate signs for which this busy workshop is renowned slowly take shape. But at 10am precisely, work suddenly stops. Tools are downed and workers from this and a series of nearby buildings converge on the workshop floor. Some 30 people melt into the room where shearers once bent their backs and they begin mingling while aproned ladies proffer mugs of warm lemony drink, coffee and tea. The mood is convivial, the smiles genuine, as ruddy-faced young men and women exchange pleasantries with their older colleagues and family members. Come lunchtime they will gather again to break bread in the communal dining room. At the Danthonia community those who live together, work together. The people of Danthonia trace their roots to Germany, where in 1920 theologian and philosopher Eberhard Arnold and his wife banded together with like-minded friends to begin a Christian community. Known originally as the Bruderhof (roughly translated as ‘place of brethren’), the ensuing community movement was until 1999 based primarily in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. Their spiritual tradition is similar to that of the Mennonites and the “brothers and sisters” – as community members refer to each other – espouse a life of honest toil, a modest and communal lifestyle in which all property and earnings are shared. When the first members arrived at Danthonia in 1999 they initially kept the 1067-hectare property running as a farm. In time, this proved a difficult model for a community. It wasn’t long before members started considering alternative businesses to support the growing number of residents. But it couldn’t be just any business. The work needed to be consistent with the community’s values, offer opportunities for everyone to contribute and allow inter-generational interaction. “We were looking for a business that could give us work we could do together and that fitted our ethics as a community,” Chris Voll, a community spokesperson, says. “We didn’t want to disadvantage local business, but instead boost the local economy by establishing a business that we could all be proud of.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #57

Outback Magazine: Feb/Mar 2008