- Historic Sites
The Mennonites Come To Kansas
Their religion and customs were strange, but these master farmers from the Russian steppes turned a treeless prairie into America’s granary
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
Here they suddenly felt the full impact of the long journey and their many hardships. The sun was terrifically hot; the ground was dry, and all vegetation had withered. Elder Wiebe sat down on the steps of a building in a little Kansas town and began to weep. “All of a sudden,” he said later, “I became afraid of the future. The great responsibility of having selected a place of settlement for so many poor people rested heavily upon me … we had no provisions, no friend in the new world, the winter was nigh at the door, we were wanting of dwellings, provisions … some of our people were old, weak, and sick, the future seemed very gloomy; there were also no prospects of rain, only windy, dusty, and very hot …” But shortly afterward it began to rain; and in their optimism the little group selected a site for a village. They named it Gnadenau—Meadow of Grace.
Gnadenau was only the vanguard of a large number of Mennonite settlements in south-central Kansas. By the end of September, 1874, nearly 2,000 immigrants had arrived in Topeka, where the Santa Fe Railroad quartered them in a huge brick structure until the head of each family could select a tract of land and move onto it. Almost the entire populace of the Kansas capital turned out to stare and giggle at these strange, ludicrous creatures. The newspapers poked gentle fun at the “foreigners.” The town, one paper said, “abounded with sheepskin coats, ample breeches, bulbous petticoats, iron teakettles, and other objects supposed to be distinctly Russian. …” But almost overnight Topeka’s attitude changed from derision to admiration and praise when its merchants suddenly discovered that these Mennonites had brought with them $2,250,000 in gold. Business began to prosper as the immigrants purchased vast amounts of farm implements, horses and cattle, and household goods. To show their appreciation for the sudden financial prosperity, local officials arranged a tour through the state capitol for all 2,000 people, to shake hands with the governor and observe the inner workings of the government. Jake Smith, a local resident, acted as guide, assuming for the occasion the alias “Jakob Schmidt.”
During all this period, Santa Fe officials were busily escorting Mennonites over their land grant. The railroad men were worried. These Russian farmers could not have arrived in Kansas at a worse moment. A drought had been making times difficult when suddenly huge black clouds loomed up on the horizon. But these clouds carried no rain; they were made up of vast swarms of grasshoppers—more than Kansas had ever seen; one Mennonite said that they “lay so thick on the railroad tracks that the engines slipped and stalled.” They swarmed over the fields, eating everything in sight. In six hours they could devour seventy acres of corn. “They ate up our gardens, all the grass, all the leaves off the trees—everything. They even got in the house and ate clothes and bedding.” They filled the streams, creating dams and turning the water so brown that the cattle refused to drink. Their coming spelled disaster to the native homesteaders; but as the nervous railroad guides warded off the insects with both hands, the Mennonites examined the soil and calmed the unspoken fears of the railroad men. “That’s all right, we are used to grasshoppers,” they said almost nonchalantly.
By the middle of October, the newcomers had purchased 100,000 acres from the railroad and were moving out into the state. All over south-central Kansas the prairies suddenly became alive with activity. The air was filled with the sound of hammers building dozens of new homes and the busy slashing of mowers and scythes cutting the tall prairie grass to provide winter feed for the stock. Trains chugging across the plains, loaded with plows and farm machinery, became a familiar sight. The Topeka Commonwealth could feel the pulse of a rising optimism: “The wild prairie is to be broken doubly deep in October, yet to receive a dressing of wheat and rye. No one thinks of drouth and grasshoppers—everybody is hopeful and energetic, and hope and energy will find their reward.”
In the summer of 1875, Schmidt invited Noble Prentis of the Topeka Commonwealth to accompany him on a tour of the state’s new Mennonite settlements.
Prentis’ lively account of their journey describes the humanity and generosity that soon endeared these people to their American neighbors. No sooner had the trip begun when Schmidt and Prentis met a Mennonite farmer driving to market in a wagon loaded with plump watermelons. Prentis wrote that:
"this fondness for watermelons and a watermelon country are an indication of the peaceable and sensible character of the Mennonite people. The American prefers to migrate to a country where he has a chance to be eaten up by grizzlies and chased by wolves, and can exercise his bowie-knife on the active red man, while the Mennonite sees no fun in danger, abhors war, and so seeks out a fertile, peaceable country, where he buries his glittering steel, not in the hearts of his enemies, but in the bowels of the luscious watermelon."
At the Abraham Reimer farm, they were impressed with the spacious house, the two large barns, and a neatly cultivated flower garden.