- 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
"We finally took leave of Abraham Reimer, who shook hands cordially, though he did not kiss Mr. Schmidt as he did the Mennonite brethren when they left. The luxury of men kissing each other appears to be exclusively confined to the Mennonite Church."
The next stop was the village of Gnadenau—the “meadow of grace” settled a year before. A single row of houses, constructed in a hodgepodge of architectural styles, greeted their eyes. Elder Wiebe escorted them through his newly constructed red and green frame home, which—in the Russian manner—was actually house, stable, and granary, all under one roof. They were also invited to visit the watermelon fields, which Prentis claimed, with a little Kansas exaggeration, must have covered at least 160 acres. Before leaving, Schmidt and Prentis were given some melons.
"At the top of the ridge we looked back into the wide sunlit valley with the cornfields and the long row of grass-thatched houses, and thought of the coming day when solid farm houses and great barns and waving orchards would line the long village street … and so we slashed open a watermelon, and drank to the health of Gnadenau."
In the decade that followed, competition for Mennonite immigrants became extremely heated among the various railroads. Each boatload of new settlers docking in New York City was met by a mob of agents representing different lines who offered inducements so attractive that the Mennonites frequently had difficulty deciding which to accept. Of the 18,000 who left Russia for North America between 1873 and 1883, 10,000 went to the United States, settling largely in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakota Territory; the remaining 8,000 immigrated to the Canadian province of Manitoba. The largest single group who came to the United States bought railroad land in Kansas.
That the Santa Fe was the most successful in attracting these immigrants was due to a combination of shrewd bargaining, quick action, and sometimes down-right chicanery. On one occasion, for instance, the Santa Fe snatched away a group of Mennonites right under the nose of another railroad by offering free transportation for two leaders of the group, together with their families and baggage. Colonel Ed Haren, one of the railroad’s agents, was gloating over his triumph as he rushed to meet the two men when they arrived at Atchison. Greeting them jovially and then glancing over the railroad car, which seemed to be filled with Mennonites, he suggested that the other families should buy their railroad tickets.
“But there are no others,” one said in German.
The Colonel, his face dropping, asked one of the men fearfully, “How many children have you?” “Twenty-two,” he replied.
“Twenty-four,” answered the other.
The Santa Fe Railroad, wiser but still game, kept its agreement and transported all fifty people free.
Once the Mennonites were settled in this country, they quickly adjusted to American ways, although sometimes only through bitter experience.
One story, still told with gusto over Mennonite dinner tables, concerns a Russian immigrant who went to an American general store to purchase a threshing stone. In the Ukraine he had been accustomed to bargaining over prices with the local Russian merchants; when he asked the American storekeeper the price of the threshing stone, therefore, he naturally assumed that the quoted price was much higher than the merchant expected to receive. Without hesitation, the Mennonite farmer offered to pay half what the American had asked. But somehow the message became garbled through his thick German accent; the storekeeper looked puzzled for a moment, and then, shrugging his shoulders and thinking to himself that these Mennonites were surely strange people, he picked up a hammer and broke the threshing stone in half. The farmer’s face flushed a deep red as he suddenly realized that the storekeeper had misunderstood him and had assumed that he had asked for half a threshing stone. Reaching into his purse, he quickly paid the original price, picked up both halves of the stone, and fled.
In 1882, when the Mennonite immigration was nearly at an end, Noble Prentis decided to make another tour of the Kansas settlements to see what progress these people had made in the seven years since he had last visited them.