- 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
The thousands of newly planted trees were perhaps the most striking feature of south-central Kansas. The whole broad landscape had been transformed. “I left bare prairie,” Prentis noted; “I returned to find a score of miniature forests in sight from any point of view.” There were “hedges, orchards, lanes and alleys of trees—trees in lines, trees in groups, and trees all alone.” The silvery leaves of the Russian wild olive, the glossy green of the mulberry, the native American cottonwood—all dotted the once treeless plains. The quiet serenity of the land was reflected in the very names that marked each group of farms as a distinct settlement. There was Blumenfeld (Flower Field), Hoffnungstal (Vale of Hope), Brüdertal (Vale of Brothers), Grünfeld (Green Field), Emmatal (Emma Vale). The Mennonites wove a poetry of their own in the simple beauty of well-planned farms and unostentatious living. They adhered to a rigid code, but they remained intensely human, people who loved life and lived it with a zest that almost contradicted their somber clothing and plain homes.
One farmer impressed Prentis as typical: "Had I been an artist I should have sketched Peter Schmidt of Emmathal as the typical prosperous Mennonite. He was a big man, on the shady side of forty. His face, round as the moon, was sunburned to a walnut brown. He was very wide fore and aft; he wore a vest that buttoned to his throat, a sort of brown blouse, and a pair of very roomy and very short breeches, while his bare feet were thrust into a sort of sandals very popular with the Mennonites.The notable feature of Peter’s face was a very small mouth, which was slightly spread at times with a little smile, showing his white teeth, and quite out of proportion to his immense countenance … Peter Schmidt showed all his Arboral treasures—apples, cherries, peaches, all in bearing where seven years ago the wind in passing found only waving prairie grass. No wonder Peter Schmidt of Emmathal waxed fat and smiled. He started on the prairie with $800; he now has a farm worth $4,000."
Asking another farmer what was the secret of the Mennonites’ almost phenomenal success, Prentis received the simple reply: “We plow the dew under in the morning, and do not stop plowing till the dew falls at night.”
Prentis ended the description of his journey with a cautious note, somewhat fearful, almost pessimistic: "… the evil day may come when the descendant of the Mennonites of the old stock will be cushioning storeboxes, saving the Nation with his mouth, or even going about like a roaring lion, seeking a nomination to Congress. I wish I could believe it otherwise. I wish our atmosphere did not make us all so smart that we cannot enjoy good health. Were it not for that accursed vanity and restlessness which is our heritage, I could indulge in a vision of the future—of a peaceful, quiet, wealthy people, undisturbed by the throes of speculation or politics, dwelling in great content under the vines and mulberry trees which their fathers planted in the grassy, wind-swept wilderness."
The vision was, as Prentis feared, somewhat illusory. Considering their beliefs, it was unlikely that World War I would leave the Mennonites “undisturbed,” and it did not. The conscription law of 1917 exempted their young men from active military service provided they accepted noncombatant assignments. But most Kansas Mennonites were of the strict persuasion, and they rejected even this type of assignment so long as it was under the War Department. Sent to regular training camps, young Mennonites were derided as “slackers,” many being roughly handled and a few tormented and beaten when they refused to serve.
Most of these abuses were corrected by a law passed in March, 1918, permitting the War Department to furlough sincere conscientious objectors for farm work, but at home Mennonite families were under constant pressure, not only because of their pacifism but also because most of them still clung to the German language. Powerful newspapers like the Kansas City Star and the Chicago Tribune hectored them without cease. Kansas Mennonites were distrusted, harassed, and intimidated by their neighbors, and several were tarred and feathered by self-appointed vigilance committees.
When World War II approached, Mennonite leaders had learned a lesson. A month after the passage of the Selective Training and Service Act they joined the Dunkers and the Quakers—the largest of the other “peace churches”—in proposing that the government establish Civilian Public Service camps for conscientious objectors. By war’s end 151 of these had been set up. Of 12,000 inmates—who did forestry, conservation, and public health work, staffed mental hospitals, and engaged in other services not directly connected with the war effort—4,665 were Mennonites. An equal number of Mennonites entered the regular services in noncombatant posts; only a very few took up arms.