August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
Their religion and customs were strange, but these master farmers from the Russian steppes turned a treeless prairie into America’s granary
In the fall of 1874 a Russian farmer, fingering the rich, black earth of central Kansas and gazing out over virgin prairie that stretched as far as his eye could see, predicted that “in three years that ocean of grass will be transformed into an ocean of waving fields of grain.” At the same time a Kansas newspaperman wrote with prophetic insight: “Kansas will be to America what the country of the Black Sea … is now to Europe, her wheat-field.” Both men were doing more than simply peering into a crystal ball. The newspaperman was relying on the reputation of the Mennonite farmers from the steppes of South Russia; the Mennonites were relying on bags of small red kernels, winter-wheat seed they had brought from Russia. And both men were right.
For more than 400 years, the majority of the Mennonites have been people of the soil. Their almost fanatical devotion to farming can be traced back to the Reformation, when their sect was born in Holland and Switzerland as a product of the Anabaptist movement. The Mennonites were the followers of Menno Simons, a Roman Catholic priest who had left the Church. Devoted to the Bible and the doctrine of nonresistance, they became an easy target for every wave of persecution that swept Europe. Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed Protestants alike turned their antagonism toward these people; and their early history was written in the fires of thousands of martyrdoms.
In the midst of all this conflict, the Mennonites stood like an island of peace, preaching that men should turn the other cheek and resist not their enemies. Forced out of their original homes, these master farmers roamed over Europe seeking the protection of any benevolent prince who would welcome them. At first, in response to the invitation of the Polish and Prussian nobility, they settled by the thousands in the delta of the Vistula River. They seemed to work a special magic with plow and harrow; with their knowledge of dike-building and farming marshy land, they transformed the delta from a swamp to a productive region of rich farms. For 200 years, the Catholic and Lutheran nobility were willing to tolerate an economic asset as valuable as the Mennonites proved to be. But in the end, harassed by their neighbors and fearing the growing militarization of the Prussian state, the Mennonites began to search for another nation which would guarantee them the right to follow their consciences and practice their faith.
They prospered there beyond all expectations. The original 6,000 who came to South Russia had by 1870 increased to 45,000. Hundreds of Mennonite villages dotted the flat tableland of the steppes, and everywhere the trees they had planted grew in profusion.
The bearded, sober Mennonite farmers became models of hard work and farming skill, leading the way in agricultural experimentation. Perhaps their greatest contribution was the development of large-scale wheat production. The traditional fields of soft summer wheat, which had wilted away under a hot sun, were replaced by hard winter wheat. New farming techniques and the expanding markets created by the glowing ports on the Black Sea made wheat the principal product of the Ukraine. Russian wheat captured the European market.
But in 1870, a shadow was suddenly cast over South Russia, when the imperial government announced a new policy regarding the German settlements. A rising wave of nationalism was threatening to inundate Europe, and Czar Alexander II now sought to assimilate these German-speaking peoples as rapidly as possible. The new policy was succinctly expressed in a single phrase: “One Czar, one religion, one language.” To the peace loving Mennonites, the worst blow of all came in 1871 with the passage of a universal military service act.
The bearded patriarchs of their churches sent a delegation of elders and prominent leaders to St. Petersburg to seek exemption. Some of the members of the commission that was drafting the new law had never heard of the doctrine of nonresistance, and expressed incredulity and skepticism that any group could be naive enough to believe and practice it.
One commissioner asked Elder Leonhard Suderman, “And what would you do if your enemy came to fight you?”
“I would approach him, extend my hand, and embrace him, but would not kill him,” replied Suderman. His answer greatly amused the cynical official.
The president of the commission brought up another point: “if everyone in Russia were like you Mennonites, how would we ever enforce law and order?”
“If everyone in Russia were like us,” countered the Mennonites, “there would be no need to enforce law and order.”
But they were given no pledge of total exemption. Only one outlet remained: emigration from Russia. Where could they go?
Cornelius Jansen, a Mennonite who was a Prussian consular official, had the answer. From the moment the new policy was announced by the Russian government in 1870 Jansen had had no doubt that emigration would be the only solution. While the other Mennonite leaders had traveled over Russia seeking audiences with the Imperial Council, the Czar, and innumerable other officials, petitioning and pleading for the preservation of Mennonite rights, Cornelius Jansen had begun a silent campaign for emigration. Many Mennonites had emigrated from Holland and Germany to Pennsylvania in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (large settlements of their descendants live there and in neighboring Ohio to this day), Jansen wrote to them, gathering every particle of information he could obtain about conditions in North America. After communicating with the American and British consulates in Odessa, he became favorably impressed with the possibilities that the New World offered. To him emigration became a religious crusade; he pursued his objective with the zeal of a missionary.
In the Frankfurter Zeitung , Jansen had read an article by a German emigrant, C. B. Schmidt, who was selling farm machinery in Lawrence, Kansas. Schmidt had become an avid booster of Kansas and had corresponded abundantly with German newspapers, lauding its opportunities, Jansen’s interest was immediately aroused. Writing to Schmidt, he asked if Kansas had enough room for several thousand settlers if they chose to come. Schmidt, peering over the letter at the vast stretches of virgin soil, chuckled and replied that it could accommodate several hundred thousand.
The more Jansen learned about America, the more enthusiastic he became. He began to travel across South Russia, speaking in dozens of villages and distributing hundreds of pamphlets encouraging a migration to America. In early 1873, he began to sell his own property and prepared to leave Russia. But on March 27, before he could complete his arrangements, the inevitable knock on the door signaled the arrival of a uniformed Russian officer and a foot soldier. In a courteous tone, the officer read the decree of His Imperial Majesty, Emperor of all Russia: “For spreading among the Mennonite inhabitants false ideas of their condition, and persuading the Mennonites to cease being Russian subjects and to emigrate to America,” the Prussian citizen Cornelius Jansen was to be expelled forever from Russia. He eventually settled in Nebraska, where he became a well-to-do rancher.
His expulsion only increased the conviction among his co-religionists that their freedom in Russia had ended and that the only course to follow was emigration. True, there was strong opposition in the Mennonite camp. The poorer among them believed that the journey would be beyond their means. The very wealthy hesitated because of the tremendous financial sacrifice involved in disposing of their property. And there was general ignorance of America on the part of the Mennonite leaders. As Elder Suderman put it: “America was a country interesting for the adventurer, an asylum for convicts. How could one live in peace … amid such people, to say nothing of the native savages?” It might be all right for someone with his “pockets full of revolvers,” but no doubt it was a rather dangerous land for a peace-loving people.
Nevertheless, in the spring of 1873, the Committee of Twelve, an official delegation of Mennonite leaders from South Russia, Polish Russia, and Prussia, toured the United States and Canada. They came with a fourfold purpose: to locate cheap, fertile land; to obtain assistance in transportation; to determine whether they could enjoy religious freedom and be exempted from military service; and to establish their right to live in closed communities with their own German schools and local self-government.
As representatives of a mass migration movement they came at one of the most advantageous moments in American history. This was a time when railroads were being built all across the central and western sections of the United States. To encourage the settlement of the country, the government had granted millions of acres to railroads that successfully completed their lines. In 1872, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe had finished its tracks through Kansas to the Colorado line, thereby earning a grant of three million acres. A map of this area in central and western Kansas resembled a checkerboard, railroad land and government land being located on alternate sections.
In Russia, meanwhile, some of the more impatient Mennonites, deciding not to wait for the Committee of Twelve to return, had already sold their property, packed their belongings, and journeyed with their families to the United States. On June 26, 1873, a former Crimean purchased 5,000 acres of land in central Kansas and became the first Russian Mennonite to settle in the state. Meanwhile, the Santa Fe was courting others among the early arrivals. Two of them were Peter and Jacob Funk. These affluent-looking gentlemen were escorted throughout the area before they decided on tracts. The Santa Fe wanted $4 an acre for the land; the brothers offered $2.50. After a great deal of haggling, in which the two Mennonites displayed a considerable amount of business acumen, the railroad agreed to their price rather than jeopardize the opportunity of gaining more of these industrious farmers. As soon as the terms had been agreed upon, the Funks produced $50,000 in cash, which they had been carrying on their persons during the entire journey through that bandit-infested frontier region.
Meanwhile members of the Committee of Twelve, completing their wide tour of the continent, seemed generally well-pleased with what they had seen. But at least two of the delegates, Paul and Lorenz Tschetter, still felt that they had not gained enough assurances from the government of the United States concerning military exemptions. Therefore, shortly before embarking for Russia, they visited President Grant in his summer home on Long Island Sound. Here they presented a petition written in German that, among other things, requested an unconditional exemption from military duty for fifty years. Since Grant could not read or speak German, he said that they would have to wait a few days for an answer. In the meantime, they left for Russia. Grant forwarded the petition to his Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish, who examined the requests of the Tschetters and wrote to them, stating that it was not within the power of the President to grant them their specific requests. There was, however, a federal law that exempted conscientious objectors from military service upon payment of a tax, and this apparently satisfied the Mennonites.
The winter of 1873–74 was one of great preparation on both sides of the Atlantic. In Russia, many Mennonites began to sell their property and apply for their passports. In the United States, railroad officials and American Mennonites spent the winter lobbying for favorable legislation at both state and national levels. In April, 1874, a bill was introduced in the United States Senate to reserve large areas of public land for them. There was no precedent for the action, and the bill generated considerable debate; in the end it was tabled, and was never brought up again.
The lobbyists for the Mennonites were more fortunate, however, in the individual states. Kansas’ militia law, like that of the federal government, exempted conscientious objectors but levied a tax upon them. In 1865, under pressure from the Santa Fe, the law was amended to abolish the tax. Several other states passed similar measures. C. B. Schmidt, with his usual quick ingenuity, lost no time in publicizing this action among the Mennonites in South Russia.
By spring of 1874 a strong minority had made the final decision to emigrate and had begun to sell their land and what property they could not take with them. In areas where nearly 100 per cent of the population had decided to leave, there were virtually no buyers, and much to their dismay, the immutable law of supply and demand brought the Mennonites enormous losses. But they took what they could get and prepared to leave.
On May 30, the Barkmans, with 34 other families, gathered their baggage and waved good-by to their neighbors. Led by their elder, Jacob Wiebe, a heavily bearded man who looked like a prophet fresh out of the pages of the Old Testament, they left the green fields of the Crimea forever. By August, the travel-weary group had purchased a tract of land from the Santa Fe in central Kansas.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
Yet the Mennonite land still retains its special flavor. Though the people have discarded their somber clothing and many of the special peculiarities that once set them apart from their neighbors, simplicity remains the cardinal virtue of their lives. Every Sunday they pack their churches, retaining the faith of their fathers and the pacifism for which they and their ancestors have sacrificed so much.
And they have exerted a tremendous influence upon their adopted country. It was their example of industry and toil which proved to the dispirited homesteaders that, despite grasshoppers and drought, the Great Plains could be cultivated and could produce rich harvests of corn and wheat. When the Mennonite farmers first planted the tiny red grains that they had so carefully transported all the way from Russia, their act went completely unnoticed. It was only when vast green fields began to yellow and ripen that their American neighbors inquired about their success with wheat. The Mennonites replied modestly that it was a variety that grew abundantly in the Ukraine, a type they called Turkey Red. As year after year the harvests of Turkey Red increased, Kansas became the nation’s largest producer of wheat. Agricultural experts turned their attention to Russian wheat and even made trips to South Russia to bring back various types. For many years Turkey Red remained the principal variety, but it was gradually replaced with hybrids that reflected only the hardier traits of the original strain.
Elder Jacob Wiebe, arriving in the little Kansas town in 1874, need not have wept for the future: his people have transformed their barren surroundings into a national asset, and have found here a lasting home.