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Mennonites Ingrained in Kansas : 'Quiet People' Established Wheat Industry--and a College

Charles Hillinger's America

November 16, 1986|CHARLES HILLINGER | Times Staff Writer

NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — It was the Russians who made Kansas the No. 1 wheat-producing state in the country--the Russian Mennonites.

They were also responsible for founding Bethel College in this tiny mid-Kansas town, making it the first Mennonite college established anywhere in the world.

Until the school's founding 99 years ago, the Mennonites traditionally shunned education. Many still believe in limited education so as not to become too worldly.

Today there are 10 small Mennonite colleges--three in Kansas, three in Canada and one each in California (Pacific College at Fresno), Ohio, Indiana and Virginia.

Bethel College, with an enrollment of 650--many the sons and daughters of Mennonite wheat farmers--is often referred to as "the school that wheat built." (Its athletic teams are called the Threshers.)

Mennonite wheat farmers brought bushels of their best winter wheat seed with them when they migrated to Kansas from their farms in the Ukraine beginning in 1874.

Today, wheat fields still embrace the 47-acre campus. Perched on Mount Hebron and looming over the school is the original four-story white limestone building that now houses administrative staff. A wheat granary stands nearby.

Grain harvested from Mennonite farms and donated to the school is stored in a campus granary. It is utilized by the Bethel College women's association for wheat-weaving kits. The kits, in turn, are sold in craft shops throughout the country to create candle holders, Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas ornaments and other items of folk art.

Carolyn Schultz, wife of Harold Schultz, the school's president, and Adelia Stucky, are the college wheat-weaving instructors and authors of "Wheat Weaving Made Easy," the bible of the craft.

Proceeds from the wheat-weaving enterprise are used to promote the cultural, academic and financial interests of the school. The $100,000 netted from the project in the last three years has been invested in the new Bethel College library.

Mennonites, often called the "quiet people," are named after Menno Simons, a Dutch priest who left the Catholic church to become an early Anabaptist leader in the 1530s in the Netherlands.

David Haury, 35, director of the Mennonite library, archives and art collection at Bethel College, spoke of the religious group's beginning as he held a copy of the 1660 publication "The Martyrs Mirror." It is one of only about a dozen copies known to exist, he said.

"For Mennonites this is second only to the Bible as a handbook of our faith," explained Haury. The first part contains biographies of nearly 2,000 Mennonites and a description of how they were tortured and killed in the Netherlands between the years 1531 and 1597. Also included are etchings of Mennonites being burned at the stake, beheaded, spiked to death, drowned in barrels of wine and water.

"All these brave and valiant martyrs had to do was recant their faith and their lives would have been spared," said Haury, author of "Prairie People" and several other Mennonite histories.

The Mennonites, considered heretics at the time, were persecuted and killed by rulers from other religious groups. The Mennonites maintained that the ruler of a certain territory could not designate a particular faith for all of his subjects. They rejected infant baptism, insisting on baptism upon confession of faith, and also rejected military service.

The religion spread, with Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands becoming its principal centers. In the late 1770s Catherine the Great of Russia opened the doors to Mennonites, guaranteeing them a hundred years of exemption from military service, granting them vast tracts of land in the Ukraine, preservation of their faith, language and culture and self-rule in their communities.

With the introduction of universal conscription in Russia in 1870, the Mennonites of the Ukraine began thinking about relocation. The region had become the breadbasket of Russia by then, due to Mennonite wheat farmers who also were farm implement manufacturers.

In 1872 Bernhard Warkentin, a wealthy Russian Mennonite wheat grower, came to the United States looking for a new place for his people. He discovered that the prairies of Kansas most closely represented the steppes of Russia and that land there was available for as little as $2 and $3 an acre.

Through Warkentin's efforts 5,000 of the German-speaking Mennonite farmers from the Ukraine migrated to Kansas between 1874 and 1884. Mennonites from Poland and Germany followed suit.

Until the arrival of the Mennonites, wheat had not been an important crop in Kansas. The Russian Mennonites carried with them their best Turkey Red wheat seed, a hearty variety that revolutionized the wheat industry in America. It is the foundation seed for wheat grown in the Great Plains states today. About 13,000 other Mennonites migrated from the Ukraine during the 1870s and 1880s--8,000 going to Canada, 5,000 to other parts of the United States. Today an estimated 55,000 Mennonites still live in the Ukraine. And, today, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Indiana are the largest Mennonite centers in the United States.

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