Brothers with a history

If anyone could create a trivia game about the history of Hillsboro, it would be brothers Raymond and David Wiebe. These two brothers are walking encyclopedias when it comes to their hometown.

Their interest in Hillsboro’s history is more than a passing curiosity. They are concerned about preserving and sharing the history with others.

David said there is value in preserving local history.

“A sense of place is important to everyone,” he says. “It’s important to see what there is from history and how it relates today.”

According to Raymond, “History is business.”

He believes preserving the history of Hillsboro can help improve economic development in Kansas. He cites the economic success Connecticut has experienced by developing historical points of interest throughout the state.

Both Raymond and David are heavily involved in preserving local history. They do so in different, yet complementary, ways.

Says David: “Raymond works more in writing and research. My preference is to see history in action. I’d make a model. Raymond would write about it.”

In fact, Raymond has published several historical books.

Two of his books are family histories that chronicle the families’ migrations through Europe and finally to central Kansas in search of religious freedom.

The Groening-Wiebe Family, on which Raymond collaborated with Joel A. Wiebe and Vernon R. Wiebe, was published in 1974. In 1979, he published The John Frantz People: From Poland to Central Kansas.

Then, in 1983, Raymond took a sabbatical from his faculty position at Wichita State University to research and write a book about Hillsboro.

“I thought, in 1984 Hillsboro would be 100 years old as a corporation,” Raymond said. “It seemed like a do-able package. I wanted to make a contribution where I could also use my knowledge of German.”

Raymond published Hillsboro, The City on the Prairie in 1985.

Raymond said he comes by his interest in history naturally. It was first piqued in the 1950s as he assisted his father, David V. Wiebe, in researching material for They Seek a Country, a book about the migrations of the Mennonite Brethren people in search of religious freedom.

“That’s where I learned how to do it,” Raymond said. “But my father did not encourage his sons to be professional historians. He said “you’ve got to make a living.”

Raymond is interested in more research projects.

“If someone calls, and I can see that what they want to do will help somebody else, I’ll do it,” he said.

David returned to Hillsboro in the early 1980s after a 26-year teaching career that spanned three states. He accepted a position at the Adobe House Museum, and has been helping to preserve Hillsboro’s history ever since.

David is director of the Hillsboro Historical Society and Museums. He oversees the museum facilities and programs at the Hillsboro Heritage Park, which includes the Adobe House, Friesen Mill, Kreutziger Schoolhouse and the Visitors Center. He is also responsible for the Schaeffler House, the Victorian home built by a local businessman.

“Our desire is to do the best we can to build, preserve, interpret and educate about our history,” David said.

David’s favorite aspect of the job, he said, is trying to explain the history and to provide a more realistic setting for the eras represented in the museums. During 1999, he led tours of Hillsboro’s museums for more than 50 groups.

“I learn something new every day,” David said.

Several of his favorite artifacts have arrived at the Adobe House just recently.

“Last year we received a workbench from the Johann Harder family,” David said. “It is a valuable Hillsboro artifact. It’s been all over Kansas, and now it’s come back home.”

Just last week, a rendering kettle was given to the Adobe House Museum.

“It’s huge,” David said. “It holds 50 gallons and has been identified by the manufacturing company in Illinois.”

The kettles were used for rendering lard, washing clothes, making soap and other household tasks.

Both Raymond and David have also been involved in preserving several buildings in the Hillsboro area.

When David was moving back to Hillsboro, it so happened that the house his grandparents had lived in during the early 1910s was for sale.

The house on South Birch held other memories for David and his family as well. His parents held their wedding reception in the yard, and when he was a young child, his family had lived in the house.

After living out of state for a time, the family returned to the house when David was a young man.

“In the early ’80s, I was looking for a little project,” he said, “so I got into home ownership.”

He has since added a basement and plans on doing some renovation soon.

Adds David: “Just to show you how much Hillsboro’s changed, my father built a chicken barn right there, and we had cows in town. I delivered milk around town, too.”

Raymond, meanwhile, once included a church building among his collection of antiques.

“Even though I lived in Wichita, I kept tabs on what was happening in Hillsboro,” Raymond said.

He had read about and watched as the Alexanderfeld Church congregation built a new facility in fall 1971.

The building they had been using was actually the first building the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church congregation had ever built. It had also housed classes for Tabor College when the school opened its doors in 1908.

Because of the historical value of the building, Raymond purchased it in 1972 and paid to have it moved to his farm southwest of Lehigh. He used it to store his growing collection of antiques and books, as well as certified seed.

In the 1980s, enough interest had been generated at Tabor College and the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies that the college purchased the structure and began to restore it.

The church was moved to its current site on the Tabor campus in August 1989.

Raymond and David Wiebe continue to enjoy being “keepers” of Hillsboro’s history.

“We enjoy working together, having this partnership,” Raymond said. “We complement each other.”

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