A living heritage takes root

Hillsboro Museums accepted its first donation of “living history” Saturday when a Wichita family with local connections donated two Russian black cherry trees to the grounds of the historic Peter Paul Loewen House in Hillsboro.

Siegfried and Lois Snyder of Wichita, and their four children, delivered the two historic trees, which will be planted east of the historic Loewen house commonly known for years as the Adobe House.

“This is a donation of several surviving Russian black cherry trees that were brought as cherry stones to this country by an immigrant Mennonite family in 1877,” said Stan Harder, director of museums.

“The trees have an unusually dark, tart fruit that is excellent in preserves,” he added. “It is also used in a Russian Mennonite dish called moos, which is a kind sweet desert soup that has a lot of cream in it.”

Harder said he first heard of the trees several years ago when he and the Snyders were attending the same church in Wichita.

“At some point, we were talking about Mennonite heritage, and one of them said, ‘By the way, we have these cherry trees’-and that was long before I even thought about coming here,” Harder said.

“So it’s been on my mind for a number of years,” he added. “I thought, wouldn’t it be great to get one of those to the museum in Hillsboro?”

Coincidently, Lois Snyder is connected not only to the trees, which were brought to this county by her great-great-grandparents on her mother’s side, but also to the historic Loewen house itself, which was built by ancestors on her father’s side.

The original trees were planted near Buhler. Some were then transplanted to a family farm southwest of Inman, then later to residences in Goessel and then North Newton before the Snyders planted some in their yard in Wichita.

The Snyders’ contribution is the first in what Harder said will be a series of such gifts to the museum. At Harder’s initiative, the museum board has launched a program intended to preserve what he calls “living collections.”

“I have always thought it was important for museums to collect material-culture objects, but it is also important to collect living specimens that are residual of the Mennonite settlement experience here in Kansas,” he said.

Specifically, the museum is looking for historic plant material brought by pioneer Mennonites to America from Russia that would have been typical of the first Mennonite villages in Kansas, as well as documented historic plant material used by pioneers in general for landscaping and in kitchen gardens at the turn of the 20th century in Hillsboro.

“One of the exciting things about this donation is that these trees originated in the Russian village of Petershagen,” Harder said. “That is the same village that miller Jacob Friesen emigrated from.”

In 1994, the museum constructed a working replica of the Dutch-style flouring mill Friesen built in 1877 near Hillsboro.

Harder said the “living collection” in Hillsboro will be comprised of plants.

“I don’t know that (Mennonite immigrants) brought a lot of animals,” Harder said. “But we know, in addition to Turkey Red Wheat, there were a lot of other plants that were brought, including cuttings from plants like peonies and bulbs from bulb flowers, herbs-and thing we may not even know about.

“The immigrant Mennonites in Kansas did help to bring biodiversity to the area, especially in agriculture,” Harder added. “They’re most known for the Turkey Red Wheat, but there are other things, like fruit trees, that they brought that were important.”

Harder said it simply is not economically feasible to prove the historic authenticity of donations through genetic studies.

“We have to take the donor’s word for it,” he said. “We hope that what we’ve got is right.”

Harder said he hopes this gift from the Snyders will prompt other people in the area to consider the historical value of trees and flowers that may be growing on their property.

“If people have plants that have been propagated from plants their ancestors brought from Russia, I would be very interested in knowing who they are and what they’ve got-and I would be very interested in the donation of those plants,” he said.

Orchard trees are at the top of his wish list.

“I have heard of apricots, I have heard of pears, and we’ve known about the cherry trees a long time,” he said.

“We all know about the mulberry trees, but I would like to find a series of mulberry trees that people know were brought by their ancestors and not just propagated from the seed catalogs.”

Flowers are also of interest, including Mennonite peonies and Russian sunflowers.

Anyone who thinks he or she may have historic plants of this kind should call Harder at 947-3775.

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