Pioneer diary describes farming as it was a century ago


This photo of an old-time harvest crew is believed to be have been taken near Goessel around the turn of the 20th century. The photo came the household of Benjamin B. Schmidt and wife Anna Penne of Goessel.

Have you ever stopped to think what it might have been like for the very first farmers settling in Marion County?

Many had no idea how reliable wheat?or any other crop?would be in this new country. Yet, they survived and provided for their families.

How did they make the ag selections that affect us today? Were they looking for soil depths or fertility? Wouldn?t it be nice to hear from great-great grandparents who farmed in Marion County?

Well, one of those old-timers, Heinrich B. Friesen, did take the time to talk about his life in his diary, circa 1879.

?Henry? Friesen?in today?s vernacular?lived from 1837 to 1926 among fellow Mennonites and wrote in the Gothic script of high German Gothic. His diary, preserved at the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College, was translated into English in 1974 by August Schmidt.

Peggy Goertzen, CMBS director and archivist, would remind us that Henry Friesen isn?t necessarily typical of all Mennonites who settled here.

For one thing, although he settled in the predominantly Mennonite community, he bought his land independently rather than as part of a group.

Goertzen said many of the early Mennonite settlers immigrated in groups with large holdings of land already purchased for everybody to divide. They intended to lay out streets for an agricultural village similar to what they knew in the Ukraine or the Crimea.

The modern-day descendants of these farm villages are community areas such as Gnadenau and Alexanderwohl.

Other denominational and ethnic groups also developments closer to village agriculture such as the Czech Catholic efforts in the Pilsen area, which local newspapers have noted.

When Henry arrived in Marion County, the land was in transition from grassland prairie to wheat fields, with wheat becoming a mainstay for the economy as well as an exaggerated promotion for a boom area.

Earlier accounts recorded at the Kansas Historical Society told of farmers who wanted cattle moving along the Chisholm Trail from Texas away from their cropland, while others liked it when a herd stopped to beat down the prairie for plowing, plus leaving plentiful manure for fertilizer and fuel.

Wheat was being established as a crop in the 1870s with little understanding of differences between soft and hard varieties.

The Gnadenau group of two dozen families is widely viewed by historians as probably being the source of the first recognized Turkey Red winter wheat in the early 1870s.

?They were just harvesting (wheat) when we arrived,? Henry said. He and his family had left Alexanderthal, Russia, on May 15, and arrived by railroad at Peabody June 27. Their trip extended from 12 days from Alexanderthal to Antwerp, 15 days on a ship called Switzerland of the Red Star Line to Philadelphia, Pa., four days and from there on the railroad.

His account tells of exciting and new things.

?In America, the trains go at such a furious pace that a person going along the aisle of the car has to hold on to the seats along the way to keep from falling from one side to the other…..

?Before the train stopped we already saw our brothers, sisters and friends who had come to welcome us, and to take us to their homes. The welcome after five years of absence was from the heart with love.

?What we felt, I can not adequately describe. Only those who have experienced it can know…….

?Other lands, other customs, that is what we experienced here in America. The harvest was in full swing when we arrived. The grain was bound in bundles on the machine.

?Cornelius and Bernhard soon caught on how to do it, but I could not do it because I sweated too much, and could not stand it.

?The first thing we bought was a fat hog rather cheap, about 400 pounds for $6.00. The time we stayed at Duerksens, we always ate together at one table….

?The next thing we had to buy was a wagon and horses. We went to Marion where we found a man who sold us a team of horses with harness and a wagon with a double box and seat for $250. One of the horses, a black gelding, was named Jim, and a mare, named Kate. From her we later raised a number of our horses.

?Off and on we went land hunting. A number of persons offered us land, and if we would have had a little more money, we could have bought a nice farm close by. We were advised not to, so we finally bought 80 acres south of Cornelius Dalkes at $7 per acre.

?The price was not high, but we had to pay 12 percent interest on the mortgage, and for each $100, 5 percent commission. This was immediately subtracted from the loan. The interest had to be paid promptly every half year.

?It was surprising how the capitalists at that time could take money from the people. If a person had to borrow at a bank, still higher interest was charged, and someone with property had to co-sign the note.

?Praise God we have come through that difficulty long ago, but much covetous and lust after money was evident at that time.

?There was much work to be done. We intended to build with mud bricks which we made at Cornelius Duerksen?s where they watered their cattle.

?As I remember, we made 1,200. We had very favorable weather for this. The rock for the foundation we quarried ourselves at a German settler?s place. We had help from neighbors to haul the rock.

?The roof we covered with reed grass which I got at old Jacob Funk?s place, and didn?t cost me anything except the work.

?We finally decided to build the house of wood with siding on the outside and bricks on the inside. Cousin Jacob Penner agreed to do the building.

?We rented 18 acres of land from brother-in-law Cornelius Duerksen so we could sow some wheat. After sowing wheat, we started building. Friends and neighbors helped, and it did not take long. About the end of October, we could move into our new house on our farm….

?For the horses we put up a shelter. We bought a young cow from Mr. Frik for which we paid $25, and made a straw barn for it.

?When we came to Kansas, in Marion County, a railroad was being built. The road bed and bridges were already, for the contract specified the trains would be running.

?The City of Hillsboro was laid out, and several store buildings had been moved in, but a storm had destroyed everything. Much building was going on throughout the fall season. From the beginning, we did our business in Hillsboro, and also got our mail there, so we grew up with Hillsboro.

?We had a very good neighborhood. In our schoolhouse nearby, we had services every third Sunday when one of the ministers from Alexanderwohl Church came to preach in between time. Also someone from the Bruderthal Church came….

?With the help of God, we entered the year 1880. We did not have a severe winter this year. We rented some land from the old Wassemillers for oats, and across the section line from Cornelius Dalke?s, some for planting corn, paying one-fourth crop rent.

?Also during the spring we dug a cellar under the house. We quarried the rock at Fritz Faust?s, and hauled the rock home, some friends helping us. I laid the rock myself.

?I helped Cornelius Duerksen?s with their harvest, and they in turn cut our 18 acres. After it was threshed, little was left except for seed and our own use.

?The interest had to be paid every half year. No pleading to wait helped. Whatever was not paid was immediately added to the principal, and also bore interest.

?Things were very short that year, but thank God we never had to go to bed hungry. The old year came to an end, and with it also the old worries and difficulties as much as we could put behind us.?

Friesen?s diary entries cover many years. The excerpts included here concentrate on farming, while others deal topics such as personal issues and family relationships.

For persons wanting to read more, Goertzen can make copies of the manuscript for $1 per page.

Although Mennonites had migrated to the United States as early as the 1700s, the big wave began close to Friesen?s time in 1873 when five new families came to Marion County, according to ?The Golden Belt of Kansas.?

The book says the next year, in 1874, about 310 Mennonite families came to Kansas, mostly to Marion County.

Although the introduction of hard, red winter wheat generally is credited to the Mennonites, the book indicates other groups were becoming aware of it, too. French settlers may have had it at Marion, and Dowling, a man of Irish ancestry, whom the Abilene Chronicle noted as ?eccentric.?

Primary sources in the voices of those who lived the past can give a a sense of what it was like to farm here in the 1870.

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