Nomads of conscience

  1. Outlaws out

You wouldn’t think it if you cruised in peace and bliss at 55 mph on Kansas Highway #56, but as the Santa Fe railroad extended itself across Kansas in the 19th century it created one repulsive and violent cow town after the other. Wichita, Abilene, Dodge City. Newton. Dodge needed a lockup even before the rails were laid and the lumber for a jail could be transported in. They dug a wide and deep hole in the ground, which, after the floods, could also double as a quick drying out spot for the towns’ drunks.

Many place names still resonate a century and a half after they were cattle trail destinations and became synonymous for The Wild West. Newton’s less so. Nevertheless this today so peaceful town just an hour west of Matfield Green then was called “Shootin’ Newton,” a wild and wicked trailhead. Even if the town name’s short-lived fame was richly made up by newspaper men, “it brings to mind the one-story frame buildings with false fronts and gaudy signs, hitching posts, board sidewalks, cowboys and horses, gamblers and cattlemen, blacksmiths and railroaders, merchants, land agents, prostitutes, con artists, pick-pockets, horse thieves, whiskey sellers, cattle buyers, bankers, and vaqueros, and a hot sun beating down on a dusty street lined with saloons.” The prostitutes, also named soiled doves, sporting women, or nymphs du prairie, were given deeply romantic names such as “Cuttin’ Lil Slasher” and “Peg-leg Annie” and “The Galloping Cow” and “Big Nose Kate” and “Squirrel Tooth Alice” and “The Roaring Gimlet.”

“A rush of gamblers and harlots” were lying in wait “for the game which will soon come up from the south. Pistols are as thick as blackberries.” But, “woe to the ‘greeny’ who falls into the hands of the hustlers.” The cowboys, freshly paid, letting off steam after three months on the trail, and fast at getting intoxicated, were only natural targets. Bad whiskey was often called “Kansas sheep-dip,” but only by Texans. The real thing was “the only certain cure for Scab and its Prevention.” Newton at a time had sixteen bawdy houses in full running order. It was once described to be “the fastest town I have ever seen,” and it was the scene of many a shoot-out. In 1871, the newly formed Newton law-and-order committee gave the outlaws and the like twelve hours to get out of town, which, surprisingly, indeed they did.


  1. Mennonites in

At roughly the same time, Santa Fe agent Carl Schmidt was sent to the Ukraine to explore the possibility of bringing groups of Mennonites to Kansas. In 1874, thirty-four Mennonite families arrived, the first of what eventually became a community of 8,000 that introduced the Russian hard, red wheat seeds and by doing so set Kansas off to become “the American breadbasket.” The males, tall and bearded, clad in Russian blouses and billowing trousers, reminded the early Americans of scarecrows, and many expressed their astonishment that the railroad would bring in such incapable looking settlers. But the industrious Mennonites proved to be the best dryland farmers in Kansas. They were survivors even in periods of severe drought. It was also they who planted many of the trees that forever changed the prairie.

So good were the Mennonites, other railroads tried to steal them from the Santa Fe. An agent of the Burlington one day tricked a whole group of them who were waiting for their Santa Fe train in Atchison and put them aboard his own train, which took them away from Kansas, north to Nebraska. Elsewhere similar kidnapping occurred. Thus came it about that groups of aspiring settlers having the same nationality, religion, political conviction, or plain hunger, ended up in strange places all over the Midwest to form Swedish, Mennonite, Roman Catholic, Russian, German, Czech, Dutch Reformed, or Polish colonies. Town names such as Moscow, Pilsen, Liebensthal, or Lindsborg can be found anywhere in the Midwest. There is even an Amsterdam.

Most Mennonite newcomers, though, bought land from the Santa Fe railroad and settled near Newton and Goessel. They belonged to a group of Christian Anabaptist denominations named after their Frisian-Dutch founder, Menno Simons (1496-1561). Born in Witmarsum, Friesland, then a part of the Holy Roman Empire, Menno first became a Roman Catholic priest. He left the Church in 1536, during the Reformation, to become, as an outspoken evangelical humanist, a haunted man with a piece on his head for the rest of his life. He died in Holstein, from which his followers departed somewhat later. For, as soon as persecution raised its ugly head, the Mennonites took to flight rather than fight, committed as they, members of this historic peace church, were and are to nonviolence. “For true evangelical faith (…) cannot lie dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it (…) clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it.”

Rejection of infant baptism is one of the rather sensible stands the Mennonites take, their opinion being that child baptism was and is just to “rein ‘em in” and tie them to the church before they reach the age of consent. Another sensible standpoint is their promotion of a simple life, with simple dress and buildings, including even a capella music in church. And hear this: they were the first church to have a female pastor, Anne Zernike, a ‘Doopsgezinde’ in Amsterdam in 1916.

I do not really see how this connects to some other teachings. In the biblical ‘Song of Songs’ the Mennonites find a description of the relationship between a purified church and Christ that not only applies to a reformed church but also to the earthly marriage between man and woman. Like the bride in the songs, the woman must come in total love and devotion and will be cleansed of her natural evil by contact with her husband. Therefore, the Mennonites did not contribute much to alter the conventional view of relations between men and women but idealized the woman’s subordinate and asexual status.

East-Groningen or Holstein is where my own family from my father’s side (disappeared) is supposed to have come from — my last name is a familiar one in the area between the German borders with the Netherlands and Denmark, in Niedersachsen and Schleswig-Holstein, the old Prussian plains. Never in history the fun part of Europe, these plains were darkest in the 1930s when Christopher Isherwood (“Herr Issyvoo,” as his German landlady called him) lived in Berlin and traveled the country. “You can feel them all around you,” he wrote in ‘Goodbye to Berlin’, “creeping in upon the city, like an immense waste of unhomely ocean — sprinkled with leafless copses and ice-lakes and tiny villages which are remembered only as the outlandish names of battlefields in half-forgotten wars (…) I feel in my bones the sharp ache of the frost in the girders of the overhead railway, in the ironwork of the balconies, in bridges, tramlines, lamp-stands, latrines. The iron throbs and shrinks, the stone and the brick ache dully, the plaster is numb.”

‘Goodbye to Berlin’ became popularized on the American screen by Liza Minelli in ‘Cabaret’, where her character was Sally Bowles, a rather innocent girl compared to Isherwood’s original Sally, the one “with her beauty only sin deep.” The real Berlin of the 1930s was rather a stinking place, not Hollywood’s version by long. I vaguely remembered Isherwood describing Sally’s lust for a drink called Prairie Oysters and I reread the book to refresh my memory, since I am now living on the prairie, ain’t I? A couple of eggs, break them, add Worcester sauce, stir the mixture. Prairie Oysters, Sally Bowles “practically lived on them.” Anyway, that’s how I happened to find Isherwood’s description of the Prussian plains, the German prairie.

I wonder, maybe I too have Mennonite in my background, for my father was the only one of his family to become a Roman Catholic, in order to be allowed to marry my mother. Maybe the peacenik in me came forth from his roots. Maybe his genes were what made me want to escape northwestern Europe’s grey skies and feeble sun rays, as well as, in Isherwood’s terminology, that “waste of unhomely ocean,” to discover the much larger immensity of the sea of grass in the Flint Hills, where the light is brighter than anything Germany, or the Netherlands, ever experiences. (And I am not even talking of the brilliance of the light in the American high desert.) Whatever, my father’s genes did not supply me with much respect for the bible. The Jesuit priests who took care of my education tried to change this, also without much success.

The Mennonites, with their remarkable dedication to beliefs and principles coming from the scriptures, were, unlike Ans and I when we migrated to America, “nomads of conscience” in search of religious freedom and toleration. They had moved to new habitats many times already, because each time changing circumstances in the countries of settlement prevented them from continuing to live out their faith convictions, and especially their nonparticipation in war. They encountered intolerance in Prussia and experienced the loss of extensive religious freedoms when in Russia their protector Catherine the Great died and their men were forcefully drafted into Czarist armed forces. They indeed found their new freedom in America and, although ultimately theirs may not have proven the best choice for pacifists, I cannot blame them for having not foreseen, in 1874, the coming of The American Empire in the 20th century.

The Mennonites decided to stay, and they, now fervent American patriots, are still around. There was a village in Kansas called Gnadenau and one that is now Hope Valley but in the early days was called Hoffnungsthal. Names in the phone books include many Dutch-sounding ones such as Goossens, Jansens and Jantzens, Friesens, Klaassens and Hagens, as well as German names, the Josts, Kaufmans, Koehns and Schroeders. And, see: I find a few named Haak or Haack in the area’s phone books!

The Alexanderwohl Church in Goessel is the oldest existing Mennonite structure in Kansas. Their church was built in the Dutch-Mennonite tradition, with a pulpit on the side of the sanctuary rather than the end, and a three-sided balcony that allows people to be close to the speaker. In 1876, in Hillsboro a Dutch-style windmill was built by Jacob Friesen. Long after it had fallen apart a replica was made that is run periodically to demonstrate flour milling in the former settlement villages. There are still a few old farms built along the Dutch rural design tradition, with the barn connected to the main house so that the heat radiating from the cattle would help warm the living quarters in the winter. Other buildings remind of the clay-brick houses as they were traditionally built in the Ukraine; as for instance in their former village of Sparrau, in Molotschna, where a layer of mud served as plaster over which a finishing coat of whitewash was applied. In the past, these houses like the Dutch farms had a grass-thatched roof.

A different denomination within the larger faith tradition, the Ebenfeld Mennonite Brethren, was first organized in Russia in 1860. Its members too fled persecution and religious intolerance, to settle near Hillsboro in Kansas. Theirs is one of the many splits that occurred in the Mennonite history. The more strict Amish created their own church, as have the Horse and Buggies Old Order Mennonites and, yes, the Automobile Old Order Mennonites. Around Goessel I sometimes meet horses pulling buggies on the highway, their drivers clad in black and wearing a flat-brimmed hat; these Mennonites are allowed to use machines but only for agriculture. By the way, the Progressive Mennonite Church allows homosexuality.

Some Mennonite communities still embrace the idea of the “rumspringa,” a South-African sounding word with a Dutch and German, and probably also Danish, background, meaning “fooling around” (literally: jumping around). Rumspringa’s concept is that young adults may engage in rebellious behaviour that is “bad” but not necessarily illegal (drinking, partying, sneaking out, and even ignoring religious participation). They are expected to either conform to community standards or leave the community after entering adulthood, usually around the time they finish college. I myself left home already soon after graduating from high school. And I’m afraid I have to confess I never really got done with my rumspringa.

Ton Haak,
Matfield Green, KS, December 2010 

Pen and ink drawing by Gary Gackstatter, ‘Badger Creek Bridge’ – I chose this illustration because it seems to tell me it shows the Posse on the day the last outlaw was kicked out of town and the first Mennonite arrived; or maybe it shows a bunch of outlaws who have just thrown a few Mennonites into the creek.