What is the historical significance of the Warkentins?
While the Warkentins today are remembered primarily for the historical significance (and National Register status) of their Halstead farm and Newton home and mill (also a national landmark like the farm), during their lifetimes they achieved recognition for their entrepreneurship and support of their community.
Warkentin created what could be considered a business empire, owning another flour mill in Blackwell, Oklahoma, and serving as a director/owner of the Bank of Halstead, Kansas State Bank of Newton, Millers' National Insurance Company, the Terminal Warehouse Company, and the Western States Portland Cement Company. He was one of Newton's leading businessmen.
However, Bernhard Warkentin's leadership is perhaps best recognized today for his role in making Kansas into the “wheat” state. Growing wheat did not dominate Kansas agriculture in the early 1870s. Warkentin helped to shift farmers from planting spring and soft wheat to hard winter wheat. Warkentin encouraged farmers to grow Turkey Red Wheat from Russia, which was more suited to the Kansas climate and which his new steel roller mills could refine into excellent flour. In 1900 he worked with several groups to import 15,000 bushels of Turkey Red seed from Russia. Some debate surrounds the story of how Kansas became America's breadbasket, but the innovation and promotion of Bernhard Warkentin played a major role. Moreover, Kansas Mennonites soon became well known for their wheat production.
The Warkentins also generously supported institutions important to their community with time and money. He became one of three founders of Bethel College and served as the treasurer. He also became an instrumental donor to the Bethel Deaconess Hospital in Newton. In fact, the history of this institution is also entwined with that of the Warkentin House. Following her death in 1932, Wilhelmina, deeded the house to the deaconesses and they benefited greatly from using the home for three decades. Eventually the deaconesses faded away and the home went to the City of Newton to operate as a historic site.
Bernhard Warkentin's life ended in tragedy decades before the passing of his wife. In 1908 he and his wife were taking a long anticipated trip to southern Europe and the Holy Land, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. While riding on a train after visiting Nazareth on April 1, 1908, he was shot and killed when Mahemed Said, grandson of the emir of Algeria, accidentally discharged his gun through the wall of the train compartment striking and killing Bernhard. Said faced no justice for his irresponsible act, and it became somewhat of an international incident. Bernhard was 60 years old, and Newton and Kansas too soon lost one of their most prominent citizens.