How did Bernhard Warkentin get from Russia to Kansas?
Bernhard Warkentin was born on June 19, 1847, in the village of Altona in the Molotschna Mennonite colony in the Ukraine. His father was a farmer and miller. How did Bernhard end up settling in central Kansas less than thirty years after his birth? The answer is a story that is both deeply personal and part of great geo-political shifts causing the migration of tens of thousands of people out of Russia.
In 1870 Russia passed laws which would restrict the religious and educational freedom of Germanic settlers who had been invited to farm the Ukraine and given special freedoms a century earlier. In response to the laws many decided to leave and began looking for places with both good farm land and new guarantees of freedom.
On June 5, 1872, Bernhard Warkentin arrived in New York with three friends – partly on an adventure and also looking at settlement possibilities. He sent letters back to Russia and described his travels in great detail to his friend, David Goerz, who would one day become another very prominent Newtonian. Warkentin established the headquarters for his exploration of America in Summerfield, Illinois, just east of St. Louis. South German Mennonites had settled there a few years earlier, and Warkentin stayed at the home of Christian Krehbiel, who in the 1870s led many of the Summerfield Mennonites to Halstead and Moundridge. This would be a fateful step for Warkentin.
Warkentin and his friends visited Minnesota, Manitoba, the Dakota Territory, Kansas, and Texas. His letters home stoked excitement about the prospects of Mennonite settlements in North America. Warkentin's friends returned to Russia, but he stayed, heartbroken upon learning of the sudden death of his fiancée. In 1873 he studied English at McKendree College in nearby Lebanon, Illinois. Over the next several years the young Warkentin worked with official delegations of Mennonites from Russia who looked for land and negotiated with railroads to buy sufficient acreage. He even helped purchase tickets and escorted new arrivals from the seaports to Kansas and elsewhere.
When some of the Summerfield Mennonites purchased land near Halstead, Warkentin decided to join them in mid-1874. He was soon joined by his new bride, Wilhelmina Eisenmeyer, a non-Mennonite, who he had met during his stay in Summerfield. They married on August 12, 1875, and she became not only a key part of Bernhard's life thenceforth, but also in the story of the Warkentin House. Her father was a wealthy miller, and Bernhard had already decided he would become a miller and had opened a small mill in Halstead.