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Johannestal

Mennonite Foothold in the West

The Cherry Stone opens in a community named Johannestal, which was an actual Mennonite settlement just north of present-day Hillsboro, Marion County, Kansas.

Before the Mennonites started arriving in 1874, the area was known as French Creek, after a French trapper (his identity is lost in the mists of time) who frequented the area and established a trading post there. The creek is still there, although I didn’t see any suitably furry animals to trap when we visited!

The first group of Mennonites to be attracted to the area came from the Blue Triangle, along the Vistula River near Warsaw, present-day Poland. They had been recruited by an agent of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Company, who sought farmers to buy land along the newly laid railway in Kansas.

A group of fourteen families, led by Elder Johann Bartel, a leader in the church of Deutsch Kazun, arrived in 1874 and started farming their famous, hardy Turkey Red wheat. The community came to be known by his name, Johannestal, or ‘Johann’s Valley’, and the families prospered to some extent. The Community reached 300 people in 1880, who held twenty-nine sections of land: 18,500 acres.

There was a church revival movement in the area in 1880, and many people of all denominations, including Mennonites, Lutherans, and Catholics, experienced a new understanding of the Christian gospel message. They felt the excitement in their hearts, rather than just following a set of church rules. They established a church and elected John Harms, of Molotschna, Russia (now Ukraine) as minister. He was also a teacher in the school.

The old schoolhouse, thought to be the first meeting place of the Johannestal church.

John and his brother David led thirty-four charter members to start the Johannestal Mennonite Brethren Church of French Creek. My great-grandfather, Gerhard Nickel (featured in The Cherry Stone), along with his father and brothers, was a charter member. They joined the Mennonite Brethren Conference in 1881. In 1884 they were able to build their first structure, in wood, which no longer stands. In 1893, they built a more substantial wooden building three miles north of Hillsboro. This building has been preserved as a museum, and has been moved to the center of Hillsboro itself.

1893 Johannestal Church, now a museum.

 

Today the descendent church, now called the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church (known to locals as ‘the big MB church’) is a thriving congregation with a large sanctuary, Sunday School rooms, offices and other facilities.

(Source: article by Wes Prieb, CMBS Newsletter, April 1990)

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