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The Heritage That Helped Make Kansas the Breadbasket of the World - 2002-08-23


In 1874, hundreds of Mennonites of German ancestry who were living in Russia immigrated to the United States. They settled in Kansas near the towns of Halstead, Moundridge, Hillsboro and Goessel. They planted "Turkey Red" wheat grain they'd brought with them. And they helped make Kansas the breadbasket of the world. Every year in August on the grounds of the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Goessel there's a tribute to the community's agricultural and cultural past.

Under a brilliant blue sky dotted with fluffy white clouds, a crowd watches as men pitchfork wheat shocks into an antique threshing machine. The machine, with gears and wheels sticking out one side, is run by a tangle of drive belts as huge metal rods claw at the air pulling the shocks inside. In the days before modern combine harvesters traveled up and down the rows of crops, the thresher sat stationary wheat stalks were cut and tied into bundles with a binder machine or even by hand.

"They cut off the whole stalk and everything and they load it on these trailers and they bring it up here to their barn where the thrasher machine is and they throw it in the thrasher machine and it thrashes the grain out," Walden Duerksen said.

The machinery on display during Threshing Days spans more than a century. It's all a celebration of Kansas farming heritage from a team of horses drawing a threshing stone to creeping gargantuan steam engines that revolutionized agriculture on America's Great Plains. Some of the tractors here are unrecognizable as farm vehicles, others, like Walden Duerksen's gasoline powered 1928 John Deere, have a more familiar look.

"This is a '28 D, my dad bought that thing brand new in 1928 and that was the year I was born and it was totally destroyed and I found it in a junkyard and so we've completely went through it and rebuilt it," Mr. Duerksen said.

Mr. Duerksen squirts gasoline into priming cups on the engine. Then his 27-year-old grandson Matt Jost, struggles with a large flywheel to start the tractor.

Only a few years before Mr. Duerksen's father bought his John Deere, farmers were driving tractors that were many times larger and had a lot less horsepower. Jerry Toews has a fleet of giants, including a "Big Four" brand with 2.5 meter high wheels; a "Flour City," the nickname for the place of its manufacture, Minneapolis; a "Russell Giant," and a gasoline-powered 1915 Rumley.

It takes the retired schoolteacher a nearly Herculean effort just to turn it.

Mr. Toews points out that it's not only big it's dangerous. "Everything is in the open, all the clutches. The engine has two flywheels, one at the front and one at the back. Behind the engine, there's a large cast-iron two-speed transmission, two gears forward, one in reverse," he said.

With no shielding over spinning gears and wheels, these machines were extremely hazardous. But they were a fact of life on American farms before the federal government imposed safety regulations.

"OSHA [The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration] would shut us down in a heartbeat if they saw this!" he laughed. "But operators in those days just had to be extremely careful and understand machinery and just stay out of the way of moving parts," he said.

That's also true for the earliest of the self powered farm machines the near-locomotive-sized steam powered traction engines that kept lumbering by, chugging quietly throughout this year's Threshing Days.

Don Blosser's steam-powered Rumley would not have been used much for fieldwork in central Kansas where farms were only 15 to 30 hectares. More likely it was used for "belt work" supplying power to drive other farm equipment like the thresher we heard earlier. Mr. Blosser stills marvels at the turn-of-the-century technology.

"The people who were living in 1900 or 1910 and designing machines like this were every bit as brilliant as the people who sent rockets to the moon or invented the microchip. They were extremely sharp people working with the materials that were available. They really knew their stuff," Mr. Blosser said.

These massive engines, using steam or gas instead of animal power, revolutionized American agriculture and the nation's farming communities.

"When we shut this down, it doesn't eat. It really eliminated the million or so horses that were sitting around doing nothing but eating and occupying space four or five months out of the year. At one point, 80 acres had been enough to support a family. All of a sudden, with machinery like this, one farmer could have one hired man and be farming 640 acres or more. So it shifted a lot of labor toward the cities and did start to depopulate the countryside a little bit," Mr. Blosser said.

That's why Threshing Days also showcases the domestic side of early Mennonite farm life in central Kansas. The Mennonite Heritage Museum is really a little village with many authentic buildings - like the Goessel State Bank, two schools and several homes.

"My family name is Krause and this is the Krause house. It's basically two rooms downstairs and then a loft for sleeping. My ancestors actually built this house in 1875," Glendine Fleming said.

When Glendine Fleming's ancestors and their neighbors came to Kansas, they not only brought the German language and Turkey Red wheat, but also a fondness for a bread they called "zwieback" and the design for an oven to bake it in.

"Zwieback is a bread that's very traditional. And we've continued to try to keep that tradition going here at Threshing Days and bake in the Russian oven," she said. "This is the feature of the Russian Oven the design they brought along from Russia in 1874 when they came. They have a firebox at the bottom and then they have a baking box above that. The firebox draws around the back and comes over the top so it heats both the top and the bottom and then goes out the chimney. This is our firebox; they mostly used grass probably, even animal dung, to heat it. Then up here was the baking box. We're baking zwieback. It takes, oh, about ten minutes to bake 'em in there," she said.

Outside, in the cool shade of a tree, children are playing an old German game called "Spools." Their parents sip cold lemonade, enjoying this trip back into another time.

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