Hutchinson — Tall, barren prairie lay in every direction the eye could see. Not a sound stirred, except for the wind amid the grasses and the insects that swarmed.
Jacob Wiebe, his family and a number of other Mennonites had traveled from southern Russia to the Kansas plains where they sought religious freedom among the other pioneers just settling the nearly 15-year-old state. They had decided to leave the green fields of the Crimea forever, hearing that Kansas had similar soils to their native country — a good place to grow wheat. The group purchased a tract of land in central Kansas from the Santa Fe Railroad.
And amid a hot August in 1874, Wiebe and congregation leaders traveled the uninhabited landscape 14 miles from Peabody to an area of Marion County.
"We rode in the deer grass to the little stake that marked the spot I had chosen. When we reached the spot, I stopped. My wife asked me, 'Why do you stop?' I said, 'We are to live here.' Then she began to weep."
Wiebe wrote the story as part of an essay 40 years later. For the woman, it must have seemed daunting to begin building a home on the lonely landscape — far from her native homeland, far from any settlement, said area historian Karen Penner as she read the marker that tells Wiebe's tale of settling the plains in 1874.
"It must have been overwhelming," Penner said.
Yet, these settlers had optimism for their future. They named it their new home Gnadenau, or Meadow of Grace.
Gnadenau was only the forefront of a large number of Mennonite settlements in south-central Kansas nearly 140 years ago — ghost villages now only marked by stone markers, tree rows and cemeteries.
They had first migrated from Europe to Russia under Catherine the Great for religious freedom. Nevertheless, 100 years later, changes took place under Alexander II that impacted their beliefs, including a universal military service act that would require the peaceful group to fight.
Thus, by the end of 1874, the first arrival of Mennonites, roughly 1,900 people, settled an area that consisted of 60,000 acres of land in Marion, McPherson, Harvey and Reno counties, according to a June 1973 article in Mennonite Life. And some of the hard winter wheat that made Kansas the breadbasket of the nation reached that state in the baggage of these German-speaking immigrants from the steppes of southern Russia.
At first, the settlers were determined to retain the village tradition and pattern of farmland distribution they had had in Russia, according to the publication.
Penner said each town was set up like these Russian villages, with long streets with several small farmsteads spaced evenly apart in a row along the street. Typically, in the middle of this long block was a school. Some villages also had a gristmill for processing the wheat the families brought with them. Each farmstead was given nearby strips of land to tend.
Gnadenau was just one of the first of more than a dozen villages settled in Marion and surrounding counties. It also was the largest, the new home of 34 families, or 164 people. A church was built, then a store and a couple of blacksmith shops. A large gristmill was built just west of the village and was operated by Jacob Friesen and his son, the publication stated.
Other communities had ethic names like Schoenthal, or Fair Valley in English; Gruenfeld, or Greenfield; and Hoffungsthal, which means Hope Valley. The area was divided into two communities, in essence, the Alexanderwhol and Krimmer Mennonite communities, according to the Mennonite publication. The Alexanderwhol community was the largest and consisted of eight villages in all.
These early pioneers tried the village setup for just three years before it was abandoned — due to confusion in paying taxes and because families wanted personal property and independence, according to the publication. The Gnadenau village, however, lasted several more years before it became a ghost village.
"With the American system of private-land ownership, some moved out of the villages sooner," said Peggy Goertzen, director of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College in Hillsboro.
However, she said, "You can still see (village locations), and at Hochfeld, you can still see the village pattern."
On a recent spring day, Penner, a historian and board member with Newton's Bernhard Warkentin House — the man who helped bring Mennonites to Kansas — toured many of the former village sites.
A large green sign marks Hochfeld, where tree rows still mark the outline of the village. A mile to the north is Springfield, which also is marked by a sign and a cemetery. At Alexanderfeld, there is a cemetery, as well as a church, school and stone pillar.
Then there is the first site of Gnadenau, where a stone still marks the spot of where a cemetery once was located. Penner said most of the graves, as well as the church, were moved west to another site. That church burned down several years ago and a new one was built in Hillsboro.
Hillsboro has a full-sized replica of the wind-powered gristmill built in 1876 at Gnadenau on display.
Penner grew up around the Ebenfeld Mennonite Brethren Church area in Marion County, near the town of Aulne. She and her family recently gathered for a reunion at Bethel College, which included talking about their roots.
She said her family also plans to install a gravestone for her great grandmother, Adelgunda Penner Suderman Dueck, who died in 1888. She was buried with a couple of family members in a field near the Alexanderfeld community — a common practice back then. The family moved the grave to the Gnadenau cemetery in the 1970s but never put a marker on the plot, she said.
The family is beginning to raise money to mark her grave.
Family, after all, she said, is important.
"There is a saying that, for your children to have wings, they must have roots," she said. "And to know where you are going in life, you have to know where you came. That has been my philosophy. I just like to learn the stories of who these people were, what they went through. That is what makes it fun for me — finding they were real people not just a name and a date."
A sign is staked at each end of the village of Hochfeld, a Mennonite community settled around 1874. The tree rows from when it was an active village are still visible. Villages lasted about three years before residents dispersed to their own farms.