The first Mennonite Brethren people to call central Kansas home settled just southeast of present-day Hillsboro in a place they called Gnadenau, or “Grace Meadow,” laid out in the Russian style of their previous homeland. The growth and decline of this small village highlights both the great effort put forth by immigrants to the area and the difficulty reckoning with the larger systems that brought them here.
The images are arranged in a scale reproduction of Ed Ruscha’s 27-foot-long photo book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, with text by Gnadenau Elder Jacob A. Wiebe and local newspaper reports of this new “strange village.”
When our fathers migrated to Russia they were given by Emperor Paul a Privilegium in which special freedoms were assured for all times.
In the year 1870 this document was recalled by the Czar. We asked for leniency but were told that we had to comply with universal conscription or leave the country.
We sold our belongings very cheaply.
Trusting God we set out on our journey.
We left our nice home in Crimea. When we had gone four Werst we could still see our beautiful Acacia trees in full bloom.
Finally, all we loved so much disappeared from our view. Goodbye — Goodbye, Annenfeld!
So faithful and obedient as we have been to Russia, so far as God’s Word and our conscience allows, so we have in mind to be in America, and to seek the peace of the land.
When we had bought land — twelve sections, we let our people follow us.
We hurried to get everything ready for the winter. I rented an empty store, bought a stove, table, horses, and a wagon.
While we waited for our families it was very hot, so that we have not had a greater heat since.
I came into temptations on account of the high winds, everything was dry and withered. Recently grasshoppers had taken all.
I knew soon our people would arrive.
I suddenly became afraid of the future — whether we would make our living here. The great responsibility of having selected a place of settlement for so many people rested heavily on me.
In my grief I sat down on the steps.
I thought of the poor families and their children, we had no provisions, no friends in the new world, the winter was nigh at the door, we were wanting of dwellings, agricultural implements, and seed, everything was high in price, some of ours were old, weak, and sick, the future seemed very gloomy, there were also no prospects of rain, only wind, dust and very hot, — all this fell over me.
I could not help myself but let my tears flow freely.
Late on Saturday night our people arrived.
So we rode in the deep grass to the little stake that marked the spot I had chosen.
When we reached the same I stopped. My wife asked me, “Why do you stop?” I said, “We are to live here.” Then she began to weep.
We did not want to take up homesteads. We did not want to become citizens as yet.
And so we sat in our poor sod houses, some two feet in the ground, the walls of sod, the roofs of long grass that reached into the prairie.
There were some twenty-five families of us living on one section, all in a row like a village.
Thus we came to America with many anxieties and crosses.Gnadenau Elder Jacob A. Wiebe
Approaching from the east you ascend a gentle raise of table land and at the summit of this gentle slope is where these peculiar people have built their strange village.
At a distance it has the appearance of a group of hay-ricks, but on drawing nearer you will perceive human beings passing in and out.
We drove along an immensity of broken prairie before we arrived at the acres of sod corn and watermelons which mark the corporation line of Gnadenau.
The houses present every variety of architecture, but each house is determined on one thing, to keep on the north side of the one street of the town and face to the south.
The Mennonite system contemplates that the landholder shall live in the town and in the country at the same time.
The villages of Gnadenau and Hoffnungsthal are fourteen sections of land, yet all the farmers live in towns, each of a single street.
Near are gardens, and all around are the wide fields. Near each house were immense stacks of grain raised on the ground rented from men who were driven out last year by the grasshoppers.
We pulled up at what we would call an adobe hut, or wigwam, being constructed of prairie sod, cut in brick form and dried in the sun.
We were met at the door and invited in, and following, what was our astonishment to find ourselves plank upon the heels of a horse, but we were soon relieved by our hostess throwing open another door revealing a small passage, between a horse and a cow, leading to the presence of the family.
Each one came forward and said “welcome,” at the same time giving us a hearty shake of the hand.
We were not a little surprised at the neat appearance of the interior.
Instead of a stove, they have a large brick furnace, which will, they assured us, keep the room comfortable for a whole day with one heating.
When I asked “What will you use for fuel?” Their answer was: “Look around. We see it ready for our hands in every straw stack and on every prairie. Grass and straw are what our fathers before us have always used.”
The furniture consists principally of bedding, of which they seem to have an abundant supply.
Clothing could be and usually was of the finest material, but no lace or other ornamentation was allowed. Blue was a favorite color.
Nearly every family had an old fashioned German timepiece, reaching from the ceiling to the floor. Their yards are immense bouquets.
The grist mill at Gnadenau is running day and night.
At the top of the ridge we looked back into the wide, sunlit valley, and thought of the coming day when solid farm houses and great barns and waving orchards would line the long village street.
We slashed open a watermelon, and drank to the health of Gnadenau.Local newspaper reports about Gnadenau