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The Warkentin Home

August 23rd, 2011 at 10:51 am

Today’s Flyover People column as seen in The Emporia Gazette:


When Bernhard Warkentin moved to America in the 1870s, he came not as a shy immigrant, but a man who would make a difference.

The 1918 “A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans” described him in this way: “Mr. Warkentin’s business life may be characterized as consisting of hard untiring work, integrity and honesty that was never questioned.”… “Being of a very unassuming disposition and very much adverse to publicity, the full extent of his helpfulness and his benefactions were never fully known.”

It’s hard to beat a combination of characteristics like that. After learning a bit about Warkentin, I wished that I could step back into the 19th century to interview him.

Warkentin’s story began on June 18, 1847. He grew up in a Mennonite community in Southern Russia and then attended a business college.

Many Mennonites had emigrated from West Prussia to Russia in the late 1700s. But in the early 1870s, changes in the political environment in Russia caused the Mennonites to once again look for a new home. At 23, Warkentin came to America with a few friends to check it out.

The Santa Fe Railroad encouraged Mennonite immigration and Warkentin helped bring as many as 10,000 Mennonites to Kansas between 1874 and 1884. In addition to people, he brought some Turkey Red wheat, and had much more of it shipped later.

He met American-born Wilhelmina Eisenmayer on an agricultural trip to Illinois and they married in 1875. The Warkentins had two children, Edna and Carl. They made their home in Halstead where Bernhard had built his first grist mill on the banks of the Little Arkansas River.

Warkentin started milling and elevator companies in Halstead, Newton and Blackwell, Okla. The “Standard History of Kansas and Kansans” gave him credit for that and also said, “But it was by the introduction of hard Turkey wheat into Kansas that Mr. Warkentin performed his greatest service to the state.”

Kansas farmers in 1870 were planting only soft spring wheat. The introduction of Turkey Red, a hard winter wheat, turned Kansas into the wheat state, the breadbasket of the world.

When I was in Newton recently for a book event, I had lunch with fellow author Beverley Buller. After our meal, Beverley asked if there was anything I wanted to see in Newton – and I told her yes, the Warkentin House. So we went.

Warkentin had started out in Halstead but moved his family to Newton in 1887, to a gorgeous Victorian home he had built on First Street.

He hired three carpenters from England to build his house along with 19 other workmen. Warkentin was well-traveled and incorporated many international pieces into the home: Italian tiles around fireplaces, stained-glass windows from Russia, etched glass from France. Twin crystal chandeliers from Czechoslovakia hang in the parlor and the music room. The leatherette wainscoting in the entry way, washroom and staircase came from England.

The music room, had at one time, contained both an upright and a grand piano. Four fireplaces warmed the house in the winter. Ceres, the goddess of agriculture is featured on the fireplace tiles in the dining room.

Mrs. Warkentin loved driving her electric car, but apparently was not fond of the backing-up part. Installed in their carriage house/garage was a turntable which would turn the vehicle around and point her car toward the street.

Meanwhile, Mr. Warkentin continued with his businesses and new ventures. He helped found Halstead State Bank, Kansas State Bank, Bethel Deaconess Hospital and Bethel College.

On April 1, 1908, as the Warkentins rode a train between Damascus and Beirut, a gun accidentally went off in the next compartment and a bullet struck Mr. Warkentin. He died in a Beirut hospital. There ended the life of a man who had dramatically altered Kansas history.

When Mina Warkentin died in 1932, the house was given to the Bethel Deaconess Sisters. The house was purchased in 1970 by the City of Newton. The residence is available for tours, but phone ahead for hours as the schedule changes according to season. For more information, call 316-283-7555.

Copyright 2011 ~ Cheryl Unruh

Bernhard Warkentin was one of 24 finalists in the People division of the 8 Wonders of Kansas contests.

history, Kansans

  1. Karen Penner
    September 26th, 2011 at 21:42 | #1

    A well-written story! I agree with you in that I wish I could interview Mr. Warkentin. I have researched his life and work extensively, and he was an unusual man. Your description of his character is right on. I learned about your writings through Bev Buller.