Kansas Collection Books:  Sod Jerusalems, by Lloyd David HarrisGo to Contents



CHAPTER V
BEERSHEBA: "GOD'S PURE AIR ON GOVERNMENT LAND"

But the great question in which we all take such a lively interest -- "Can Jews become successful farmers?" -- is virtually solved by the Beersheba colony. Jews can become succesful tillers of the soil, and the Jewish race can become again that which, according to tradition, they have been before, an agricultural people.
-- M. H. Marks, American Israelite, July 20, 1883 [1]
The arrangement called for 15 houses, one for each family, a storehouse and a school house. "These structures are what are known as sod houses," Leo Wise reported back to the Cincinnati committee two weeks after Beersheba's settlement. "They are comfortable in both summer and winter." [2]

In fact, they were not that comfortable, particularly at first. They leaked when it rained, they were dark, they had no glass in their windows, they were difÞcult to keep clean, and they were usually one-room structures, 12 x 24 feet, that often had to accommodate families with two, three, and four or more children. A few were dugouts that were not much more than excavations into hillsides with sod roofs on them. Within a few months, however, they would be presentable, clean, and most of them whitewashed with bric-a-brac decorations on their walls. [3]

Leo Wise reported the good news: The neighbors were helpful and friendly, the ground was suitable for farming, it did rain in Western Kansas (although it had not rained since the group arrived), and the Pawnee Creek and several springs provided good drinking water. The colony had elected its ofÞcers, Julius Cohn, president, Israel Wiessman and Lipman Goldman, trustees, and Moses Edelhertz, secretary. They had some basic farm implements, tools, food provisions and several cows. [4]

Before they arrived at Beersheba, on July 28, the American Israelite reported that the Cincinnati committee had provided the colony with "wagons, horses, steers, harnesses, cows, sheep, poultry, agricultural and mechanical implements, dairy vessels, provisions, tents, cots, lanterns, lamps, about everything necessary to go to work at once and put in a good patch of wheat this fall." [5]

Yet that was not the case. When Davis and Leo Wise arrived in Larned they were short on money due to the extra week the group had spent in Kansas City. There is some question as to how much money they actually spent at Larned for supplies. The Larned Optic, August 11, 1882, reported the colonists bought $500 worth of agricultural implements at one particular store. [6] The Larned Chronoscope, December 25, 1882, reported the colonists spent a total of $15,500 in several stores buying groceries, lumber, implements and clothing. The newspaper thanked land surveyor, W. P. Peter, "for having brought them to this place." [7]

However, the Cincinnati committee in its yearly financial report listed its Beersheba expenditures at $4,222.46. Davis' and Leo Wise's reports also conÞrm that they had not purchased as much as they had originally intended at Larned. Leo Wise, reporting to Cincinnati in August, 1882, told the committee that Beersheba would fail unless each family had at least "two fresh cows with calves, 12 chickens, 12 ducks and a few geese." Further, he noted the colonists needed seeds for wheat and rye before they could plant theirfirst crops. [8]

Cincinnati, not about to let Beersheba die, hurried to help. "What the colony needs now is a good supply of cows and sheep," the American Israelite reported October 20, 1882. "It is absolutely necessary to buy for the colony at least 50 cows, two steers and 500 sheep. Such a supply would virtually assure the success of the colony, and (we) hope that such a purchase will be speedily made." [9]

The call went out. It was noted that at least $20,000 had been spent on Russia refugee work, including help for those in Cincinnati, and $4,222.26 had gone for Beersheba, of which $2,458.57 had come from contributions personally solicited by Rabbi Wise. Still, they needed another $5,000 for Beersheba. [10]

It was important to keep Beersheba going; indeed, they were continuing to send families there. While at least three or four single men, and perhaps one or two families, had left Beersheba in itsfirst months, the colony's Cincinnati sponsors had sent at least four new families to homestead in the community during that time. One family, a husband, wife and six children had lived in Cincinnati for a year "with a good record" and their son was skilled in Hebrew, English and German. A second family, Joseph Baum, his wife and four children, were from Hungary where he had been superintendent of a large estate. The committee appointed Baum to be the colony's superintendent and its on-the-spot representative. "All the provisions, tools, farming implements and cattle are to be under his direction," the committee said. If any colonist deÞed the committee or caused trouble in Beersheba, Baum had the power to strip him of his possessions and equipment. [11]

That was a mistake. Joseph Baum was a mistake.

Some said he ruled by terror. He was a man of energy, yet illiterate, stubborn and authoritarian. "He was a very tall man and walked very straight and proud and they all seemed afraid of him," A. J. Myers, a neighbor, said. In Kansas City, the Jews that Baum chased out of Beersheba spoke of him as partial to his favorites and dishonest not only to the colonists but to Cincinnati as well. [12]

Baum, in turn, said his only critics were the lazy ones who would not work. The American Israelite backed him to the hilt. "He is an intelligent, handy person, well adapted to the position he holds," the newspaper said. Better yet, it added, "He has the people completely under control, and they obey his word of command like soldiers. They were atfirst unruly and self-willed, but by a systematic course they now are tractable and docile." [13]

It has been suggested that they were "tractable and docile" enough to sign anything. [14]

The American Israelite, December 25, 1882, carried a letter bearing the signatures of the men of the Beersheba colony. It was embarrassingly obsequious and made clear that the colonists thought their provisions and stock were gifts from their sponsors and not loans to be repaid.

The letter effusively praised Joseph Baum. "He busies himself for us in every way and we obey him," it continued. "He treats us all alike. To him we owe that each one lives in his own house. Oh, gracious sirs! You have provided us with much more than our ancestor Jacob prayed to God for in that he asked for bread and clothing alone. You provide us with all necessities in a still higher degree.... May you thrive in might and beauty as your grateful servants of the Beersheba colony will it." [15]

It was a dubious letter. The colonists' language skills were Russian, Yiddish and Hebrew. It was doubtful that any had mastered the English language to the extent of its fawning, poetic phrases. But regardless of its authorship, the Cincinnati committee believed every word of it. "This letter is a complete refutation of the attacks of the croakers and calumniators," Rabbi Wise declared. "Now as we say to all persons once and for all, 'by your works you shall be known." [16]

Under Baum's iron rule Beersheba seemed to do as well as could be expected during its first several months. If nothing else, Baum had them working to their limits. Neighbors "stared with wonder" at the colonists' progress and said they worked "like old veterans" of the frontier. "They work unceasingly, laboriously and willingly six days a week," the American Israelite reported. "On the seventh day, they meet together, observe faithfully the day and perform their religious duties. After which they consult together for the common good, the Superintendent (Baum) reading them the directions he receives, and instructing them in all things. They work with each other and for each other...." [17]

During the first several months, the colonists built their homes, dug at least two wells, broke ground for planting and cut about 500 tons of hay. [18] They built a school house that also served as a meeting hall and synagogue. Children attended school in the daytime, adults attended in the evenings, and religious services were held there on the Sabbath. Moses Edelhertz served as Beersheba's rabbi and schochet. "He did the killing of the beef," their neighbor, Myers, recalled, "and he made just one stroke -- he would first say a prayer and then kill the beef. His disciples would do the rest of the butchering. They never used the front quarter." [19] 

There is no real agreement on the size or the exact location of the synagogue. The American Israelite reported it was a stone building, although other sources -- early newspapers and the memories of settlers -- describe it as a sod building that sat on the banks of the Pawnee Creek. [20] 

Beersheba colonists had excellent relations with their Gentile neighbors and invited them to attend their weddings, dances and other meetings. John Bull, a businessman with a store in nearby Cowland, supplied them with beef, [21] and Semer Mason, one of the area's first settlers, was a particularly strong supporter of the colony. He helped the colonists build their homes and wrote of their progress in letters to the American Israelite. [22] Gerson Krouch, a Jewish businessman in Larned, granted $1,000 credit to one of the colonists to set up a store in Beersheba. Myers, who did not remember the storekeeper's name, did recall that the store carried groceries, supplies and clothing. He bought a suit there. [23] 

By mid-winter 1883, Rabbi Wise, in Cincinnati, was again drumminq for support and money. There still was $5,000 to be raised to purchase stock, supplies, seeds and more implements for spring planting. Cattle would be necessary, too. The crops were not all they had hoped they would be, and cattle seemed to be the true hope for the future. "This country is a grazing one," the American Israelite reported January 19, 1883. "If cattle can be supplied the question of success is no longer doubtful. [24] 

Three weeks later, Rabbi Wise resumed his case for the needed $5,000. He suggested he could raise the sum through 50 "life memberships" in the Hebrew Union Agricultural Society at $100 each. The donors' names would be entered in a "Book of Memorial" which would be preserved in the Hebrew Union College's archives. He made a world-wide appeal via the American Israelite, and it was eloquent and well nigh irresistible. 

"Reader," he implored, "if you can spare the hundred dollars, enroll your name as a life member -- do it in honor of your mother and for the good of the cause. Please comply favorably and promptly to this appeal, and remember that 18 families -- nearly one hundred souls -- will be beneÞted by such philanthropic acts. Do it! Do, it now!" [25] 

The response was less than overwhelming. The Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society of Leadville, Colorado sent $112.50, and "L. Leser, Esq." of Owensboro, Kentucky sent $25. [26] 

But enough new supplies got to Beersheba that work and planting progressed. "We are now employed in plowing," Baum wrote to Rabbi Wise in mid-April. "Yesterday we began with ten yoke of oxen and broke the first day 20 acres of new ground. The people worked as if they had been at it for many years.... The colony will prosper. Those now there are all workers and well satisÞed. The lazy ones are gone." [27] 

Rabbi Wise was not sure. He had been disappointed with responses to his financial pleas, and for the first time he hedged a little. "The Beersheba Colony is as yet in a purely experimental state," he wrote in May, 1883. "It will be impossible to speak deÞnitely of failure or success before next fall." [28] 

The Hebrew Union Agricultural Society decided it was time for a visit. M. H. Marks, the HUAS secretary, accompanied by Max Isaacs, a Cincinnati businessman, visited the colony in July, 1883. They were hard-nosed businessmen. "I started on this trip firmly convinced that all the money expended for these people had been thrown away," Marks said, "and that all the labor performed in their behalf was 'love's labor lost.'" [29] 

The two arrived at Kansas City late on a Friday night in early July and were met at the train station by a local man who told them that Beersheba was a failure and that too many of its colonists were leaving and "becoming a burden on Kansas City." [30] The next day they met with members of the Kansas City congregation who told them similar stories and opinions. But they also were contacted by three families who had lived at Beersheba and wanted to return. The families had heard that Marks and Isaacs were in Kansas City and had hurried to meet them. Marks reported: 

There were Messrs. Zuckerwasser, Liebersohn and Mr. and Mrs. Gidanzki, all of them anxious to return to the colony. Mrs. Gidanzki begged us, with tears streaming down her cheeks to take them along, all claiming that they left through a misunderstanding. Our Board, having previously taken action on these deserters, we, of course, left them as we found them, but it is my opinion they will eventually all return and reclaim their land, and become farmers without our assistance.
The Kansas City Jews had conÞrmed their worst fears about Beersheba. Mrs. Gidanzki's tears aside, they were not about to show charity to the repentant colonists. It was strictly business to them. They headed on to Beersheba.

But something happened. Marks was enchanted with the colony. "For thefirst time," he said, "I lodged in a Western settler's mansion -- a dugout."

Marks reported the colony consisted of 11 families, 59 in all, with 36 children and one single man. Each family was farming 160 acres, each had a sod dugout. But the dugouts were clean, whitened or whitewashed, additions were being built, and each family had a well with good water. The settlement covered six miles. During its first year, there had been a wedding, a baby had been born, and a "Mrs. Weiser" had died. She had been sick when she left Cincinnati, Marks remembered, but she had been determined to go to Kansas. "She now sleeps on a gentle slope of the prairie set apart by these people for a cemetery," he reported. 

The colonists had plowed 350 acres of land, 200 of which were planted with sorghum, along with several acres of vegetables. The men, when not working on their farms, did additional work on the railroad at least 20 to 25 miles to the south. The colony had five yoke of oxen, a team of mules, a team of horses, six plows and five wagons. Domestic stock included 22 cows, 22 calves "and no end of chickens, all of which are the finest stock to be had in the state of Kansas." 

The neighbors were exceptionally friendly, everyone was in good health and the climate was excellent. "They have but little snow," Marks reported, "enabling the stock to subsist on the rich prairie grass the year around without one cent of expense." And, although popular opinion held that it seldom rained in Western Kansas, "they had all the rain they needed this season." 

There were no problems that had not been solved. 

True, there was a lack of timber, and the crops had been somewhat disappointing, but it would be just a matter of time. It also appeared the colony might have a future in cattle and stock raising. 

But most important, the great question had been "virtually solved," according to Marks. Can Jews become successful farmers? "Yes!" Marks said. "Jews, as well as our Gentile friends, can become successful tillers of the soil. The Jewish race can become again that which, according to tradition, they have been before, an agricultural people -- (that) has been established beyond any reasonable doubt. 

"Eleven happier and more independent families would be hard to find," he continued. "I doubt if any reasonable sum of money could induce any of them to leave their land and return to this city (Cincinnati). I trust you will be enabled to transfer any number of families from the misery of tenement houses to God's pure air on Government land, that Jews can become successful farmers."

It could not have been better. Marks had gone to Beersheba ready to close the colony, but had come back a firm supporter. Rabbi Wise was beside himself with exuberance. He had told them so. He editorialized, addressing himself to "all croakers, faultfinders and birds of ill-omen," who had been disparaging Beersheba. 

"At Beersheba, we are done with all questions, experiments and theories," he said. "We have proved the possibility of successfully forming agricultural colonies of Jews, by putting one on a safe basis inside of one year, and in such a location that a thousand families settling around them would still leave room for thousands more." [30]

But by the following spring he was thinking differently. The colonists had not been as "tractable and docile" as he had been led to believe.

They may have originally obeyed Baum's "word of command" like soldiers. The colonists may have hung on his every word. Then, too, they may have been "tractable and docile" for awhile. They were in unfamiliar territory doing work they had never done before and trying to learn a new language. But regardless of the work, language or territory, they knew a good business deal when it presented itself. In the spring of 1884, eight of the colonists leased parts of their properties to a syndicate that wanted to broaden cattle trails.

The HUAS leaders in Cincinnati were outraged. They had sent the refugees to Kansas to be farmers, not stockmen or land leasors. They fumed that the colonists' farm equipment, their household utensils, the very clothes on their backs were loans -- they could be taken back. Retribution was swift and terrible, and it started at the home of Moses Edelhertz, the Beersheba rabbi. The sheriff, accompanied by Joseph Baum, arrived at Edelhertz' dugout. They had a warrant. They took Edelhertz' straw hat, his boots, the bucket for his well. They took everything. The receipt read: 

Received of Moses Edelhertz, property belonging to the Hebrew Union Agricultural Society, J. Baum, Agent.... one pair oxen, two cows, one calf, one wagon, one yoke, one chain, one well bucket and rope, axe, shovel, churn, twelve milk pails, two milk buckets, hatchet, wheel barrow, one pair boots, one straw hat, one bale of wire.... [31] 
After Edelhertz, they visited the seven other colonists who had leased to the cattle syndicate. The HUAS reclaimed virtually everything, and eventually all of the possessions and equipment were sold at a sheriff's sale in another community. Although the HUAS had placed the refugees at Beersheba to be farmers, by its act of punishment the HUAS had deprived them of the equipment they needed to succeed at farming. Beersheba had been decimated -- by its own sponsors. [32]

Charles Davis, back in Cincinnati, took the side of the colonists. He remembered leading them to Beersheba. He was convinced they were honorable people. He had to see for himself, and he hurried back to Kansas. 

Arriving at Cimarron, Davis headed towards Beersheba, but stopped near the colony to get the insights and opinions of their neighbors, taking care to talk to both farmers and cattlemen. Their neighbors spoke highly of the Russians, describing them as frugal and temperate. They gave them credit for hard work and success despite their inexperience as farmers and their lack of English language skills. Further, they said that Joseph Baum, the colony's superintendent, had been the villain. From their observations, they said that Baum was dishonest, that he had been the wrong man for the job. Davis added that they had made other charges against Baum that were grim enough he was uncomfortable putting them in writing. [33]

Davis journeyed on to Beersheba. After visiting the colony, he was more convinced than ever that the colonists had done nothing wrong in leasing land to the cattle syndicate. They still had plenty of land to farm. 

He noted that the colonists who had leased land had done so only after a meeting with their neighbors and a resolution had been passed consenting to the leases. More important, they still had enough land to farm, to fence, to plant in crops, which would have eventually given them enough income that they could have repaid Cincinnati for their provisions and equipment.

"Under this contract," Davis related, "made for one year with the privilege for five, eight families received $200 a year, a living in itself. There was no feeling against the Beersheba colony, nor is there now." He added that if there were any hostile feelings in the colony they were against Baum who they felt had pushed the committee to take back the provisions, implements and equipment. [34] 

Davis charged that Baum had been overzealous. Bitter and angry, Davis concluded the report of his visit to Beersheba in the form of a dialogue. 

"What do you mean by over-zealousness?" 

"I do not suppose that the committee intended him to take away the rope and bucket from a man's well, his old hat and shoes...." 

"Did he do this?" 

"Yes, and more. Read the receipt given by the constable who made the seizure.... [35] 
Davis' defense of the colonists did not change any minds in Cincinnati. The HUAS and its Cincinnati committee abandoned Beersheba as if it were an embarrassment. The American Israelite no longer heralded fund drives for the colony, nor did its editor, Rabbi Wise, refer to it in the same glowing terms he had used in the past. For that matter, he did not refer to it at all. With a few exceptions, it was as if Beersheba had ceased to exist. 

Eventually the story of the colony reached Russia in an article that accused Baum, the superintendent, of cruelty to the colonists, particularly to Edelhertz, and that his cruelty had caused quarrels and disputes. [36] In July, 1884, after their Cincinnati sponsors had not changed their minds, the colonists appealed for help through the newspaper, the Jewish Gazette. The Hebrew Agricultural Aid Society of New York, which had sponsored other colonies in Louisiana, New Jersey and other states, responded, and at a meeting of the Hebrew Colonization Society, January 7, 1885, it was decided that more colonists would be sent to Beersheba. The decision was questioned, but upheld at a later meeting February 24. [37]

Still, the leasing of land in the spring of 1884 was the beginning of the end for Beersheba. Cincinnati and its Hebrew Union Agricultural Society dropped from the picture. The Hebrew Agricultural Aid Society of New York helped for a short time, but by late 1884 and early 1885, many of Beersheba's colonists had drifted away, moving to Colorado, back to Kansas City or to other closer, smaller communities.

Several new families moved in and a remnant of the original remained. Some Jews went to other Kansas Jewish agricultural communities -- to Hebron in Barber County, Lasker in Ford County, Touro in Kearny County, and to Leeser in Finney County closer to Garden City. 

But a strong corps were determined to stay and make Beersheba work and to remain there long enough that the land would be truly theirs under the terms of the Homestead Act. 

On August 14, 1885, the, Cowland Chieftain, the local newspaper, reported that the community was thriving and that its industry was bringing prosperity, that everyone was "busy and happy." The newspaper added that a substantial sod school house had been constructed. [38] 

Four days later, the New West, the Cimarron newspaper, reported that despite Beersheba's abandonment by its Cincinnati backers, the colony was doing very well. Each colonist was contributing 25 cents monthly to the Sons of God's Help, a society they had formed to help individual colonists in cases of emergency and to make general improvements in the community. Two new buildings were on its agenda. [39] 

Nevertheless, Beersheba lacked the stability it had enjoyed while sponsored by Cincinnati. The St. Louis Jewish Free Press reported in January, 1886 what A. James Rudin has called Beersheba's obituary:  

They organized a district school and engaged a competent teacher with the aid of the Cincinnati Society. Nevertheless, the colony was reduced to deplorable conditions by its first manager, an energetic but illiterate Hungarian. He governed the colony with terror causing an obstinate attitude to develop which resulted in the requisition and sale of the chattels by the Cincinnati Committee. The colonists, reduced thereby to abject poverty, scattered to surrounding towns and engaged in odd jobs to eke out a living. When they saved up enough to buy a couple of cows and horses, a few returned to their claims. [40]
But the future still held excitement and controversy. Two little towns, Ravanna and Eminence, had sprung up within a few miles of Beersheba. Both towns were thriving and growing, they needed new businesses and several Beersheba colonists seemed eager to get off the farms and have their own shops and stores. [41] The fact that Ravanna and Eminence were rivals for the position of county seat, that the people in the towns mistrusted each other, did not matter to the enterprising entrepreneurs from Beersheba. They would try to do business in both towns. After all, they were likeable, pleasant little places; that is, when their citizens were not shooting each other, throwing rocks at each other, robbing each other or turning the air blue swearing at each other. History was being made. Some of the Beersheba colonists would be a part of that singular Kansas, western phenomenon -- a genuine county seat war.

Digitized and composed in HTML for the Kansas Collection by Tod Roberts,
with permission of Gertrude Harris, widow of the author, December 2001.
NOTE: Numbers in brackets refer to footnotes for this text; footnotes
are numbered separately by chapter and published at the end of the work.

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