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CHAPTER VIII
LASKER: "THE JEWISH COVERED WAGON"

For weeks they traveled over trackless prairies at the mercy of marauding Indian bands until worn out by fatigue, suffering from thirst, and reduced to starvation, they finally located a stretch of country.... Here they staked their claim.

-- Gabriel Davidson and Edward A. Goodwin,"The Jewish Covered Wagon," 1932 [1]
"Edward Lasker has not been forgotten," the American Hebrew editorialized in April, 1887. "One month after the death of the noble German statesman two years ago the colony of Lasker was founded." The colony was named Lasker at the suggestion of Heilprin, who often referred to him as "the German Gladstone." [2]

There is some disagreement as to the beginnings of the Lasker colony. Some sources claim it was begun in April, 1884, by a group of 30 refugees who set out from New York, and once in Kansas, traveled by covered wagons over miles of prairie until they agreed upon a suitable location for their settlement. Other sources argue it was begun in April, 1885, by a group of 17 people who traveled from New York, primarily by railroad, and had a firm idea as to their destination.

Most sources agree, however, that the Lasker colonists were better financed and organized than other Kansas Jewish colonies. Lasker was known as the "best and ripest fruit" of the several colonies of its sponsoring Montefiore Agricultural Aid Society. [3]

Lasker was located in Ford County, occupying a stretch of land that ran from about six miles south of Ford City for another 10 to 12 miles south, even several miles beyond Ford County into Clark County. The closest community of any size was Dodge City, about 30 miles to the northwest, although Ford City underwent a boom period not long after Lasker was settled.

Like other Jewish colonies in Western Kansas, Lasker had serious problems with water, timber supplies and poor crops, yet it survived and modestly prospered. Its colonists were particularly determined for it to succeed, and several were members of the Russian Jewish Am Olam (Eternal People) utopian farming movement which advocated a "back to the land" philosophy. [4] "Our motto is labor in the fields," an Am Olam member explained, "and our goal is the physical and spiritual rejuvenation of our people. In free America, we Jews shall find a corner in which to rest our heads. We shall prove to the world that we are qualified for physical labor." [5]

Prior to Lasker, the Montefiore Agricultural Aid Society had sponsored 30 Am Olamites in a farming community in Arkansas. Unfortunately, the Arkansas community fell victim to malaria and yellow fever and at least two-thirds of its members died there. [6] The survivors returned to New York undaunted, determined to try again. The second time they came to Kansas. Several were also a part of the Hebron colony in Barber County, 60 miles southeast of Lasker.

The Arkansas colony had also fallen victim to a lack of funds, and those who were committed to the Lasker venture were determined that inadequate capital would not be one of their problems. Most worked in or near New York City or Philadelphia, saved their earnings, and spent only for bare necessities. They divided their membership into groups of six, "four of each group to settle in the (Lasker) colony, two to remain in New York and (regularly) contribute to the group's holdings." They bought most of their farming implements and supplies in New York, then had them sent by rail to Dodge City where they planned to pick them up once they arrived. [7]

Perhaps the most reliable facts about Lasker can be found in the writings of Michael Heilprin. Heilprin, in addition to being head of the colony's sponsoring society, was also a staunch supporter of the Am Olam movement.

Heilprin wrote that the Lasker colony was begun in April, 1885, financed through the colonists' funds along with help from the Montefiore Agricultural Aid Society.

It was started by 17 emigrants, "composing several family groups," and within two years it had increased to 40 families and covered at least nine square miles. "Nearly all the emigrants possessed some means from the start," Heilprin added, "and as prosperity favored them they were able to send word to those who remained behind to come and join them." [18]

By the spring of 1887, Lasker had increased to 40 families [9] and had a population of at least 200. Another version of Lasker's beginnings was written by Gabriel Davidson and Edward A. Goodwin and published as "The Jewish Covered Wagon" in a 1932 edition of the Jewish Criterion magazine and reprinted in a later book, Our Jewish Farmers. [10] Davidson and Goodwin were executives of the Jewish Agricultural Aid Society, and in observance of its 50th anniversary they had made a study of the Jewish "back to the land" movement. Their article contended that the Lasker colony was started in 1884 instead of 1885 and that the colonists had originally come to Kansas and headed for the Montefiore colony in Pratt County, only to find all the lands taken. They were truly strangers in a strange land:

Bundling themselves into covered wagons, they hired a scout and set out on their wanderings over western plains in search of a (new) suitable spot. For weeks they traveled over trackless prairies at the mercy of marauding Indian bands until worn out by fatigue, suffering from thirst, and reduced to starvation, they finally located a stretch of country in the extreme corner of Kansas about 40 miles from what is now Ford City.... Here they staked out and filed their claims. [11]

While their covered wagon version is more dramatic, it is difficult to substantiate. Land and post office records show exactly where Lasker was located. It was not "in the extreme southwestern corner of Kansas," and it was six to 10 miles south of Ford City, not 40. Likewise, the land records show Lasker homestead claims made in 1885 and 1886, not 1884.

Davidson and Goodwin's account also says that Lasker died in 1886 when a land company began buying up large stretches of land for an irrigation project and colonists sold out or mortgaged their claims. Instead, the Ford City newspaper and Heilprin's records show Lasker at its boom period in 1886-87. Lasker also grew in the former year when several colonists from the ill-fated Montefiore settlement joined them from Pratt County.

But the sources agree that life at Lasker was difficult and demanding. Timber was at a premium. According to Davidson and Goodwin, lumber for the colony's first house, which was designed to hold everyone until separate dwellings could be built, had to be transported 40 miles. When separate family dwellings were eventually built, timber was out of the question. Instead, the little homes were tough one-room sod affairs with their mud-caked walls so brittle, so hard, they could be whitewashed as if they were plaster. [12]

David Robinson, the son of a Kansas Jewish settler, wrote of his father's experiences in a letter to the American Jewish Archives in 1958. The letter notes the colony was on the Santa Fe Trail and the trail was not far from Lasker. However, it also notes that Robinson's father worked on the railroad, and many of the Beersheba colonists worked on the Santa Fe to supplement their farming incomes. The Beersheba and Lasker colonies were both about 35 miles from Dodge City. The letter could easily apply to either colony.

The colonists lived in sod houses on the treeless prairie. The fuel was buffalo chips. In order to provide for his family, my father worked on the Santa Fe Railroad as a section hand at Dodge City, Kansas, 35 miles from his homestead. Once a month he walked the 35 miles carrying food and supplies to his family. The colony was on the Santa Fe trail which was the path for driving cattle from Texas to the markets, and I recall vivid stories from my mother of cattle stampedes, fleeing from the prairie fires. Two of my sisters were born in the dugout. One with the aid of a neighbor and the other my mother delivered by herself. It was in December and no neighbors available. For years one of the family possessions was a gallon jar filled with rattles of snakes killed by my mother with a hoe in the garden. [13]

Mrs. Fannie Brownstein, who with her husband, Elias, and their nine children, lived at Lasker, later told about the births of their sons, Samuel and Arthur, both of whom were born in a one-room sod house there. She arranged for either Maurice or Harry, two of their older sons, to drive with a pair of mules to Dodge City and bring back a midwife and a mohel, a circumcisor, to help her with the births. The drive to and from Lasker to Dodge City took as long as two weeks, she recalled. [14]

Water was almost non-existent. At first, it was carried from the Arkansas River, a good 15 miles away, or from a polluted surface pond about four miles distant. [15] Neither was satisfactory, but water wells defied them.

It cost at least $100 to drill a water well, and in that area a well usually had to be at least 60 feet deep. However, the Lasker colonists had an even tougher time. Their first well took them two weeks to drill, cost $500, and according to Davidson and Goodwin, they had to sink the drill shaft at least 200 feet before they hit water. For weeks, a team of horses made the rounds, supplying water for the colony. Eventually more wells were drilled. [16]

But the community prospered. A sorghum crop came in successfully, but could not be sold because of the distance from markets. It was used as fuel and fodder. The first wheat crop was poor, too. But their eggs, vegetables, and occasionally beef, could be sold. [17] Elias Brownstein later recalled that when he lived at Lasker the farmers would gather up whatever they had and form a caravan, hauling their products to a nearby trading post to barter for groceries and other supplies. [18] He remembered he was able to acquire a few cows, a bull, and "naturally, a flock of chickens." Since the Brownsteins, like most colonists, tried to observe kosher dietary laws, most of the family's diet consisted of dairy foods made from the milk and cream they obtained from the cows. [19]

The community had a sod synagogue and schoolhouse, post office and mutual aid society. There were socials, weddings, book discussions and occasional visits from friends from other Kansas Jewish colonies.

Weddings were particularly important and joyful occasions. Most colonies had a shortage of women. "What the colonists lack is the opportunity of securing wives, for which they generally come to the New York market," observed the American Hebrew in its July 31, 1885 issue. "One thoughtful mother who is going to leave here Saturday to join her family in the Lasker colony will take with her two young ladies, friends from Russia, whom her sons in Ford County will wed upon their arrival." [20]

In May, 1886, more colonists arrived at Lasker from the ill-fated Montefiore colony in Pratt County. Two of the most prominent were Jacob Borovik and Moses Wishonievsky. They homesteaded lands and farmed in the community, but also had homes in Ford City where they opened a business, their "One-Price Store." [21]

Ford City also boomed. A year before there had been two rival communities -- Ford City and a mile to the north, Ryansville. The two had joined forces and business leaders were certain of a great future. Some of the Lasker Jews shared the enthusiasm of the townspeople. "Will Palmer, the long lost kid from the Jew settlement, was in the city last Wednesday," the local newspaper, the Boomer, observed July 2, 1886. [22] In October, the Boomer announced, "Will Palmer will walk a wire rope at the opera house next Saturday evening. Admission 10 cents, two for 15. The proceeds will be donated to the town company to help boom the city." [23]

Meanwhile, Borovik and Wischnievsky were using their One-Price Store as an outlet to sell their Lasker farm products.

Messrs. Borovik and Wishnievsky who have a farm in the Lasker Colony are now harvesting their potato crop. About the first of May last, they planted eight bushels of potatoes and the crop will yield nearly one hundred bushels. They are disposing them at the One Price Store. How is this for Ford County? [24]

And while Borovik and Wischnievsky had a banner year for potatoes, other Lasker farmers did well with broom corn. The Dodge City Globe reported:

Geo. Inman, postmaster of Lasker post office in southeast Ford, was in the city Saturday. Mr. Inman is one of our enterprising farmers of that section who has raised about six tons of broom corn this year, a sample of which he had at our fair, and which is very fine. He will engage in the raising of broom corn quite extensively another year, which crop, he says, will be one of the most profitable that can be raised in this country. [25]

Although Lasker was a larger colony than Beersheba, much less is known about it and the reasons for its demise. Land records show, however, that patents were given to David, Annie, Abram and Hyman Mindlin, Elias Brownstein, Raffle Billick, John Mayn, Rudolph Sochtleber, Christian G. W. Shurteleff, Lot and Jasper Ravenscroft, Albert and Leeman Herendeen, E. Heliker, Louis Sabilman, J. S. Stachowick, Jacob Gentzler, Borovik and Wischnievsky. [26]

Some of the names show up in connection with other Jewish colonies. The Mendlins also held land at the Hebron colony in Barber County. The Boroviks, Wischnievsky and Gentzler names were also connected to the Montefiore colony. Elias Brownstein, before he took his family to Kansas City, also had land at Beersheba. Max Lawrence, the Jewish businessman at Cimarron who had financial interests at Beersheba, also had land interests at Lasker.

Land records show that in 1888-91 many of the Lasker claims were sold at sheriff's sales for back taxes. However, this was also true of their Gentile neighbors.

Davidson and Goodwin's contention that many Lasker colonists sold their claims in 1886 to a company that was buying up land for an irrigation project seems unlikely and cannot be substantiated by land records. Regardless, according to county records, by 1891 there were no Jewish landowners in the Lasker area.


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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