Kansas Collection Books:  This book was contributed by Gertrude HarrisGo to Contents



CHAPTER IX
HEBRON AND GILEAD: GYP HILLS JERUSALEMS

L. Markowitz, a Russian, is locating a colony of his people twenty miles northwest of this place. They are taking up government lands and have secured two square miles of territory. They intend to build a town on the Russian plan on the center of this land.

-- Kiowa Herald, December 10, 1885 [1]
Medicine Lodge was a sun-baked, tough little town, a place of Indian powwows, cowboys and cattle. To the south was Indian Territory, a haven for misfits and outlaws, and only a little closer was Kiowa, a spitfire of a town with rows of saloons, gambling and dance halls.

Between Medicine Lodge and Kiowa, and to the west, was Cumminsford, a trading post on the Little Mule Creek where Orange Scott Cummins, otherwise known as the "Poet Bard" operated the Last Chance Tavern and regaled travelers on their way to the Rockies with his bad poetry. Occasionally he would run for county office or start a town somewhere.

The emigrant Jews would be his neighbors. The community was located in the midst of the Gyp Hills, an area of bluffs and red mounds of gypsum deposits that towered over the plains like the colony's namesake, Hebron, overlooked the Judaean plains of the Holy Land in the Old Testament age of Abraham.

"A party of six Russian Jews came in this week and are looking over the country to see if it will suit them," the Barber County Index in Medicine Lodge reported on March 28, 1884. "If it does, they'll have a colony here in a short time." [2]

The Jews had arrived in Medicine Lodge from the town of Harper, 35 miles to the east, and immediately rented a vacant room which they made into their headquarters, doing cooking there. For several weeks they operated out of Medicine Lodge, journeying into the countryside, always on foot. "In every way they're endeavoring to save expenses," the newspaper reported. [3]

They found suitable land about 20 to 25 miles southwest of Medicine Lodge, a few miles south and east of the village of Deerhead. The town of Aetna, and the settlements of Canema (Cumminsford-Last Chance), Lodi and Sexton were also nearby. At its peak, in 1886-87, the Hebron colony was scattered throughout an area of 35 to 40 square miles with settlers on virtually every section. [4] It was known as the Hebron colony to its Eastern sponsors, the Montefiore Agricultural Aid Society, but when its Gentile Barber County neighbors saw its sod synagogue and heard the prayers of its people they dubbed it New Jerusalem. [5]

Within a year the colony had 30 resident families, about 150 people. After a year and a half, there were 50 to 60 families; at two years there were 80 families, at least 300 people. "Russians, Poles, Rumanians and Hungarians were attracted from all sides to Southern Kansas and the extensive colony of Hebron," Michael Heilprin wrote in the April 8, 1887 issue of the American Hebrew. Indeed, after a year and a half, its sponsoring Montefiore society started another colony, Gilead, about 10 miles southwest of Hebron in Comanche County for more Rumanian refugees. The colonies were close enough they were almost one.

"Dew and rain have fairly blessed the land," Heilprin continued. [6] While Jews in other Kansas colonies had dug 20, 30, or even 100 feet to hit water for their wells, Hebron colonists had struck water at five and six feet. The ground plowed easily, and there were little streams and rivulets that provided year-round irrigation. The colonists were raising two crops of potatoes a year and had their own cattle. [7] "These people are industrious, and economical and will make good citizens," the Medicine Lodge Cresset declared. [8]

Most Jews at Hebron lived in $10 sod huts and dugouts. They had barely been on their claims for a year when the area was hit by one of the worst storms ever recorded in Kansas. It rained, torrents of rain, for five hours. Rivers and creeks throughout Barber County became raging killers. Streams that were usually dry ran half a mile wide and eight to 10 feet deep. Eighteen people were drowned in Medicine Lodge and more were killed throughout the county. Homes, crops and cattle were destroyed. [9]

At Deerhead and Hebron the rain was accompanied by a small tornado. While no lives were lost, buildings were torn apart, sod houses smashed and the streams were "higher than they'd been for years." As the death toll mounted and reports came in from throughout the county, the Barber County Index editor in Medicine Lodge wrote to his readers, "Why our peaceful and God-fearing people should be subjected to tortures and even death, why family ties should be sundered is not for us to know -- but these things have happened." [10]

The Medicine Lodge Cresset had a good relationship with the Hebron community. The editor was particularly impressed with Gedaly Rachmilewitz, "a very intelligent young Russian who has only been in this county a year or two, yet talks and writes English fluently." [11] The Cresset published three of Rachmilewitz' pieces, "Why I Left Russia," "A Night in a Russian Inn" and "A False Kiss." [NOTE: These articles are reproduced in the Appendix of the present work.]

"I, myself, am a strict adherent to the theory of representative government where every citizen has the right to express his opinion," Rachmilewitz wrote in "Why I Left Russia," declaring that to live free but poor in Barber County was to be preferred to living comfortably, or even rich, in Russia. Complementing his new neighbors, he concluded, "I am now in the blessed land where men of every creed live together happily and freedom is allowed in politics as in religion, fortunately located in a nice place near Hackberry Creek in the neighborhood of Mr. Downing...." [12]

The article, "Night in a Russian Inn," related how he had been traveling in Russia and while spending the night in a Russian town he had been routed from bed by secret police, even while he was dreaming of freedom. [13] "A False Kiss" was a Russian folk tale that he had translated into English. [14]

Rachmilewitz' writings appeared consecutively in November-December, 1885 issues of the Cresset. In mid-December the Cresset noted that Rachmilewitz had left on a "business and pleasure trip" to France. [15] He may not have returned to Kansas. The Cresset did not carry any more of his writings and his name does not appear on any Barber County land records.

By late 1885, the colony was expanding east and South, more into the center of Barber County, from its original site near the village of Deerhead. There was a steady stream of newcomers, many arriving on the railroad at the town of Kiowa in Southern Barber County near the border to Oklahoma Territory.

Each week more arrived to stake claims at Hebron. There was a spirit about the colony, a cameraderie, that was evident even to outsiders. "Talk about a settlement dwelling together in brotherly love,' the Cresset editor marveled. "This one comes as near it as any we know of. They are, as a general thing, strong and healthy and are always ready to help one another about improvements." [16]

One of the newcomers was L. I. Markowitz who came to Kansas from New York in late 1885 along with his sons and brother-in-law. He had been in business in New York City for two years, but had been a farmer in Russia, and had acquired 640 acres at Hebron. "He is worth several thousand dollars," the American Hebrew, July 31, 1885, reported, and was religious as well. "He will take with him two scripts of the law, and services for the colonies will no doubt be arranged for the holydays." [17]

Within three weeks of Markowitz' arrival at Hebron a synagogue was under construction on Sand Creek near the village of Sexton. [18] In Kiowa, L. I. Markowitz was good news to the town. "They intend to build a town on the Russian plan," the Kiowa Herald, December 10, 1885, announced. "All the trades will be represented but New Kiowa will be the point at which they will get their supplies." [19]

The next several months of the Herald regularly included announcements of the arrivals of more Jews, several of them being relatives of Markowitz. The newspaper reported:

G. Markowitz, with eight persons belonging to the Russian colony came in the train last Saturday morning. They will go to the colony in a few days. [20]

L. I. Markowitz's family came in from the East last Saturday morning. [21]

Heres Platkin, of New York, came in last Monday and will locate with the Russian colony. [22]

M. A. Markowitz came in from the Russian colony, and reports the colonists in good shape. They are purchasing teams and farm implements and getting ready for farm work in the spring. [23]

A. Solomon, Charles Vetzbinsky and S. Welknowsky, of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania arrived here last Monday. They will be located in the Russian colony. [24]

People to the number of twenty for the Russian colony came in last Friday. [25]

Four German Jews were in our city last week. They were looking for a place to locate a colony from New York. [26]

Markowitz stayed in Kiowa, the only Jew connected with the Hebron colony who lived in a nearby town. He opened a jewelry store and pawn shop. "Mr. Markowitz has come to stay," the Herald announced. "If you wish to borrow a sum of money and give a property security, L. I. Markowitz & Co. is the place. If you want jewelry of any kind and at a low price, go to L. I. Markowitz." [27] Two weeks later, the Herald carried an advertisement for Markowitz' new business. [28]

Markowitz moved his wife and family into a house in Kiowa, tended his downtown business and bought two more lots of business property. "He is keeping house and will be one of our citizens," the Herald reported. [29]

There was talk in the nearby towns that some of the Jews at Hebron were wealthy. L. I. Markowitz at Kiowa was obviously successful. When the Jews built their synagogue on Sand Creek, the Cresset observed, "A number of this colony are men of large means and we have no doubt they will build a handsome and commodious house of worship." [30]

In reality, about half the colonists had come to Hebron with financial resources of their own, but most lacked great wealth. The others were helped by the Montefiore society. One emigrant who said he would not exchange his 160 acres of Barber County land "for the best position in the city," nevertheless returned to New York City whenever he ran out of money at Hebron. He would work at a trade in the city long enough to offset his farming losses, get a little ahead, and then return to Hebron to try farming again. [31]

The Cresset, July 29, 1886, reported that "Mr. Sclar, one of the wealthiest Russians in the settlement," had suffered the loss of his family's home, possessions, clothes and livestock in a fire that swept the area. [32] Robert Shklar (the spelling of the family name changed from Sclar to Shklar), a great-grandson of the original Hebron settler, still lives in Kiowa, and says that even before the fire his great-grandparents and grandparents lived in sod houses. "That's what they had," he said. "My great-grandfather was one of the leaders of the community, so was my grandfather -- and it was a little sod house. My father was born in a sod house out there on the Barber County prairie. [33]

Robert is the only descendant of the Hebron colonists still living in the area. He lives in Kiowa and still farms the land that was homesteaded by his great-grandfather.

While most of the Sclar family left Hebron in the 1890s, Robert's grandfather, Abraham, remained in the area, eventually moving to Kiowa. Abraham's children were raised in Kiowa, but sent to Kansas City to a Jewish school. A son, Karl, rebelled when he was a young teenager and refused to go to Kansas City, saying he wanted to stay at Kiowa to go to school with his friends there. Karl eventually met and married a young woman from Barber County, marrying outside the Jewish faith. "He was almost disowned," Robert says, "and I'm Karl's son. I have three sisters, and we were raised as Protestants. I remember hearing about the Jewish colony from my grandmother. My grandfather was still farming the land when I was growing up. I farm some of it now." [34]

Although a Jew risked being disinherited in the event of marriage to a Gentile, the Orthodox Jews of the Hebron colony were certainly not social isolationists. Their neighbors spoke of them with great respect, and they socialized, participating in community events.

A contingent of Jews visited the nearby village of Aetna for its Fourth of July (1886) celebration and gladly joined in the festivities. W. A. Galbraith, of Medicine Lodge, was the featured violinist, but the Jews were the main program. "The Jews sang some songs for our entertainment, which were good," the Aetna correspondent reported to the Cresset, "especially the 'Italian Girl,' sung by a Jewess." [35]

Meanwhile, Scott Cummins, the "Poet Bard" who ran his Last Chance tavern-trading post on the nearby Little Mule Creek canceled his Fourth of July celebration -- a victim of one too many sabbaths.

"Cumminsford will not celebrate the Fourth of July this year for various reasons," he declared. "One is that the 4th falls on the Christian Sabbath, and if we celebrate it on the 3rd, it's on the Ancient Jewish Sabbath, and if we celebrate it on the 5th it would be a day too late and no use to make a fuss about it. Therefore, we'll give way and let the small towns bust themselves." [36]

Not all their contacts with the outside world were friendly. Barber County was known as outlaw country, a rugged terrain of gyp hills, canyons, gulleys, all kinds of places that could provide cover and campsites for men on the run. [37] It could be dangerous, particularly for women.

Louis and Yhetta Lampl typified many of the settlers. They were Hungarian Jews. They came to the United States in 1879, then started west in 1883 with their three small sons, Fred, Henry and Ben, sometimes traveling in a covered wagon. They arrived in Medicine Lodge in the early days of the Hebron settlement, and two daughters, Ann and Mary, were born while they lived there. A fourth son died at childbirth. They left Hebron in the mid-1880s, moving to Wichita where the family began a produce business. A grandson, Dr. Marc Lampl, lives in Kansas City, Missouri. [38]

"Their son, Ben, was my father," Dr. Lampl said, "and I'll tell you a story I learned on my grandfather Louis' knee.

"They lived not too far from Medicine Lodge. They fed outlaws as well as Indians right in their front yard-many times. They lived in a dugout.

"They had a colt -- highly prized by my grandma -- and some outlaws stole it. My grandfather Louis was very angry, very upset, and he was going to go to the outlaws' camp and get the colt back.

"Grandma was convinced the outlaws would kill him, so she went in his place. She rode to the camp--double .38 guns on each hip--riding sidesaddle with an extra halter on the horn of her saddle.

"She got to the outlaws' camp and approached the leader and asked for the colt. 'Well, Mrs. Lampl, we don't have your colt,' he told her, but she saw the colt in a herd of horses not far away and she walked over to fetch it.

"She was about to put the halter on the head of the colt when the outlaw put his hand on her arm to stop her. This really made her angry! She pulled out her .38 and leveled it at his head, right between his eyes, and said, 'Get your hands off me! And if you try to stop me, I'll kill you right here!' And with that the outlaw dropped his hand, she mounted her horse and took off with the colt!

"I'll tell you she was some woman. She stood not quite four feet eight inches, and was a real trooper tuned in to the hardships of the day., She had blonde hair, deep blue eyes, extremely fair complexion, maternal in appearance, the strength of a lionness, the temperament and resolve of a pioneer mama.

"She was very practical, thoughtful, dedicated and a devoted mother all her life. Her family came first...." [39]

Jacob Viner came to America in 1870 from Rumania. He came to Hebron with a group of emigrants from Philadelphia. They were sponsored by the Montefiore society, and while he was homesteading at Hebron he worked as a government surveyor. The Viner family was one of the first families at Hebron to have a sod house rather than a dugout; that is, they had a house above the ground. The Viners had two small children, a son and a daughter, while they lived at Hebron, and Mr. Viner's mother, a widow, also lived with them. A second daughter, Sarah, was born May 20, 1889 after they left Hebron. She married Nathan Peltzman in Kansas City, Missouri in 1908. [40] At 95, she is retired and lives in Kansas City.

"I remember what my parents told me about the colony," she said. "I don't remember that the settlement had a name. I just know it as being in Barber County, although they talked about Comanche County, too.

"It was a hard life. There was always talk of Indians on the rampage, but the cowboys were worse and more dangerous than the Indians."

She told of an incident that occurred when her mother, then 16 with her first child, her grandmother and her aunt were alone in their prairie dugout in Barber County.

"There was a knock on the door," she said, "and there were these three cowboys -- great big fellows, and they entered the house, and, of course, you know what they wanted

"My grandmother, she started to cry, and said, 'Young mothers with children, please don't harm them.' The women pleaded and cried.

"And there was this big, tall fellow, real dark. And my mother was a beautiful brunette and very youthful looking. She was 16 when my sister was born. And he said to her, 'If you kiss me, we'll go away,' and she stood on her tiptoes, and she put her arms around his neck and she kissed him and they left.

"After the cowboys left, the women put furniture against the door and crawled under the bed -- they were married, you know.

"At that time you had to have your hair clipped when you were married. Well, my mother had hers clipped. But she wasn't wealthy, though, and (when they came to America) she didn't have a shitel (a wig), so she wore a little scarf. Well, there were some smart alecks on the boat and they said the idea of a young woman wearing a rag on her head, and they took her scarf and threw it overboard -- so then she let her hair grow.

"So when this episode took place in Barber County, my grandmother took the shears, and she said because God had spared them she cut their hair off -- my mother's and my aunt's.

"In the morning, the men had heard the Indians were on a rampage, so they came home. When they heard about what had happened, they arranged it so that one man always stayed home to protect the women after that." [41]

Hebron, New Jerusalem, died. Most of the claims were filed in 1886, and a number had mortgages filed on them in 1886 as well. At least 20 received patents in 1891 indicating their owners had fulfilled all requirements to gain full title to them. [42] "Though a majority of the Jews have left the southwest part of the county for Wichita, Kansas City, and St. Louis, they are generally keeping up the interest on their farm loans," the Barber County Index reported January 11, 1888. "A representative of the firm that made most of the loans to these people stated that they are even more prompt in remitting than the Americans who have left their claims to seek employment elsewhere. He said that his company did not anticipate that it would have to make any foreclosures this year on account of the Jews not meeting their interest." [43]

There were, however, a number of sheriff's sales as late as 1892 and 1893. In 1923, one of the Markowitz family still owned land in what had once been Hebron, but by 1930 that land had been sold. [44] Robert Shklar continues to farm the land his great-grandparents and grandparents homesteaded.

Despite the glowing reports of the American Hebrew, the colony failed as a farming venture. "You couldn't work that ground," Mrs. Peltzman said. "I remember my parents telling me that. It was as barren as could be, and the sun beat on it and it wasn't fertile. They got plenty disgusted. They moved out of there. They came to Kansas City -- the whole family." [45]

Mrs. Edith Goldschmidt, of Wichita, was the daughter of Bernard Levitt. Levitt, who was single when he farmed at Hebron, stayed there for only a year. He returned to Russia, then back to Kansas, and finally went into the clothing business in Wichita. His sons, Henry, Isadore, Leo and William also began clothing businesses and department stores in Wichita. At one time, the businesses were known as Levitt's, then as Henry's department stores. William also had a jewelry business, and Edith married Sam Goldschmidt who was in the oil business. 

"My father left Barber County because of the heat in the summer," Mrs. Goldschmidt said. "He farmed -- but everything kept burning up. Grasshoppers ate everything. He said grasshoppers were everywhere. There wasn't enough machinery. They didn't know what they were doing." [46] 

Most of the land that once was Hebron was acquired by James Henry Gentry after the Jews left. His daughter, Mrs. Beulah Cline, said her grandfather had told her about the Jewish settlement, that it had a rabbi, a synagogue and that the colonists observed Jewish dietary laws. The Jews' plows were pulled by oxen, Gentry remembered, saying 'gee!' to start and 'haw!' to stop. Some of the colonists' furniture was handmade, and the Gentrys had purchased a handcrafted oak dresser from a Jewish family when the family moved away. [47] 

Mrs. Cline said her grandfather attributed the failure of Jewish farming to their poor equipment and the particularly cold winter of 1886 which killed more than 70,000 cattle in the area and decimated the crops.

Weather played a big part in the short duration of Hebron. The years of the colony were years of catastrophic weather excesses, one disaster seemed to follow another. In 1883, there were prairie fires; in early 1884, millions of grasshoppers devoured the lands and crops, followed by an extended blizzard that winter. The year 1885 began with a drought which was broken by torrential rains and floods, and the winter of 1885-86 included two blizzards in a week followed by six weeks of bitter cold.

Most of the Sclar family moved to Kansas City. Saul Goldansky, who had saved to buy a prairie schooner, to take him to Hebron, married Jenny Grace Wedlansky in a Barber County dugout. They later moved to Kansas City where he started a dairy, but she died at an early age, from an illness she had contracted while living in the dugout. [48] Her brother, Reuven Wedlansky, also moved to Kansas City where he went into business as a peddler and later went into real estate. [49] 

The Viners moved to Kansas City where Jacob Viner started a clothing business. He remained active in the Jewish community even to his death at the age of 100 on December 18, 1954. He was a close friend to President Harry Truman. [50] 

The Lampl family established the first produce business in Wichita, and their son, Fred, became the first Jewish county commissioner. Their son, Henry, was a Wichita attorney. When he died, June 28, 1960, at the age of 79, he was the last known survivor of any of the Kansas Jewish farming communities. [51]

GILEAD 

Still they come! We mean the members of the Jewish colony....

-- Aetna (Kansas) Clarion, March 11, 1886 [52]

At one time, a wire fence 250 miles long fenced in the greatest cattle range in Kansas -- the famous Comanche pool. The pool was begun in the mid-1870s with 26,000 cattle, and by 1881 it included the stock of at least 15 ranchers who had combined their operations. By the spring of 1884 at least 80,000 cattle were grazing on its lands that included the western two-thirds of Barber County, all of Comanche County, parts of present Kiowa and Clark counties and Woods County in Oklahoma. [53] 

But its last roundup came in the winter of 1884. Bitter cold weather, temperatures reportedly down to 32 below zero plus repeated blizzards, killed at least 70,000 cattle. The ranchers never recovered. The land was thrown open to homesteaders. 

What was once the center of the pool, the Evans Ranch in southeastern Comanche County in 1885 became a town located "under the shade of towering trees and by the running waters of a mighty spring." Evansville started with "a large hotel, capacious store buildings and a stable with stall room for 100 horses." [54] 

Three miles south of Evansville, on the banks of the Salt Fork River, a Rumanian Jewish colony was started in March, 1886. It was named Gilead after the Biblical area east of the Jordan that was known for its productive fields, beautiful valleys and streams and its medicinal balm. While the Kansas Gilead was an exclusively Rumanian community, there were Rumanians in the Hebron colony as well. Sarah Peltzman, whose parents, Jacob and Rose Viner, were Rumanian and lived at Hebron, said she heard her parents talk of life in both Barber and Comanche counties. 

The Gilead community began with about a dozen families. [55] Nothing was written about it in Jewish newspapers except its name and local newspapers scarcely mentioned the settlement.

The Evansville Herald noted Gilead's beginnings on March 5, 1886. "Thirty-five Rumanian Jews arrived Tuesday enroute for the Jewish Colony on Red Forks, three miles south of town." [56]

To the northeast of Gilead at Aetna, the editor of the Aetna Clarion observed the Jews headed for the settlement. "Still they come!" he remarked. "We mean the members of the Jewish colony. Charles Sexton located 20 families three miles west of town last week." [57] 

On June 18, 1886, a tornado struck Aetna severely damaging several businesses and destroying a number of houses. It also hit Gilead. Although most of the Gilead colonists lived in sod houses, some of their neighbors' frame houses were destroyed. Residents of the area took shelter in dugouts, and fortunately no one was injured. [58]

The Evansville newspaper's second mention of Gilead came about two months later, August 6, 1886. Its report smacked of disdain and possible anti-Semitism: 

A disgraceful little affair took place among the Hebrews south of town one day this week. It is claimed by Mrs. Jacob Rines that one Bonnett Battinus came to the house in the absence of her husband and cruelly beat her. Mrs. Rines went to Coldwater yesterday to swear out a warrant for the arrest of Battinus. [59]

The newspaper closed January 28, 1887 noting "when a paper cannot obtain sufficient patronage to secure its owner a profit, it should be discontinued." However, its last issue also included the news that "two loads of Israelites passed through town Wednesday on their way to attend a wedding south of town." [60]

After its newspaper closed, Evansville held on, hoping the railroad would come through and rescue the town. An estimated 30 people lived there in 1888. The town's population was down to 15 in 1891 and it was deserted by 1893. [61] Gilead died. The Western Kansas weather had tricked the sponsoring Montefiore society. When the Hebron colonists had entered Barber County in 1884 they found its ground well irrigated, ready for crops. There had been rain. This had encouraged the Montefiore society, and they had sent more people to Hebron and made plans for a second colony, eventually Gilead.

But what they had not known was that the rains had been an exception to the rule. Once there, the colonists were hit by blizzards in the winters and drought in the summers. From 1887 to 1897 was a virtual decade of drouth. [62] 

"It was hard for the settlers to make a living," W. V. Jackson, a pioneer who had been in the Gilead area, told the Kiowa News Review, April 8, 1935. "Many left the county to go to Oklahoma. The opening of the Cherokee strip took thousands. 

"Nearly all the land in the county and in the counties around it had been mortgaged, no interest paid, the land foreclosed and most of it becoming property of folks in the east who bought the mortgages from speculator companies." [63] 

There were no traces of Jewish residents in the Evansville-Gilead area after 1895. The population of Comanche County declined from 5,000 in 1888 to 1,269 in 1896. The decline included Gilead.


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
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