Lest I forget thee, O Jerusalem....America could accommodate dreams in the 19th century. More than 100 utopian communities were scattered throughout the country, each with its ideals, plans and goals. Utopia was not an impractical, impossible ideal, but a legitimate hope. "These things shall be! a loftier race" -- and they were possible in America.
Men like Isaac Wise and Martin Heilprin entertained such dreams. Jewish agricultural communities could be established in America. They would be ideal -- Jews going back to the land, living successfully on the land, for the world to see. It would be a spiritually lofty adventure, a noble one. Yet it would be manifestly practical. There were thousands of Jewish refugees with nowhere to go and thousands of acres of Western rural land available for the asking.
The Kansas colonies did not last long, from a year to a few years. It would, then, seem accurate to pronounce them failures. They died. Yet to flatly say the Jewish colonies were failures is to oversimplify them. It is to judge them based only on their durations and not on the role they played in Jewish settlement in America and in the history of Kansas.
Given the circumstances of the colonies and their Western Kansas locations, it would have been unusual had they lasted many years. Western Kansas was a land of dust storms, grasshoppers, tornadoes, drought, and with its one railroad and a few stagecoach trails, it was relatively isolated from Eastern urban areas. Desolation and isolation were facts of life for settlers. Living in this less-than-paradise, many Jews planned and longed for something better, and when opportunities came, they left. When Jews were leaving their farms, many of their Gentile neighbors were doing likewise.
A. James Rudin, in his study, "Beersheba, 'God's Pure Air on Government Land,'" contends that Beersheba failed because its settlers had little knowledge of farming or agriculture as a science. Rabbi Wise, of course, maintained that the colonists "knew enough" about farming, that they were "practical farmers."
Their "chaperone," Charles Davis, told how they had been captivated "like children" when they saw their first modern farm implements. Obviously, farming was new to them. But as their Gentile neighbors at Beersheba told them, farming -- that kind of farming at that location -- was new to them, too. Everyone would learn together.
When Davis visited the colony after it had been cut off by its Cincinnati sponsors, Beersheba's Gentile neighbors told him the colonists were frugal and successful. The Cimarron newspaper remarked that visitors to the area were amazed at how well the Jews had adapted to farming, that they had become veterans of the soil within a very short period of time.
Indeed, until their equipment, implements, their very clothing, were repossessed by their Cincinnati sponsors, the Beersheba colonists appeared to be doing very well. Several of the colonists sold farm implements and equipment in Ravanna and Eminence after they left their farms. While it would not have been necessary for them to have had a complete knowledge of farm implements in order to sell them, it would have been helpful, particularly since businesses were highly competitive within the towns.
In short, Beersheba did not fail because its colonists lacked a knowledge of farming or farm equipment.
In other Kansas colonies, however, a lack of farming skills and equipment may have been a significant factor. As Edith Goldschmidt said about the people at the Hebron colony, "They didn't know what they were doing." But, she had added they had poor equipment and few resources. They knew about good farming equipment, but they lacked the funds to buy it.
The colonists at Touro certainly knew farm equipment and farming, many had farmed in Russia. Indeed, farming in Western Kansas probably was more difficult than farming in Russia, particularly within the Pale of Settlement where the availability of water was not a major problem.
In Western Kansas, it came down to weather. At Touro, for example, where the Jewish farmers were more experienced, their crops were no larger than those of their less experienced brethren 40 miles to the east at Beersheba. At Touro, they were stymied by a lack of water. Hebron and Gilead had rains their first years, and after that -- nothing. "The ground was too tough, too hard -- you couldn't break it," Sarah Peltzman said. And at Montefiore, Lasker, Touro and Leeser, in some cases they had to dig 50, 75, 100, even 200 feet to get well water.
The Beersheba, Touro, Lasker and Leeser areas have only become "garden spots" in recent decades through modern irrigation methods. It is worth mentioning, however, that one of the pioneers of irrigation techniques and equipment in the Arkansas River valley near Garden City and Lakin was Sam Schulman, a Touro colonist who remained in the area all his life, going into business in Garden City.
Rudin also makes the point that Beersheba died from a lack of funds and that colonists had to borrow money at excessive rates of interest. This, I believe, was the most important factor in the short lives of the colonies.
There simply was not enough money.
Cincinnati's Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society never had enough funds for its operations, despite all its pleas. The Montefiore Agricultural Aid Society quickly exhausted its resources for the Montefiore colony in Pratt County although if the colony could have survived only a few more months that might have made the difference. Better weather was on its way, but most of the colonists had given up on the area by the time it arrived.
In all the colonies, land records show that no sooner were the claims paid for, or down payments were placed on them, than they were mortgaged, often so supplies and essentials could be purchased.
Poor people do not make good emigrants. Emigration studies show that those who have had the initial resources to carry them over rough times have been the most successful. The Mennonites, Swedes and Germans who came to Kansas constitute excellent examples. In many cases -- and this is true of ethnic frontier emigration in general -- the most successful were those who sold property in Europe or in the Eastern United States to finance their moves to the West.
It is interesting to note how well the Jews did with so little money. Like emigrants of other nationalities, they arrived speaking little or no English and understood few local customs, yet they persevered. They started little stores in nearby towns, they got second jobs with the government, the railroads, on nearby ranches or on other farms. They worked out plans to survive. Lasker had its shared-expenses plan with its supporters in New York. The supporters would work and send money to Kansas and eventually come to Kansas themselves. Beersheba settlers organized a mutual benefit association after Cincinnati abandoned them. All the colonies suffered sheriff's sales, but the land records show that many of their Gentile neighbors lost their farms in the same manner.
Rudin points out that Beersheba suffered due to its location, 20 to 25 miles from the nearest railroad. This truly was a factor. The other Kansas colonies also languished in relative geographical isolation -- railroads missed them all. If some of the Jews had been on the winning sides in their respective county seat wars, it might have been different. County seats generally had railroad connections. But none of the towns near their settlements ever won a county seat designation.
Psychological explanations have been offered for the demise of the colonies. At Beersheba, Reform Jews sponsored Orthodox Jews. They did it in a patronizing manner. Certainly Beersheba Jews would have been aware of this and felt resentment. Indeed, some colonists might have been more comfortable with their Gentile neighbors than with their Eastern sponsors.
They got along with their neighbors remarkably well. With a few exceptions, the newspapers of their areas spoke well of them, in several cases, praising them. There are not enough sources or records to confirm how much, if any, anti-Semitism they experienced. However, the instances that are recorded at Beersheba, and possibly Touro, were at times of county seat wars between towns and the Jews had taken sides, favoring a particular community.
A status factor also played a part in the demise of the communities. The colonists were living in sod houses and dugouts when they knew other Jews were living in frame, stone and brick homes only hours away in places like Denver, Kansas City, Wichita, and even Garden City.
In Touro and Leeser, for example, where Jews were a comfortable commuting distance from Garden City, they managed to get to the city regularly. Jews with resources chose not to live in the country. L. I. Markowitz at Hebron owned rural land, but he lived in the town of Kiowa as a businessman. Sam Schulman had a homestead at Touro, but spent much of his time in Garden City. Barnard Zatulonsky had land and a home at Touro, but spent his winters in New York City. Laza Toper put in his time at Beersheba on the banks of the Pawnee, but when he could he sold his land and moved to Garden City.
The lesson seems to be that in many cases Jews used their time on the farms as a vehicle to help them into a better life in business. Work the land, prove the claim, then sell -- and move away to start a new business or a new life. Or -- work the land, prove the claim, then put a mortgage on it to start a business or a new life elsewhere.
In Jewish history much is made of the "back to the land" movement, particularly as expressed by the Am Olam (Eternal People) society in Russia. Jews began as keepers of the soil. To go back to the soil, to the land, was an honorable thing to do. It was the philosophy of the movement.
Yet it was not the predominant philosophy in Kansas. Not many of the Jewish emigrants who came to the Kansas plains were Am Olamites -- only a few at Lasker and Hebron. The Jews in the Kansas colonies did not have an overriding commitment to communal living, utopian ideals and a full-time life on the farm. There were some colonists who had such ideals and dreams, but they were not in Kansas. In the history of Jews in America, many Jews who stayed in farming eventually became very critical of the communal approach and declared it worked better when individual initiative was stressed.
The relevance of Frederick Jackson Turner's thesis that the frontier shaped American character and determined the lifestyles of its settlers seems appropriate to the Jewish colonies. The Jews shaped their experience of the frontier, yet it also shaped them.
They tried to live on their terms. They lived kosher. Many did their best to keep all 613 mitzvot, or commandments, that a devout Jew must obey, that range from how chickens are to be slaughtered to how shoes are to be put on and the proper singsong for Talmud reading. They built synagogues, yet with a bow to the frontier -- they were sod synagogues.
When they could not live on their terms, when farming failed, when they could not cope, they went into businesses, opened stores, they moved to cities. They made the necessary adjustments.
There must be more to evaluating a venture than merely chronicling its duration. If the Kansas colonies were meant to last forever, or for a very long time -- they were failures. If, however, they were meant to be modest beacons of spirituality, they had a modicum of success. Newspaper accounts leave no doubt that the Jewish colonists were respected by their neighbors. Likewise, if the Kansas colonies were meant as a practical way to resettle refugees in America, avoiding the poverty, unemployment and crowding of the Eastern cities, they successfully served that purpose. Many of their residents went on to careers and leadership roles in nearby larger communities and in major cities throughout the country. Many of these careers were initially financed by mortgages and sales of the land they owned on the Kansas prairies.
The colonies served many purposes. There may have been individual failures within them, but there were individual triumphs as well.
Indeed, for almost a decade in Kansas history Jews raised potatoes, corn, sorghum, a little wheat and took care of cows, horses and chickens. Some did it very well.
They built sod houses and synagogues.
They danced, socialized, married and had families. They argued, they prayed, they discussed books, they discussed business, they took care of each other. They buried their dead on lonely hillsides and in bleak pastures.
They started businesses and got involved in towns.
They left their colonies and went to bigger places -- Garden City, Denver, Wichita, Kansas City, to points East and points West, and invariably enriched the places to which they moved. Their children, grandchildren, and now, great-grandchildren continue to enrich those places. The emigrant Jews grew into Americans on Western Kansas plains and prairies.
There is a certain poignancy to the story of the Kansas Jewish colonies. The Jews truly were "strangers in a strange land," determined to sing their psalms and chant their prayers.
Perhaps the story would be more obviously positive, more uplifting, if their communities still existed, even if at least one still existed. Then it could be said, "Look -- it's still working."
Contrast this with the experience of visiting the descendants of Swedes, Danes and Germans throughout rural Kansas who are now living prosperous, full lives on the lands their grandparents and great-grandparents homesteaded and in the little towns they established. The towns, the farms, are still there, many getting better and riper and richer with each generation.
Not so with the Jewish colonies. They are gone. To see them now is to see, instead, the department stores and shopping malls of Kansas City, Denver and Wichita. To see the colonies now is to see the art galleries, libraries and universities they and their descendants have supported and endowed. To see them now is to see Wichita State University's Henry Levitt Arena, to see Kansas City's beautiful temples and synagogues. It is to see the Wichita Art Museum; it is to see and hear the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. The Jewish colonies remain alive in Kansas, but in different contexts, different settings.
Still, to visit the site of one of the original colonies can be an emotional experience.
Back in a wheat field, a mile from the nearest road with not even a path leading to it, is the old Beersheba and Ravanna cemetery. At least two of its markers are written in Hebrew, but barely legible. Most of the markers are dated between 1883 and 1886. There is one that says 1905.
There are no trees. The wind sweeps across the cemetery blowing dust from nearby fields. Its graves are bathed in buffalo grass.
It is a lonely, lost place. Lost as though it had fallen out of the world.
with permission of Gertrude Harris, widow of the author, December 2001.