The Things They Carried

Kansas. The Wheat State.


wheatheaderIf you stopped in at Lois and Jerry Keller’s 5,000-acre farm outside Ellis, Kansas, you would see a tall winter hardy cultivar, ‘Turkey’ hard red winter wheat, the variety that entitled the Topeka Daily Capital to claim, in 1888, “In wheat, Kansas can beat the world.” Thousands of immigrants from Europe —skilled wheat growers—heard the call from the Kansas State Board of Agriculture and the Santa Fe Railway, to settle in farming communities in Kansas.

It was a time when the U.S. was looking for immigrants, Keller says. They wanted people who wanted to work hard, knew agriculture, looked healthy, could present themselves well—as in a suit and tie—and were going to stay for a certain amount of time. They were given land.

Maybe this fact is only important to the Russian Mennonites who were escaping military service or the neighboring Volga Germans like Jerry Keller’s parents who emigrated in 1899, but Ellis, Kansas, the site of the Keller’s farm, is a stone’s throw from a marker designating the precise geographical center of the lower 48. These immigrants came to the middle of America.

Today, few people under thirty have heard the story of Mennonite immigrants fleeing Tsarist persecution and coming to Kansas with trunks of hand-selected ‘Turkey’ wheat seed. But Lois Keller has, and she travels the school circuit in the state, teaching about the role that children had in planting the breadbasket of the nation with seeds.

Since they were only allowed 100 lbs, mothers and children in the Old Country sorted through bushels to pull extra wheat seeds that the mothers then sewed into the large cuffs of pant legs, sleeves, collars, or anywhere in a hem. This way, they might hide another half bushel, or 30 pounds.

In old photos of the immigration check points that Keller has seen, “the women and children would look puffy, heavy, wearing lots of clothing because it had wheat seeds in it!”

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