My grandparents, Jacob & Lena (Zimmerman) Willems, were step-brother and step-sister in a marriage my family says was arranged by the Mennonite Brethren Church. Grandma's father, Heinrich H. Zimmermann (1866-1934), was a widower with 5 children, whose wife, Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905), died soon after the family arrived in Canada (1903) from a Mennonite colony in what is now Ukraine. Grandpa's mother, Elisabeth Bolt Willems (1858-1943), was a widow with 9 children whose husband, Cornelius Willems (1885-1902), died two years after the family arrived in Saskatchewan in 1900 from Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the place where the family settled after emigrating from a Mennonite settlement in Crimea in 1875. Jacob & Lena were married in 1909. They moved to Reedley, California in 1919.

There is an even earlier couple important to this history, Gerhard Willems (1820-1900) and Katharina Rempel Willems (1823-1875), Cornelius' parents. Their story reaches back to the early years of Mennonite sesttlement in the land they knew as South Russia, a story of migration from the North Sea to the Black Sea, from Eastern Europe to North America.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Mountain Lake, Minnesota 1875-1900

“Our father, Jacob C. Willems, went to be with the Lord on Sunday, November 8, 1964, in the Dinuba Convalescent Home, at 1:35 p.m.  He was the son of Cornelius and Elizabeth, nee Boldt, Willems and was born on August 8, 1883, in Mountain Lake, Minnesota.  He reached the age of 81 years and 3 months.
       “In the year1900, he moved with his parents from Mountain Lake, to Canada, and settled west of Waldheim, Saskatchewan in the Brotherfield area.  His father died in 1902, only two years after they had been in this new country."                                                                                                                                                                                    

            My grandfather, Jacob C. Willems, was born in Mountain Lake, Minnesota.  That is one of the facts I learned as a child, but it was simply that, a fact.  I never thought about it, never felt any connection to it.  Mountain Lake was just a place where the Willems family happened to stop before moving on to their real destination—Canada, the place where my grandparents met and married, the place where my father was born.

            Then, one day as I checked to see what the library at the University of Missouri in Columbia might have on Mennonite history, I happened upon a book titled, A History of the Settlement of German Mennonites from Russia at Mountain Lake, Minnesota.  It was a small book published in 1938 by the author, Ferdinand P. Schultz, a teaching assistant in history at the University of Minnesota.   Surprised and delighted that such a book existed, and that the MU library, only five minutes from my house, would actually have a copy, I checked it out and took it home.    

As I read Schultz’ book, Mountain Lake became real.  It was as if a window had suddenly opened onto a period of time in my family’s life that previously had been blank, a period of time that encompassed a whole generation.  My family lived in Mountain Lake twenty-five years.  Grandpa’s father, Cornelius, lived there almost all his adult life.  Twenty years old in 1875 when his family arrived in Mountain Lake, Cornelius was forty-five years old in 1900 when he moved his family to Canada.  It was in Mountain Lake that Cornelius married Elisabeth Boldt, my grandfather Willems’ mother.  All but the youngest of Elisabeth and Cornelius’ nine children were born before they moved to Canada.  My Grandpa, Jacob, who turned seventeen the summer of 1900, also spent a significant part of his life in Minnesota—all his childhood and most of his adolescence.  That Grandpa was born in Mountain Lake, Minnesota, was now more than just an isolated fact.

(To read the complete essay click on “Mountain Lake, 1875-1900” in the “Pages” column on the right.)