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, March 29, 2013

H.H. Zimmermann (1866-1934): The Kuban

“I was born on the Kuban, Russia, and lost my father early, for I was only four months old.”                                                                   HHZ Letter Zionsbote (7 May 1905)

In connection with the organization of the Mennonite Brethren in the parent settlement, the Mennonites in the Molotschna and Chortitza colonies requested an additional grant of 17,500 acres from the government … for a new settlement on the Kuban.  ….  In 1866 the settlement, which throughout its brief history consisted predominantly of Mennonite Brethren, had its Mennonite privileges confirmed.

                                                                        Mennonite Encyclopedia, “Kuban Mennonite Settlement”

My great-grandfather Zimmermann begins his letter to the Zionsbote by stating that he was born in the Kuban, Russia.   The Mennonite settlement in the Kuban region was about 300 or so air-miles southeast of the Molotchna colony.  If you look at a map of Russia, the southernmost end just east of the Black Sea, you will see a strip of land that separates the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.  At the southern end of that strip of land are the Caucasus Mountains and the mountain republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan.  The Kuban is the region just north of the Caucasus Mountains.   The Mennonite settlement where Heinrich Zimmermann’s was born was in the west-central part of this land at the foot of the mountains, just across the Kuban River from the town of Nevinnomyssk, which, when the Mennonites arrived in the mid-1860s, was only a small settlement around a fort. 

The Mennonites who settled in the Kuban were almost all people involved in the formation of the Mennonite Brethren, a protest group recently separated from the established Mennonite church.  That separation coincided with the explosion of the landless population of the colonies that became critical during the 1860s.  By 1860“over 60 percent of Molochaia and 50 percent of Khortitsa Mennonites were without land.”[i]  The Mennonite colonies were in crisis, a crisis that coincided with the sudden availability of land in the Kuban when the long, drawn out (150 years), Russian conquest of the Caucasus came to its bloody end in 1864. 

Russia was determined to occupy and “pacify” this region, a region it considered essential to its defense.  Settling the land with people loyal to the Russian Empire seemed essential.  When the Mennonites of the Molotschna and Chortitza colonies requested land in the Kuban they were granted 17,500 acres, and settlers, almost all of whom were Mennonite Brethren.  Wohldemfürst, the village where my great-grandfather Heinrich was born, was established in 1862.   The land, however, was not easily pacified.   In 1866, the year of Heinrich’s birth, the Mennonite settlement was still in its own difficult infancy.  The passage that follows is from the Mennonite Encyclopedia article on the Kuban:

“The early settlement was confronted with serious difficulties.  Only 67 of the 100 families for whom land had been granted settled there by 1866.  In part the difficulties were internal….  there were also economic difficulties.  From the neighboring natives (Tatar, Circassians) with their primitive methods, they could get no help in agriculture.  They had to learn by trial and error; gradually cattle raising and fruit culture proved most successful.  There was a ready market for the Mennonite bred Red cow; and horses were bought by the army.” 

Mennonite stubbornness paid off, and the Kuban settlement began to prosper:

Fruit culture was brought to [to a high] state of development.  Well-developed nurseries distributed millions of improved strains of fruit trees, berries, and ornamental trees.  Industry related to these occupations was also thriving: there were two factories which made farm implements, mills of various kinds, and stores.  There was a cooperative for cheese making and grape growers (since 1890), a credit union, a grain storage elevator, and an association of consumers. … 

“Intellectual and spiritual life were also maintained on a high level.  Their schools, with eight-year courses (ages 7-15) and excellent teachers, were unique for their high standards even among the Mennonites.  In addition there was a music club, which owned a hall, and a library club. …

“The settlement achieved great prosperity.  The outstanding success of the Mennonites in the Kuban in the fields of pedagogy and agriculture was repeatedly given recognition by the Czarist government, even to the extent of granting titles of personal nobility, more than in any other Mennonite settlement.”

My great-grandfather Zimmermann’s parents, however, did not enjoy that success.  They arrived in the Kuban in the early to mid-60s when conditions were most difficult, the land untamed, the settlers ignorant of its demands, at the very beginning of the hard trial-and-error that would teach them how to farm this unfamiliar land.  That Heinrich’s father died during this time of rough, primitive conditions does not seem strange.   The wonder is that the others—HHZ himself, his mother and little sister—survived.  Was the father’s death the result of an accident, perhaps, or a non-contagious illness like appendicitis?  It’s impossible to know at this point.  What we do know is that the father’s death was devastating for little Heinrich, his mother and sister.


[i] James Urry, None but Saints: The transformation of Mennonite Life in Russia 1789-1889 (Hyperion Press, Ldt., 1989),p. 196.