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.  Wohldemf├╝rst, 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.

Friday, March 22, 2013

The Zimmermanns

“Mrs. Lena Zimmerman Willems was born in South Russia in the Firstenland in Syejowka on February 6, 1893, to Rev. and Mrs. H. H. Zimmerman, and departed this life at the age of 70 years, 5 months and 24 days in a Tulare, California hospital. … She came to Winkler, Manitoba, Canada, with her parents in 1903.”[1]                                                                                                                                                                    
            My grandmother, Helena (Lena) Zimmerman Willems, was born in a Mennonite village on the south/east bank of the Dneiper River in what is now Ukraine, a land she knew as South Russia.  The year was 1893; the name of the village was Sergeyevka, which was one of the villages in the F├╝rstenland, a daughter colony of Chortitza, the first colony established by the Mennonites in the steppe land bordering the Black Sea.  Grandma spent the first ten years of her life in that village, and she remembered it after she left.  She remembered seeing people bathing naked in the river; she remembered being very sick—rheumatic fever, and being buried in the river sand to bring down her temperature.  When her daughters asked Grandma what this place looked like, she said it was beautiful.  Her parents didn’t want to leave south Russia, but they “smelled trouble,” and decided it was necessary.

            Grandma’s father was Heinrich H. Zimmerman, a Mennonite Brethren preacher.  Her mother was Maria Dyck Zimmerman, who died when my grandmother was a young girl.  I have known that basic information since what feels like forever, but exactly when and where Grandma’s mother died was hazy.  My dad told me that his mom’s mother was sick when the time came for the family to leave South Russia—so sick she knew she was going to die, and she told her family they must go without her.  They didn’t want to, but she insisted.  Reluctantly, they obeyed her wish.  She died shortly after they left.  Dad told me this story in the early 1990s.  He was almost eighty years old, crippled from a stroke, and the thought of that his Grandmother Maria Dyck Zimmerman being left behind to die haunted him. 

Maria Dyck Zimmermann (1861-1905)

            My dad’s dramatic story is not supported by family records:  1) The obituary written for Grandma’s funeral says that she arrived in Winkler, Manitoba, Canada in 1903 “with her parents.” 2)  The record of Zimmerman family births, deaths and emigration dates received from my dad’s sister Mary gives April 6, 1905 as Maria Dyck Zimmermann’s death date.

            Grandma’s mother, Maria Dyck Zimmermann, died almost two years after the family arrived in Canada.  She was not left behind in Russia.  She did not die alone.  She died surrounded by her family.  That story of her death is described in a letter written by her husband, H.H. Zimmermann, which I found in the archives of the Center for Mennonite Brethren Studies at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas.  It was written just a month after Maria Dyck Zimmermann’s death, and it is no less dramatic and compelling than the one that gripped my father’s imagination.  The letter was addressed to the readers of the Zionsbote, the Mennonite Brethren newspaper that circulated throughout the MB world—Canada, the United States, South Russia.  It was printed in the May 7, 1905 issue, written while H.H. Zimmerman’s grief was fresh, an out-pouring of his heart.  It is a long letter (1500 words), and in it HHZ tells about more than Maria’s death.  He tells the story of his life up through Maria’s last days and final release from suffering.  I shall begin that story next week.

[1] Obituary written by the family and read at my grandmother’s funeral 1963 (my aunt Helen, the oldest daughter, is the likely author).

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Notice: No Post March 15

I will be out of town this coming week and will not be able to post on the blog March 15.  I shall resume March 22.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Death of Cornelius Willems (1855-1902)

Rosthern, Saskatchewan:
            “…August 12th.  Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord!  I greet you with peace.  This time it is a message of sadness which I have to share with the dear readers: it has pleased the dear heavenly Father to call our dear Brother Cornelius Willems out of this life into the beyond.  He was buried today in our new cemetery near the meetinghouse with great funeral participation.  The dear brother brought his age to 47 years, 5 months and 21 day.  He lived in marriage 21 years, 4 months and 14 days.  His dear wife and nine children mourn his death.  His sickness was liver disease and dropsy [edema, fluid retention].  He had already been suffering for a long time, but at the last he was critically ill for five weeks, and he often had great pain.  He lived in faith [as a believer] for 13 years.  He was a faithful member of our church till his death and we feel the loss with pain.”                                                                  J.F. Strausz  Zionsbote, 3 Sep 1902.[1] 

“Cornelius was the first person to be buried at the Brotherfield Church which he had helped to organize.”                                                                                   Willems Gen. I. II. III.
              Cornelius and Elisabeth Willems moved with their family to Saskatchewan in 1900, the same year old Gerhard Willems died.  Cornelius was likely one of the sons who viewed the old man’s body before it was buried.  Two years later, Cornelius, too, would be buried.  He was only 47 years old when he died—of “liver disease and dropsy.”  He had been sick for a long time, and “had a longing to be released and rejoiced to see the Lord.”[2]   

There is no obituary for Cornelius written by the family in the Zionsbote archives.  His children did not forget the sorrow and desperation of that time, though.  When it came time for them to write an obituary for their mother, Elisabeth, they spoke of the pain and desperation she felt when Cornelius, her husband died:

           “In the year 1900 they settled in Saskatchewan, Canada, where they made their home at Brotherfield, in the hope of making their life work on the farm easier.  Man thinks, but God arranges.  God’s ways were appointed differently.  In the year 1902 her husband, our father, became ill and was taken from her side through death on August 8th.  Alone with nine children, of whom 8 children were born in Mountain Lake and one in Canada, she looked into the dark future, and in looking to the Lord, who is the Lord over widows and orphans, she overcame this pain….  Happy was marriage, difficult was the pain of parting.”                                                                             
                                                                                                EBWZ Obituary Zionsbote 5 January 1944[3]

            Elisabeth Boldt Willems was 43 years old when her husband died.  She was a widow with nine children living on a new homestead on the Canadian prairie, a daunting situation.  However, she was not, strictly speaking, alone.   She had two, unmarried, fully grown sons—Cornelius, named for his father who was twenty years old, and my grandfather, Jacob, who turned nineteen the day before his father died.  Those two sons had likely already taken over the work of the homesteading during their father’s illness.  Elisabeth also had teen-aged daughters to help her in the house—Elisabeth, who turned seventeen on September 12, and Anna, who turned fifteen on September 14.  The two middle sons, Gerhard and Heinrich, who were ten and almost twelve, were old enough to help their big brothers.  Even little Maria, who turned eight on October 22, would have had chores.   She could have been a big help looking after the two littlest ones, Margareta, who was two, and Katherina, who was four.

            However, children, even full-grown sons, are not the same as a husband.  They are not life partners, intimate companions.  In that sense, Elisabeth was truly alone.  Children grow up and leave home.  They need to live their own lives, start their own families.  How long would her two oldest sons be willing to stay at home and work her homestead?  How long could she count on their help?  The future must indeed have looked dark, frightening.

[1] Extracted and translated by Peggy Goertzen on behalf of Loretta Willems, December 2008.
[2] Jacob Buhlers, also wrote about Cornelius death in 3 September 1902 edition of Zionsbote.
[3] Translated by Peggy Goertzen on behalf of Loretta Willems, 4 June, 2006.

Friday, March 1, 2013


“Three landscapes confront the visitor to the western interior of Canada:  The prairies, which roll seemingly without end west and north from the Red River toward the Rockies and the Arctic: the parkland, where a profusion of birds and lakes, gentle hills and valleys, and fertile soil suggest a crescent-shaped oasis at the northern edge of the prairies; and the boreal forest, with rock outcroppings, cold lakes, and miles of spruce and pine as little traveled today as they were 400 years ago.”
                                                            Gerald Friesen, The Canadian Prairies: A History[1]

 Gerhard Willems, my great-great grandfather, died in the community of Rosthern, Saskatchewan in1900, a year after his immigration from Minnesota.  The town of Rosthern and the farms around it lie on a peninsula of land formed by the converging of the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers.  The land north of the North Saskatchewan River is boreal forest, a region of ice-scoured rock, myriad lakes, poplar, spruce and pine trees that covers the northern two-thirds of the province.  Just below the boreal forest is the narrow strip of fertile soil classified as parkland, a land of rich black soils with high organic content.   This parkland, the best farmland in the whole province of Saskatchewan, is the land five of Gerhard’s children chose as their new home.  As someone has said, Mennonites have a nose for good soil.

This good land is the reason why so many Mennonites decided to pick up and move hundreds of miles north, move from one place with extreme weather to another that was even colder.  And much of this land was almost free.  Canada had Homesteading policies similar to those in the U.S.  All that was needed to acquire a quarter section of land—160 acres—was a ten dollar registration fee, construction of a home and the clearing of at least ten acres within three years.  And people could file on another quarter section after these conditions were met.  Of course, this “free” land required a lot of work, but Mennonites were used to that.  And it required money to develop, but all farming involved financial investment.  Here at least, the Mennonites from Mountain Lake were getting in just as this region was opening for settlement, before all the good land was taken.  And they were not going into a completely unknown land.  Mennonites from Russia were quite well settled into the place by the time Gerhard Willems’ children began arriving in 1899. 

             Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan: “Rosthern Mennonite Settlement”

“A compact reserve consisting of as many as twenty villages was established south of Rosthern …by Old Colony Mennonites from Manitoba in 1895-1905.  The social organization of the conservative colonies in south Russia was systematically duplicated in North-central Saskatchewan: Wide streets (a custom developed in Russia due to the possibility of thatched roofs catching fire), a Schult (village overseer), and German language schools and churches.  These adjoining Mennonite settlements then expanded into a single vast settlement with the establishment of additional communities and congregations by Mennonite Brethren from the American Midwest (particularly Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma), directly from Russia, or via Manitoba, in 1898-1918.”                                                                                                            

Eleven miles west of Rosthern is the town of Waldheim, another Mennonite enclave.  In the fields near that town is where the Mennonite Brethren built their first church, the church known in my family as the Brotherfield Church.

The Mennonite Encyclopedia: “Brotherfield Mennonite Brethren”

     “The Brotherfield Mennonite Brethren congregation near Waldheim, Saskatchewan began services in 1900, and formally organized in 1901.  The first building was occupied in 1902, with a subsequent building program in 1911. …
   “The Brotherfield congregation was one of the first Mennonite Brethren congregations in Canada.  During the years 1897-1899 a number of families from Minnesota and South Dakota pioneered in the Waldheim area.  They met in homes until the formal 1901 organization.”             

            Cornelius Willems, my great-grandfather, was the first person buried in the Brotherfield Church cemetery.

~ ~ ~

[1] University of Toronto Press, 1984.