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.
My Grandpa 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 their 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.
It is estimated that about 18,000 Mennonites moved from Russia to North America between 1873 and 1884. About 10,000 of them settled in the United States; the other 8,000 went to Manitoba, Canada. Of those who came to the States, the majority—about 5,000—went to Kansas. Minnesota and the Dakota Territory each got about 1800. Nebraska got most of the remainder.
That is a lot of Mennonites on the move, and they generated a lot of interest and attention in newspapers and magazines, an interest that began before the migration started. “Western newspapers, railroads, governments and other agencies interested in westward expansion were struck with the novelty and the possibilities of this mass-movement of capable, fairly wealthy, and well-organized immigrants and immediately proceeded with plans and schemes to draw them into the orbit of their influence. The first campaign to attract the Mennonites as settlers was begun by the Canadian Government early in 1872, partly as a result of several Mennonite petitions to the British Consul at Berdiansk, Russia, for information about Canada. …. The next contender to enter the race was the state government of Minnesota with more or less cooperation from the land-grant railways within its borders. Other vigorous rivals were Dakota Territory, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway in Kansas, and the Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railway in Nebraska”(Schultz, 27-28).
The Mennonites who emigrated from South Russia to North America were part of a vast, communal effort. Mennonite leaders in Russia not only contacted government officials in Canada and the U.S., they also sought out and corresponded with Mennonites already living in North America. In early 1873, a group of twelve men from the Mennonite colonies in Russia set out as an advance party to check out the situation in North America. They were not alone. With them were railroads and land company agents as well as representatives for various national and state governments, state and national. The twelve Mennonites spent about two and a half months in a focused search for land where their people might settle—and not just any land, the best farm land available. That search took them from the long established Mennonite communities east of the Mississippi River into the new states and territories along the current frontier line: Minnesota, Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. It also took them up into Manitoba to see land the Canadian government was eager to settle (Schultz, 32).
American Mennonites played an important part in this mass migration, helping the immigrants as they traveled west, welcoming them into their homes, providing information and aid. And that aid was substantial. Concerned that even the poorest Mennonite who wanted to emigrate would be able to do so, they raised over $100,000 in aid money, setting up a Board of Guardians to administer the funds. The Willems and Boldt families may well have received some of that aid.
The Mennonites proved to be shrewd negotiators. They negotiated land deals and aid for travel expenses with railroads and government bodies. They also negotiated reduced fares with the companies that owned the passenger ships that would take the immigrants across the Atlantic. According to historian Theron Schlabach, the Mennonites even got the transportation companies to provide German-speaking stewards on the ships and ice water in the railroad cars.
“Upon leaving Russia the Mennonites usually traveled overland through Germany to Hamburg or some Belgian port where they embarked. Those who were definitely planning to go to Manitoba had to cross to England where they took passage in British vessels going to Quebec. From there they traveled over the Great Lakes to Duluth, thence to Fargo by rail, and then north down the Red River by steamboat. The majority, however, crossed the Atlantic on the North-German Lloyd, or Red Star liners and landed at New York. Now and then a group landed at Philadelphia. At these ports they were usually met by numerous agents of railroads, land companies, or other commercial concerns who were interested in them as prospective settlers or customers. They were also met by friends or relatives who had preceded them, had located in one of the frontiers states or territories, and now wanted them to go with them. Frequently the immigrants decided at these ports where they wanted to make their homes and the groups then broke up into smaller parties who proceeded to their chosen destination” (Schultz, 55).
Gerhard Willems, aged 55, with ten children including one named Cornelius (20), is listed among the passengers of the ship SS Nederland, which arrived in Philadelphia from Antwerp, Belgium, on July 25, 1875. There was a crowd of Mennonites on the ship—74 families for total of about 700 individuals.
Ten days later, on August 4, 1875, Jakob Boldt, his wife Elisabeth and their ten children, including one named Elisabeth (17), arrived in the Port of New York from Antwerp on the ship the SS State of Nevada. Ninety families, about 500 Mennonites, 90 families, were on their ship.
Both families arrived in a crowd of Mennonites, and they likely took advantage of the negotiated group travel rates:
--The Boldt family, arriving in the Port of New York, probably sailed on one of the ships of the Inman steamship line. The negotiated Mennonite price with that line was $41-$42 per adult, with half-fare for children. That price included rail fare west on the Erie Railroad.
--The Willems family, arriving in the Port of Philadelphia, could get an even better deal. Theron Schlabach says that a committee of Pennsylvania Mennonites had “arranged with a firm named Peter Wright and Son to bring Mennonites from Antwerp to Philadelphia. By working with the Wright firm, the Pennsylvania Railroad, and a steamship line named ‘Red Star’, the committee had negotiated prices from Antwerp to points in the U.S. West. Their fares were some $5 or $6 per person below the Inman-Erie fare….Bringing the immigrants through Philadelphia would make it easy to arrange temporary lodging in the large Mennonite communities nearby”(259-60).
Why Mountain Lake, Minnesota?
“The coming of the Mennonites was an important event in the history of Mountain Lake, because they came in sufficient numbers to control and dominate the subsequent development of the community” (Schultz, 41).
Most of the Mennonites from Russia who came to the United States during the mass migration of the 1870s settled in Kansas. Only 1800 went to Minnesota, and all those who went to that state settled in Mountain Lake. Why did they choose that town? How did they happen to end up there? According to Ferdinand Schultz, it was all the work of William Seeger, the Minnesota land agent:
“Sometime in July or August  thirty families in one of the newer Mennonite colonies located in the Crimean Peninsula decided not to await the return of the deputies and so they sold their farms, packed up their belongings and started the long journey to America. They arrived in New York at the very hour when the deputies were about to embark for their return journey to Russia. The time available for consultation was too short for the deputies to advise the immigrants about the most desirable place for settlement, so they had to make independent investigations. They found a temporary abode among the American Mennonites at Elkhart, Indiana, while their leaders toured the western states in search of a permanent home site.
“Seeger, who watched very closely all the developments in the Mennonite immigration, learned of the arrival of the thirty-five families and went to Elkhart with the hope that he might be able to induce them to settle in Minnesota. He found that practically all of them were planning to go to Kansas where two of them had been induced to buy land, but he was able to persuade some of their leaders to go with him on a tour of inspection through Minnesota. According to Seeger they explored the state ‘thoroughly and to their satisfaction.’ The time of this tour was about October 1, 1873. Seeger now felt quite confident that this group of Mennonites would settle in Minnesota, but he was disappointed, for shortly after the committee of investigation returned to Elkhart, some land agents induced most of them to locate in the neighborhood of Yankton in Dakota Territory. Seeger did not give up the contest, for he went to Yankton and convinced some of them that Minnesota could offer them a better home. Those who believed Seeger came to Minnesota with him and settled at Mountain Lake in Cottonwood County” (38).
The choice of Mountain Lake by those thirteen families from the Crimea proved decisive for both the little town and for my family. The Gerhard Willems family was from the Crimea, and Mennonites settled where there were other Mennonites. New settlers also actively recruited people back home, writing letters to family and friends back in Russia about the new land and its opportunities, urging them to come join them in the work of building a new Mennonite home. And they were successful. In 1874, nineteen more families, 125 people, joined the thirteen families who arrived in 1873. In 1875, the year the Willems and Boldt families arrived, another 590 Mennonites got off the train in Mountain Lake, making a total of 795 Mennonites in a county whose total population for 1875 was counted at 2870. By 1880, when the last of the Mennonites from Russia arrived, the Mennonite population totaled 1800 people, 295 families. The American settlers must have felt more than a bit over-whelmed by these foreigners who spoke little, if any English. Many of the Americans decided to sell out and move on.
Number of Mennonite arrivals by year:
Year Number of Families Approx. Number of Individuals
1873 13 80
1874 19 125
1875 97 590
1876 84 480
1877 33 210
1878 37 245
1879 11 65
1880 1 5
Total 295 1800
As Schultz notes, with new settlers coming in such large groups “it was impossible for all of them to find satisfactory land immediately and often the families had to find temporary shelter while the men sought for land. The railroad company met this situation by erecting near the station a large wooden structure which was known as the ‘Immigrant House’. Newly arrived immigrants were allowed to use this building free of charge until they could find a permanent abode in the community” (57).
“Sister Elisabeth Willems Zimmerman, maiden name Boldt, was born December 8th in the year 1858 in the village of Pastwa, Molotschna, Russia. In the year 1875 she emigrated with her parents the Jakob Boldts to America. Protected by God’s sheltering hand, they arrived on August 18th of the same year in Mountain Lake, Minnesota”
Zionsbote Obituary (5 Jan 1944)
The Willems and Boldt families both arrived in Mountain Lake the summer of 1875, and both families probably stayed in the Immigrant House. This may have been where Cornelius and Elisabeth met. There was almost no privacy in those temporary shelters; they were courting age, twenty and seventeen—males and females that age have an in-built radar for spotting eligible members of the opposite sex. The Boldt and Willems families may have stayed in the Immigrant House quite a while. According to Ferdinand Shultz, lodging there was free. They thus had a place to stay until they found a place of their own—either buying land with some kind of house on it, or acquiring bare land and putting up some kind of shelter to live in—perhaps a dug-out sod house, or one of the A-frame thatched roof-over a dugout seen in the sketches made of Mennonite communities and published in periodicals of that times.
“The Mennonite immigrants were on the whole much better off than the average foreign immigrant who came to America, but that does not mean that none of them were very poor. Most of them were reasonably well fixed financially before they left Russia, but some were so poor even then that they had to be aided by their people in Russia, by their fellow-immigrants, or by the Mennonite Board of Guardians which the American Mennonites established for that purpose in 1874. All of those who had means suffered losses because the forced sale of their property made it impossible for them to realize its full value in terms of cash received. In this matter as well as in the exchange of currency the earlier immigrants were fortunate, for they were usually able to sell their possessions easily at a comparatively small loss, and the exchange rates on the money market were very favorable, the Russian ruble being worth about seventy-five cents in 1875. By 1878 it had become difficult to sell property for more than a small fraction of its actual value …. The value of the ruble declined rapidly after 1875 until it was worth only forty-five cents or less by 1878” (Schultz,58).
Immigration was just warming up in 1875 when the Boldt and Willems families arrived in Mountain Lake. Their timing was fortunate. Emigration and financial aid structures were in place; a good handful of Russian Mennonite families were already settled in the new land; and the exchange rate for the ruble was good. Even if they had to sell their possessions in Russia at a loss, but the loss would not have been as great as for those who migrated later. The arrival of 97 families in the summer of 1875 must have created an anxious scramble for land, but those early families had a distinct advantage over the 166 families who came in the years that followed
The Early Years
“It was quite difficult to adjust to the new land and to the new situation. Despite the severe struggles, [Elisabeth] stood faithfully at the side of her parents, and was helpful in making a home in the midst of poverty.” Obituary for Elisabeth Boldt Willems Zimmerman
The obituary for Elisabeth Boldt speaks a bit about what it was like for her family when they first arrived in North America—“difficult… severe struggles … poverty.” It sounds like the Boldt family may have been among the poorer Mennonites who migrated to North America. The Boldt family was living in the Molotchna where land had been scarce for decades. They very likely were among those who had become landless. The Willems family, however, may have been better off financially than the Boldts. They came to Mountain Lake from the Crimea. They arrived on that peninsula just as it opened for settlement. There is a good chance they owned land.
Hardship and struggle were not just the lot of the poor. Settling a new land is hard work, but Gerhard Willems was fortunate had five sons in their twenties to help him. Jacob Boldt, however, lacked that resource. His oldest son was only 14, the next oldest, only 12. His oldest children were girls—Elisabeth, as the oldest, would have carried a big responsibility, her work critically important for her family’s survival.
The Locust Plague of 1873-1877
The Willems and Boldt families had the fortune, for good or ill, to arrive in Mountain Lake in the middle of a four year locust plague that descended on Minnesota in the summer of 1873, the summer the first Mennonites arrived in town:
“Each season the mature grasshoppers laid their eggs in the ground, and the following spring the young insects began to eat where they hatched. It is said that swarms of them, before their wings matured, invaded green fields and devoured every growing blade of grass, grain and weed as they moved in, leaving the black soil behind them bleak and bare in the scorching sun. The noise of their feeding was clearly audible to anyone passing by. Sometimes they were so numerous that they ate the roots out of the ground to satisfy their voracious appetites. During the middle and late summer, after their wings had matured, great swarms of them darkened the sky and obscured the sun like mighty thunder clouds, and the sound of the millions of wings was like the steady hum and roar of a storm approaching from a distance. Their coming down seemed like the falling of light hail or heavy raindrops. They covered everything in sight and found their way into everything that could be entered. One day in July 1874, a great swarm arrived at three o’clock in the afternoon and by five o’clock all the heads of the ripening wheat were cut off and lying on the ground. At such time they stalled railroad trains by causing the drive wheels of the locomotives to slip, and sand or gravel had to be thrown on the rails to provide traction” (65-66).
The locusts suppressed the local economy, keeping most of the farmers at subsistence level. Even though not every farm was hit every season and government aid was available those hit hardest, when approached by Mennonites with cash to buy them out, the American settlers were eager to sell. Schultz notes that Mennonites did not seem as afraid of the locusts as the Americans (57).
Blight, Rust, Weather
In 1877 the locust swarms “disappeared as suddenly and mysteriously as they had come to the community in 1873.” However, other plagues soon followed . Wheat fields were hit by rust and blight that caused as much damage as the locusts. Crops were somewhat better after 1880, but “weather conditions were usually far from ideal.” The growing seasons “were usually either too wet or too dry,” and winters were severe:
“The summers of 1880 and 1881 were very wet with an extraordinary winter between them. The first snow fell in October, 1880, and winter did not break until about the middle of April, 1881. According to one pioneer there were thirty-two snow storms during this time. The snow was so deep in the country that they could not travel with animals for many months, and the farmers had to walk to town with little hand-sleds to get provisions which ran low everywhere because train service was very irregular and sometimes impossible for several weeks at a time. In February, 1881, a passenger train was stalled at the village for about two weeks. …. With the farmers the feed and fuel problem became quite acute, for the snow drifts were at times so high that they had to enter the barn through the door of the hayloft or through a hole in the roof, and the haystacks were covered so completely that they could not find them except by digging down at the places where they thought the hay was. One farmer’s house was so weighted down with snow that one side of the roof collapsed and the family had to move in with the neighbors” (66).
Elisabeth & Cornelius
“In the year 1879 [Elisabeth] was received into the church through the baptism of sprinkling by Preacher Aron Wall. This did not satisfy her heart, however. Through diligent searching of the Word of God, she found the Lord Jesus had been baptized in the River Jordan. After serious anxiety and prayer, she found forgiveness in the blood of the Lamb and was with her first husband C. Willems baptized on 5 May 1880 by Elder Heinrich Voth and received as a member in the Mennonite Brethren Church at Mountain Lake.” EBWZ Obituary
Cornelius and Elisabeth were married March 24, 1881, ten and half months after both were baptized by immersion and received into the Mennonite Brethren Church. They had nine children: four boys and five girls. Their first child, a son named Cornelius after his father, was born May 1, 1882. My grandfather, Jacob C., was born eighteen months later, August 8, 1883. Two girls came next, then another two boys followed by a trio of little girls. All the children except the last were born in Mountain Lake. That is all I know about their life during the years they lived in Mountain Lake. How they fared economically, I don’t know, although Ferdinand Schultz says that conditions in the Mountain Lake area began to improve soon after Cornelius and Elisabeth married:
“The year of 1882 was a welcome break in the monotonous succession of poor crops, for the crops were much better than usual. One farmer raised enough flax that summer to pay all the debts he had incurred in coming to Minnesota, including the money he owed on his 160-acre farm which he had purchased five years before from an American at $12.5. an acre. In succeeding years crops were generally better than they had been before and by about 1890 or 1895 conditions were becoming better to the extent that the people no longer wished that they had remained in Russia, or that they had settled elsewhere in America, as some of them did in the earlier days when the labor of their hands went for naught year after year” (67).
“The decade of the nineties marked a turning point in the economic development of the community. Up to that time the Mennonites struggled against great odds to maintain their existence and to secure the necessities of life. Sometimes the struggle seemed hopeless in the face of discouraging circumstances, and many tears were shed by the immigrants who remembered the comforts of their old home in Russia. Many times they were fortunate and thankful to have the bare necessities of life when crops failed or were destroyed by natural forces. There was resentment against those individuals who had induced them to come to Minnesota, and quite a few would have moved away if poverty had not compelled them to stay. But most of these things were forgotten in the nineties with the improvement of economic conditions to the point where they need no longer be content with the bare necessities of life and could enjoy some of the comforts of life.”
”During the nineties the crops were better than they had been, consequently the farmers were making enough money, in spite of depression prices for some time after 1893, to build new houses and barns, buy new machinery, and in other ways improve their material circumstances” (67-68).
Leaving Mountain Lake
By the time the nineteenth century ended the Mennonites had been in Mountain Lake for a full generation, over twenty-five years. It was no longer a frontier town. Substantial wood houses replaced temporary shelters both in town and on the farms. Trees in windbreaks had grown tall; the community had begun to thrive. Then, in the years between 1896 and 1902, in spite of all that progress, some 200 Mennonite families picked up and left Mountain Lake headed for North Dakota and Canada, taking with them “long train-loads of livestock, farm equipment, and household goods” (68).
The Willems family was part of this second migration. In 1899, the old father, Gerhard Willems, left Mountain Lake to join his daughter Elisabeth and her husband, John Quiring in the Rosthern area of Saskatchewan, Canada. In 1900, Cornelius, Elisabeth and their family joined them. Two of Gerhard’s other sons, Heinrich and Abraham Willems, as well as Gerhard’s oldest daughter, Anna (Siemens), also moved to Canada. One son, Johann Willems, moved to Nebraska; one daughter, Margareta, moved to North Dakota. Only one of Gerhard’s children stayed in Mountain Lake, his son Bernhard, who died there in 1912. Gerhard’s son Peter, who died in 1877, and his daughter Maria, who died in 1895, were buried there as well.
Members of the Boldt family also participated in the second migration. The old father Jacob Boldt died in 1896; and the old mother, Elisabeth, died in 1895. Both of them were buried in Mountain Lake. However, their oldest son, Jacob J. Boldt emigrated with his wife and children to Saskatchewan in 1901, the year after his sister Elisabeth, her husband Cornelius Willems and their children moved there. Brothers John, Henry and Cornelius as well as sister Maria (Falk) at some point moved to California, though exactly when I don’t know. Their brother Klass and sister Kathleen (Ratzlaff), however, stayed in Mountain Lake, dying there in 1952 and 1957 respectively.
A History of the Settlement of German Mennonites from Russia at Mountain Lake, Minnesota by Ferdinand P. Schultz, Teaching Assistant in History, University of Minnesota. Published by the author at University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, copyright, 1938. (Fletcher Press, John Fletcher College, University Park, Iowa).
(Schultz’ book is not easy to obtain. Very few libraries have it. Doing an inter-net search I found only one copy—the price $210. But in the piece that follows you will find extensive quotations taken directly from it.)
Schlabach, Theron F. Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America. “The Mennonite Experience in America,” vol. 2. Herald Press, 1988.
Hiebert, Clarence, ed. Brothers in Deed to Brothers in Need: A Scrapbook about Mennonite Immigrants from Russia 1870-1885. Published for Clarence Hiebert by Faith & Life Press, Newton, KS, 1974.
 Theron F. Schlabach. Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America. “The Mennonite Experience in America,” vol. 2. (Herald Press, 1988), p. 259..