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Kansas author Glenn Ediger left no threshing stone unturned as he embarked on a historical treasure hunt for the tools used by the Mennonites who settled in and around central Kansas. From his own front yard to Threshing Days in Gossel, he uncovered the unique set of events that brought some of the most innovative farmers in the world to Kansas and established hard red winter wheat as a Kansas staple. He recently shared what he learned with listeners of the “Wheat’s On Your Mind” podcast.
“Probably no year holds more significance to the wheat industry in Kansas than 1874,” said Aaron Harries, host of the “Wheat’s On Your Mind” podcast and Kansas Wheat vice president of research and operations. “That was the year Mennonite immigrants from Ukraine came to Kansas to escape the loss of their religious freedom.”
“They came at the invitation of the state of Kansas and the Santa Fe Railroad to develop the prairie into a rich and productive agricultural economy. These groups of families brought with them Turkey Red winter wheat, and as they say, the rest is history. But there’s so much more to this story.”
An invitation and an escape
From the establishment of their religion, the Mennonites had a reputation for being good, industrious farmers. As a result of this reputation and their continued pursuit of religious freedom, their communities moved from their origins in the Netherlands to Prussia (what is now Poland) to develop lands for farming. Later, when religious freedoms in the country were curtailed, the Mennonites took the invitation of Catherine the Great to relocate to western Russia (what is now Ukraine) in the late 1700s and early 1800s. That included Ediger’s ancestors, who moved to Russia in 1810 and farmed there for roughly 60 years.
“They did create a fertile farming culture with a lot of innovations — what types of crops to grow and how to better preserve crops and how to influence better growth with things like fertilization and summer fallow,” Ediger explained. “They really advanced that with creating and developing alternative hard winter wheats that were quite successful in that community.”
Recruitment by the railroad
Around this time, Kansas was being marketed as the crown jewel for agriculture in the United States, driven by the construction of the railroad. But, the region needed more people and more commerce, so the Santa Fe railroad drove a campaign to recruit more settlers from other countries to move to Kansas, including the Mennonites. Those efforts included Carl B. Schmidt, who was an implement dealer recruited by the railroads to encourage the Mennonites to move to the United States.
“C.B. Schmidt was an implement dealer; he spoke German; and Schmidt is a common Mennonite name, even though he was not Mennonite,” Ediger said. “There was competition to get the Mennonites to the United States all through the Midwest, from Canada down through Oklahoma. So Carl went to Ukraine and talked to local Mennonites and convinced them how wonderful Kansas was.”
The railroad also paid for ambassadors from the Mennonites to come to tour the Central Plains, including surveying different properties. In the end, Kansas had the most appealing set of laws (religious freedoms and the promise of not being conscripted into the military), availability of land they could afford, fertile ground and climate similar to where they were currently farming. The railroad made the deal even sweeter by building homes for early immigrants and supplying seed for the first wheat crops planted.
Planting the seed for Turkey Red wheat
And so Mennonites came to Kansas and brought with them their agricultural innovations and their hard red wheats, including hand-picked seeds packed into large jars and sacks. This Turkey Red wheat was a hardy variety, was planted in the fall and could withstand Kansas’ cold and dry winters. The new wheat could take advantage of the moisture that arrives in the winter and early spring and then be harvested in early summer. While the adoption of this new class of wheat took time, its introduction revolutionized the wheat industry in Kansas, and Turkey Red wheat is now the ancestor to all hard red winter wheat varieties grown across the plains today.
“Part of that slow adoption was that the milling industry was just not ready for it; their technology was targeted towards soft wheat,” Ediger said. “But over time they found out that the hard winter wheat was much better quality.”
“It took many years to get the acreage developed, but it really then did become the most desirable wheat in the world. There was nothing like it at that point in time.”
Perfecting agricultural practices
Along with Turkey Red wheat, the Mennonites also brought game-changing farming practices, including leaving fields fallow in between planting cycles, applying fertilizer to fields and using large threshing stones to separate the wheat kernels from the stalks that enveloped them. The basic process of threshing wheat is the same today as it was thousands of years ago, as Ediger explained.
“Back then, they would grab a stack of heads and beat it against a rock to thresh the wheat. And then you had to separate the chaff from the wheat,” Ediger said. “That’s the same process that the modern combine does technically — cut the wheat, thresh to break the grain out of the heads, and then separate the grain from the chaff.”
The process is the same whether someone takes a stalk of wheat out of the field and rubs it in their hand, uses a flail to beat out the wheat kernels or has horses trot over wheat piles to remove the grain — all of which have been done around the world.
Or one can use a threshing stone. A threshing stone is a stone, usually limestone, that is rolled over the grain to thresh the kernels out. It is a big piece of stone, 30 inches long and 24 inches in diameter with seven grooves carved around it, giving the appearance of a gear, and weighing between 400 and 800 pounds. In the middle, there’s a hole drilled that would go through for an axle, which would be supported by two wooden or steel beams that could come around the front so it could be hooked up to horses. The horses could go around in a circle pulling the stone over the grain.
This process takes place on a threshing floor, which would be hard-packed dirt in Kansas or Ukraine. Threshing could take a long time. The wheat would be piled up and this stone would be pulled in a circle of the pile and the grain would fall to the bottom of the floor. People with pitchforks and rakes would keep stirring the straw, and the straw would be thrown to the outside so the grain drops to the floor and would be scooted and shoveled toward the center. Then they had to blow away the lightweight chaff to keep the grain there. Farmers would use the wind.
“On the right day, you’d take a shovel and throw the wheat and the chaff up in the air and the wind would blow the chaff and the wheat would fall to the ground,” Ediger said. “That’s the final step of threshing.”
The threshing stone was not exclusive to Mennonites, having been used by the Romans, Chinese and Australians, but they perfected it, especially since Kansas limestone quarries — like that in Chase County — provided perfectly suited stones.
A stony Kansas treasure hunt
While useful, the threshing stones became obsolete rather quickly in Kansas due to the development of threshing machines, which were horse-powered and later steam-powered. This makes finding threshing stones in Kansas relatively difficult.
After his wife inherited a threshing stone from his family, Ediger decided to see what research had been done into their background. He discovered not much research had been conducted other than general basic knowledge, so he set off on a treasure hunt to find as many as he could in order to photograph and document them. That included going to community events, like the Threshing Days festivals in Gossel, and other places where people gathered to celebrate the threshing process.
He was surprised to find most of the stones in a four-county area of Marion, McPherson, Reno and Harvey counties — Mennonite turf. He discovered the threshing stone was even adopted at one time as the mascot for Bethel College. Eventually, he compiled his learnings into the book, “Leave No Threshing Stone Unturned,” which shares the history of the Mennonites and their threshing stones.
Today, threshing stones have been replaced by combines. The remaining stones are now used for yard decorations, others are used for salt licks for cattle, some are even bases for lamps or flags. But their influence on the wheat industry — along with the Mennonites who still farm in central Kansas — remains as steadfast as stone.
Learn more about the history of Mennonites and threshing stones in Kansas and other topics by exploring all episodes of the “Wheat’s On Your Mind” podcast at wheatsonyourmind.com.
Written by Julia Debes for Kansas Wheat