Ep. 12 Mennonites and the Midas touch

Gerhard’s ancestors did not leave on the exodus of the 1870s. If they had, they would have settled in Kansas, Nebraska, Manitoba, or some other territory taken from some other indigenous people.[1] South America was also a popular destination. But no amount of pioneer hardship could compare to the suffering Gerhard and his family were destined to endure in the very near future.

steinbach estate

The Steinbach Estate was founded in 1812 by Klaas Wiens (1768-1821), the first Oberschulze (chief official) of the Molochna Colony.

It wasn’t all bad all the time:  in the ensuing decades Mennonites met with unimagined success in agriculture and industry, and Gerhard’s family also took advantage.

Land has always been at the root of the Mennonites’ successes in Russia; it set one apart from those who had no plot of earth to call their own. In hard times, it meant survival, in good times, status and wealth. Mennonites had been buying land on the open market since 1817, but when the tsar freed the serfs from their obligations, many Russian nobles lost their free labour supply and sold off their heavily mortgaged estates rather than attempt to farm them. Mennonite landowners, as well as other German immigrants, bought up Russian estates and ushered in the Golden Era of the Mennonite empire. Soon there would be more than 500 large Mennonite estates scattered from the Black Sea to Siberia, covering more than half a million hectares of land.

Estate Reimerhof

Reimerhof estate.

New Russia had one of the fastest expanding economies of any region of the Empire in the nineteenth century; cheap land, good soils and climate, an expanding population to provide cheap labour, good communications and vibrant local industry contributed to a thriving economy. Mennonites were ideally suited to take advantage of the situation. “In this regard the beneficence of the Russian government in the first seventy years of settlement should not be forgotten. The Mennonites received special loans, stock advice and other favours not generally available to most Russians.”[2]

The silk industry had mixed success, but sheep herding, mainly for wool, proved extremely profitable. Special merino sheep were introduced, and soon large herds were to be found all over Russia. The colonists prospered from the new industry, mainly from sheep kept in communal herds. Individuals, however, also began to farm on their own and to satisfy their increasing demand for pasture, rented vast tracks of grasslands from Russians on as yet unsettled crown land (including colony land), from Nogai Tartars and from private land owners.

After the 1840s the price of wool began to fall as competition from cheap Australian wool increased. The colonists had already diversified their economies, breeding good cattle, developing a dairying industry and planting more crops, particularly wheat. The estate owners likewise gradually turned to arable farming, increasing their incomes in the process. Land prices also rose rapidly, increasing the value of their owners’ capital.[3]

Mennonites took advantage of the profits made from the Crimean War and began buying land outside the colonies. “Often, families or friends purchased an estate from a Russian nobleman and divided it among themselves; the Krasnopol settlements began in this way and Khortitsa settlers founded similar estates.”[4]


Farmyard of Franz Martens in Rückenau, a typical Molochna home. Photo: Willi Vogt (Archiv Viktor Krieger).

Typical Russian peasant household 1910

Typical Russian peasant home.

As Mennonite landholdings increased so did their need for workers. In the past, landholders had intentionally repressed the landless to keep a ready labour force; economic interests and self-interest had overruled any concern with social justice or a sense of communal responsibility in a society based on religious principles.[5] Now, however Mennonites turned to Russian peasants and mechanization to maximize the production of their lands. [6]


I.J. Neufeld Factory in Waldheim, Molochna, manufactured agricultural implements. A residence is pictured in the inset.

Most estates with more than 500 desiatin[7] [520 hectares] employed 10-20 full-time workers and 40-100 extra seasonal workers, though sometimes this could be over 200 on larger estates. Household staff also varied in size with anything from 3 to 10 staff, including maids, a coachman and, in later years, a chauffeur.[8]

G. D. Neufeld Maschinen-Fabrik in Sofiejewka, Ukraine

G.D. Neufeld machine factory near Kiev.

Mennonite estate owners, like slavery-era plantation owners of America’s south, used cheap labour, cultivated large tracts of land and many developed self-sufficient communities on their estates far from any villages. Most American plantations covered between 200-400 hectares, with the largest plantation covering more than 3,000 hectares. The average Mennonite estate covered 800 hectares. Wilhelm Martens’ estate was the largest at more than 120,000 hectares. While Mennonites did not own slaves they “… hired Russian labourers whom they treated as serfs, if not slaves, much as did the Russian landowners around them.”[9]

Mennonite estate owners acted like nobles and participated in the system which oppressed its own people and the people of the country in which they were guests. “Like Negroes in the southern United States, serfs had no legal rights, no means of redress and no escape; they and their descendants were slaves in perpetuity.”[10]

The relationship of master and servant in the Russian environment was of long standing and well entrenched. Many of the peasants had been serfs or children of serfs, and a sense of hierarchy and subservience in relationships was difficult to change. Mennonites adopted many of these attitudes in their dealings with workers; employees were occasionally physically abused and rough justice was meted out to any caught stealing or suspected of other misdemeanours.[11]

The most severe abuse suffered by non-Mennonite labour was punishment for theft. Once a Mennonite discovered a Russian in his grain bin filling bags with grain. Since it was late Saturday afternoon, the Mennonite simply nailed up the grain bin with the Russian in it. Monday morning he notified the mayor’s office and the deputies came, extracted the thief and flogged him (Cal Redekop personal communication).[12]

J.P. Neufeld had what might be considered a fairly large estate near Gulyaipole of 1,500 hectares of wheat. He had 40 horses, 50 oxen, 30 cows, and 40 sheep besides geese, chickens and ducks. On site were a sawmill, blacksmith shop and a carpenter shop, employing 20 full time workers and 100 seasonal workers as well as ten house servants.[13]

map of David Jakob Dick estate

Map of David Jakob Dick estate. Dick acquired more than 8,000 hectares before he and his wife were murdered in 1919.

Here is a description of a typical large Mennonite estate:

The estate buildings were typically laid out in a loose square or rectangle around a central Hof or courtyard dominated by the gorizitsa, or manor house, on one side, and the horse barns and carriage sheds on the opposite side. A magnificent ornamental flower and shrub bed known as a rondell was placed at the centre of the yard. The rest of the outbuildings – barns, granaries, machine sheds, often a smithy and/or carpenter’s shop, married employees’ cottages, barracks for single workers, workers’ kitchen, and often a school – were situated on the flanking sides of the courtyard. The manor house could vary from a modest two-story dwelling of brick (wood in earlier times) to a handsome, architecturally distinctive mansion of quarried stone with 15 to 20 rooms, such as the one owned by the Jacob Dyck family at Steinbach or the Johann Dick mansion at Rosenhof. On these two estates even the barns and other buildings were handsome stone buildings of the same general design as the manor. “Behind the manor there was always a spacious well-laid-out garden-orchard with cherry, apple and pear trees and other exotic fruits like peaches and apricots if the estate was in the south. Beyond the garden or adjoining it there was usually a man-made brook or small lake bordered by stately trees.”[14]

The permanent staff on a fair-sized estate might consist of a prikaschnik, an overseer, who was usually a Mennonite or Lutheran German, a liveried coachman (usually a Russian), a gardener, steward, smith and/or carpenter, a night watchman, stable boys and cowherds. Inside the manor, the estate owner’s wife supervised a female staff that might consist of a cook, a nursemaid and several maids or domestics, usually Russian. During the summer, when there were many seasonal workers to be fed, the domestic staff had their work cut out to provide fresh bread (baked daily), borscht (at least twice a day) and other plain but hearty food to the kuchnia, the workers’ kitchen. The married workers on the estate cooked their meals in their own quarters.[15]

Some estate owners hired a Gesellschafter (companion) to keep company with their young sons. “… a young married man who lived in a rent-free cottage in the garden with his wife, widowed mother and sister, and whose main duty was to serve as a companion… The Gesellschafter was furnished with his own stable and some land he could work.”[16]

Some estates had private tracks for racing their horses and others organized fox hunts with packs of greyhounds.[17]

Playhouse for the Dick children

Playhouse for the David Jakob Dick children.

How did Gerhard share in the wealth of the times? His father’s 32 hectares could have been his  share of the land equally divided between his father and the uncles. It is likely his grandfather also kept a plot of his own. While for Gerhard there was no ornate playhouse on a vast estate, clearly they were considered well off.



[1] https://www.kshs.org/p/gateways-to-the-promised-land/13149, for an excellent description of the method for acquiring land in United States in 1893, accessed February 9, 2018.

[2] Urry,  James, “Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth the Mennonite  Experience in Imperial Russia,” Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 3, 1985, page 14.

[3] Ibid., page 15/16.

[4] Ibid., page 16.

[5] Ibid., page 20.

[6] Ibid., page 17.

[7] Russian land measurement equal to approximately 1.1 hectares.

[8] Urry, op. cit., page 17.

[9] Loewen, Jacob A. and Prieb, Wesley J. Only the Sword of the Spirit,  Kindred Productions, Winnipeg, Manitoba, 1997.

[10] Sixsmith, Martin, Russia, A 1,000 Year Chronicle of the Wild East, The Overlook Press, New York NY, 2011, page 131.

[11] Urry, op. cit., page 24.

[12] Loewen, Jacob A. and Prieb, Wesley J., The Abuse of Power Among Mennonites  in South Russia – 1789-1919, Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 14, 1996, page 21

[13] Huebert, Helmut, Mennonite Estates in Imperial Russia, Kindred Productions, 2005, page 38.

[14] Reimer, Al, Peasant Aristocracy: The Mennonite Gutsbesitzertum in Russia, Journal of Mennonite Studies Vol. 8, 1990, page 83.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., page 85.

[17] Ibid., page 85.

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