Early one morning in September of 1854, Elias Wipf harnessed his favorite horse Tänzer (Dancer) to a small wagon in the stable. Always eager to go, the large black stallion often engaged in a prancing trot when he felt good; he was a handsome high-stepper.
Elias lived with his family in Hutterthal, the Hutterite settlement to the southwest of Melitopol in south Russia. His father, Johann, had given him permission for a journey out to purchase some seed wheat from the Molotschna Mennonites, who lived in more than 50 villages in the region across the Molotschna River, about 30 miles northeast of Hutterthal. Elias hoped to improve the yield for the next year’s wheat harvest, and planting time was approaching.
The Hutterites had moved to Hutterthal from Radichev, far to the north along the Desna River, in 1819, at the invitation of Johann Cornies, a prominent agricultural and architectural reformer among the Mennonites in south Russia. Having sought refuge in Radichev from persecution in Transylvania, Hungary and Tyrolia, the Hutterites’ sojourn there was short. Cornies wanted to help them, and he owned land they could settle in an area not far from the Molotschna region. He had lived and died, in 1848, in Ohrloff, the nearest sizeable village Elias would come to. Elias knew of Cornies and intended to make Ohrloff his destination to inquire about the seed wheat.
Elias was of marriageable age but still single and living with his family. They did not live in the communal Hutterite style. The group the Wipfs were part of had had left Radichev following dissension between two leaders, one who favored the traditional bruderhof lifestyle and one who did not, at least not in their current situation, and then a fire that destroyed all their buildings. After dividing the remaining property, the colony of just 58 needed to move. With Cornies’ help, they settled in a new community as independent farmers, which became Hutterthal.
Gradually the community recovered its material prosperity and spiritual balance. Their numbers grew, and they established two daughter settlements. In 1859, several of the poorer families from these three villages would join to form a new bruderhof, called Hutterdorf, and the communal life was present once again. Elias’s family was interested, and though he was not sure it would be the best way forward, he would go with his family’s views.
However, Elias also had a spirit of adventure, and he had more goals than seed wheat for this trip across the river. In the highly structured and strict culture of the Hutterites, a young man was given the choice of three young women in the church to marry. If he didn’t agree to any of the three, he had to wait another year. Elias was in the waiting period, and he was of a mind to see what the Mennonite girls of Molotschna were like. He also yearned to see other places and learn how their occupants lived and farmed.
Tänzer snorted his impatience, raring to go. He whinnied as Elias led him out. Elias had grown up with his family’s horses, and it had become his assigned job in the community to oversee the horses. He climbed up into the wagon seat, released the brake and gently shook the reins. Tänzer surged forth and they were instantly rolling out to the road, the horse’s hooves striking out a crisp staccato rhythm.
The morning was cool and pleasant. This early in the day, only a few neighbors were out doing chores, and those who were waved or nodded. They knew of his journey, and everyone would soon know he had left early as promised. Some had bought shares for the seed wheat.
The rough, narrow road ran through farmland for a short way before fading into unfarmed steppe, land Elias thought could be suitable for farming eventually. Upon reaching the wider main road going northeast, the ride became smoother, and soon took him to the outskirts of Melitopol, where he observed many orchards. In this small city, he was impressed with the number of markets along the street selling fruit of all kinds. Some vendors appeared to be Jewish and others Russian. He stopped and bought two melons and a box of peaches.
He drove on through the busy town and emerged from its northeast side, coming to a modest bridge across the narrow and shallow Molotschna River. The road ran beside the river for a mile before the river turned south toward the Crimea. Here, Elias and Tänzer went north, sticking to a good road. For several miles, the swampy river wound back and forth on the left. Small farms lay to the right. Elias enjoyed seeing the country here, which was new to him. Some farms looked good, but there were many poor hovels, and he saw some destitute-looking men walking the road. He stopped to give away a few peaches.
Tänzer kept to a spirited trot, covering the distance quickly. They left the river road at the north edge of Altonau, clearly a Mennonite village. Elias heard villagers along the road speaking Low German, similar enough to his Hutterisch that he could understand it. He stopped at a stable to give Tänzer a drink and a short rest. Then they turned on to a lesser road that ran straight east about two miles and took them into Ohrloff.
Elias slowed Tänzer to a walk as they entered this larger Mennonite village. The road broadened, packed smooth, with a brick fence running along it in some places. Neat rows of mulberry trees stretched out from the buildings to the south. Elias passed a well-kept school and then saw the large Mennonite church tucked back off the main street a little, not far from the narrow Kuruschan River that wound along the north side of the village. Tidy farms extended to the south with their houses and barns set in a row along the road. Large kitchen gardens edged with flowers lay among the buildings. The village was busy with women tending gardens and some men standing along the street visiting.
Near a shop, Elias stopped among some of these men, who stood with their buggies and horses, talking loudly in their Low German dialect. He set his wagon brake, hopped down and walked up to introduce himself: “Guten tag. How goes it?”
“That is a lot of horse, friend! He pulls a two-horse Hutterite wagon pretty good, yo?” The man was friendly and must have had a horseman’s eye. “Did you drive this morning from Hutterthal?” He had correctly recognized Elias’ origins. Other men were looking over his horse and wagon as well. Elias thought they might be noticing the different cut of his coat and his broad, black hat.
“Ach, ya, he’s our best. He thought it was a just a good, easy run this morning from Hutterthal, yah. But he’ll rest awhile now, and he wants a drink.” Elias enunciated a little to make his Tyrolian German clear to these “Dutchmen.”
“You can let him drink there,” said a tall, thin man in a straw hat, pointing into what was apparently his yard. “My name’s Abe Peters. This is Gerhard Enns and Heinrich Ediger. That man who wants to buy your horse is Isaac Wiens.” And they all laughed and shook hands.
“I’ve come here to Ohrloff to look for some seed wheat for our planting this fall. Who can I ask about that?” ventured Elias as he led Tänzer through the open gate to a watering trough. The men followed.
Then Gerhard Enns said, “Nay, I don’t know, but you could ask at Bernhard Fast’s. He’s the village elder and he’s supposed to know. We sure think he can help you. He knows everybody’s business good enough.”
This brought more laughter, but all the men nodded. “He lives just there at the second farm down, and I think he’s inside napping after dinner. You can see him now. We’ll watch your horse. I’ll bring out some corn for him.”
“Danke sehr. I appreciate it.” And Elias tipped his black hat and strode down the road.
Fast was at home, sitting on the porch swing with his wife. Their garden was visible to the right, looking good. The woman was peeling potatoes, shucking the peels into a bucket, and smiled when she saw him. Fast was older and heavyset, with a short, graying beard and wire spectacles. He got up to greet Elias.
“Hello, young man! I am Bernhard Fast. What can I do for you?”
“Guten tag! I am Elias Wipf from Hutterthal. I’ve come to Ohrloff to ask about buying some seed wheat. The land looks good here. I met some men up the road there who said you might have some advice. They are tending my horse.”
“Gut, yo, gut… then that’s very nice to see you here. Moin, meine freund! I think I can help you a little, but I don’t know anyone here who has had such a good crop to have extra to sell. Why don’t you sit down with us, and we can talk that over?”
He went on, “Anna can make a good dinner for you. I think you will have to go farther on to Sparrau. Some have had a good crop there. Your horse can rest now.”
“That’s kind of you. Danke sehr!” Elias replied. “I don’t want to make too much trouble, but that sounds nice. I am interested in how the farming goes here in Molotschna.”
“Ach, no – no trouble,” Bernhard said, and Anna nodded agreement. “We’ll have a good visit, and we’d like to hear how things are in Hutterthal.”
They visited over a meal of sausage, fried potatoes with gravy, and green beans, all full of good German flavor. Elias met the couple’s two teenage daughters, who joined in the meal and conversation. Bernhard and Anna were quite interested in the Hutterite community and how their church life was, while the girls wanted to know whether there was a bruderhof and how the people lived.
After the meal and visiting, Elias said he should retrieve his horse and wagon and make his way to Sparrau. When he came back with Tänzer, the girls offered to brush the big stallion.
Bernhard gave Elias the name of the Peter Kroeker family in Sparrau and said he should ask about seed wheat there – they would probably have some. Then the Fast family saw him off and wished him luck. Tänzer took the bit and pranced onto the road, which made the girls squeal with delight.
The road led east along the Kuruschan River, through a succession of Mennonite villages. The land looked good along the way, and Elias noted more mulberry hedges, corn and hay fields, and even a few fields of tobacco.
Just beyond Gnadenfeld, the road forked, and Elias stopped. He saw a worker plowing stubble in a small field beside the road. The man spoke only Russian, but through gestures and simple Russian, Elias understood the man to say he should go to the left, and Sparrau would be only a little farther.
Elias thanked him in his crude Russian and guided Tänzer to the left, and indeed, it was just over a mile to his destination. Sparrau was larger, and nearly continuous with a small village on its west side, Konteniusfeld.
Stopping in Sparrau on the main road, Elias asked a man in a buggy if he knew of the Peter Kroeker farm, and he found that it lay prominently in the center of the village, looking like an estate with a large house and barn. Elias found it easily and pulled Tänzer to a stop at the house.
He saw a tall man, who looked to be in his mid-30s, working with a boy, similarly tall, to spread straw mulch among potatoes and strawberries in the garden. They stopped and looked up when he arrived.
“Guten tag! I am Elias Wipf from Hutterthal,” he said as he walked up to the pair. “Would you be Peter Kroeker?”
“Peace be with you, Herr Wipf!” The man’s voice was slow and deep. “Yo, I am Peter Kroeker. This is my oldest son, Abraham. That is a fine animal hitched to your wagon. Have you come here to sell him?”
Kroeker smiled and leaned forward on his pitchfork, taking in the grandeur of the stallion, before putting out his hand to shake Elias’s.
“Ach, nein,” Elias replied, smiling back. “I’ll keep this one. I came from Hutterthal as far as Ohrloff, and there I spoke with Bernhard and Anna Fast. I am hoping to buy some seed wheat, and Fast thought I should come here to Sparrau to ask if you would have some to sell.”
“You have come a long way, then! Bring your horse and wagon over to the barn.” Kroeker gestured toward the building where two young boys were already coming to see what visitor with such a horse had arrived.
“The boys will take care of him. We can go and sit inside. It gets hot now, and I think you can rest from your long drive. We will visit about some wheat, yo?”
Maria Kroeker met them at the door with two more of the children. This was a large family. She had a kind face that made Elias feel welcome. A daughter went to fetch some cool water, and Elias sat down at a large dining table with Peter, Abraham and Maria. She was more talkative and asked about his trip and his family. Elias maintained his clear enunciation, and she remarked that his Hutterish German sounded good to her. When she switched to High German, which she had learned in school, it sounded more familiar to his ear. She even asked if he liked to sing the Hutterite hymns, saying she had heard some.
They visited for a while as two daughters prepared and served a light faspa supper. Later, in the long summer evening, Peter and Abrahm took Elias on a walking tour of the farm and showed him a bin in the barn with a sizeable store of seed wheat. Elias thought it looked good, and they agreed on a price. They invited Elias to come to church with the family the next day, and he was pleased to accept their offer.
The next morning Elias arose early, as was his habit, and accompanied the boys to do the chores. There were six cows to milk and then put out to pasture, as well as chickens and horses to feed.
They came in for breakfast, eight around the large oval table. Elias felt like a special guest and quickly grew to enjoy the Kroekers. The men were quiet and reserved, but Maria and the younger children seemed talkative and curious.
Once the dishes were cleared and washed, the family dressed and got ready for the long ride to the Alexanderwohl branch church in Margenau. They were all able to ride in the family’s large wagon pulled by a team of four fine horses. Their route first took them through villages Elias had passed the day before, but then turned northward to Margenau, altogether a trip of nearly three hours.
The church at Margenau occupied a well-made building with balconies on three sides, and held a large congregation, derived from the original Ohrloff-Petershagen-Halbstadt church. In 1874, the original Alexanderwohl church (in the Alexanderwohl village) would migrate en masse to Goessel, Kansas, leaving behind the associated congregations in Russia.
The men sat on one side and women on the other. There was singing of hymns, and Elias was impressed with the many voices, strong and blended in harmony on some songs that were unfamiliar to him. There was preaching in High German, which took him by surprise. Though easy to understand, it was not inspiring.
He found himself watching a young woman sitting two rows forward near the center aisle. When she stood after the preaching, he could see the profile of her broad face, and it appealed to him. When she sang hymns after the preaching, she looked involved and devout, and he thought he could hear her clear voice above the others. She was tall – he judged she was as tall as he – but not thin. She looked strong. At the end of the service, she joined other young women, though he guessed her to be a little older than most of them.
When he found the Kroeker family outside, Elias asked Maria about the young woman, indicating as best he could where she had been sitting.
“Ach, that would be Agatha Kornelsen,” said Maria. “Yo, she is a very nice girl from Konteniusfeld. We know the family. They came here from Fischau. They are all hard workers, and she is very good watching the younger children, but she works outside, too. She has an older sister, Helena, a younger sister, Katharina, and four younger brothers. Would you like to meet her?”
“If it’s no trouble for you, yah, I think so.” Elias was a little embarrassed, but he put it aside since Maria seemed quite willing. He thought Maria might be something of a matchmaker, though he understood he was a Hutterite man asking to meet a “Dutch” Mennonite woman, and he didn’t know what these folks here in Molotschna would think about that.
“Ach, it is no trouble, that’s for sure,” Maria said. “We will have a faspa here soon before we go home. You sit with us, and I will make sure we will be at a table with the Kornelsens. Agatha will know, and she will sit with us.” Then she left to make the arrangement, threading her way among clusters of people visiting.
In a little while, all made their way into the church basement, where many long tables were set up. Elias found Maria, visiting with Agatha and her mother across one of the tables. Maria motioned for Elias to sit next to her, directly across from Agatha, who nodded her head and smiled as he scooted up to the table.
“Agatha and Helena, this is Elias Wipf from Hutterthal. He has come to us just yesterday. He wants to buy seed wheat and he is staying with us until he goes back. Elias, this is Helena Kornelsen and her daughter Agatha. They are from Konteniusfeld – we saw it when we left Sparrau this morning.” The two women greeted him politely.
Agatha appeared to Elias to be in her early 20s, with light brown hair and dark brown eyes. Her face was wide and handsome, and her shoulders and arms looked broad and strong, yet graceful. She was not shy, and she was aware that there were only a couple of eligible men her age in the congregation.
“From Hutterthal?” she asked. He nodded, and she continued, “I know of your settlement, but you are the first I have met. I am interested to learn more. Does our Molotschna land look different to you?”
Elias nodded and smiled. “The farmland here looks good. Many villages I have seen already, and they look prosperous and advanced. I have seen good-looking livestock, hedges of mulberry trees for the silk industry, windmills, grain storage bins, and even shops for dyeing cloth, making shoes and selling farm equipment. The churches are large and well-built. It is an impressive area for my Hutterite eyes. But we are still young in this Russian land. I have heard stories from my grandparents about old country times when we had better development. But there has been much persecution in our history because of our bruderhof style and our spiritual life.”
Agatha liked hearing Elias speak. His Hutterisch sounded proper, and his voice was strong. He had described his impressions well, indicating he made good observations, which were gratifying to hear, but not aimed to flatter. His face looked honest and expressive. She did wonder about the Hutterites and had many questions, but didn’t want to be intrusive.
“It is nice to hear you have favorable impressions,” Agatha said. “Things have improved for our farming life. I am sure they will for your community, too. I can see that your seamstresses have skill, and the style is different.” Mother Helena nodded agreement.
Elias looked down as his shirt cuffs and fasteners, a little embarrassed. “I didn’t bring church clothes along on this journey – these are my work clothes.”
“Ach, yo, of course! But the stitching shows careful work.” She laughed reassuringly, and he felt at ease. Plates of food were passed and the four of them continued to talk while they ate. Abraham, who knew Agatha, joined in occasionally.
It was a good time of visiting, and Agatha and Elias began to admire one another. She asked him further about Hutterthal and his family, and he obliged and described them, adding some color and humor. She had a ready laugh. In turn, he asked about Konteniusfeld and her family. She included a funny story about her young brothers who were prone to misbehave whenever they could. Church members came by to pour coffee, and they all enjoyed molasses cookies with it.
As some around them began getting up to leave, Peter came by with the younger children. It was time to go, he told them – chores were waiting at home. As they walked out, Agatha invited Elias to stop in Konteniusfeld if he wasn’t too rushed to get back to Hutterthal, and he quickly agreed. Then he climbed into the wagon with the Kroeker family, Peter and Abraham seated in front driving the horses. Once underway, the family settled in for the long ride home in relative quiet. The youngest ones slept in the middle on a blanket.
* * *
Elias stayed with the Kroekers the next day, helping with the chores in the morning. In the afternoon, he and Abraham filled a few burlap bags with seed wheat from the bin, while the younger brothers brought his wagon up to the bin and loaded the bags. Elias saw the melons he had bought in Melitopol and took one inside to give to Maria. The Kroekers noticed it was a different variety from the ones they grew, and everyone liked its sweet flavor.
That evening, they sat in the parlor adjacent to the dining room, eventually lighting the lamps, and Abraham brought out a bottle of home-brewed apricot brandy and some small glasses. Elias felt delighted in the cozy atmosphere. The adults sipped the brandy and talked about apricot trees, farming, the preacher and the weather, while the children played a game.
Peter grew more talkative. He and Maria spoke of some dissatisfaction they knew about, coming from reform-minded people in the church. These often described a feeling of wariness about the growing “worldliness” they noticed – worldliness and a lack of genuine Christian spirit. Then too, the Kroekers related, there were some in Sparrau and other villages who weren’t doing so well, having less and less land while a few were amassing large estates. Maria said some just liked to complain. Peter, more reticent, allowed they had fair arguments. He also mentioned that some of the Mennonites were not treating their hired Russian peasant workers quite right.
The next morning, Elias went out to the barn and gave Tänzer some oats at the watering trough before bringing him out and hitching him to the wagon. Then he went in to have breakfast with the Kroekers and to say his farewells. He agreed to come back again sometime and tell them how the wheat was doing.
As he climbed up into the seat, Maria came out with a some zwiebach tied in a blue-and-white-checkered cloth. As she gave it to him, she asked if he was stopping in Konteniusfeld to visit Agatha before going home. He shrugged and nodded, smiling. As he shook the reins and Tänzer took the bit, he wondered how she knew.
* * *
Elias found the Kornelsen farm easily – Agatha was in the garden in the front weeding with her younger sister Katharina. When they caught sight of Tänzer trotting toward them, they stood up, visibly gasping, and then smiled at Elias as he jumped down from the wagon with a melon in his hand.
“Guten tag!” he said cheerfully. “I have a small gift from Melitopol.” He handed the melon to Katharina and she looked down at it, speechless. He reached out his other hand and shook the sisters’ hands in turn.
“Moin, moin!” responded Agatha with a warm smile, taking his calloused hand with both of hers. “Thank you for stopping. You have a wonderful horse! He likes to prance, yo? Oh… have you had your breakfast?”
“He is my favorite horse, Tänzer. Yah, he can prance, living up to his name, nicht? Und ya, I ate at the Kroekers’ house just now, danke. They have been good hosts for me.”
“Elias, I wanted to give you our postal address so that you can write a letter if you get time away from your planting. You can let me know how it goes.” Agatha reached into her apron pocket and withdrew a small slip of paper with her name and address on it. “I will write a letter for you if I get yours.”
“Ya, for sure, I can do that. I will let you know if the Kroeker wheat sprouts and grows good. I should go now, but I want to tell you how nice it was to meet you here in Molotschna, and that you are welcome to come visit me with my family in Hutterthal. Maybe there will be a day in November before it gets too cold, ya? I can show you our village and our small church. You too should come, Katharina. Ask your father if he would drive you, and we will have room for you all to stay a few days.”
He shook their hands again and turned to go. Up on his wagon seat, he took the reins and turned to look back. They were smiling and waving, thinking he cut a dashing figure in his broad black hat behind the big black horse. Tänzer sprang forward with a sideways kick and the wagon shook into motion. He heard a burst of laughter and then was gone.
* * *
The new wheat looked green in the fields by mid-October. Elias and Agatha wrote letters, and after several letters, they decided she should visit. Agatha’s father, Abraham, and Katharina, now 16, made the trip with Agatha.
It was an interesting visit for the Kornelsens, with many revelations about Hutterite life. They stayed three days. On the last day, Elias proposed to Agatha. He suggested they plan their life together in the bruderhof, now in the development stage.
Agatha was thrilled but told Elias she must talk it over with her parents, and he agreed. During the trip back to Konteniusfeld, Agatha informed her father and sister of Elias’s proposal. Abraham seemed pleased that she had found a strong, hardworking man she liked, but he had reservations about her joining the communal life of the bruderhof. Katharina was simply excited.
Back home, Abraham and Helena discussed their worries along with their good impressions. In the meantime, Helena had visited with the Kroekers, who had only positive things to say about Elias. Eventually the parents agreed, and began planning a wedding for the next year, in October 1855. It all came to pass.
* * *
Only a few years later, news of “Russianization,” an initiative by governing authorities to make all German immigrants regular Russian citizens, began spreading throughout Molotschna and Hutterthal. In the 1860s, the Russian authorities began gradually taking special privileges away. They mandated using Russian language in schools, which were now supervised by the imperial educational establishment. Military or alternative service for young men came to be required, ending this important exemption for Mennonites and Hutterites. As special privileges for all German colonists were gradually abolished, Russian citizenship ensued. All of this was formalized by 1870.
Talk of emigration began propagating in the Mennonite and Hutterite villages. Elias and Agatha, too, discussed and considered it. Bruderhof life suited Elias well enough, and Agatha came to accept it, appreciating the way all were so well taken care of. But in light of the loss of privileges and advancing Russianization, it seemed bruderhof life was doomed. Agatha and Elias could not see a promising future for their growing family in Hutterthal and, though bruderhof life overall had been favorable, early life for their offspring was not. The sad loss of children intertwined with the family’s move to the United States in 1876. Eleven children were born to the couple but only three survived to old age. Thus family life was unremittingly sorrowful.
Agatha and Elias moved with their four older girls and two young boys, casting their lot with those deciding to settle in Kansas, and joining the Molotschna Mennonites who settled near Inman in McPherson County. Agatha’s Mennonite family connections helped them decide on this path, rather than the James River Valley in the Dakotas where most of the Hutterites they knew settled. The struggling family hoped for a better life in Kansas.
Third daughter Maria K. Wipf was born in Hutterthal and likely grew up in the bruderhof to age 15. She eventually married Johann Esau in Kansas.
Johann became a leader in the Zoar Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church two miles south and one west of Inman. Johann sought training in Bible and religion at Bethel College in North Newton when he found himself chosen by the church for leadership. He grew to be a well-known Zoar patriarch, pastor of the congregation, and a conference leader. He travelled for conference purposes a great deal. Their farm was three miles west of Inman. Maria K. and the children struggled and managed the farm. The family was blessed with eight children, who all lived well into adulthood. One of their daughters, born in 1893, was Agatha Esau, likely named after her maternal grandmother Agatha Kornelsen Wipf.
The author (Darrell Wiens) is connected to the tale of Elias and Agatha. In the story, Elias is hosted by the Kroeker family in Sparrau, and buys his seed wheat from them. The visit is fiction, and Tänzer lived only in the author’s imagination.
Gerhard T. Kroeker, the grandson of Peter and Maria Kroeker, migrated at age 5 with his family to Kansas, grew up in Buhler and eventually married Aganetha Rempel. Their first son was Abraham R. Kroeker, born in 1893, probably in rural Buhler. Abraham was raised there, and eventually married Agatha Esau, the daughter of the pastor, Johann Esau, of the Zoar Krimmer Mennonite Brethren Church near Inman, Kansas, and Maria K. Wipf, the granddaughter of Elias and Agatha Wipf. Thus, the Hutterite Wipf and the Mennonite Kroeker families were eventually united in (another) Agatha. Agatha and Abraham had one daughter, Mary Esther Kroeker, the author’s mother, who told her children the story of her “Hutterite ancestor who crossed the Molotschna River to find a wife.”
Tragically, Abraham Kroeker took his own life by hanging in the barn on the farm two miles west and one north of Buhler, at the age of 25. We can only guess at the reasons that lay behind his suicide in 1918.
Upon his death, which must have been dealt with by Pastor Johann Esau and Maria K. Wipf Esau in the Zoar congregation, Agatha and her 2-year-old daughter Mary moved in with her parents on the farm west of Inman. However, Agatha soon remarried, in 1919, to Peter A. Goertzen, and they settled on a “river farm” near Medora in Reno County, Kansas. There, Mary eventually gained half-sisters Pauline, Josephine and Alyce.
Mary married Menno Simon Wiens of rural Inman, and they embarked on a farming life not far from the Zoar church. Mary’s great-uncle, John T. Kroeker, came often to help Menno and Mary with the farm work. The land they worked was rented from the Kroekers, who had purchased it from a Peters family who had moved to Canada, likely to avoid military service for their sons in World War I. Menno and Mary raised their family in the large foursquare house with two large barns on 12 acres they had bought from the Kroekers.