Past and Present

Jewish World Review June 2, 2000 / 28 Iyar, 5760

Louis Jacobson

The Promised
Land of Oz -- KALVESTA, Kansas -- More than a century ago, in this flat, desolate corner of Kansas, a few dozen Jews tried to squeeze out a living. Now, 42 miles from Garden City, the nearest town of any size, I'm looking for the remains of their fleeting society.

"Don't step on the rocks--there might be rattlesnakes under them!" Randy Thies calls out to me. Randy is a Kansas state archaeologist, so he's used to snakes. He also knows how to maneuver a 4x4 through 3-foot-high weeds, which is good, because if it weren't for him, I wouldn't be anywhere near Beersheba, the first Jewish agricultural settlement in Kansas.

Beersheba was established in 1882 by 60 newly arrived Jewish immigrants from Russia. Each family homesteaded 160 acres, living in houses made of sod--the thick ribbons of prairie earth that settlers stacked into buildings. Beersheba settlers also turned sod into a synagogue and a school; they used cow chips for fuel.

In winter, the colony endured major blizzards; during the summer, droughts were common. A popular lament of the time was, "In G-d we trusted. In Kansas we busted."

Pat Smith, a researcher who joined Randy and me for the visit to Beersheba, tries to put it in context. "As you stand here sweating"--it was 100 degrees the day we visited--"think of what it was like 117 years ago. The wind was the only cooling they had."

As Pat says this, we gaze out toward the ruins of the Ravanna schoolhouse, which was built in 1887. Ravanna was a town located four miles from Beersheba; at its peak, Ravanna was home to 700 people, of which about 10 to 15 were Jewish. Historians think that most of the Jews in Ravanna opened businesses there after deciding that the economics of family farming in dusty southwestern Kansas were too grim.

Ravanna survived into the 1890s, as residents erected an expensive stone courthouse that became known as "The Great White Elephant." But the town eventually became embroiled in a bizarre war with its neighbor--Eminence--over which would become the seat of Garfield County. So costly was the war that the state stepped in, merging Garfield County into Finney County. That was the final blow. Within a few years, just about everyone had left.

Today, the Ravanna schoolhouse--which once stood at the center of a bustling little town--is nothing more than a jumble of limestone fragments in the midst of a vast, windy prairie. All around are small cacti and clumps of tickle grass, a distant relative of wheat.

We head across the dirt-and-gravel road to the former site of the Great White Elephant. It's now a cow pasture, ringed by an electrified shock fence. Randy and I go inside (with the advance permission of the landowner, as is the practice out here) and make our way toward the ruins. Prairie weather can be bad, but even a century's worth isn't going to reduce limestone to mere remnants; instead, these stones were cannibalized by humans, in the 1940s, when a football field had to be built in Dighton, a town to the north.

Randy, who hasn't walked up to the ruins since his youth, suggests that we not get too close or stay too long--those darn rattlers again. So we scramble back to the 4x4s. On the way out, the electric fence brushes against my lower back and gives me a mild shock. I shake it off.

Don Cramer, a freelance researcher who has joined us for the outing, stares into the distance. "On a day like this 100 years ago, it must have looked like pretty bleak country," he says. "They must have had a lot more confidence than I would have. A lot of people said this land would never be settled. Seeing this, you understand what they mean."

Because the notion of Jewish farmers in southwest Kansas seems so odd, Beersheba has attracted a small but notable following. To be sure, whenever trains went west toward the frontier, Jews usually numbered among the passengers. But most went to conduct business in towns and cities. Perhaps a mere 20 percent came to farm.

Donald Douglas, a retired historian at Wichita State University, has studied Kansas' seven Jewish agricultural settlements--Touro, Leeser, Beersheba, Lasker, Gilead, Montefiore and Hebron. All were located in the state's largely empty southwest corner; their impulses ranged from utopian socialist to individualistic. (Other Jewish farming settlements were established in the Dakotas, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, New York and New Jersey.)

Beersheba, the first of the Kansas settlements, was probably the most unusual. It was the brainchild of Isaac Meyer Wise, the founding father of Reform Judiasm in America. Like many assimilated American Jews of the late 1800s, Wise feared that large numbers of black-garbed, Yiddish-speaking Jews emigrating from eastern Europe threatened the hard-won social status of German and Sephardic Jews, who had been in America for decades.

So Wise and his allies proposed steering the new immigrants toward the hinterlands, where they would be far from the "labor troubles, socialism and anarchism" of the cities, as Wise's American Israelite put it in 1887. To be sure, Wise's impulse was partly high-minded--he wanted to accustom the newcomers to America and aid them economically--but many observers today view his general approach as embarrassing.

In early 1882, Wise helped launch the Cincinnati-based Hebrew Union Agricultural Society. Agents for the society chose a tract of land in southwest Kansas, and by late July--after an unruly, harrowing trek that included evictions from train cars and (nearly) from a hotel in Kansas City--two dozen Russian Jewish families moved in.

The colonists seem to have faced little if any anti-Semitism from the local farmers; indeed, the farmers were eager to welcome "the Russians" because they provided additional bodies to defend against incursions by cattle herders, who were eager to occupy any land with grazable grass.

It was this cattle-vs.-farmer battle that ultimately hastened Beersheba's demise. In the spring of 1884, some of the settlers leased their lands to a cattle syndicate. The colonists' chaperone, Charles K. Davis, applauded the move, saying it gave the colony the badly needed capital that Wise was not supplying. But Wise reviled the decision and retaliated swiftly, ordering the repossession of the settlers' farm implements.

While legal, the decision strikes many historians as wildly disproportionate. The decision all but put the kibosh on Beersheba. By 1885, the settlement was completely abandoned, with settlers scattering first to Ravanna, and then to Kansas City, St. Louis and smaller towns and cities in the Plains. A few descendants who married into non-Jewish families remain as farmers today.

Historian Douglas points to several causes of Beersheba's failure. "The timing was abominable," he says over lunch in Wichita. "They came to Kansas at a time when Kansas was really showing its best face--a seven- or eight-year period when there was abundant rainfall and when things looked great. But from the time they began, a dry spell hit, and in the winters they faced severe blizzards."

Douglas also cites poor land ("the good land was gone by 1880," he says), bad location (far from a railroad line), low commodity prices and--not least--the Jewish colonists' total lack of farming experience.

Still, historians say, everyone in southwestern Kansas then--Jewish or not--had similar experiences. "They all faced the same troubles together," says archaeologist Thies.

It took Barton and Mary Davidson Cohen, a Jewish couple from the Kansas City suburbs, to bring Beersheba back from obscurity.

Bart, an attorney and bank president, and Mary, a retired college administrator, have spent years trekking across the state, researching Jewish history in Kansas. They've braved rusty-nail injuries and muddy side roads to meet with descendants of Jewish settlers.

A few years ago, the Cohens proposed placing a historical marker near the settlement site. The state agreed, and on a frigid day in November 1998, the Cohens helped unveil the marker at a highway rest stop near Kalvesta.

To the Cohens, Beersheba and the other Kansas settlements were not failures at all. Sure, they acknowledge, sending non-farmers to the inhospitable West seems like the ultimate folly. But they contend that Beersheba and the other settlements provided many Jewish immigrants with a better start than they would have had in most cities.

By holding and using their land, Jewish homesteaders could rent, lease or--if enough time had passed--take title to it from the government. Any of those options provided crucial capital which they could then use to start businesses in cities. Several Beersheba settler families became influential business and political leaders in early 20th Century Kansas.

"At the time they sold, the value of the land was as high as it got for a long while," Bart Cohen says.


Weary from the heat and the mileage, we drive on to our last stop of the day, the small Jewish Cemetery north of Garden City. Blink and you'll miss it: The cemetery is a small collection of graves cut out from the corner of a soybean field. The cemetery includes some Beersheba settlers, though most of them probably died long after the settlement itself had passed into history.

Pebbles rest on some of the nameplates.

Don Cramer, the freelance researcher traveling with us, is not Jewish. He says he became interested in Beersheba when he accidentally stumbled across a reference to it while researching local history. Its existence was such a shock that he found himself drawn in. "If someone had said there was an old Jewish community around here," he says, "I wouldn't have believed it. So I thought I'd find out what I could about it."

JWR contributor Louis Jacobson writes for National Journal. Comment on this article by clicking here.


© 2000 Louis Jacobson