Volga Germans Celebrate Kansas Heritage

"Volga Germans Celebrate Kansas Heritage." Topeka Capital Journal, 29 July 2001.

WICHITA -- It looks like a cookbook of Volga German recipes, but it contains so much more.

The newly published "Recipes and Remembrances" does offer tried and true Volga German recipes: knockwurst, Wiener schnitzel and zweiback.

But it also celebrates the lifestyle, values and beliefs of thousands of Volga Germans who 125 years ago this summer settled in closely knit Catholic communities in central Kansas.

This weekend, descendants of those early settlers returned to Ellis, Russell, Rush, Wallace and Wichita counties to celebrate their roots with church services, community parades and feasts.

The editor of the cookbook, Ethel Younger, has been assistant administrator for the past 30 years at Victoria's St. Fidelis Church, widely known as the Cathedral of the Plains. She is a fourth-generation Kansan, who speaks with a no-nonsense German accent.

Younger said the cookbook not only has the old recipes, but it has the names, prayers and stories of the families who helped built the Volga German communities.

The early Volga German settlers left their mark on Kansas by chiseling limestone from the prairie and using the 700- to 800-pound posts to build barbed-wire fences, marking off fields and homesteads.

"They lived the dream. They came here with nothing, and through hard work and using the freedom they had here, they were able to sustain themselves," said the Rev. Maris Goetz, pastor of St. Fidelis Church.

Younger's great-grandparents, Andreas and Katherine Dinkel, were among the first Volga German immigrants to settle in Ellis County in 1876, homesteading on a farm just northeast of Victoria.

A century earlier, her family, like so many others, had left war-torn Germany for Russia's agrarian provinces, living near the Volga River valley.

As political tensions grew in Russia, some of the Volga German families began moving away. Besides religious freedom, Kansas promised good, cheap land and hope. And the gentle, rolling hills and valleys reminded them of home.

Their culture has persisted, said Dave Webb, historian and assistant director at the Kansas Heritage Center in Dodge City.

"Just look on any Kansas map and see their communities still there," Webb said. "Other cultures have been diluted with time. It's not true for the Volga Germans."

Kansas Volga German communities were known for producing short, stocky people who worked long, hard hours canning their own food and butchering their own cattle, pigs and chickens.

They could be stubborn or, as Younger says, "bullheaded -- but everybody got schooled early that you don't get by with that stuff. You got in trouble at school, you got in trouble at home as well."

They built exquisite churches in communities such as Schoenchen, Catharine or Katharinestadt, Munjor, Pfeifer, Herzog and Victoria.

They "not only settled the land, they brought farming practices with them that worked," said Marilyn Holt of Abilene, who has taught workshops for history teachers on immigrants.

During World Wars I and II, when anti-German sentiment raged throughout the nation, the Volga Germans couldn't speak their native tongue in public, read German newspapers or sing beloved German hymns. But they continued their traditions in private.

In addition, Younger said, her great-grandparents faced the same challenges other Kansans did. They lost three children in six days during the 1918 flu epidemic. And the Dust Bowl of the 1930s seemed never-ending.

"But their faith took hold and took them through," she said.

That's one reason the cookbook is important, Younger said.

Goetz said this summer has been a time to reflect on and honor a heritage that still thrives today in Kansas.

"Once again churches are overflowing; people are singing the old German songs," he said.

Reprinted with permission of Topeka Capital-Journal.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller