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Kansas Heritage: Jewish Colonies in Kansas

Aimed at preserving the heritage of central and western Kansas

Beersheba (Hodgeman County)

One of seven attempts to start a Jewish agricultural colony in Kansas was in Hodgeman, then Garfield, County. Beersheba was the first and probably the most successful of the colonies, even though it lasted only a few years.

The Jews who came to Kansas were Russian refugees, and they were not really accepted by the Jews who were already in the United States. The United States Jews felt embarrassed by these refugees who spoke Yiddish. "The United Jewish Charities of Rochester denounced them as a 'bane to the country and a curse to the Jews.' The Rochester UJC continued that they had 'earned an enviable reputation in the United States, but this has been undermined by the influx of thousands who are not ripe for the enjoyment of liberty and equal rights and all who mean well for the Jewish name should prevent them (as) much as possible from coming to America.'"

Two men who were East European Jewish immigrants came to southwest Kansas in June 1882 to look for land on which to begin a colony. Julius Cohen and a Mr. Goldfarb claimed a homestead about 22 miles from Cimarron, and they were the ones who took care of all legal matters for the colony.

The colony of Beersheba was located north of Cimarron and a few miles northeast of Kalvesta. Located on Pawnee Creek, there was no lumber available and the settlers arrived to find sod buildings.

The Hebrew Union Agricultural Society was formed by sympathizers to the cause. Rabbi Isaac M. Wise appealed to the Cincinnati community to provide funds to send the Jewish refugees to Beersheba. Once the funds were raised, Charles K. Davis and Leo Wise, the rabbi's son, led the contingent of settlers to Kansas. Twenty-four Jewish families left Cincinnati on July 26, 1882, to begin a new life in Kansas. When they arrived in Kansas City by train, the merchants, hotels, and railroad agents took advantage of the group's situation. They were charged more for their rooms and food, as well as supplies. By August 6, 1882, the colonists were in Cimarron, and on the 11th, they left for Beersheba with their supplies.

By January 1883, there were 80 people who had settled in the area. A synagogue and a schoolhouse, both made of sod, had been built so that they could continue to worship and to educate their children.

These settlers had never been farmers, and the colony did not do as well as it had been hoped. The Hebrew Union Agricultural Society sent a man named Joseph Baum to Beersheba to supervise the colony in the fall of 1882. Baum, with his experience as a farmer, was to advise the colonists in the ways of farming, but he was also able to take items away if the farmer didn't do well.

The colonists did not get along with Baum and by 1884, many of them had given up farming and started working for the railroad. Those that remained farmers leased parts of their land to a company that was promoting cattle trails. The HUAS was very angry that the farmers did this, and Baum was ordered to take away all the farming implements. The settlers, who had thought the implements had been given to them permanently, found out that they were given to them on a loan basis.

By 1890, the experiment of a Jewish agricultural colony had failed. Many of the colonists left Beersheba to become merchants in the nearby towns of Ravanna and Eminence. Others returned to Kansas City and St. Louis.

Sources

Harris, L. David. "Lest We Forget Beersheba". The Wichitan, February 1981.

Fitzgerald, Daniel. "Ghost Towns of Kansas". Vol. 3. Daniel Fitzgerald. 1982.

Gilead (Comanche County)

After the Jewish colony of Hebron in Barber County had experienced a nice growth during its first two years, the Montefiore Agricultural Aid Society set up a nearby colony which was named Gilead. Founded in March 1886, Gilead was a colony of Rumanian Jews. About a dozen families settled in a spot about 3 miles south of Evansville.

However, a ten-year period of drought began in 1887, and there were also some severe winters. By 1891, there were no settlers left from the Gilead colony.

Sources

Douglas, Donald M. "Forgotten Zions: Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Kansas in the 1880's." Kansas History 16 (Summer 1993): 108-119.

Harris, Lloyd David. "Sod Jerusalems: Jewish Agricultural Communities in Frontier Kansas". Masters Thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1984.

Hebron (Barber County)

Founded by six Russian Jews in 1884, Hebron was located 20 to 25 miles southwest of Medicine Lodge. Sponsored by the Montefiore Agricultural Aid Society, it was called "New Jerusalem" by its Gentile neighbors.

By 1885, there were 30 families consisting of 150 people. By 1886, there were 80 families consisting of 300 people. At its peak in 1886-1887, Hebron encompassed an area of 35 to 40 square miles.

Russians, Poles, Rumanians and Hungarians were part of this colony. The Montefiore Agricultural Aid Society began another colony in 1886 for the Rumanian refugees. It was called Gilead and was located about 10 miles southwest of Hebron in Comanche County.

However, after going through extreme weather conditions such as blizzards, tornados and drought during the years of 1886 and 1887, families began moving away from both of these colonies. By 1891, there were no longer any Jewish colonists in Hebron and Gilead. There were a few who had moved to nearby towns, but most ended up going back east in the United States. 

Sources

Douglas, Donald M. "Forgotten Zions: Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Kansas in the 1880's." Kansas History 16 (Summer 1993): 108-119.

Harris, Lloyd David. "Sod Jerusalems: Jewish Agricultural Communities in Frontier Kansas". Masters Thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1984. 

Lasker (Ford County)

A group formed in Russia in the 1870's to train Jewish people to farm land in America, Am Olam, was the founder of Lasker in 1884 or 1885, depending on whose story one goes by. This group saw agriculture as a way to get out from the unrest going on in Russia at the time. The colonies they founded stressed a utopian farming movement with a philosophy of "back to the land". Because of their determination, Lasker was moderately successful.

Michael Helprin was the head of the Montefiero Agricultural Aid Society and an avid supporter of the Am Olamites. He wrote later that Lasker was founded in April of 1885 by 17 emigrants, and their land was about 9 square miles. By the spring of 1887, the population had increased to 200 people.

The other story of Lasker's beginnings states that it was started in 1884. Gabriel Davidson and Edward A. Goodwin published an article titled "The Jewish Covered Wagon" in a 1932 issue of "The Jewish Criterion". They said that the colonists who settled here had originally planned to settle at the Montefiore Colony in Pratt County. However, there was no land available, so they got covered wagons and traveled over the plains of southern Kansas to find a new spot for their colony. Davidson and Goodwin claimed that the new colony site was 40 miles from Ford City. That claim and the 1884 date are disputed by others due to what the land and post offices records show. Those records say that Lasker was actually 6 to 10 miles from Ford City, and that the homestead claims were made in 1885 and 1886.

Davidson and Goodwin also claim that Lasker ceased to exist in 1886 because a land company bought large parcels of land for irrigation purposes in the area from the colonists. Again, this is highly unlikely because the land records show that the land was still in the hands of the colonists.

Accounts written by Michael Helpern and the Ford City newspaper show that Lasker was booming in 1886-1887. It also became the home of colonists who had lived at Montefiero, but moved to Lasker in May 1886.

It really isn't known why Lasker died, but the years of 1888-1891 were extreme weather years, and land records show that many claims were sold during those years. These were claims of both the Jews and the Gentiles. By 1891, there were no Jewish landowners in the area of Lasker.

Sources

Douglas, Donald M. "Forgotten Zions: Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Kansas in the 1880's." Kansas History 16 (Summer 1993): 108-119.

Harris, Lloyd David. "Sod Jerusalems: Jewish Agricultural Communities in Frontier Kansas". Masters Thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1984.  

Leeser (Finney County)

Founded in 1886 by Russian Jews, Leeser was named for Rabbi Isaac Leeser who was the editor of a popular Jewish magazine "Occident". Leeser was very close, if not in distance, to its counterparts in Touro. Many colonists of both towns had relatives living in the other town. The colonies were 10 to 12 miles apart in 2 separate counties. Leeser was the smaller of the two, and its fortunes were riding on the coattails of Touro.

After dealing with a blizzard in 1886, a tornado that caused some damage in 1887, and a drought that started in 1888, the colonists' attempts at agriculture failed. Along with Touro's failed backing of Chantilly in the county seat war, these things combined dampened the enthusiasm of the colonists. By 1890, Leeser was no longer existent except for a few empty and crumbling sod buildings.

Sources

Douglas, Donald M. "Forgotten Zions: Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Kansas in the 1880's." Kansas History 16 (Summer 1993): 108-119.

Harris, Lloyd David. "Sod Jerusalems: Jewish Agricultural Communities in Frontier Kansas". Masters Thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1984. 

Montefiero (Pratt County)

The Montefiero Agricultural Aid Society, located in New York, founded the colony of Montefiero in 1884. It was located in the Mount Nebo neighborhood of Pratt County 6 to 8 miles south and east of Cullison.

The colony started out with 15 Jewish families from Russia who arrived in the area in March of 1884. That fall they gathered their first harvest, and a schoolhouse and a sod synagogue had been built.

Within the first year the colonists came to terms with the fact there was not much timber in the area, and due to a lack of measurable rainfall, little water was available. The colony disbanded in 1885 and some colonists went back east to New Jersey, and the rest went to Lasker in Ford County.

Sources

Douglas, Donald M. "Forgotten Zions: Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Kansas in the 1880's." Kansas History 16 (Summer 1993): 108-119.

Touro (Kearny County)

Founded in 1886, along with Leeser in Finney County, Toruo was in north central Kearny County. Leeser was 10 to 12 miles east of Touro Colony. Touro was named for a prominent American Jewish leader named Judah Touro. Mr. Touro lived in New Orleans and had given his fortune to Jewish schools, hospitals, synagogues, and orphanages.

The colonists came in the midst of a land rush to Kearny County which had started in late 1885. After building sod houses, the colonists planted corn and sorghum, and talked with their Gentile neighbors of building an irrigation ditch from the Arkansas River which was south of there about 15 miles.

Unfortunately Touro got caught up in a county seat war. Since it was close to the center of the county, several towns popped up within 1 to 3 miles of Touro, all vying to become the county seat. In 1886, the post office that was established in Touro was named Myton. That was relinquished to Chantilly which was the largest community with 200 people living there at the height of the Kearny County war. Because of its proximity, the Touro Colony was backing Chantilly in its fight for the county seat with Lakin.

After an election in 1887, Lakin supposedly won, but fraud was charged and it was only after the courts intervention that Lakin was named the official county seat ...which turned out to be temporary. Another election was held in 1889 at which Hartland won. But the Jewish population had lost interest after Chantilly lost in 1887 and a bad drought hindered the colonists in 1888. By 1890, both Touro and Leeser were nonexistent. After lands were opened in Oklahoma in 1889, many of the colonists left Kansas to go to the Sooner state.

Sources

Douglas, Donald M. "Forgotten Zions: Jewish Agricultural Colonies in Kansas in the 1880's." Kansas History 16 (Summer 1993): 108-119.

Harris, Lloyd David. "Sod Jerusalems: Jewish Agricultural Communities in Frontier Kansas". Masters Thesis, University of Oklahoma, 1984.