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History of Janzen Family Farms & It's Land

The history of our immediate family goes back more than 135 years in Kansas. Our tradition of working with livestock and mixed grains is equally long. While the land on which Janzen Family Farms currently sits has been in the family since 1898, our forefather Herman J. Janzen began farming elsewhere in the area when he arrived almost twenty years before that. Today, the Henry Creek still runs through our farm, which still straddles the Marion-Butler County line. 

The Janzens arrived in the American West in the wake of the Homestead Act of 1872, which gave title to a quarter section (160 acres) of land to people seeking to settle there, as long as they followed certain guidelines. Amid a frenzy of settlement activity, the Janzens immigrated in part looking for economic opportunity. But, as Mennonites from northern Europe, they were also seeking religious freedom, and they joined many other members of their Protestant religious community upon their arrival. Since that time, our family has struggled to manage the native prairie habitat, alternatively yielding to its terms and stroking it into productivity.

Our Farmland Prior to Janzen Ownership

Prior to the Homestead Act and the arrival of settlers, mostly from Europe, the land that later became our farm was likely seasonally hunted by sedentary farmers of the Wichita from the south, the Pawnee from the north, and the Osage from the east. The terrain was treeless upland watershed of the Henry Creek and Whitewater rivers to the south, and the Doyle Creek - which flows into the Cottonwood River -  to the north.

The official homesteader of the farm was James F. Gleason, who claimed the southeast quarter of Section 32 of Peabaody Township in Marion County, KS, in 1872, where the Janzen Family Farms farmhouse lies today. Keeping the land for only a short time, Gleason sold it to Quincy Vaughan in 1874. Vaughan, who had trained as a civil engineer and had been engaged on the Western frontier prior to the Civil War, came west from New Hudson, New York, in spring 1874 to develop the farm and prepare for the later arrival of his wife Lizzie Eaton and their three boys. When he got there, some acres had already been plowed and a first crop harvested. In the absence of a grainery, he found the house full of oats, obliging him to live at first with the neighbors in very cramped quarters. (The details of this adventure are preserved in Vaughan’s correspondence with his wife and family, now in possession of his great grandson Cleland McBurney of Kingman, KS.) 

Vaughan described the farm site as a wind-swept prairie, accessible from Peabody along the north-south dirt road; with prairie chickens coming right up at the front door and a covey of quail singing happily nearby; a 12x18 homestead claim house with hand-dug well; an orchard with peach trees, grapes, some cottonwood trees, and several acres of osage orange seedlings for laying out hedges; lots of rabbits, rattlesnakes, and a Henry Creek with bass fishing. (See photo below.) A month after Lizzie’s arrival in July, 1874, the region experienced a disastrous grasshopper plague, so severe that many trees and hedges needed to be replanted. 

The Vaughans’ 480-acre farm included the homestead quarter and two quarters to the east on Section 33. Quincy’s letters include a drawing of an addition to the homestead house, in the form of a kitchen and a porch facing south, as seen in the photo (below). Quincy also mentions the need for a shelter for his horses. No doubt he built the all-purpose barn seen in this photo for horses and cows, with hay mow, grain bins, and a lean-to shed for machinery. 

In 1886, after 12 years on the prairies in Kansas, Lizzie returned to New York with the boys to assure good schools for them, leaving Quincy behind. Unfortunately, Lizzie died in 1887 of pneumonia, and Quincy returned to Kansas with the boys. But as his great grandson McBurney writes, “his zest for life and farming went out of him without his wife.” In 1898, he sold the land on Section 33 to a brother-in-law, and the quarter of Section 32 to neighbor Herman J. Janzen. 

Homesteaders and settlers from New York to Kansas, including Quincy Vaughan

Vaughan farm as it appeared in 1898, including the original 12 x 18 two-story house (kitchen and porch added by Vaughan).

Herman J. Janzen Starts Farming in Kansas

Along with his parents and other members of the extended Janzen family, Herman J. Janzen arrived in Kansas in 1880 as part of a large migration of Prussian Mennonites from the Vistula River Delta region, now Poland. Bringing an extensive knowledge of farming gained in Europe over centuries, these families settled near Elbing, Whitewater and Newton. 

Herman J. began by working for Peter Dyck, an elder in the Mennonite church and businessman, who had settled the farm next to what was to become the present-day Janzen Family Farms land. Dyck had purchased his land from the Santa Fe Railroad. The tragic death of the Dycks two sons Peter and John in 1878 left a vacuum that young Herman J. filled very ably. A year after he arrived, Herman J. married the Dyck’s daughter Anna in 1881, and the young couple lived with the Dycks. Later, Herman and Anna also adopted two children, Anna and Willie. 

Expanding his father-in-law’s operations, Herman J. combined mixed grain with livestock feeding. Over the course of the years, Herman J. not only worked the Dyck farm, but also bought various parcels of land, including grassland in the Flint Hills southeast of Burns, where hundreds of beef cattle grazed every summer. These cattle were then “winter-finished” in feedlots on the farm. In 1898, as noted above, Herman J. was able to purchase Quincy Vaughan’s farm, which was located next door to the farm of his in-laws, the Dycks. It is this farm, originally owned by Gleasson and then Vaughan, where the Janzen Family Farms farmhouse is located today. When a year later, his wife Anna died, Herman J. inherited the Dyck farm as well. 

In addition to being a member of the close-knit Mennonite community from a social standpoint, Herman J. also played a key role in the community. He sat on the boards of banks in Elbing and Peabody (with John Brooks, Vaughan’s brother-in-law), and the Mennonite Mutual Insurance Company of Newton. He was a founding member of Zion Mennonite church in Elbing. And he operated the community threshing rig, a critical piece of the equipment used on a cooperative basis. 

Meanwhile, Herman J. married again in 1900. He and his new wife Agathe Regier, went on to have three children: John Paul in 1901, Herman Lucas in 1904 (who died in 1907); and Louis in 1907. They also adopted two girls, Katherine and Ella. Living on the old Dyck farm, Herman J. and Agathe oversaw a series of tenants at the other farm down the road. The most significant of these was the Klingenberg family, also from Prussia, whose migration was sponsored by the Janzens.

Haymaking: "In the good old days, hay was mowed by a machine pulled by two horses, raked preferably by two ponies, brought near the stack by two horses hitched to a 'go-devil' and lifted to the top of the stack by four horses hitched to the portable stacker." - Louis A. Janzen's memoirs

Agathe and Herman Janzen with children: (back row, left to right) Louis A. Janzen, William C. Janzen (adopted), John P. Janzen; (middle row, left to right) Catherine Janzen and Ella Janzen (adopted daughters)

Agathe and Herman L. Janzen with sons John (top) and Louis in 1911

Louis Janzen Continues the Legacy

Louis Janzen, the youngest of Herman J.’s and Agathe’s two living sons, went on to continue the tradition of farming, bringing the farm through the Great Depression and Dust Bowl at the beginning of his adult life. Known for his sense of humor, Louis later wrote about his activities in a self-published book with chapters like “Dogs of the Family” and “Farm Jobs Children Could Do.” He described growing up sneaking out of his strict mother’s sights to run wild on the prairie and explore farm buildings and machinery. “Hay making was an exciting time for young help,” he wrote. “Boys of just about any size could rake hay with a horse-drawn rake as soon as their legs were long enough to reach the pedal,” he said. “Another thrill of my youth was the discovery of a sharp hatchet,” wrote the man who lost his thumb to a buzzsaw later in life. 

Shortly after Louis’ marriage to Hilda Neufeldt of Inman, in 1933, Herman J. offered them the former Vaughan portion of his farm where the tenants had been living, essentially splitting his holdings between his two sons. (Louis’ brother had taken over the portion with the old Dyck farm.) To make room, the Klingenbergs’ house was moved east half a mile where it became the nucleus of another tenant. A brand new bungalow-style house was built for $1,000 in the middle of the Depression.

Hilda, also of a Mennonite farming family, was trained as a nurse and well-prepared to play the role of farm wife. In her own memoirs, Hilda described herself in her girlhood as the “proverbial tom-boy” who loved making pets of farm animals and climbing trees. As a grown woman, she became skilled at everything from slaughtering chickens and making soap to milking cows and sewing clothes, and thus contributed to the farm’s success in many ways. Later, she too inherited additional tracts of land that added to the Janzens’ holdings. Louis and Hilda went on to have four children, Sara, John Marvin, David and Mark. 

After Louis’ takeover, a significant amount of construction ensued. The general purpose barn was by now nearly 55 years old and would serve for more decades as a “horse barn.” New buildings were needed for grain storage, hay, chickens and machine storage. So, just as the homestead house had been moved, a grainary was moved from Herman’s and Agathe’s farm to the farm of Louis and Hilda. A new hay barn was built, and a round-top machine shed and shop (also still in use!), a chicken house, and in 1946 a new grain elevator joined the existing buildings as well. A second silo for silage storage and feeding was added to the first one, and then both were made taller. 

Under Louis and Hilda’s care, the farm made the transition from horses to tractors, and from the binder and threshing machine to the self-propelled combine. Some of the larger machines were shared with brother John P.’s farm. Yet the basic focus of the farm continued to be livestock and mixed grain. Many of the photos show cattle near the main farm buildings and even the house. Grain remained a treasured, almost holy, crop. This is apparent in the way the grainery was moved, the care with which the elevator was built, and the early Vaughan-era use of the house for grain storage. 

Louis embraced the latest “breakthroughs” in conventional farming, eventually turning to synthetic fertilizer and chemical pesticides, as most farmers did at the time, hoping the latest techniques would help them get ahead. At the same time, he also felt strongly that he should care for his own land and the earth in general for future generations. In his attempts to remain a good “steward of the land,” as it was often called, he created a system of terraces to prevent erosion, which was widely considered a cutting-edge environmental measure at the time. He also employed a system of crop rotation, and developed cattle facilities in fields adjacent to the farm so that herds could graze stubble and manure future crops. “I always thought taking care of the land was more important than the crop,” Louis said in an article in the Wichita Eagle in July 1983. “I was the first in Butler County to terrace and I built farm ponds, too." 

Louis Janzen and Hilda Neufeldt on their wedding day in 1933

Digging the basement of Louis and Hilda Janzen's new house

New house 1933

JFFC grain elevator in 1946

The Mark Janzen Era

In the early 1970s, Louis and Hilda turned the farm over to their youngest son Mark and his wife Hennie Van der Werf, both graduates of Bethel College in Newton, KS. Only a few years prior, a generational transition had also come up for Louis’ brother John P., who handed his holdings and the original Dyck farm to his son -- also named Herman. As neighbors, Mark and Hennie, and Herman and his wife Ruth threw themselves into farming full throttle just when farming conditions in the U.S. were starting to change, as smaller family farms were disintegrating and the motto of the agricultural world was “get big or get out.” 

Mark had always wanted to be a farmer. “I probably decided to become a farmer when I was a kid,” he says. “I knew I would do it, even though I prepared for other jobs,” such as history teacher, German teacher and potentially even preacher. Amid the difficult economic environment of the 1970s and 80s, Mark managed to expand and improve the basic mixed grain and livestock feeding facilities. He continued to follow the mainstream farming model while meeting or exceeding environmental laws, including the installation of a proper lagoon for the hog facility. The elevator was expanded to include a vacuum silo bin and a weighing scale that connected to the feedlots and sorting pens; these were upgraded to metal pipe and heavy hedge wood post (from the Vaughan hedge rows), and concrete feedbunks. The silos were rendered obsolete with the construction of a 1000-ton trench silo near the new hay shed that replaced the haybarn. These upgraded facilities provided first-class accommodations for finishing beef and pork according to the conventional model. 

Despite all the hard work and dedication, the farm crisis of the 1980s hit this operation with ferocity. Timing was bad, as the farm was at an expansionist point in its development cycle just as the national crisis came to a head. Banks, having encouraged development loans one year, were forced to retrench and readjust their credit ratings the next. Several painful measures, including a legal reorganization, combined with family solidarity rescued the farm. But the aftershocks continued for decades. The Flint Hills pasture was sold to ease the debt burden. To minimize the risk of further losses in market swings, and in the absence of summer pasture, the farm turned to custom feeding. To help ensure a stable future, Mark and Hennie turned to off-farm jobs: Hennie went to work as an elementary school teacher, while Mark also took a job in human resources, eventually got involved in computer software, and then founded an information technology consulting firm. 

When Mark and Hennie announced their decision to retire from farming at sixty, the family hit another turning point. The children and grandchildren (and even the great grandchildren!) of Louis and Hilda ultimately came together to discuss what would happen to the farm. Everyone knew there was no obvious successor. Of Louis and Hilda’s 11 grandchildren, no one was poised to become a farmer, and the great grandchildren are for the most part still too small. Yet no one wanted to let the farm go either. After lengthy deliberations, we decided to seek a farm manager who would work with us, mainly Mark and John M., to continue the farming tradition. The sentiment that prevailed was that Janzen Family Farms would increasingly focus on sustainable and/or organic agricultural practices, along with direct marketing of specialty products. To finance the transition, we would continue custom feeding and mixed grain production. 

Mark and Hennie Janzen

Our Transition and Into the Future

The decision to transition all at once to a new farm operator and new farming methods was challenging but renewed our family’s energy to support the farm. By remaining flexible, keeping family communication flowing, and contracting with other farmers in various capacities, we have managed a successful transition, allowing Mark and Hennie to retire from farming while keeping the farm in the family.

Janzen Family Reunion 2016

Janzen Family Reunion 2008

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