Rusk County, WI Memories

Rusk County, WI

Rusk County Mennonites: A History of Their Settlement and Expansion

--A Research Paper by Katherine Ann Stoll, 1973

In 1923, the Joseph Martin family, consisting of the parents Joe and Nora, and three children, Dorthea, Velma, Fern, (two boys, Lyle and Dallas were born in Wisconsin) moved to a small farm approximately one-half mile south of the small, one time lumbering town of Conrath, Wisconsin *1. They were the first among the many Mennonite families which would eventually settle in that area of Rusk County, and ultimately result in the formation of three congregations and one mission within the county, as well as congregations in Chippewa and Sawyer Counties. To gain understanding of the factors contributing to this settlement in Rusk County and the events resulting from the settlement, one must have some knowledge of the basic tenets of the faith and application of these in lifestyle and behavior.

In Zurich, Switzerland in 1525, a group of men in disagreement with the practice of infant baptism, broke away from the Zwinglian Reform movement, forming the group first known as the Swiss Brethren *2. Because many of them were re-baptized upon a confession of faith and in acceptance into the new group, they were also called "Anabaptists." Other principles upheld included a belief in the separateness of church and state, total pacifism and non-resistance, and adherence to a simple way of life, unencumbered by the standards and values of the society around them. One of the early leaders in the Netherlands and northern Germany was Menno Simons, an ex-priest whose writings did much to unite the Brethren, and from whom the group took on the name of "Mennonite." Because the sect accepted neither the principles of Catholicism, nor those of the other Reformation churches, they suffered much persecution and harassment throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and even eighteenth centuries. In 1683, the first permanent settlement in the United States was started in Germantown, Pennsylvania, the settlers having left Europe to escape persecution and mandatory military induction *3. The famous settlements in Pennsylvania, especially in Lancaster county from which many of the Wisconsin settlers originated, were begun in 1709. A huge migration of Amish Mennonites, who were a split from the other Anabaptist groups because of conflict - whether or not to shun former members of the sect - also took place in the 1700's and 1800's to Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and other states. Since farming was the primary occupational role of Mennonites, they soon scattered, usually in groups large enough to start a new congregation, further and further to the west in order to obtain land and room for expansion. Another reason for migrating, especially in the 1900's has been the desire to protect children and youth from the influence of the non-Mennonite community. After settlements became numerous enough, those congregations within a region would unite to form "conferences" with elected or chosen bishops and annual meetings. The conference with which some of the Wisconsin churches are affiliated was originally called the Dakota-Montana Conference, but now is known as the North Central Conference. Within the Mennonite church there have been many divisions due to various interpretations of what a simple, non-conformed life style consists of.

The Amish had settled in communities in southern Sawyer and eastern Rusk Counties during the early 1900's, but they eventually abandoned both settlements. From the Sawyer County were left Mr. and Mrs. Frank Sinclair, and Miss Addie Bender, who left the Amish and the Mennonites at sometime in the early 1900's *4. Miss Bender had an article printed in the Mennonite paper, the Gospel Herald at sometime in the early 1920's which told of the possibilities for land, settlement and service in northern Wisconsin. Joe Martin, living in Eureka, Illinois at this time, having moved from Pennsylvania earlier, was influenced by the article, to move into the area. They also sought a drier climate, which the doctor had recommended for Velma's health. Mrs. Martins parents, who were of another Anabaptist group, the Brethren, had moved into the Conrath area shortly before the Martins came in 1923.

It might benefit here to sketch briefly the community into which the early settlers moved. The area had been the site of the lumbering business around the turn of the century, and what remained were huge stumps, with brush and pulpwood, many swamps and areas of very rocky soil. The Faast Land and Colonization Company purchased 30,000 acres of cutover land in 1907, and put Mr. Frank Conrath as their agent in the area, to sell the land to prospective farmers *5. And so the village got its name. An attempt to turn a "wild" forty, eighty or 160 acre piece into cultivatable land could be and enervating, back-breaking experience of pulling or dynamiting out huge pine stumps, and picking rock and moving or burying huge boulders *6. Some succeeded, others gave up. A dam was built across Main Creek north of Conrath in 1908, and a bridge and road the following year *7. The town had long been accessible by railroad. Conrath became a thriving little town, having a cheese factory, a bank, a hotel, two general stores, a feed mill, and a smithy among other enterprises. The railroad served as a vital link both in transporting passengers and in getting produce to markets. Roads were usually little more than trails, with frequent ruts and swamps to cross.

The Joe Martin family lived in a little log house south of Conrath, for three years before another Mennonite family came. The children attended school in Conrath. The family often attended the Presbyterian church in Conrath for services, also there was some contact with the few Mennonites at Exeland. In 1926, the Ben Hershey family became the second to move into the area, locating to the south a bit further. The Hershey's (Ben, Abbie, and six children, Beulah, Anna, Olive, Don, Herman and Louise) would get together with the Martins once a week, at least part of the time on Sunday evenings *8. The contact with the Exeland community continued and there was also communication with the Mennonites in North Dakota in the form of visits from ministers such as I. S. Mast and Eli Hochstetler. In 1929, Brother Mast organized the groups in Exeland and Conrath and accepted them into the Dakota-Montana Conference *9. Since there was no church building, Sunday school was held in various homes. In the late 1920's, both families moved, settling in the Exeland area.

According to Mrs. Dorthea Jordan, life in the early years of settlement was difficult economically, but that there was always enough to eat and wear, and people could find enjoyment in inexpensive activities. But, there was no electricity or running water, no milking system or barn-cleaners, no refrigerators or washers and dryers, therefore, many long hours were put into labor just to maintain existence. And only absolute necessities were purchased.

Joe Martin's younger brother, D. L. Martin, his wife Anna, and seven children, lived in North Dakota at this time. They had moved from Pennsylvania to Duchess, Alberta and then to North Dakota at the request of I. S. Mast *10. They maintained communication with Joe Martin in Wisconsin, and invited Martins and Hersheys to come to North Dakota also. The two families tried out that state for approximately one year, but not finding it to their liking, they moved back to the Exeland area in 1930-1931, and the Dan Martin family came to the area in 1931. Also, in 1930, the Menno Eby family of Pennsylvania migrated to the Exeland area. A Sunday school was organized in the area south of Exeland again, and services were held with the Sinclairs and Benders, in the Windfall Public school. In the fall of 1931, Dan Martin moved into the Conrath area and bought a plot of land approximately 2 1/2 miles east and one mile south of Conrath. Within the next two or three years, Hersheys, Joe Martins, and Menno Ebys also moved into the immediate vicinity, and purchased farms. Another Martin brother, Jason, his wife and several small children, also purchased land in the area, moving there from Duchess Alberta. The five families organized a Sunday school and held services in the East Grow schoolhouse. And, in 1934, I.S. Mast, the bishop from North Dakota, organized the five families, consisting of eleven members (those who committed their lives to God and were accepted into the church by baptism) and many children, into a congregation; Dan Martin was elected unanimously to minister to the congregations. Ministers from North Dakota also came to help out, and Mennonite evangelists such as T. K. Hershey and L. S. Yoder came and held services for the congregation and community. The first marriage within the group took place between Beulah Hershey and Howard Carter, a young man who had been accepted into fellowship from the community, in 1935.

At this point, it might be well to characterize the basic life style of this early group. Farming was, as it still is, the primary occupation, with some also engaged in manual labor. For example, Ben Hershey maintained his dairy farm, and also worked for many years in a toy factory in Ladysmith. The economic depression, the lack of fine quality land, and the non-existence of conveniences made life quite difficult for these families with growing children. The road system was still far from complete, illustrated by an anecdote related by Mrs. Carter: When her second child was expected, it was necessary for one of the men to carry her across Little Jump River in order to reach a road to take her to her parent's home where the midwife could take care of her *11. Electricity finally came into the community in the late thirties. Milk checks were very small, and ready cash was limited. Most food was home grown, and either canned or dried. Some lived in log houses, others were fortunate enough to locate in or erect a frame house. The group maintained separateness from the community in that they did not join local organizations and clubs--the church served both spiritual and social needs. Children did attend public schools, usually through the eighth grade, although some did go further. For example, Dorthea Martin, oldest daughter of Joe Martin, finished high school and went on to attend the normal school in Eau Claire, then taught for several years in East Grow, until that school was closed in 1938. The manner of dress of the Mennonites was also distinctive, women wearing the traditional, modest "cape" dress, (the cape is an extra piece of material covering the bodice of the dress) and the prayer covering, and the men wearing the "plain" suit, (similar to clerical suits in other denominations.)

In 1936 or 1937, there was some disagreement among the members of the congregation, resulting in a schism, and a withdrawal of many of the families from the Dakota-Montana Conference *12. Those who left invited B. B. King, a minister from Ohio to come to Wisconsin. He came and held meetings for one week, and then served as bishop for the community.

Work was begun on a church building in 1938 on a small plot of land donated by Ben Hershey. This building was completed and dedicated in 1939. The congregation was re-organized as the Sheldon Mennonite Church (although the church actually lies closer to Conrath, its address in Sheldon.) At the same time, under the direction of B.B. King, lots were drawn for the position of minister of the congregation, and the lot fell upon Daniel Martin. In 1942, the congregation was received by into the Dakota-Montana Conference.

During the late 1930's and 1940"s, there was a steady flow of new families into the community. The Alpha Kauffman family came from Indiana in 1935, and one of their sons married Aletha Martin, Dan's oldest daughter. The early 1940"s brought Ezra Goods, Harold Buchers, Charles Kirkendalls and B.B. King from Ohio. My grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. John King, and three children came in 1943. Some of the families who came helped out with the few families living in the Exeland area. What brought all these settlers? Of primary importance was the cheapness of the land and the relatively good market price for dairy products *13, Then, the constant maintenance of communication between friends and relatives in states to the east and south, helped to broaden the awareness of the community and its characteristics (of which the good points were sometimes exaggerated and over-emphasized) and to serve as a lure to those interested. For example, my grandparents were finding it difficult to make an adequate living farming in Iowa, therefore influenced by the bright picture which the B. B. King family (B. B. King was my grandfather"s uncle) painted of the area, they moved to a farm near Conrath. Thirdly, some families were alarmed by the changed standards of conduct and life style in other communities and moved to protect their children. And finally, some such as the Samuel Helmuth family, came, because they had heard about the area and felt that God wanted them to help with the church work there.

The church was quite evangelistically oriented in its earlier years, procuring Mennonite evangelists from many areas to hold week-long meetings and inviting the rest of the community to join them. This zeal for others also led to the holding of Bible schools, both for children within the congregation and for those from the community. In 1940 and 1941, Dorthea Martin and Eunice Mast held a Bible school in Lawrence township along Highway 73. (The same area in which the Amish had been located.) The attendance at these Bible schools was fairly good, and they felt that there was a need for a more permanent outreach in the area. In 1942, the Samuel Helmuth family of Clarence Center, New York felt called to the area and, with the Joe Martin family, they started a Sunday school in Lawrence township the same year. Members of the Sheldon congregation helped out with the work by supplying Bible school teachers and ministers to hold services. Two families, the Ezra Good and the Ralph Diller families, who had lived near the Sheldon Church, moved into the south Lawrence area to help with the work. With evangelists coming into the new community, there were seven converts within three years. And, in 1946, at the request of some brethren from Minnesota, Leroy and Esther Schrock, from Kansas, moved into Lawrence township to pastor the tiny congregation. Under Elmer Hershberger, a bishop from Detroit Lakes Minnesota, the congregation was organized in 1946 with twenty charter members *14. Services were held in a school house, then in various homes of members. And, plans were made for the construction of a church building. Logs were dragged out, a foundation was built and by 1949, services were held in the basement. Various Mennonite brethren from Kansas, Iowa and Minnesota came to help complete the building, which was dedicated in March of 1950. So the work which had begun just ten years before had resulted in another congregation in Rusk County.

Another area of outreach was the Exeland Community, where a congregation was formed in 19__. There were efforts at evangelizing in that area also. Ministers from Sheldon served that congregation during the 1940's. Other efforts were put forth in the area of Boyd, where a Sunday school was held in 1951 and a congregation started in 19__. And, a Sunday school was begun among the Indians on the reservation near Hayward in 1952 *15.

Meanwhile, at Sheldon, with marriages, new settlers and converts from the community, by 1942, there were 17 families with a total of one hundred people in the congregation. Throughout those years, meetings were held by such evangelists as Llewellyn Groff, John Hochstetler, James Bucher, William Jennings, J.D. Gingerich, Walter Lehman, and Ezra Stauffer *16. In 1949, the congregation decided that there was a need for a deacon, and Norman Witmer was chosen for the position by lot, from a group of five. In 1951, he was ordained, again by lot, to the position of minister. Other ministers ordained since then, include Andrew Kauffman and Louis Martin (son of Dan.) The congregation, with the help of those of Exeland and South Lawrence, hosted the annual North Central Conference meetings in 1951 17.

In October of 1951, the foundations were laid for a newer, larger church building right next to the site of the older one. That winter, the logs for the building were cut and were sawed the following spring. The building was completed and dedicated in the fall of 1952.

Conference meetings were again held at the Sheldon church in 1956. In the fall of that year, Leroy Schrock, pastor at South Lawrence, was chosen, by lot, to serve as bishop for the Wisconsin congregations--at South Lawrence, Sheldon, Boyd, Exeland, and Hayward. His duties included semi-annual visits to each of the congregations to oversee the communion and foot-washing services. He served in this capacity until 1959, when due to disagreement over the leniency of the discipline within North Central Conference, the Sheldon and Boyd congregations withdrew their membership altogether, from the conference, and subsequently, joined an independent ellipsoid organization which agreed with their viewpoints more closely. As a result of the schism, five families, the author's included, transferred their membership to the South Lawrence congregation.

At the present there are a total of 198 members and children who attend either the Sheldon church or its mission established on highway 27, and a total of 68 on the roll at South Lawrence church. A majority of those employed are still farmers (including ministers) although the tendency has been for more young people to find employment as unskilled labor. The Sheldon congregation differs from the South Lawrence one in a greater emphasis on the control of education. (They established their own elementary and secondary school in 1969.), in the maintenance of a stricter, more non-conformed mode of dress and behavior, in a strict regulation of the mass media, and in the tendency for its youth to marry within the group and to settle in the immediate vicinity or in neighboring congregations. Both groups maintain a social and spiritual separateness from the non-Mennonite community. Both emphasize a simple form of life, without conspicuous consumption or luxuries (although most are comfortable established economically.) Outside of the formal church structure and consideration of spiritual matters, there is very little social stratification or economic difference. The groups emphasize material and financial support of those within the congregation who suffer losses or incur large medical bills. So, there is a great sense of unity and brotherhood.

The establishment of Mennonites in Rusk County is a replication of many throughout the United States and Canada. In their settlement and growth, these communities tend to maintain a definite boundary as a separate social sub-system within the larger community; and strive earnestly to maintain the Christian principles and traditional practices upon which their faith is founded.

*1. Interview with Mrs. Dorthea (Martin) Jordan.
*2. Kauffman, Bro. Daniel, Mennonite History, Scottdale, Pa., Mennonite Publishing House, 1927, page 47.
*3. Kauffman, Ibid, page 55.
*4. Interview with Mrs. Dorthea (Martin) Jordan.
*5. Interview with Mr. Tony Conrath.
*6. Dresden, Katharine W., History of Rusk County Wisconsin, UW Madison, 1931 pages 20-24.
*7. Interview with Mr. Tony Conrath.
*8. Interview with Mrs. Beulah (Hershey) Carter.
*9. Maartin, Daniel L., The Work at Sheldon, Wisconsin., 1952.
*10. Interview with Daniel L. Martin.
*11. Interview with Mrs. Beulah (Hershey) Carter.
*12. Martin, D. L., Ibid.
*13. Letter written by Mrs. John King, April, 1973
*14. Historical Records of South Lawrence Mennonite Church.
*15. Martin, Daniel L. Ibid.
*16. Martin, Ibid.
*17. Ibid.

I also wish to extend special thanks to my parents, Mr. and Mrs. Ivan Stoll, for their help in answering all my questions.

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