Warkentin artifacts have bumpy ride to Kansas

Karen Penner, who is on the Warkentin House Museum Board, holds up the shadowbox filled with artifacts from Bernhard Warkentin. Wendy Nugent/Harvey County Now

By Wendy Nugent, Harvey County Now

NEWTON—It was a miracle.

That’s what Bernhard Warkentin’s great-granddaughter Betty Burch of Los Altos, California, said about the artifacts that used to belong to Warkentin and how they recently made it to Newton.

Those artifacts will be put in the Warkentin House Museum, 211 E. First Street, where Warkentin and his wife Wilhelmina used to reside. The home was built in the late 1800s.

Burch said she had the silver artifacts put in a shadowbox.

“They were kicking around my house since my children were born,” Burch said, adding she acquired them from her grandmother, who was born Edna Warkentin, the Warkentins’ daughter.

When Burch, 87, was a youngster, her grandmother lived in a large house in Kansas City.

“It was very formal,” Burch said.

The artifacts in the shadowbox include two belt buckles, an inkwell pen, a snuff box, a thimble and a photo of Warkentin. The snuff box was accompanied by a note Edna wrote.

Although Burch knew her grandmother quite well, she never met her great-grandparents.

Burch had stored the artifacts in a Whitman’s candy box, and she said she always had intended to put them in a shadowbox.

“One of my children wrote her name and phone number on the candy box,” Burch said. “She was probably in third grade.”

Now, that daughter is in her 50s.

Recently, Burch took the artifacts to a shop to do just that, and it took the woman weeks and weeks to complete. The artifacts are stitched to the shadow box. When Burch picked up the shadowbox at the shop, she told the woman there she was going to ship it, but the woman advised against that, saying it could break. She told Burch she should take it to Kansas herself. She tried, and it arrived in Newton after a series of events.

Burch made arrangements with Karen Penner, who is on the Warkentin House Board, to meet her at the Wichita airport to pick up the shadow box. Penner went to the airport, but there was a hiccup. Burch had planned to stay in Wichita a few hours and then fly back to California.

“[Burch] worked with the airline to make sure she had a flight that she could come in at 1 o’clock and then fly out at 5 o’clock [to] get back to California,” Penner said. “We go to the airport to meet her and we get a phone call. She says, ‘I’m in Denver, and I’m stuck here. There’s no flight coming.’ She says, ‘They’re supposed to leave at 3:30.’ She said they’re not leaving.”

The two women had about half a dozen phone calls back and forth.

“She kept telling them the flight wasn’t leaving yet from Denver,” Penner said, adding then she said they’re not leaving until this evening or the morning to come to Wichita from Denver. “She’s got this with her. Old treasure. Finally she said, ‘You know it’s ironic. There’s a lady sitting next to me, and we’ve been visiting and she’s from Kansas. She’s from Moundridge, Kansas.’ Can you believe in Denver in the airport?”

The Mennonite woman told Burch she could bring the shadowbox to Newton.

“Bottom line is you know here she is in an airport sitting there and here’s a Mennonite woman from Moundridge, Kansas, sitting next to this woman, you know Bernhard Warkentin’s great-granddaughter, and so bottom line is [the woman] brought it with her, and we started contacting last night, and she said, ‘I could meet you in Hesston someplace, if you want to do that,’” Penner said.

They met the next day in Hesston, and the woman was there with the shadow box.

Warkentin brought all the artifacts from Ukraine, which was Russia at the time, in the late 1800s.

Burch said her grandmother, whose name was Edna Warkentin Alden, was pretty remarkable.

“She graduated from the University of Kansas,” Burch said. “She was remarkable, because women didn’t go to college much back then.”

Warkentin was part of a group of German Mennonites. In 1750, Burch said, Catherine the Great offered this group land and freedom from military service and religious persecution in exchange for some of their crops. They went to a town in now Ukraine that was in Russia then, and 100 years later, the next czar didn’t treat the Mennonites well, so Warkentin was sent to the United States at the age of 19 or 20 to find a place for them to grow Turkey Red Hard Wheat. He chose Kansas and later was accidentally shot on a train during a trip in the Holy Land in 1908.

Burch said a drunken Turkish prince got on the train and was cleaning his gun in an adjoining cabin when it went off and hit Warkentin, who was sitting on a couch with his wife. He was taken to a Mennonite hospital in Beruit and died. Wilhelmina died in 1932, according to findagrave.com.

The Warkentin House is listed on the Kansas Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places.

“While the Warkentins today are remembered primarily for the historical significance (and National Register status) of their Halstead farm and Newton home and mill (also a national landmark like the farm), during their lifetimes they achieved recognition for their entrepreneurship and support of their community,” according to warkentinhouse.org.

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