Randolph Schmidt, 86, might not be honored with the title, “Captain Goessel,” for this year’s Goessel Threshing Days next week, August 3-5, if he hadn’t had a concern more than 30 years ago.
He was chairman of Alexanderwohl Church back then. Schmidt said at the time that he was observing the estate sales of old-time Mennonites, and not feeling very good about them. He said out-of-state collectors and antique dealers had been buying up the heritage pieces of the Mennonite community.
Everything from farm implements, to ship trunks Mennonite immigrants came to America with, to long-hemmed ladies’ dresses were being dispersed all over the nation with little hope of ever seeing them again. Schmidt decided his people and community needed their own museum.
The church secretary and others agreed, and it led to the birth of the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Goessel with the annual event of threshing days. Schmidt has been a museum board member for more than 30 years.
He’s been a hands-on worker there, along with many in Goessel, even framing in the memorial stained glass window with a light behind it honoring his name-sake, Captain K.V. Goessel, the ship’s captain who brought the immigrants over from Europe.
Schmidt is especially thrilled to have major museum pieces like an 1831 McCormick reaper, found in a barn southwest of Hutchinson, and needing only some of the lumber replaced. Schmidt explained the Hutch find is part of the area too because the museum represents Mennonite heritage over the entire area.
Then there’s a Model “A” Ford truck red fire engine with two water tanks on it. Schmidt said to operate, the water tanks had baking soda added. Once at the fire, a fireman would break a glass of sulfuric acid into the water to react with the soda, thus creating pressure.
How did they build all of this? Schmidt seems to reply in a conspirital low voice still laced with concern, “We borrowed the money.” From there, he said the old Mennonite families in the area were asked to build museum cases for their own families to house their own heritage items that they thought were important. The rows of display cases housing everything from wooden shoes from Russia to a burial shroud commonly carried around “in case you needed it” testify to the high response from the community.
There is a display of the typical railroad home, complete with the large immigrant trunks carried, where Schmidt said as many as 40 Mennonite families stayed waiting for homes to be built. He said one of the more valued items carried in the trunks were pillow cases containing turkey red wheat seed brought with them from Russia. They arrived just in time to plant their first winter wheat crop in October, he said.
“We opened up in 1971. I guess it was a year after that we had the first threshing days where the duplexes are in front of the museum. It was in wheat. We asked the engine club to help. “Bethezda owned it. They asked us if we wanted to buy it, but it was $8,000. We thought that was a lot of money, but we should have done it. “When we built this, we were broke.”
Individuals and local organizations, like the Goessel Engine Club, which provides most of the equipment for threshing days, continue to contribute. The wheat field used is north of the museum now.
Although Schmidt is a retired farmer, and helps at threshing days himself, he never did very much production of wheat or other small grains. He and his brother, Lester,who died in February, milked 120 to 130 cows until they sold them in 1993.
“We mostly grew silage,” he said, “and I had two trucks that I hauled good alfalfa hay with. I bought it from the guys along the river bottoms from Council Grove to Strong City. They knew how to put up hay.
“Our place is at the foot of Dutch Avenue, at its east end, east of Highway 15. Van Schmidt and his Dad, Gerald, farm it now. They’re not closely related--just good friends and neighbors.”
Randolph’s father, Simon, farmed the place before him. Schmidt’s wife, Malinda, had a stroke eight years ago. He took care of her for six years, “but then my daughters decided we should move to Bethesda Home. They said I wasn’t much of a housekeeper. “They treat us real nice, but it’s not really home. I spend a lot of time at the museum. I had 40 years of 4 a.m. dairying, so I like to get out.
“We were married for 63 years December 14. We grew up in the Springfield Church, and I buddied with her brother. One Sunday after church, I asked her if I could take her home, and she said, ‘Well, I don’t see that it could hurt.’”
They had three daughters and a son. His daughter, Jolene, and her husband, Alan Yoder, run a chiropractic clinic in Hutchinson. “They keep me straight.”
His daughter, Susan and her husband, Frank Ramberg, live in Dallas, Texas, where they supply periodicals to stores. Leona and her husband, Adrian Byron, work for Mennonite Homes in Wichita. His son, Dick R. Schmidt, lives in one of the three houses on the home farm, and is an aircraft instrument engineer at Boeing.
Schmidt gives tours at the museum, and he especially enjoys the enthusiasm of the kids. He’s able to relate to them and the equipment he used when he was a kid himself. He remembers when his father’s farm included two teams of horses and a team of mules.
“I was cultivating row crop with horses when I was 14. “I remember a funny thing with the horses. They spent all one winter confined in their stalls, and they had a berm of manure built up behind where they stood. We turned them out in the spring, and cleaned out the manure while they were out. When we brought them back in, they would try to step up over it like it was still there, and they’d fall down.”
Schmidt confirmed that the old-time way to train a young workhorse was to put it in the harness with an old mare that would bite and kick to force it to pull its weight. “Usually they’d be pulling into the harness good by the end of the first day.”
At threshing days, he said, there are horses that turn an old threshing stone, but most of the work is done with tractors from steam engines (usually started with burning wood, but using coal to stay hot) to vintage gasoline engines.
The museum houses a progression of reaping and threshing machines. There’s a set of murals depicting everything from the Mennonites meeting American Indians upon arrival on the train to women weeping in the fields for the good times of the old country. It houses the a giant liberty bell made with wheat straw and grain for the crack woven by Mennonite hands, and displayed in the Smithsonian for the 1976 United States Bicentennial.
Among other buildings outside, there’s a portable cookhouse from the 1930’s found near Blackwell, Oklahoma that Schmidt said is typical of those used by custom crews travelling the wheat harvest as it progressed from south to north. “Two ladies would run the cook shack.”
Other items on the grounds include the Schroeder barn built in 1902 with living quarters in one end for the family. There’s the Friesen house with a “courting room” with a victrola in it for the couples to listen to. Schmidt said the homes with family names are being restored and refurbished by the families themselves.
There’s a Krause house, actually an early pre-fabricated house, Schmidt said was built in Halstead in 1875 that probably escaped remodeling or destruction because it was found serving as a farm granary. The old wooden building Goessel State Bank is on the grounds along with a one-room school, South Bloomfield of 1875 to 1954, to show kids how it used to be.
The Mennonite Prepartary School is close to the condition it was from 1906 to 1925 although with indoor restrooms and the Captain Goessel stained glass. Schmidt said it serves often as a meeting room.
He likes some of the new portrayal of the old almost as much as the old itself. For instance there’s an abstract sculpture with sword, plowshare and arrows called “beating the swords into plowshares.
“Well, you’ve had a version of the tours I give,” he said.