Stakes on the Prairie
The one-horse farm wagon clattered over the dirt streets of a tiny prairie village. At Shaver Street, the horse turned south and crossed the Missouri Pacific Railroad tracks. Two men sat on the wagon seat. The older of the two men was driving the horse. A gray Stetson covered the majority of his gray-flecked black hair. His small eyes were blue-gray under bushy, black eyebrows. He was broad shouldered, over six feet tall, and 225 pounds. He wore boots and sagging, colorless trousers typically two sizes too large for his frame. He was 46.
The younger man on the seat beside him was the hired hand, and 21. He was a new arrival from the east, looking for adventure, work, and a future. As ordered he had hitched the horse to the wagon, and loaded stakes and a sledgehammer onto the wagon bed behind the seat.
Soon the pair passed through the village and had emerged on the open prairie. The driver halted the horse at the northeast edge of an 80-acre wheat field recently harvested. Directing the hired hand to follow him with stakes and hammer, the man in the Stetson stepped off a large rectangle, roughly the size of a Pennsylvania barn. The hired man drove stakes into the dark, sandy Kansas soil, marking each of the four corners.
“There has been talk of a new Mennonite school somewhere here in the west,” said the farmer to his hired hand. “And, if they want this field for that school, they can have it.”
The man in the Stetson was Abraham Lincoln Hess, an 1884 immigrant from Lancaster County, Pa. He was resolute, sometimes impetuous, and ever practical. He had recently purchased this field, perhaps on impulse. He already owned a substantial number of Harvey County acres. The hired man was David C. Mast, who didn’t stay long in Kansas, but returned to his eastern home near Atglen, Pa.
Abe Hess, on the other hand, was here to stay. He was one of the most prominent citizens of the town, which carried his name. By now, 1907, he had a significant network of family, church and business connections. Abe and Anna Pfauts Hess had no fewer than four siblings each, all well-established on Harvey County farms. The Pennsylvania Church was a vibrant congregation of 200 members, with a full “bench” of ministers, under the able leadership of Bishop Tillman M. Erb. Its congregational life revolved around the Pennsylvania Meeting House, three miles southeast of Hesston. Within a radius of thirty miles were three other thriving “Old” Mennonite congregations, Spring Valley to the north near Canton, Catlin to the east near Peabody, and West Liberty to the northwest near McPherson.
Abe (or A.L.) Hess was a farmer, landowner, bank director, and partner in various local enterprises. He and his brother, Amos, had bought a quarter section of land when they arrived in 1884. They had lobbied successfully for a depot on the St. Louis, Fort Scott & Wichita Railroad. They knew that railroads determined the prosperity of late nineteenth-century towns and villages, leaving many of those missed by the rail line to languish in obscurity. As a case in point, Hesston grew and prospered, while the French hamlet of Elivon, three miles north of Hesston, which had lost its bid for a railroad depot, disappeared. Hesston had, indeed, profited from the railroad, and its future looked promising—especially with the prospect of a college
Abe Hess, generous to a fault, was well situated to offer land and cash for the proposed school. His gifts carried the day, and the proposed school became Hesston Academy and Bible School in 1909. For the rest of his life, Hess was Hesston College’s major benefactor.
(From Chapter 1, “Stakes on the Prairie,” A School on the Prairie: A Centennial History of Hesston College, 1909-2009)
Show Me First!
Principal D.H. Bender had his hands full. It was September 20, 1909. The first building of the “Western Mennonite School of Hesston, Kansas” (as it was first named), was not yet completed, and the first of the 25 expected students had already arrived. Only half of the cost of the school building—estimated to be $15,000, including furnishings and equipment—had been pledged. The doors had not yet been opened, and they were already in debt.
Bender explained in a letter to Daniel Kauffman, editor of the new Gospel Herald, that no one had time to raise money; all energy was being devoted to completing the building (Green Gables). Furthermore, some who had been approached wanted to wait until the fall crops had been harvested. Even more problematic were those congregations who were “just a little sensitive” about being approached for contributions without knowing just what kind of a school it would turn out to be. Bender was not pleased by what he called their “show me” attitude. Nevertheless, two days later the first classes were called to order.
An Inauspicious Beginning
Tuesday, September 21, 1909 dawned fair and warm on the Kansas prairie. There was a flurry of activity on the new Hesston Academy campus, comprised of a single unfinished, under-funded building, later named Green Gables. This was a day of celebration. A great crowd gathered to dedicate the new school in the West. The guest speaker was Samuel Grant Shetler, a well-known evangelist from Davidsville, Pa, who had been interviewed for the office of principal, but was passed over in favor of Daniel Henry Bender. Shetler preached the two dedicatory sermons, addressing the theme of “the surrendered life” in the first. In the evening the lively evangelist preached a “splendid sermon” entitled, What Seest Thou in Thine House, using as a text II Kings 20:15. For Tillman Mahlon Erb, the chief founder of the new school, it was “an inspiring meeting,” and immensely gratifying.
School opened the next day on a “fair and very pleasant” morning. A borrowed grade-school bell called the students and teachers together for a chapel of singing and speechmaking. Principal Bender got things off to a good start with a welcoming and inspirational address. Other speeches, singing and prayers followed. Classes began in the afternoon with 21 students from three states—Kansas, Colorado, and Missouri. Matchmaking odds were good—ten were females and eleven were males. They paid $40 for tuition and $95 for room and board for the entire year. “Townies” paid 12-and-a-half cents per meal.
“Borrowed” seems to have been the order of the day. Having been called to order with a borrowed bell, students sat on borrowed camp chairs, and teachers used borrowed tables for desks. Blackboards had not yet arrived. There was water standing in the dining room, the “Green Gables” basement. Skirting the puddles, Etta Cooprider cooked meals on a borrowed coaloil stove. Water for drinking, cooking and washing was carried from the hand pump forty paces south of the building. Restroom accommodations, read outhouses, were twenty feet beyond the west door.
It was an inauspicious, but celebrated beginning. Now ninety-seven years later Hesston College is a monolith on the Kansas prairies—and in the minds of 12,000 living alumni.
President Bender raises the roof at Larned
Daniel Henry Bender, Hesston’s first principal and president was well traveled and well known. He preached in many congregations across the church. Bender took his turn filling the pulpit for a small, isolated congregation near Larned, Kansas, 100 miles west of Hesston. Pleasant View had just finished a new building to replace one that had been struck by lightening and burned to the ground.
It was a Sunday evening in July 1912. Bender was finishing his sermon when the state-of- the-art carbide lights became exceptionally bright, then faded. Bender ended his sermon by suggesting they sing a familiar hymn, since using a hymnbook in the darkened meetinghouse was out of the question. The cooperative congregation of about thirty began to sing. They sang the first two words, “Blessed assurance,” but ““Jesus is mine, oh what a foretaste of glory divine” was replaced by a “terrific explosion!”
The pulpit and the heat register rocketed to the ceiling. The top of the furnace shot up through the floor and struck the ceiling. Floorboards were torn up, and benches landed in a “jumbled mass” some having hit the ceiling, too. What had been the center aisle, was now a gap filled with flaming fire. The doors were blown off their hinges and sent spiraling across the parking lot, and the roof was literally raised. On its decent the pulpit caught Bender’s shoulder before returning to its approximate place on the floor.
Pastors are sometimes called upon to handle explosive issues in their congregations, and sometimes in the process, the roof may be raised, but normally…these are just figures of speech.