These people have proved themselves possessed of so high a degree of energy and public spiritedness, that they entitle themselves to our warmest sympathy and active support. -William Seeger, "Report on Russo-German Immigration." (1873)
Mennonites arrived at Mountain Lake in 1873. Mennonites are a Protestant Christian group with sixteenth century European origins. Their name refers to Menno Simons, who was a Dutch religious reformer. Simons preached a fundamentalist, more literal interpretation of the Bible. He also emphasized the importance of adult baptism. Along with these beliefs, Simons promoted a simple way of life similar to Jesus Christ and the apostles. As part of his creed, he stressed the importance of Christian brotherhood, pacifism, and the primacy of family in Christian life. The tenet of pacifism played a significant role throughout Mennonite history.
Mennonites were persecuted for their beliefs in Holland. Over a few hundred years, many left Holland for Eastern Europe. Thousands eventually settled in the Russian Crimea in the late eighteenth century, invited there by Catherine the Great. In the Crimea, the Mennonites enjoyed relative independence and freedom. They were also exempted from military service.
Conditions changed in 1871. Under Czar Alexander II, Mennonites were no longer spared from military service. This conflicted with their pacifist beliefs. Wanting to preserve their faith, many Mennonites left Russia in pursuit of new lands and religious freedom.
Some chose North America as their new home. Many American states wrote and circulated brochures to attract European immigrants. William Seeger, member of the Minnesota State Board of Immigration from 1872 to 1874, specifically targeted Russian Mennonites because they were believed to be hard workers of good character. Seeger had success in attracting Mennonite families to Minnesota from a previously established community in Yankton, SD. Through an agreement with local railroads, Seeger settled them in Mountain Lake.
Mountain Lake was a new prairie settlement in southwestern Minnesota's Cottonwood County. The first years there were difficult and disappointing for the Mennonites. The winters in the first half of the 1870s were particularly harsh. In the summers, their crops were ravaged by the grasshopper plagues of 1873-1877. The Mennonites were also forced to adjust to a new way of life. Mountain Lake was already an established community and the surrounding lands were largely surveyed. Mennonites could not establish communal villages on the Russian and Western European model. Instead, they lived on small, single farms, often neighbored by non-Mennonite settlers.
Despite these challenges, the Mennonites of Mountain Lake established a successful community. It was based primarily on agriculture and local commerce. As time went on, the arrival of more Mennonites allowed them to develop a more cohesive and traditionally organized Mennonite community. The town prospered from the railroad and advances in agriculture, and grew significantly from 1890 to 1900.
The twentieth century brought profound social and cultural change to the Mountain Lake Mennonite community. Unlike other Mennonites in Iowa and Manitoba, the Mountain Lake community was in regular contact with non-Mennonite neighbors. Gradual social change came through this contact. For example, during the 1930s the Mountain Lake Mennonites transitioned from speaking Low German to speaking English.
More changes came with American involvement in the Second World War. The war caused a social and religious rift among the Mountain Lake community which permanently altered their way of life. This rift resulted in part from the experiences of Mennonites during the war-effort. Many Mennonites became more receptive to American culture and technological advancements. As a result, they modified some aspects of religious and domestic life.
Despite social tension, the Mennonites of Mountain Lake continued to thrive in the post-war years. Most Mennonite children are educated in the public school system rather than in traditional Mennonite schools. Instead of oxen and draft horses, Mennonites in Mountain Lake rely heavily on mechanized transportation and modern farm equipment. Many Mennonite leaders were concerned about these changes and predicted a loss of religious purity and tradition. However, as they begin the twenty-first century, the Mountain Lake community has maintained a strong sense of identity and a proud cultural and religious heritage.
Janzen, Rod.The Prairie People: Forgotten Anabaptists. Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999.
Kraybill, Donald B.,and Carl F. Bowman. On the Backroad to Heaven: Old Order Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish, and Brethren. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Schultz, Ferdinand Peter." A History of the Settlement of German Mennonites from Russia, at Mountain Lake, Minnesota." MA Thesis, University of Minnesota, 1937.
Seeger, William, "Report on Russo-German Immigration," 1873
Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.
Description: Letter from William Seeger, member of MN State Board of Immigration, to Governor Horace Austin concerning the immigration of Mennonites to Minnesota.
Seventy-five years in Minnesota, 1874–1949: Mennonite Churches in Mountain Lake Community. Mountain Lake, MN: 1950.
In 1873, William Seeger of the Minnesota State Board of Immigration convinced a group of Russian Mennonites in Yankton, SD, to settle in Mountain Lake, on land acquired from the railroad.