Bernhard Warkentin was born June 18, 1847, in the Village of Altonan, situate in Southern Russia, just north of the Crimea. His parents belonged to the Mennonites–followers of Menno Simon, a sect originating in Holland, migrating to Prussia, thence to Russia in 1783 when the Turkish government ceded to Russia the Crimea and Empress Catherine h of Russia induced them to colonize her new possession by offering them allotments of land, religious freedom and immunity from military service for 100 years.
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His father, Bernhard Warkentin, Sr., was born in Southern Russia in 1816. His mother–nee Tiesen–was born the same year in Berlin, Germany. They were the parents of four children, Elizabeth, Bernhard, Gerhard and Helena. Bernhard’s boyhood was spent in his native village, where he received his early education. Later he went to school in a neighboring city, Halbstadt, and thence to Odessa, where he attended a business college.
In 1870 and 1871 the Franco-Prussian war gave Russia an opportunity to conclude a new treaty with the Germans and the amnesty assured the Mennonites by Russia was withdrawn. The prospect of infringement of their rights led the Mennonites to look about for a new location and their eyes turned toward America. Bernhard Warkentin, then a young man of twenty-three years, in company with two young men friends, started out to see the new world. They visited the states in the east, north, south and west, giving especial attention to cities where the largest flour mills were located, for his father was a miller and it was in that industry that Bernhard Warkentin had been interested from childhood. When in Minnesota Mr. Warkentin was so impressed with the great wheat growing possibilities that he determined to remain in the new country. But he did not definitely decide just where to cast his lot until he visited Kansas, where the plains, in their likeness to the plains of his home in Southern Russia, invited him to take up his abode.
It was in Harvey County that he bought two sections of land and a site for a water mill on the banks of the Little Arkansas River, where the Halstead Milling and Elevator Company’s plant now stands.
Feeling the need of a better education in the English language, Mr. Warkentin then went to Lebanon, Illinois, where he attended McKendrie College for one year. In 1873 he returned to Kansas, built the first grist mill in Harvey County, and began his business career. In 1875 he was married in Summerfield, Illinois, to Wilhelmina Eisenmayer, a daughter of Conrad Eisenmayer, Sr., a prominent miller of the state. Mr. Warkentin’s father, Bernhard Warkentin, travelled from Altonan, Russia, to Summerfield, Illinois, to witness his son’s marriage. He never again visited America, nor did any other member of the immediate family ever visit their kinsman in America, though several have been here since Mr. Warkentin’s death.
In 1878 the little mill at Halstead was enlarged and the Halstead Milling and Elevator Company organized. In 1885 Mr. Warkentin severed his connection with the Halstead mill, and returned to Europe with his family, traveling and visiting his kinspeople in Southern Russia.
Returning to Kansas in 1886, Mr. Warkentin organized the Newton Milling and Elevator Company, and in 1887 removed his family from Halstead to Newton.
In 1888 the Halstead Milling and Elevator Company was reorganized and Mr. Warkentin was prevailed upon to take the controlling interest of stock and again became its president and manager.
In 1900 Mr. Warkentin organized the Blackwell Milling and Elevator Company, becoming its president and manager. And thus the business grew from a daily capacity of 10 barrels to one of 2,000 barrels, from a grist mill to one of the large milling interests of the state, having a reputation for quality, excelled by none, whose output was sold throughout the United States and Europe.
But it was by the introduction of hard Turkey wheat into Kansas that Mr. Warkentin performed his greatest service to the state. The grain generally grown in Kansas was of the soft variety. When the first group of Mennonites came from Russia to Kansas, they brought with them about thirty bushels of seed wheat. This seemed so well adapted to the soil and climate of Kansas that Mr. Warkentin, always an enthusiast in wheat culture, determined to do what he could to establish it firmly in the state. He commissioned his nephew, Bernhard Enns, living in Russia, to buy and ship several thousand bushels of this hard Turkey wheat, and send it directly to Newton, Kansas, from where it was distributed. Within less than twenty years the new variety had crowded out the older soft winter wheat and is now the principal grain grown in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. It is a singular coincidence that Mr. Warkentin’s father should have been the first to introduce this Red Turkey wheat among the Mennonites in Russia and that years later his son should have been the means of bringing the same wheat to America.
To Mr. Warkentin, too, belongs some of the credit for the establishing of large Mennonite settlements in Kansas. He was for a time nominally associated with Mr. C. B. Schmidt in the immigration department of the Santa Fe Railroad. At one time 1,000 Mennonites landed in New York, determined to go to Nebraska, but through Mr. Warkentin’s efforts they located in Kansas. They were all well-to-do, many of them bringing with them as much as $50,000 and there was not an illiterate person among them. They purchased farm lands in large tracts and have been foremost in the farming industry. By their inherent thrift and integrity they have been one of the most important factors in making Kansas the great state that it is.
Mr. Warkentin’s interests were not only in the milling business. He was one of those who organized the Halstead State Bank and the Kansas State Bank of Newton, holding the offices of director and president until the time of his death. He was director in the Millers National Insurance Company of Chicago, The Terminal Warchouse Company of Kansas City, Missouri, and several other corporations. He was an ambitious and tireless worker, conservative in his business methods, and his integrity and honesty were unquestioned.
As a member of the Mennonite Church, Mr. Warkentin gave liberally of his time and money in support of the institutions it fostered. He was active in the founding of Bethel College at Newton, now one of the largest and best equipped colleges of the Mennonite Church. He was likewise active in founding and organizing the Bethel Deaconess Hospital in Newton, a hospital which is now the Mother Home and training school for several other hospitals sustained by the Mennonite Church.
Mr. Warkentin’s business life may be characterized as consisting of hard untiring work, integrity and honesty that was never questioned. In his public life he was very modest and quiet, yet aided every worthy enterprise and threw his influence in favor of that which was right and good and beneficial for the community in which he lived. Being of a very unassuming disposition and very much averse to publicity, the full extent of his helpfulness and his benefactions were never fully known. Only those who knew him best could fully appreciate his kindly nature, his broad charity toward all mankind. In the home he was a most devoted husband and father, mild in manner but firm in his convictions of right and wrong, a lifelong and devout member of the Mennonite Church, yet broad in his sympathies and views of other church denominations.
The death of Bernhard Warkentin occurred in a most tragic manner, April 1, 1908, in Beirut, Syria. Mr. and Mrs. Warkentin were travelling by rail from Damascus to Beirut, when a young Turk, grandson of Abd-el-Kader, travelling in an adjoining compartment, accidentally discharged a pistol. The fatal bullet penetrated the dividing wall of the compartment entering Mr. Warkentin’s back. He died about eleven hours after the accident, in the German Deaconess Hospital in Bierut. Mrs. Warkentin accompanied the remains of Mr. Warkentin to their home in Newton, where they lie interred in the family mausoleum which Mr. Warkentin had had erected just before his departure for Egypt and The Holy Land. Besides his widow, Mr. Warkentin left a son, Carl B. Warkentin, of Newton, Kansas, who immediately took up the responsibilities of the business interests, and a daughter, Edna W., the wife of Maurice L. Alden, an attorney of Kansas City, Kansas.