Skip to content

Farmers packed prized wheat on trip to their new home

Mennonite families often brought trunks full of Turkey Red wheat with them when they emigrated to North America.
wp Prize-wheat
Turkey Red wheat proved to be an invaluable travelling item for Mennonite farmers when they began planting crops on their new farms.

WESTERN PRODUCER — In a big, red hip-roof barn on a Saskatchewan farm there once stood a sturdy homemade trunk. It had contained some of the family belongings when Dietrich and Elizabeth Barkman homesteaded in 1906 in the Flowing Well district of the province.

Emptied of its contents, the trunk was stored in the barn for decades.

My husband, Leo, remembered standing on it as a young boy as he saddled up his horse, Birdie. Other than that, the trunk was mostly ignored, until Edwin, another of the Barkman sons, came for a visit from California. Meandering through the barn at milking time, he spied the old trunk.

Could it be, he wondered.

Digging through family history, he had read that Barkman ancestors, who came to Hillsboro, Kansas, in 1874 from what is now Ukraine, brought with them a crude trunk in which there was a pull-out drawer in the very bottom. With her parents busily preparing for the impending voyage — and probably wanting to keep her out of the way — a little eight-year-old girl called Annie was given the task of going to the granary and choosing enough plump wheat kernels to fill the bottom of the trunk. Nor was she the only one picked for such a task.

Many Mennonite families apparently loaded kitchen crocks and travelling trunks with Turkey Red wheat before leaving for America.

The wheat had originated in Turkey, hence the name, and had been grown in the bread baskets of Europe for centuries.

In America, meanwhile, wheat yields were low and crop failures were common until Peter Barkman and other Mennonite farmers seeded Turkey Red for their initial crops. It contained more protein, producing the best flour, and was resistant to disease. The good yield and fine quality of the grain meant farmers were eager to plant it and it became the primary wheat planted throughout the Prairies.

According to Wikipedia, other Mennonites such as Bernhard Warkentin and Mark A. Carleton played a major part in the spread of Turkey Red as a commercial crop. Warkentin organized mills in central Kansas and imported seed from Ukraine to meet growing demand. A museum in Goessel, Kansas, has a building called the Turkey Red Palace that features the story.

Meanwhile in Canada, was the old trunk stored in Dietrich Barkman’s barn one of the very trunks that had carried Turkey Red wheat to America? Dietrich’s son, Edwin, was determined not to lose this artifact and had the trunk shipped back to Tabor College in Kansas, where it was displayed as one of the authentic props in a musical the students presented featuring the story of little Annie Barkman.

Turkey Red wheat remained popular from the 1870s to the 1940s, when it was replaced by modern, higher-yielding cultivars. Of late, however, there has been a resurgence in heritage varieties of wheat, especially on organic farms, and both seed and flour from heirloom wheat is advertised on the internet.

Little did Annie Barkman realize that by diligently filling containers with kernels of grain, she and other Mennonite children would one day see Turkey Red wheat become the prominent strain for decades across the American and Canadian Plains.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks