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Museum program shows how garden told immigrants’ story

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – How a flower garden reflected the lives of 19th-century immigrants to south central Kansas, and their descendants, is the topic of the next Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum event at Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum.

Melvin D. Epp, Whitewater, a freelance writer and long-time gardening enthusiast himself, will present “Petals of the sunflower: The garden of Bernhard and Justine Harder, immigrants from West Prussia,” Sunday, June 8, at 3:30 p.m. at the museum. The event is co-sponsored by the Newton Public Library as part of its 2008 Flower and Garden Tour and is free and open to the public.

In 1876, at age 64, Bernhard Harder, Sr., sold the farm and garden he had nurtured for 44 years in West Prussia and came to the United States with his wife, Justine Bergmann Harder, seeking political and religious freedom for their three sons, Johannes, Gustav and Bernhard Jr. The Harder family joined the first group of emigrants from the Heubuden Mennonite Church, traveling from Bremen, Germany, to New York on board the SS Rhein and then by train to Halstead, where relatives welcomed them. Harder bought a section of land from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in northwestern Butler County.

Harder and his sons built a granary on the section, into which the family moved in late autumn of 1876, and invited neighboring immigrant families to worship services there on Sundays – the beginning of Emmaus Mennonite Church. By the next July, Harder had built his new house and could begin creating a replica of his West Prussian garden.

Gardening was a passion for Harder, one he continued to pursue despite the enormous difficulties of planting and maintaining a garden on the Kansas prairie. A central pathway made of boards, along with neatly trimmed hedges, created space to enjoy viewing flowers or resting on benches under one of three arbors.

Justine Harder loved to entertain her family and guests, and she is especially remembered for her parties at New Year’s and her birthday in July. After summer meals, guests would move to the garden to enjoy the evening coolness.

Melvin Epp’s mother, Marie Harder Epp, one of Bernhard and Justine’s granddaughters, loved to run and play in the garden as a child. In 1934, she wrote a poem in German to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her grandmother’s birth, in which she describes the garden in detail, subsequently diagramming the three arbors, formal trimmed hedges and planting areas for fruit, vegetables and chicken feed.

After Justine Harder’s death in 1916, family interest in maintaining the large garden declined and the area was plowed and converted to other uses. However, gardening continued to dominate summer activity for Justine’s daughter and granddaughter in a different location near their house. After 105 years of continued gardening at this site, plants still grow there that were originally gifts from neighboring housewives.

Harder will tell the story of the garden using his mother’s memories, poetry and other literary images.

Kauffman Museum is located at 27th and Main in North Newton. Regular museum hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and 1:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is closed Mondays and major holidays. More information is available by calling the museum at 316-283-1612 or visiting its Web site, www.bethelks.edu/kauffman/.

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