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Story led photojournalist to document Seminole Mennonites’ lives

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Laura Camden has been fascinated by Amish and Mennonites from a young age. But it was her journalistic curiosity that finally led her into a particular kind of Mennonite world.

A collection of Camden’s black-and-white photos of several Old Colony Mennonite families in Seminole, Texas, is currently on display at Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum. The exhibit, “Mennonites in Texas: The Quiet in the Land,” remains open through Sept. 21.

Camden, now a faculty member in photojournalism at the University of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, was born and raised in Austin, Texas. However, her father’s family is from southwestern Pennsylvania. From about age 10, Laura would go for summer visits, and her grandmother often would take her to Lancaster County, Pa., where Laura’s imagination was captured by the buggy driving, plain-dressed Amish.

“I was exposed then,” she says, “and intrigued by the [Amish] lifestyle. Learning about Amish culture led me to learn more about Mennonites.”

In the mid-1990s, Camden was looking for a topic for her master’s thesis in photojournalism at the University of Texas in Austin. She went to the Institute of Texan Cultures and in the course of her research discovered a series of articles on a group of about 500 Mennonites who had come to the Seminole area in 1977, mostly from Chihuahua, Mexico, with a smaller number from Manitoba, only to be met with broken promises and immigration difficulties.

“It was really their story that struck me,” she says, more than the fact that these were Mennonites. “I was interested in doing present-day follow-up on the group that came in the ’70s. I hadn’t seen other research and thought that would be a good contribution.

“They had come here and stayed here [despite the difficulties],” she continues. “I guess, as a journalist, I was curious about [why]. I felt it was a story that needed to be told.”

In 1789, Mennonites from the Vistula Delta of Prussia (now Poland) emigrated to south Russia along the Dnjepr River in what is now Ukraine. The oldest of these south Russian settlements, in the village of Chortitza, became known as the Old Colony. Less than a century later, the Russian government challenged Mennonite exemption from military service and demanded oversight of their schools. So in 1874, some Old Colony Mennonites emigrated to southern Manitoba.

Eventually, the Canadian government became less tolerant of nonpublic education and also introduced universal “manpower registration” (which stopped short of an actual draft). In 1922, the first Old Colony settlement was established in the state of Chihuahua. Over the next 50 years, the Mennonite population in northern Mexico grew and thrived, although internal divisions led some to move farther south to Belize and Bolivia.

In March 1977, an Old Colony Mennonite bishop from Mexico purchased a ranch southwest of Seminole, which led to the immigration of others living in Mexico, as well as Canada. The latter sought tax relief and freedom to organize their own schools while those from Mexico wanted affordable land, isolated enough to encourage separation from “the world.”

The Old Colony Mennonites who came to Texas from Mexico in early 1977 had been falsely led to believe that buying land would allow them to enter the United States as legal immigrants. But in July 1977, the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) ordered 43 Mennonite families to be deported. Some 250 families that had planned to emigrate instead stayed in Mexico. Without their assistance, the original group was unable to pay its mortgage and their land was sold at auction in 1979. The plight of these Mennonites received widespread publicity, and in 1980, the U.S. Congress legalized the status of 653 colonists.

However, the Mennonites in Seminole have been unable to realize their original dream of building a colony of up to 40,000 people. Nevertheless, a number of the original families have remained, making a living on individual farms off the harsh, west Texas land, as well as through successful businesses in carpentry and auto mechanics, among others. There are five churches in the area, representing Old Colony (Gaines County Mennonite), Reinlander, Evangelical Mennonite (Kleinegemeinde in Mexico), Evangelical Mennonite Mission Conference and Sommerfelder Mennonite.

When Camden made her first phone call to the Seminole Mennonite community, she connected with Judy Harms, who welcomed her warmly, she says. Camden would stay with the Harms family during all her visits to Seminole, which is about eight hours’ drive from Austin.

The Seminole Mennonites speak Plautdietsch or Low German, with High German used in worship services, so Camden always had to have a translator when she visited with people. “It does affect the outcome,” she says. “I just had to accept that.”

She was most surprised, she says, by “their curiosity about me and my lifestyle, particularly the younger women. I was in my 20s at the time.” Another surprise was that only in church did the men dress distinctively – the rest of the time, they looked like other West Texas farmers, she says. However, she has no photos of the worship services – to have photographed there would have been “highly disrespectful.”

At about the same time as Camden was doing her master’s thesis work, so was another UT-Austin graduate student named Susan Gaetz, who had chosen to focus on the Beachy Amish community in Lott, Texas. Later, Gaetz and Camden got together to try and publish a book of their photos, which was eventually taken on by Texas A&M University Press, originally as part of the “Texas Photography” series but ultimately within the Sam Rayburn Series on Rural Life.

Gaetz had served as press photographer for former Texas governor Ann Richards, who agreed to write the book’s foreword. “She had been scheduled to do book signings with us,” Camden says. However, Richards died of cancer right before the book – with the same title as the photo exhibit, Mennonites in Texas: The Quiet in the Land – was released in the fall of 2006.

The title Mennonites in Texas was not necessarily what she and Gaetz would have chosen, Camden says – neither had titled her master’s thesis that way. “It’s what the press wanted as the hook to get people interested in the book,” she says, which does acknowledge in the introduction that there are “more than 50 different congregations, representing 16 different groups of Mennonites” scattered throughout Texas and that the author-photographers chose the Lott and Seminole groups partly because of their distinctive appearance.

It was purely through Mennonite connections that the exhibit of Camden’s photos came to Kauffman Museum. “My colleague and mentor at Northern Arizona University, Gene Balzer, is a first cousin of Berneil Mueller,” Camden says. Mueller, who lives with her husband, Ted, in North Newton, is a current Bethel College Board member and a strong Kauffman Museum supporter. “Gene asked Berneil she knew of any place that might want to exhibit my photos. Berneil began making phone calls [and discovered that Kauffman Museum had an opening].”

Camden spoke about the process of taking the photos and producing the book, and signed copies of it, as part of the museum’s Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum series July 27, the day the exhibit opened. Before that, she spent about 10 days as a houseguest of the Muellers and began working on her next project, for which she is interviewing and photographing Dust Bowl survivors.

“I wrote a grant to NAU and got it, to do this project as my summer salary,” Camden says. Again, “Berneil was a great help making contacts. Many of these older people are suspicious and cautious about talking [to strangers] and it has been so good to have an entre. I have been able to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.”

She hopes eventually to produce another book, but expects the project to take at least three years. And because of her connection with Berneil Mueller, it’s likely that many of her subjects will again be Mennonites. Mueller has relatives in the Oklahoma Panhandle and connections in the Liberal and Protection, Kan., area, which were in the middle of the Dust Bowl.

As with Mennonites in Texas, Camden says, “I want to take a present-day look at the areas [in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas], who’s living there, what they’re doing with the land and is there still a family connection. About a third of the people I’ve talked to so far still have relatives on the land. I hope to get their stories and then go to the locations to take photos.”

Unlike Mennonites in Texas, however – which was shot with film – this project is being done with a digital camera and includes audio of the interviews, so it will be multi-media as well.

“Documentary photography is about looking at the world,” Camden says, “and [trying to understand] how we are all related through the human experience.”

“Mennonites in Texas: The Quiet in the Land” will be on display through September 21. 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. Admission to the museum, which includes admission to both the special exhibit and the permanent exhibits “Of Land and People,” “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture,” is $3 for adults and $1.50 for children ages 6-16. More information is available by calling the museum at 316-283-1612 or visiting its Web site,

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