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Researching the stone: North Newton man seeks to document Bethel College symbol’s history

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – A North Newton man is looking for threshing stones.

Glen Ediger isn’t seeking to collect the stones – he wants to photograph them and document their history.

“Many people have no idea what a threshing stone is,” Ediger said. “It’s a cylindrical, heavy stone that was used for threshing wheat in Kansas for a very brief period of time in the 1870s.”

Ediger is trying to document as many of these farming relics as can be found and to do that seeks help from individuals who may know where stones are located.

Mennonite farmers who emigrated from Russia used threshing stones before coming to North America. They brought with them the pattern for the stones. Soon after arriving in south central Kansas, some Mennonite farmers visited local limestone quarries and placed orders for threshing stones.

“It seems that most of the threshing stones are still located in four Kansas counties – Reno, McPherson, Harvey and Marion, the primary counties in which they were originally used,” Ediger said, “although they could be anywhere now.”

When thousands of Mennonites arrived in Kansas in 1874, they brought with them the Turkey Red hard winter wheat to plant in the fertile Kansas prairie soil. Oxen or horses pulled the 30" long by 24" diameter stone wheel with seven ridges over the harvested wheat stalks to knock the ripe wheat kernels loose from the head, allowing the grain to fall onto the threshing floor. It was then gathered and ground into bread flour.

Threshing stones are different from the millstones that ground the grain into flour. Wheat production eventually made Kansas famous as “the breadbasket of the world.”

The threshing stones were made with limestone from quarries in Marion County and then distributed to the farming communities where the Mennonites had settled. However, within just a couple years of the Mennonites’ arrival on the Great Plains, mechanical threshing machines were introduced in the area. Ultimately, not many stones were made and many that were, were never even used before being abandoned. The stones landed in washouts or were relegated to being lawn ornaments.

“It is not known how many were ever made,” Ediger said, “but historical estimates range from about 100 to 200.”

Many of these relics are on public view at such places as Kauffman Museum and elsewhere on the Bethel College campus in North Newton (in fact, the threshing stone is Bethel’s sports mascot), the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Goessel, the Mennonite Settlement Museum in Hillsboro, the Halstead Museum, the Inman Museum and in front of Buhler High School. There is even a stone incorporated into a monument on Main Street in Peabody.

However, many threshing stones are in private hands. As Ediger tries to compile historic evidence of those that can still be located, he stresses that he is not giving out identifying information on privately owned stones. Their existence will simply be documented for future historical research.

“I [will not be] publishing the names of stones privately owned,” he said. “I am not buying, selling or brokering them. This is just historical research, but I do have tremendous interest in the project.”

He added that he is “having a blast so far.” On a recent trip to China for Vornado Air Systems, for which he is director of design research and development, Ediger even found a threshing “stone” made of wood, though he has since discovered it was likely a rice-planting tool.

To see some of the 60-plus stones already photographed and to learn more about threshing stones, go to Ediger’s website, www.threshingstone.com.

“If you know where a stone is located, please leave a message [on the site] and I will follow up on it,” Ediger said. “It’s always a great day when I find a new stone.”

Ediger hopes eventually to produce a book. He is working toward an exhibit of threshing stones at Kauffman Museum, for which Ediger is currently the chair of the Board of Directors, as part of Bethel College’s 125th anniversary celebration at Fall Festival in October 2012.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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