Finney County always has been a melting pot




Immigration may seem like a relatively recent phenomenon, but Garden City and Finney County have been a crossroads for newcomers for hundreds of years.

During Tuesday's second of four Brown Bag Lunch Series presentations at the Finney County Historical Museum, museum Executive Director Steve Quakenbush said ongoing immigration from various other cultures and countries has shaped, and continues to shape, the community.

Finney County was founded in 1884, and Garden City began with four homestead claims in 1878-79. But the area has been a crossroads, destination, and point of contact between cultures for more than 400 years, all the way back to 1541, when the Spanish explorer Coronado traversed the area.

"We know that because the sword of one of his officers was discovered near Pawnee Creek," Quakenbush said.

While Finney County became known for the meat packing industry and the attraction of immigrant labor starting around 1980, those workers actually followed in the footsteps of men and women who had arrived in the 1880s and even earlier, Quakenbush said. According to the 1910 census, 23 percent of the county population was foreign born and included people from 12 different nations.

"It's not a new phenomenon," he said.

There have been three major developments in the local economy that also brought immigrants. Sugar production through the Garden City sugar beet factory that operated from 1906 to 1955; beef raising and production that took off in the 1960s as feedlots expanded; and the meat packing industry from about 1980 onward.

"Each of these developments brought people from other parts of the country, and people from other cultures. It brought them here to work," Quakenbush said.

During the presentation, Quakenbush highlighted five major immigration waves, including Native Americans, Jewish immigrants, Russian/Germans, Mexicans and Vietnamese.

Native Americans traveled through the area for thousands of years, but the Commanche were the first to stick in the area around 1700. They were followed by Kiowa, Pawnee and Wichita peoples, and the plains Apache hunted here, though they didn't live in the area permanently.

The Native Americans didn't fare well, Quakenbush said. The population was decimated by a smallpox epidemic in 1839-40 that killed a third of the population, and were further reduced after being forced onto reservations in Oklahoma. By the 1870s, only a small number remained in the area.

Quakenbush said it sometimes surprises people to learn that the county once had a group of 60 Jewish immigrants who arrived in 1882, part of a wave of around 100,000 Jewish people who left Russia between 1881 and 1886. The Finney County colony, Beersheba, was located in the northern part of the county and was one of eight settlements attempted in Kansas under the Homestead Act, supported by an organization called the Hebrew Union Agricultural Society.

"The Society encouraged the settlers to come. They provided wagons, horses, livestock, farming equipment," Quakenbush said. "But the colony failed."

Many of the settlers lacked farming experience, and they settled on land well suited for grazing but not for raising non-irrigated crops. They also arrived at a time of hot, dry summers, winter blizzards and hordes of grasshoppers.

The settlement faded away in less than a decade, and people moved to other communities. Today, there is a historical marker near the junction of U.S. Highway 56 and Kansas Highway 23.

According to the journal of Charles K. Davis, one of the Beersheba immigrants, dated Aug. 6, 1882, Davis "could see for miles on all sides, and within sight there are great herds of Texas cattle. And these are attended by cowboys who are principally men of nerve and daring, and will be crossed by no one. Every one carries a belt with a couple of .44 caliber long range revolvers."

Russian/German immigrants began arriving around 1905, later than more well-known groups of Russian Germans who settled in the Hays and Russell areas in the 1870s. Those who settled in Finney County quickly assimilated, and many of their descendants still live here, Quakenbush said.

Many of the Russian/German immigrants were recruited by the Santa Fe railroad to settle the area and work initially in sugar production, due to a strong work ethic and because of some government projects to help initiate irrigation. Quakenbush said the largest of those was a $250,000 project in 1905 that irrigated 20,000 acres to produce sugar beets.

People think about immigration from Mexico as something that started in the 1980s as jobs opened in the meat packing industry, but there was an earlier population that began arriving from 1900 through 1930 who came to find work and to escape deteriorating economic and social conditions in Mexico. By 1930, Mexican-Americans in Kansas were one of the largest Mexican ancestral groups in the United States, Quakenbush said. They were recruited to work on the railroad starting in 1907, performed field work for beets, onions, wheat, potatoes and helped build and work at the Garden City sugar beet factory.

"There are some reports they were involved in laying a lot of the brick for the original paved streets in Garden City," he said. "Most of them were making about $1 or $1.50 per day. By the 1920s or '30s, those wages had soared to maybe $2.50 or $3 per day."

Quakenbush said this population was segregated and faced discrimination. They were barred from movie theaters, barbershops and most restaurants, though some would serve Mexican immigrants if they came to the back door.

Over time, they did assimilate, though they retained some of their culture. Quakenbush noted the founding of the Mexican Fiesta in 1926 that today is the longest running community celebration in Garden City.

A wave of immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos began coming to the area in 1975, following the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War. Quakenbush said some came directly, others came a little later after spending time in prison camps or re-education camps run by the North Vietnamese regime that had taken over, or from refugee camps in other countries.

"Most of them had their money and property confiscated, and some were still coming as late as the early 1990s," he said.

Those who came to Finney County were drawn by meat packing jobs. Newspaper accounts at the time noted that many of these workers had been doctors, lawyers and professionals in their home countries. Today, those immigrants and their children are business owners, work in public service, medical professionals and are active in the community.

New ranks of immigrants continue to arrive: Old Colony Mennonites, Burmese, Somalis, and contingents from India, Pacific Islands and many other African and Latin American countries.

Quakenbush said a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty sits on the courthouse lawn, something he finds particularly apt for the community's immigrant history.

"We've had thousands of people come here over the past 130 years, and many of these thousands have come to Finney County and been born again as Americans," he said. "Maybe that makes this community, in many respects, our own little Ellis Island on the plains."

The Brown Bag Series continues each Tuesday at noon for the next several weeks. Next Tuesday's presentation, War Birds, concerns the story of the "other" war birds who helped the Allies win World War II. On Feb. 25, the lunch will feature the history of Garden City Regional Airport and how it evolved from a military training base. The March 5 lecture will feature a history of Dustbowl-era bank robbers, the Fleagle gang, which is being presented a second time because of the inclement weather in the region the day of the first presentation, on Feb. 4.

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