Farming Among Mennonites in West Prussia and East Prussia

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Mennonites practiced agriculture for over 400 years in West and East Prussia, most of their families being farmers throughout the entire period of their occupancy 1534-1945. In West Prussia their historic location was in the lowlands of the Vistula Delta; in East Prussia it was in the lowlands of the Memel River near Tilsit, where they first settled in 1713. The chief and extraordinary agricultural achievements of the Mennonite farmers lie in the field of land-drainage. It was only their proved ability to make arable the land lying below sea level that secured the privilege of settlement in the Vistula Delta for the Dutch Mennonite refugees of 1534 and later, since the political sovereignty of the area at that time was in the hands of a strongly clerical and intolerant Poland.

The Teutonic Knights Order had, to be sure, built the great Vistula dikes and drainage establishments, but the skill of the century-old Dutch drainage techniques was necessary to drain completely the shallow lagoons and swamps of the Vistula Delta, much of which lay as much as six feet below sea level. Furthermore, after the disappearance of the Order there was no strong authority which understood how to operate for the common good. The drainage arrangements which had been built were scattered widely over the area. As a consequence the great breaks in the dikes in 1540 and 1545 inundated the whole territory of the Danzig Werder for years, reducing it to a watery waste which gradually became overgrown with reeds and rushes, since it lay below sea level. The Master of the Order, Konrad von Jungingen, stated in one of his documents regarding the inhabitants of the village of Petershagen near Tiegenhof, "They have only watery land and boundary dikes."

In 1547-1550 the drainage of this entire low territory was begun in all three sectors of the Vistula Delta on a forty-mile front, from Drausensee through the Ellerwald area and the Gross-Werder to the gates of Danzig. It was a gigantic undertaking. The landowners of this territory, namely, the Polish king, the Catholic Church, the cities of Danzig and Elbing, and the Polish barons, leased blocks of land ranging in size from 250 to 2,500 acres to Mennonite leasing associations. These associations constituted at one and the same time village communities and drainage companies, and were obligated to pay the landowners a joint rent as well as to assume responsibility for the draining of the land. It is clear from the surviving drainage arrangements that the boundaries of the individual leaseholds were chosen with consideration of the natural elevations of the land which would make possible satisfactory diking, as well as in consideration of the possible channels for discharge of the water. The land area of each of the associations had to be diked off against the inroads of water from the outside, and accordingly the associations had to join each other in arrangements to dike in the channels for the discharge water. Then a windmill was erected at the lowest place in the land area at the outlet channel, which then was constantly worked to lower the water level of the polder which it served. Side channels then had to be dug out to make possible the steady flow of water to the windmill, since the drop in the land level was very gentle. These side channels were so arranged that the smallest parcels of land were from about 2.5 to 7.5 acres in size. These individual tracts then had to be so leveled off that there would be a slight drop in the surface. Water furrows were then marked at right angles to the plow furrows to make possible the rapid discharge of rain water, since the land in any case also suffered under a high ground water level. The land also had to be cleared of all bushes and grass. All this hand labor became a very severe burden to the families of the settlers, who seldom possessed any capital. An extraordinary skill was required to avoid unnecessary work in the erection of each drainage polder as well as in other drainage work if this enormous job was to be made possible for the weak labor resources available. In addition to all this there was swamp fever. It is reported that 80 per cent of the first settlers died from it.

This first and most difficult drainage work took three to four generations. The first fruit of the drainage was meadows and pastures with excellent grass. Since the drainage channels with their low dikes carried water which stood considerably higher than the surrounding land there was great danger in rainy seasons or snow thaws that the north wind would blow and drive the water of the Baltic back into the land and through the channels into the rear areas so high that the windmills would not dare to pump the water out of the polders, since in that case the dikes would have been immediately flooded. Consequently the polders were often flooded, and this was tolerable only for meadows and pastures.

The grassy pastures called for a very intelligent handling of the cattle to be pastured. The Prussian Mennonites therefore took up dairying. By careful breeding they were able to develop a high quality milk-producing cow which was popularly called the "Milk Boat." Until modern times it was proverbial among the cattle dealers of Germany to say, "The best milk cow of Germany grows around Neuteich," the settlement area of the West Prussian Mennonites. The Dutch Mennonite immigrants brought with them from Holland the knowledge and skills essential to the conquest of the pasture land and the successful improvement of milk production and the utilization of the milk. For this purpose they developed flat funnellike earthenware containers with a large surface area which aided the rise of the cream. They also developed churns and the art of cheese making. The very good Werder cheese was a special Mennonite product. The Mennonites of the Memel district also developed a special cheese even in the first years of their settlement there, of which they annually delivered tons to the markets in Königsberg and Tilsit. This "Tilsit cheese" became a famous product which found a market all over Germany and which retained its reputation to the present day.

But the Mennonites of the Vistula Delta settled not only in areas which lay below sea level but also in swampy areas which lay above sea level but had poor drainage because of lack of discharge channels. In such areas they also succeeded in draining considerable areas of land through development of controlled discharge channels. On such land wheat and rape could be planted, in addition to the raising of dairy cattle. This combination of grain raising and cattle raising gave the Mennonite farmers a considerable advantage above their other neighbors in the delta since they were able to use a considerable amount of animal manure at a time when artificial fertilizers were not yet available.

While the men achieved extraordinary results through their drainage work, the milking and conversion of the milk into other dairy products was the extraordinary achievement of the Mennonite women in comparison to the other farm women of the area. These achievements, due to the great industry of the Mennonites, were well known, as may be seen from the statement of the administrator of Marienburg at the 1676 Landtag when he said, "One can easily detect where a lazy drunken peasant or an industrious and sober Mennonite lives."

In the building of the barns and houses in the farms below sea level care had to be taken to locate the building area above high water. Since the earth necessary to build these elevated locations was scarce it had to be hauled in from considerable distances. For this reason the farmyards were small. This explains also why in small farms, up to possibly 45 acres, the dwelling house, stables, and barn were built together in a row under one common thatched roof, called "Reihenhof." In the case of larger farms this "row" would soon get too long and waste too much land for the approach. Consequently, an "angle" farmyard was developed, in which the dwelling house and stable were built in one row but the barn of approximately equal length was built on at a right angle. The farmyard was then located inside the angle. The exit road led around the barn and served at one and the same time as the rear exit from the barn and as the exit for the manure pile, which was located on the opposite side of the stable. When the farm exceeded 125 acres in size a cross-shaped farmstead was constructed. Here the barn was built crosswise to the stable and on both sides of it. By this manner of construction the shortest cut was achieved for the route to haul the hay and straw from the barn to the stable. This corresponds in a large degree to the recommended method of construction of a farmstead in our day.

It is noteworthy that the agricultural settlements of the Mennonites in West Prussia through the centuries remained intact longest in those areas where a systematic drainage of the land was an absolute necessity. The necessary communal task of drainage required a sense of community which was natural to the Mennonites. Furthermore, the originally unfruitful lands which they occupied were freed from many of the taxes and levies which other lands had to carry.

On the other hand, the Mennonites resisted with all their strength the labor which was required of them on the dikes and for the villages which had been established by the teutonic Order. Personal serfdom to other persons was an abomination to them, and they sought with every means at their command to keep their young people out of the low type of life which was common among the hired farm laborers, both men and women, of the larger peasant farmers in the villages.

A noteworthy characteristic of the Mennonite farms in Prussia was the well-ordered garden. Until the very end of the Mennonite settlements one could always determine where a Mennonite lived from the state of the garden.

With the development of the steam engine a change came into the drainage procedures in the Vistula Delta. The more powerful pumps of the steam engine were able to do so much better work than the windmill, and the circular pump was able to lift the water so much higher than the millwheel that the smaller polders could readily be combined and the water level lowered still further.

The further development of motor power through the use of the big diesel motor, as well as the increasing interest of the state in aiding the agricultural development of its people, led to a still further consolidation of the drainage units and to a deeper drop in the ground water level. As a result the whole area of the Gross-Werder was finally consolidated into two great drainage areas lying on both sides of the Schwente. One of these areas lay along the Elbing Vistula and the other at the "Jungfersche Lake."  They were protected by dams from flooding from the side of the Baltic. The last areas where there was swamp fever then disappeared, and wheat and sugar beets could be raised everywhere. This final consummation of the drainage work of the Mennonites was only achieved during World War II.

Because of the general rise in the standard of living and the consequent demand for meat in the second half of the century it became necessary to substitute a heavier, more meaty type of milch cow for the earlier purely milch (Werder) cow. This development was inaugurated by the Mennonite Cornelius Jansson of Tiege, who imported in 1852 a high-quality breeding bull of the black-and-white East Frisian type of Dutch origin. For the same reason the Mennonite Gerhard Wiebe of Gross-Lesewitz introduced breeding stock of the Holstein Wilstermarsch race. This East Frisian type with its greater milk production won out in the competition and led to the establishment of the West Prussian Registered Cattle Association. West Prussian Mennonites remained the leaders in this successful breeding association, both on the breeding side and the marketing side. The Mennonite Gustav Friesen of Klein-Lichtenau three times won the gold medal (1936-1939) for the best milk production of any herd in the territory. His best herd production for one year was an average of 13,860 pounds of milk with 4 per cent butter fat per cow. The last president of the association was Ernst Penner of Liessau. Chairman of the cattle co-operative of Danzig-West Prussia, with an annual turnover of $9,000,000 in beef cattle and $1,000,000 in milk cattle, was Johann Driedger of Heubuden.

As a result of the expansion of the acreage of the Mennonite farmers in West Prussia following the lowering of the ground water level and the cancellation of the restrictive regulations against Mennonites, the creative activity of the Mennonites in the area of agriculture was considerably increased. The Mennonite Epp of Quadendorf produced a type of wheat in the second half of the 19th century which found wide distribution in West Prussia far beyond purely Mennonite farmers under the name "Quadendorf Epp Wheat." The Mennonite Ernst Wiens of Damerau achieved the highest ranking in 1930 in the money value per acre of the product of all the agriculture operations of similar character in the entire German national area. This was a result of his careful handling of his land. The biggest sugar beet producer in the Vistula Delta in 1944 was the above-named Mennonite Penner of Liessau, who harvested 30,000 dozen sugar beets.

The three top executives of the Dike Associations in the Vistula Delta who had the responsibility for the maintenance of all the river dikes and the supervision of the whole drainage process were  always Mennonites on the basis of a free election, although the Mennonites did not have either by number or by area the majority.


Penner, Horst. Ansiedlung mennonitischer Niederlän­der im Weichselmündungsgebiet von der Mitte des 16. Jahrhunderts bis zum Beginn der preussischen Zeit. Weierhof, 1940.

Penner, Horst. "Die westpreussischen Mennoniten im Wandel der Zeit." Mennonitische Geschichtsblätter 7 (1950).

Szper, F. Nederlandsche Nederzettingen in West-Pruizen gedu-rende den Poolschen tijd. Enkhuizen, 1913.

Wiebe, H. Das Siedlungswerk niederländischer Mennoniten im Weichseltal. Marburg, 1952.

Author(s) Johannes Driedger
Date Published 1956

Cite This Article

MLA style

Driedger, Johannes. "Farming Among Mennonites in West Prussia and East Prussia." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 20 Sep 2020.

APA style

Driedger, Johannes. (1956). Farming Among Mennonites in West Prussia and East Prussia. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 September 2020, from


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 311-313. All rights reserved.

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