Fernheim Colony (Boquerón Department, Paraguay)

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1956 Article

Fernheim Colony, located in the Paraguayan Chaco, South America, was founded on 26 April 1930. The first group of Mennonites having fled from Russia to Germany were given temporary refuge by the German government largely because of the intervention of B. H. Unruh of Karlsruhe, Germany, and upon the promise that they would not stay in Germany. The entire group hoped to move on to Canada, but that country refused to admit them. Consequently the Mennonite Central Committee at its meeting held on 25 January 1930 decided to assist this group in resettling in the Paraguayan Chaco. Plans were made accordingly, and 374 families (1,853 souls) prepared to leave. A smaller group went to Brazil. The first group left camp Mölln in Germany for Paraguay on 15 March 1930, followed by seven other groups in the following order: Group 1, 61 families under Johann Funk; Group 2, 68 families under Gerhard Schartner; Group 3, 67 families under Nicolai Siemens; Group 4, 69 families under Abram Klassen; Group 5, 5 families under Gerhard Isaak; Group 6, 14 families under David Thielmann; Group 7, 10 families under Heinrich Willms; Group 8, 80 families under Jakob Siemens. Travel and financial arrangements were made by the German government and the MCC.

Friends and German Protestant churches helped to equip the Mennonites before their departure and much household equipment and tools and clothing were collected under the slogan Brüder in Not. The MCC purchased agricultural implements, and other equipment for them.

In Paraguay the MCC had made arrangements with the Corporación Paraguaya for the sale of land by that company to the immigrants. On 11 April 1930 the first group arrived at Puerto Casado and immediately went on to the interior where their land lay. At the railhead, Station Fred Engen, they were met by the Canadian Mennonites already living in the Chaco since 1926, and taken to the colony site. Temporary shelter was provided by tents. Whereas that entire movement was permitted to enter Paraguay on the basis of Law 514 of 26 July 1921, which gave the original Privilegium to the Canadian Mennonite group, a delegation from the colony arranged for an amplification of this law to include this new group known as "Colony Fernheim," which was granted under Decree No. 43,561 of 4 May 1932, and which also included the benefits of Law 914 of 29 August 1927, passed to permit the entry of other pacifist groups to the Chaco. According to the privilege of self-government, the colony was first administered by the leaders of the first three groups, Franz Heinrichs later being elected the first administrator (Oberschulze). Each village has its Schulze and his assistants (Zehntmänner). Fernheim had six administrators to 1955: Franz Heinrichs, David Löwen, Jakob Siemens, Julius Legiehn, Bernhard Wall, and Heinrich Dürksen. Elections were held annually, and all colony citizens were allowed to vote. The colony had its own registrar's office, insurance and pension bureau.

Three weeks after the arrival the initial land surveys were completed and lots were drawn for the village sites, as also for the individual farm sites within each village. Fernheim colony in 1955 had 20 villages besides Filadelfia: Schönbrunn, Schönwiese, Friedensfeld, Friedensruh, Rosenort, Landskron, Wüstenfelde, Kleefeld, Blumental, Lichtfelde, Gnadenheim, Waldesruh, Wiesenfeld, Blumenort, Karlsruhe, Schönau, Auhagen, Orloff, Hohenau, and Grünfeld. Originally each family was allotted 96 acres, increased in 1937 to 240 acres per family, and in 1946 the total colony land holdings averaged 432 acres per family. The first steps of the immigrants were house construction and securing a water supply. Some houses were built temporarily, small and primitive, while others were at once built more permanently, usually 23 x 13 ft., of adobe brick and thatched roof. In 1955 burned brick was usually used, with galvanized or aluminum roofing. The houses were frequently built facing north or northwest for better ventilation from the frequent northeast winds. Glass windows only began to appear in the late 1940s. The water situation remained one of the gravest problems of the settlement. During the first months only one well was available, and because of the water scarcity, a boy was at times stationed at the bottom of the well to dip the trickling water with a cup and gradually fill the bucket.

Digging of wells was dangerous because of the sandy nature of the subsoil. By 1 January 1935, the colony had dug 198 wells, of which 124 had sweet water and 75 salt water. On 1 January 1950, the colony had a total of 255 wells, of which two thirds are sweet wells, turning bitter if excessively used. In addition to the original severe water shortage, the poor transportation facilities resulted in irregular supply of essential foods. This, together with the unaccustomed climate, environment, and food, led to the outbreak of a typhoid epidemic shortly after their arrival in the Chaco, which claimed 65 lives in a few weeks' time, mainly in the villages of Friedensruh, Schönwiese, and Schönbrunn. Hollowed bottle trees (palo boracho) served as coffins.

Many reverses were also experienced in the cultivation of their field crops. Being unaccustomed to a tropical climate and wishing to retain their farming methods of Russia, many suffered severely in the early years. A group of 140 families, feeling that they had little future in the colony, left in August 1937 and settled in East Paraguay, near Rosario, calling their new colony Friesland. After several futile attempts the growing of such crops as wheat and potatoes was abandoned, replaced by sorgo (kafir), sweet potatoes, Paraguayan beans, peanuts, and mandioca (manioc). These furnished their household necessities and provided for the stock and also an occasional surplus for the market. The staple cash crop was cotton. In 1950 the total cultivated colony acreage was 6,636 acres. Indigenous people were the chief source of labor for the cotton crop, but because of an increase in acreage and influx of new immigrants to the adjoining colony Neuland, the labor problem was annually becoming more acute. Limited mechanization was now tried. The watermelon thrives especially well in the Chaco, a single melon sometimes weighing up to 30 pounds. In the two decades 1930-1950 the colony has had 11 good crops, 5 average crops, and 4 crop failures. Annual rainfall over a period of 15 years, 1934-1948, averaged 28.3 inches. Especially trying are the winter sand storms which usually make their appearance during the months of June to September, being strong north winds from the matto grosso of Brazil.

To provide essential equipment for farm and home small basic industries were established, beginning with wagonmaking in 1931, until 1955 there were several blacksmith shops, a furniture shop, a tinsmith shop, and more recently such industries as a cotton gin, oil press, creamery, and essential oil extraction plants, all of which added considerably to the colony and individual family income. The long-hoped-for establishing of a spinning and weaving plant had not yet been realized. Further industrial development was hampered by the very inadequate transportation system. All freight still had to be hauled 66 miles by wagon or truck to the railhead, then 88 miles by rail to Puerto Casado, where it was reloaded onto river transportation for Asuncion. However, the colony had a good airstrip at Filadelfia, and weekly plane service made passenger travel considerably easier. Both it and the colony-Asuncion radio communication system developed and continued to improve. A direct all-weather road from Asuncion to Filadelfia was under construction with U. S. Point IV aid.

The colony hospital, located at Filadelfia, served as medical and surgical center for all Chaco Mennonites and consisted in 1955 of 42 beds in a two-story adobe brick building. Doctors changed frequently, coming from Asuncion, the United States, and from Germany. In 1953 the first native physician, Wilhelm Käthler, returned from a full medical training in the United States to begin practice in the colony. All illness except rare cases and serious eye defects can be treated here. A five-room house for the mentally ill was also built in Filadelfia, but proved inadequate, and plans were made to increase its facilities. A dentist provided all dental care required, including aid to many non-colony individuals.

All Fernheim children attended the local village school for six years. If they wished to continue their education, they could attend the Zentralschule (secondary school), which offered an additional four-year course of study. Those wishing to become teachers or to enter other higher professions could attend the Pedagogical Institute (Pädagogisches Institut) for an additional two years, making it possible to receive a total of 12 years of schooling in the colony itself, not including Bible school. While other colonies also had their secondary schools, the pedagogical school served all Paraguayan Mennonite settlements and provided their teachers.

There were three groups within the colony in 1955: the Mennonite Brethren with 567 members, the Mennonite Church (General Conference Mennonite) with 350 members, and the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren, also known as the Allianzgemeinde, with 171 members. The work of these churches was coordinated through the inter-church committee known as the Komitee für kirchliche Angelegenheiten (KfK). On 1 January 1955 the population of the colony was 2,491 persons. In 1954 there were 14 deaths and 78 births. -- Cornelius J. Dyck

1990 Article

At the time of its founding, 1930-1932, Fernheim Colony had ca. 2,000 inhabitants. Continuing emigration over the years, however, slowed population growth. In 1986 the population was only 3,300. The most difficult crisis occurred in 1937 when approximately one-third of the inhabitants left to found Friesland Colony in East Paraguay. During the years 1950 to 1970 the emigration to Germany and Canada was so strong that the very existence of the colony was jeopardized. However, since 1970 one can speak of stability and consolidation.

Political and economic stability throughout Paraguay also affected the Mennonite colonies. The building of the Trans-Chaco road facilitated communication and marketing. Long-term credits, the first of which was a million-dollar loan from the United States facilitated by Mennonite Central Committee, made a restructuring of agriculture and dairy production possible. Farms have gradually been mechanized. Through this colonists have been more able to cope with the climatic conditions of the Chaco. Food production and consumption improved and with it the general level of health in the colony. The hospital was improved, as were the schools, leading to better education for young people.

In 1984 the colony had three congregations affiliated with the Konferenz der Mennonitischen Brüdergemeinden (MB), totaling 715 members; one congregation belonging to the Vereinigung der Mennonitengemeinden (GCM), with 650 members; and one congregation of the Konferenz der Evangelischen Mennonitischen Brüderschaft von Südamerika (related to Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches, formerly EMB), with 308 members.

All social and economic arrangements are administered by the colony's producer-consumer cooperative which has increasingly adapted itself to the Paraguayan situation. All of these factors have caused emigration to return to a normal level. The number of villages has increased from 17 to 25 in 1987, with the town of Filadelfia experiencing considerable growth. -- Peter P. Klassen

2009 Article

Fernheim Colony was officially established on 1 July 1930 in the immediate vicinity of Menno Colony as the second Mennonite settlement in the Chaco. At that point the first three groups of Russian refugees, who had been housed in Germany, had arrived in the Chaco and now came from the tent camp at Trébol to found the first eight villages of the new settlement. The land for this settlement enterprise had been purchased by the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) from the Corporación Paraguaya, which was also required to provide a makeshift infrastructure. Apart from a shed and a well on Trébol the organization had not fulfilled their commitment. Thus, the settlers had to fend for themselves right from the start. Suitable locations for the layout of villages were found, measured and the first wells were dug. During the orientation to the Chaco wilderness the Enlhet Aboriginals were frequently of assistance.

In July 1930 a group coming from Poland joined this settlement enterprise. Until 1931 some smaller groups from Germany had joined the settlement but in 1932 the arrival of the Harbin Refugees temporarily closed down the addition of any more settlers. At that time Fernheim Colony had 17 villages with a population of 2,015 persons.

The settlers were not only without means, but had accumulated a large debt with MCC for the cost of the long journey, equipment, land acquisition and maintenance. As a result, the economic conditions were very difficult. They also were in an unfamiliar, often perceived as a hostile, environment and with insufficient guidance as to what one could grow in fields and gardens it seemed hard to survive.

From the first year of settlement, therefore, the eyes were directed to eastern Paraguay, where there was the promise of better conditions for settlement. In December 1930 Gerhard Isaac and Cornelius Langemann were commissioned to explore the possibilities in eastern Paraguay (Delegation Ostparaguay). They came back with a generally positive report, but a move never materialized. There were several reasons for this although more research may be required. First, MCC was not willing to finance a new resettlement and the settlers themselves were destitute. Second, the Paraguayan government was interested, for geopolitical reasons, to have energetic settlers in the Chaco. Although they would probably not have prevented a transfer of the colony to eastern Paraguay, they were more interested that the settlers remain in the Chaco. Third, leading people from the MCC and in the colonies themselves were convinced that the Mennonite character could be more easily maintained in the Chaco. Fourth, some of the settlers were also convinced that it was by divine providence that they came to the Chaco with the mission to bring the Gospel to the Indigenous and to introduce them to western culture. The result was that the colony was not moved to eastern Paraguay. However, some individual families migrated there after 1931.

In 1937, approximately 30% of the Fernheim colonists left their homesteads in order to establish Friesland Colony in Department San Pedro, East Paraguay. Later many families immigrated to Argentina, Brazil, and especially to Canada. Only when the economy was actually stabilized in the 1970s was the tendency to leave gradually reduced.

The administration as well as the churches in Fernheim often had the difficult task of giving the people from Russia, who often were of very different origin and character, a common identity and shared goals. Already at the outbreak of the Chaco War in 1932 they were forced to set up a cooperative, the first in the country, because they saw no other way to survive economically as a community. The cooperative system became the foundation for the development of Fernheim, providing greater opportunities so obviously beneficial that it became an integral part of the identity of the Fernheimers.

In 1955 they celebrated the first major anniversary with the slogan: "Thus far the Lord has helped us". A sense of gratitude reigned for divine help during the building up of a new home. In 1980 the famous monument of three columns was erected with the motto: faith, work, concord. After 50 years the settlement enterprise was consolidated, the economy was established, and one could see in retrospect that these three values had become the supporting principles of the colony.

In 2005 they celebrated 75 years of Fernheim under the motto: unity and development. Their eyes were no longer so exclusively on their own community, but more especially on the multi-cultural situation, which had developed in that the German-speaking descendants of the founding generation were now a minority. In 2008, Fernheim as an Asociación Civil, and as a cooperative, had a population of 4,172 people and ownership of 600,000 ha of land that was available for the commercial use of the members. -- Gundolf Niebuhr


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2009 Bibliography

Klassen, Peter P. 50 Jahre Kolonie Fernheim: Ein Beitrag in der Entwicklung Paraguays. Hg. Kolonie Fernheim. Asunción: Imprenta Modelo, 1980.

Klassen, Peter P. Die Mennoniten in Paraguay. Reich Gottes und Reich dieser Welt. Bolanden-Weierhof: Mennonitischer Geschichtsverein e.V., 1988.

Additional Information

The 2009 article, translated by Hugo Friesen, is based on the original German language article that was written for the Lexikon der Mennoniten in Paraguay and has been made available to GAMEO with permission. The German version of this article is available at http://www.menonitica.org/lexikon/?F:Fernheim.

Author(s) Cornelius J. Dyck
Peter P. Klassen
Gundolf Niebuhr
Date Published 2009

Cite This Article

MLA style

Dyck, Cornelius J., Peter P. Klassen and Gundolf Niebuhr. "Fernheim Colony (Boquerón Department, Paraguay)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 2009. Web. 18 May 2024. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Fernheim_Colony_(Boquer%C3%B3n_Department,_Paraguay)&oldid=177422.

APA style

Dyck, Cornelius J., Peter P. Klassen and Gundolf Niebuhr. (2009). Fernheim Colony (Boquerón Department, Paraguay). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 18 May 2024, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Fernheim_Colony_(Boquer%C3%B3n_Department,_Paraguay)&oldid=177422.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 323-325; vol. 5, p. 298. All rights reserved.

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