Thurman Mennonite Church (Thurman, Colorado, USA)

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Thurman Mennonite Church, ca. mid-1950s. (Edwin F. Rempel)

The earliest settlers of Amish Mennonite ancestry who homesteaded in Thurman, Colorado, some 35 air miles (56 km) northeast of Limon, moved from Milford and Shickley, Nebraska, Wayland, Iowa, and Woodford County, Illinois, during the 1880s in search of cheap agricultural land. An article in the 24 July 1890 issue of The Thurman Times observed that a "farmer's paradise" could be seen about the four-year-old community "now in her glory." The article noted that "thousands of acres of corn" were "shooting up towards the sun, proclaiming 'Corn is King.'" Such a sight "makes one think 'surely this is a paradise.'"  A "German colony" had settled "around Thurman, and their farms show what kind of farmers they are."

Several of the early families, including the Joseph Schlegels and Chris Lichtis, were Amish immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine who had first settled in Ontario, Canada, before moving to Wayland, Iowa, for some ten years before migrating to Thurman. Two other early families, the Joseph Unternahrers and Jacob Kauffmans, had also emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine to Wayland, Iowa, before moving to Thurman. Another early settler in the Thurman area was Joseph Schrock, an Amish Mennonite who at age three had emigrated with his family, the Christian Schrocks, from Alsace-Lorraine to Roanoke, Illinois, in 1855. In 1887 Joseph Schrock and his wife Lizzie Bachman moved to Manitou, Colorado, near Colorado Springs, because Lizzie had contracted tuberculosis. Perhaps because Joseph preferred to live in a Mennonite farming community, the Schrocks soon moved to the growing Thurman Mennonite community, establishing a farm two miles (3.2 km) east of the town.

The Thurman settlers soon established a Mennonite congregation, and the first Mennonite meetinghouse was built one mile (1.6 km) north of Thurman by 1888. That same year Joseph Schrock was ordained as a deacon. The congregation, which had no resident ministers, affiliated with the Kansas-Nebraska Mennonite Conference and later the Iowa-Nebraska Mennonite Conference, perhaps because some of the charter members came from those states. In 1893 Lizzie Schrock died as a result of her worsening tuberculosis condition. That same year Schrock married Bella Yordy, whose family had immigrated from Alsace-Lorraine to Milford, Nebraska, before moving to the Thurman area by covered wagon and building a sod house in 1889. Later in 1897 Schrock was ordained as the first minister of the Thurman Mennonite Church by Bishop Joseph Schlegel of Milford.

During its early years the Thurman congregation experienced difficulties such as crop failures and health epidemics. In 1891, for example, diphtheria struck the community, claiming the lives of numerous residents including one or more children in several families. During subsequent years, many of the families in Thurman left for Oregon, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Several families moved to the Willamette Valley near Albany, Oregon, in 1894 after crop failures in eastern Colorado.

Restless because of poor farming conditions resulting from drought, Schrock turned the Thurman church over to N. M. Birky, who had moved with his family to Thurman from Nebraska. Schrock sold the family farm in May 1906, and moved to Shickley, Nebraska. Three years later, in October 1909, Schrock moved his family to a farm south of Albany, Oregon, to take advantage of the agricultural benefits of the Willamette Valley. There he became one of the pastors and congregational leaders of the Fairview Mennonite Church.

On 22 March 1916, a prairie fire swept through the Thurman area threatening many homes and destroying the Mennonite church building despite the heroic efforts of Joe Yoder, a member of the congregation, and his friend Ben King. While church services were convened in a local school, a new frame structure for the 27-member congregation was built on the site of the former building during 1916-17 and dedicated on 12 August 1917. The Thurman congregation began a Sunday school program around 1917, and a sewing circle for women commenced the following year.

By 1920 the congregation's membership had grown to 64. There being no resident minister for the congregation, on 14 August 1917, N. M. Birky was ordained to the office of deacon, and on 16 May 1918, he was "advanced" to minister. Later, on 31 May 1925, Birky was ordained to the office of bishop.

Tragedy struck the Thurman community on Sunday afternoon, 10 August 1924, when a tornado destroyed the Henry Kuhns' farmhouse four miles (6.5 km) east of the town. Four families, consisting of 27 persons from the Thurman Mennonite Church and the surrounding community--the Garretts, Yoders, Birkys, and Kuhns--had gathered at the Kuhns' home for a harvest celebration dinner. After finishing the meal, one of the men spotted a tornado to the north, in the direction of an adjoining ranch. Henry Kuhns and eight other men left to see whether help was needed. When they observed that no buildings had been hit, the men returned to the Kuhns' farm just as another tornado was bearing down from the west, directly at the farmhouse where 18 women and children inside were apparently unaware of the approach of the intense, 100-yard-wide funnel. As the men came to within 200 yards of the front gate, the Kuhns' house "trembled as if a giant unseen fist was shaking it." After a few seconds, "the structure was ripped apart and its occupants hurled into the air." Ten of the 18 people died while the other eight were injured; nine of the ten deceased were children. The dead were removed from the wreckage to the David Rediger home, and the injured were cared for by neighboring families. The tornado was said to be one of the worst catastrophes ever to occur in Washington County, and the outdoor funeral, which attracted more than 1,000 persons, was the largest that the community had ever witnessed.

Thurman Mennonite Church, despite the tragedy, experienced steady growth, reaching a peak membership of 118 in 1934. Drought and Dust Bowl conditions devastated the Thurman area during the 1930s, and many in the farming community were forced to leave, most moving to the Manitou Springs-Colorado Springs area where they joined the Manitou Mennonite Church or to the Albany, Oregon, area where they joined the Fairview Mennonite Church. Aaron Unternahrer was ordained as minister at Thurman on 24 November 1935, and he and Birky attempted to hold the diminishing group together until Birky moved to Oregon's Willamette Valley in September 1937 following a devastating hail storm that destroyed the area's crops. The bishop of the Fairview Mennonite Church at Albany, C. R. Gerig, was retiring, and Birky filled his vacancy. Between September 1937 and the end of 1939, some 21 families totaling 65 members left the Thurman area, at least 16 of the families moving to the Willamette Valley. Only a small remnant was left behind in Thurman, and by 1 January 1951, the church's membership had been reduced to 11.

Thurman Mennonite Church terminated its congregational organization on 30 March 1951, and the land and church building were deeded to the Iowa-Nebraska District Mission Board. Plans were developed to operate the small congregation as a rural mission station by the mission board rather than as an organized church. Thereafter, the mission board sought the help of Valentin Swartzendruber, pastor of Limon Mennonite Church, to revive the fellowship. In September 1951 Earl Yeackley (Joseph Schrock had been his great-uncle by marriage) from Milford, Nebraska, was licensed as pastor, and a parsonage building was purchased and moved to Thurman.

In June 1951 a four-person Voluntary Service unit conducted the congregation's first Bible School. Other Voluntary Service units conducted the school in 1952-53, and in 1954 volunteers from Nebraska churches aided by locals had charge of the school. In 1955 local church members administered the school with the help of one outside teacher for adults.

In March 1956 the church building was moved to Thurman, one mile south of its former location, and a full basement and classroom facilities were added. The first service after the move was held on Easter Sunday, 1 April 1956. Rehabilitation and remodeling of the basement and auditorium continued until September 1958. On 14 September of that year, the newly completed building was dedicated, Yeackley was ordained as minister, and the fellowship, whose membership numbered 14, transferred its affiliation to the South Central Mennonite Conference. On 29 November 1959, a nucleus of eight persons became charter members as the fellowship, which had an average attendance of 45, again endeavored to resume organization as a formal congregation. In 1961 the fledgling congregation became a charter member of the newly-established Rocky Mountain Mennonite Conference.

As the result of an automobile accident on 6 July 1959, Unternahrer was killed and Yeackley was critically injured. Glenn Martin, Colorado General Hospital chaplain, served as pulpit supply until Yeackley could resume his pastoral duties. In September 1960 Yeackley was granted a leave of absence to attend Hesston College for one year, and Martin was appointed interim pastor. However, Yeackley resigned as pastor on 23 July 1961 and moved to Denver. Martin served as interim pastor of the group until Gilbert Lind was licensed as pastor on 2 December 1962. That afternoon a constitution was adopted, and the fellowship, with an average attendance ranging in the 30s and 40s, formally reorganized as the Thurman Mennonite Church.

Lind, who was ordained on 13 February 1966, served as pastor of the Thurman congregation from 1962 to 1968 while also being employed as a local school principal. Paul Wittrig assumed the pastoral duties for the congregation from his home in Colorado Springs for a period of time, but his health did not always allow him to travel. Thus, Sunday services generally consisted of Sunday school, followed by a short devotional with a visiting minister preaching occasionally. In 1975 Claude Saffer was elected to provide local leadership, although Wittrig continued to offer some pastoral services.

Sunday services continued to be held for several years with 8-15 persons in attendance. As church membership continued to dwindle, it was decided to terminate Sunday services in 1980. The remaining members decided to continue meeting three Sundays a month for Sunday school during the spring and summer and occasionally in homes for Bible study. In September 1981 the congregation's members decided to start attending other area churches, and in 1986 the Thurman church building was donated to the recently-established Eastern Plains Bible Fellowship in Joes, Colorado, some 41 road miles (66 km) to the east of Thurman. On December 10 of that year the building and its contents were moved to its present location in Joes where the sanctuary was connected to the fellowship's Sunday school rooms.


Conrad, Willard. (Hesston, Kansas). Letter to Unrau re Thurman Mennonite Church history, 4 January 2007.

[Saffer, Claude]. "History of the Thurman Mennonite Church, December 1962," (with attached notes covering 1962-86).  (Provided to Unrau by Claude Saffer).

Schrock, Myrna. "Thurman Mennonite Church."  The Echo (November 1984): 1, 3.

"Services to Begin in Colorado." Mennonite Weekly Review, (13 January 1986).

The Thurman Times (24 July 1890).  (Provided to Unrau by Claude Saffer/Charles Reeser).

Unrau, Harlan D. In Pursuit of Land, Health and Mission:  A History of Mennonites in the Mountain States Region.  Printed in Canada by Blitzprint Inc.  2007.

Unternahrer, Aaron. "Thurman's Records Date to 19th Century."  The Conference Messenger 6 (February 1959). (Provided to Unrau by Edwin F. Rempel).

Unternahrer (Reeser), Mary. "History of the Thurman Mennonite Church." n.d.

Warkentin, Gerhard. "Joes Church Survived Drouth [sic] and Prairie Fires."  1957. (Provided to Unrau by Edwin F. Rempel).

Additional Information

Original Article from Mennonite Encyclopedia

Vol. 4, p. 720 by Earl Yeackley

Thurman Mennonite Church (Mennonite Church), located one mile north of Thurman, Colorado. The original settlers came from Nebraska and homesteaded in this area, retaining their conference affiliations with the Kansas-Nebraska Mennonite Conference and later the Iowa-Nebraska Mennonite Conference until 1958, when the congregation joined the South Central Mennonite Conference. The first minister to serve the church here was Joe Schrock, followed by N. M. Birky, Aaron Unternahrer, and Earl Yeackley (the pastor in 1958). On 22 March 1916, the first meetinghouse, built before 1888, was destroyed by a prairie fire; the present frame building was built on the same site. In 1956 the building was moved to its present location in Thurman. Largely because of the drought, the membership, which at one time numbered over 100, had decreased to 14 by 1958.

Author(s) Harlan D Unrau
Date Published December 2011

Cite This Article

MLA style

Unrau, Harlan D. "Thurman Mennonite Church (Thurman, Colorado, USA)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. December 2011. Web. 26 Sep 2022.,_Colorado,_USA)&oldid=125585.

APA style

Unrau, Harlan D. (December 2011). Thurman Mennonite Church (Thurman, Colorado, USA). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 26 September 2022, from,_Colorado,_USA)&oldid=125585.

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