from East of Liberal

Excerpted from Hinz-Penner's recently published book, East of Liberal (Cascadia 2022), a part of which was read at the conference.

I have read that the Apaches believe land makes people live right. Can that be true? The Apaches also honor place as the origin of story. I know that to be true. It is said they begin and end every story, “It happened at. . . .”

For us, it happened three miles east of Liberal in the corner of Seward County, Kansas bordering Beaver County, the Oklahoma Panhandle once known as “No Man’s Land.” My parents, a young and eager post-World War II couple, were looking for a place to farm and considered themselves unaccountably lucky in 1950 to have found a half-section of sand left mostly untended since its topsoil had blown away during the 1930s catastrophe known as The Dust Bowl. 

The children of generations of Mennonite farmers, my parents set about bringing the land back into productivity. Realizing almost immediately that the dry land would not sustain them, they accumulated a herd of Holstein milk cows and managed the dairy together for a quarter century. Purportedly, Menno Simons, the founder of our faith, was the child of a dairy farmer. So was Georgia O’Keeffe. So am I.



Early in 2019 I found myself among a group of travelers retracing the first stops on the “Ruta de Cortes” 500 years after the Spanish conquistador’s landing on a Good Friday near what is today Veracruz harbor in the Gulf of Mexico. Led by an archaeologist friend, our trip was not a celebration of Cortes’ conquest of Mexico but rather a chance to explore archaeological sites still evident today on Cortes’ route. We had come to see what remained of those who had been there before Cortes’ arrival. Beside the long, earth-embracing horizontal branches of the ceiba tree in Antiguato—to which Cortes purportedly lashed his ships, a tree still rooted in the underworld according to the beliefs of the people who lived there, I had a kind of epiphany.

I had only recently participated in a heritage tour to Poland to visit the remnants of villages where generations of my people had once lived. My European farming ancestors’ journeys from the Netherlands to Austria, Prussia, Russia, and eventually, to the United States had occurred in the same 500-year span since Cortes landed at Veracruz. What would I find if I examined the 500 years before my parents came to the land east of Liberal in 1950?

On the Totonac site at Zempoala, where people had lived for 300 years before Cortes’ arrival, I recognized how impossible it would have been for those who greeted Cortes to foresee how forced slavery, smallpox, and war would decimate their mighty populations. We stood among the ruins of one of the twelve compounds of what was once Zempoala, nestled into the hills and valleys for protection from the elements and their enemies. Its natural beauty stands in stark contrast to the sites built by Spanish intruders, for example, the Fort of San Juan de Ulua in Veracruz harbor, notable for its massive prison walls. A chill rippled down my backbone high above the shore at Quiahuitzlan, the ruin overlooking the Gulf where the Totonac people would have watched the incoming Spanish ships. We ate lunch on the beach at beautiful Playa Villa Rica where Cortes showed off his horses and cannons to stun the locals into submission. The history I know is a chronicle of battles, a count of the dead from opposing sides, a measure of land taken, evidence of power wielded over the newly enslaved.

Just over two decades after Cortes landed at Veracruz along the Gulf of Mexico, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado left his post as governor in northern Mexico with the same gold lust that had driven Cortes to the shores of “New Spain.” Coronado began a march north to search for the Seven Cities of Cibola. Crossing the land we call Kansas today, Coronado was looking for a Quiviran village whose inhabitants, he had been told, drank from jugs of gold. The Indigenous people he found, believed to be predecessors of the Wichita people, amazed him with their health, strength and height, but they had no gold. Disgusted and convinced he had been purposely misled, Coronado killed the Turk who had misinformed him and headed back south to Mexico.

Maps which plot Coronado’s trek into Kansas show his path veering northeast somewhere near the farm I grew up on, three miles east of Liberal. Indeed, in 1979 The Smithsonian Museum authenticated an intricate set of buckles and a bridle bit found northeast of Liberal in Horsethief Cave in the 1920s, Spanish ironwork dating from the time of Coronado’s expedition through the area in 1541.1 Smoke on the roof of Horsethief Cave showed evidence of use even earlier by local peoples. Coronado’s expedition would have fanned out by day and camped near the Cimarron River by night, possibly crossing directly over the land my parents would farm 400 years later. Today, the Spanish horseman’s accessories are proudly displayed in the entrance to the Coronado Museum on the eastern edge of Liberal, not far from where our rural mailbox once was.

Shortly after Coronado crossed Kansas looking for Quivira, another European named Menno Simons, the priest who would leave the Catholic Church and become an Anabaptist revolutionary, visited the earliest Mennonite church in Gdansk in 1549. This priest is my religious ancestor and the instigator of my family’s migrations. My farming ancestors began moving 500 years ago, from the Netherlands to Mennonite farming villages across Prussia including Gdansk, an area to which Mennonites fled persecution. This book traces the migrations which eventually landed my family east of Liberal; these notes document my own wrestling with peoplehood in my tradition. I had always thought of us as immigrants helping to build a country where freedom could prevail, not colonizers or settlers. In fact, I had mythologized my heritage as the legacy of a people purified by the fires of martyrdom, simple hardworking farmers looking for refuge from the state. The story is not that simple.


I was born in the first month of the year, the month named for Janus, the Romans’ two-faced gate god who could look back into the past and forward into the future. Appropriately for this story, Janus was also the Roman god associated with the cultivation of fields.

The day after I was born, Harry Truman was inaugurated to serve a second term. Liberal’s Southwest Daily Times—the local newspaper no doubt lying folded on a table in the Epworth Hospital lobby where my father would have eagerly pounced on it—announced Truman’s theme of “Peace, Plenty and Freedom” for the world: “Our aim should be to help the free peoples of the world, through their own efforts, to produce more food, more clothing, more materials for housing, and more mechanical power to lighten their burdens. . . .”

Alongside the map of Truman’s inaugural route in the Times was a report on harvest labor, just released from the capital city of Topeka, announcing the intent of the Kansas State Employment Service to improve the ability of Kansas farmers to get their wheat cut in 1949. During the 1948 harvest, 58,546 Kansas farm-owned and 3,788 out-of-state custom combines harvested just short of 15 million acres of wheat on Kansas farms.

A year later my parents would join that throng of Kansas wheat farmers. One year to the day after my January birth my parents moved onto the land east of Liberal. 1949 had been a record-breaking year of rainfall, with western Kansas receiving 31.14 inches, nearly forty percent more than usual. Southwest Kansas had been mentioned in the Kiplinger Letter as a favored area for expansion. My parents were thrilled to get their chance to farm during the expansionism of 1950, when most land in temperate climates had already been claimed for farming.



Chapter One

A Coyote Hunters’ Shack

My father and his eldest brother are throwing bottles—deep brown and clear-mottled and cobalt blue—onto the back of a faded old green pickup truck parked three miles east of Liberal on a sandy road which will later be known as Pine Street. There are no pines on this forsaken piece of property. The two men stand next to a coyote hunters’ shack my father has agreed to live in. Whiskey bottles, pork and bean cans, jagged and sharp, knife-opened tins. You learn something from what people throw out and where they throw it.

As the story came down to me, ten people had been living in the four tiny rooms of the shanty, coyote skins stretched over the walls. My mother and father would soon find the remnants of a “moonshine still” half-buried in the scrub trees west of the house that had overtaken the farmstead during the years following the 1933 tornado. 

Inside, the lath walls were barren of plaster. In fact, the walls had been pulled apart by tornadic winds and left unrepaired. Daylight streamed through the open fissures, as did creatures other than human. Doc Blackmer owned the place and wanted to see it cleaned up. But my father could not yet bring his young wife and baby daughter to this hovel, though he knew he must get them out of the tiny, lonely apartment my mother despised fifteen miles away in the little Oklahoma Panhandle town of Turpin.

Mama’s older sister came from the sod house built by her homesteading in-laws in Texas County near the Texas/Oklahoma border thirty miles south of the farm east of Liberal, and declared the place uninhabitable. But when Mama and Daddy insisted that they would live there, Aunt Esther returned with a dozen laying hens to help them begin their lives on the land. There was no electricity, because the Rural Electric Association had not yet run power to this desolate farm. My older cousin remembers a bulb dangling from a long cord in the middle of the room, but that must have been at a later birthday party, after my mother could dispense with the oil lamp she carried room to room in 1950.

The two brothers stand together in the garbage pile beside the front door. My father’s eldest brother, in fact, had “lured” him from central Oklahoma where Daddy grew up and married, from the bookkeeping and accounting jobs in Clinton he and my mother abandoned to farm and “be their own bosses.” Uncle Elmer was certain my parents could find land in the Mennonite farm community in the Oklahoma Panhandle near Turpin, Oklahoma, just across the border from Liberal. Land abandoned during the 1930s could provide my father the opportunity he wanted. But months had turned to years, and my parents had not found land. Instead, my father had worked as a farm hand, gone on a custom harvest crew to cut wheat as far north as Montana up to the Canadian border. Now they had a baby girl; Daddy was desperate by January 1950. A coyote hunters’ shack looked good.

The land east of Liberal was owned by my uncle’s physician, a prominent doctor, banker and horseman from Hooker, Oklahoma, twenty miles west. Doc Blackmer had either bought up or foreclosed on Dust Bowl land during the years of hard times. I expect my father and his brother laughed at themselves and their plight as they took up their roles as garbage pickers, rescuing the shack where my father intended to live.

They would have joked in Plaut Dietsch, the language they used for “making schput” (poking fun)—the language of lesser stature than the proper High German their grandfather spoke to them, church service language. A bystander would have heard the phrase we children often overheard muttered by adult Low German speakers as they shook their heads about a crazy, terrible, or unbelievable situation: Gans fe’rekjt. “Crazy.” We didn’t learn the language, but we knew the bawdy or off-color phrases we weren’t supposed to hear. No matter how rundown and forlorn this place might be, my parents needed to move, quit paying rent, and get to work. But with what seed money?

Our place east of Liberal was not a part of the Turpin Mennonite community where my parents attended church at Friedensfeld (“field of peace”). Those Mennonites had weathered the Dust Bowl and stayed on their land. This was abandoned, sandy soil long left to blow. The Osage Orange hedge posts used for fencing were half buried in sand. Of the few outbuildings, only one seemed useable: a sizeable tin shed left from another time when someone had farmed and dreamed big here, evidence the large Chinese elm trees which rimmed the small house. No toilet. That fact surely annoyed them both. What had these people used? The first thing my father had to do was build a toilet. Eventually, he secured a good WPA-built outdoor facility, the clean and comforting two-seater I grew up using, but for now he had to tear down one of the ramshackle buildings and use the lumber to build a toilet.

The brothers, one the oldest in a family of seven, my father the middle child, eventually lived ten miles apart across the state line and shared both good and hard times. My Uncle Elmer was established on a farm near the church in the center of the community. Daddy, who had gone as a noncombatant into the U.S. Army at age eighteen after his father’s premature death, had seen the world by the family’s standards, and now had come to settle near his older brother.

The brothers’ bloody link and subsequent estrangement came years later when our family was more prosperous. Once again, they were working together, this time cutting ensilage to fill the silos for winter feed for my father’s dairy cattle. The juicy seven-feet tall fodder is sweet as sugar cane as it is cut, chopped, and hauled to the silos, two new ones by now, tall and straight behind the dairy barn. But the belt on the ensilage cutter needs to be greased. I imagine my father grabbing the bucket and brush to daub it—though they both know the elder brother to be the mechanic. In my mind—for no one wanted to talk about it, Uncle Elmer takes the bucket. “Here, let me do that.” Because it is dangerous? Because he mistrusts his younger brother’s ability? In a moment of throwback to when he was younger and his parents would say, “Watch out for your baby brother?”

The belt grinds off Uncle Elmer’s hand six inches above his wrist. He must have howled in shock and then pain, knowing immediately how this stubbed arm would change his life. What I know is that my father roared past our house with the vehicle horn blaring and headed west into the Epworth Hospital emergency room with rags wrapped as a tourniquet to try to stem the flow of blood from Uncle Elmer’s arm. The brothers’ uncle, an earlier No Man’s Land settler, came back to get the severed hand lying in the sandy field after his nephew’s life had been saved, but of course, it could not be re-attached. The eldest brother of my father’s family would stand ever afterward, our family’s version of Ahab, this one holding his stump. Seeing Uncle Elmer was always a terrible reminder for us that it had happened on our farm east of Liberal.


Part I

Winter Solstice

The seasonal calendar of the Ancestral Puebloans outlines practices, rituals, and ceremonies according to the cycle of the seasons. Spring and summer: farming and plant gathering; fall and winter: hunting. Ceremonies, rituals, and dances occurred between the solstices and equinoxes: ritual meditations on seasonal work. The Anasazi annual cycle is organic, earthbound, recognizable to agricultural peoples across time who know what it means to prepare the head and heart for work and worship according to the seasons, familiar if one knows the land or farms the land.

I faithfully circle the Algonquin full moons on my calendar, follow the earth’s changes with each month’s full moon, think about how earlier peoples on this land named them: Wolf Moon for the howling of wolves in the cold still air of January; Snow or Hunger Moon for deep snow and the difficulty of finding food in February; Worm Moon for melting snow and the March last moon of winter; Pink Moon for new growth of grass pink or wild phlox; Flower Moon of May for flowers in full bloom and corn planting time; Strawberry Moon of June, a universal name for the full moon for all tribes wherever they were; Buck Moon of July for the velvety new antler growth on a young buck; Sturgeon Moon for August’s plenitude of sturgeon in the Great Lakes where so many tribes lived for so long; the Harvest Moon of September, the Hunter’s Moon of October, the Beaver Moon of November when beavers are preparing for winter: set the beaver traps for their fur will be needed in the upcoming cold. And the Cold Moon of December, the Long Night Moon.

A farmer remarks on the lack of light at winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. My parents recall their longing for more daylight when they moved to the farm and had so much work to do to make it habitable (and no electricity to prolong the work day). My parents dreaded going to the dairy barn at 5:30 p.m., nearly dark in December and January. After the winter solstice they begin to envision each day a bit longer, a bit lighter. Longer days mean thinking forward, setting goals, planning for a new year. New Year’s cookies on New Year’s Day. Like bears packing on weight for the long hibernation, we feasted to celebrate a new beginning.

Traditional Mennonites had “Watchnight” services on New Year’s Eve. Vestiges of that tradition remained during my childhood as we were instructed to “watch and wait” for Christ’s coming, perhaps in the upcoming year. In Russia, German Mennonites gave their Russian neighbors New Year’s cookies when they came and sang for them on New Year’s Day. In this tradition the fritters symbolized affluence, good crops, and good wishes to a neighbor for prosperity and a happy new year.

Perhaps the immigrant Mennonites in Russia were also buying the good will of their neighbors. The Russian Germans had a nursery rhyme that my mother’s mother recited in Low German:


Eck sach den Shornsteen Roacke

Eck visst voll vaut ye moachke.

Ye backte Niejoash Koake.

Yave ye me eane

Dann bliev eck stoane

Yave ye me twea

Dann fang eck aun to goane

Yave ye me drea, fea, feef toaglick

Donn vensch eck you daut gaunse Himmelrick.


The English translation:

I saw your chimney smoking.

I knew what you were making.

You were baking New Year’s Cookies.

Give me one—I stand still.

Give me two—I start walking.

Give me three, four, five at once,

Then I wish you the kingdom of Heaven.


As an adult, I have always understood that I should call my neighbors on New Year’s Day and invite them to come sample the fritters hot out of the oil where I fry them—and invite them to take some home. Entirely unconscious of the fact that I was reenacting an old Mennonite tradition that was supposed to bring good luck or the good will of neighbors who had never heard of “porzelchen,” it just seemed a right way to begin a new year.

The 1950s

Chapter Two


Alfalfa: [Sp.< Ar. al-fasfasah, the best fodder] a deep-rooted plant of the legume family, with small divided leaves, purple cloverlike flowers, and spiral pods, used extensively in the U.S. for fodder, pasture, and as a cover crop. . . .


As long as I can remember, there were alfalfa bales. Four feet long, less than two feet wide, a couple of feet deep, brick-shaped, these bales were key to our existence as dairy farmers. Typically, the semi-truck load of hay would arrive at our farm in the night . . . from Colorado, or somewhere Daddy could make a good deal on the sweet-smelling green bales. 

I remember being awakened by the commotion on our farm at 1:30 a.m., the downshifting of gears on the truck, the heavy wheezing brakes announcing the arrival of a load of alfalfa. I smelled the truck’s exhaust fumes as I lay listening to its loud engine idle in the yard, red taillights glowing against our white dairy barn. The Holsteins went crazy bawling at the smell of freshly baled alfalfa. They seemed ready to riot, head-butting, racing—never mind their swinging udders—drooling as they reached through the corral to get nearer the alfalfa. They were not that hungry; they had been fed. They were that excited.

I never helped stack the bales, but I sometimes went to a window to watch the night arrival of alfalfa. Daddy pulled on his overalls and hustled outside to show the men where to build the stack northeast of the dairy barn, next to the long concrete feeding trough. Into that long trough he would walk at feeding time every evening, carrying bale after bale, cutting with his pliers the baling wire or twine firmly holding each bale. Daddy broke the bales as one would break communion bread, parceling them into smaller four-inch leaves which he splayed along the forty-foot trough where the cows were lined, side by side, heads down into the trough.

Getting hay stacked right was as important to a farmer as laying brick is to a brick layer. The stack needed to stand strong for months, through all kinds of weather, even while one end was being pulled off for daily feedings. Daddy tolerated no broken bales; the twine must be tied carefully, taut, to keep the bales tight and uniform. Misshapen bales created sag and the eventual collapse of a stack which needed to survive the winter. Was the alfalfa green? Well-baled? Securely tied? Had it been rained on in the field? Faded?—lying too long in the field under a drying sun? All considerations in the purchase of good alfalfa.

When that alfalfa stack was completed, my father felt secure. He could feed his dairy herd. All year he scoured newspaper ads, Hoard’s Dairyman, flyers at the Standard Supply store, in search of hay for his cows. Who do you trust not to slip into the mix some moldy or weed-filled bales? I remember how he opened a bale to examine its texture, how he inhaled deeply the sweet aroma like a good brandy—though Daddy would not have known a good brandy!—how he held a thin square from the middle of a bale to his nose with the chicken-leg colored leather glove he always wore.

The alfalfa stack was my cathedral on the plains. Stair steps created as my father steadily pulled out the evening’s count of bales and spread them for his herd, changed day by day my stair-step access to the top of the stack. Long legs like mine could ascend to the top of the alfalfa stack in something that felt like a Super Woman’s leap, and from that perch I could watch the southern horizon: miles of flatlands. There I sat on my throne in the evening to think, looking out over Oklahoma—only three miles away as the crow flies—the state of my people, my ancestry. There I watched the heat waves massage and mirage the fields in the distance while I watched for the upstart whirlwind’s brief scuttle into extinction. The Plaut Dietsch word for these whirlwinds sounded like a spin or a twirl on the tongue, a rough, deep-from-the-earth start from nowhere in its harsh consonant takeoff : Kjriesel, pronounced something like “kud-easel” with a gutteral “ch.”

I watched the tumbleweeds roll across the road into the fence line where they caught and threatened to pull down the barbed wire as the seasons changed. I listened to the meadowlarks on a nearby post, heard the mockingbirds in the trees, watched the long-legged killdeer running the cow lot among the cattle, and followed the scissor-tailed flycatchers’ swoops from the highline wire. I oversaw the cattle grinding away at the sweet alfalfa, their long, drooling saliva streams specked with the grain they were fed during milking. From my vantage point on the alfalfa stack I watched the neighbors work their fields as the wheat heads ripened and lost themselves to harvest. I surveyed the darkening gold stubble through which I would run errands into the wheat field, scratching to blood my bare legs.

I also watched for the first star and wondered about the first people, those who farmed here first, those who had left the arrow heads, those who walked this land before those who left the arrow heads. I listened for the coyotes’ night yips and howls. And I watched our trees grow, our garden grow, our baby calves grow, from my perch on the alfalfa stack. I watched my own feet grow stretched before me on this alfalfa stack. Alf-Alf-A. I loved to spell it fast, a strange repetitious spelling, but I was not curious then about the Spanish-Arabic origins of the word. The word spelled sweet, sweet time to me, the slow time of my childhood years. The natural time that is the working of the universe.

On Work

I set out to tell this story of life on the land. As I moved through generational time I began to recognize the mythologies created by story, the ways our beliefs are shaped in community. I am only beginning to recognize what it means to be a Mennonite settler.

First, I have had to re-examine my attitude about work, doing, production, farming. In my experience in Mennonite communities, hard work is glorified. I was taught to value another’s work ethic above all else. Thus, I am in awe of my parents’ hard work in the reclamation of our farm east of Liberal; I have always told our story as our variation of the American success story. Though they were not first-generation immigrants, I saw my parents as being cut from that mold, having that “outsider” first-generation prove-yourself-worthy work ethic found in so many first-generation immigrants. They came to the land east of Liberal with a ten-dollar bill and made a life on land no one wanted. In many ways they were heroic. But I am beginning to recognize our pride in the proverbial Mennonite work ethic, the White Anglo Saxon Protestant shield that has protected us for generations. 

Today I see also the underside of the mythology created around hard work as salvation, that central Mennonite tenet that comes down through generations of farming Mennonites designating work as sacred. Does our strong belief in the value of hard work, the key to successful farming, also allow us to privilege ourselves? To say that we have earned, even deserve, rights to the land? We have always considered land unused, even unoccupied, unless it is being “worked”—translate “cultivated,” or “farmed” (“subdued?”), one of the ways our ancestors made false assumptions about the land they found when they came to this country to farm. My ancestral family settled among the Cheyenne and Arapaho allotments in central Oklahoma and sometimes resented their need to rent “Indian land” which wasn’t being farmed, believing that their Native neighbors “didn’t care for” the land they had received as allotments; farmers would have used the land more productively. They saw unfarmed land as wasted. 

As a child we sang the hymn, “Work for the Night Is Coming” based on John 9:4; that song suggested that we must work now, for the night is coming when we cannot work. There is a frenzied notion of haste and desperation in that phrasing. The hymn instructs us to give “every flying minute something to keep in store.” Is that notion indicative of our sense that our work is about production, storing up, even getting all we can to pass on an inheritance? Building bigger barns? Commodification? Farmers work to have land to give to their children. One reason my parents had to work so hard on the land east of Liberal is that they had inherited no land; both their parents had lost their land in central Oklahoma during the Great Depression. 

I have begun to wonder too about my ancestors’ need to farm. Is it in our DNA? Why would my parents leave the jobs they had in central Oklahoma where they grew up to go west and seek their own land? Do our people have an innate need to own land? Or were they simply seeking community? Autonomy? Resisting post-World War II American norms or embracing them? Sometimes I question what our work ethic has done to encourage our pride, our demand for self-determination and self-sufficiency. So closely tied with economic success and land ownership, I wonder, has it corrupted us?

About the Author

Raylene Hinz-Penner

After retiring from a career of teaching Contemporary American Literature and Creative Writing at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas and Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas, Hinz-Penner has been writing about place--the land and its peoples, its history and geography. Her first book, Searching for Sacred Ground: The Journey of Chief Lawrence Hart, Mennonite was published in 2007. East of Liberal: Notes on the Land, a “land acknowledgement” about the southwest Kansas Dust Bowl land where she grew up, was published in December 2022. Field Notes on the Levee, a manuscript of poems and field sketches about the Topeka site where she lived for 20 years includes the forced Potawatomi march to Kansas and their early life on the land where Hinz-Penner lived in southwest Topeka. Now living in North Newton, she is an active member of Bethel College Mennonite Church, maintaining wider fellowship status with Southern Hills Mennonite in Topeka.