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German Migration to Seminole Chronicled in Siemens’ Book

Seminole: Some People Never Give Up* Creative Non-fiction by Tina Siemens
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
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When Tina Siemens sits down to scribble her signature across the inside cover of her new book, Seminole: Some People Never Give Up, on Friday at 4:00 at the First Baptist Church, it will be not only the fulfillment of a personal dream. It will also be a presentation of the first literary work that presents an historically accurate portrayal of the circumstances that led to the large immigration of German-speaking Mennonites that has, since the mid-1970s, changed the fabric of Gaines County.

Siemens’ work is one of creative non-fiction’, one in which the characters are real, but conversations develop as they might have happened, with minor characters who would have been incidental to the story, but for whom there is no historical accounting. It is the story of Siemens’ own family, the Rempels, but as the narrative continues, it is easy to imagine that this could reflect the stories of countless Mennonite families who made their way to West Texas during the 70s.

While the bulk of the story alternates between Seminole and Cuautemoc, Mexico, it begins where it all began, in what is present-day Netherlands. There, a young martyr, Dirk Willems, is burned at the stake for his faith that had been engendered by the anabaptist movement and its founder, Menno Simons.

The single chapter serves

Siemens recounts the sometimes complicated legal and political maneuvering that was required to secure citizenship for the group. We’re introduced to local notables like Mayor Bob Clark, County Judge Marcus Crow, Congressman George Mahon, and Senator Lloyd Bensen, all whom helped to secure safe passage .

to illustrate the zealotry with which its early devotees served the cause. Willems meets his fate in 1569, eight years after Simons’ death.

Siemens continues to lay the groundwork for her story with a brief visit to “the draw” in Seminole, where members of the U.S. Cavalry, in search of the Comanche, locate a water source from wells previously dug by the Seminole Indians. A cavalry Clerk named Tommy Nabors later becomes one of Gaines County’s earliest residents.

Finally, we move to Saskatchewan, where the Swift Colony of Low German (Plautdietsch) speaking Mennonites, facing unwelcomed pressure by the Canadian government to curb its practice of private schooling, plan to move en masse to Mexico at the invitation of its President Obregon.

With that, nearly an entire town of 5,000 leaves for the long journey by train that takes them to the 200,000 acres purchased in Mexico. Many of them will later give up on Mexico and return.

A secondary character begins to take shape in the parallel story of Rose Henderson, a young girl from St. Louis who steps off a train in Seagraves to begin her life with her Aunt Mae Beth (daughter of Tommy Nabors) and Uncle Samuel who run Henderson’s Hardware in Seminole. Her family occasionally ships tractors and parts to the Mennonites in Mexico, establishing an early connection between the two families.

The Old Colony Mennonites in Mexico and Canada closely resemble the Amish sect in North America. In the Rempel family the role of Al-tester, the spiritual leader and main preacher in the campos, has been handed down through generations.

At one point, he calls a meeting, warning of interactions between the Mennonite children and the local mestizos, and the resulting vandalism, lying, theft, and not coming home on time. Such interactions run counter to the sect’s intent to be `set apart’ from mainstream society.

Life is hard in Mexico, where the soil is inferior for farming and crop failure is common. Death of newborn children is a tragic reality. Grandmother Judith Rempel, among the first to arrive from Canada, loses seven of the 18 children she conceived, all before the age of 45. Eschewing any banking system, the community is often plagued by theft from their own. Cash is stored in secret hiding places.

Siemens does not sugarcoat the fact that many of the travails of the community are self-inflicted. Life is made even harder by rank legalism and the rabid self-denial of the Old Colony. It has been a tendency of many early Protestant religions that run counter to the individual, inborn desire for personal freedom and a belief system rooted in God’s grace.

Even a tractor with rubber tires, rather than the old steel wheels with welded paddles, is seen as sinfully self-indulgent. Smoking is forbidden, but not uncommon to the men of the “Campos”, who hide their secret vice even from their children. It is not seen as a health issue, but as a moral failing.

Birth control is forbidden, and education is limited to learning to read the Bible and learning simple math, the bare minimum required for working the fields. Siemens calls it an educational “closed loop” that remains unchanged through the generations.

But Siemens is not disrespectful of the old ways. Never is she overtly critical. In some of her vivid word pictures, a subtle humor lies just beneath the surface. A male member of the campo injures himself during an insufferably long sermon when he falls asleep in church and falls off his bench. An entourage of horse-drawn buggies on the road to church is described as “a Mennonite train, headed for salvation.”

Siemens’ attention to detail gives her narrative a cinematic quality. At the onset of the Great Depression, Rose’s fiance, Charles Simpson, a land speculator who worries that some of his questionable dealings prior to Black Tuesday may lead to his arrest, removes the ring from her finger and drives away, leavinghis headlights off until he is well clear of the house. His intent is implied, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusions about Simpson’s character.

As it had happened in Canada and elsewhere, the Mennonite community begins to lose its support from the Mexican government. The natives won’t sell them land anymore, and the Rempel family begins to look at other options, from a return to Canada to perhaps even Paraguay. Siemens father, David Giesbrecht Rempel, has begun to question the sect’s long-held legalistic traditions.

It was a visit from Seminole businessman Bill Smith, drawn to the Mennonite work ethic and its strong backs’, that set the wheels in motion for the ultimate migration to Gaines County. It is the mid-70s and David Rempel has separated himself from the Old Colony and ended the family tradition of inheriting the role of Altester, a tradition that had gone all the way back to his great great grandfather in 1870s Russia.

His focus now is on Seminole, Texas. They would later take a different Christian path in Seminole, with redemption coming by way of becoming “born again.”

But the path to Seminole was not a smooth one. From the group’s primitive new beginnings in Gaines County, there are rumblings that the newcomers may not even be able to secure ownership of land that they’ve already paid for.

Siemens recounts the sometimes complicated legal and political maneuvering that was required to secure citizenship for the group. We’re introduced to local notables like Mayor Bob Clark, County Judge Marcus Crow, Congressman George Mahon, and Senator Lloyd Bensen, all of whom helped to secure safe passage. Siemens makes mention of several area businessmen who extended badly needed credit, or jobs.

The history of the Mennonites is one of displacement and diaspora, but Siemens’ book reminds us that the journey, this time, appears to be over. Or as her father David Rempel put it when he first saw the lights of Seminole on the horizon in 1977, as dawn was about to break ahead of the weary travellers: “We’re home. we’re finally home.”

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