Memoirs of a Kansas Banker

In War and Peace, The Life of Walter and Helen Claassen

(From Interviews with Mary Macklin)


Walter's Story

The Claassen Ancestry

My father's family came from the southern Ukraine in Russia. The reason for migration from this country was because Catherine the Great of Russian had granted the Mennonites, who were pacifists, a hundred-year exemption from military service, and that hundred-year exemption expired in 1880. Prior to that time, they started migrating. My grandparents on my father's side then moved on to Mariensburg, Germany. In the 1870's, my Grandfather Claassen came to this country from Marienburg and settled in this part of Kansas (Newton). He was eighteen or nineteen at the time. He went back to Germany a couple of years later and brought my grandmother over.
My Grandfather Claassen first made his living blackning stoves. About the same time that he came over with this movement of Mennonites, one of the weathy men from the southern Ukraine also came over. his name was Bernard Warkentin. Bernard Warkentin brought the Red Turkey wheat with him. He was a big landowner, "landed gentry" so to speak. My Grandfather and Mr. Warkentin got together through some way or means. I don't think my grandfather had more than a high-school education, but he got involved in helping other Mennonites to come over. He developed skill in recording and assisting in this procedure. There are four or five shelves in the archives at Bethel College that are in my grandfather's handwriting, all in German script, recording and showing the assistance given to these various Mennonite familites as they came over here and how they were processed or assisted.
My father went to the academy at Bethel for his advanced education. Bethel was called an academy at that time because it was not a 4-year accredited college until later (1947). He also got some business school education in Wichita. Warkentin and my grandfather established a bank in Newton in 1902. My father went to work in the bank at the age of eighteen in 1905.
The background on my mother's side was entierly different. My Mother's father, Philip Lander, was born in 1841 and came to this country from Standenbuhl, Canton Goelheim, Bavaria (then part of the Prussian Empire and Germany). My mother's mother, Barbara Virginia Shriver, was born in 1865 in Mascoutah, Illinois. Her family was Pnnsylvania Dutch. They Migrated on to Witewater, Kansas, in 1871. She married Philip in 1884 when she was nineteen years old.
A story with sociaological implications for those times concerns my grandmother's family when they first moved to Kansas. One of my grandmother's relatives, a girl named Nellie, had some sort of mental disturbance. In those days they just called such people "crazy", so it is hard to know exactly what her ailment was, but she had to be watched or confined at all times. Consequently, the first structure the family built upon settling in Kansas was a corncrib for Nellie to sleep in so she wouldn't run away in the night. For some reason, one night my grandmother was sleeping on a workbench nearby when Nellie managerd to get out of the corncrib. They knew she had gotten out during the night because when my grandmother woke up the next morning, where she had been lying on the bench was completely encircled in nine-penny nails end to end. This just illustrates, though, how people tried to cope with family members with mental problems at a time when there were no social services or understanding of such conditions.
While Father's side were pacifists, on my mother's side my Grandfather Lander was a Civil War veteran. Eventually he came West in a covered wagon, but lost his first wife on the wagon trail. She was a very young girl. With his second wife, he had three children. His third wife, who was my grandmother, was over twenty years younger than my grandfather. She was one of six daughters and seven sones - thirteen children in the family.
The two familites wound up in the same block on the same side of the street in Newton, Kansas. My father was raised and reared at 321 East Third Street. My mother was raised and reared at 317 East Third Street. My mother had some early relationships with my father's family, just two doors away, but they were not in connection with my father. The relationship were with two of my father's siblings. One daughter of my grandfather's had a cleft palette, so she never married (she stayed home). It was God's wish that she be handicapped according to the Mennonite philosophy, where actually surgery would have corrected her situation. Another of my father's brothers (the oldest), had diptheria at a young age and was retarded as a result. The grandparents also thought this was God's wishes, but my mother didn't. Living two doors away, she had an opportunity to see that there was a possibility of helping a handicapped individual, so she taught him how to read and write. So there was some interesting kind of development there between the two families that culminated in the marriage a long time later.
It was a rather interesting way that my father and mother got together because they lived a house apart, but they never even dated each other until after my father had worked in the bank for several years and had traveled abroad and had a rather interesting life. My mother, being the only child of the third marriage of my Grandfather Lander, was one of the few people at that time who went to the University of Kansas, was active in a sorority, graduated, and taught school after graduating in Burlington, Kansas. She came back then and taught school in Newton. I don't know how she ever got connected with my father, because they had never even dated before. They had hda very little to do with each other. My mother, when she graduated from KU, had suitors like Alf Landon who was at KU at the same time she was, and several other notable personalities. So it was rather interesting to think that she would come back and marry a local person.
My father came from a very strict Mennonite environment, and my mother came from a Presbyterian environment that didn't relate in very many wasy to the Mennonites who were dominant throughout this area in those early years and are still represented substantially to all the activities at Bethel College. At the time prior to the marriage of my parents, my fathers had become a rather skillful musician and as a result was playing the organ in the first Mennonite Church, the big church here in Newton. This church followed Mennonite customs. They had one sermon in German on Sunday mornings and one in English.
For my father to marry my mother, a Presbyterian, he had to give up his relationships with the church. In effect, he was excommunicated. After marrying, my father not only became a Presbyterian, byt he joined the Masonic Lodge. The Mennonites never believed in secred orders. They never felt that these were part of God's plan, and the Masonic Lodge was a secret order if there ever was one. So he was considered somewhat of a maverick in his family. But it apparently didn't have much effect on his business relationships with his father, the bank, or with his other mennonite associations.

First Home on Third Street

It was the decision of my Grandfather Claassen at the time to give my parents a home, and that home was two more houses down on the same side of the street on the same block. That was where I grew up - at 333 East Third.
During that period on Third Street, I had the luxury of grandparents on both sides of the family on the same side of the street, with my Grandmother and Grandfather Claassen speaking only German in their home, and my Grandfather and Grandmother Lander speaking nothing but English. Before I started School, I acquired some ability to communicate with the grandparents on the Claassen side, but after starting school I lost that.
All of my playmates' families and most of the neighbors derived their livelihood from the Santa Fe Railroad. Newton being a Santa Fe town, most of the better jobs were connected with the Santa Fe Railroad. We had neighbors who lived in the house next to us, a family by the name of Scherer. Mr. Scherer was emplayed as a Santa Fe engineer. They lived there for several years, and the family that moved into the house after they moved away to another part of town was the McGraw family. Mr. McGraw had the local coal yard. On the other side of us was a Santa Fe switchman. He had two sons. Down the street on the other side of the alley was a family by the name of Howerton. They had two children and he was a dispatcher for Santa Fe.
Those early years were spent with a lot of interesting experiences relating to all these kids in the neighborhood. The two older Wiebe boys living to the one side of us were too old to really be companions to me or my brothers, but the rest of the people in the neighborhood were compatible.
My Grandfather Lander was so much older than my Grandmother Lander that they had very little in the way of any activity but stayed at home. My Grandfather Claassen still had a family living with him. Their youngest Son, who was my uncle and only eight years older than I, was the youngest one in the family and was still at home. He had a pony, and there was a barn back of their house with a hayloft full of hay. That's where we spent a lot of time. We would use the barn for all kinds of activities.
My two brothers were both younger than I, and my sister was the oldest. There are two years apart between all four of us children. My older sister's name was Barbara Virginia. She was named after my Grandmother. My Grandmother Lander's name was Barbara. My middle brother's name was Lawrence Lander. He was named after Grandpa Lander. My youngest brother's name was Maurice Lee. They named me Walter Cornelius.
McKinley School was just a block South. It was on Second Street, and we were on Third Street, so all we had to do was walk through the alley and through the neighbors on the south of us to go to school. McKinley School was an old three-story building that was finally torn down and replaced during the period following WWI. The new school was financed with WPA1 assistance. I attended grade school at McKinley all the years that we lived on Third Street.
At that time in Newton, public or municiapl utilities and services were in their infancy. So we had a chicken coop in the back yard where we kept the chickens that we slaughters and picked and ate. We always kept rat terriers at the house as pets, and these rat terriers had a dual purpose both as pets and to take care of the rats in the alley. We had garbage facilities on the alleys that I think had to be arranged for pick-up by private means. Periodically we'd dump or change the drums full of trash before they were carried off and that would expose the rats - eight, twelve, fifteen inches long. The rat terriers then would take care of them.
The lessons that I learned at a very early age are also important to the history of my time on Third Street. At that time the local grocer made home deliveries, and one time there was a delivery with the groceries of some chewing gum, and I appropriated a package of chewing gum. It was discovered later that I was chewing gum that no one knew I had purchased. This was a very early lesson that taught me that taking somebody else's property wasn't a very wise thing to do, and particularly to chew the property as evidence. I did not really think so much about the fact that I was taking somebody else's gum, but when I was caught chewing it, it was very embarrassing.
Another that I learned at that time has always suck with me. My Grandmother Claassen always baked bread every Saturday. I would be asked on most occasions to eat some, but on one occasion I guess I preempted the privilege and proceeded to cut off some coffee cake that was just out of the oven. In the process I cut my finger, and it bled profusely. So that taught me another lesson: That you don't take advantage of situations without paying a penalty. Another interesting experience at that time was with the two Wiebe brothers living next door who were older than my two brothers and me. They talked us into trading our Grandfather Lander's Civil War rifle and bayonet for a baseball mitt and a baseball. Well, when my parents found out that we had traded Grandfather's Civil War rifle, they weren't happy and tried to retrieve the rifled, but a deal was a deal and a contract was a contract. There was no way of rescinding it, even though we had discovered that we had been rooked out of a rifle. So I learned at an early age that when you make a transaction, you pay either the price or the penalty.
In going to school we had to walk through our back alley and through the other side of Third Street to get to McKinley. One day I was walking up the driveway of the house across the alley and ran into a rather interesting display of silver dollars mixed into the gravel on the walk. There were fifteen silver dollars spread along the driveway. I thought this was like finding a gold mine! I took the money and brought it home, but my parents said that this had to belong to the neighbor, and that "finders keepers" was not appropriate. Well, it seemed to me like the money belonged to me. I'd never seen so much in my life, but I had to return it to the neighbors the next day. How they lost it in the driveway was never really understood. I always thought they should have paid some penalty, but this was another good lesson: That you can't take advantage of other peoples' misfortunes.
These years on Third Street involved activities with the First Presbyterian Church. My parents were both active in the church. After my father was excommunicated from the Mennonite Church, he became a Presbyterian and was very active in the Presbyterian Church. He was an elder in the church and was on the churches Sesson (the governing body). My mother taught Sunday School and saw that we memorized Bible verses. Many I can still recite today.
Our family came along about the time of World War I. My parents were married in 1913, and there were four of us children at the time of the war, so my father was exempt from service. It was difficult to find help at that time, so my parents were fortunate to be able to employ El Underwood as a caretaker for us children. Mrs Underwood's husband had been a porter on the Santa Fe, but he was deceased. We had an attic in the house on Third Street that was partially finished. My father finished an area in the attic, and El Underwood, known to us as "Black Mammy", moved in and lived with us and took care of us four children. Today you wouldn't call an African-American woman by the name "Black Mammy", but she insisted on being called that. Black Mammy was born a slave. She could neither read nor write, but she had all kinds of ability. She knew how to cook, and she knew how to take care of a lot of personal needs. She was a typical person of her period. Blacks were deprived of many things even after they were freed. Back in the twenties, black people were still being persecuted although they had been liberated for some forty years.
Black Mammy taught us how to make snow cones. After the second big snow when the air was clean and the snow was clean, we would always make snow cones. Whenever we got sick and needed to take caster oil, Black Mammy would always take it first to show us how good it was. Then when we'd misbehave, Black Mammy would take us in another room, and she would slap her hands while we cried.
We four siblings were uniquely blessed with both sets of grandparents living in the same block on the same side of the street with our family: 317, 321, and 333 East Third Street in Newton, Kansas. As a practival matter, my mother's parents were called Grandpa and Grandma. We varied between Opa and Oma or Grosspa and Grossma when we spoke to the other grandparents.
Christmas Eve at our house during those Santa Claus and reindeer years of early choldhood left indelible memories with me that I will always cherish. The proximity of the three families made it possible for my parents to telescope all of the excitement that was built up before and during Christmas Eve into a short time span. First, we were bundled off to church for an early service and a sack of candy from Santa Claus. Then, we went back to Opa and Oma Claassen's house for the old-fashioned Christmas, the way it was done in "the old country." All of our family, along with an array of aunts, uncles, and cousins assembled around the Christmas tree while Opa read the Christmas story from the family Bible. Then my father, and accomplished pianist, would play Christmas carols, some of which were only sung in German as Opa and Oma preferred to speak only German in their home.
Following the singing, one of my aunts, and old maid who lived with Opa and Oma, lighted the candles on the Christmas tree. The danger of fire was ever-present during this lighting, so movement was restricted. When the last candle was lighted (which was part of a group of candles at the top of the tree that generated heat to rotate little tinkle bells fastened there), we sang Silent Night in German. Then we waited for the candles to burn toe allowable and safe limit before they were extinguished. At this precise moment, all of the grandchildren, numbering eleven, rushed into the dining room where each found his place setting and a huge sack of various home-baked German Christmas cookies along with a brand new ten dollar bill under each sack. Ten dollars in those days bought the world!
Five houses separated us from home, so we were back in our beds in short order waiting for Santa and his reindeers to light on our roof and have Santa fill our stockings by the fireplace so that everything would be ready for Christmas morning. We were no sooner tucked in our beds than Black Mammy gave her performance: She came down the attic stairs in a Santa Claus suit jingling sleigh bells and ho-hoing in her Southern drawl. At this point the level of excitement was running so high that each of us saw whatever we thought appropriate for this illusion of childhood. Next morning, Grandpa and Grandma Lander, our maternal Grandparents, came to our house where we had our stockings to empty and our packages around our Christmas tree to open. Both sets of grandparents played different roles at Christmas time in those early years of our family on Third Street.
Second Home on First Street: The Warkentins

     The move from Third Street to First Street was partially motivated because the family had now increased to four children and needed a bigger house. But the Warkentin family and the establishment of the Kansas State Bank played a part in it. Bernard Warkentin and my grandfather established this bank in 1902.
     The Warkentins had also established three mills in this area: one in Halstead, one in Newton, and one in Blackwell, Oklahoma. They were very wealthy and had a big home on First Street. This home is now designated as a National Landmark.
Bernhard Warkentin near the turn of the century and Warkentin House today.

     Bernhard Warkentin's son, Carl, had a home adjacent to the Warkentin home where he lived with his wife and two daughters. These were very palatial homes, which together occupied almost half a square block of land in Newton. There was a beautiful flower garden to the rear of the property. The barn was designed for stables for horses and for a liveryman to live on the second floor of the barn.
     Two years after the bank was established, Mr. Bernard Warkentin was killed while he and Mrs. Warkentin were travelling in the Orient. Some fellow was cleaning a pistol while riding behind them in a chair car. The pistol accidentally discharged through the cushio and killed Mr. Warkentin. So Mrs. Warkentin was living alone in this palatial home on First Street when Carl acquired a milling facility in Kansas City and moved there with his family to oversee it.
     Because of the connection between the Claassens and Warkentins, Mrs. Warkentin wouldn't let Carl sell the house to anybody but my father. So that's how we came to move to this big house adjacent to Mrs. Warkentin. That took place about the time that I was in the third grade. We were still only a block from McKinley school, so I continued to go there.
     But for my father to jump from a small house to a rather palatial residence and negotiate the financing would have been unlikely except that Mrs Warkentin wouldn't let her son sell the house to anybody but my father and mother, so the financial arrangements were very favorable. otherwise, I don't think we would have moved. Mrs. Warkentin's name was Wilhlmina Magdelina Eisenhower Warkentin, but she was no relation that I know of to the Eisenhowers of Abilene.
     So the years then started on First Street. The barn was no longer used as a place for caring for orses. Mrs. Warkentin had acquired an electric car and had redesigned the barn so that she could drive her electric car into the barn on a turntable - it had no steering wheel - and then the turntable could be turned around, and the electric car then driven out again. She had a full-time, live-in cook an dmaid and a full-time, live-in chauffeur and yardman. She was a very large person, and they virtually waited on her hand and foot. She had received a formal education in the Ukraine before they came to this country, so she had a rather substantial appreciation for the arts.
     We took trips with Mrs. Warkentin in her electric car. They had a mill over in Halstead, which is eleven miles from Newton, and it was always a real exciting experience to ride there with Mrs Warkentin in her car. The car would go at least to Halstead and back before it had to be charged when it got back in her garage in Newton. Mrs. Warkentin retained part of the house for her use when she was in Halstead. She kept the living room and the kitchen and another room in the house. So we would go over there for picnics and a ride in her electric car - this was a big deal.
     But that was a rather short period of time because the electric car went out of existence the minute better transportation was available. Mrs. Warkentin eventually purchased a large Packard automobile around 1931 or '32. She and her chauffeur and my parents took a trip east and were gone for about a month. They went to New York and Philadelphia and traveled several thousand miles. There was a long story in the local newspaper about this trip. I discovered the article about the trip in one of my files and gave it to the people who operate the Warkentin house now, which is a National Museum.
     On several occasions we visited Frances and Carl Warkentin in Kansas City. Car's sister, Edna, had moved to Kansas City and was married to an attorney, so the two families were there. One evening we were out to dinner, and the name of Pendergast, the local crime czar in Kansas City during that period of time, was mentioned. Although the Warkentins were engaged in the milling business, they would not permit any of us to even mention the name after that. They had some personal fear of the dominance that the Pendergast machine had in Kansas City.
     Growing up in this big house had a lot of attractions that we hadn't had in the small place. For one thing, we had access to the Warkentin barn. My two brothers and I literally took it over. We honeycombed the Warkentin barn with secret passages up and down the hay chutes and used the vacant lot in back of the barn for caves. We did all of these things without a lot of restrictions. Of course, all that has now been developed with residences, but the barn is still there.
     At one time we had a tree house in the back yard that was a double-decker, screened in. It had mattresses so we could spend the night. But my friend, Clare Dunlap, who lived four blocks away, distinguished himself by sitting on a makeshift platform high up in a tree inhis front yard where he stayed for several days without descending. I could not believe a kid our age could have this much determination.
     My sister Barbara grew up in the Claassen family with three brothers all younder than her in two-year step-downs in age. So very early in life this set the stage for her assertiveness, perceptiveness, and stamina. To balance the scale, she had to hone these qualities to perfection. Swimming holes, tree houses, and caves in the adjacent lot were out of bounds for her, being a girl. Her responses were dolls, tea parties, and dress-ups. We brothers became sports-oriented while she found her strengths in verbal and written expressions. It was about this time that she started to write. She kept a diary but it was never visible, even to our mother. She surrounded herself with friends that were girls of the same age, most of whom were from family compositions comparabel to hers, in other words, one-daughter families. At some point in high school, they wrote stories predicting the future and placed them in a tin can, which they buried in some secret place. The last account that I had of this effort was that they forgot where they buried the can.
     When we moved in to this very palatial home, the two homes were connected with a pergola, which was a covered walkway. My father immediately had teh carpenters install a ramp on that side where there were stairs up to our front porch that surrounded three-fourths of the house so Mrs. Warkentin could come over to our house in the wheelchair. Because of her size, Mrs. Warkentin had an elevator installed in her own house and had not only the help of a full-time yardman, chauffeur, cook, and maid, but also, because of our proximity to Bethel hospital two blocks away, had almost round-the-clock assistance from Sister Frieda Kaufman, who was the head of the nurses at the Bethel Hospital. back in those days, Bethel Hospital, founded again by Mennonites, had an order of Bethel Sisters who performed services similar to what Catholic Nuns perform in Catholic Churches. The only difference was that the Bethel Susters were not bound to celibacy. While they were with the order they werenot permitted to marry, but if they left the order they could. All during the time we lived on First Street, Sister Frida was a daily visitor to Mrs. Warkentin, so we saw her on frequent occasions. She was a very dignified, very large woman, but always wore the uniform of the Bethel Sisters. These uniforms had highly-starched shirts, and hats very similar to what Catholic Nuns wore. The order finally played itself out in later years because tehre were no sisters, no Mennonite women, who found that as a calling. but Sister Frieda, in effect, attended Mrs Warkentin and looked out for her well-being almost as a private nurse.
     The night Mrs. Warkentin passed away we were aware of the situation, and there were a lot of concerns that were expressed in terms of the lights being turned on in her house or turned off at her demise. We knew that the lights were on in her room upstairs, and they were on all night long. I suppose you would say they were holding a vigil. I don't remember now what the procedure was, but I know it was a rather impressive kind of departure from this Earth.

Second Home on First Street: The Warkentins

     Those years on First Street while I was still going to McKinley were years that involved some health problems. My sister, who was two years older than me, cmae down with rheumatic fever and had to drop out of school for a year. About a year almost to the day later, when I was in the fifth grade at McKinley, I also acquired this rheumatic fever and lost about a half a year of school as a result. For several months I wasn't able to walk because of the swelling in my joints, and it was during that period that my parents decided to get my mind off my physical problems and see if they couldn't redirect my thinking to a more positive attitude. There was a maiden lady who had recently moved to Newton with her mother from California. She was a very accomplished violinist and had played for a number of years in Cripple Creek, Colorado, in a dining room environment, I believe. Shortly after coming to Newton, she married a man by the name of Morris Congdon. I started taking music lessons from Mrs. Congdon at that time. My brothers would take me down in a wagon to her home for these music lessons because I wasn't able to walk. That's how I got started playing the violin.
    My father was always busy in the bank, but he had several outside interests. He was active in the Masonic Lodge and played the piano for the Lodge. he went all through the degrees and became a thirty-second degree Mason. His principal outside recreation was fly-fishing, and he became a very expert fly fisher. He designed and built a lot of the flies that he used. He had several friends who would fish with him, especially at the cabin they owned jointly up on the Cottonwood River. All throughout my junior high and high school years, we would go up there for fishing trips on weekends several times a year. That was quite an experience, because the cabin was very rustic, with a screened-in porch. The system that was used on the Cottonwood River was to set trot lines in the river during the evening, and then run them twice during the night. You'd never know whether you were going to have a snake or whether you were going to have a fish on one of those lines, so it was an experience. Even after we gave up the cabin, some of us would go up on the river just to have some of those same experiences again.