Home Education West Texas Living Heritage Museum in Seminole tracks 500-year history of Mennonite community in West Texas and beyond

West Texas Living Heritage Museum in Seminole tracks 500-year history of Mennonite community in West Texas and beyond

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A long journey
West Texas Living Heritage Museum in Seminole tracks 500-year history of Mennonite community in West Texas and beyond

Andy Brosig/News-Sun

SEMINOLE, Texas — It’s a story 500 years in the making.

From its origins in Prussia and what would become eastern Europe to a tiny West Texas community, the diaspora of the Mennonite people is woven into the history of America and the world. And it’s a story that’s told at the West Texas Living Heritage Museum north of Seminole, largely through the personal collection of the museum’s founder, Tina Siemens.

Opened June 16, 2023, the museum “is a 20-year dream come true for me,” Siemens said. “I prayed about a building. I had gathered stuff for 20 years, just stored in containers from all my travels.

“I love antiques (and) to combine that with our history, that was a dream that was just not possible until last year. At the end of 2022, in the last days of December, I prayed that if 2023 is the year I can see my dream come true, allow me to find a building.”

But it turned out the building she was seeking was right in front of her eyes. Siemens and her husband, John, owned the building on County Road 103 about three miles north of Seminole. It houses their construction company, JW&T Inc. and, in the past, the structure has served as an airplane hangar, a day spa, an office complex and even the Siemens’ home.

“We’d moved out of the building in October (2022),” Tina Siemens said. “If these walls could talk, they’d tell many a story. As I was praying, a voice told me, ‘You’ve got the building already.’”

The primary exhibits track the migration of members of the Anabaptist Church who later took on the name Mennonites, from an early community leader, Menno Simons, dating back to the 1500s in the Netherlands. The museum is organized based on both the timeline of the Mennonite migrations and specific topics, Siemens said.

“The timeline is how I brought our Mennonite history, our story, into a workable format,” she said. “Deciphering the different eras in history.

“And it’s organized by migrations. The story of the Mennonites is always associated with a migration pattern. That’s the timeline I followed very closely.”

But it’s not all cold facts and dates. Several rooms of the museum are set up to depict a typical Mennonite home, showing how those earliest settlers would have lived.

“In the museum here we have a typical Mennonite kitchen, pantry and bedroom set up,” Siemens said. “But the main part of the museum is all the different cultures and how they fit together in West Texas history.”

And there’s a few twists to the decorations history buffs would find interesting, she said. All the shelves in the pantry are painted a specific shade of blue, for example, and for a very good reason. That particular shade was chosen by the early settlers because, of all things, flies don’t like it and would avoid landing near the food stored on those shelves, Siemens said.

A second major feature of the museum ties Mennonite history in West Texas to Native American leader Quanah Parker and the Comanche peoples who called the area home long before the first European settlers arrived. Siemens’ personal history is tied directly to Parker and those early Comanches through several of Siemens’ cousins who were instrumental in bringing the Mennonite community to Oklahoma and Kansas in the 19th Century, she said.

“It’s all about the history of the Mennonite and Comanche communities,” Siemens said. “Because history doesn’t have boundaries.

It flows in together as the different cultures dwelt together.

“It’s not just the Comanche. It’s not just the Mennonites. It’s West Texas history. That’s why I chose the name West Texas Living Heritage Museum. Because of all the different components (the museum) has to have all of the different cultures.”
Siemens has published her story in two books, “Seminole: Some People Never Give Up” in 2019 and “The Little Sandals That Could, A Child’s Journey to a New Country” in 2022. Her third book, “Post Oak” is due out this summer, telling the story of the connections between the Mennonite and Comanche communities.

Siemens came by her love of history from her own family’s story, she said. One of her earliest memories is asking her grandmother about two carved wooden chairs.

But her real passion for history came from her great-grandfather, she said, who would tell her about the family’s journey from Europe and Ukraine, through Canada and into Mexico and later to Seminole and West Texas when Siemens was a young girl. She remembers her first sight of Seminole, March 26, 1977, 100 years to the day after one of her cousins, Henry Kohfeld, left Ukraine to settle in Kansas.

After an almost week-long wait at the US-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas, Siemens recalled pulling off the road west of Seminole and her first glimpse of the lights of the community that would be her and her family’s new home. They were riding in a pickup truck with a camper shell her family and another family had hired for the trip, she said, and “there was a face in every window of the camper.

“My dad said, ‘Look out there. We are home,’” Siemens said.

And that’s the story she wants to tell with the museum which will celebrate its first anniversary with a huge event at the end of May. In its first year, the museum has already hosted a variety of historic and educational events, including an Octoberfest with homesteading and ranching demonstrations and more.

May 30-31 the museum will host its Heritage Homesteading Conference on the museum grounds. The event will feature more educational programming on ranching and sustainable agriculture including canning, gardening and nurturing the soil.

The conference will roll right into a Heritage Homestead Country Fair, featuring a concert by Grammy Award-winning country music group the Gatlin Brothers at 7 p.m. Central Time on May 31 at the Performing Arts Center, 2100 NW Ave. D in Seminole.

Then the Country Fair will run 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. June 1 on the museum grounds, 511 CR 103 in Seminole, featuring Comanche Nation dancers and drummers and more.

And that’s the “living” part of the West Texas Living Heritage Museum, Siemens said, maintaining and carrying those connections forward. And it’s a story people from outside the Mennonite community in Seminole need to hear, she said.

“The museum holds such vital information,” Siemens said. “There’s been such an influx of Mennonites who’ve come here. For me, this museum is also a thank you for the privilege we were given to immigrate, to become citizens … not only to God but to the country for allowing us to become a part of the community and the culture here.

“We are much more similar when we start concentrating on our similarities rather than our differences. That is what my purpose with museum is, to showcase not only (Mennonite and Comanche) culture but how we can fit together.”

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