My dad and I took a road trip to Kansas last weekend. Not just a road trip– a pilgrimage of sorts.
We went back to Riley County. The home our ancestors adopted after coming to America from Germany.
The eldest son of Marten Hinderks Swart, Wilhelm, came to America in 1867 to explore. He landed at Ellis Island, traveled to Illinois and married a woman named Martje Henning. They later traveled to Riley County and settled, and wrote back to the family in Germany that he had found an ideal location.
In 1872, Marten and his second wife, Addina Bronlewe-Swart, traveled across the sea with their slew of children. Three of the younger children died en route. His second eldest son, Hinderikus (my great-great grandfather), stayed in Germany to run the family bakery with his wife, Greitje.
In August 1894, Hinderikus and his second-oldest son, Johan, came to Kansas to buy a farm for his family. Greitje and the other children came in April 1895.
The family lived in Riley County near the village of Leonardville for fifteen years. The Swart Family attended the Evangelical German Church in Leonardville as well as the Nanningas who had married into the Swart Family and the Bohnenblusts and other large German families.
In 1910, the Hinderikus Swart Family with the Charles Kleiner Family loaded up their furniture and livestock in a railroad car and moved to western Oklahoma. And we’ve been here ever since. Herman, the son of Hinderikus & Greitje, married Bessie, the daughter of Charles and Anna Jahnke-Kleiner. The Jahnkes and Kleiners were also large German families from Riley County.
And so we sat out on a journey to see where our family had put down roots over a century ago. The 311-mile journey took us through the rolling fields of wheat in western Kansas to the craggy limestone hills in the northeast.
We met my dad’s third-cousin, M. Charlotte Shawver, the daughter of Ivan Sand, the son of Elizabeth Nanninga-Sand, the daughter of Hinriette van der Horst Swart-Nanninga. Hinriette was the sister of Hinderikus.
Charlotte was so very kind to us and took us around to the little cemeteries in which our relatives were interred.
We visited the Fairview Presbyterian Church, which is a couple of miles north of Riley. The building had been built in the 1880s and was still in perfect condition. The cemetery was across the road, and contained many relatives and ancestors of ours. The Jahnke family and Kleiner family attended the Fairview Church and were actually charter members of the parish.
The front doors were unlocked, and we were able to go inside the room where our forebears had worshiped. A piano from the era when the church was built was still up at the front and is used on Sabbath mornings. A display case holding commemorative plates with drawings of the church were a reminder of anniversaries past.
Two photographs caught my eye.
One was taken shortly after the church was built. The other was a group of men standing on the front steps of the church. They were clad in band uniforms and holding various instruments.
My great-grandpa Swart was in the photograph. As was his brother, George. And future brother-in-law, Sam Kleiner.
It was very moving — almost spiritual — to find a photograph in that case on the wall. A small glimpse into the past, with the proof that our family had been in this place and had played a role in the area.
At that moment, the door opened and a lady walked in. Turns out her grandfather was in the same photograph. Almost a century before our ancestors had posed for that photograph on the front steps of the church, and we were meeting at the same location.
Walking into the burying place for the Leonardville German Church, I instantly recognized names on stones over the entire cemetery — SWART – NANNINGA – BOHNENBLUST – SAND – BUS.
We were related to half or more of the people buried there! My great-great-great grandfather, Marten Hinderks Swart and Addina were buried there close to the road.
He had died in 1883, before his son Hinderikus even left Germany. The goodbyes said eleven years before when the family left Mitling-Mark for the boat to America were the last words spoken between father and son.
We stayed the night in Junction City, about 30 miles away. We went back to Riley on Sunday morning to load up an old Kimball pump organ that has been in my family for over a century. Cousin Charlotte had inherited it from her Aunt Myrtle who had married William Nanninga, her grandmother’s brother. It was Myrtle’s request that the organ never be sold and always remain in the family.
Myrtle, like myself, researched the family tree back in the 1950s and 1960s. She has been gone for many years, and now I am taking up where she left off to document the Swart family tree.
I hope it would make Cousin Myrtle smile to know that I am now the caretaker of her organ.
Traveling to Riley County was not only a fun trip, but I was able to walk the same ground that my family once did. I can only imagine the scene that had taken place so many times in those cemeteries — a freshly dug grave, with family and friends gathered to mourn the loss of a loved one and to celebrate the lives they had led and the legacies left for posterity.
They have gone on from this earthly life, but they are certainly not forgotten.
We have a rich heritage indeed.