EARLY MENNONITE SETTLERS IN ALLEN COUNTY, OHIO...

Mennonites were among the early settlers of the area. Formed in April 1820 only 17 years after the new state of Ohio was carved from the Northwest Territory, Allen County was organized the same time as neighboring Putnam County to the north and Van Wert to the west. In the northwest section of Allen County, first in Sugar Creek Township and later Marion Township to the west, developed a small but sturdy Mennonite community.

In 1831, the same year in which Sugar Creek Township was formed, John Stemen of Fairfield County, Ohio, came prospecting through the dense hardwood forests to look for suitable site for a home. He lodged and ate his meals with the Indians. He scouted in the southern part of "The Great Black Swamp" that covered 14 northwestern Ohio counties including Allen. Poor drainage and dense forests characterized much of the area. The felling of trees splashed mud and water to great heights. Mosquitoes swarmed. Malaria lurked constantly, awaiting the unsuspecting colonist. But the soil was unbelievably fertile and easily cultivated after it was drained. Here the government had set aside "canal lands" and prospects looked bright for the farmer willing to work hard.

Stemen, son of Mennonite deacon, Peter Stemen, (1771-1856), purchased on August 8, 1831, about 54 acres of land for $69.19, at a rate if $1.25 per acre. He situated one mile west and one-half mile south of the present Salem Church. Being one of the earliest settlers in the western part of the county forced him to cut his own path through the trees. He found treachery and questionable means the white man had by this time spirited away the Indian claims to their hunting grounds in Allen County. Hundreds of Senecas left in 1831 as did most of the Shawnees the following year. One group, the Hog Creek tribe, did not leave Allen County till 1833.

Then John and Nancy (Stukey) Stemen family was joined in 1834 by the family of his older brother Christian and Margaret (Moyer) Stemen and their five children. They purchased a tract of land on the banks of the Ottawa River for nearly $3.00 and acre. In 1837 came 66 year old Deacon Peter and Magdalena (Swick) Stemen and paid $1,000 for a quarter section (160 acres) in Marion Township, three miles west and one mile south of Salem Church. The following spring Peter Stemen, Jr. and his wife Mary (Blosser) joined them by purchasing for $1,550 a quarter section adjoining Salem Church.

In 1841 the pioneers were joined by the deacon's 94 year old father Christian Stehman (1747-1844) and the family of Peter's brother, Henry and Mary (Beery) Stemen. Henry(1775-1855), an early pioneer in Fairfield County, had been ordained a Mennonite minister in 1809 and bishop in 1820. Daughter Barbara and her husband Samuel Sherrick accompanied the bishop's family. Also at the same time came Deacon John Sherrick (1778-1857) with his wife Mary, David and Eve Campbell, John Burkholder and wife and Joseph Lamen who was single. Here was the leadership and nucleus for a church.

All of them came from Fairfield county. Earlier, beginning at the turn of the century, the Beerys, Stemens, Sherricks, Brennemans, and others had settled in that central Ohio county. Many of them originated in Rockingham County, Virginia, but some came from Pennsylvania. The 1841 exodus from Fairfield was only the first of other migrations that within several decades seriously depleted Fairfield's Mennonite population but greatly strengthened Allen County's.

One of the family lines represented was the George and Susan (Funk) Beery family who moved to Fairfield in 1816 with their seven children. Susan Funk was a sister to Joseph Funk, noted musician of the Virginia Mennonites in pre-Civil War days. The Beery's oldest daughter Barbara married Henry Brenneman (1791-1866), son of Abraham (1744-1815) and grandson of Melchior Brenneman, Jr. (1718-1794), whose father was the pioneer Melchior Brenneman (1665 - 1737) who arrived in 1717.

Bishop Henry Stemen already had long experienced as a frontier preacher and Mennonite "circuit Rider." He traveled widely by horseback in the Ohio wilderness holding communion services, ordaining bishops, ministers and deacons, and ministering to scattered Mennonites in the counties of Wyandot, Wood, Seneca, Williams, Clark, Logan, Fairfield, and Franklin. Apparently an eloquent speaker, he seems to have been the only Mennonite bishop in western Ohio for a number of years.


First Church Organized
Soon after the arrival of the 1841 group, a congregation was organized and services were held in the homes of members. "The bishop and the two deacons also acted as trustees in the early years. No early records exist, but years later (1911) at a reunion they named 20 charter members - the above named 1841 group in addition to Peter and Magdalena Stemen, Peter and Barbara Diller, and Henry and Elizabeth Funk. Deacon Peter's two sons John and Christian apparently did not join the Mennonites. Some of Christian's children were United Brethern, but son David was a Mennonite. It is unclear whether Peter, Jr. Joined the Mennonite Church. Though not listed as a charter member another source says he was "a Mennonite in religious faith, a republican in politics, and held the office of township trustee for a number of years." Two of his sons, John and Christian, served in the Civil War. His oldest son Andrew served as deacon for Allen County Mennonites for years.
If tradition is correct, they built their first 12 x 14 log meeting house in 1843. Likely the church house was built and the cemetery laid out on private property until October 27, 1847, when this plot, seven by six rods, was sold by John Enslen for five dollars to "Henry Stemen, Peter Stemen, and John Sherrick, elders of the Menonist Church." They built across the road from the present Salem Church. The little log church became known as the Dutch Hollow Church.

Bishop Stemen's itinerant activities made it necessary for him to ordain a minister for the Dutch Hollow Church. This he did in 1847. Nominated to the lot by the congregation were John Burkholder, Henry Funk, and Peter Diller. The lot chose Burkholder who served until his death in 1860. Though a fine old man, he was not particularly sucessful as a preacher and leader. Furthermore, his use of chewing tobacco was not considered a good example. Ordinations for minister were not needed for another generation because several more moved into the community from Fairfield and Franklin counties.

The first of these was Christian Culp (1815 - 1883) who was born in Rockingham County, Virginia. Sometime after his marriage to Elizabeth Good they united with the Mennonites. In 1846 he was ordained in Fairfield County. Though uneducated and a blacksmith by trade he applied himself diligently and surprised people by becoming a fluent speaker. He favored an intensely conservative program of church life and discipline. However, tradition says that if ever a man was without an enemy it was Preacher Culp. He moved to Allen County in 1852.

The following March George Brenneman (1821 -1889) also decided to leave the hills and poor farming land of Fairfield County for the level stretches of the Black Swamp. Settling in Putnam County, about a mile west of the later village of Rimer and several miles northwest of Sugar Creek Township (Allen County), he purchased two heavily wooded tracts. Before he could farm he needed to burn large quanti-ties of walnut logs and other hardwoods. A son of Henry Brenneman, he was born in Rush Creek Town-ship in Fairfield County and married Anna Burkholder of Knox County, Ohio and earlier of Rockingham County, Virginia. He was chosen be lot and ordained minister by Henry Stemen in 1849 at Rush Creek. Bishop Stemen may have invited both Culp and Brenneman to Allen County because he was looking for a successor. Stemen was already 78. Brenneman was scarcely settled when he and Culp were nominated to go through the lot for bishop. George was selected and ordained near his 33rd birthday in the spring of 1854.

Brenneman proved to be an able minister and bishop but he was overshadowed by his oldest brother John M. Brenneman who came shortly thereafter. George Brenneman is described as a strict disciplinarian, an earnest Christian, a man of deep conviction and indomitable will, who may not always have exercised the greatest of tact. He and his wife loved company and had many warm friends. Their fireside often rang with hearty laughter. For reasons no longer clear Bishop Stemen was not at ease in committing the future of the young congregation to Bishop Brenneman, so it is thought that he also induced John M. Brenneman to move to Allen County in 1855.

Soon after John's arrival and purchase of 176 acres of land one and a half miles east of the little Dutch Hollow Church, Stemen delivered his bishopric to John M. Brenneman. On the occasion the venerable old biship, nearly blind and feeble with age, delivered a powerful and eloquent sermon on Revelation 12:1. Thus, with proper solemnity and seriousness, John M. was installed as official head of the congregation. Only a few months later on August 19, 1855, Bishop Henry Stemen died from malaria fever. By that time the little log church had an impressive "bench" of ordained men. Bishop Henry's older brother Peter survived him less than a year, passing away May 5, 1856. The following year the other aged deacon John Sherrick died (1857).

The 1855 influx of settlers brought another ordained man, Deacon Christian D. Beery, uncle of the Brenneman brothers and supporter of their views. At age 19 Beery had married Elizabeth (Blosser), the 16 year old daughter of Isaac Blosser in Fairfield County. In 1838 they moved to Hocking County, Ohio, and 14 years later to Franklin County where he was ordained deacon. From thence they came to the Elida, Ohio (Allen County) area in 1855 where he served for ten years. In 1865 he sold his Putnam County property at a sacrifice and moved to Branch County, Michigan, where he later became minister and bishop.

Migration into the community continued in the 1840's, 1850's and later. The Joseph Lehman family came from Columbiana County, Ohio, in 1848. Son Christian married Susanna, daughter of Christian and Elizabeth Lehman who also came that year from Richland County, Ohio. After both aged deacons had passed away, young Christian Lehman (1828 - 1901) was ordained deacon in 1857.

The year 1855 marks the end of an era - that of the remarkable frontier minister Henry Stemen. He lived to see a strong Mennonite community established. Fourteen years experience in Allen County had proven it a more suitable location for the agriculturally minded Mennonites than central Ohio. Spiritual and numerical strength flourished.

Every minister and deacon who emigrated to Allen County brought family and friends. As a matter of fact the little log church was crowded during the biweekly services. Two bishops and several ministers and deacons provided quite a bench full of capable men.

By this time the dense forests had felt the blow of an ax long enough that the improved tracts of land were beginning to yield. Some of the swampy land had been drained. An occasional log cabin dotted the land-scape. A few more roads had been hewn out of the woods. Although very primitive and sometimes bol-stered by logs laid side by side, at least it was possible to pick one's way around the stumps and through the mud of dust. Some of the expected canals had not materialized but the Miami and Erie Canal passed eight miles west of the Dutch Hollow Church on the line between Allen and Van Wert counties and was open from end to end by 1847. Some of the families had located closer to the canal in Marion Township: a few had even gone to the other side into Van Wert County. Some had also spread southward beyond the village of Elida.

Serious risks and hazards still threatened though. Malaria was a major concern in the Great Black Swamp. Doctors were scarce and not quickly obtained. Clearing forests was rugged physical work. Lack of fences allowed livestock to roam. On one occasion George Brenneman tied a bell on a cow before turning the herd loose. For several weeks they failed to return. Finally, in response to a newspaper advertisement, a letter arrived from Bellefontaine, Ohio, nearly halfway back to Fairfield County, stating that they were in the vicinity. Apparently, they had become homesick for their old home at Fairfield!

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