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Cool Things - Turkey Red Wheat

Bottle of Turkey Red wheat from Goessel, Kansas.This souvenir bottle of wheat was purchased in Goessel to commemorate the Kansas Wheat Centennial of 1974.  According to legend, the town's German-Russian immigrants planted the seeds of Kansas' modern wheat economy 100 years earlier.

Many Kansans believe German Mennonites arriving from Russia brought Turkey Red wheat to the state.  German Mennonites, known to be pacifists, had been lured to Russia in the late 1700s with promises of military exemption.  When Russian policy grew hostile in the 1870s, large numbers of this ethnic group left for more fertile lands.

Kansas was the destination of choice for many German-Russians.  Western railroad companies hoped to develop communities along their lines to increase profits through the transport of products and grains.  To populate these communities, they hired German recruiters to facilitate the immigration of skilled farmers from European countries with similar climates.  They recruited not only among the German Mennonites, but also Roman Catholic Germans farming along Russia’s Volga River.  German-Russian immigrants began arriving en masse on the central Great Plains during the 1870s; Mennonites settled in Marion County and Roman Catholics in Ellis County, Kansas.

Threshing crew in Marion County, ca. 1890.These immigrants did not come empty-handed.  Family lore states that Mennonite families loaded kitchen crocks and traveling trunks with Turkey Red wheat seed before leaving Russia.  Arriving in Kansas in 1874, they planted their first crop in the rich farm lands around Goessel.  Although corn was the primary grain grown in Kansas at the time, Turkey Red wheat proved well-suited to the Great Plains.  The wheat berry contained more protein (producing the best flour), demonstrated more resistance to disease, and survived the harsh winter conditions following fall planting. 

In 1974, Kansans hosted a centennial celebration commemorating the first Turkey Red wheat planting according to folklore.  In Goessel, locals sold souvenir bottles of the famed wheat seed to raise money for the construction of a museum dedicated to the subject.  But some experts have argued the Turkey Red story is only a myth.  They claim it is highly unlikely that immigrants transported enough wheat to plant a significant first crop.  In addition, Turkey Red was not the typical wheat variety grown by Mennonites in Russia, casting further doubt on the legend.

Though it is difficult to determine who first introduced Turkey Red to Kansas, it is undeniable that German Mennonite communities like Goessel embraced the plant. Today, a vast number of modern wheat varieties grown in Kansas can be genetically traced to Turkey Red. The state is one of the world’s top wheat producing regions today largely due to the legacy of winter wheat varieties like Turkey Red.

Charles Goebbel, a railroad employee traveling through Goessel in 1974, purchased this bottle and donated it to the Kansas Museum of History in 1981.

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Entry: Cool Things - Turkey Red Wheat

Author: Rebecca Martin

Date Created: March 2011

Date Modified: September 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.