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Mennonites in Goshen before 1913

Although Mennonites had lived in Elkhart County since the 1840s, at the turn of the twentieth century virtually none lived in the county seat of Goshen. Instead, Mennonite and Amish households farmed in surrounding rural townships or lived and worked in the town of Nappanee or the city of Elkhart. In fact, by 1900 the “town churches” in those two places were thriving. North Main Street Mennonite in Nappanee counted about 100 members and Elkhart’s Prairie Street congregation had 80.

The church on Prairie Street was especially known for its innovative programs and civic-minded members—perhaps not surprising since Elkhart was a prosperous manufacturing center and railroad hub that attracted idealistic young adults and creative entrepreneurs. In 1894 a group of Prairie Street Mennonites launched the Elkhart Institute of Art, Science, and Industry, a school that soon was enrolling 150 students.

The Elkhart school would change the Mennonite geography of Elkhart County when, in 1903, it accepted an invitation from the (non-Mennonite) Goshen Chamber of Commerce to leave Elkhart, move to the south side of Goshen, and rename itself Goshen College. With the school’s move, a small but steady number of Mennonite faculty families started relocating to the city of Goshen, which was just then trying to boost its reputation by opening a new high school and a Carnegie Library, both on Fifth Street.

Some of the Mennonites brought their business interests to Goshen. In 1909 four men who had all recently arrived in town, drawn in one way or another by the college, pooled $30,000 and started the Goshen Milk Condensing Company on Ninth Street (today the site of Dairy Farmers of America). One of the founders, widower Abiah Zook, had moved from Missouri to be closer to his only daughter, Bertha Zook Detweiler, who had graduated from the college and then remained in Goshen when her husband, Irvin, was hired as a faculty member. Irvin Detweiler would later serve as pastor of Eighth Street Mennonite Church from 1923-1931.

If Mennonites were now part of the Goshen community, should they also worship in town, or should they continue to drive back to Elkhart or to one of the rural congregations? In 1900 Goshen was already home to at least six Protestant denominations, a small Catholic parish, and Shearith Israel Synagogue, which served the city’s important Jewish community from 1876 to 1939. But there was no Mennonite church. In late 1903 a number of Goshen Mennonites began gathering on Sunday mornings in a large classroom in the Goshen College administration building, thus launching what would be College Mennonite Church. A decade later, Goshen’s second Mennonite congregation—the forerunner of Eighth Street Mennonite—held its first service in a house-turned-church on Fifth Street.

—Steve Nolt