-by Greg Hoots-
Peter Thoes was born in 1821 in a small village on the river LaBelle Mosille on the western edge of Germany. After Peter’s birth, his parents, Johannes Thoes and Maria Anna Schreiber Thoes, had five more children, four daughters and one other son. The family’s home was located close to the border of France, and all of the Thoes family were multi-lingual, fluent in both German and French.
When the Thoes children were still small, their mother died, and in 1846, Johannes Thoes was induced to move his family to Algeria, where the French government was offering cheap land to farmers. Thoes and his children made the long journey across France, traveling by wagon to the city of Toulon, France, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea, where they boarded a French man-of-war which transported them to Algeria.
While the Thoes family found plentiful farm land in Algeria, that nation was in turmoil, having been invaded by the French in 1830. Piracy and a vigorous slave trade prevailed in the North African country, and the French government claimed an obligation to civilize the savage nation. Over 825,000 indigenous Algerians were killed by French forces while in the process of becoming civilized. Although the French lost 92,329 men in the Algerian war, only 3,336 of those casualties were killed in action. The vast majority of the French losses were due to epidemics which swept the North African coastal nations.
In the 1830s and 1840s, over 50,000 French-speaking farmers were encouraged to move to Algeria and settle on land taken from natives who had held it in communal ownership. The Thoes family was among this group of immigrants who were enticed to move to Algeria to increase the scope of French influence in the Mediterranean region.
In less than nine months in Algeria, Johannes Thoes and two of his daughters contracted sleeping sickness, and all three died of the illness. Disheartened by the loss of their father and sisters, Peter Thoes, his brother Joseph, and their sisters, Mary and Margaret, returned to Toulon where they remained for five years. The four Thoes siblings then traveled to their homeland in Germany for a short visit before departing on a ship for America. On July 7, 1851, the family arrived in New York, where they remained for fifteen months. Margaret Thoes stayed in New York, while Mary, Joseph, and Peter Thoes left the city by boat, traveling up the Hudson River through the Erie Canal and across the Great Lakes to Chicago. Then, they boarded a river boat headed to Missouri, passing through the LaSalle Canal before steaming up the Illinois River to St. Louis where it steered upstream onto the Missouri River, taking them to Westport, Missouri, their destination. Margaret married Heinrich Undorf while in New York, and the couple would later join her family in Alma, Kansas in 1878.
In the early 1850s, Westport was located on the western border of the civilized United States. Many immigrant families had gathered in Westport; some anxiously awaited the opening of the new lands in Kansas, a subject of considerable conversation among the immigrants looking for a new life in the American West. Peter, Mary, and Joseph Thoes stayed in Westport for a year and a half, and in 1853, Mary Thoes married Ed Krapp, a teamster from Westport who transported goods by wagon for hire.
In the early fall of 1854, Peter and Joseph Thoes traveled into the newly formed Kansas Territory by horseback, riding some 100-miles to the Mill Creek Valley, an area of rolling hills, freshwater streams, and thousands of acres of tallgrass prairie. The two brothers staked claims, one on the east side of Mill Creek and one on the west side of the stream, approximately four miles southeast of the present town of Alma. As winter approached, the two men returned to Westport and prepared for the move to their new claims when warm weather arrived. In the spring, the two Thoes brothers, along with their brother-in-law, Ed Krapp and their sister, Mary, packed their belongings into wagons and headed into Kansas for good. Ed Krapp staked a claim near Peter Thoes’ property on the east side of Mill Creek, and the three men built a cabin on each of the claims in a total of three weeks’ time.
On June 9, 1861, younger brother, Joseph Thoes married Augusta Dieball, the daughter of German immigrant, Albert Dieball who had settled in the Mill Creek Valley in the spring of 1857. Six months later, on January 19, 1862, Peter Thoes married Caroline Dieball, Augusta’s older sister.
While the Thoes brothers were quite successful farming and ranching along Mill Creek, the families endured hardships, including floods, droughts, and the tribulations of pioneer life. After forty years of farming on Mill Creek, Peter Thoes was finally financially secure, allowing him to build a massive new barn on his farmstead. The May 5, 1893 edition of The Alma Enterprise reported on the preparations for the construction, “Peter Thoes, out south of town, is making preparations and getting the material on the ground to build one of the largest barns in the county.” Two months later on July 27, 1893, The Alma News noted, “Mr. Peter Thoes, who lives four miles south of town, is just finishing one of the largest and finest barns in the county. It is built in the south side of a hill, the lower story being built of stone and the upper story is frame. It is 134 x 40 feet, is nicely arranged, and a barn that any man should be proud of.”
The basement provided ample room for stables for livestock, and the massive second story provided enormous storage of hay for winter feeding. Less than a year after the barn was completed, tragedy struck the Thoes farm. As 72-year-old Peter Thoes was driving a team of horses pulling a wagon stacked high with loose hay, he was fatally injured when he struck the top of the doorway opening when the team pulled the wagon into the barn, resulting in Thoes’ immediate paralysis, followed by his death on May 30, 1894. The Alma Signal reports Peter Thoes’ death, saying, “Mr. Thoes was one of our worthy and highly esteemed German citizens and one of the oldest settlers in the Mill Creek Valley. Deceased leaves a highly esteemed family, hosts of relatives and many friends who extend to the family their heartfelt sympathy in this, their sad bereavement.”
Peter and Augusta Thoes’ son, Ernest, continued to operate the farm after his father’s death and moved to the farm where he and his family lived for the next eighty-three years. After Ernest’s death in 1949, his son Elwin Thoes operated the farm until 1977.
Today, the former Peter Thoes’ 500-acre farm has three owners, as the farm ground, the Thoes house, and the Thoes barn properties have been divided. The barn, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is owned by Peter Thoes’ great-great-granddaughter, Martha Ross.
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