Johann Cornies, who was born 20 June 1789 at Baerwalde near Danzig, migrated to Russia with his parents in 1804. After a two-year sojourn at Chortitza, the Cornies family joined the new colony on the banks of the Molotschna, where they took over a homestead of 175 acres in the newly settled village of Ohrloff. Here father Cornies became the settlement "doctor" until his death in 1814, using healing herbs found in the steppes.
Johann Cornies, the oldest of the four sons, worked first for a year as a laborer for a miller at Ohrloff. Then for three years he marketed farm produce from the settlement in the near-by cities of Simferopol, Feodosiya, and Sevastopol.
In 1811 Cornies married Agnes Klassen and the following year bought a homestead at Ohrloff and erected buildings. But his plans reached far beyond the boundaries of his own village. He soon recognized the favorable opportunities that the steppes presented for cattle breeding, and began to breed sheep, renting the fallow-lying government lands for grazing.
In 1830 Cornies leased 9,000 acres of government land along the Yushanlee River, where he had until then maintained a small sheep ranch. Six years later Tsar Nicholas I gave him 1,350 acres of this land as a reward for his services in the improvement of agriculture. Here Cornies first raised cattle, but soon began gradually to cultivate 729 acres of the land, using 16 acres to start a large nursery to furnish the colonists with tree seedlings. He also began to plant a forest that in a few years numbered 68,000 trees.
As early as 1816, Cornies undertook his first successful attempts with horse breeding, and about the same time improvement of the cattle by the use of imported bulls, whose progeny he gave to the colonists. By 1847 his own livestock consisted of 500 horses, 8,000 sheep, and 200 head of cattle of Dutch stock.
Two years after the establishment of Yushanlee, Cornies purchased Tashchenak, an estate of 9,450 acres near Melitopol, and ten years later another estate, Verigin, bordering on it, so that he was finally cultivating about 25,000 acres. His own brickyard produced the bricks necessary for his many buildings, while the tile works yielded worthwhile profits.
The government soon took note of Cornies' large-scale activities. By 1817 it had made the 28-year-old Cornies lifelong chairman of the Society for the Effective Promotion of Afforestation, Horticulture, Silk-Industry, and Vine-Culture, later called Agricultural Association which was founded on the suggestion of the Fürsorgekomitee. The settlers of Chortitza also founded an agricultural society in which Cornies became influential by virtue of his position as authorized (governmental) agent over all the Mennonites.
Cornies was tireless in opening up new industrial possibilities for the settlers. For a long time, the silk industry was his special concern. To develop this industry on a large scale, he built a school in Ohrloff to instruct the girls of the colony in the art of silk reeling. But in the end it proved impossible to reel the silk with the available help, and in addition the silkworm plague and strong Italian and French competition injured this industry. The tobacco industry met a similar fate. Also the culture of corn made slow progress; the colonists valued summer fallow more highly than the profit from growing corn. Growing of flax also made little headway at the Molotschna. Grain production thus became the most important enterprise of the immigrants.
With tireless zeal and at his own expense Cornies experimented to find the methods of farming best suited to the locality. For example, he recognized that it was essential to preserve the moisture in the soil during the winter because of the lack of summer rainfall. As early as 1835 he began the practice of summer fallowing in the Molotschna. Three years later the colony began the system of four-crop rotation. By damming up the streams of the steppes, which in summer were largely dry, Cornies irrigated the meadows, tremendously improving both pastureland and the hay crop.
Cornies exercised special care in the planting of forests. He understood their significance for treeless steppes, and, when necessary, promoted his long-range purpose with ruthless force. In 1845 over a half-million fruit and forest trees were found in the Molotschna alone, to which 300,000 mulberry trees were added. Six years later there were over five million trees in 47 villages. Fruit trees were planted on the comparatively wide space between the street and house, and hedges and rows of trees were planted on the back of the long lot, thus giving the villages a more inviting appearance. Cornies also instructed the settlers in raising vegetables and flowers.
The confidence of the government in Cornies' educational abilities is shown by the fact that it placed a number of young Russians in his hands every year for instruction in practical agriculture. In 1839 Cornies accepted 16 boys, while his wife took four Russian girls into the house to instruct them in the domestic arts. Later these Russians established special model villages. The value of such training was soon clear. For example, potatoes were unknown in South Russia until the Mennonites introduced them. Many Russian and Ukrainian farmers were sent to the Mennonite settlements to learn how to raise potatoes. Cornies' aid also was given to the Dukhobors and the Molokans, and he was made responsible for placing model Mennonite farmers in the newly established Jewish settlements in the province of Kherson.
Under Cornies' leadership 50 Hutterite families emigrated from Radichev, Chernigov province, near Melitopol in 1842 and founded the villages Huttertal and Johannesruh. Cornies founded Neuhalbstadt, a business and handicraft village, to provide the Molotschna settlement with an industrial and trade center.
Cornies was also instrumental in settling the nomadic Nogais, 17,000 of whom were made sessile after 1835 because of Cornies' efforts, although later they immigrated to Turkey. At the wish of the government, Cornies traveled to the distant Kalmuck steppes to advise these nomadic tribes there in settling.
Cornies particularly insisted that the educational system of the Mennonites was in need of reform. In 1818 he founded the Society for Christian Education, which built its first secondary school in Ohrloff in 1820. He also began a library and created a reading circle. Until 1843 the schools of the Mennonites in Russia were controlled by the church. As there were no trained teachers, farmer-teachers instructed the children. That year the schools were placed under the Society for Christian Education that was to co-operate with the church leaders. Cornies divided the Molotschna settlement into six school districts, planned for the improvement of the school buildings, dismissed a number of the most incompetent teachers, and insisted upon regular school attendance.
The curriculum itself, however, was in need of a thoroughgoing reform. The only sources of instruction were the ABC-book, Bible, catechism, and hymnbook. Among the major written contributions of Cornies in the field of education are his "General Rules Concerning Instruction and Treatment of School Children," which reveal the understanding and vision with which he sought to improve the system. Although Cornies was able to serve as chairman of the Society for Christian Education for only five years (1843-48), his long-range work constituted a real reform. It was Cornies who laid the foundation for the later development of the school system of the Mennonites in Russia. A year before his death the Department of Crown lands also placed the Chortitza schools under his control.
On 13 March 1848, Cornies died at the early age of 59 years. A huge crowd attended his funeral, among who were many Ukrainians, Russians, Nogais, Molokans, and Tatars. His people placed a memorial for him in the cemetery at Ohrloff that, according to the wishes of the deceased, was a broken marble column. His wife had preceded him in death on 30 March 1847. Two children, Johann and Agnes, survived.
That Cornies' influence and activities spread beyond the limits of the settlement is shown by the esteem in which he was held by the South Russian authorities and by the government at St. Petersburg. The governor of New Russia and Bessarabia, Count Vorontsov, was a frequent guest at the Cornies home and sought his advice on problems concerning agriculture and cattle breeding. Ten years before his death the Committee of Scholars of the Department of Crown lands asked him to become an honorary member. Here also Cornies did exemplary work; he sent countless reports and charts regarding his work to the Committee and stimulated and advised the authorities at St. Petersburg.
The officials of Russia showed their appreciation of the great Mennonite pioneer by various honors. In 1825 Tsar Alexander I as well as the Crown Prince visited him. In 1837 he was received by Nicholas I at Simferopol. He refused honors and medals that were offered him on various occasions, accepting only a simple gold commemorative medal.
Cornies achieved more than anybody else in the realm of cultural and economic advancement among the Mennonites of Russia. In dealing with the opposition of religious leaders, ignorant conservative farmers, or personal opponents he could be ruthless. That he was able to carry through his mighty reforms in spite of great opposition was due to the fact that as representative of the authorities, he was endowed with almost unlimited powers and that he was self-sacrificing and upright in his dealings. A warm feeling of good will and a superb calmness marked his relationships with people. In spite of his great wealth and influence Cornies remained a plain Mennonite farmer.
Epp, D. H. Johann Cornies, Züge aus seinem Leben und Wirken. Berdyansk, 1909.
Friesen, Peter M. Die Alt-Evangelische Mennonitische Brüderschaft in Russland (1789-1910) im Rahmen der mennonitischen Gesamtgeschichte. Halbstadt: Verlagsgesellschaft "Raduga", 1911: 75 ff.
Harder, M. S. "Johann Cornies - Pioneer Educator." Mennonite Life (October 1948): 5-7, 44.
Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 347.
Neff, Christian. "Was aus einem einfachen Bauersmann werden kann." Mennonitischer Gemeinde-Kalender (1914): 83-95.
Quiring, Walter. "Johann Cornies - A Great Pioneer." Mennonite Life (July 1948): 30-34, 38.
Unruh, Benjamin H. "Johann Cornies zum hundertjährigen Todestag." Der Mennonit I (1948): 54-55.
 Cite This Article
Quiring, Walter. "Cornies, Johann (1789-1848)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1955. Web. 22 Oct 2016. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Cornies,_Johann_(1789-1848)&oldid=128435.
Quiring, Walter. (1955). Cornies, Johann (1789-1848). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 October 2016, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Cornies,_Johann_(1789-1848)&oldid=128435.
©1996-2016 by the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. All rights reserved.