Elsie Kolb: a Shy Ontario-Born Mennonite Matriarch

Elsie Kolb (1875-1949) was born on an Ontario Mennonite farm near Breslau, Ontario to Joseph and Nancy (Stauffer) Kolb. She was the eldest daughter in a family of two sons and two daughters. Her childhood was probably unremarkable, with a basic elementary school education. She has been described as shy and retiring. As a teenager she began to work away from home as a maid. When she was 18, she worked for a time with newly-married Eli S. and Melinda Hallman who were partners in a dry goods store in Berlin (now Kitchener).

George Lewis Bender (1867-1921) was born in Maryland in the middle of a large Amish family. He didn’t want to farm, so went to normal school to become a teacher, first in Maryland, then in Iowa. In 1890 he was invited to come to Elkhart, Indiana to work for John F. Funk’s Mennonite Publishing Company. Because of his ability to speak German, George did a lot of traveling for Funk’s company to Canada and the western United States.

George Bender and Elsie Kolb

George Bender and Elsie Kolb (seated) wedding, 1896. Courtesy George and Elsie Kolb Bender Photographs. Box 1, Folder 4. HM4-043. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.

When visiting Berlin, George sometimes stayed with Eli and Melinda Hallman, and it was here that he met Elsie Kolb. Much of their courtship was by correspondence, but George made several visits a year, and in October 1896 they were married in Elkhart, Indiana. None of Elsie’s family could attend the wedding because of limited finances, and because George was teaching school, he could not come to Ontario.

Elsie and George were both highly committed to the Mennonite Church. George was ordained as a deacon in the Elkhart Mennonite Church in 1907. This church, later known as Prairie Street Mennonite Church, was more assimilated than most Mennonite churches, borrowing many ideas from neighboring revivalist churches. It had begun an “evangelizing committee” already in 1882.

In 1894 George became treasurer of this “evangelizing” venture that eventually, through various mergers, became the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities, the primary mission agency of the binational Mennonite Church. Much of his work was volunteer work, particularly related to fundraising for mission projects. George went back to teaching in 1896 to earn a better income, and in 1906 he became a postal clerk in Elkhart. It was only in 1915 that he became a fulltime employee of the Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities.

George and Elsie Bender family

The George and Elsie Kolb Bender family of Elkhart, Indiana in 1913. From the left: Florence, Wilbur, Elsie, Robert (on lap), Harold (H.S.),John, Violet, George, Cecil. Courtesy George and Elsie Kolb Bender Photographs. Box 1, Folder 4. HM4-043. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.

Elsie and George had eight children, though their youngest child, George, Jr., died within a few days of birth in 1915.   But the other seven children went on to achieve surprising careers for a humble Mennonite family.

As the children were growing up Elsie often took them back to Ontario during the summers, where they enjoyed the rural life.

Unfortunately, in 1918 George began to suffer from Parkinson’s Disease, and he died in 1921 at the age of 53, when the youngest surviving child was eight years old. During the last year he was mentally unstable, putting great stress on Elsie as she tried to manage a household with six children still at home amidst severely limited finances.

Historian Al Keim has described George and Elsie Bender as part of the new “urban Mennonite middle class.”  They emphasized good manners, doing well in school, and learning foreign languages. As dress regulations in the Mennonite Church became more strict in the early 20th century, George supported the conservative shift. Elsie was more lenient, not believing in keeping young people “too tightly reined in, because knowing human nature, when they get out where they are their own dictators, there is a reaction.”

After George’s death in 1921, Elsie stayed in Elkhart with the remaining children for another three plus years. At the end of 1924 she moved to Goshen to live with her eldest son, who returned to Goshen to teach at Goshen College.

Most Mennonites know of this oldest child, Harold Stauffer “H. S.” Bender. He was born in 1897, almost nine months to the day after their marriage, and went on to become one of the dominant Mennonite leaders of the 20th century. As a theologian and historian he taught at Goshen College, was a leader in the formation and growth of Mennonite Central Committee and Mennonite World Conference, and wrote “The Anabaptist Vision,” which helped Mennonites shift from a fundamentalist theology, and rethink their place in church history. Harold died in 1962.

The remaining children were also quite remarkable in their individual ways.

The second child, and oldest daughter, was Florence Elizabeth Bender, born in December 1899. Like her older brother, she attended and graduated from Goshen College. She went on to earn a Master of Science degree in Home Economics at Purdue University.  During the 1930s she had a position with the state of Indiana under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) providing oversight to nursery schools. She later taught as an assistant professor at Bowling Green State University from 1944-1952. Florence, who never married, died in 1987.

The third child, Violet Esther Bender, was born in November 1901. She contracted polio when she was three years old, which would have increased the family management burden for Elsie. Violet attended Goshen College, but it closed in 1923 for a year, so she graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio. From 1927 to 1930, she headed the American Community School in Beirut, Lebanon. In the 1930s she married J. Sheldon Turner, a diplomat for the U.S. Foreign Service. She accompanied him on assignments to Iraq and Thailand, and was a radio and television news editor for the U.S. Information Agency while in Thailand. She was also a published poet, with her work appearing in Poetry Magazine, The Washington Post, and elsewhere. She died in 1990.

The fourth child, Wilbur Joseph Bender, was born in October 1903. He began his post-secondary studies at Goshen College, but after it closed in 1923, completed his undergraduate work at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he graduated in 1927. He went on to an M.A. degree at Harvard in 1930. In the early 1930s as assistant dean at Harvard, Bender helped organize the Harvard National Scholarship program. He left Harvard in 1933 to teach at Phillips Andover Academy. Wilbur then served in the Navy in World War II. He returned to Harvard and was dean of Harvard College from 1947 to 1952, and dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Harvard from 1952 to 1960 when he retired. He died suddenly in 1965.

The fifth child, Cecil Kolb Bender, was born in December 1906. He obtained his B.A. at Goshen College, and went on to earn an M.D. at Northwestern University in 1934. He became a physician and surgeon in Goshen, Indiana where he died of a heart attack in 1960.

The sixth child, John Ellsworth Bender, was born in July 1909. He also received a B.A. from Goshen College. His obituary said he went on to obtain a master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, though I wasn’t otherwise able to confirm this. He was teaching in a high school in Pennsylvania in 1940 when he was dismissed because he was a conscientious objector. He went into Civilian Public Service, part of which included writing a book on Paraguay and the Mennonite colonies for Mennonite Central Committee. The book, to be titled Paraguay Calling, was never completed. John married, but the marriage ended in divorce. He taught in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, school system for many years. At his death in 1993 his passions were said to be teaching Shakespeare, playing chess and making puns.

The seventh child, Robert Leighton Bender, was born in March 1912. He also graduated from Goshen College – in 1932. He went on to study medicine at Harvard Medical School, and obtained an M.D. in 1937. He considered going into practice with his brother, but finally established his own practice in Elkhart. My research did not reveal how long he practiced in Elkhart; later in life he and his wife, Carolyn, moved to Southern California where she died in 1980 and he died in 1999.

Although Elsie did not have a high profile, her spirit of leniency surely affected the multiplicity of skilled vocations her children pursued. Most did not remain in the Mennonite Church, but their contributions were significant. Elsie Kolb Bender was indeed a shy matriarch.

Much background information comes from Albert N. Keim, Harold S. Bender, 1897-1962. Additional information comes from the obituaries to which there are links, as well as the chapter in John S. Umble’s Mennonite Pioneers on George L. Bender.