Prior, Ginny. "Dakota Deutschland." North Dakota AAA Living Magazine, September/October 2007.
German Russians found their place in North Dakota more than a century
ago. Today, their vintage lifestyle draws travelers to the south-central
part of the state.
In a list of the world’s gourmet foods, sauerkraut never seems
to make the cut. But don’t tell that to the folks who make
their home in what’s known as North Dakota’s "Great
Sauerkraut Triangle." Although called a triangle, this irregular
polygon-shaped region (spanning roughly from Edgedale west to Linton,
south to Zeeland and north to Napoleon) dishes out some of the best
German food, architecture and culture this side of Munich. In the
words of North Dakota’s most famous German Russian, 1950s
band leader Lawrence Welk, the region is "wunnerful, wunnerful!"
My own heritage traces back to this area settled by German immigrants
from Russia who fled the oppressive tsarist tyranny from about 1880
to 1920. I was born in Eureka, South Dakota, which, before cartographers
drew state lines, was part of the German-Russian territory. As I
travel through the towns of southern North Dakota, I recall a high
school cheer my uncle taught me. "Wieners und wieners und sauerkraut,"
he’d begin with his thick German accent, "we are from
Hosmer, five miles out!" I bet we weren’t the only German
descendants who shouted the rhyme.
Standing on a knoll above Welk’s childhood home in Strasburg,
I watch the prairie grass sway as if orchestrated by the late conductor’s
baton. A tiny lake sparkles in the distance behind a cluster of
old barns, a granary and the simple sod house where Welk lived until
his 21st birthday.
I realize that the charm of these towns lies in how they’ve
held dearly to their traditions. The communities’ visible
commitment draws visitors from near and far to reconnect with their
roots—or just get a good bowl of borscht (hearty cabbage soup)
or some cheese buttons (noodle dough filled with seasoned cheese
and onions). In some places, such as the Edgeley Coffee Shop in
Edgeley where kuchen (fruit and custard pastry) and a German burger
(crowned with white cheese and sauerkraut) is served, barking, consonant-riddled
German echoes in the air. The cook, Jean Neff, offers a friendly
gutentag (good day) to me, before turning back to her conversation
in German with some of the older customers.
Food from the Old Country is just part of the sauerkraut triangle
heritage package. "Almost every one of those counties has a
great museum," says Bismarck history buff Michael Rempfer.
The McIntosh County Heritage Center in Ashley is a perfect example,
with an early rural Lutheran Church, a sod house, a one-room school
and other historical buildings on site. These museums serve as living
memories of the days when hardworking immigrants plowed the parched,
rocky earth to plant crops and build communities. "You can
still hear the accents of the people in most of those places,"
says Rempfer. "The rural lifestyle—in some places you
can still find the old buildings built with mud bricks and stuff
Mud bricks are really just a fancy name for dirt and manure. Historian
Michael Miller with the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
says the state’s treeless terrain, much like the steppes of
Russia from which the immigrants came, forced the settlers to use
building materials other than wood. A well-preserved, original sod
home still stands eight miles east of Strasburg.
More than any other buildings, churches received remarkable attention
to detail. They were elaborate, using brick, stone and stained glass
as evidenced by the St. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Strasburg—proof
of the importance of religion to these pioneers.
Just outside Hague, a Catholic cemetery contains as many as 70
ornate, black eizenkreuzen (iron crosses). Each cross tells its
own story. Forged by immigrant blacksmiths in Hague between 1877
and 1941 (using skills they’d learned from their ancestors
on the steppes of the Volga and the Black Sea regions of Russia),
these prairie monuments can be quite intricate, with elaborate symbols
depicting everything from angels to snakes. As I walk down the rows,
I can almost imagine the sweat and sadness that went into each one
of these crosses, timeless reminders of the hardships these pioneer
The crosses and other tangible history add to the beauty of this
region. They’re a part of North Dakota’s heritage that
should be treasured and shared for generations to come. Even if
you don’t like sauerkraut.
Germans from Russia Fall Fun
New Leipzig: The annual Octoberfest, Sept. 21-23, features German
and cloggers, traditional Germans from Russia food demonstrations,
booths and cultural demonstrations, such as loom weaving and plow
sharpening. Contact: Mark Stetler at 701-584-2278.
Wishek: The 82nd annual Sauerkraut Day happens October 10 at the
Center. Eat wieners and sauerkraut, while enjoying German music
free community luncheon. Contact Stan Deile at 701-452-2351.
Strasburg: Stroll the grounds of Lawrence Welk’s birthplace
in Strasburg, 701-336-7519.
Logan County Historical Society preserves an historic schoolhouse,
house built in 1907, Logan County church, a blacksmith shop and
Browse more Germans from Russia pioneer history at McIntosh County
Heritage Center circa 1900. Historic buildings include a church,
and school house; 701-288-3388.
Carry a handkerchief as you walk among the handcrafted iron crosses
St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Iron Cross Cemetery, 701-336-7119.
effort manifested in these labors of love might move you to tears.
South of the Border:
In addition to North Dakota, South Dakota is home to many of the
Russian settlements of the late 1800s and early 1900s, including
that largely has been preserved. Eureka, hailed as the "Wheat
of the World" from 1887 to 1902, was a bustling center of commerce
the end of the rail line. Today, there is still plenty to see. The
Pioneer Museum holds a fascinating collection of German-Russian
artifacts, farm implements, period clothing and more. The City Cafe
a popular place for German meals and two businesses bake sweet German
pastries, The Eureka Bakery and The Kuchen Factory. An oddity, perhaps,
is the City Cemetery, where native son and USA Today founder Al
has his headstone. Neuharth isn’t dead yet, but like most
Germans from Russia, he
Ginny Prior makes annual trips to the Sauerkraut Triangle, eating