Hunhuskers, Red Cross Roosters,
and Uncle Sam Whiskers: The McIntosh County German-Russians
in World War I
Iseminger, Gordon L. "Hunhuskers, Red Cross Rooster and Uncle Sam Whiskers: The McIntosh County German-Russian in World War I." Midwest Review, 1992, 23-46.
The outbreak of war among European powers in August 1914 raised soul-searching
questions for members of ethnic groups who had emigrated from these
powers to the United States. To which of the belligerents, for example,
did they owe their allegiance and support? Because the war was viewed,
both in the United States and abroad, primarily as a war against Germany,
for the large German element in the United States these questions
were more troublesome than they were for most ethnic groups. This
was especially true after April 1917 when the United States entered
the war on the side of the Allies. Adopted land was pitted against
For German-Russians, however, the situation was even more poignant
than for other German-Americans because of an additional dimension.
"Our ancestors came from Germany and our cradles once rocked
in Russia," was how one German-Russian expressed it. Should
German-Russians support any country's war efforts when nation of
birth and nation of residence were pitted against nation of blood?
This article will suggest how one group of German-Russians, those
living in McIntosh County, North Dakota, dealt with this difficult
Among the characteristics marking German-Russians was a dislike
for war and military service. It was partly this dislike that had
prompted their ancestors to respond to the manifestoes of Catherine
II (1762-1796) and Alexander I (1801-1825) inviting foreigners to
settle on the fertile Russian steppes bordering the Black Sea and
lying along the lower Volga River. Among the inducements contained
in the manifestoes were offers of free land, freedom of religion,
and exemption from compulsory military service.
Catherine the Great's manifestoes became the basis for those issued
by her successors. One of them, promulgated on July 22, 1763, at
the end of the Seven Years' War—the third major European war
of the century—contained the promise that "foreigners
who have settled in Russia shall for all the time of their living
there not be called to civil or military service against their will."
Tsar Alexander I reasserted the promises made by Catherine II and
enlarged on them in a manifesto he issued on February 20, 1804,
just when German-speaking farmers and craftsmen in the German states
of Württemberg, Baden, Alsace, and the Rhine Palatinate were
beginning to bear the full brunt of Napoleon's invasions and occupation.
Given their dislike for military service and considering their
experiences with war and invasions, it is not surprising that large
numbers of colonists who accepted invitations to settle in South
Russia came from those parts of present-day Germany that had been
most ravaged by war. By the time German-Russians began emigrating
to the United States in the late nineteenth century, they had established
several hundred colonies near the Black Sea and along the lower
Promises that German-Russians had accepted in good faith when they
emigrated to South Russia and which they had assumed would be honored
"for all the time of their living there" were, in their
estimation, later broken. During the latter part of the nineteenth
century many governments carried out "unifying" movements
in attempts to consolidate and modernize their nations. A civil
war was fought in the United States to strengthen and preserve the
Union. Germany itself was unified in 1871. In Russia, the counterpart
to these movements was the attempt by Tsar Alexander II (1855-1881)
to introduce sweeping reforms designed to modernize peasant Russia,
alleviate social ills, and consolidate far-flung Russian territory.
Although the reforms were necessary, if not entirely well-intentioned,
German-Russians protested. The reforms abrogated many of the rights
that they had enjoyed as "privileged foreign colonists,"
although some of the "rights" that they had been exercising
had not been specifically granted and, over time, they had enlarged
Two pieces of legislation that were particularly odious were the
Zemstvo Act of 1864, dealing with provincial self-government, and
the Universal Military Conscription Law of 1874. Both struck at
the image that German-Russians had of themselves as being superior
to their Russian neighbors. Germans had gone to south Russia with
the expectation that they could remain German, retain their religion,
and preserve the German language—that they would, in short,
be allowed to continue to enjoy a privileged status. Placing education,
health, and economic matters under the jurisdiction of the local
zemstvo institutions reduced the German colonists to the level of
the Russian peasants who had been released from serfdom only in
1861. Most shocking and disillusioning of all was the Military Conscription
Law of 1874 by which German-Russians were made subject to military
service like the rest of the population.
Unlike the Black Sea German Mennonites who protested against the
new conscription law on moral and religious grounds, the Evangelical
Black Sea Germans did so on principle. The law violated pledges
that had been made to them in official manifestoes. German-Russians
also feared that during their six-year terms of active duty, their
sons would be mistreated by Russian officers and discriminated against
by fellow recruits in the Russian Army. Parents feared that their
sons would be unable to attend worship services in their own language.
Most bothersome of all was the prospect that should a German-Russian
be killed in battle, his body would not be sent home for burial
in the earth of the colony.
Not only were German-Russians disillusioned by the Russification
program, their numbers were increasing and land was becoming more
expensive and scarce. Fortunately, just as Germans were considering
leaving south Russia, for both political and economic reasons, the
American Great Plains were being opened to agriculture and settlement
under the terms of the Pre-emption, Homestead, and Timber Culture
acts. The wide expanse of prairie comprising large portions of the
Plains states from North Dakota to Kansas, and so resembling the
south Russian steppes, attracted thousands of land-seeking German-Russians.
"Here it is just as it was in Russia" exclaimed the first
Black Sea Germans joyfully, when in the spring of 1873, they drove
stakes into the soil of what was then known as Dakota Territory,
to mark off their claims. Besides free land and opportunity, America
also offered freedom of religion, and there was no irksome compulsory
Especially between 1885 and 1905 thousands of German-Russians came
to America. Arriving in North Dakota later than other groups, they
settled on the drier, less fertile lands of the Missouri Plateau.
Concentrating in the twenty-three North Dakota counties that form
what historians and demographers refer to as "the German-Russian
triangle," German-Russians were the only immigrants who came
to North Dakota from a semiarid country.
Because this article deals with the German-Russians of McIntosh
County, North Dakota, it will be helpful to describe the county
and explain why it was chosen as a focus for this study.
McIntosh County lies on the border between North and South, the
second county east of the Missouri River. Together with Dickey,
Emmons, Sioux, Grant, and Hettinger counties, it forms the base
German-Russian triangle that extends through the center of the state
with its apex just south of the Canadian border.
McIntosh County was opened for settlement in 1884, and the German-Russian
settlers may have entered the county towards of the same year. They
settled near present-day Zeeland in the southwest corner of the
county. Most of these people were Evangelical Black Sea Germans
who had left the areas of Glückstal, Liebental, Bessarabia,
and the Crimea in south Russia. By 1886, many families had settled
near the present-day towns of Ashley, Wishek, Venturia, and Lehr.
And German-Russians continued to settle in McIntosh County, until
it was almost 100 percent German-Russian, with the heaviest concentration
of German-Russians of any county in North Dakota.
That German-Russians were among the first settlers in McIntosh
County and that the county became increasingly German-Russian in
complexion is revealed by the census figures. According to the census
of 1890, the first one taken after North Dakota became a state,
the county had 3,248 inhabitants; 2,053, or 63 percent, were German-
Russian. Twenty years later, of the county's total population of
7,251, near1y 80 percent were German-Russians.
The population statistics for the seven townships forming the southern
edge of the county are even more revealing of how rural and German-Russian
McIntosh County was. A common migration route followed by the Black
Sea German-Russians who emigrated to McIntosh County was to travel
from Odessa on the Black Sea to a German port such as Bremen by
rail. From here they took ship passage across the Atlantic to New
York and rail passage to Aberdeen, Ipswich, or Eureka in Dakota.
Eureka was for many years a terminal for the Chicago, Milwaukee
& St. Paul Railway and, despite its small size, the world’s
leading primary wheat market. Eureka was also the main collecting
and dispersal point for hundreds of German-Russian immigrants and,
as "the Odessa of the Northern Great Plains," it was the
focus of their attention, the market for their farm produce, and
the source of their supplies.
From Aberdeen, Ipswich, or Eureka, German-Russians made their way
north to McIntosh County by team and wagon. It would be logical
to assume that they settled first and in large numbers on the more
desirable land on the southern edge of the county. The census figures
for 1910 suggest that this indeed is what they did.
Coldwater, Jewell, Myrtle, Lowell, Johnstons, Berlin, and Odessa
the seven townships, east to west, on the southern edge of McIntosh
County. In 1910, the total population of these townships 1,607.
In every township, with the exception of Johnstons in which the
town of Venturia was located, every person lived on a farm. The
majority, 90 to 100 percent (the exception again being Johnstons),
of the male heads of household were farmers.
A total of 458 parents resided in the seven townships. Of these,
390, or 85 percent, had been born in Russia. In no township had
fewer than 70 percent of the parents been born in Russia, and in
most townships the figure was 90 percent or over. For almost 75
percent of 458 parents in the seven townships, according to the
census figures, German was the only language.
In 1910, the southern tier of townships in McIntosh County was
clearly rural and populated by German-Russians who had only recently
arrived in North Dakota and who had not yet learned English.
To be sure, not all of McIntosh County was as distinctly rural
and as decidedly German-Russian as the southern tier of townships.
However, in Frieda Township, twelve miles north of the state boundary
and on the western edge of the county, every one of the 265 persons
residing in the township lived on a farm, 65 of the 70 parents had
been born in Russia, and all of the parents gave German as their
only language. Understandably, because the town of Wishek was located
there, in Youngstown Township on the northern edge of the county
only half of the parents had been born in Russia and about the same
percentage gave German as their only language.
Only three towns had been established in McIntosh County by 1910—Ashley
(683 population), Wishek (427 population), and Zeeland (196 population).
As would be expected, fewer townspeople were German-Russians and
larger numbers of them gave English as their language. Still, in
Ashley, the county seat, of the 211 parents listed in the census,
116 had been born in Russia and 73 of them listed German as their
By the time the 1920 census was taken, two years after the end
of the period covered by this study, the population of McIntosh
County had increased to 9,010, but the county was still predominantly
rural. Just over 2,800 people lived in towns, most of them in Ashley
(1,009) and Wishek (1,003). The rest were divided among the villages
of Zeeland (323), Venturia (207), and Lehr (271). Danzig, platted
in 1911, contained only a few dozen people.
In short, at the time of World War I McIntosh County was rural
and populated almost entirely by German-Russians, some of them only
recently arrived from south Russia and many of them knowing no English.
It is time now to examine how these people responded to the issues
raised by World War I.
Of the hundreds of young men in McIntosh County who were eligible
for the draft in 1917 and 1918—738 registered on June 5, 1917,
alone—only a few neglected to register or refused to heed
their draft notices, some of them out of ignorance, others because
they were prevented from doing so.
Jacob Maier, who lived with his parents east of the Coldwater Store,
was arrested on October 30, 1917, and charged with failing to register
for the draft, the first such case in McIntosh County. The press
charged him with being a "slacker" and published accounts
of his case made its way through the courts. A pathetic case was
that of a twenty-eight year old man from Zeeland. Unable to read,
write or speak English, he could not understand the regulations.
Advised by his father and friends that he need not report to the
draft board when his number was called, he failed to appear. Arrested
as a deserter, he was inducted into the army and sent to Camp Dodge,
Iowa. Had he requested it, he would have qualified for an exemption
because he was married, had two small children, and had recently
purchased a farm.
An unfortunate instance of bad judgement was the case of the Rieb
brothers, George and Adolph. Their father, Friedrich Rieb of the
Zeeland area, refused to allow them to register for the draft or
report for induction. Both were arrested. Adolph was sent to Camp
Dodge. Had they followed the regulations, both would have been exempted
from service—George because of a physical handicap and Adolph
because he was married and had a family.
When the draftees left for Camp Dodge, Iowa, Camp Lewis, Washington,
or other induction and training centers, their parents and friends
held celebrations—sometimes in each of the county's half dozen
towns—with dinners, patriotic speeches in both German and
English, and martial music. It seemed as if each community sought
to outdo the others in the tribute it paid to the departing men.
The last event of the farewell celebration took place at the train
depot, just before the train bearing the draftees pulled out of
the station. Bands played, school children paraded with American
flags, Red Cross ladies gave each fellow a Comfort Kit and sometimes
a wristwatch, and purses amounting oftentimes to hundreds of dollars
were collected and presented to the men. As the train pulled out
of the station, the members of the crowd sang "America,"
"My Country 'Tis of Thee," and other patriotic songs.
When the county's quota of fifty young men—"the pride
of McIntosh County people"—left for Camp Dodge on March
29, 1918, county residents staged a two-day farewell celebration.
An estimated 4,000 of the county's almost 9,000 inhabitants gathered
to say good-bye to the boys, 2,200 in Wishek alone. May 25, 1918,
was a never-to-be-forgotten day in Wishek. Thirty-eight young men
from McIntosh County joined 33 from Sargent County and 23 from Campbell
County, South Dakota, who were on their way to Camp Lewis, Washington.
A crowd reported to number over 3,000 gathered at the depot to bid
their farewells." An exceptionally large number of people"
were on hand in Ashley a month later to say good-bye to 27 boys
who were leaving Camp Dodge.
Observing a group of McIntosh County draftees bound for Camp Dodge,
the editor of the Kulm Messenger remarked: "There
wasn't a downhearted lad in the lot and they all bore the earmarks
of genuine 'hunhuskers.'" Twenty-nine McIntosh County draftees
gathered in Ashley on September 18, 1917, prior to leaving for Camp
Dodge. Among the songs that the crowd sang on the occasion was one
set to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" and entitled "When
the Call Came." The words went like this:
The boys of county McIntosh
In dear old North Dakota
Are on their journey to Camp Dodge
To fill the County's quota.
Just wait 'til we have learnt our stunt
When at Camp Dodge, down yonder,
We’ll make the old huns squint and grunt,
And all their generals ponder.
And should not all come back to you,
From camping with the Frenchies
Remember we were all true blue;
When fighting in the trenches.
‘Rah the boys of McIntosh
Down the Kaiser and the boche,
Honey don’t you cry for me,
I’m off to victory.
Only days after the United States declared war on Germany, the
Ashley school board met in special session and responded to the
government's call for volunteers by adopting an unusual measure.
Any high school senior in good standing who enlisted immediately
would be allowed to graduate at the end of the spring term as if
he had attended for the full term. Less than a week later, two young
men responded to the board's offer. One of them, Sam Miles, would
have been the class valedictorian.
It must reflect favorably on McIntosh County German-Russian young
people that many men enlisted in the navy, the army medical corps,
and the artillery—rather than waiting for their draft numbers
to be drawn—and that many young women volunteered to be student
nurses. These young people bore names such as Moench, Klipfel, Dockter,
Roehm, Bauer, Becker, and Mensing.
Both the Ashley Tribune and the Wishek
News published photographs of McIntosh County young men
taken while they were in training. The army may have provided both
the photographs and the patriotic captions. C. C. Lowe, the owner
and publisher of both papers, may have printed the photographs because
he realized that to do so was good for his newspaper business. But,
having granted all that, the photographs do not depict individuals
wearing expressions of dread and dismay at the prospect of having
to fight in a war, even in one against Germany. The photographs
are rather of young men standing at attention, presenting arms,
or saluting smartly—all seemingly proud to be wearing the
uniform of the United States Army.
As young recruits are wont to do, McIntosh County trainees wrote
letters home from camp. Published in both German and English in
the Wishek News and in the Ashley Tribune,
the letters reveal the thoughts and sentiments of young men who
were away from home, many of them for the first.
Most clearly enjoyed being in the service and, apparently had adjusted
to military life without too much difficulty. For some, the service
offered an escape from the confining atmosphere of home and from
the unrelieved drudgery and monotony of farm work. They wrote about
the good food (meat and vegetables instead of "dough three
times a day"), daily showers, clean clothes, beds with springs,
opportunities for recreation, enjoyable work, having an hour off
at noon, and being let off duty at 5:15 in the afternoon. Perhaps
to reassure their parents, they also wrote of the many opportunities
they had to attend Bible study and worship services.
John W. Ackerman wrote from Fort Stevens, Oregon: “Am having
a keen time, and feel like a soldier." Jacob Rempfer was stationed
at Camp Dodge, Iowa. "I like it very much," he wrote,
"and so do the others. Give every man just one week of life
at Camp Dodge in the National Army and he will want to stay here
if he is a man of human nature that enjoys good health." He
believed that parents were making a mistake if they prevented their
sons from joining the army because in the service one received training,
discipline, and medical care.
Jacob Klipfel, writing from Fort Riley, Kansas, compared the work
he did in the army to what he had done at home and concluded that
being in the army was the best job he had ever had. Vincent Wolf
from Zeeland was among the first men drafted from McIntosh County.
Two weeks after arriving at Camp Dodge he recounted his experiences
in a letter home. Being in the army was not as bad as people had
warned him it would be and he was relieved that he and fellows like
him had so easily adjusted to the routine. He urged others to join
up—"the sooner the better"—because, he promised,
"most of them will strike it better [here] than at home, that's
one sure thing." Wolf also sent greetings from "Jake,"
another McIntosh County draftee. "[Jake] likes it fine,"
wrote Wolf, "he said he would never go back again. He is tickled
to death that he is down here." In camp in Washington state,
Christ Kurle wrote to his nephew Edward: "I am a soldier now
and don't know if I ever will be a farmer." From Fort Riley,
Gustave Dockter wrote to his brother and remarked that being in
the service made him realize how much he had been missing by remaining
at home in McIntosh County.
Not every McIntosh County young man, of course, enjoyed being away
from home and subject to military discipline. Adam Frey wrote from
Camp Funston, Kansas, that he did not mind the army so much, but
he did miss his sweetheart and his work. J. J. Doerheim was in training
at Camp Lewis, Washington. Although he found army life to be easier
than farming, all he could think of was returning home, hitching
up his horses, and getting into the field. He would have walked
every step of the way back to McIntosh County if the army would
have given him permission to leave.
Enlistees no less than draftees adjusted quickly to military life.
Christian Weis from Ashley was so satisfied with conditions in the
navy that he could not understand why the fellows from his community
did not follow his example and enlist. F. G. Grosz, also in the
navy and in training at Camp Farragut in Illinois, encouraged others
to join up because being in military service shaped a fellow into
"a good moral, healthy guy." Enoch Becker, son of C. C.
Becker—one of the county's earliest and most outstanding residents—sounded
very much like a recruiter when he remarked that being in the navy
was "one of the most wonderful experiences" that anyone
could have. "[It] gives one a chance to see the world, and
this is worth a lot." Frank J. Last of Lehr enlisted in the
infantry from Logan County—the boundary between Logan and
McIntosh counties bisects the town—but McIntosh County claimed
him as one of its own. Last did not regret having enlisted, but
as soon as the war was over, he wrote, "Last wants to be 'first'
in getting out...”
Once the men had completed their training and were waiting for
shipment overseas and especially after they had been in combat,
their letters became more reflective and philosophical. Doubtless
by this time they listened to a number of lectures detailing Hun
atrocities and had been repeatedly reminded of why it was that they
were fighting. Vincent Wolf wrote that he and his comrades were
eager to get to France and "lick that d__ old Kaiser."
Proud to be a soldier, Jacob Rempfer professed willingness to offer
his life upon the altar of freedom in order to make the world a
decent place in which to live. Fred Rempfer was eager to fight "for
the Stars and Stripes" and for the people back home. When he
wrote his parents that he had volunteered for duty overseas, Jacob
Klipfel signed his letter, "Yours for liberty," Jacob
Frank J. Last was sobered by what he saw after arriving in France.
Incensed at the plight of the refugees, he wrote: "I wish I
could get some of our pro-German friends to see some of the real
dirty work the [Boche] do. I don't see how anybody could ever 'stick'
by Germany if they really knew how really mean and 'dirty' they
are." A number of McIntosh County servicemen got their wish
and were in action on the Western Front. Many were wounded. John
W. Meidinger received a serious shrapnel wound in the celebrated
battle of the Argonne Forest and spent two months in the hospital.
But, he boasted reassuringly, "I got several Huns before they
got me—at least one for every member of the family and then
some." If Meidinger was correct, his was indeed a heroic action,
for the Meidingers were an exceptionally large family in a county
of large families. So many of his relatives located in Antelope
Valley that the community came to be known as "the Meidinger
Among the McIntosh County soldiers who distinguished themselves
were Frank J. Last and Christian Kurle. Last saw action in the Toul
sector and the Somme, where he was gassed. He was also at Chateau
Thierry and at Soissons. Badly wounded in the hip by shrapnel on
July 21, 1918, and unable to move, he was captured by German troops
and interned in a prisoner of war camp for six months. He returned
to Wishek as "one of the real heroes of the world war"
and opened a photography shop. Weary of being asked by eager listeners
to repeat the accounts of his military experiences, he published
them in a series of articles in the Napoleon Homestead
Christian Kurle was awarded the distinguished Service Cross for
heroism on the Western Front. He also received the Croix de Guerre,
this for rescuing a wounded comrade while under heavy enemy fire.
Lt. Colonel Thomas J. Rogers of the United States Army, acting on
behalf of the French government, presented the award to Kurle in
ceremonies held in Wishek on August 12, 1919.
Besides those who were on active duty in the United States and
overseas, more than two hundred McIntosh County men were in army
training camps when the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
Their service stripes and honorable discharge stripes "unmistakable
proofs" of their contributions to the nation's war efforts,
the servicemen returned home to tearful and enthusiastic welcomes.
To express their relief and thankfulness at having the men home
again, county residents held celebrations that included parades,
speeches, dinners, and dances.
In March 1919, members of the McIntosh County Publicity Committee
began discussing a fitting memorial to the county's "brave
sons" who had answered their country's call. Suggestions ranged
from erecting large stone monuments, to establishing parks, to building
bandstands. A suggestion given serious consideration was that when
the county's new $75,000.00 courthouse was completed, the phrase
"A memorial to the soldiers of McIntosh County, North Dakota,
who fought in the Great War of 1917-1918" be inscribed on the
cornerstone and that bronze tablets bearing the names of the servicemen
be placed in the building's corridors.
Although the suggestions were all well intentioned, no monuments,
parks, bandstands, or courthouses were dedicated to the county's
war veterans. On July 4, 1919, however, Wishek sponsored a “Grand
Victory Celebration," the biggest Fourth of July observance
ever held in the county. The program included a parade, speeches,
baseball games, wrestling matches, a band concert, and a dance.
Veterans attended in uniform, businessmen closed their shops, and
farmers took the day off and came to town. The highlight of the
day's festivities was the dedication of the "Roll of Honor,"
a large bronze tablet bearing the names of the community's servicemen.
Observances did not end with the Grand Victory Celebration. McIntosh
County residents apparently did not want veterans to think that
either they or their contributions had been forgotten. On November
10, 1919, the eve of the day on which the Armistice had been signed
one year previously, veterans were invited to a Victory Memorial
Dance in Wishek. At the end of the year, the Wishek News
published a special edition in which veterans described how they
had spent Christmas in 1918 when most of them were still in uniform.
Veterans' memories of the war were kept alive in other ways as
well. The American Legion was organized at a convention held in
St. Louis, Missouri, May 8-10, 1919. Three months later, in August,
even before the organization was incorporated by an act of Congress
on September 16, 1919, plans were under way to organize posts in
McIntosh County. Post Number 53 was organized in Ashley in the fall
of 1919 by a number of veterans "desiring to preserve the memories
and incidents, their associations and comradeships formed during
their period of service..." The post was named in honor of
Frank Piper, the first McIntosh County serviceman to die and be
buried in France. Post Number 87 in Wishek was named for Fred Kelle,
another McIntosh County serviceman who had died while serving on
the Western Front.
It must reveal something about the sentiments of McIntosh County
German-Russians that American Legion Posts were established in both
Ashley and Wishek and that the posts were named for men who had
died while fighting in a war against Germany. Also revealing is
that when the much-decorated Christ Kurle died in February 1937,
members of the American Legion served as pallbearers and the American
flag was draped over his coffin.
The sentiments of the county's German-Russians regarding the war
might be measured in yet another way. Ashley's golden jubilee book
was published in 1938, Wishek's in 1948, and Nina Farley Wishek's
history of McIntosh County in 1941. All contained short biographies
of the county's pioneer settlers. Oftentimes the only children of
the pioneers who were singled out by name in the biographies were
sons who had been in military service during World War I. Three
of the thirteen Remfer children—sons Jacob, Benjamin, and
Fred—were in service during the war. C. C. Becker and his
wife Caroline had eight children, two of them sons. Otto served
in the artillery and Enoch in the navy. Biographers carefully noted
if the son had served overseas and if he had been killed or wounded
in action. Biographers also took special pains to point out that
the son had been honorably discharged.
Finally, it would seem that the veterans themselves, even twenty
and thirty years after the Armistice, if not proud to have served
in the military during World War I, were at least not ashamed to
admit that they had done so. Ashley's jubilee book in 1938 contained
a recent photograph of the members of Frank Piper Post Number 53.
Most of them were German-Russians; all of them were veterans of
World War I. Wishek's jubilee book contained a photograph, taken
April 18, 1948, of the surviving veterans of the Great War who still
resided in the county.
Providing men and women for military service was not the only way
that McIntosh County German-Russians supported the war. Their efforts
were encouraged and recorded by C. C. Lowe, the owner and publisher
of both the county's newspapers-the Ashley Tribune
and the Wishek News. Lowe also owned the movie
theaters in Ashley and Wishek, in which were shown such sensational
and highly stylized films as The Kaiser, the Beast
of Berlin and Womanhood, the Glory
of a Nation.
Lowe purchased the Ashley Tribune in 1915 and
the Wishek News in 1916, coming to Ashley from
Dickey and Lamoure counties—like McIntosh County, both were
German-Russian communities—where he had also owned and worked
on newspapers. Professing the credo that a newspaper was "the
natural mouthpiece of the community" and insisting that "every
resident and tax payer in the county should be a reader of the official
county paper," Lowe vowed to publish papers that would appeal
to the county's residents and at the same time promote the county's
To aid him in reaching his ambitious goal of placing his newspapers
in every home in the county and convincing businessmen that advertising
paid dividends, Lowe hired an experienced German-speaking staff
and printed sections of both his papers in German. At the time of
the Armistice, more than half the pages of the Ashley Tribune
(the official county newspaper) were printed in German—local
news, legal notices, sale bills, political ads, business advertisements,
and war news. Lowe wanted his German readers to be as well informed
as were his Yankee readers, even though printing in two languages
required an added expenditure of money and effort because double
the space was required for each time. By January 1918, Lowe had
increased the number of subscriptions to the Ashley Tribune
to over 1000, more than two and a half times what the number had
been in 1915. Later in the year he noted that he had very nearly
reached his goal of having one of his newspapers sent to every home
in the county.
On May 4, 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on
Germany, Lowe placed two representations of American flags on the
front page of the Ashley Tribune, one at either
end of the paper's name. They remained there until after the end
of the war. A week later, on May 11, the American flag and a poem
entitled "The Stars and Stripes" appeared in the Tribune's
masthead. The flag and the "Pledge of Allegiance" or some
other patriotic message appeared in the masthead weekly throughout
the war. Beginning in July 1917 and continuing throughout the war,
the masthead of the Wishek News carried a representation
of the American flag together with the verse:
- The emblem of the land I love
The home of the free and the brave.
Lowe made no secret of his sentiments regarding the war . He supported
it, and he published examples of how and why he supported it in
each issue of his paper.
Apart from what is suggested by their providing men and women for
military service, the sentiments of the county's German-Russians
cannot be so readily deduced as can those of newspaperman Lowe.
Nevertheless, the following may at least suggest what those sentiments
might have been.
Shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, county
officials (the names themselves are revealing—Bader, Wolf,
Reule, Remington, Doerr, Meidinger, Hildenbrand, Moench, Buchholz,
Boschma, Dockter, and Maercklein) made the decision to fly the American
flag over the courthouse in Ashley. The Tribune editor, in what
may have been an excess of patriotic exuberance, proclaimed that
Ashley men had all shaved off their Kaiser Wilhelm mustaches. In
the same spirit, perhaps, Emil Klipfel advertised that he would
trim Uncle Sam whiskers in his Sanitary Barber Shop.
County residents refused to get caught up in the war hysteria that
gripped some communities in the United States. Children contracted
German measles, as they had before the war, and not the virulent
"liberty" strain of the disease that so sapped peoples's
energies elsewhere. Nor did German-Russians in McIntosh County eat
"liberty cabbage" during the war. The Ashley Cash Store
advertised sauerkraut for Thanksgiving Day dinners in 1917 at seventeen
cents for a large can. Most businesses—banks, insurance agencies,
mercantile establishments, auto dealers, service stations, cream
buying stations, grain elevators, and implement dealers—printed
their ads in both German and English. During the Christmas holidays
Auerbach's Store in Ashley featured sauerkraut by the five-, ten-,
and fifteen-gallon tub and by the barrel. The editor of the Wishek
News observed that no purpose would be served by changing
names, including that of the state's capital—Bismarck. "Such
things," he pointed out, "will not win the war for us
and it is advisable that time be spent doing something else more
That businesses attempted to capitalize on the war can be inferred
from their advertisements. Bakeries and grocery stores featured
rye bread on Mondays and Wednesdays, the "wheatless" days.
The Herr Mercantile Company in Wishek, among the largest and most
reputable German-Russian business establishments in the county,
urged shoppers to "do their bit" for the war effort by
not purchasing cheap and off-brand goods. The Herr Mercantile Company,
of course, sold only quality merchandise from well-established lines.
Within weeks after America's entry into the war, supporters organized
a Red Cross chapter in McIntosh County. Membership increased steadily,
and countywide drives raised money for the organization. Lowe published
the names of members and donors in his newspapers, together with
the amounts that they had contributed. Each issue of the newspapers
also contained one or more columns devoted to Red Cross news. Junior
Red Cross units were organized in the schools; boys made such items
as trench torches and girls made and sterilized bandages.
June 18, 1918, was Red Cross Day in Wishek. Shopkeepers closed
their stores and farm families were urged to take the day off and
come to town. The program that began at 10:30 a.m. included music
by the Wishek Military Band (every town in the county had a military
band during the war, even tiny Danzig), singing by the school children,
and speeches in both German and English. The Red Cross ladies served
dinner at noon, after which the big event of the day took place.
Articles that had been donated by community residents were auctioned
off and the proceeds were given to the Red Cross.
Ashley residents held their Red Cross Day on June 20, 1918. Billed
as "Win-the-War Day," it was among the biggest events
ever held in Ashley. The program included music by the Lehr Military
Band, a "patriotic" parade, addresses (all in German)
by three prominent figures from Bismarck, and a dinner at noon.
An auction was held in the afternoon to sell items donated by community
residents, with the proceeds going to the Red Cross. One rooster
was sold thirty times and netted a total of $60.00. "Some rooster!"
exclaimed the Tribune editor. "That is sure 'pecking' the Kaiser
good and hard."
McIntosh County German-Russians also bought Liberty Bonds. They
were first urged to do so in the May 25, 1917, issue of the Ashley
Tribune. "Erin Liberty Loan Bond," they were
told, "ist eine Hypotheka auf die Vereinigten Staten von Nord
Amerika. Kaufe eine." A technical term that is difficult to
render concisely in English, Hypotheka would have been considered
an appropriate word to use when urging members of ethnic groups
to purchase Liberty Bonds, and native-born Americans would have
thought the phrase to be particularly applicable to immigrants only
recently arrived in the United States. Hypotheka might be roughly
defined as a right that one acquires, for example to a piece of
land, by making a downpayment. Then, to maintain the right to remain
on the land and use it, one makes principal and interest payments
regularly thereafter. By analogy, German-Russian immigrants had
acquired a right to be in the United States when they immigrated,
but to maintain the right to remain in the country and enjoy its
benefits, they were required to make subsequent payments. They could
make these payments by purchasing Liberty Bonds.
Throughout the war, catchy slogans and strongly worded admonitions
appeared weekly in both the Ashley Tribune and
in the Wishek News reminding readers that it was
their "patriotic duty" to invest in America by purchasing
bonds. "Buy bonds before it's verboten," they were warned.
"Buy bonds and take the helm from Wilhelm," "A bond
slacker is the kaiser's backer," and "A man who won't
lend is the kaiser's friend" were among other reminders that
were used. The phrases did not read as well in German as they did
in English, but their message was clear nonetheless.
An intense advertising campaign preceded the Third Liberty Loan
drive in April 1918. Large ads, paid for by the town's leading German-Russian
business firms, filled three of the eight pages of the April 18
issue of the Ashley Tribune. One showed a spiked
club, allegedly used by German soldiers with which to dispatch enemy
wounded on the battlefield. Readers were warned that the same fate
might befall them if Germany won the war in Europe and subsequently
invaded the United States.
Campaign workers organized the county down to the precinct level.
The slogan was "Not how little, but how much." The organizational
meeting in Lowell district was held at the home of John Grosz. A
committee consisting of John Rau, Fred Wohl, Jacob Weber, and Chris
Fischer was charged with contacting all the residents in the district
and asking them to purchase bonds. If people had no money, they
were urged to borrow it.
The Third Liberty Loan drive in McIntosh County was a resounding
success. "Over the top" was the phrase used by exuberant
campaign workers when reporting on the success of the bond sales
in their precincts. All together, county residents subscribed $177,
000.00, 133 percent more than the county's quota of $75,000.00.
The Fourth Liberty Loan in the fall was also oversubscribed, but
by a slim margin.
County residents were also urged to purchase War Savings Stamps.
Lowe reminded his readers, many of whom were farmers, that just
as farmers needed machinery with which to raise wheat, soldiers
needed tools with which to fight a war. And the tools cost money.
One War Savings Stamp would purchase one hundred rifle cartridges,
a cartridge belt, or a bayonet scabbard. Two would buy two pairs
of wool trousers or two heavy shirts. Three would pay for an overcoat
and four for a rifle.
Lowe put it not a little bluntly when he observed that there were
only two kinds of people in the United States—"Americans
and traitors." Americans bought War Savings Stamps. "Which,"
he asked his readers, "are you?" The letters "W .S.S.,"
for War Savings Stamps, appeared dozens of times in every issue
of the newspapers. In the April 15, 1918, issue of the News,
for example, they were inserted between every item in the Local
Happenings column—forty-eight times on one page alone.
The bold proclamation "Every Week is War Savings Stamp Week,"
together with the advice that "A Stamp A Day Keeps the Kizzer
[Kaiser] Away , " appeared on the front page of every issue
of the Ashley Tribune throughout the summer of
1918, encouraging readers to buy savings stamps. The Wishek
News employed the words of a raucous cheer for the same
Rickety, rackety, roo,
O Bill, [William II] we'll get you.
Ja ich weis es,
Besides buying War Savings Stamps, investing in Liberty Bonds,
and contributing to the Red Cross, McIntosh County German-Russians
supported the war effort in such ways as economizing, collecting
scrap iron, and doing what German-Russians did best—farming
and raising foodstuffs.
One prisoner of war and one Croix de Guerre recipient do not, of
course, a race of heroes make. Organizing American Legion Posts
and draping the American flag over his casket when a member dies
may not necessarily demonstrate support for a cause. Looking like
"hunhuskers," paying high prices for Red Cross roosters,
and sporting Uncle Sam whiskers may not in themselves reveal much
about how McIntosh County German-Russians viewed World War I. Taken
all together, however, these actions at least suggest the following
conclusions regarding why the German-Russians of McIntosh County
responded as they did to the issues confronting them because of
That so few men of draft age neglected to register for the draft
and that so few refused to heed their draft notices suggests that
McIntosh County German-Russian young men complied with the nation's
draft laws no less readily than did any other young men in the country.
Indeed, Nina Farley Wishek wrote, "They were ready and willing,
even eager to enter the great struggle." No matter how skeptical
German-Russians may have been regarding the stories of German atrocities
of the beginning of the war and no matter that initially they may
not have wanted to become involved with it, once German-Russian
young men were called into service, the war was no longer a questionable
A second conclusion is that although heavy emigration from the
steppes of south Russia to the prairies of North America coincided
with a time of social and political upheaval in Russia, German-Russians
did not come to America primarily for religious freedom or even
to avoid war and military conscription. They came for land.
German-Russians had a land hunger, and this hunger drove them into
undeveloped areas where they could find large tracts of free or
low-priced land—first to south Russia, subsequently to the
great central plains of the United States, to western Canada, to
Argentina, and to Brazil. To be sure, German-Russians were disillusioned
when Tsar Alexander II revoked the rights and privileges that had
been granted them by Catherine II and by her grandson Alexander
I. They resented that they were subject to military service; that
they had lost the traditional right of self-government in their
colonies; and that they, their children, their schools, and their
villages were to be increasingly Russianized.
This disillusionment and resentment, however, does not sufficiently
explain why German-Russians left south Russia. "It would appear,"
concluded Joseph S. Height, an authority on the Black Sea German-Russians,
"that most Catholic and Evangelical colonists... left Russian
to find in America the promise of 'free land for a free people.'"
A third conclusion can be based on the qualities that characterized
German-Russians. German-Russians lived close to the soil and they
were a thrifty, hard-working, God-fearing people who respected authority.
They had a remarkable capacity for enduring adversity. They were
accustomed to adapting to conditions not of their liking. When faced
by the issues raised by World War I, they did what they had so often
done. They accepted their lot and made the best of it. They obeyed
the conscription laws. They heeded the admonitions to buy Liberty
Bonds and War Savings Stamps. And, although they needed no encouragement
from their government nor from the state food administrator to do
so, they bent every effort to coax their land and herds to produce
Finally, by the time McIntosh County German-Russians had to come
to grips with the issues raised by World War I, a century and more
had passed from the time the first of their ancestors had emigrated
to south Russia from Germany in order to avoid military service
and to escape the ravages of war. German-Russians may still have
had little time for war or for military service, but the actions
of those living in McIntosh County suggests that they were not as
opposed to things military as their ancestors had been.
Elwyn B. Robinson noted in his History of North Dakota
that those who came to North Dakota and stayed in the state and
on the land—he called them "stayers"—all
shared certain characteristics. They were married and had families
and they had been farmers before coming to the state. Foreigners
were better "stayers" than Yankees, and those who had
travelled the greatest distance to get to North Dakota were more
apt to stay than those who had traveled not so far. German-Russians
were among the best “stayers” of all. They had come
the farthest and, apparently, they had come to stay.
Dismayed at the Russification program of Tsar Alexander II, Germans
in south Russia had expressed their yearning, anxiety, and uncertainty
by pointing to the sunset and exclaiming "Dort naus ist Americka!"
(Away out there is America!) America meant land and opportunity,
but it was far away and getting there would entail hardship and
sacrifices. By 1914, there were few "Americas" remaining
to which German-Russians could go if they were disillusioned with
the government and dissatisfied with their circumstances. Moreover,
although they had only recently arrived, those in McIntosh County
had put down keep roots and the alternative of leaving their farms
and migrating yet another time in order to avoid war and military
service was, apparently, neither as attractive nor as compelling
as it had been for their ancestors a hundred or more years earlier.
Reprinted with permission of The Midwest Review.
1.) Frederick C. Luebke observed that Americans of German origin
were trapped in what he described as a "crisis of loyalty"
in 1917 when the United States declared war on Germany. Many had
developed a strong allegiance to the United States, but at the same
time the bonds of affection for their German culture remained strong.
Bonds of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I (DeKalb, Ill.,
2.) Richard Sallet, Russian-German Settlements in the United States,
trans. LaVern J. Rippley and Armand Bauer (Fargo, N.D., 1974), 100-101.
3.) Timothy J. Kloberdanz, ”Volksdeutsche,” The Eastern
European Germans, “William C. Sherman and Playford V. Thorson,
eds., Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History (Fargo, N.D., 1988),121-22;
Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota (Lincoln, Nebr., 1966),
194,284; George Rath, The Black Sea Germans in the Dakotas (Freeman,
S.D., 1977), 1-3. For the history, culture, and experiences of the
Black Sea Germans in south Russia see the trilogy by Joseph S. Height,
Paradise on the Steppe (Bismarck, N.D., 1972); Homesteaders on the
Steppe (Bismarck, N.D., 1975); and Memories of the Black Sea Germans
(Chelsea, Mich., 1979). Two key sources relating to the general
background of the German-Russians by Karl Stumpp are The German-Russians:
Two Centuries of Pioneering, trans. Joseph S. Height (Bonn, W. Germany,
1967) and The Emigration From Germany to Russia in the Years 1763-1862
(Lincoln, Neb., 1973). See also William C. Sherman, "Assimilation
in a North Dakota German-Russian Community [Pierce County]"
(Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of North Dakota, 1965).
4.) Kloberdanz, "Volksdeutche," 128-29; Robinson, North
Dakota, 286; Rath, Black Sea Germans, 52-54; Sallet, Russian-German
5.) Kloberdanz, "Volksdeutsche," 129.
6.) Sallet, Russian-American Settlements, 4, 17, 22-28; Robinson,
North Dakota, 286; Rath, Black Sea Germans, 53-73. Those less scholarly
irreverently refer to the same configuration as the "'Great
Sauerkraut Pyramid.'" Kloberdanz, Volksdeutsche, 131-33, 136-37.
7.) Kloberdanz, "Volksdeutsche," 132-34,137.
8.) Robinson, North Dakota, 172; U.S. Department of Commerce,
Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910;
Population, III, 352.
9.) Kloberdanz, "Volksdeutsche," 131-32.
10.) U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth
Census of the United States, 1910: Population, III, 233-391.
11.) U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth
Census of the United States, 1920; Agriculture, IV, Part 1,628;
Manufactures, IX, 1127; Population, I, 552; Population, II, 1355;
Population, III, 759.
12.) Ashley Tribune, June 8, 1917; November 1,1917; February 21,1918;
May 2, 1918; June 27, 1918.
13.) Ashley Tribune, April 4, 1918; June 27, 1918; Wishek News,
April 5, 1918; May 30, 1918.
14.) Kulm Messenger, July 26,1918; Ashley Tribune, September 20,1917.
15.) Ashley Tribune, April 10, 1917; April 27, 1917; May 11, 1917.
16.) Ashley Tribune, October 11, 1917; April 25, 1918; May 23,
1918; July 4, 1918; Wishek News, September 21, 1917; January 4,
1918; June 6, 1918; December 27, 1918.
17.) Ashley Tribune, October 11,1917; June 6,1918; August 8,1918;
Wishek News, November 23, 1917; Gordon L. Iseminger, "C. C.
Becker: McIntosh County German-Russian Pioneer," North Dakota
History (Summer 1983), 4-13; Ashley's Golden Jubilee, 1888-1938,
18.) Ashley Tribune, September 20, 1917; May 2, 1918; June 20,
1918; June 27, 1918.
19.) Many German-speaking Lehr residents were aghast when Last
enlisted in the army. "Think of it," they demanded. "Going
to fight our Vaterland frei willig!" Ashley Tribune, September
26, 1918; November 7, 1918; Wishek News, January 23, 1919; Nina
Farley Wishek, Along The Trails or Yesterday: A Story of McIntosh
County (Ashley, N.D.., 1941), 395-96.
20.) Wishek News, May 23,1919; October 17 ,1919; Napoleon Homestead,
May- September 1919. The town of Napoleon is located in Logan County.
21.) Wishek News, August 15, 1919.
22.) Wishek News, November 14, 1918; March 13, 1919; March 27,
1919; April 10, 1919; May 16, 1919; Ashley Tribune, November 14,
23.) Wishek News, May 2, 1919; June 13, 1919; June 20, 1919.
24.) Wishek News, November 7, 1919; December 12, 1919.
25.) Ashley's Golden Jubilee, 38; The Chicago Daily News Almanac
and Year-Book for 1921, (Chicago, 1920), 532-33; Wishek, Trails,
313, 327; Spirit of Wishek, Golden Jubilee: 1898-1948, 29; Ashley
Tribune News, August 22, 1919.
26.) Ashley's Golden Jubilee, 38, 84, 144-45, 201; Spirit of Wishek,
27.) Wishek News, October 5, 1917; Ashley Tribune, August 23,
28.) Ashley Tribune, January 5, 1917; Apri1 27, 1917; June 1,1917;
October 11; 1917; November 29, 1917; December 6, 1917; January 3,
1918; Apri14, 1918; Wishek News, October 12, 1917; January 11, 1918.
North Dakota had a good record for protecting civil liberties during
the war. Edwin F. Ladd, in his first speech in the United States
Senate in 1921, boasted that the state had been "an oasis of
sanity in a desert of hysteria." Robinson, North Dakota, 367.
29.) Wishek News, February 8, 1918; June 27 ,1918; Ashley Tribune,
September 20, 1917; January 10, 1918; February 21, 1918; May 30,
1918; June 6, 1918; June 27, 1918; July 11, 1918.
30.) Ashley Tribune, May 25, 1917; September 26, 1918; Wishek
News, September 19, 1918.
31.) Ashley Tribune, February 7, 1918; March 21, 1918; April 18,
1918; September 19, 1918; October 31, 1918; Wishek News, May 2,
32.) Wishek News, January 11,1918; March 15, 1918; Apri1 5,1918;
July 4, 1918; Ashley Tribune, March 7 ,1918; May 16,1918; July25,1918;
October3, 1918; December
33.) Wishek, Trails, 430; Kloberdanz, Volksdeutsche, 146.
34.) Height uses the German word Drang when referring to the German-Russian’s
"irrepressible desire" to own land. Drang can be rendered
not altogether satisfactorily in English as "urge," "an
irresistible or impelling force," or a "strong motivating
instinct." Those who experience these forces operating on them
can be said to be responding to a drive, that is, they are driven.
Height, Homesteaders on the Steppe, 323.
35.) The day after the United States declared war on Germany,
Governor Lynn J. Frazier urged North Dakota farmers to plant every
available acre in order to meet the need of more foodstuffs. Edwin
F. Ladd, state food administrator, in 1918 asked farmers to increase
their production of wheat and rye. Robinson, North Dakota, 368.
36.) Robinson, North Dakota, 246.