The Mclntosh County German-Russians: The First Fifty Years
By Gordon L. Iseminger
North Dakota History, State Historical Society of North
Dakota, Bismarck, North Dakota, Summer 1984, Vol. 51 No. 3, Pages
McIntosh County was opened for settlement in 1884. On November
26, 1934, the federal government issued an order withdrawing all
remaining public land from the state land office, thus ending fifty
years of homesteading in the county.(1) In this fifty-year period
between 1884-1934, McIntosh County acquired the greatest concentration
of German-Russians of any county in North Dakota, a distinction
it enjoys to the present day.
Of the 390 inhabitants of McIntosh County in 1885, more than half,
217, were German-Russian. In 1890, more than sixty percent of the
county's 3,248 inhabitants were German-Russians and they constituted
92.4 percent of the county's foreign born. By 1910, just under eighty
percent of the county's 7,251 inhabitants were German-Russian.(2)
German-Russians left homes, families, and colonies in south Russia
and emigrated halfway around the world to a forbidding, unpopulated
prairie in McIntosh County primarily because they wanted three things:
to acquire land, to avoid being "Russianized," and to
enjoy freedom and opportunity.
To understand German-Russians is to appreciate their land hunger.
Their ancestors in Germany had observed that the armies of Frederick
the Great and Napoleon had taken or destroyed every form of property
except land. Promised land, Germans from Baden, Bavaria, Würtemberg,
and the Palatinate had accepted the invitations of Catherine the
Great and Alexander I to leave Germany and settle in south Russia;
they eventually established more than 3,000 colonies along the Volga
River and above the Black Sea. When asked by Works Progress Administration
interviewers in the late 1930's why they had come to North Dakota,
most German-Russians answered simply and directly: "Land."
And they came to McIntosh County for land. Of the 217 German-Russians
in the county old enough to declare an occupation in 1885, all but
five—four men and one woman—were farmers who had taken
up land. The four men were younger than twenty-one years of age
and could not yet file on homesteads.(3)
An example is Christina Schultz, who arrived in New York from south
Russia on December 1, 1885. She came directly to McIntosh County
and located near Hoskins. On May 25, 1886, she proved up on her
preemption claim and immediately filed on a homestead. A short time
later, she filed on a timber claim. Her father and brothers did
the same, and within a few years after their arrival each owned
480 acres of land.(4) The biographies of German-Russians in the
jubilee books for Ashley, Lehr, Venturia, Wishek, and Zeeland noted
that most had arrived in McIntosh County with few possessions and
little or no money, but many eventually acquired from twelve to
twenty quarter-sections of land.
German-Russians had lived in south Russia for over five generations
before they began emigrating to America, but they had never considered
themselves Russians. They had been inculcated with three admonitions:
never lose religion, never lose nationality, and never lose the
mother tongue. Because they had kept to themselves, had not intermarried
with the Russians, and had not learned Russian, their colonies were
like German islands in a vast Russian sea.
Whether the intent of the Russian government was to make Russians
from the German-Russians is quite beside the point. They construed
it this way. The Russian government in the 1870'5, like those in
western Europe, was attempting to centralize and unify the country
by requiring that the Russian language be taught in schools and
by subjecting all males to military conscription. The German-Russians
interpreted this "Russianization” as a betrayal of the
liberties and exemptions from taxes and military service that had
been guaranteed to them decades earlier when they had settled in
Not only did America offer the German-Russians the very freedoms
they were being denied in south Russia, America also offered opportunity.
Reinhold Reule was a boy of twelve when he emigrated from Rumania
with his family on the eve of World War I. Relatives living east
of Ashley, the county seat, had sent his parents a thin slice of
white bread that was passed around to everyone in the village. All
agreed that America must be a very fine place indeed when even the
common people could eat such fine bread.
Most German-Russians emigrating to America were poor. Those with
money or property may have had less incentive to emigrate, and it
was also difficult to find someone with enough money to purchase
their land and livestock. Once the decision to leave had been made
and the few belongings packed, most made their way by rail from
Odessa on the Black Sea to Bremen or Hamburg, Hansa ports in northern
Germany, where they booked passage to New York or, less frequently,
to Baltimore. Travel costs were reasonable-$45 per person or less
from Odessa to New York or about $75 per person from Odessa to Ipswitch,
Scotland, or Eureka in South Dakota. Unmarried children traveling
with the family received free passage.
It took from one to three weeks to cross the Atlantic, depending
on the ship, the season, and the number of storms encountered. To
save money, most German-Russians traveled steerage, and for them
the voyage was seldom pleasant, often frightening, and sometimes
dangerous. People who had spent their lives on the familiar firmness
of the Russian steppes panicked when thirty-foot waves were dashed
against the ship by storms that drove it miles off course and prolonged
the voyage by many days. Jammed in with boxes and barrels, unaccustomed
to the strange food, seasick (aggravated by the stench from urine
and vomit), and tormented by lice and bedbugs, passengers became
anxious, impatient, and angry. Parents screamed at and struck their
children and argued among themselves. Long before the voyage was
over, people yearned for sight of the land they had heard so much
about or fervently wished that they had never left home. Conscientious
fathers felt guilty that they had forced their families to undergo
such an ordeal. Frequent were the prayers of "Gott, bring
uns doch zum land" (God, bring us yet to land).
Of all the trials to be borne on board ship, the worst by far was
the death of a loved one. Such a loss was difficult to bear under
any circumstances, but it was worse when it occurred in unfamiliar
surroundings, among strangers, and on the journey to a strange land.
And burial at sea meant that there would be no grave that could
be marked, to which visits could be made, and on which flowers could
be planted. The memory that a loved one was buried in the deep,
dark waters of the sea and perhaps eaten by sharks was almost more
than a grieving person could bear. Compassionate ship captains sometimes
had the foresight to have on board a box of dirt, a handful of which
could be sprinkled on the body while the consoling words were spoken:
"earth to earth...dust to dust;. .."
The trials of some did not end with their arrival in New York.
Magdalena Klipfel, and hers was not an unusual case, was turned
back by the health authorities at Ellis Island in 1903 because her
eyes were infected with trachoma. The bewildered family decided
that Mrs. Klipfel would return with Magdalena to Europe while the
rest of the family continued on to Dakota. On board ship, Mrs. Klipfel
sickened and died and had to be buried at sea. Magdalena returned
to Antwerp—their port of embarkation—worked for three
years until her eyes had healed, then embarked once, more for America.
The trip again affected her eyes and again she was refused admittance
at New York. Now eighteen years of age, she returned to Belgium,
this time for two years. Taking the advice of friends, she left
from Europe the third time from Liverpool and entered the United
States via Montreal and Winnipeg. After many years of separation
and disappointment, she arrived in Ashley and was reunited with
The trip by rail from New York to Dakota took two to four days.
Here was land, but many were still fearful, anxious, and, above
all, self-conscious. They had never imagined that the United States
could be so large. As soon as they opened their mouths, they gave
themselves away as being "Roosians," and not even those
who spoke High German could understand them. Their English vocabularies
were often limited to the words "yes," "no,"
and "ticket." Many could only show the conductor an envelope
from a relative that bore the return address of the Dakota town
to which they were heading.
On their arrival in McIntosh County, usually by oxen and wagon
from some town on the railroad in South Dakota, most German-Russians
possessed only their clothing, bedding, some hand tools, a few kitchen
utensils, and perhaps a plow. Gottlieb Isaak had clothing and bedding
for himself and his family and thirty-five cents. Thomas Balzar
had less; he had the clothing he wore when he arrived in 1885 at
the age of twenty-three.
For those who arrived early enough in the spring, the first task
was to break a few acres of sod and plant a crop—always flax
on new breaking. Until the house was built, they lived in the wagon
box over which canvas or heavy cloth was stretched to afford some
shelter from the sun and rain. Cooking was done over an open fire
or in a makeshift "Russian" stove dug into the side of
Being poor and coming from the treeless Russian steppes, German-Russians
were more likely than any other emigrant group in Dakota to build
their houses from what they could find on the prairie: sod, clay,
or stone. Every McIntosh County German-Russian who was interviewed
for the Historical Data Project built his first house from sod or
from clay bricks dried in the sun. These houses invariably consisted
of two rooms and measured about sixteen by twenty-four feet. Neither
special tools nor skills were needed in their construction and they
could be built for as little as five to ten dollars.
Such houses, like the German-Russians, were durable and adapted
to the prairie. Built low to escape the force of the wind, they
were oriented east and west with their windows on the south so as
to utilize the warmth from the sun in the winter. With walls up
to two feet thick, they were warm in the winter and cool in the
summer. Plastered on the outside with clay and built on good foundations,
they were resistant to prairie fires, rains, frost, and farm animals
Because they had arrived in McIntosh County penniless or with very
little money, German-Russians had to find income from some source
with which to purchase food and other supplies until the first crop
could be harvested. Friedrich Bossart laid track for the Milwaukee
railroad for seventy-five cents per day. Jacob Fey found a ready
market in towns like Ellendale for prairie hay at three dollars
per ton until too many of his neighbors started the same business
and the market became glutted. Occasional work could be found on
threshing rigs at one or two dollars per day. Samuel Fregien trapped
animals for their furs, but neither the supply nor the market were
dependable. Most German-Russians picked up buffalo bones and sold
The buffalo had disappeared by the time German- Russians arrived
in McIntosh County, but John Bittner remembered their bones lying
so thick on the prairie in the 1880's that in places it was impossible
for a wagon to pass without driving over the larger ones. A wagon
load could easily be picked up in a day. Every town on the railroad
served as a market for the buffalo bones, which were shipped east
and reduced to carbon black and used in the process of refining
sugar. Settlers were paid between six and ten dollars per ton for
the bones, or they were given a receipt, called "buffalo bone
money,” which could be exchanged in stores for food and other
necessities. For most German-Russians, buffalo bones provided the
sole source of income for the first years after their arrival.
German-Russians were more likely than any other emigrant group
in Dakota to remain on the land. Nevertheless, their determination
and courage were often sorely tried, and many would have returned
to Russia had they been able to. McIntosh County boosters had made
it a point, for example, not to mention that the land was covered
with rocks that had to be removed before it could be plowed. German-Russians
made this discovery themselves and often worked by moonlight to
remove the rocks from the land they intended to plow the next day.
Reinhold Reule, who lived near Ashley, was able to walk from one
side of the farm to the other by stepping from stone to stone. In
1932, nine men cleared one hundred cords of rocks from fifty acres
of land southeast of Ashley and used $40 worth of dynamite to break
up the larger boulders so they could be moved.(6)
According to Jakob Dockter, a hardship common to many settlers
in the county was the lack of good well water. No water could be
found on his parents' farm, and they were compelled to drive their
cattle two miles each day to water. Some tried unsuccessfully for
years to locate wells on their claims and finally resigned themselves
to moving or to hauling water in barrels from their neighbors. In
the summer of 1888, Johann Kroll was digging a well with the help
of his neighbor Daniel Netz. When they had sunk a shaft two and
one-half feet square and sixty feet deep without finding water,
Kroll sent his eighteen-year old son Gottfried down into the well
with a hand auger to dig deeper. A large rock at the surface was
dislodged and fell into the shaft. Gottfried was crushed to death.
Especially during the early years, German-Russians suffered from
a scarcity of food or wearied of their monotonous diet. Almost everything
they ate was made from dough, and often the only food was bread
and coffee or dough boiled in water. Cream, butter, and eggs had
to be saved and sold. Meat was a luxury. Few German-Russians had
rifles or shotguns with which to shoot game, but jackrabbits could
sometimes be caught and at times were so plentiful they were made
into sausage. An occasional soup bone was boiled over and over until
it no longer had any flavor. The family of Christian Maiers in the
winter of 1887 planted an onion in a box of dirt and kept it in
the kitchen. When the stems had grown long enough, they were eaten
with a pig's head purchased in Ellendale. Never had anything so
As they had on the steppes of south Russia, German-Russians in
McIntosh County experienced droughts, cyclones, hailstorms, grasshoppers,
gophers, and sickness. Of all the diseases, diptheria was the worst.
Dr. Fred Maercklein was the county doctor during the 1898 diptheria
epidemic and worked day and night tending the sick. Returning to
Ashley after days of battling deep snows and spending sleepless
nights, he would shake his head and impatiently exclaim, “They
are dying off like sheep out there.” Maercklein could do little
to check the ravages of the disease because the German-Russians
were ignorant of preventive measures and often unwilling to cooperate
with the doctor. They did not understand the need for sanitation
and did not believe in quarantine. They insisted that the entire
family attend every funeral, and soon every child in the county
either had the disease or had been exposed to it.(7)
The Valentine Millers lost two children to diptheria in 1898; the
John Bittners and the John Mayers each lost three. Four of the Michael
Feiszt children died, all in the same week. In some cases, entire
families died. Johann Lippert was a cabinet maker and worked day
and night during the 1898 epidemic building coffins, three of them
for his own children—aged 12, 10, and 3—who died within
a week of each other.
The two hardships listed most frequently by German- Russian pioneers
on the Historical Data forms were prairie fires and blizzards. Both
occurred frequently and unpredictably, and both were awesome in
their death-dealing force.
Prairie fires occurred most often in the spring and fall, and during
dry spells people could see them reflected on the horizon every
night. Once started in the tall prairie grass, fires burned with
a roar that could be heard ten to fifteen miles away and sometimes
moved faster than a running horse. Prairie fires were the most difficult
to control and the most damaging during the early years when there
were few plowed fields, graded roads, or railroad embankments to
check their spread. Firebreaks were burned or plowed around haystacks,
grainstacks, and farm buildings, but large fires burned with intense
heat and generated their own wind and could leap firebreaks and
streams of water fifty or sixty feet wide.
Settlers fought prairie fires with sacks or blankets, with water
hauled in wagons or on stoneboats, and with backfires. For all their
efforts, however, fires sometimes burned out of control for days
and left blackened paths of destruction for miles.
In April 1886, a fierce prairie fire raged out of control over
much of the county and only narrowly did the town of Hoskins escape
being burned. A later fire so menaced Ashley that townspeople hurriedly
packed their belongings and prepared to flee. The only buildings
spared by a fire in 1889 were those built of clay, sod, or stones,
and many of these lost their wooden roofs. A fire in 1890 destroyed
everything owned by John Schauer and his wife Elizabeth, leaving
them with nothing but their "undaunted courage." When
a large fire swept through the area northwest of present-day Venturia
in 1898, Gottlieb Dockter lost ten stacks of grain and hay, his
standing crops, and all except twenty-five acres of pasture needed
for his herd of one hundred cattle.
Fires claimed more than livestock, buildings, and crops: human
lives were also lost. The most talked about tragedy in McIntosh
County occurred in the spring of 1898. John and Wilhelmina Geiszler
lived on a farm a mile northwest of Ashley. On this particular day,
Geiszler was plowing and keeping a watchful eye on smoke and flames
that were visible in the northwest. A stiff breeze blew from the
southeast. About four o'clock in the afternoon the wind suddenly
died, and there was an ominous stillness. Concerned for the safety
of his family, Geiszler unhitched his horses and started for home.
Mrs. Geiszler had also been watching the fire. When she noted that
the wind had died and that the fire had changed its course, she
sent two of her daughters, Mary and Anna, after the cattle that
were grazing on the prairie. With the fire close upon them, the
cattle stampeded and began running toward the farmyard. While playing,
both girls had often grasped a cow's tail and encouraged the animal
to run. With presence of mind, each girl now caught hold of the
tail of a frightened cow so that she might keep ahead of the racing
flames. Mary was pulled across the firebreak and was saved, but
Anna' s foot got caught in a gopher hole. She fell and the flames
reached her. Mrs. Geiszler sought to save her daughter, but was
also caught in the fire and badly burned about her arms and legs.
Anna died from her burns that night. Mrs. Geiszler did not want
to leave her children motherless and fought hard for her life, but
after fifteen days of intense suffering she also died. Mrs. Geiszler
left eight children under the age of thirteen. The youngest was
a few months old; the oldest was Catherine, the second white child
born in McIntosh County.(8)
German-Russians had fought prairie fires on the Russian steppes,
but they had never experienced anything like Dakota winters. Winters
in the area north of the Black Sea were so mild that fruits like
peaches could be grown and vineyards flourished. Even those German-Russians
who had had the foresight to bring their Schafpelz with
them felt the numbing cold. Not even coats made from the long, curled,
dark astrakhan wool offered sufficient protection against temperatures
of - 40°F. It was so cold one winter that the vinegar barrel
in Gulack and Gravedale's store in Hoskins froze solid, bringing
about an advertisement in the McIntosh County Republican
reading: "Vinegar by the piece or yard at Gulack and Gravedale's."(9)
It was not only the numbing cold, it was also the ever-present
wind and the incessantly drifting snow. Especially during the early
years when there were few farms, trees, graded roads, or railroad
embankments to stop it, the snow drifted in the slightest breeze.
Deep drifts became so hard they would support the weight of horses
and bobsleds. Wells were often located in draws and were sometimes
covered by drifts twenty-five feet deep. Snow often drifted over
the low sod or clay houses until only the chimneys were visible.
Barns were sometimes completely covered with snow, and steps had
to be cut down to the doors to allow the livestock to get out. When
the snow was too deep, feed and water were lowered to the livestock
through holes cut in the barn roofs, and livestock spent weeks confined
in their cramped quarters.
The winter of 1888 was the worst in the memories of many McIntosh
County German-Russians. According to Bismarck weather bureau records,
minimum temperatures for January 1888 averaged -16°F., and the
month remained for many years the coldest January on record. The
coldest temperature at Ashley was the - 40°F. recorded during
the three-day blizzard that struck on January 12, only one of the
many blizzards lasting several days that aggravated the intense
Weary of trying to keep paths cleared through the snow that winter,
Konrad Scherbenski, who lived about twenty-five miles northeast
of Ashley, dug a long, sloping chute through the snow down to his
house. A large armful of hay stuffed into the upper end of the chute
kept snow from drifting against the door. During a break in the
weather, two of his neighbors, Friedrich Bossart and Friedrich Beglau,
decided to visit him. They found the chimney sticking up through
the snow, but as they were walking around trying to determine where
the door was, Beglau fell through the crust of snow covering the
opening. He slid down the chute, broke through the door, and crashed
into the hot stove. Fortunately, he escaped injury and suffered
only the indignity of having the seat of his trousers singed. Others
dug tunnels linking their farm buildings, and the roofs of the tunnels
were as much as ten feet below the surface of the drifts.
Winters were particularly bad if they set in before adequate preparations
had been made, as in October 1891, or when they lasted too long
into the spring. Livestock feed was exhausted before pasture was
available, as were supplies of food and fuel. People ate bread made
from bran and burned their furniture and the corn husks from their
mattresses. Lives were endangered, and often lost, in attempts to
secure additional livestock feed, food, or fuel.
During Easter week in the spring of 1892, Gottlieb Dockter's family
ran out of food, and he was forced to hazard a trip to Eureka, South
Dakota, for flour. The winter had been particularly severe, and
the snow was still deep. Dockter started from Eureka in threatening
weather with five hundred pounds of flour, but the load proved too
much for his team and he was forced to leave sacks of flour with
farmers along the way until he had only one sack left. Struggling
through the blizzard, Dockter made it to the home of Markus Weigel
where he was forced to stop. His team was exhausted and he was nearly
frozen. But the Weigels had no barn. Dockter cared too much for
his team to leave them out in the storm and finally persuaded Weigel
and his wife to remove their stove and furniture from the kitchen
and allow him to bring the horses into the house. Dockter never
forgot the kindness.
Not a hardship perhaps, but an irritant at least was what Elwyn
B. Robinson refers to as a “revolution in status.” In
Russia, the German-Russians had been leaders and had been at the
top of the cultural scale. They had been envied and admired for
their success and prosperity. In America they were considered stupid,
ignorant, lazy, and dirty. They were different, in dress, customs,
McIntosh County German-Russians were no exception. Dozens of examples
could be used to describe how awkward and painful it was to be so
different from Yankees and other ethnic groups.
To illustrate this point, consider the experience of Andreas Schadler.
He went to Ellendale for his supplies during the early years. At
one point along the trail there lived an English woman, a widow,
who raised chickens. She could not speak German. Returning from
Ellendale on one of his trips, Schadler bought two hens from this
woman, the first chickens he had ever owned. On a subsequent trip
he stopped to buy a rooster. But Schadler could speak very little
English and did not know the word for rooster. In his halting English,
he told the woman that he wanted "a chicken's man," and
she interpreted this to mean that he was a poultry buyer. Schadler
became increasingly exasperated at his inability to make the woman
understand what he wanted. Finally, he climbed atop a large manure
pile in the yard, flapped his arms, clapped his hands, and crowed
like a rooster. Understanding then dawned on the woman, and she
sold Schadler a rooster.
Jacob Nill knew even less English than Schadler. In 1891, the year
after the bad drought, Nill harvested and sold one thousand bushels
of wheat. When he had settled his account at the elevator, Nill
was delighted to discover that he had enough money to payoff his
bank loan, on which he was paying thirty-six percent interest. Nill,
however, could not make the bankers understand what he wanted because
they understood as little German as he did English. When the excitable
Nill began waving his arms and getting red in the face, the bankers
feared that he was angry and was threatening them. To get
him out of the bank they reduced his note by $200. Nill returned
home a happy man. He had paid off his loan, had a wagonload of supplies,
and had money in his pocket besides.
It was not only the language that German-Russians could not understand;
they did not understand Indians and were afraid of them. German-Russians
had heard about Indians before leaving south Russia and had been
warned by their friends of probable death when they got to Dakota.
Few were ever molested or harmed by Indians, but they were anxious
nevertheless. A large proportion of German-Russians in both Dakotas
lived near reservations and were unnerved by the sight of Indians
and by rumors that they were on the warpath.
The worst Indian scare in McIntosh County occurred in 1890, the
year of the Messiah or Ghost Dance phenomenon and the year in which
Sitting Bull was shot and killed. That fall a number of men from
McIntosh County had gone to the Missouri River to cut logs and timbers
for shed roofs. While there, they heard rumors that the Indians
had become restless and had left the Standing Rock Reservation.
Alarmed, the men started for their homes with their teams and loaded
wagons. Fear fed on rumor until the men in their haste unhitched
their teams, left their wagons standing on the prairie, and rode
home on their horses shouting "Die lndianer Kommen! Die
The news traveled fast. David Foerderer estimated that the rumor
covered an area of 150 square miles in the western part of the county
in less than four hours. Those with neither weapons nor means of
transportation took pitchforks, hatchets, and hammers into their
sod houses and waited in fear, expecting at any moment to be dragged
out and massacred.
Seeking safety in numbers, people from the western part of the
county fled to Ashley. William G. Lawhead, publisher of the McIntosh
County Democrat, gave this description:
Mr. Russian would be standing up in his wagon, lashing his horses
and yelling, “Indianer,” “Indianer”
The wagon box was filled with his wife, children, bedding, family
portraits, sacks of flour, and jars of butter. (11)
To prevent the Indians from getting it, many settlers threw their
flour and meat into their wells. In so doing, they ruined the food
and spoiled the water.
Many of those rushing for Ashley in their wagons overtook Charles
Beadle and his family, who were fleeing to safety on a stoneboat
pulled by oxen. One does not flee very fast on a stoneboat pulled
by oxen, but it was the only form of transportation the Beadles
owned. Beadle begged those who passed him to take his wife and child
to safety in their wagons while he followed with the slow-moving
Stricken with fear, yet wanting to save their belongings from the
Indians, one couple loaded everything they owned onto their wagon.
In their panic, they put the baby in the wagon first. When they
reached Ashley they discovered that the baby had suffocated under
the weight of the load.
Those frightened settlers who were not checked in Ashley fled as
far east as Ellendale and as far south as Eureka, South Dakota.
It was reported that in one twenty-four hour period three hundred
lathered teams had arrived in Eureka, all from North Dakota.(12)
When no Indians appeared, settlers began returning to their homes,
mindful that danger might lurk in every gully or creek bottom. One
family arrived at their home to discover that in their haste they
had neglected to close the kitchen door. Uncertain as to what they
might find inside, they entered the house and were met by a drove
of hogs that came crowding and squealing out the door. The hogs
had made a mess of the house and had eaten or spoiled the winter's
German-Russians were different in yet another way. Being the only
major ethnic group who emigrated to North Dakota from a semi-arid
country, they alone were adapted to living on the prairie before
their arrival. The steppes of south Russia were very much like the
plains of North Dakota, and consequently the German-Russians did
not have to adjust to a new environment. They brought many traditions
and characteristics with them, and they kept them. In Russia they
had resisted Russianization. In America they resisted Americanization.
Samuel Lubell in a 1951 Harper's article described German-Russian
communities in America as "ethnic islands in the great American
Among the best-known characteristics of German-Russians is that
they clung to the German language and resisted learning English.
As late as the 1930's German-Russian children in McIntosh County
did not learn English until they started school. When WPA field
workers were collecting material from McIntosh County pioneers for
the Historical Data Project during the Great Depression, many of
the interviews with German-Russians had to be conducted through
interpreters. In 1939 Vinzius Maier had been in America for fifty-three
years and could not speak English. Gottlieb Isaak had also come
to McIntosh County in 1886, but in 1939 his English vocabulary was
limited to a few words.
Until after the beginning of World War II, large sections of the
Ashley Tribune and the Wishek News were printed
in German, and the social news from the rural districts was always
printed in German. All legal notices and many business announcements
were printed in both English and German. For example, when the Wishek
and Wishek law offices were moved to the second floor of the Ashley
Tribune building shortly after Christmas in 1936, the announcement
appeared in German. Likewise, Auerbachs closed their store in Ashley
in 1936 after being in business for over thirty years; they announced
the closing and thanked their customers in both German and English.
Albert Lippert was still advertising his undertaker services in
German in 1935.
The editor of the Ashley Tribune advised readers in 1916
that “you've got to have your auction bills printed in German
and English to draw a crowd.” The admonition was still being
followed during the 1930's when farmers were forced to sell out
due to the drought and depressed farm prices.(15)
Market prices for farm products and notices regarding cream appeared
in county newspapers in both German and English. The announcement
that Edward Rau had become the new manager of the Ashley Creamery
in 1936 was made in German, as was the announcement that William
Hildenbrand had become the cream buyer for Fairmont. When the Mandan
Creamery and Produce Company moved to a new location in Ashley in
1936, readers of the Ashley Tribune were informed of the
move in both German and English.
The Ashley Tribune also advised candidates for public
office to have their campaign cards printed in German, as well as
in English, and candidates always had their pictures and campaign
notices published in both the English and German sections of the
paper. The 1932 elections attracted a great deal of interest, as
was evident from the increased size of the Ashley Tribune
and the larger section printed in German. Candidates for public
office appealed to the German-Russian voters in the rural parts
of the county who still appreciated being addressed in their native
Sixty-three candidates filed for county offices in the 1936 primary
elections. Almost all had their campaign ads in the Wishek News
and Ashley Tribune in both German and English, and many
reminded the voters that they were German-Russians and that they
had been born and raised in McIntosh County. Some candidates published
their campaign ads only in German. Although a Norwegian, Fred G.
Aandahl in his successful 1944 bid for governor prudently published
his campaign notices in the Ashley Tribune in German.(17)
Even more than in their politics, their businesses, or their newspapers,
German-Russians retained the German language in their church services.
The Lutheran, Assembly of God, Reformed, and Baptist churches in
Ashley, Danzig, Venturia, Wishek, and other towns conducted their
regular Sunday morning worship services in German until well into
the 1950's. In December 1951, the Ashley Assembly of God church
announced that at its Thursday evening prayer meetings there would
be "full Gospel preaching in the German language." The
same church in November 1954 conducted a series of evangelistic
meetings in German. The Ashley Baptist church in 1952 was still
using German in its prayer meetings. As late as the Second World
War, in some churches, Sunday School was conducted in English only
for the younger children. Classes for young adults and adults were
While in Russia, the German-Russian family had been male-dominated
and male-oriented. The father was an authoritarian and often more
feared than loved. Many adult sons did not smoke in the presence
of their fathers. Respect for the position of the male head of the
family was another of the characteristics that German-Russians retained
after coming to McIntosh County.
Almost without exception, the 217 German-Russians in McIntosh County
in 1885 were members of families, and all heads of families were
males. Within five years, 571 German-Russians in McIntosh County
had filed Declaration of Intent to become American citizens. Of
this number, only thirty-six were women. Hundreds of McIntosh County
German-Russians had taken out their final citizenship papers by
1906. Of this number, fewer than forty were women.(19)
North Dakota pioneers interviewed for the Historical Data Project
between 1937 and 1941 included very few German-Russian women. In
McIntosh County, there were only four: Mrs. John Beglau, Mrs. Freida
Forrest, Mrs. John Hillius, and Mrs. Johanna Richter. Quite obviously,
German-Russian men were pioneers; their wives were not.
When the jubilee books for Ashley, Fredonia, Lehr , Venturia, Wishek,
and Zeeland were compiled, more often than not, only the husband's
name was listed for each family biography. Few women were listed
by themselves. They had identities only if they had been married.
In these biographies, the husband's birth date was usually given,
that of his wife much less frequently. Information about the husband'
s parents was commonly included, but rarely given for the wife's
parents. Only the husband' s accomplishments were recorded. He filed
on a homestead, sold buffalo bones, fought prairie fires, and froze
his feet and hands. The husband acquired several quarter-sections
of land or decided to quit farming and open a business in town.
Bearing children, cooking, and washing clothes were not accomplishments
thought worthy of note, but they fixed a woman's place in the German-Russian
family nevertheless. Worn down by hard work and by repeated childbearing—another
baby every nine months and three minutes some said—wives commonly
died before their husbands, often while still quite young. It was
not uncommon, therefore, for a German-Russian man to marry more
than once and to have children by more than one wife. Jacob Dockter,
Sr., married three times and had seven children by each of his first
two wives. August Boschee married four times and with three wives
had sixteen children. John Geiszler married five times and with
two of his wives had twenty-one children.(20) A woman's worth was
described, perhaps with slight exaggeration, in a popular German-Russian
Weiberhterba, koi Verderba.
Pferdeverrecka, des brengt Schrecka.
(When women die, it is not a tragedy. But when the horses die, it
is a disaster.)
Among the best-known characteristics of the German-Russians is that
they neglected education, disliked free public instruction, and
considered compulsory attendance laws a nuisance. They had schools
to be sure, but terms were short, two or three months in the winter
when children were not needed to work in the fields, and instruction
was limited to the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. It
was thought more important that young people learn to work with
their hands than to be taught what was in books.
Nina Farley Wishek began her teaching career as a young, unmarried
woman in a school held in the one-room sod house of Daniel Rienke,
a German-Russian who lived ten miles east of Ashley. Because the
German-Russians knew no English, Miss Farley assumed that living
among them would resemble being stranded on a desert island. She
was tempted, however, by the salary of $32 per month and by, to
use her word, the "adventure."
And it was an adventure. During the two-month term, Miss Farley
taught seven or eight pupils in the same room in which the Rienke
family lived, cooked, ate, and slept. Often during school hours
the family entertained visitors at one end of the room while she
attempted to teach at the other end. Teacher and pupils sat on rough
benches around a crude table and the only books were the few provided
by the teacher. Miss Farley spoke no German and the pupils spoke
no English. Communication was difficult and progress was slow.
Miss Farley's pupils were easily distracted, particularly on bitterly
cold days when animals were brought into the house and placed next
to the stove. Once it was a chilled newborn calf. Another time Miss
Farley was startled nearly out of her wits when she stepped on a
hen that was fluttering beside the table. The hen's feet had been
frozen and she had been brought in to be warmed by the fire.(21)
Few more revealing examples can be found of the German-Russian
attitudes toward public education than these excerpts from reports
filed by rural McIntosh County teachers before 1900:
Condition of furniture. "Poor"
Condition of apparatus. "None"
Amount of blackboard. "None"
Condition of outhouse. "Should be looked after”
Number of trees growing. "None"
Number of trees planted. "None"
Visits of County Supt. "None"
Visits of school officers. "None"
Visits of parents. "None"
Other visitors. "None"
Number of dictionaries. "None"
Number of books in library. "None"
Number of books purchased. "None"
Salary of teacher. "$30.00"
Record of work. "My ame has been this winter to learn my pupils
all of the English I posebel could and found them very backward
in the English Language and Arithmetic and thereforth had no Grades
The same attitude was revealed nearly a half-century later on the
Historical Data Project questionnaires. To requests for information
about schools and elementary education, German-Russians typically
responded that they had taken no interest in education and had not
sent their children to school. Jakob Fey arrived in McIntosh County
in May 1888 at the age of fourteen and afterwards attended school
for only a few days. Twelve-year old Reinhold Reule came much later,
in 1914, but he attended school for only two months after his arrival.
That German-Russians steadfastly resisted Americanization is supposedly
another of their characteristics. In at least one instance, however,
those in McIntosh County did not resist very successfully.
Baseball, the most American of institutions, was played in Ashley
as early as 1890, five years after McIntosh County was opened for
settlement and five years after the arrival of the first large numbers
of German-Russians. Equipment was at first limited to one bat and
one ball. When the only ball was lost during practice on one occasion,
a rider was dispatched on horseback to Ellendale on Saturday to
obtain a ball for the game on Sunday. Early teams had members with
such names as Hedtke, Maercklein, Heinrich, Leiser, Kretschmar,
Huether, Tschetter, and Eisenbeis. The names are those of the German-Russian
pioneers who settled the county.(23)
Baseball was played in Venturia as early as 1910, and after 1912
the sport was a regular part of the town's summer recreation program.
Venturia was a member of the McIntosh County Baseball League, and
in 1928 its team won the county trophy. The town of Wishek was begun
in 1898 and its Golden Jubilee Book contains the following
revealing statement: “During the early years, the inhabitants
of [Wishek] were rabid baseball fans and early Wishek boasted baseball
clubs that were champions of this section of the state . . . The
team was virtually unbeatable.”(24)
Baseball continued to be popular in McIntosh County and German-Russians
continued to dominate team rosters. A record crowd attended Ashley's
game with Gackle on May 31, 1931, when the new baseball grandstand
was dedicated in Ashley. Team members were German-Russian with one
exception. Ashley's new pitcher for the 1931 season was an American
Indian named Gene Bluelips.(25)
Author Richard Sallet wrote that ninety-five percent of the German-Russians
from the Black Sea area were wheat farmers, and it has commonly
been assumed that after their arrival in Dakota they remained one-crop
wheat farmers who resisted diversification.(26) At least to McIntosh
County German-Russians, however, this description does not apply.
They almost invariably planted flax as the first crop on newly broken
sod, and within a few years after their arrival in the county they
began to diversify. The following paragraph taken from the North
Dakota Magazine for September 6, 1906, is illuminating. Lehr,
located on the extreme northern edge of McIntosh County, is the
town being described.
During the season of 1905 the creamery took in on an average of
from $300 to $400 per day, in cream, butter and eggs. There were
about 200,000 bushels of grain marketed at this point, which means
in good round figures about that many dollars.
In addition to this there was about $100,000 worth of stock shipped
and about $50,000 worth of wool.(27)
Even allowing for an error in the amount of money paid per day
for cream, butter, and eggs, a figure that seems high, more money
was received from the sale of animals and animal products marketed
in Lehr in 1905 than was received from the sale of grain.
In 1905 in the county as a whole, 69,547 acres of wheat were planted.
Almost half that many acres, 26,764 were planted to such major crops
as barley, oats, flax, rye, and corn. Crop statistics for succeeding
years were more dramatic. In 1910, for example, 99,575 acres of
wheat were raised, and 55,921 acres, more than half that many, were
planted to the other major grain crops, this at a time when wheat
On the 792 farms in the county in 1905 there were 17,822 cattle,
7,795 sheep, and 4,274 hogs. Many of the hogs were most likely butchered
for home consumption, but on average there were 22.5 cattle and
9.8 sheep per farm. Wool production alone in 1905 was 62,902 pounds.
Cattle, hogs, and sheep worth $45,626 were sold for market and shipped
outside the county in 1905. In 1910 the figure was almost double
that, $88,190.30 worth of cattle, hogs, and sheep were sold from
the farms. Four years later the figures had nearly doubled again.
In 1914, $148,888 worth of cattle, hogs, and sheep were sold for
Planting crops other than wheat and raising livestock were not
the only ways in which McIntosh County German-Russians diversified.
On the 792 farms in the county in 1905 there were 6,243 milk cows,
an average of 7.9 per farm. Farm families made 278,640 pounds of
butter that year. By 1910 the amount of butter made by farm families
had declined to 81,355 pounds, but 322,675 pounds of cream were
sold to creameries. A total of $71,413.60 worth of both cream and
milk were sold to creameries in 1910. Four years later, these figures
had doubled. In 1910 the county boasted fifteen cream and milk buying
stations and one creamery. Wishek's first creamery was built in
1902 and shipped butter and cheese to markets as far east as Boston.
Ashley had five cream buying stations at one time, and Danzig, among
the smallest towns in the county, had three.(29)
Nina Farley Wishek, in her history of McIntosh County, wrote that
farmers traded their butter for merchandise in Wishek stores and
the butter was shipped by the carload.(30) A frequent complaint
of German-Russian pioneers, however, was that there was often no
market for their butter in town. Jakob Breitling often had to take
his butter home and feed it to the hogs or use it for greasing the
axles on his farm wagons. Catherine Geiszler, whose mother perished
in a prairie fire, married Charles Vanony in 1909. In 1937, when
interviewed for the Historical Data Project, the couple owned five
quarters of land and milked twenty-six cows. Between 1909, the year
of their marriage, and 1936, their cream sales amounted to $16,596.04.
Though possibly hyperbole, just before World War I Ashley advertised
itself as the county seat and declared that McIntosh County possessed
the finest grasses for butter and beef and was the leading farming
and dairy county of southern North Dakota. The same promotional
spirit is reflected in the County Commissioner proceedings for July
18, 1912: "Ashley is the greatest cream market in North and
South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana. In June 1912, 2,049 cans were
marketed, about an average of 100 cans on some days of the year."(31)
One of the best indications that German-Russians in McIntosh County
were cream producers is that butterfat prices and creamery notices
were printed in German in the county newspapers. In October 1934,
the Ashley Creamery urged producers to take greater pains to keep
their cream clean and fresh because the creamery's reputation was
at stake. Its butter had taken first place at the North Dakota State
Dairymen's Association Convention in Harvey in 1933.(32)
In 1936, the hottest, driest, and worst year of the Great Depression,
the Ashley State Bank paid out a total of $165,894.92 in cream checks.
That same year, the top fifteen producers in the Wishek Farmers'
Cream Association were all German-Russian. McIntosh County German-Russian
farmers were in a bad way during the 1930's, but their condition
would have been even worse had they not had their weekly cream checks.(33)
German-Russians suffered more from the Great Depression and were
consequently in greater need of relief than any other major ethnic
group in North Dakota. Having emigrated comparatively late to the
state, they settled on the drier, less fertile lands of the Missouri
Plateau and were thus susceptible to the effects of prolonged drought.
German-Russians were also more likely than other emigrant groups
to be farmers and therefore to be affected more by crop failure
and low prices for farm products. German-Russians were also more
likely than other emigrant groups to remain on the land and to purchase
the farms of their neighbors when they left.(34)
Tying their capital up in land and mortgaging themselves heavily
placed them under greater financial strain than other nationalities.
In Russia, moreover, they had lived in largely self- sufficient
villages and had used barter. In North Dakota they had to use money
and credit. The sources of both dried up when crops failed and farm
product prices declined. Finally, the German-Russians tended to
have large families; ten, twelve, fifteen, and twenty children were
Most German-Russians were poor when they arrived in McIntosh County,
but they were young and they had hope. Accustomed to suffering and
adversity, they worked hard, they took up land under the Homestead
and Pre-emption Acts, and they prospered. During the 1930's, however,
many were again poor, they had lost their youth, and hope was waning.
The Depression seemed endless. Even the elements were against them.
The temperature extremes and the droughts that German-Russians had
experienced while on the Russian steppes and while pioneering on
the Dakota plains were nothing compared to those they experienced
during the 1930's. McIntosh County, where farming was the industry
on which the social and economic welfare of the people depended,
was cited by the Works Progress Administration as an area of intense
drought distress for the years 1930-36.(35)
Between 1928 and 1932 neither precipitation amounts nor temperature
extremes were cause for concern in McIntosh County. At Ashley, the
official reporting station, total precipitation for 1928 was 23.98
inches, 5.86 inches over normal. For the next three years precipitation
was near normal. Four continuous days of high temperatures—it
was 106 degrees F. at Wishek on July 25 ––shriveled
kernels and reduced grain yields in 1931, but such conditions were
to be expected on the Missouri Plateau.(36)
Not until 1933 did the shortage of moisture become worrisome. Total
precipitation for the year was only 12.81 inches, a minus 6.15 inch
departure from normal. Crop prospects had nevertheless been good
until early June, when hot, dry winds from the south severely damaged
the crops. Conditions significantly worsened in 1934. The county
received only 8.71 inches of precipitation that year and only twice
did rains of .75 inches or more fall. In the first four months,
when moisture was needed to start the crops, only .45 inches fell,
a trace in April and .06 inches in May. For seven consecutive days,
from July 17 to 23, temperatures at Ashley exceeded 100° F.
It was 110°F. on July 22. Nearly two inches of rail fell during
August and September in eleven small showers. The soil was so dry
that farmers could not do their fall plowing or seed their winter
There was less moisture in the soil in McIntosh County at the beginning
of 1935 than at any time since statehood had been granted in 1889.
People despaired of its ever snowing or raining again, and farmers
were hesitant to prepare fields for spring seeding. Moisture conditions
improved in March and April, fortunately, and the total precipitation
for the year was near normal. By June, pastures were doing well
and crop prospects were bright. There was cause for elation, and
a sign of the renewed hopefulness was that farm families were once
again coming to town on Saturday nights. All available parking spaces
were taken on Ashley's main and side streets, sidewalks were crowded,
and stores were filled with customers.
Crop prospects were dimmed, unfortunately, in mid-July by high
temperatures, rust, and army worms. Much small grain was not worth
harvesting; not even the straw had any feed value. The best wheat
yielded ten bushels per acre, rather than the thirty that had been
expected, and test weights were only forty-six pounds per bushel.
Elevators refused to buy wheat below forty-five pounds test weight
and would not store wheat weighing less than fifty-four pounds per
Precipitation amounts for 1936 were below normal at every reporting
station in North Dakota. The year was also characterized by temperature
extremes. Total precipitation at Ashley for the year was only 6.60
inches, most of the rain coming in small showers and traces, and
Wishek recorded the highest temperature in the nation on July 6.
The government thermometer at the railroad depot read 120°F.
For eighteen days in July, ten of them consecutive, temperatures
at Ashley exceeded 100°F. High temperatures and drought continued
into the fall, and Indian Summer lasted to the end of November.
Strong winds and lack of snow cover produced dust storms throughout
the entire county.(39)
The drought and the heat of the summer of 1936 were matched by
the snow and the cold of the winter. On February 19, the temperature
went above zero for the first time in forty days at Wishek. The
coldest temperature was -43°F. on February 16. Snow blocked
county roads and farmers were forced to use horses and sleds to
get to town. Trains ran late when they ran at all.(40)
The first issue of the McIntosh County Herald on November
12, 1884, had boasted that McIntosh County was "the choicest
spot of the garden of the Northwest" with soil capable of producing
up to thirty-five bushels per acre of No.1 hard wheat. There were
hopes at one time that Wishek would supplant Eureka, South Dakota,
as the greatest primary wheat market in the world. The drought-stricken
McIntosh County of the 1930's bore little resemblance, however,
to the one described by its optimistic promoters in more hopeful
times. Statistics on crop production can be confusing and misleading
when obtained from different sources that do not always agree with
each other, but it is nevertheless clear that near or total crop
failure was almost the rule in McIntosh County during the Depression.
In 1934, a particularly hot and dry season, there was crop failure
on slightly more than eighty percent of the land available for crops
on the county's 1,160 farms. Durum was a complete failure. Fewer
than one thousand acres of spring wheat were harvested, and yields
were less than two bushels per acre. Only ten bushels of oats were
threshed in the entire county -- from two acres of land. Barley
did little better. Fifty-seven acres produced slightly more than
four bushels per acre. No rye was harvested, and one thousand acres
of flax yielded a mere eight-tenths bushel per acre.
With fodder production also down, the feed situation was critical.
Most small grains were not even worth cutting for hay, and less
than 19,000 tons of wild and tame hay were produced, an average
of not quite two tons per farm. The more fortunate owners of livestock
had green thistle and pigeon grass hay.(41)
It was impossible for McIntosh County to recover in 1935 from the
effects of 1934, and the combination of drought, high temperatures,
and grasshoppers produced disaster in 1936. Only ten bushels of
durum were threshed in the county that year and only slightly more
than five thousand bushels of spring wheat. Few farmers bothered
to pick their corn, and no oats or flax were harvested. Only 125
acres of small grain were cut for hay, and most wild and tame grass
was too short to mow. Prices for grain, butterfat, eggs, and other
farm products were no longer published each Thursday in the Wishek
News. Farmers had no products to sell, and prices were so low
they did not care to be reminded of them. By a large majority, Wishek
businessmen voted not to sponsor a July Fourth celebration for the
first time in many years.(42)
The combined consequences of drought, poor crops, and depressed
farm prices were soon apparent. There was an uncharacteristic air
of wistfulness about the children. Christian Klipfel, who farmed
fifteen miles east of Ashley, was driven by financial worries and
despondency to take his own life on January 27, 1934. The number
of those owning their farms declined between 1930 -1935, and farm
tenancy increased from 284 in 1930 to 334 in 1935. Tenancy had once
been a stepping stone to farm ownership, but now it was an indication
that older farmers were unable to become or remain owners. Nor was
land the good investment it had once been. The value of the average
McIntosh County farm declined by more than thirty-five percent between
1930 and 1935, from $14,238 to $9,181.(43)
When farm products were so low in price, it did not pay to market
them. John G. Schmidt hauled 600 bushels of his 1930 rye crop to
Wishek from his farm eighteen miles southwest of town. Concluding
that the price of eighteen cents per bushel was barely enough to
pay the cost of trucking, he gave away one hundred bushels for hog
feed and decided to burn the rest to heat his house. It was cheaper
than buying coal. Johannes Sayler hauled wheat to the elevator in
1931 by team and wagon because the price was so low that after paying
for gas and oil for his truck he had nothing left.(44)
Almost nothing had any value. Alvin Boschee of Beaver Creek thought
to supplement his income by trapping and selling furs. For two weasel
skins shipped to market in the winter of 1932, he received a check
for sixteen cents. After paying five cents for shipping and ten
cents for exchange on the check, he was left with a profit of a
single penny. Collecting the two-cent bounty on gophers proved to
be a more reliable source of income. Interest in the bounty had
never been so high as it was in 1931 when the county paid out a
total of $2,544.68. Others traded jackrabbits for merchandise at
Kelber's store in Ashley on the basis of eight or nine cents apiece,
and John J. Pudwill, the John Deere dealer in Wishek, took livestock
in trade on farm machinery.(45)
Other barometers registered as effectively the plight of McIntosh
County residents during the Depression. Fifteen individuals applied
for the job of Ashley school janitor in 1931 even though the board
had not advertised the position widely. That sixty-three candidates
filed for county offices in the June primary in 1936, thirteen for
sheriff alone, surely reflects more a desire for a job than it does
a wish to serve the public. With Ashley elevators offering twenty-three
cents per bushel for spring wheat in December 1932, fifteen cents
for durum, and only nine cents for barley, farmers could not pay
expenses, let alone pay their taxes. Delinquent tax notices for
1931 alone required two full pages of fine print in the Ashley
Tribune, the official county newspaper. At the tax sale a year
later, only ten parties offered bids. No one had any money.(46)
As inevitable as the delinquent tax notices were the notices of
foreclosure sales. Between January 1932 and March 4, 1933, when
Governor William Langer's Executive Order stopped them, three to
six mortgage foreclosure sales per week were listed in the Ashley
Threatened with foreclosure and the loss of his farm, John Haller
of near Ashley appealed to Governor Langer and to Usher L. Burdick,
President of the Farmers Holiday Association. Burdick assured Haller
that he would not lose his farm and concluded his letter with this
You stay on your land and dont [sic] let anyone take your horses,
machinery or crop. The Holiday Association should get busy in your
county and put and [sic] end to this kind of business. If you can
get no action from the Holiday Association of McIntosh County, let
me know and I will come down there. If those creditors want a battle
they will get it.(48)
When Sheriff Christopher Bauer of McIntosh County conducted a foreclosure
sale on April 1, 1933, against Andrew Geiszler, he was charged with
disregarding Langer's moratorium and ordered to Bismarck for a hearing.
Charges against Bauer were dropped when it was learned that he had
been ordered by District Judge William H. Hutchinson of LaMoure
to proceed with the sale. The Farmers Holiday Association thereupon
prepared petitions to recall Hutchinson, reportedly the first recall
attempt against a district judge in the history of the state.(49)
Langer's moratorium helped, but it alone could not relieve distress.
In May 1934, McIntosh County Agent Robert J. Adam advised farmers
against seeding wheat because the soil was too dry. By the end of
the summer, cattle were dying of thirst and starvation. Farmers
had no money with which to purchase seed grain for 1935, and the
Better Ashley Association sought Senator Gerald Nye's assistance
on their behalf. Also in 1935, encephalomyelitis, an infectious
brain disease affecting horses, spread rapidly through the county.
Many farmers could afford neither the serum nor the services of
a veterinarian and were losing their horses just when they were
most needed for field work.(50)
In 1936, the county agent conducted a Livestock, Feed, and Seed
Survey to which about 750 of the county's 1,160 farmers responded.
Less than 24,000 tons of fodder were on hand in the county—much
of it consisting of straw, corn stalks, and russian thistles—or
about three-fourths ton per animal. Only four and one-half bushels
of feed grain were available per animal; and about twenty percent
of the farms were short of water or had no water at all. Almost
no seed grain was available for the spring 1937 planting.(51)
German-Russians characteristically required very little to satisfy
their needs, and they traditionally withstood hard times without
asking for help from the government. They looked after themselves,
they helped each other, and they went without. During the 1930's,
however, McIntosh County German-Russians accepted, and sometimes
demanded, emergency relief. There were never enough funds to hire
all of the young people who wanted to enroll in the Civilian Conservation
Corps and the National Youth Administration, and McIntosh County
officials bid eagerly for participation in the federal Prairie States
Forestry, or shelter belt, Project. At a mass meeting held in Ashley
on November 30, 1936, resolutions were passed and sent to North
Dakota's congressmen calling for a special session of Congress if
necessary in order that WPA employment for both farmers and urban
workers could be continued.(52)
The willingness of the German-Russians of McIntosh County to accept
government assistance was not an admission of failure or an indication
that after fifty years in America they had lost their determination
and self-reliance. It was an admission that under the circumstances
they could not help themselves. Government programs were their only
recourse, but they did not want something for nothing. According
to H. D. Piper, head of the local Federal Emergency Relief Office,
McIntosh County led the state in “work off relief.”
By the end of April 1935, McIntosh County recipients had worked
off 97.4 percent of the relief contracted under the Federal Emergency
Relief Administration. The figure for most counties was between
thirty and forty percent. McIntosh County residents appreciated
the help they received and insisted on giving labor in return.(53)
Among the first federal funds available in McIntosh County were
the seed and feed loans distributed to 142 farmers in 1932.(54)
Hopes that no further assistance would be needed were dashed when
the drought continued. In 1934, less than one-half inch of rain
fell by the end of May and that in four light showers. Feed was
in short supply and prospects were dim of any being produced during
the summer. Farmers had the alternative of watching their cattle
starve or disposing of them.
The cattle purchasing program under the Agricultural Adjustment
Administration was organized in McIntosh County on June 2, 1934,
and two days later appraisals began in the western part of the county
where distress was the greatest. Within two weeks, cattle on nearly
1,000 of the county's 1,160 farms had been appraised and more than
15,000 head of cattle purchased. Several crews under the supervision
of George Kafton were killing condemned cattle on farms and in stockyards.
By mid-September, when appraisals were suspended for a time, 1,042
farmers had sold 22,757 head of cattle to the government; they had
received checks totalling more than $300,000. By the time the cattle
purchasing program was terminated, the reduction in cattle numbers
in McIntosh County exceeded the state average of fifty percent.(55)
McIntosh County farmers also strongly supported the federal government's
wheat reduction programs. Under the terms of the Agricultural Adjustment
Act of 1933, wheat farmers who agreed to reduce wheat acreage for
the next two years benefitted two ways. They received a higher price
for the wheat they produced, and they collected badly needed cash
on the acreage reduction contracts they signed with the government.
By the end of 1933, over ninety-nine percent of the county's wheat
acres had been entered in the program, the highest percentage reported
in North Dakota at that time. It was expected that more than $300,000
would be paid under the terms of the contracts, with only about
$5,000 going to landowners outside the county.(56)
Paying farmers for disposing of their cattle and for not planting
wheat brought cash into the county, but more relief was required
for people other than farmers. Early in 1934, McIntosh County received
$65,000 from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration to be used
for building roads. In February 1934, Civil Works Administration
funds were being used to employ 577 men on thirty-nine projects,
such as spreading gravel on Ashley's alleys, riprapping the south
shore of Lake Hoskins, remodeling and painting the Ashley public
library, repairing and painting rural schoolhouses, grading and
graveling county roads, and constructing the Ashley airport.(57)
By far the most comprehensive program of relief in McIntosh County
was that provided by the Works Progress Administration created in
1935. Elsewhere, people hired with WPA funds wrote books, taught
literacy classes, and conducted surveys; in McIntosh County, where
ninety-eight percent of the people employed were unskilled, they
mixed poison grasshopper bait (molasses, bran, arsenic, and water),
built sidewalks, and constructed dams.(58)
As a result of their dependence on agriculture, McIntosh County
residents were particularly vulnerable to the combined effects of
drought and depressed farm prices. Statistics can not express individual
feelings of hopelessness and despair, but they can document how
many were affected by the Depression and the degree to which they
relied on relief agencies for assistance. Figures for October 1936
are instructive. During this month, eighty-seven percent of the
county's 9,000 residents were receiving relief in the form of direct
cash payments, almost always in return for work. In addition, feed
loans of $7,305 were made to sixty-four farmers by the Resettlement
Administration and $1,326.01 worth of such surplus food commodities
as canned beef, dried peas and beans, flour, onions, and dried prunes
were distributed. Direct cash payments were made as follows:
968 farmers working on WPA projects $38,720.00
129 farmers receiving Resettlement
Subsistence grants 2,034.00
255 urban workers on WPA projects 10,200.00
40 NYA Student employees 240.00
68 NYA regular employees 868.00
107 CCC boys in camp 2,675.00
61 Old Age Assistance cases 642.00
39 County Welfare Board Cases 1,077.70
Total $56,456.70 (59)
The percentage of people receiving relief declined, but remained
high. In November 1936 the figure was eighty-five percent (not counting
those receiving feed loans and surplus food commodities), and it
was eighty-one percent in March 1937. By May the figure had been
reduced to fifty-two percent, but not because conditions had improved.
Nor had need diminished. Requirements had been made more stringent
and many people were no longer considered eligible.(60)
Times were hard during the Great Depression, but few of those who
had emigrated regretted having come to McIntosh County. They remembered
that conditions in south Russia had been bad when they left, and
they knew that conditions had been made worse by the Russian Revolution
in 1917 and by the Great War of 1914 to 1918. There had been good
years—wheat had sold for $2.25 per bushel in 1918—and
the bad had to be taken with the good. German-Russians have a saying:
“Lieber eine laus im kraut, wie gar kein fleisch”
(Better to have a louse in the cabbage than to have no meat at all).
German-Russians are a tough, hardy people. They had survived hardship
on the steppes of south Russia. In Dakota they had sold buffalo
bones, gone without shoes, and lived on coffee and bread. They would
prevail. Most, even during the Depression, would have agreed with
Samuel Fregien who, when interviewed by a WPA fieldworker, said
that he was glad for having had the courage to leave Russia. German-Russians
were “In Amerika durch Gottes Gnada” (They
were in America by the grace of God).
Reprinted with permission of North Dakota History.
|The map locates McIntosh County in
||Land hunger brought German-Russians
to the northern plains. Symbolized by the Pre-emption Patent
issued to Christian C. Becker, that desire for land brought
about rapid settlement of McIntosh County in the late 19th Century.
Courtesy Gordon L. Isminger.
|The young city of Ashley, shown here
about 1900, became the county seat of McIntosh County in 1888.
The grain elevators visible highlight the importance of farming
to the local economy and emphasize the “boom” that
German-Russian settlement brought to south-central North Dakota.
–State Historical Society Dakota Collection
||German-Russian pioneers often used
native materials to construct their homes on the prairies. The
home of David Mueller, Sr., near Kulm was built with sod, stone,
and clay; note that the barn and the house were connected. –from
the Kulm Jubilee Book, 1892-1957; translated by LaVern J. Rippley
and Armand Bauer (Fargo: North Dakota Institute of Regional
Studies, 1974); used by permission.
|Another common construction technique
employed stone and clay; the building was located in Grant County
near Heil. –from Richard Sallet, Russian-German Settlements
in the United States, translated by LeVern J. Rippley and Armand
Bauer (Fargo: North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies, 1974);
used by permission.
||Native fieldstone, used in a farm near
Danzig, was another building material for Russian pioneers.
Courtesy Vernon Herr, Wishek, North Dakota
|On the Christian Bauer homestead near
Zeeland, puddled clay formed the walls of the summer kitchen
erected about 1900. –from Sallet, Russian-German Settlements
in the United States.
||Building a house from native materials
was an arduous process involving much hand labor. Pioneers Christ
Flegel and John Sperling used clay and clay bricks to construct
a farm home in 1899 near Kulm. –from “Kulm Diamond
|Finding fuel and water were two essential
parts of pioneer life. Two German-Russian settlers gather cow
chips for fuel. –from Lehr Diamond Jubilee Book, 1898-1973.
||R.C. Larimer and Charley Wright sank
man wells in early McIntosh County. From Nina Farley Wishek,
Along the Trails of Yesterday (1941).
|Wishek became an important McIntosh
County marketing point in the early 20th Century. This early
picture depicts west Main Street. –from Wishek Golden
Jubilee Book, 1898-1948
||McIntosh County farmers helped make
Eureka, South Dakota, into the world’s leading primary
wheat market during the 1890’s. The photo shows wagon
loads of grain waiting for access to the town’s elevators
in 1892 and was published in Harper’s Weekly for July
11, 1896. –Courtesy Gordon L. Iseminger
|Through most German-Russians in McIntosh
County were farmers, some opened businesses in the towns. In
Zeeland, for example, the Farmer’s Store was owned by
Henry Boshee. This 1914 photo shows Boshee (at desk) and some
helpers setting up harness. –State Historical Society
of North Dakota Collection
||Much produce of German-Russian farms
was used at home. Sausage-making, for example, often followed
fall butchering. These four men (l-r) John Wolf, Ed Weber, Elmer
Bertsch, and Adam Bertsch, gathered to make sausage in the vicinity
of Danzig. The photo originally appeared in Prairies Magazine
|Fur trapping also provided cash income
to McIntosh County German-Russian settlers. Gottlieb Ley (l)
and Anton Helmer showed off pelts obtained near Danzig in the
early 20th Century. The photo originally appeared in Prairies
Magazine (Summer, 1978). –Courtesy Gordon L. Iseminger
||Drought and low commodity prices forced
many McIntosh County German-Russians off the farm during the
1930’s. Andreas Dalke was 34 when he sold out; according
to his sale bill, he did not have a tractor and he supplemented
his income by selling cream and eggs. The sale notice appeared
in the Ashley Tribune, October 25, 1934. –Courtesy Gordon
|The Great Depression of the 1930’s
dramatically affected the German-Russians of McIntosh County.
Unable to afford coal, this farm wife used corn cobs for fuel;
she is identified only as “Mrs. Bettenhausen.” The
photograph was taken in November 1940 by John Vachon, a worker
employed by a federal relief agency known as the Farm Security
Administration. (FSA). –Courtesy Department of Special
Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota
||To combat the Depression, McIntosh
County citizens were encouraged to relearn pioneer skills, such
as making fuel from manure and straw. An FSA supervisor stands
by a stack of “Russian lignite,” also known as Mischt,
in November 1940. –Courtesy Department of Special Collections,
Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota
|FSA photographer John Vachon captured
the faces of McIntosh County on election day, 1940. These German-Russian
farmers waited to vote at the Beaver Creek Precint with stolid
contemplation of both the political issues and the Depression
economy. –Courtesy Department of Special Collections,
Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota
||The Beaver Creek School in rural McIntosh
County overlooked a bleak landscape on election day, 1940. The
photo was taken by FSA worker John Vachon. –Courtesy Department
of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of
November 1940. –Courtesy of Special Collections, Chester
Fritz Library, University of North Dakota
- Ashley Tribune, December 6, 1934. On the eve of the government’s
order, homestead entries were still being filed in McIntosh County.
Ashley Tribune, October 6, 1932, October 27, 1932. Unless noted
otherwise, material for this article was taken from the files
on McIntosh County German-Russians complied by the Historical
Society of North Dakota in Bismarck and the jubilee books for
Ashley, Fredonia, Lehr, Venturia, Wishek, and Zeeland, all towns
in McIntosh County.
- “The Dakota Territorial Census of 1885,” Collections
of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, IV (Fargo, ND:
Knight Printing Co., 1913), pp. 361-72; Elwyn B. Robinson, History
of North Dakota (Lincoln; University of Nebraska Press, 1966),
p. 172; Nina Farley Wishek, Along the Trails of Yesterday (Ashley,
ND: Ashley Tribune, 1941), p. 40; Richard Sallet, Russian-German
Settlements in the United States, trans. LaVern J. Rippley and
Armand Bauer (Fargo: North Dakota Institute of Regional Studies,
1974), p. 27; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census,
Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910: Population, III,
- “The Dakota Territorial Census of 1885,” pp. 361-372.
- Wishek, p. 134.
- Ibid, pp. 257-259.
- Ashley Tribune, June 9, 1932. Knowing that she needed a heavy
stone to serve as a weight on her cabbage when making sauerkraut,
one German-Russian housewife prevailed upon her husband to leave
the train while it was stopped on the prairie west of Chicago
and pick up a nice rock weighing between ten and fifteen pounds.
When they arrived Dakota Territory and the husband discovered
how thickly the rocks lay on the ground, he realized how foolish
they had been. Exclaiming that there were more stones than cabbage
heads in Dakota, he threw the stone out the train window.
- Wishek, pp. 280-281, 292.
- Catherine Geiszler was born on May 7, 1885, the first officially
recorded birth in the county. Christina Klipfel, the first white
child born in the county, was born on October 10, 1884. Her birth
was recorded in the family Bible. Ashley Tribune, December 3,
1936, January 28, 1937. At the time of Ashley’s Golden Jubilee,
the Ashley Women’s Club honored the memory of Wilhemina
Geiszler by placing a bust of her in the public library. The bust
was dedicated to “A Heroine of the Prairie.”
- Wishek, p.105.
- Robinson, p. 287; Pioneer Information Sheets for Matheus Sayler
of Hebron, and New Salem, North Dakota, Colony Records (Department
of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North
Dakota), Collection 10. Folder 6.
- Wishek, p. 188.
- Ellen Wood and Euvagh Wenzel, eds., Emmons County History (Linton,
ND: Emmons County Historical Society, 1976), p.24.
- Wishek, pp. 208-120.
- Samuel Lubell, “Who Votes Isolationist and Why,”
Harper’s Magazine, April, 1951, pp. 33-34.
- Ashley Tribune, March 3, 1916. February 5, 1931.
- Ibid, June, 16, 1932.
- Wishek News, May 28, 1936; Ashley Tribune, November 2, 1944.
- Ashley Tribune, December 13, 1951, November 6, 1952, November
- “The Dakota Territorial Census of 1885,” pp. 361-372;
Naturalization Records of McIntosh County, Declaration of Intention,
1885-1890, Historical Data Project (State Archives, State Historical
Society of North Dakota, Bismarck); Index to County Naturalization
Registers, McIntosh County, North Dakota Historical Records, Survey
Records (State Archives, State Historical Society of North Dakota),
Series No. 570, Box No. 128.
- Mrs. Jakob Spitzer bore her husband twelve children in twenty-three
years. Mrs. Ludwig Thurn had thirteen children in seventeen years;
four died in infancy. Mrs. Paul Welder had fifteen children in
twenty-one years. Karl Hildenbrand, a widower with seven children,
married a widow with five and with whom he had six more. The family
used 3,000 pounds of flour per year. Bread was baked three times
per week in batches of fourteen loaves. When Hildebrand bought
shoes, he paid little attention to size. Whatever the size of
the shoes he brought home, they would fit someone.
- Wishek, pp. 180-182.
- Ibid, p. 186.
- Ashley’s Golden Jubilee, 1888-1938. pp. 35-36.
- Venturia Golden Jubilee, 1901-1951, pp 4, 24; Wishek Golden
Jubilee, 1898-1948. p. 12.
- Ashley Tribune, May 28, 1931, May 25, 1933.
- Robinson, p. 287; Sallet, p. 87.
- Wishek, p. 283.
- Eighth and Ninth Biennial Report of the Commissioner of Agriculture
and Labor (Bismarck: 1906); Twelfth Biennial Report of the Commissioner
of Agriculture and Labor (Fargo, 1912); Fourteenth Biennial Report
of the Commissioner of Agriculture and Labor (Fargo: 1915).
- Wishek, pp. 292-293.
- Ibid, p. 270.
- Ashley Tribune, October 18, 1934, November 2, 1933.
- Wishek News, December 17, 1936; Ashley Tribune, January 21,
- Robinson, p. 246; E. A. Wilson, H. C. Hoffsommer, and Alva
H. Benton, Rural Changes in Western North Dakota, North Dakota
Agricultural Experiment Station Bulletin 214 (Fargo: 1928), pp.
- U.S. Works Progress Administration, Areas of Intense Drought
Distress, 1930-1936, Series V, No. 1 (Washington, D.C.: 1937),
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, Climatological
Data, North Dakota Section, Vols. XXXVII-XLI, 1928-32; Wishek
News, July 30, 1931.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, Climatological
Data, North Dakota Section, Vols. XLII-XLIII, 1933-34; Ashley
Tribune, June 29, 1933.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, Climatological
Data North Dakota Section, Vol. XLIV, 1935; Ashley Tribune, March
7, May 2, June 20, August 1, 8, 1935; Wishek News, July 25, 1935.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, Climatological
Data, North Dakota, Section, Vol. XLV, 1936; Wishek News, July
9, November 26, 1936. Not until 1940 did the Ashley reporting
station record normal summer temperatures, normal precipitation
amounts, and the absence of severe dust storms.
- Wishek News, January 23, February 20, 27, 1936. It was so cold
on January 22 in Wishek, or so the story goes, that the white
advertising eagle sitting atop of the gas pump in front of Adolph
Gall’s service station sat with his head tucked under one
wing the entire day. It was reputedly colder in one South Dakota
town, the editor of a local paper reported that one of the town’s
dogs had been found frozen to a fire hydrant.
- State of North Dakota, Department of Agriculture and Labor,
Compiled Agricultural Statistics of North Dakota (Bismarck: 1936),
pp. 15-29; U.S. Department of Commerce, United States Census of
Agriculture: 1935 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office,
1936), pp. 292, 300; Ashley Tribune, October 18, 1934.
- State of North Dakota, Department of Agriculture and Labor,
Compiled Agricultural Statistics of North Dakota (Bismarck: 1938),
pp. 6-22; Wishek News, June 4, 1936.
- Ashley Tribune, April 12, 1933, February 1, 1934; U.S. Department
of Commerce, United States Census of Agriculture: 1935 (Washington:
U.S. Government Printing Office, 1936), p. 292, Ashley Tribune,
February 20, 1936.
- Wishek News, February 5, August 20, 1931.
- Ashley Tribune, June 4, 1931, December 7, 1932, December 10,
1936; Wishek News, January 29, 1931.
- Wishek News, May 14, 1931, January 7, 1932, October 24, 1935,
May 28, 1936, Ashley Tribune, November 12, 1931, December 15,
- Langer also persuaded the legislature to pass a two percent
sales tax; it was, however, referred to and disapproved by the
voters on September 22, 1933, by a large majority. McIntosh was
the only county in the state where the sales tax approved; the
vote was 1,126 to 879, Ashley Tribune, September 28, 1933.
- Letter from Usher L. Burdick to John Haller, August 18, 1933
(Langer Papers, Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz
Library, University of North Dakota), Box 28, File Folder 12.
- Ashley Tribune, April 6, 1933.
- Ibid, February 21, 1935; Wishek News, August 22, 1935.
- Wishek News, August 13, 1936.
- Wishek News, August 13, 1936.
- Ashley Tribune, June 13, 1935.
- Ibid, August 18, 1932.
- Ibid, June 7, July 19, 1934; Wishek News, September 20, 1934.
- Ashley Tribune, July 13, 20, December 14, 1933, March 15, 1934.
- Ibid, December 28, 1933, February 8, February 22, May 24, 1934.
- Ibid, July 9, 1936.
- Ibid, December 10, 1936.
- Ibid, December 24, 1936, April 29, June 24, 1937.