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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 4-23


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 south Russia.

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 her family.(5)

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 a hill.

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 rubbing themselves.

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 them.

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 “gut geschmeckt.

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 cold.

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, and language.(10)

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 lndianer Kommen!"

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 oxen.

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 meat supply.(13)

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 sea."(14)

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 tongue.(16)

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 in German.(18)

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 saying:
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 or Class."(22)

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 was king.

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 market.(28)

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 not uncommon.

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 grains.(37)

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 bushel.(38)

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 Tribune.(47)

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 advice:

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 North Dakota. 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 Jubilee, 1967”
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 (Summer, 1978).
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 L. Iseminger
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 North Dakota
German-Russian farmers, November 1940. –Courtesy of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota

  1. 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.
  2. “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, p. 352.
  3. “The Dakota Territorial Census of 1885,” pp. 361-372.
  4. Wishek, p. 134.
  5. Ibid, pp. 257-259.
  6. 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.
  7. Wishek, pp. 280-281, 292.
  8. 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.”
  9. Wishek, p.105.
  10. 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.
  11. Wishek, p. 188.
  12. Ellen Wood and Euvagh Wenzel, eds., Emmons County History (Linton, ND: Emmons County Historical Society, 1976), p.24.
  13. Wishek, pp. 208-120.
  14. Samuel Lubell, “Who Votes Isolationist and Why,” Harper’s Magazine, April, 1951, pp. 33-34.
  15. Ashley Tribune, March 3, 1916. February 5, 1931.
  16. Ibid, June, 16, 1932.
  17. Wishek News, May 28, 1936; Ashley Tribune, November 2, 1944.
  18. Ashley Tribune, December 13, 1951, November 6, 1952, November 4, 1954.
  19. “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.
  20. 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.
  21. Wishek, pp. 180-182.
  22. Ibid, p. 186.
  23. Ashley’s Golden Jubilee, 1888-1938. pp. 35-36.
  24. Venturia Golden Jubilee, 1901-1951, pp 4, 24; Wishek Golden Jubilee, 1898-1948. p. 12.
  25. Ashley Tribune, May 28, 1931, May 25, 1933.
  26. Robinson, p. 287; Sallet, p. 87.
  27. Wishek, p. 283.
  28. 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).
  29. Ibid.
  30. Wishek, pp. 292-293.
  31. Ibid, p. 270.
  32. Ashley Tribune, October 18, 1934, November 2, 1933.
  33. Wishek News, December 17, 1936; Ashley Tribune, January 21, 1937.
  34. 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. 29-30, 64-68.
  35. U.S. Works Progress Administration, Areas of Intense Drought Distress, 1930-1936, Series V, No. 1 (Washington, D.C.: 1937), pp. 39-44.
  36. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, Climatological Data, North Dakota Section, Vols. XXXVII-XLI, 1928-32; Wishek News, July 30, 1931.
  37. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Weather Bureau, Climatological Data, North Dakota Section, Vols. XLII-XLIII, 1933-34; Ashley Tribune, June 29, 1933.
  38. 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.
  39. 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.
  40. 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.
  41. 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.
  42. 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.
  43. 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.
  44. Wishek News, February 5, August 20, 1931.
  45. Ashley Tribune, June 4, 1931, December 7, 1932, December 10, 1936; Wishek News, January 29, 1931.
  46. Wishek News, May 14, 1931, January 7, 1932, October 24, 1935, May 28, 1936, Ashley Tribune, November 12, 1931, December 15, 1932.
  47. 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.
  48. 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.
  49. Ashley Tribune, April 6, 1933.
  50. Ibid, February 21, 1935; Wishek News, August 22, 1935.
  51. Wishek News, August 13, 1936.
  52. Wishek News, August 13, 1936.
  53. Ashley Tribune, June 13, 1935.
  54. Ibid, August 18, 1932.
  55. Ibid, June 7, July 19, 1934; Wishek News, September 20, 1934.
  56. Ashley Tribune, July 13, 20, December 14, 1933, March 15, 1934.
  57. Ibid, December 28, 1933, February 8, February 22, May 24, 1934.
  58. Ibid, July 9, 1936.
  59. Ibid, December 10, 1936.
  60. Ibid, December 24, 1936, April 29, June 24, 1937.
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