Weavers: New Germans From Russia Exhibit Follows Threads of the Kempf Family
Cox, Charlotte, Jay Gage, and Mike Miller. "Prairie Weavers: New Germans From Russia Exhibit Follows Threads of the Kempf Family." North Dakota Horizons, Spring 1996.
Hard work. Plain food. Sod houses. Dark colors. Tough times and
This is how many of us picture the early settlers of the North
Dakota prairies. In particular, it's how we tend to see those unusual
Dakota families who call themselves Germans from Russia.
That picture, however, is worth another look. The special exhibition
from the Libraries of North Dakota State University now touring
the state and region, "The Kempf Family: Germans from Russia Weavers
on the Dakota Prairies," is a brilliant refutation of those stereotypes,
and a compelling introduction to the German-Russian heritage and
"Brilliant" also describes the vibrantly colored, meticulously
crafted, amazingly durable weavings that fill the Kempf Family collection.
The shawls, blankets, headscarves, and tapestries are a rich interplay
of jewel-like reds, blacks, golds, and vivid greens that cascade
in and out of the intricate designs.
||Edna Gage Jensen displays her great-grandmother Gottliebina
Kempf's handmade "paradise" textiles from Bessarabia (Moldova).
These weavings, some of them more than 100 years old, have been handed
down from generation to generation through the female descendants
of the German-Russian families who created them in their ancestral
Russian villages of Beresina and Wittenberg and Alt-Eft in Bessarabia,
and preserved them for their daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters
who homesteaded in places like Ashley and Forbes on the plains of
The family treasures that fill this traveling exhibit have been
loaned by the Kempfs and other German-Russian families to the NDSU
Libraries, which houses a permanent Germans from Russia Heritage
Collection. The Libraries' purpose in taking this exhibit on the
road is to expand its pleasure and enlightenment beyond those who
might view the textiles on the university's campus in Fargo, and
share it with the residents of the many small towns scattered throughout
the state. Some of these towns are still heavily populated with
German-Russian families who, because of distance, might never be
able to see the collected beauties of this unusual culture's craftsmanship.
"This is just one example of how the Libraries carries out NDSU's
mission as a land grant university, which is to reach out from the
campus and bring learning and scholarship to people across the state,"
said John W. Beecher, Director of the NDSU Libraries. "We're pleased
with the dynamic interaction that seems to take place when we not
only 'take in' new expressions of prairie life to our collections
but also send them 'back out' again and share them with others who
cherish the northern plains heritage."
The Kempf exhibit started its journeys last summer in Strasburg,
in the heart of German-Russian country in south-central Emmons County,
at the Lawrence Welk Homestead. This was a fitting place to begin
since Welk himself was proud of his heritage as a German from Russia,
and many of the Welk cousins' families still reside in the Strasburg
area today. From this site, the Kempf weavings drew visitors throughout
the summer of 1995 from the little towns such as Ashley, Linton,
and Hague that dot Emmons County and are filled with citizens who
continue to celebrate their German-Russian roots.
Next, the exhibit was on display briefly in Hebron and Richardton
in September, and then settled in for a five-month stay through
February 1996 in Dickinson at the Joachim Regional Museum. "We are
pleased to be able to display the textiles and clothing of our German-Russian
neighbors here in the Joachim Museum," said Museum Director Dr.
Carl Larson. "This area is filled with families whose ancestors
came from the Black Sea colonies of South Russia to settle western
From March through May 1996, the Kempf exhibit will go to the
City Hall in Beulah; during June and July it will appear at the
McIntosh County Museum in Ashley; from August through mid-September
it will travel to Oakes; through October it will appear at the Second
Crossing Gallery in Valley City; and, after a "home stay" at the
NDSU Libraries in early 1997, it will continue its travels to the
Bismarck State College Library in summer of 1997. After that, its
itinerary is anybody's guess. According to Miller, inquiries about
other bookings have included places as far away as Pennsylvania
Typically, at when the Kempf exhibit opens in a new place, there
is a special program and a reception to celebrate its arrival in
town. In Dickinson, for example, the NDSU Libraries invited civic
leaders to a private showing of the exhibit in the evening after
it was set up, with appearances by NDSU officials and a reception
offering treats from the German-Russian cuisine. Then the following
day townspeople were invited to a public opening at the museum and
a special program featuring a hands-on showing of the textiles and
historical background, presented by Jay Gage, curator of exhibits
for the Libraries, and Ann Braaten, textile specialist from the
Emily P. Reynolds Costume Collection. Gage, who was chief curator
for this exhibit, is in the unique position of also being a descendant
of the Kempf family on the side of his grandmother who came to America
from Russia in 1901.
||Gottliebina (Stolz) Kempf and her husband Johann "Georg"
Kempf. © 1995 Jay Gage, JMO Photography.
Just who are these Germans from Russia? Why did they call themselves
that when they arrived in North Dakota in the late 1800s? What were
their lives like then, and why do their stories still have the power
to touch us today?
Beginning in the 1760s, enterprising German farm families migrated
by the thousands to the Russian Empire, at the invitation of Catherine
the Great, in search of more land and more freedom than they could
hope for in a politically and economically turbulent Germany. Several
generations later, when the policies of Nicholas II made these families
no longer welcome in Russia, the same search sent their descendants
to North America, to settle in the plains of the northern United
States and Canada.
The Germans from Russia who homesteaded in the Dakotas brought
with them their rich agricultural experiences from the steppes of
South Russia and used them to cultivate and civilize the plains
of North Dakota. Their history parallels the tales of immigrants
from many Old Country lands who came to America to find a better
way of life for their children. However, these German-Russians had
to search for a new homeland not once but twice before they could
begin to reestablish themselves and their culture.
Some of them came to the United States from the Black Sea area
of Russia, and others from the Bessarabian villages of the Ukraine.
And when these German-Russians then migrated to the Dakota prairies,
they brought with them their Christian traditions, building beautiful
churches and contributing a rich cultural heritage of music, folklore,
foods, crafts, and textiles such as those we can now experience
in the Kempf family's collection of weavings.
The Bessarabian textile treasures created on the Moldova steppes
in Romania and the Ukraine during the 1880s are known over the world for their beautiful colors and their intricate designs. According
to Michael M. Miller, NDSU's Germans from Russia Bibliographer,
"The Kempf family textiles are not only fine examples of this genre
but have an unusual family history as well."
As Miller tells the story, Gottliebina Stolz (Jay Gage's grandmother)
designed and wove brilliant "Kanapee," or "paradise blankets," for
her 1883 wedding trousseau in her ancestral village of Alt-Elft,
Bessarabia in South Russia. Immigrating to America in 1901 with
her husband Johannes-Georg Kempf from his ancestral village of Beresina,
Gottliebina preserved her textile heritage through four generations
of female descendants, while homesteading in a sod house in Jewell,
near Ashley and Forbes in North Dakota.
Their neighbors, the Andreas (Schlobsz) Sackmann family, also
have lent to the exhibit their cherished, unique plaid-twill Kanapee
with felted lace, from their ancestral village of Wittenberg, Bessarabia.
Created by Carolina Schlobz, these textiles feature remarkably complex
twill plaids of orange, olive green, and purple. Other family heirlooms
on display include examples of shoe-cobbling craft, camel hair weavings,
bobbin lace shawls, and elegant woolen tapestries that are folk
survivals from not only the Bessarabian but also the Black Sea German-Russian
The needlepoint tapestries were often used as floor carpets, table
grammercies, or wall decorations, sometimes bordered with filigree
lace made of copper filament with gold leaf.
The NDSU Libraries' Germans from Russia Heritage Collection also
includes a silk-fringed black woolen shawl, which was purchased
by Karl Kusler in 1910 when revisiting his birthplace in the village
of Worms in the Beresan Enclave of the Ukraine, located north of
Odessa. Karl Kusler was of the lineage of George Kusler, and Karl's
youngest daughter Hilda, of Beulah, North Dakota, donated this family
textile treasure in 1994.
The Black Sea Germans of the ancestral Catholic Kutschurgan villages
including Elsass, Kandel, Mannheim, Selz, and Strassburg, all west
of Odessa, are represented by a black fringed woolen shawl from
the Degenstein family of Rugby, North Dakota. Another Black Sea
treasure is the stunning black silk fringed shawl, embroidered with
a shells and swan motif, contributed by Phillipine Baumgartner Berglund
from Linton, in Emmons County.
As a Kempf family descendant, curator Jay Gage witnessed his grandmother
Gottliebina Stolz Kempf presenting her only daughter with the ancestral
Bessarabian textile treasures, combining the exquisite Kanapees
and shawls with family blessings and memories. Gage remembers, "My
grandfather, Jacob Pahl, had special admiration for his mother-in-law,
Gottliebina, whose artistic genius is woven into these blankets."
In the same vein, Leona Sackman Nye of Ashley, a neighbor to the
Kempf family, says, "My Aunt Frieda's textiles caused me to recognize
the power of hand-made items as well as the importance of family
sentiment." And Loretta Gebhardt Swiontek of Oakes, a great-granddaughter
and family historian of the Kempf family, comments, "Researching
my husband's family history intensified my appreciation for the
history, folkways, and remarkable textile heritage of my grandmother."
The textiles are not so much history as living memories for today's
German-Russian families. Even now, North Dakota's population includes
between 30 percent and 40 percent of people from German-Russian
ancestry. In fact, nearly 80 percent of the population between Bismarck
and Jamestown claims some form of German heritage.
||Gottliebina and Johann Kempf with their five children
immigrated in 1901 to Jewell near Ashley. This portrait of
the Kempf family was taken in 1910 at Forbes, N.D. Photo
courtesy Loretta Gebhardt Swiontek.
The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at the NDSU Libraries
is recognized as one of the outstanding research collections in both
North America and the world. Overseen by Germans from Russia Bibliographer
Michael M. Miller, the primary focus of its collection building is
on the Bessarabian and Black Sea Germans. The collection provides
valuable resources for scholars, students, and family historians to
uncover the unique history of the Germans from Russia in the Dakotas.
NDSU's North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies has published an
annotated bibliography of the collection, Researching the Germans
from Russia, which serves as a central resource for scholarly
research in this field.
To document the history of the Germans from Russia for future
generations, the NDSU Libraries staff is continually enlarging its
compendium of oral history interviews, including some with members
of the Kempf family. With the help of volunteers from the community,
they are pursuing a global project to interview Germans from Russia,
in both English and German languages, in the Dakotas and elsewhere
in North America, as well as in Germany, in Siberia, and in southern
The NDSU Libraries have taken a leadership role in the development
of global communications relating to the Germans from Russia. An
international electronic discussion group based at NDSU, through
the World Wide Web, provides a means of communication for the German-Russian
community, students, scholars, and writers all over the world.
Today, at a time when many families in other parts of the nation
have forgotten their heritages and the children of new generations
have gone their separate ways, the German-Russian experience in
North Dakota is a unique reminder of the ties that bind families
together. The Kempf family weavings are but one example of those
ties, but they are an important evidence of the fact that these
hard-working, plain-speaking prairie settlers also had a love of
beauty and an appreciation of the finer things of life.
The bright colors and rich designs of their tapestries and textiles
are the embodiment of their belief that care and craftsmanship and
a sense of family values can be transmitted down through the generations.
Against a landscape filled with adversity for the Germans from Russia
who settled the plains of North Dakota -- homesickness, language
barriers, fierce weather, isolation, and scarce resources -- these
weavings are a living symbol of their hope and their courage to
The story of the Kempfs -- and the story of the Germans from Russia
-- is truly the story of all immigrants. Their success in creating
a future for their families, on their farms and in their communities,
makes a unique contribution to the history of the Dakotas. It has
become an integral part of the rich fabric of America's cultural
||This Bessarabian German traditional wedding of Ottilia
Kempf to Jacob Pahl was held in 1913 at Jewell, N.D. ©1995
Jay Gage, JMO Photography.
For further information about the Kempf and Stolz families, consult
the following family histories available in the Germans from Russia
Heritage Collection at the NDSU Libraries' Institute for Regional
Studies, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105, 701-231-8416.
- Kempf, Norman R. The Kempf Family History: Johann, George,
and Gottliebina Kempf. 1989. (Institute Room CS 71 .K32 1989)
- Mitchell, Johanna. The Stolz Family History, 1850-1974.
1974. (Institute Room CS 71 .S8755 1974)
- Swiontek, Loretta Gebhardt. The Kempf Family History.
1994. (Institute Room CS 71 .K32 1994)
Reprinted with permission of North Dakota Horizons
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