The German-Russians - Part III - Lesson for Others in Their Hard-Work Heritage
Hamil, Harold D. "The German-Russians - Part III - Lesson for Others in Their Hard-Work Heritage." Farmland News, 31 August 1972.
During my four years in high school I stayed in town from Monday
through Friday in the home of the man who managed the cemetery.
|Beet Workers posed for this picture at thinning
time in a Weld County, Colorado, field some 60 years ago. All
but man in derby and vest (probably the land owner) are presumed
to be of one family. Adults and older children wielded hoes;
smaller one removed excess seedlings with their fingers, crawling
the length of the field on hands and knees - (Photo courtesy
Greeley, Colorado Municipal Museum).
His name was Thompson, and his world pretty well revolved around
his family, his church and his job. It was only natural, therefore,
that his contributions to mealtime conversation included frequent
references to what he had seen and heard as he dug and covered graves.
He could be humorous or serious, depending on circumstances, but
I was never sure what he saw in the story he told of the burial
of a young mother.
At the conclusion of the grave-side service he had waited a respectable
time before moving in to the lower the casket and "close" the grave.
He was surprised to discover that the husband of the deceased held
back and was staring at the casket and groping for a final comment.
The words, when they came, were quoted by Mr. Thompson in broken
English about as follows: "She vas a goot beet vorker."
Those were strange words for a man's final tribute to his wife.
Or so it seemed to Mr. Thompson, and it must have seemed that way
to me, or I would have forgotten the story.
If they were typical of thousands in the sugar beet country of
Northeast Colorado, the young man at the graveside and his wife
had come from Russia. They were of German blood, but their ancestors
had lived in Russia for 100 years or more. They labored in the fields
of a burgeoning sugar beet industry.
Most had known no English on their arrival. But any who had
spent a single season in the beet fields knew the importance of
a single English word -- work -- and it didn't make much difference
whether it was used as a noun or verb or in some variation on either.
When a man and his family were being evaluated as prospective
contractors to handle the hoeing, thinning and topping for a season,
the employing farmer made a careful count of the number of "beet
workers" who would be part of the deal. There were questions as
to whether the wife and mother would go to the fields and how many
children were capable of crawling on their knees at thinning time
and how many could wield a knife at topping time in the fall.
Each good beet worker in a man's family was, therefore, a prime
asset. When one's wife could hoe and top, and when she was willing
to bring a nursing baby to the field and feed it during short breaks
at the end of the rows, the family's effectiveness was greatly enhanced.
Thus the young widower at the cemetery was merely striving for terminology
that carried weight in the society of which he was trying to be
The Work for which these people were noted hastened the
day when countless families that had started as stoop laborers became
renters and owners of a high percentage of the land on which sugar
beets were grown.
At Boulder, Colorado, this summer there was a meeting of men and
women with an interest in compiling the history of those German
people who came to the United States from Russia. Their organization,
formed in the late 60's, is the American Historical Society of Germans
from Russia.There were frequent references to the heritage of hard
work that is an important part of the German-Russian story.
(Those who worked in the sugar beet fields were by no means the
majority of German-Russians who came to America. The first to come
-- in the 1870's -- were here long before sugar beets had become
an important crop in our western states.)
Since Boulder is only a few miles from some of the country's more
productive sugar beet-growing areas, there was a lot of talk about
the pain and hardship of growing up in a family that had entered
the main streams of American life by way of the beet fields.
It came out in more than one discussion that the hard work and
the status of a sort of second-class citizenship to which some felt
they were assigned had the effect of making many German-Russians
want to forget their origins.
One young woman from Fresno, California was obviously there to
fill gaps in her family history. Her mother and grandmother, she
said, had refused to talk about their backgrounds, except to say
that theirs had been lives of hard work.
On the other hand, some men and women -- generally beyond 60
years of age -- pointed with pride to the fact that they had crawled
scores of miles during several seasons, thinning the seedling beets
until there was only one at each select interval.
Timothy Kloberdanz, a brilliant young man who will be studying
toward an advanced degree in cultural anthropology this fall at
Colorado State, was quick to remind everyone that in the annals
of the beet workers of his and my home county there are cases of
both adults and children who collapsed and sometimes died from overwork
and exposure to the sun.
Later, after he had read in Farmland News the first of
my three articles on the Boulder meeting, he wrote a letter that
included this paragraph:
"Though we prospered in this country, it was primarily through
the efforts of parents who died before their time and sun-blackened
children who crawled through innumerable acres of sugar beets. The
story of the German-Russian immigrant whose confidence in the American
dream was callously exploited, and whose cultural heritage was deemed
inferior by Anglo educators, will be lost in the belated applause
that greets our accomplishments."
Tim went on to say there was precious little romance in the German-Russian
story. But there are those who would disagree with him in broad
principle. He forgets, I suspect, that many events that are rough
in the passing inevitably become romantic in retrospect -- our wars,
The older men and women could recall that there was high excitement
in the spring when time came to return to the beet fields. It was
the custom of most families to spend the winter in town, where the
husband usually could pick up work, but many beet-working families
were based as far as several hundred miles from the growing areas.
Jack Lofink of Lincoln, Nebraska recalls the stir that went through
the German-Russian neighborhood in Lincoln when the Burlington started
assembling cars for the special trainloads that would head for the
beet country each May. It was a big disappointment to him that his
mother was one who chose to take in washing rather than take her
family to the beet fields.
There was some excitement at Proctor, Colorado on a spring
day in 1917 when a special train let off several families that had
been assigned to farms in the area. The Jacob Lebsacks had come
from Hastings, Nebraska and were assigned to the ranch my father
managed. They had come from Russia just before the outbreak of war
in 1914. Mr. Lebsack had worked for the Burlington in Hastings,
but when he came to Colorado it was with the intention of staying,
and he did. After one year he was renting a farm. Eventually he
owned one. His sons and daughters grew up and launched careers of
their own, some in agriculture, some in other pursuits. One son,
Clarence, operates a feed store in Sterling. Another, John, became
one of the state's most prominent cattle feeders and for a time
was president of a Sterling bank.
When the Amen families came to Proctor in 1914, it was not just
to work beets. They came as purchasers of a sheep ranch that was
eligible for water from a new irrigation district. They planned
to develop the land and raise beets.
Conrad Amen, Sr., had come from Russia in 1901, inspired in part
by the advice of Conrad Junior, who had been drafted into the Russian
army. There were five other sons, and Conrad Jr. advised his father
that his experience convinced him it would be good to get out of
the country before any more young men were called.
The Amens stopped briefly at McCook, Nebraska after arriving in
this country. They then went to Loveland, Colorado and in 1908 to
Fruita, Colorado. The need for more land than was available at Fruita
prompted the deal for the Proctor sheep ranch and the establishment
of four separate farming units on it. During the 1914-15 school
year, the 10 Amens in our one-room school at Proctor constituted
almost half the enrollment. It was an exciting year.
(Two members of one of these families -- Carl Amen of Loveland,
Colorado and Mrs. Rachel Sullivan of Oakland, California were at
The Amen and Lebsack stories illustrate, I think, the speed with
which families passed through the strictly beet-worker phase. But
even in their cases, the children were not emancipated immediately
from the beet work when their fathers became farm owners or renters.
Being able to do one's own field work contributed a great deal toward
a profitable crop.
In the case of the Amens, things might have been rough for five
sons if Conrad Sr. had not got out of Russia when he did. And for
the German-Russians in this country there are sad might-have-been
reports of what happened to hundreds of thousands of friends and
relatives who refused to join the migration to America that started
in the 1870's.
One reason I was interested in attending the boulder meeting and
filling in some gaps in my knowledge of the Germans who came to
this country from Russia was a desire to see if their history offers
any lessons for minorities in this country that have failed to adjust
smoothly to our late Twentieth Century society.
It seems distasteful to many to suggest that the formula of hard
work is worth studying. It does bring pain and suffering at times.
But it opens many doors -- the doors to better education, to name
just one. It helps keep young people out of trouble, away from temptation
and under strict adult supervision. And, despite obvious hypocrisies
in many situations, it brings acceptance by others and contributes
to harmony in community living.
But the word "work" is subject to far broader interpretations
in our time than in the days of the forlorn young husband in the
cemetery. Our technical society needs working people of a different
type than those required to make the sugar beet fields glisten in
the August sun.
S.I. Hayakawa, president of San Francisco State College, wrote
an article for the new Saturday Evening Post last spring that included
If the Black Panthers had an iota of sense, they would drop
at once all that half-digested Marxist jive they are now messing
around with. They would throw themselves furiously into the study
of mathematics, engineering and business administration. They would
make the slide rule rather than the gun the symbol of their struggle
It is a cliche of some of our social reformers that the establishment
won't give up its positions of power.
But the truth is that establishmentarian families and cliques
are constantly looking outside for new talent with which they will
share power in return for know-how and work.
It was that way, really, in the beet country 50 and 60 years ago.
And the German-Russians made the most of it.
Reprinted with permission of Farmland News.