This Old Haus the Rev. William Sherman's Housework may Never end When it Comes
to Researching the Architecture of the Germans From Russia
Schmidt, Steve. "This Old Haus the Rev. William Sherman's Housework may Never end When it Comes to Researching the Architecture of the Germans From Russia." Grand Forks Herald, 14 July 1996.
Norwegians may have brought lutefisk, but it was the Germans who
brought sauerkraut and the look of Santa Fe to homesteads on the
The Rev. William Sherman of Grand Forks marvels over this as he
flicks though the thousands of photos of early homes of Germans
from Russia in his research files.
"Who'd ever think you'd find adobe houses in North Dakota?"
the pastor of St. Michael's Catholic Church says.
Yet the folders in his basement study, a treasure trove of information
and art about North Dakotas ethnic character, clearly show
little "haus" after "haus" on the prairies made
of sunburnt bricks of clay or mud.
They tell the story of Germans' ability to adapt to harsh cold
and wind and a lack of trees or money to import wood to their home
These photos, which Sherman began accumulating in the 1970s as
a student and teacher of Great Plains sociology at North Dakota
State University, recently have been supplemented by firsthand looks
at the villages the Germans from Russia left behind.
Not until recently has the Communist Iron Curtain been lifted
enough to let researchers and heritage groups, such as North Dakota's
Germans from Russia Society, to get a close-up look at how their
ancestors lived in what is now the Ukraine in the Black Sea region
of the former Soviet Union.
Sherman, together with a former college student of his, John Guerrero,
a dedicated globetrotter and amateur historian and photographer
from Fargo, went to the Ukraine last fall to see for themselves
how Germans built their houses.
They built them through a century of settling and forming prosperous
villages on Russian lands, starting with an invitation from Catherine
German villagers, who kept their own culture amid those of surrounding
Russian Communities, began to exit by the thousands when their host
rulers reneged on promises not to draft Germans to fight wars for
From the photos, you can tell that the land they left near the
Black Sea looks as if it easily could have substituted for the images
in North Dakota Horizons magazine, of rolling prairies and
flatlands and lightly trafficked highways.
Given the similarity of terrain, its perhaps not surprising
that their first houses in the new country turned out to be almost
perfect matches of the ones they learned to build and that still
stand after 120 years or more in the Ukraine--now virtually emptied
Sherman and his partner returned with about 2500 slides and prints
from 20 different housing styles in 15 villages that were homes
to the grandparents and great-grandparents of thoughts on North
Hes done some presentations to small groups, including architects
in the valley. Eventually, though, Sherman intends to enrich his
writings on the Germans from Russia with a book on their architecture
and how they borrowed liberally from the styles they learned in
The first ones in this region were no-nonsense, no-frills, sturdily
made and highly practical homes. They were efficient to the point
where livestock barns were built right nest to the living rooms,
and vegetable and grains were stored in lofts over the bedrooms.
Houses often were long and low, designed for maximum protection
against the elements and centrally heated with clay oven stoves.
Sherman says he knew of one German settler north of Dickinson, ND,
who had an adobe house where he claimed "not one single nail
was used--until he put a wood floor in it."
Sherman says he hopes to learn what concepts of home and hearth
the Germans had in mind when they first arrived in Russia and began
adapting to the conditions they found they. "How do you build
a house when you have no money and no wood? So they borrowed from
what they say around them from the Russians. And they used the house
plans they already had in their heads. So it was a combination of
He believes research on architecture, combined with many other
aspects of culture from the adaptable Germans from Russia, eventually
will complement a big travel industry linking the descendants with
their ancestral villages in Eastern Europe.
And as Sherman wrote in one of the first sketches of German from
Russia architecture two decades ago, "A house is a testimony
to the family that builds it, with its various years of struggle
and success. But it is also a monument to a people with their collective
experience, their migrations, their values and their achievements."
His hope is that enough of the buildings and their styles will
be preserved, whether in Strasburg, ND or Strasburg in the Ukraine,
to let future generations appreciate the quiet, humble and sturdy
people who built them.
|| An expertly decorated prairie house with
adobe walls south of Harvey, ND, was built early in the 1930s
by German Mennonite settles from Russia. It has many of the
same architectural features that visitors now can see on German-built
houses in the Ukraine. The home region for many of North Dakota's
pioneers recently was opened to visitors after the fall of Soviet
Communists, who persecuted the Germans and tried to terminate
their religion and culture. Photo courtesy of the Rev. William
Sherman, Grand Forks
|| From his files of 7,000 photos of German-built
homes, the Rev. William Sherman searches for architectural matches
to photos he took last fall on a visit to 20 ancestral villages
of North Dakotans in the Ukraine. Sherman, pastor at St. Michaels
Catholic Church in Grand Forks and a commuting professor of
Great Plains sociology at North Dakota State University in Fargo,
has studied the culture of Germans from Russia for nearly three
decades. Photo by John Stennes, staff photographer
|| The Rev. William Sherman of Grand Forks
joins a translator, right, and other visitors outside a typical
home built by former German villagers in what's now the Ukrainian
community of Elsass. It's near Odessa, in the Black Sea region.
On a recent visit to the former Soviet Union, Sherman found
hundreds of homes matching those built by Germans from Russia
when they emigrated to the Dakotas and Canada a century ago.
Photo by John Guerrero
Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald, Grand