German-Russian Houses in Western
Carlson, Alvar W. "German-Russian Houses in Western North Dakota." Pioneer America 13, no. 2, 1981.
The American Great Plains are generally perceived
by people today as a semi-arid region which displays little diversity
in both its physical environment and cultural landscape. It is viewed
as being monotonous to the many travellers who speed across it headed
to supposedly more interesting landscapes farther east or west.
The Great Plains is not only a transit region experiencing rural
depopulation and farm consolidation, it is also a region of much
historic cultural diversity (Mather, 1972, pp. 237-257). The Schefield
area of western North Dakota was originally settled by German-Russian
emigrants and is one area which well-illustrates this diversity
in those vestige pioneer houses which remain today (Fig. 1).
Thousands of Germans emigrated to a newly expanded Russia beginning
in the mid-1700s and extending into the 1880s. The push factors
which led Germans to leave their homeland included warfare, political
instability and religious persecution, but it was the pull factors
which prompted most to emigrate to Russia (Voeller, 1940, pp. 11-6;
Sallet, 1974, pp. 3-4, 9-10). The Russian government encouraged
German settlers to occupy their newly claimed territory in the lower
Volga River and Ukraine areas to help control potential intruders,
to introduce European technology, to cultivate and make large expanses
of land productive, and to teach Russian peasants better agricultural
methods (Height, 1973, pp. 1-2; Stumpp 1971, pp. 9-12). Government
manifestos and Russian agents working in Germany consequently lured
German families to the area by guaranteeing them tracts of land
up to 80 dessiatines (over 200 acres) along with a host
of privileges that included religious freedom, exemption from taxes
and military service (Long, 1978, pp. 1-4; Becker, 1938, pp. 32-8,
57; Height, 1973, pp. 86-7). German enclaves were established in
which the settlers retained their language and culture, particularly
their religion. The colonies in Beresina in Bessarabia near the
Black Sea, for example, were founded largely by Catholics from southern
Germany (Voeller, 1940, pp. 6-8; Stumpp, 1971, pp. 15, 68).
Disenchantment developed within the numerous German colonies beginning
in the 1870s when the Russian government revoked many privileges
and subjected the males to conscription, the children to the Russian
language in schools, and all colonies to Russian rule. They were
also upset by a shortage of new land for sons (Height, 1973, p.
245; Stumpp, 1971, pp. 28-9; Sallet, 1974, pp. 3-4, 58). Coincidentally
free land was available in the United States and heavy German-Russian
emigration began in the 1880s.
Approximately 120,000 German-Russian immigrants entered the United
States to settle in various parts of the Great Plains before World
War I. Immigration from the region nearly ceased after this time.
Most of these were Protestants, but a smaller number of Catholics,
mainly from the Black Sea area, also emigrated. These largely settled
in North Dakota where large expanses of unimproved land were available
for homesteading in the counties immediately to the east of the
Missouri River and west of the river on the Missouri Plateau. Many
of the German-Russian Catholics were late arrivals and therefore
settled chiefly on the Missouri Plateau (Sallet, 1974, pp. 36-9).
They settled mostly in groups and some were helped in acquiring
homesteads by immigration agents who this time represented railroad
companies (Hudson, 1976, pp. 245-47; Sallet, 1974, p. 68).
The Dickinson, North Dakota area was primarily settled by German-Russian
Catholics from Beresina in Bessarabia in the 1890s (Sherman, 1979,
p. 9; Sallet, 1974, pp. 36-9). Many of those arriving in the early
1900s settled south of Dickinson in the vicinity of Schoenfeld,
later called Schefield. German-Russian homesteading continued to
World War I when they comprised the largest immigrant population
in western North Dakota.
The German-Russian settlement of the northern Great Plains placed
them in a physical environment similar to the one they had left
in Russia—a semi-arid steppe suited for small grain crops
and pasture. The irregular and meager precipitation of western North
Dakota provided for short grasses, largely a grama-buffalo grass
association, on the undulating and wind-swept terrain. Scrub trees
were found in the scattered ravines and in patches at the higher
elevations on the large buttes, in the Killdeer Mountains north
of Dickinson, or in the Badlands. There was a general lack of wood
for both fuel and building materials, although surface lignite was
fairly commonplace. The Schefield area lies within the Golden Valley
and Sentinel Butte formations which have sandstone outcrops. Silcrete
was also found, but mostly on ridges and buttes where it was highly
resistant to erosion. Splintery and poorly preserved petrified wood
could also be found occasionally.
Early German-Russian Housing in North Dakota
The German Russians built small structures of grassland sod, some
partially dugout, that were typical of the houses of many of the
initial homesteaders in western North Dakota and elsewhere on the
Great Plains. These represented the cheapest and quickest form of
construction. The interior walls were usually plastered with a straw
or prairie grass-clay mud and limewashed. Few had wooden floors
as lumber was relatively expensive and the houses were intended
to be utilized only temporarily. Considerable energy was instead
expended on improving the homestead, usually 160 acres (a quarter
section). The abandonment of the sod house for other house types
mirrors an immigrant group's tenacity in retaining certain tenets
of folk architecture as well as an indication of perceived economic
success. Some of the German-Russian families in western North Dakota
lived in these sod houses longer than other immigrant groups before
they erected either a larger and more durable rammed-earth (fachwerk)
house, or a mud and straw brick house, or, even later, a frame house
The German-Russian families in the Schefield area appear to have
moved from sod to stone houses. These stone houses normally were
rectangular one-room deep structures of two or three equal-size
rooms. They are identifiable by their front antechamber (vorhausl)
which led to the kitchen (Fig. 3). They could be enlarged by adding
rooms at either end, but this was rarely done. The thick walls consisted
entirely of local materials—pieces of silcrete, sandstone
and occasionally petrified wood bonded together by a clayey gumbo.
The limewashed interior walls were of clay plaster containing chopped
straw (Fig. 4). Exterior walls were normally stuccoed in the same
fashion. The gable roofs of the first houses were constructed with
a ridge pole (firstbaum) to support smaller poles covered
with sod, dirt and branches; later houses consisted of a sawed beam
and boards covered by wooden shingles (Fig. 5). An attic or half-story
provided additional space for the families. Plank floors covered
subterranean cellars. The house fronts usually had southerly and
easterly exposure to shield the doorways from the strong westerly
winds, while the windward sides generally had no windows (Fig. 6).
Mist or mistholz - dried manure and straw - was often burned
to heat these houses (Hudson, 1978, pp. 7-8; Carlson, 1972, p. 150).
Antecedents to North Dakota German-Russian Housing
One must investigate the Catholic German pioneer settlement of
Russia to gain insight into why the Schefield area immigrants built
stone houses. It is interesting to note that German pioneers in
the Black Sea area initially built small earthen houses as temporary
shelters. Prior to the arrival of the Germans, peasants in Russia
had a history of building (semeljankas (zemlyankas)
which were often partially dugout (Height, 1973, pp. 121-25; Peterson,
1976, p. 19; Sherman, 1974, p. 187; Lehr, 1978, p. 29). Sod was
often used in the construction of these houses, but their thick
walls were also built of sun-dried clay and straw (adobe) bricks.
Both the exterior and interior walls were plastered with a loam
mixture. The interior walls were limewashed. Roofs consisted of
poles covered with thatching of reeds and brush. The semeljankas
frequently had peressingas, a small porch or entry way,
which the Germans called a vorhäusl (Height, 1973,
pp. 55-7; Sherman, 1974, pp. 186-87, 195). It prevented the cold
winds from entering the doorway. Mistholz was used to heat
The German-Russians in the Black Sea area built larger and more
substantial houses later, as the case of settling on the American
Great Plains. These were constructed of quarried sandstone, limestone
or molded clay-straw-manure blocks (kohlsteine). Gable
roofs covered the one-story rectangular dwellings of two or three
equal-size rooms. Barns and sheds were often attached to the houses
which gave rise to elongated buildings known as einheitshauser
or kolonistenhaus (Stump, 1971, pp. 56. 59; Height, 1973,
pp. 55-8). Cellars were built under the floor or outdoors. Some
structures gave evidence of rammed-earth construction where clay
and stone were places between upright poles. The German pioneers
had had experience with this type of construction (fachwerk)
as well as with stone masonry in Germany. Small summer kitchens
were found in most yards which were enclosed by stone walls (Braunagel,
1972). The colonists lived largely in street-villages where the
church was dominant. They farmed their surrounding fields.
1938 A Historical Study of the Social Background
of the German-Russians From the Volga District in Russia Living
in Northern Colorado, Master's thesis, Department of Sociology,
Colorado State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, Fort
Braunagel, Nicholas A.
1972 St. Maria Kirche Zu Strasburg, 1900-1931,
manuscript in State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck.
Carlson, Alvar W.
1972 Lignite Coal as an Enabling Factor in the
Settlement of Western North Dakota, Great Plains Journal,
Vol. 11, No.2, pp. 145-53.
Height, Joseph S.
on the Steppe, A Cultural History of the Kutschurgan, Beresan,
and Liebental Colonists, 1804-1972, North Dakota Historical
Society of Germans from Russia, Bismarck.
1978 North Dakota's Frontier Fuels, Bulletin,
Association of North Dakota Geographers, Vol. 28, pp. 1-15.
1976 Migration to an American Frontier, Annals,
Association of American Geographers, Vol. 66, No.2, pp. 242-65.
1975 Frontier Housing in North Dakota, North
Dakota History, Vol. 42, No.4, pp. 4-15.
Lehr, John C.
1978 The Ukrainian Presence on the Prairies,
Canadian Geographic, Vol. 97, No.2, pp. 28-33.
1978 The German-Russians: A Bibliography,
American Bibliographical Center -Clio Press, Santa Barbara.
Mather, E. Cotton
1972 The American Great Plains, Annals,
Association of American Geographers, Vol. 62, No.2, pp. 237 -57.
Peterson, Albert J.
1976 The German-Russian House in Kansas: A Study
in Persistence of Form, Pioneer America, Vol. 8, No.1,
Settlements in the United States, (Translated by Lavern J.
Rippley and Armand Bauer), North Dakota Institute for Regional
Sherman, William C.
1979 Ethnic Distribution in Western North Dakota,
North Dakota History, Vol. 46, No.1, pp. 4-12.
1974 Prairie Architecture of the Russian-German
Settlers, Russian-German Settlements in the United States
(by Richard Sallet), North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies,
Fargo, pp. 185-95.
German-Russians: Two Centuries of Pioneering,
(Translated by Joseph S. Height), Atlantic-Forum, New York.
Voeller, Joseph B.
1940 The Origin of the German-Russian People
and Their Role in North Dakota, Master's thesis, Department
of Education, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.
||The remains of a rammed-earth (fachwerk)
house near Fairfield (Billings County), North Dakota (All photographs
by the author).
|A vorhausl on a stuccoed German-Russian
stone house near Schefield, North Dakota.
||Exterior and interior walls of an abandoned
German-Russian house near Schefield, North Dakota.
|An example of a ridge pole (firstbaum)
on a German-Russian building near Manning (Dunn County), North
||The windows of this German-Russian
house as seen here face south. Schefield, North Dakota.
|A wooden vorhausl on a German-Russian
house near Schefield, North Dakota.
||A smokehouse near Schefield, North
|A stone barn near Schefield, North
||A barn with a stone foundation and
a gambrel roof near Schefield, North Dakota.