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From Karlsruhe, About Karlsruhe, After Karlsruhe

Von Karlsruhe, Über Karlsruhe, Nach Karlsruhe

Längin, Bernd G. "From Karlsruhe, About Karlsruhe, After Karlsruhe." Globus Spezial, 1990, 185-190.

Translation from German to English by Alma M. Herman, Fargo, North Dakota


An anecdote from a Russian German village on the North American prairie:

“A Russian German, one of our homesteaders, had a boil on his behind,” said Sheriff Wald with an amused smile. “So what does he do? He goes to a department store in Minot. Naturally, he knows no English; and so he doesn’t know what to call a pillow in English. Yet, he desperately needs a pillow to sit on. He goes to a saleslady and asks for a ‘kissje’. She feels flattered and obligingly points to her lips. “No, no,” says the fellow, and points to his behind...you should have seen how quickly he flew out of that department store.”

Sheriff Wald is very surely met in Karlsruhe, North Dakota.

At Highway No. 14, the numbered unknown between Towner and Balfour, two metal signs, saying next to nothing, at least point in the right direction. A field track, that only by chance meets the pavement, cuts nine miles through the prairie land. It is the only measuring guide for the eye. Nine miles to Karlsruhe in North Dakota; nine miles that in early winter lie gray-green, like moldy milk.

Ranch next to ranch; farm upon farm, snow and clinking frost have long since covered corn and wheat fields, and buffalo grass with an ice blanket. And in between only the narrow dirt road, smooth as a half-licked bon-bon. However most motorists let Karlsruhe lie to the left, drive around it like a merry-go-round. Since those days when the pioneer spirit was still a sign of the times, the place has fallen more and more into oblivion.

Here, for the Dakota-American are only Levis and no Lederhasen (leather pants); the next Oktoberfest will be celebrated in Minot, forty miles farther away. Karlsruhe belongs to the Karlsruhers and the farming circle with a radius of seven miles; to those who send their children to school there. Exactly so did the early settlers in this area want it.

The distant parts, here still more distant and impersonal, was the end of their rainbow after 200 years of wandering. It reminded them of the monotony of the Russian steppe, and that in isolation one is the surest that he can remain German.

In 1874, twelve years after the battle over Neu-Ulm, Protestants and Catholic scouts of the Russian Germans advanced to the North American prairies. This was an area that earlier pioneers and trappers considered uninhabitable-in view of the deadly snow and flat plains. What did one in Russia give up for this? How much was the worth of the faith of a group of people that knew hard work in the final analysis could overcome all obstacles...as high as the prairie after a blizzard; as deadly as the rage of the Native Americans, as numerous as the swarms of grasshoppers, and as destructive as the dry poisonous breath of the hot summers.

From the first road sign on the Highway No. 14, it is just a few minutes to the second indication of the existence of Karlsruhe in McHenry County in North Dakota. Here is a fork in the road; here the prairie flourishes. The sign post is found only by him who looks for it in the street dust. It sticks to the ground seemingly over-grown by it. The first letters on the signboard have been erased by time, rust, with only ruhe (rest) is clear to read. The road sign shows no more direction, tells no distance, as if it had become meaningless.

For the Russian Germans who on the other side of the globe were pioneers once before; who had culture shock behind them; and a long wondering road with elements of the Odyssey (Epic poem by Homer recounting the wonderings of Odysseus), distances have never played a large role.

Freedom from military service for all time, 30 deszatine of land, freedom in religious and educational fields, freedom from taxation for a defiant period; all promised by Katherine II by the grace of God. “Empress and ruler in command of all Russians at Moscow, given at Peterhof in the year 1763,” had enticed them to go east. In Russia, one remained German, settled according to religious point of view-Mennonites together, Catholics and Lutherans for themselves, occasionally separate in villages as Schwaben, Badener, Pfälzer or Elsässer; maintained speech and customs which in the old Heimat (homeland) were overtaken by the time and technology until Russification made strangers of them.

In about 1873 around 300,000 German Russians again chose the road of emigration. Most of them tried it in North America, a land they did not know, whose language was strange to them.

The attempt to organize village life, like in Russia, in Canada and the USA succeeded only in the frontier days. The attempt to live peacefully together with one’s neighbors largely failed, far in the following years “Russia” stood for Communism, “Germany” for the Imperial Crown and National Socialism. American patriots questioned the build up of the Ku-Klux-Klan. But the Russian Germans obviously gave America more than any immigrant group; with the introduction of winter wheat (Turkey Red) they made the prairie into the grain granary of the world.

From the fork in the road it is only about two miles to the center of Karlsruhe; two miles through flat farmland and stunted bushes to the main street that divides the strictly laid out Karlsruhe into two halves. The visit to the settlement begin yet ends with sorrow: neatly fenced in, beyond the entrance, lies the cemetery of St. Peter and Paul, last resting places for the Böhmes, Leiers, Kleins, Schieles, Schwans, Lauingers, Eberles, Schwabs, Schneiders, Gutenbergs, Böchlers, Kellers, Zieglers, Walters or Basserts. At the back, about half a mile into prairie, life goes on.

The Karlsruhers in winter at 40 below Celsius freeze their ears off. In summer, the flies plague—half a mile—in the spring the wind penetrates. In harvest time when twilight descends on afternoon coffee time, the increasing frost indicates to the visitor how wrong it is for him to be in that place. Here Karlsruhe documents something like its peculiarity, a logical American compromise over which the world that once stood for Godfather of the place, might smile. The area is prairie provincial; never had much in common with its origin in German lands and so it doesn’t admit any objective, separate explanation. She (Karlsruhe), like so many of the small villages in large America, forces description impotence.

The so-called future of the settlement is also quickly treated. Among the Dakota villagers, Karlsruhe, that never had more than 200 residents, can hardly speak about itself. One might even say that Karlsruhe is nothing more than a former pioneer village like all the others although the “megaphone” of the place, Mayor Nikodemus (Nick) Bossert claims it is meanwhile a town. A town to be sure from which one must assume that it in the not too distant future will be a ghost town. The children and grandchildren of the immigrant generation that built Karlsruhe have overnight accepted the worth measuring staff of the North America, shaken off its origin and early youth with the third generation, at the latest, in order to put on the thin varnish of adaptation, the basic terms of acknowledgement and result of the American life standard.

Karlsruhe has become a village of the old, apart from rain and school affairs for the surrounding farmers—not too much more than a word in the book of the German emigration, without point and counterpoint. It is an airy built-up place established in hurried pioneer fashion with little grass plots as extras. There are a pair of squarely arranged buildings on a maximum of space (not like singles of European style), nine short streets, among them the Odessa, the Moskau, the Karl and the Lenastranze. There are a couple of trees, a church, a gas station, a bar, a post office, and finally a train station with the charm of a rusty grater where trains go by. The place is a mixture of reminders of Germany and Russia; of low and high German speech splinters; dusty streets, longing and hope, motor oil and the evidence of village trouble-makers, a few fat women and muscular men, of boundless distances and unlimited hospitality. It is the autumn scent of an old generation, where sons want something better than their fathers had.

Karlsruhe in North Dakota is yet always still the Badenish and Schwabianish idiom. A “Stuttgartulm-freiburgmannheim” where one feels at home. Too much has here in the passing years fallen through the wide meshes in the sieve of history to be patterned after. Whoever wanted to conquer the prairie of the American north in 15-hour days, of whom bare survival demanded gigantic effort, had to have a one-time ready culture fall-out of the gap in his work pocket.

But the language of their fathers and forefathers has been presented by the old Karlsruhers in amazingly genuine ways. With only ten of the 170 residents, can Mayor Bossert, in his German with a universal French-Schwabian accent, not converse anymore.

Bossert: “Auf unser Versammlungen schwaetze Mr. Deitsch.” (In out meetings, we speak German.) Sheriff Kasimer Wald, of Baden family tradition: “Mir sin Deitsche aus Karlsruhe” (We are Germans from Karlsruhe). The past we have overcome in this place. One is materially satisfied; is American. Besides, even more Germanisch; uses the German language as advertising for his origin even if the choice of words is not always expressed in Germanistic categories.

Their speech is for the Karlsruhers in North Dakota also a reality in itself, a reality that cannot be proven in those things that it describes, but by what it brings about. In any case, the old ones, some of whom were born in Czarist Russia, Karlsruhe has made Americans out of them in person and German in their hearts.

Mrs. Emanuel Böchler represents the American mail in Karlsruhe. Besides that Frau Böcheler carries on something like family research without being very successful at it. “Die deitsche Sproach und die deitsche Kuech” (The German language and the German Church ?) in her opinion still remind her of the origin of the pioneers. The mail women believe her own ancestors located in Lothringgen as Germans. The family of her husband had, for freedom’s sake, left the Baden area and was said to have moved to one of the southern Lustdorf Grosz order Klein Leibenthal, surrounding the Ukrainian Odessa at the Black Sea. By way of Strasburg, North Dakota, between 1870 and 1880 they arrived at the place that since 1902 has been called Karlsruhe. Grandfather Philip Böchler together with Michael Bohm, bought the site for an auction. Fifty dollars was paid for it at the old church place. In those days that was a large amount of money for the farmers to pay.

The second offer was from Sedan, but his advocates could not come to an agreement with the Karlsruhers. Who received the money was not disclosed. The Böhm family, like the family Klein, stemmed originally from the area of Karlsruhe, Baden-Baden, and then toward the end of the 18th century they settled in the Crimea, Krim.

It is regrettable that the place has found no room for its own history and that biographical announcements were missing. Yet in the pioneer era in Karlsruhe it was thought that a few dollars did not make it into Sedan, but one entertains the idea of how the Indians once freely ruled the Dakotas. Reportedly, it was proven that in the area of Karlsruhe in the year 1868 in the last battle between members of the Sioux tribe eight white men lost their lives on the way from Fort Totten to Fort Stevenson. When Karlsruhe became Karlsruhe, a good Indian was a dead Indian...and most of these native inhabitants had become “good” Indians. Footprints of that time lead closely past the place. Only an afternoon’s outing away from Karlsruhe lies the famous war Cheiftan, the Hunk-papa-Sioux, Sitting Bull, buried.

Nick Bossert, owner of a lumberyard and for 30 years mayor of Karlsruhe, lives in a one-room frame house, washed out by the rain, that leans on its wooden base. Nick and brother Mike, who runs an iron and steel warehouse besides being treasurer of the town, is often quoted in his “old wisdom”. After a few years in North Dakota he tried to re-discover the particular history, but here also there was a trivial answer to the question “Deutsch, Deutsches order Deutschtum im Karlsruhe?” (German, Germans or Germanism in Karlsruhe?) printed on the side of a pocket book. Historically one just lives in a vacuum without time factors. Karlsruhe was obviously God-chosen. Or better: the railway chose that “Great Northern” should arrange to take on water here on the way to the western depots. As a result, the area developed.

Contacts between Karlsruhe, North Dakota, and Karlsruhe in Baden-Württemberg generally did not exist. For years a policeman of Karlsruhe-Ubersee wrote to the local sheriff. Just recently a Karlsruhe newspaper placed research notices. Here and there a few curious private persons from Germany were interested in the Dakota village. But no one in the place had time to answer the mail. No one felt competent. Finally the similarity of names was considered co-incidental by the present generations.

The German picture (image) of the Karlsruhers is basically realistic even if vague and extremely lacking in information. The press and broadcasters ignore the Federal Republic of Germany to a large degree. But the German picture curves of American television are also received on the prairie from stations that would rather show a Himmler than a Genschev; rather show the manufacturer of a V-bomb than a Volkswagen. So, sad to say, one knows the Germany between 1925 and 1945 better than the Federal Republic of today. Yet always the present day Germans are known as the reliable partners of the USA.

The Boserts regret, with a Badenish accent, that the research process will not hold up in Karlsruhe. The Scandinavian immigrants in North Dakota maintain that they will build the strongest ethnic group in the state. This distinction is due to the Germans because every second a Dakotan citizen is of German descent and it is mentioned that in the village, because of his origin, the German is still always the anvil; the environment, the hammer. Now, more than ever, the ethnic northlanders in sports events like baseball and the national scene environment, the Karlsruhers, when things get rough, will continue to be insulted as “dumb schwabe,” “dumb Badeners,” or “dumb Russians.” Yet we, in the interim, did become Americans and have no complicated relationships with our neighbors.

The German-speaking Karlsruhers who, in the last presidential election voted convincingly for Regan, had earlier delivered a plastic model for political behavior. Not by chance did the sons of this place serve overseas in both World Wars; kneel before America and kiss its flag as the law ordered. For its veterans who wore the U.S. uniform, a separate grave row was arranged in the cemetery of St. Peter and Paul with in-between miniature, fringed banners on the stone-frozen earth mounds. During the second World Wars it happened that a Karlsruher from Dakota for the first time came to Karlsruhe, Baden, in uniform, serving under the of German-origin army General Eisenhower, USA.

Orvill A. Myhr is Superintendent of the Karlsruhe Public School, from an early age, one-hundred thirty-seven children from the surrounding area attended, from an early age on, classes in the modern school building whose financial means are not sufficient to organize instruction in German. Myhr’s ancestors came from Norway. He knows Frankfurt and Munich, but Karlsruhe in Baden is unknown to him. Also for the pupils, reference to the origin of the village, Karlsruhe in Germany means not much more than a “hoopla experience.” They will perceive as detrimental a nationalistic claim of emotional or ideological barrier based on origin. They are the rear guard of the German immigrants, but only the rear guard, that one cannot compare with the front point.

In the village school, the organized assimilation of the immigrant families was clearly felt. The pioneers came into the country speaking the German language and in their status of newcomers, supported the keeping of their mother tongue. Then a generation was switched in between who mastered the speech of their parents and also of America. The third generation has accepted primarily English and holds fast to that one language.

It was not so much a pre-mediated transition that turned young Karlsruhers of their “Dieschen Day” (German village-Sheriff Wald) into Americans. The onset of the pendulum’s swing came much more involuntarily and automatically an inevitable swing into the rhythm of the new world. Between Europe and America no transplanting took place. Here a new people originated and are still originating. Karlsruhe is also Karlsruhe in North Dakota, a reminder of the origin of the pioneers whose names slowly dissolved, but whose works remained—well timed, sentimental, but superfluous.

For the Karlsruhers it also became increasingly more meaningless as to who or what in America was German, yesterday and remained so today; what let itself be identified with the wanderings of its people: those identified with the gold rush Bavarian Levi Strauss who invented jeans perhaps, or the teaching methods of the Württembergers Berlitz, the Santa Claus symbol of Landaner’s Thomas Nast, the Chrysler automobile from the House of German immigrants, the German-American firms of Boeing, Firestone, Goodyear, Maytag, or Singer.

The eight U.S. presidents from Hoover (Huber) to Johnson, who had German ancestors, even the movie starts from Clark Gable to Grace Kelly, to “Tarzan” Johnny Weissmüller; an Antoine Feuchwanger of Bayern who provided the first Hot Dog, the Hamburger steak-the “Hamburger” was first brought to the American market by a German immigrant. Neil Armstrong, whose ancestors came from Westfalen was a part of the first moon landing of people, the execution of German anarchists after the famous massacre at the heumarket (hay market) in Chicago was a sign of the labor movement in the whole world that set aside a Day of Labor on May first with a monument.

The Karlsruhe students in the year 1975 put the known history of this place together in rough form in the official newspaper of McHenry County (“Presse für die Mouseflusz Farmer”) The Mouse River Farm Press. It is about the French researcher Verendrye, the Sioux Indians and that time when the herds of buffalo grazed their way through the gama grass of the later Dakotas.

According to the student reckoning, the Russian Germans Gottfried Ackermann, Anton and Joseph Massene, and Siegfried Hausler were the first settlers in this region. Then came the Böhms, the Böchlers, Schieles and Kleins, to whom the new world offered homesteads. After that the sod houses, the decisions concerning place names, and the railroad. Then Karlsruhe as a unit overcame the prairie and developed like the neighboring places—Voltaire, Norwich or Drake.

From here on, the detail of the chronicle is missing. Local German speech newspapers like “Dakota Rundschau,” (Panorama) “Der Deutsche Farmer” (The German Farmer) or “Der Landmann,” (The Countryman) three titles, from time to time 200 German publications in the USA have long since been discontinued. Chronicles like the Dakota journalist Warner have disappeared from the scene forever.

Walter School, at that time, union President in Boston, once said, “The International interweavings built an extremely complicated mechanism. And they, the Germans abroad, are, as far as our land is concerned, the oil in its functions. The attempt in Dakota; that typical emigration land for Russian Germans who designate themselves as Schwabian, Badeners, and Pfälzers by the way of their origin, to look for that oil must, like each attempt, finally end.

German cultures and traditions were a little like yeast in the fermentation process of the state. A people which has migrated from one place to another, brings its ideas, its skills and knowledge along. The shortest truth, never the less, here today is called America. All else has been swallowed by the dark-room of the story.

The dialogue between the Dakota village Karlsruhe and Karlsruhe in Germany ends with the epilog of sorrow at the cemetery of St. Peter and Paul where the trail of the German pioneers ended. The relatives of the earlier generation of the immigrants that lie buried here were doubtless bound by the chains of their own time. Indeed, they made use of the natural scientific thinking methods and had the tools that were used to produce a moderate well being. But one still felt their unchangeable lifestyle, their irrational discomfort over their belief that they could not live up to standards unquestionably accepted in this land.

The new generation of Karlsruhe is different. They are not dull and faded. To this extent; as it was Americanized, all national differences disappeared. “German-American” became for them a base show that could no longer conform to reality. It let itself no longer be touched by their German names – without a tabu – from Germany, Russia, or their story.

The German pioneer lies in his grave at St. Peter and Paul. Over his bones burns the new world, roar the exhaust pipes, and Düsen jest paint vapor lines against the sky. And only he who looks back might still see him as he stands fast frozen by winter, the weather-beaten face with prominent cheekbones turned away from the icy wind, suspicion in his eyes. Thus can one imagine him; how he sees the new world with a feeling of curiosity, but also with the knowledge of being at the place without fault, and presumably he is scolding himself. But youth hears him no more. It has turned its back to him and calls with outreached arms: “We are Americans, Americans from Karlsruhe!”

Our appreciation is extended to Alma M. Herman for translation of this article.

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