Hermann Family: Glimpses of Yesterday
By Alma M. Herman, Fargo, North Dakota, June 1990
ONCE UPON A TIME, centuries ago, people by the name of Hermann
lived in Wittenberg, Germany. This southeast region between Baden
and Bavaria, partly covered by Schwartzwald (Black Forest), was
a part of Swabia. We, as descendants of the Hermanns of Germany,
can only imagine their life in Wittenberg by blending it with
overall German history because none of their history or legend
came down to our generation. Although the name “Hermann”
means “Master Man,” I cannot find it among world famous
biographical names in my latest dictionary. We believe our forefathers
in Germany were principally farmers.
From world history we know that the Thirty Years War had reduced
life in Germany to a less than tolerable existence for the common
people. Under the rule of the Empress of Russia, Katherine II
(1729-1796), Russia acquired land from Poland. The Empress, born
a German princess, was a strong and progressive ruler. Her policy
was to draw Russia into the western world. To accomplish this,
she instituted major reforms in the laws, improved education,
and designed measures to draw skilled labor and professional men
into her empire. She offered free land to experienced farmers.
Large numbers of Germans in Wittenberg responded to Empress Katherine’s
invitation. They left their war-torn Vaterland and migrated to
Poland. The Hermann’s were among them.
Under the rule of Czar Nicholas I (1796-1855), Russia’s
relentless armies drove the Turks out of a large area in South
Russia, north of the Black and Caspian Seas. Eager to settle and
develop this region of fertile lands, Czar Nicholas sent his agents
and promoters to Poland to recruit some of the farmers who had
come from Germany earlier with high hopes, but who were now bitterly
disappointed in the conditions of Poland.
Once again, the German Wittenbergers, among them, the Hermanns,
responded to the promise of free land and freedom to maintain
their own language, customs, religion and culture in Russia. They
left Poland and settled on a pleasant plain in Bessarabia, a strip
of beautiful, productive land west of the Ukraine between the
Dneister and Prut rivers in South Russia, northwest of the Black
My parents, Friedrich and Johanna Hermann, were born in the village
of Beresina, founded in 1814. Beresina was a small village in
the county of Klöstiz, province of Ackermann. Here the Wittenberger
Hermanns hoped to build a sort of New Germany, preserve their
heritage, and rebuild their lives.
Paternal Grandparents Johann and Katherine Hermann reared a family
of four sons and two daughters in Beresina. Grandfather and three
of the sons farmed on the free lands and kept orchards and vineyards.
When Friedrich (my father), the second son, born in 1867, was
15 years old, his unusual aptitude for artistic design and quality
workmanship came to the attention of the master carpenter and
cabinet maker in the village. Father agreed to have him serve
a 4-year apprenticeship. He worked long, hard days, learned well,
and became an expert carpenter and cabinet maker. Before he could
open his ship, Grandfather required him to help with farm work
for one year without pay.
Maternal Grandparents Martin and Christina (Schlag) Bälder
reared seven daughters and four sons. (Matheas died in infancy
in a diphtheria epidemic.) The youngest daughter, Johanna, was
a petite teenager when both her parents died. She had very dark
brown hair and eyes the color of an azure sky. Grandpa and grandma
Bälder left their family a very profitable business in wool
Happy Home in Beresina... On a large lot at Maulberre Strasse,
lined with mulberry trees, Father built his own house and made
the furniture for the new home. A lover of nature all his life,
he decorated some of the walls with colorful murals of landscapes.
In his carpenter shop at the back of the house, he kept very busy
making furniture for all in the community – yokes for their
oxen, cradles for their infants, farm wagons with yellow wheels
for the farmers, and coffins for departed citizens, young or old.
His gardens were filled with berry bushes and trees.
The citizens of Beresina could keep livestock in proportion to
the amount of land they farmed. Father, not being a farmer, owned
only a small tract of land at the Beresina River, which provided
swimming in the summer and skating in the winter. Mother tended
a small vineyard on the Insel (Island) in the river. Early mornings,
shepherds and cowherds came through the lanes to take all the
animals of the village out to the meadows for the day and bring
them back to the village at milking time. The milkmaids rose early
to milk the cows before they heard the bell of the cow herder
in the lane.
In the fall of 1889, the year North Dakota in America became
a state, a little girl was born in the Hermann home in Beresina.
They named her Mathilda. She made the house on Mulberry Street
a happy place, where Mother sang German lullabies and Father sometimes
played his accordion. Life was pleasant and father’s business
prospered. As time passed, three more little girls were born in
that house and Mother was kept busy at the spinning wheel, the
loom, and the wool-dying vat as Mathilda, Maria, Johanna, and
little Amelia outgrew their homespun coats and dresses, one by
Sometimes in the summer, when Father was very busy in his carpenter’s
shop, Mother would hitch the team of oxen to a small wagon and
take her little girls out to the “Insel” (island in
the river), where she would hoe corn or work in the vineyard while
her little ones played near the wagon, where oxen patiently waited
on the grassy bank.
School in Beresina... Mathilda remembers her first year in public
school. In spite of the stern and strict schoolmasters who taught
lessons in German, she loved to go to school and always took great
pride in learning her lessons well.
Angels on the Ceiling... An Evangelical Lutheran church was built
in Beresina in 1885. Mathilda remembers going to church with the
family on Sunday mornings. She loved to look up at the two beautiful
angels in blue heavens on the ceiling of the narthex.
Dark clouds over Bessarabia... Near the end of the nineteenth
century, interest in “going to America” ran high among
the families in Beresina. Mother’s brothers, John and Gottfried,
had gone to America, first to North Dakota and then to Oklahoma
to settle. Father’s brother, Christian, was drafted to serve
in the Russian army after Russia had broken her promise of exemption
from military service. The Czars made every effort to assimilate
the Germans as Russian citizens. Local governments in the German
communities were brought under direct rule of Russian appointees.
Once again life had lost its flavor. The Wittenbergers were disillusioned
AMERICA BECKONS... “Give me your tired, your poor...I lift
my lamp beside the golden door.”
Grandfather Hermann gave serious thought to leaving Bessarabia
with his sons and families. Uncles Johann, Christian and Gottlieb
(farmers) were in full accord, but Father had no desire to leave
his work and go to America or anywhere else. He was content in
his home and his work.
An unfortunate incident at school one day convinced Mother that
she, too, wanted to leave Bessarabia. Russian schoolmasters were
becoming prevalent. Mathilda came home early from school early
one day with a badly swollen hand that she held out, explaining
that the schoolmaster had used the edge of a ruler in punishment
for being absent from school the day before when she stayed home
to help with the babies because Mother was very busy.
Then, one fateful day, Mother came from Grandfather’s house
to announce to Father at the supper table that plans to go to
America had become final and any son who chose to remain in Bessarabia,
would lose his inheritance. I leave to your imagination, dear
reader, the mental anguish of my father on that day when he thought
of leaving his home, his flourishing business, his two sisters,
and his many friends to cross the awesome ocean and face all the
unknown of a new beginning on a prairie in North Dakota, America.
The Long Journey... Early one morning on February, 1898, a neighbor’s
wagon stopped at the house on Maulberre Strasse. Large, course
bags of bedding and clothing and a small wooden chest were loaded
into the wagon. The last tearful goodbyes were said to neighbors
and friends gathered there. Father’s hand lingered on the
doorknob as he closed his door for the last time. Then the wagon
rumbled down the street and out toward the train station. Mathilda
recalls how it hurt to see the treetops of home fade into the
distance behind them. At the train station there was much excitement
when all the Hermanns, Grandfather and Grandmother, four sons
and their families arrived to see their first railroad train.
Grandmother had to be helped aboard the train. She was in frail
health, suffering from arthritis said to be caused by standing
long hours in cold river water rinsing dyed woolen goods. Nineteen
souls, including the children, were on their way to America.
Destination: Seaport... The train stopped at the German border.
The next mode of travel was in freight cars where the emigrants
sat on top of their bagged bedding and clothing, because the German
authorities were afraid of diseases. In Bremen, the German seaport,
there were wearisome delays. The excitement of being in a large
city wore off. From a shallow water ship that carried the travelers,
along with hundreds if other emigrants, out into the North Sea,
they approached the Kaiser Wilhelm, der Grosse, largest passenger
liner in the world in1898. This luxury ship was 627 feet long;
beam 66 feet high; depth of hold 35.8 feet. It broke all speed
records, used 250 tons of coal in a day, designed for a speed
of 22.5 knots, and traveled 3076 miles in 5 days, 17 hours, 27
minutes under Captain Engelhardt.
Deep Down... Space does not permit the separate story of Mathilda’s
memories of the ocean crossing in steerage quarters deep down
in the hold of the giant ship. She most vividly recalls the sparkling
white cleanliness up on deck where she was sent to get bread from
the good-smelling bakery. Sometimes she took Maria, two years
younger, with her. She remembers that Father slept on a table
because there was no bed for him. Someone had miscounted. His
sleep was often disturbed by stewards who woke him to ask him
questions. There were seasickness problems in bunk beds. Disinfectant
and deodorizing sprays after mop-ups made Mathilda bury her face
deep into her pillow to endure the odors. A fierce storm at sea
rocked the great ship mercilessly. The ship’s officer’s
teased the frightened ones by saying, “No ship that had
Germans from Russia on it has ever sunk.”
There were pleasant times, too, when the passengers sang heartily
from their Reisen Psalter (Traveler’s Hymnals) such songs
as “Nur Frisch hinen; es wird so tief nicht sein.”
(“Bravely into the depths; they will not be so great.”)
Ellis Island... It was evening of the sixth day at sea from Bremerhafen
when the Kaiser Wilhelm, der Grosse, with its Germans from Russia
on board steamed into New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty,
and was anchored for the night. On the morning of March 5, 1898,
the gangplank was lowered at the pier and the passengers came
forth from the great ship to take their first steps on American
soil. Now they were faced with going through customs in the great
hall on Ellis Island. The large red brick building was filled
with throngs of anxious people. Only some found room to sit on
narrow wooden benches, where they anxiously waited to see if the
New World would take them in.
A wide staircase led up to the doctor’s and inspectors’
offices, where anxious young and old were examined one by one
after full baths, while their clothing and baggage was steam-processed
through machines and dryers. All nineteen Hermanns got clean bills
of health and their immigration papers were in order.
The refreshed and relieved travelers were ushered on board a
train in New York and began the American lap of their journey
in the comfort of coach seats. From the overwhelming city lights
and sights, they were on their way westward toward the Great Plains
of North Dakota, where relatives and friends were waiting to welcome
them. The special immigrant train stopped in Chicago. Looking
from a train window, Mathilda was fascinated by the endless lines
of horse-drawn carriages and wagons that disappeared under the
train. She did not understand “underpasses.”
Mother was delighted at the sight of the neat little farms dotting
the Minnesota and Wisconsin country sides – models of the
new home she was hoping for. But as the train rolled westward
through the barren landscapes of North Dakota, signs of habitation
became fewer and fewer. Here and there a sheepherder’s shack
or an abandoned sod house came into view on the seemingly endless
flat prairie land. Father wondered about the future as he looked
from his train window as the train steamed westward. Evening came
down and rain began to fall against the window.
In the middle of the night on March 10, 1898, the Soo Line train
stopped at the Kulm stationhouse. A small prairie town, Kulm was
built around a flour mill. The rain had stopped, but distant thunder
was still rolling in the distance when relatives and friends of
the Hermanns rushed into the coaches to welcome the newcomers.
Johanna, not quite four, was sleepily clutching the reading matter
with pictures she had collected on the train.
Generous and hospitable, the town and country folk freely opened
their homes to the Beresiners. The Gottlieb Doblers took my family
in until they could file a homestead claim. The Fred Maier family
shared their home two miles from where Father had filed for land
and built a sod barn for shelter.
Finding water was a problem and meant hauling barrels of water
on a rutsch (stone boat) from a spring that father had found a
short distance from the sod house which the neighbors helped to
build and in which the family lived during their first winter.
There was little or no furniture. The family stood for their meals.
An old cast-off cook stove and heater kept them reasonably warm
through fierce winters. Manure was bought from a nearby sheepherder
and used for fuel. It was piled outside and had to be dug out
of the snow.
Children were born in the sod house... In addition to the four
girls who came with Father and Mother from across the ocean, Jacob,
Rosalia and Martha were born in the first and second sod houses.
Richard was the first baby born in the frame house which now stands
empty on the old homestead. I was born, ninth in the family; then
came Frederick, Harry and William to make us a family of twelve
A Sod Church... There was still use for the old sod houses after
the frame house was built. The neighbors cooperated in replacing
the roof and thus a little congregation came to be. With the inside
prepared with wallpaper with a merchant in Kulm donated, it served
as a place of worship until the Neu Beresina Church was built
Life was grim in the early days on the homestead in Dakota. But
feather beds kept us snug and warm through the coldest winter
nights. Things were better for the “second half” of
Nature helped to add color to our lives on the prairie. In the
early spring we found purple and yellow violets down by the duck
pond. Moon-blue crocuses bloomed up in the north pasture. In June
wild roses brightened the roadways; in July we brought armfuls
of bright orange tiger lilies home from the hillside beyond the
Soo railroad tracks. Each season brought its own glory with the
sun rising over the east valley and setting beyond the gentle
western hill. The blue of a flax field in bloom was rivaled only
by the skies. The fields of ripened grain swayed in waves of gold
squares framed by country roads. Huge piles of gray prairie rocks
served as pleasant places for childhood play and were reminders
of the hard work the pioneers put into the North Dakota prairies,
Swiftly fly the years,
One season following another,
Laden with happiness and tears.
–From fiddler on the roof
Mathilda Brost, who told me these many things, is now 101 years