was known as a successful buisnesswoman for most of her
life, but Grandma Hillius became a star
Who would ever think a Russian peasant emigrant of the late 1800s
would one day become a beacon for literacy in America?
But that is the story of Christina Hillius, a German/Russian
who settled in Dakota Territory and whose life demonstrates the
challenges and triumphs of thousands of European women who made
a new life in a new country.
Christina Netz Hillius was 26 in 1887 when she spent 10 days
on a ship from Russia to New York with her husband John and their
three-year-old daughter Bertha. Another three days on a train
brought them to Ellendale, North Dakota, where they joined family
members who'd emigrated earlier.
For $200 credit (repayable at 36 percent interest!), they bought
a quarter section (160 acres) of land, borrowed machinery from
John's uncle and planted the first crop in the spring of 1888.
The couple built a two-room house from over 4,000 sun-dried bricks,
and as biographer Gordon L. Iseminger reports in a series for
the State Historical Society of North Dakota, "Christina
laid every brick herself."
In the middle of a blizzard, she gave birth to her first son
Theodore in a house that lacked windows. And along with John,
she struggled with the crops and garden that provided their food.
But an accident that tore off John's left hand and wrist ended
their farming days just two years after their arrival. They still
owed $250 on the land. Records show they sold their claim to two
men for $IO-it's presumed the men also paid off their debt.
Although it doesn't sound like much to show after two years of
hard work, it was enough to allow the couple to buy a small, one-room
building in Ellendale for $8. There, the family welcomed a new
addition, Otto, as Mom took in washing and Dad herded the town
cattle to support the family.
Just six years after coming to America, Christina first showed
her skill as a businesswoman. She moved her family to Kulm, and
for just $5 down and the promise of future payments, she bought
a restaurant along a new rail stretch of the Soo Line. A few years
later, she bought the Union Hotel, considered "the neatest
and most comfortable on the Soo Line." The hotel was popular
with its guests and also boasted one of the town's few telephones
and an automobile to drive around visitors.
For many years, an often ill Christina relied on her daughter
Bertha to help run the hotel. The two women were very close, and
Bertha nursed her mother during periods of illness for the rheumatism
that plagued her. In 1918, Bertha married and moved to Aberdeen,
The next year, citing her advanced age and difficulty finding
help, Christina closed her hotel. At that point, she was almost
60 years old, an admired businesswoman and a grandmother. At a
time when most would have eased back to enjoy their senior years,
Christina admitted something important was missing. Although she
could read and write German, she could do neither in English-not
that unusual in a town where business was often conducted in both
languages. But Christina was ashamed that she could not write
to her children
She then did what thousands of emigrants around the country were
doing: she enrolled in a "Moonlight School."
The North Dakota Legislature had passed an act providing for
public evening schools, and that is where Christina found herself
in 1923 at the age of 62. She was the oldest pupil in the Kulm
school. "Her determination and progress earned her the distinction
of being the star North Dakota evening school student," biographer
Iseminger notes. Her picture was sent to every school in the state
"so that her accomplishments might serve as an inspiration
to children and adults alike who were struggling to learn the
On March 8, 1923, at the close of an eight-week term of evening
school, the sponsoring Kulm Civic League declared Christina the
outstanding female student, and she spoke at a graduation party
on behalf of the other women.
As she would end up telling audiences around the country, one
of her greatest joys was she now could read her own daughter's
letters, without having to rely on neighbors for help.
"Christina Hillius suited so admirably the purposes of those
trying to Americanize North Dakota's foreign- born and eradicate
illiteracy in the state that, to paraphrase Voltaire, had she
not existed, she would have had to have been invented," Iseminger
writes. "This German-Russian immigrant, so recently illiterate
in the English language, was living proof of the value of adult
education and an inspiring testimony to the efficacy of evening
"Grandma Hillius" took her message to places she'd
never expected to be: to the state prison, to reform schools for
girls, to colleges and to the state capitol. One needed a good
education, she told them all, "in order to enjoy life and
be a good citizen." She spoke "from the bottom of my
heart" about the "new world that one finds after being
unable to read or write the language of the land for so many years.
" The governor was so impressed with Christina's efforts
that he presented her a commendation and a gold pin.
Did you know?
Their first year on the
farm, Christina and John Hillius collected buffalo bones
on the prairie to raise cash. The bones were ground up
and used to purify sugar
Christina was widowed in 1930. Shortly after, she was honored
as a "Pioneer Mother" by the North Dakota Federation
of Women's Clubs. Then in 1931, she was askedto speak at the World
Federation of Education Associations in Denver. The Denver Post
hailed her speech as something special: "The audience. ..will
not forget soon the story told in halting English by the former
Russian peasant of how she went to night school in order to stand
up in front of her little granddaughter without shame."Christina
Hillius died October 26, 1939, four days short of her 78th birthday.
She was survived by her three children and eight granddaughters.
For more information, read The Americanization
of Christina Hillius by Gordon L. Iseminger.