The German-Russians in North Dakota a Brief History
Read, Tamar C. "The German-Russians in North Dakota a Brief History." Festival of Ethnic Musical Traditions in North Dakota,
1983, 40-46, 49-50.
According to the 1980 census, Americans of German descent comprise
the largest ethnic group in North Dakota. Few outside observers, however,
are aware of the enormous diversity that exists among those in North
Dakota who are identified as “German.” No doubt the largest
and most visible segment of this population is that of the German-Russians
(also known as Germans from Russia or Russian-Germans). At present,
North Dakota has more citizens of German-Russian extraction than any
other state, in the entire nation.
One finds an astonishing degree of linguistic and religious variation
among even the German-Russians themselves. Nonetheless, the majority
of North Dakota's German-Russians trace their ancestry to agriculturally-based
colonies in the Black Sea region of South Russia. These villages
were established in the early nineteenth century during the reign
of Tsar Alexander I (particularly in the years 1804-1810). The composition
of the Black Sea colonies reflected the different German provinces
from which the original settlers emigrated: Wuerttemberg, Baden,
Alsace, the Palatinate, and various other principalities. Each German-Russian
village, however, was homogeneously Protestant, Roman Catholic,
or Mennonite. Most of the Black Sea German villages were located
near the port city of Odessa, in settlement areas known by such
colorful names as Liebental, Glueckstal, Kutschurgan, and Beresan.
Other major areas of German colonization in South Russia included
the Crimea and Bessarabia.
Although the first German emigrants who settled in Russia were
dismayed by the sight of the treeless steppes that greeted them,
successive generations gradually adapted to the harsh realities
of their environment. For nearly a century, the Black Sea German
colonists enjoyed a relatively isolated life and were cut off from
both their German homeland and their Slavic neighbors. Such self-imposed
cultural isolation was disrupted in the early 1870s, when Russification
measures were enacted by assimilation-minded government officials.
The Black Sea German men folk, who had enjoyed freedom from compulsory
military service since 1804, now faced the prospect of donning uniforms
and marching in the tsar’s regiments like other Russian subjects.
This new development, among others, prompted thousands of German-
Russian families to consider immigrating to the New World.
The first German-Russians made their way to what is now North Dakota
in 1884, settling on rocky prairie lands in the south-central part
of the state. As in Russia, the emigrants in North Dakota tended
to settle in tightly-knit groups based on common religious affiliation.
Thus, one still finds German- Russian settlement areas in North
Dakota that are solidly Roman Catholic or Protestant. In present-day
south-central North Dakota, for example, German-Russian Protestants
dominate much of McIntosh County and the eastern half of Logan County
while German-Russian Catholics are concentrated in the southern
half of Emmons County and in the western portion of Logan County.
Other important centers of German-Russian settlement include the
north-central portion of North Dakota (especially Pierce, Henry,
McLean, Sheridan, Stutsman, Kidder, and Wells counties) and several
sections of the state west of the Missouri River (particularly Morton,
Grant, Hettinger, Stark, Dunn, and Mercer counties).
|A German-Russian congregation poses
at the entrance of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, 1914.
The church once stood north of present-day Hazen, N.D. (Photo
courtesy of Victor Knell and Timothy Kloberdanz.)
Although present-day German-Russian Americans
are in many ways vastly different from their emigrant forebears
who arrived on the North Dakota prairies in thick sheepskin coats,
high Russian boots, and flowered head shawls, evidence of a strong
German-Russian culture identity persists. In many areas of the state,
the German-Russian dialects still can be heard, particularly among
family members born before 1950. A variety of German- Russian food
ways have been maintained and in some areas of the state have resisted
being replaced by American ones. Distinctive German-Russian ethnic
dishes include Gollodetz, Halupsy, Fleischkuechla, Strudla,
Plachenda, Schlitzkuechla, Riwel Supp, Borsch, and Kuchen.
A vitally important aspect of the German-Russian cultural heritage
in North Dakota is a strong musical tradition. Many German-Russians
point with obvious pride to the success of the famous band leader
Lawrence Welk, who began his musical career by playing an old family
accordion brought from Russia. Welk grew up on a prairie farmstead
near the German-Russian Catholic community of Strasburg, North Dakota.
For many German-Russians, certain community and family-related
events (such as wedding dances) retain a rich Old Country flavor.
Favorite folk songs of the German-Russians include "Schoen
is die Jugend” (Youth is Beautiful); “Zu Strasburg,
ein wunderschoene Stad” (To Strasburg, a Wonderful Fair
City); “Wie die Bluemlein draussen zit tern”
(How the Flowers Tremble in the Distance); “Wenn die Soldaten
dutch die Stadt marschiere” (When the Soldiers March
Through the City); and the always popular "Du, du liegst
mir im Herzen” (You, You Dwell in My Heart); Many of
these folk songs are similar to those performed by other German-speaking
ethnic groups. Yet certain tunes-such as the beautiful “Wir
sitzen so froehlich beisammen” (We're Sitting Together
So Happily) have special meaning for the German- Russians, since
the songs recall their ancestors' emigration to Russia following
the devastation caused by the Napoleonic invasions in Europe. This
particular song also is significant because it reflects a theme
recurrent in other German-Russian folk tunes, as evidenced by the
haunting line: “Im Krieg wird keiner verschont”
(In War, No One is Spared).
The singing of folk songs by the German-Russians, however, does
not represent a mere desire to cultivate what the German-Russians
perceive to be a dying aspect of their heritage. Many German-Russians
prefer to sing in the language of their forefathers because such
singing is an expressive and deeply satisfying part of their lives,
a comfort in times of both happiness and sorrow. Modern-day German-Russians
may well share the sentiments of their Old Country elders who were
never afraid to admit: “Habe ich wieder gesungen und a//es
war wieder gut” (I Sang and Once Again Everything was
Timothy J. Kloberdanz
Assistant Professor, Anthropology
North Dakota State University
Members of the Bubbling Quintet have several things in common, among
them an interest in music from a young age and a German-Russian
heritage. All band members had parents or grandparents who came
to this country from Russia.
James Schwab, the group's organizer, and his older brother, Larry
Schwab, both learned music from their dad, an accordion player who
learned from other musicians, including Lawrence Welk’s dad
who had brought over music from the old country. They always had
music in their house. Their dad was born in Strasburg, N.D., in
1902 and their grandfather came to the Strasburg area from Russia
James talked his father into buying him a $100 trumpet during his
second year of high school. In addition to playing with the high
school band, he played with a six-piece dance band known as the
Silver Six. After high school, he began playing for public wedding
dances with his father.
Larry was 12 years old when he began playing piano with his father
for wedding dances and barn dances. Both Larry and James played
for a time with Mattie Lipp's band, but in 1954 they left Lipp and
asked Bill Mastel to join them in a group known as the Bubbling
Bill Mastel's father was born in Russia and later came to the Linton,
N.D., area where Bill was born in 1928. His father was a violinist
and his six older brothers all played instruments at home. He learned
to play from his father and brothers and now plays accordion and
|Bubbling Quintet, Strasburg. From left:
Larry Schwab, Bill Mastel, Gene Weisbeck, Doug Webber; seated,
As a result of several personnel changes or absences for such things
as military service, Gene Weisbeck joined the group about 1955.
His mother was born in Russia and came to this country at the age
of 13. Gene learned some of the wedding marches from her when she
sang them to him. He is the youngest of four brothers, all of whom
played together. As a young man he played the accordion for barn
dances and during the 1940s and early 50s he had three- and four-piece
bands of his own.
In 1970, Doug Weber joined the group and Bill Mastel returned to
complete the present Bubbling Quintet. Doug's grandparents came
from Russia in 1890 and his parents were born around Ashley and
Freeman. Doug plays bass horn and trumpet and began playing in an
old German dance band, Becker and Bollinger, at the age of 16. Later,
he played in the Venturia city German band, which played on the
street corner every Saturday night.
The Bubbling Quintet has performed at Smithsonian's Festival of
American Folk life in 1975, and also at the International Polka
fest in Kitzbühel, Austria, in 1978.
James Schwab, trumpet, drums; Larry Schwab, piano; Bill Mastel,
cordovox; Douglas Weber, trumpet, tuba; and Gene Weisbeck, accordion.
Verna and George Mack, Pettibone.
The Merry Macks like to dance so much that they sometimes got home
in time to milk the cows the next morning. George, 75, and Verna,
68, have been dancing since they were youngsters. George learned
to polka on blustery days in school to the music of a comb and thin
piece of paper; he learned the waltz and two-step to the music of
his mother's accordion. Verna learned to dance by going to house
parties and barn dances as a young girl.
When George and Verna were married in June 1936, Larry and James
Schwab's father played at their wedding dance. Since then they have
had 12 children, who all like old time music and dancing.
The Macks frequently dance with the Bubbling Quintet and traveled
with them to the American Folk life Festival in Washington, D.C.,
in 1975. In 1978 they accompanied the Bubbling Quintet to the International
Polka fest in Kitzbühel, Austria.
George's father came from Austria in 1885. His mother was also
Austrian and both grew up near New Ulm, Minn. They moved to a farm
near Sykeston, N.D., after they were married, and when George was
two weeks old, they moved to a homestead north of Pettibone, N.D.
Verna's grandmother was born in Germany and her grandfather in
Switzerland .They immigrated to a place near Kankakee, Ill., and
then to Sioux Falls, S.D. After her father was born, they moved
to a farm near Goodrich, N.D. Her maternal grandparents were Norwegian;
her grandfather was born in Norway, her grandmother in Wisconsin
of Norwegian parents. Verna's parents met and were married in Tuttle,
N.D., where she was born.
Young German Singers
Young German Singers, Napoleon area.
The Young German Singers are descendants of German grandparents
(and, in some instances, parents) who came from Russia in the late
1800s and early 1900s to settle in Logan, McIntosh, Emmons, and
Oliver counties. With one exception, they all speak German. The
singers, ranging in age from 30 to 56, are Catholic farmers living
within a forty-mile radius in the Napoleon area.
One of the most striking things about the group, apart from their
singing, is the network of the Vetter family relationships among
the group's members. Of the 22 singers, 18 belong to the "larger"
Vetter family, the oldest living member of which is Juliana (Vetter)
Baumstarck, Conrad Baumstarck's mother, now living in St. Vincent's
Nursing Home in Bismarck. She is an aunt of all the other members
of the group with the exception of four, these being Tony and Lillian
Wangler and Joe and Mary Ann (Wald) Gross. The 18 members of the
Vetter family are mostly first cousins with a few brothers and sisters
and one niece, Rita Wangler.
Their music comes mostly from song books which belonged to John
Gross' dad, or to the dad and uncle of Ben, August, and John Vetter,
all of whose parents came from Russia.
The group began singing together in earnest when, one New Year's
Eve about three years ago, they wanted to go caroling and discovered
that they knew only portions of songs, They started getting their
songs put together because they also wanted to follow their parents'
footsteps and enjoyed singing when they were together for name days,
birthdays, and weddings. Since then they have sung for retirement
homes, October Fest in Wishek, Sauerkraut Days in Wishek, State
Farmers Union Convention, and other events including the dedication
of the Cultural Heritage Center in Bismarck.
They have recently made recordings of folk songs and religious songs,
which are being distributed from coast to coast.
The instrumentalists in the group are John Vetter, organist, who
learned to play the organ from his father who was the first church
organist in St. Joseph’s church near Linton; Tony J. Wangler,
organist and accordionist; whose grandparents homesteaded near Kintyre,
and who learned his music from his dad and an uncle, both of whom
played the accordion; Carol Vetter, accordionist, who learned from
her father and brother; and Tony R. Wangler, organist.
I Conrad Baumstarck, Joe and Mary Ann (Wald) Gross; John and
Margaret (Schaffer) Gross, Isadore Gross, August and Loretta (Braun)
Yetter, Benjamin and Delphine
(Erhardt) Vetter, Johh and Mary (Gross) Vetter, Julius and Carol
(Wangler) Vetter , Kasmier and Anne (Wolf) Wald, Tony J. and Lillian
(Weigel) Wangler, Tony R. and Rita (Unser) Wangler, and August and
Phyllis (Bernhardt) Werner .
John Vetter, organ; Tony J. Wangler, organ, accordion; Carol
Vetter, accordion; Tony R. Wangler, organist.
A Brief History of the Hutterites
The Hutterian Brethren are a Protestant sect stemming from the time
of the Reformation. The Hutterites live in colonies that share all
property according to Acts 2:44. This principle, as well as pacifism
and a simple way of dressing, has set the Hutterites apart from
the outer society.
The Hutterian Church was founded in 1528 by leaders of the Swiss
Brethren. The early leaders began to establish colonies in the Tyrol
region of Austria, but the persecution became so intense that they
had to migrate to Moravia. There the Hutterites lived in relative
peace from 1533-1633. By the turn of the century they had reached
a population of 15,000. In 1633 the Thirty Years War broke out,
taking a heavy toll on Europe and also causing the Hutterites further
persecution. The Jesuits were determined to exterminate the Hutterite
Church because they were declared to be heretics by the Catholic
Church. This determination by the Jesuits started in the 1600s and
by about 1750 there were fewer than 50 Hutterites who would not
recant from the beliefs of the Hutterian Church. These few were
then living in Romania. There they were also persecuted, so they,
along with some Austrian migrants, decided to move to Russia. The
move was made in 1770 with 70 souls. They lived in Russia for the
next century. In 1874, the government took away two main privileges
that the Hutterites cherished: exemption from military service and
permission to teach German in their schools. Therefore, upon finding
suitable land in America, they decided to make the move to South
Dakota in the 1870s.
Since 1874 the Hutterites have established over 300 colonies throughout
northwestern United States and southwestern Canada with a current
population of about 30,000.
Forest River Community
Forest River Community was founded in 1950 by the New Rosedale Colony
near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. Like every other Hutterite colony,
Forest River has a farming operation of livestock and grain. They
farm 2,500 acres and have 48,000 chickens, 20,000 pullets, 50 dairy
cows, and 12,000 geese.
"We profess to be a Christian Church that seeks to live by
the commandments of Christ Jesus as we are given to understand His
Word." During its 30-year history, Forest River has associated
with many people and communities of like persuasion, such as, Koinonia
Farms, Americus, Georgia; Reba Place, Evanston, Illinois; Society
of Brothers, Rifton, New York; Habitat for Humanity, Americus, Georgia;
and many others.
Many of these 'contacts’ have been to help people in need,
also to help people establish Christian communities, not only by
aiding them financially but also by sharing know how and experiences
relating to farming and community living. This zeal for outreach
was especially encouraged by the late Joseph Maendel, Sr., who served
as an elder of Forest River community from 1950-1978.
Tony Waldner; historian and host for this festival, was born to
Hutterite parents in 1957 and spent his formative years at various
He was educated in a one-room school, typical of Hutterite colonies.
In 1976, after graduating from Bagley High School, Tony attended
Bemidji State University. He received a Bachelor of Science degree
in elementary education and a minor in German from the University
of North Dakota in 1980. Tony currently teaches elementary German
at the Forest River Community School.
Forest River Community
Joseph Maendel Jr., Rachel Maendel, Mary Maendel, Barbara Maendel,
Elizabeth Maendel, Elizabeth Maendel, Margaret Maendel, Jonathan
Maendel, Paul Maendel Jr., Selma Maendel, Tony Waldner, Paul Waldner,
Maria Waldner, Solomon Maendel, Sarah Maendel.
Reprinted with permission of the University of North