Interview with Emma Fischer (EF)
Conducted by Ronald Vossler (RV)
2 July, 1997, Ashley, North Dakota
Transcription by Lena Paris
Editing and Proofreading by Lena Paris
Prairie Public Collection
RV: We're going to be talking with Emma Fischer.
Give me your name, age, rough background about yourself and where
EF: I was born and raised on a farm about 10 miles
northeast of Ashley, North Dakota in McIntosh County, and lived
there until I was 11 years old, and then my parents moved to Ashley
and bought a house. I had to work hard and help my mother who
was crippled. We always had a lot of people working for us during
threshing in those years. My brother and I had to milk 7 cows
every night, feed the calves and chickens. Put the hay down for
the horses when they came home so they were ready to feed. That
was my work on the farm.
I went to school on the farm, but there wasn't much
to that school; reading, writing, arithmetic and learning how
to write. I was 11 when we moved to town, then I started school
there. When I came to Ashley I started the fifth grade and finished
the eighth grade and graduated from the eighth grade. I didn't
go to high school because I was home taking care of my mother.
I wanted to go so bad, but...
RV: So you're that force behind your daughters'
EF: Right, that's why I said she's going to get
all the education I can give her, and I did.
RV: Well, some of what Shirley has written in her
book Central Dakota Germans, or a lot of it, you really have lived
haven't you? In a way, so a lot that was put into the book is...
EF: When we washed clothes father helped me. He
turned the wringer which was screwed onto the tub. I had to wash
the clothes, hang it outside, iron, help cook and bake. I had
to help with everything because my mother couldn't work. My brother
was 2 years older; he did a lot - like scrubbing and some of the
heavy work. We also had a cow to milk and some chickens (035 -
RV: So you were kind-of the mother in the home doing
a lot of work, very early, weren't you?
EF: Yes, I'd come home from school sometimes at
4 PM, and then I'd wash the biggest loads of clothes hang them
out. In the morning I'd bring them in, go to school and in the
evening I'd iron.
RV: So your childhood was very different than what...
EF: Many others do.
RV: Even then or more now?
EF: No, then it was hard work.
RV: Then it was hard.
EF: But we still could go and play baseball and
horseshoe and things like that. In the wintertime we'd have games
in the snow called "The Goose." I suppose you played
that? We had all kinds of games, and had fun though. I had no
trouble having company, even if I didn't go to school.
RV: When you played those games were they in English,
German or mostly English?
EF: Mostly English, I think. I knew German, but
the kids in town talked English. I had to learn it. I knew some,
but not much.
RV: So there was a difference between town and farm
EF: Day and night.
RV: What were some of those differences?
EF: They thought they were so much smarter, and
didn't want to associate with farm girls and boys.
RV: Even though they were of the same background.
EF: Right. I had two cousins who told me how to
speak and helped with our schoolwork. They helped my brother and
RV: Was there teasing about the way you spoke?
EF: Yes, they sometimes did tease me a lot, especially
my brother, because I could get along a little better than he
could. He didn't have any patience, and he'd get angry.
RV: What did they tease you about? Do you want to
say a little more about the teasing or the difference between
the town and country?
EF: The first day I went to school in town, of course,
I was scared. I was in this grade, I think, about three or four
days; when the professor came in and said he'd like to see me
after school. I thought I wonder what...so I went in and he said,
"Well, I'm going to tell you one thing, Emma," he said.
"Why don't' you repeat one grade?" That would help you
a lot and the kids might be better. You know they're not so educated.
And so I went back to the fifth grade, and had a good time. The
kids weren't mean; they were nice. I got along real well with
my teachers; it helped me. But that's the way it was (072) a dumb
farmer, which wasn't bad and so was my brother. He had more of
a rough time than I did.
RV: But the town kids wouldn't have done so well
on the farm either.
EF: If they'd have gone out to that schoolyard they
wouldn't have known anything, because the teachers didn't know
anything. They were just kids that graduated from maybe 3rd or
4th Grade that were teaching us. Can you imagine what we got out
of that? They were local, living out there, a lot of them. They
couldn't get teachers, as they were hard to get and the kids wouldn't
attend. In the summertime we drove with a buggy, and in the wintertime
we drove with the sled. My older brother drove us to and from
school. We had a lot of fun doing that.
The older ones had to stay home and work - plow
the fields and rake. They had no time for school. They stayed
home raked the hay for the threshers. I helped a lot by taking
the wagons home and they would unload them, and I would take the
wagon back again. About 3 or 4 PM in the afternoon; I'd have to
take the lunch out for the threshers. Then I came home and helped
my mother feed them. We had a lot of people to feed that night.
Also worked for my brother driving the header box that was another
job of mine because I was the youngest, I had to help.
RV: Because you were the youngest you had to help?
EF: Yes, I was. We always had work you know. The
header sometimes came so fast throwing the grain - you sometimes
was covered. You had to watch while you drove; if you didn't drive
right, my father would scream. He'd get so mad because you couldn't
get too close or else that big thing would come up. It had to
lay just right.
RV: What was your reaction - now you've been talking
some about your background in school and work. When your daughter,
Shirley, started to write about and explore this ethnic, German
background what was your reaction? What did you think she was
EF: I didn't think she'd ever do it, because there
was a lot to that. But once she started interviewing the older
people; she got me involved. I had to go with her because she
didn't know where they lived, and how they would react. So I was
always with her for that part. And then, of course, when she wrote
her thesis I knew she could do something with it. And I always
told her too bad I didn't get an education like you had. So she
better go and get all the education she can get. I told my grandchildren
that all the time - remember, I'd always say, "Go to school
as long as you can." Be glad you can. I cried my eyes out,
and didn't ever go.
RV: Did that angered you that you couldn't go?
EF: Kids would walk by here and they'd say, "Emma
aren't you going to school?" Nope, gotta stay home and that
did it. Then I'd cry when they left; because they could go and
I couldn't. Nobody knows what it's like.
RV: In this book there is a lot of you isn't there?
EF: My mother was a smart woman. She helped me get
into this Brauche. She said you can learn it, and if I'm not here
you will know it. There was one Brauche that she had that I didn't
know. She said she couldn't give it to me or say it to me. She
had to put it on paper and hid it. When she's dead I have to find
it, and then I can use it. It was more like a (125) and then I
looked and couldn't find it. We had a big Bible that belonged
to my father and mother. One day we paged through it and I said,
"Dad, look what's here." I found the Brauche in there.
EF: She wanted it so bad, and I said if I ever find
it I'll give it to you because my mother couldn't give it to me.
She had to hide it, you know, and I found it. And it worked, but
I don't know if that was their belief. Their beliefs were very
RV: Do you know what some of those beliefs were?
EF: One that she found was for rash. It was called
a "wildfire." There was a woman that came one morning
she was all red and her head was full of rash. My mother said,
"Just leave her here today, I can help her." And she
Brauche her three times.
RV: So what did your mother do then? Could you explain?
EF: With her hands she'd go like this, and then
she'd say a verse.
RV: Did she have the person lie down?
EF: No, sitting in front of her. By evening she
was pretty good and went home. My mother had helped her.
RV: What verse did she say?
EF: (143) I haven't read that for so long, (145)
and I think they said something about Brauche. But I just don't
know. I have it written down though. And that's what healed her.
Some had a pimple in the eye, dust or a little bug. They couldn't
blink. I haven't used the stuff for so many years. I should have
taken the book out when I started. I wasn't too interested in
it. My mother was a Brauche. She had a lady friend who was all
covered with rash; when they brought her here. Then my mother
did Brauche to her three times that day. She said she could help
her and she did. By evening the rash was almost gone. Then she
went home. Then she said to me, "I can't give you the Brauche,"
she said. I asked her if she could give me that too so I can learn
it. And she said, "not this kind of Brauche I must hide that,"
she said. When I die, you look through the house and find this
Brauche ritual. I did find it in the big family Bible.
After I had it I called Mrs. Iszler, because she
was a Brauche and wanted the healing ritual, so I gave it to her.
I didn't use Brauche much, except when I needed it. Brauche is
what this type of healing is called. Then you blow on the wound
or rash three times. When a little pimple or bug got into the
eye it itched so badly that if you didn't do Brauche soon the
eye got all red and you had to put some cotton on it. Otherwise,
you couldn't be up because the eye hurt so much. My mother would
blow on it three times, and it always went away.
We had a carpenter who built a house. He came down
in the morning and said, "I gotto go home." I said,
"What's the matter?" "I got something in my eye,"
he said. It's all red and I can't blink. I said, "I'll help
you, I can (191) Can you (191)?"he said, and I said, Yes,
So I Brauche three times, and by afternoon he came down and was
okay. He worked the rest of the afternoon. The Brauche helped
him. Then I like to (195) something with the moon. If you have
something that hurts you bad, or something you want to heal you
look at the moon, and you say, (196) but you have to do it when
the moon is full. You hold that, first quarter whatever it (198)
and you hold that, whatever (200) and blow on it. It helps you
and it heals it. I taught Shirley that, but I don't think she
ever used it.
RV: Did most of the people...
EF: A lot of them did use the moon. It had a game
when it was getting full.
RV: Would you say most people believed in...
EF: You have to believe. There were a lot of them
that didn't believe, then it wouldn't help. It's something you
need to believe in, absolutely.
RV: Do you want to say anything more about Brauche
that you think is important for people to know?
EF: There's not that many around any more. I don't
know if there's any in Ashley. I think the older ones have all
passed away, and the younger generation doesn't believe in it;
which I still do and always will. And I think Shirley does, I
hope. When Shirley was sick, my mother did so much for her. She
always had a stomachache. My mother took a string, wrapped it
around the stomach three times. Then she wrapped it around an
egg, and laid it in the ashes, but not too long. She'd work on
it with a stick and she'd say, (222) And that would explode the
egg, it was just terrible!
RV: What do those words mean in English?
EF: I don't know. If you ate something that didn't
agree with you, that's when you got that. When you were sick,
couldn't eat, no appetite; then my mother would do that, and put
it on ashes with a little fire.
RV: Ask for that pain to go into the egg?
EF: Yes, she said, "As you burn the egg on
the string, it should take away the pain from the stomach."
That's the way I think it was.
RV: Maybe we'll talk a little bit about when you
helped your daughter, Shirley, gather information for the book.
How did the people you interviewed and talked with - your friends
and acquaintances, what was their reaction or how did they respond?
EF: They had a good time, and loved to do it with
me. If I had a question then sometimes they had something wrong,
and then they'd giggle and laugh. Then I'd start them out again.
I had a lot of fun doing it, and people were really nice to me.
There were a few that said, "You don't have to come again;
I want nothing to do with that." I had those kind too.
RV: Why do you think that is?
EF: I don't know maybe jealousy, I just couldn't
figure it out why they didn't do it. It was people I knew real
well - they were mean.
RV: What do you think is important for people to
understand about the women of your generation of Dakota German
EF: I didn't get that quite right.
RV: What do you think about the different women
of your generation - the people, the world and the American public
don't know about Dakota German women. About the life here, or...
EF: They liked their small towns they lived in. People are friendly
to each other, and there is no hatred. It happened very little
that somebody didn't like you or some didn't like each other.
I think they were pretty good - all of them.
RV: There's a lot of talk about the Women's Liberation
Movement, and who really ran German households. Would you say
that the men and women shared equally in the labor?
EF: The first people that came, the German Russians,
their women had to work too hard. They had to share, but I think
the men could have done a little more work - heavier work and
left the women at home. My mother baked bread during the night,
and anything for us kids to take to school. It had to all be done
during the night, and don't know when she rested.
RV: How did this affect the women; just the overwork
and hard lives?
EF: Overworked, and very hard lives, and some men
RV: Do you think the women were more isolated than
men? Did they get to town less?
EF: Very little.
RV: Very little, the men got more...
EF: The men would bring in the groceries. At about
ten or eleven years of age, I drove with my father to buy groceries.
When he got home, he would say to my mother, "she knew how
to spend the money." I bought more than I was suppose to.
I bought things we kids liked - licorice and candy. We didn't
buy very many groceries. They bought coffee, flour, sugar and
a big can of syrup for the kids' lunch at school - syrup bread.
Those old women had to bake a lot. We were a family of seven.
My mother baked an awful lot of bread and we kids ate it, because
we didn't have much more.
They butchered in the fall. Meat was plentiful,
as they butchered three or four hundred pound hogs and made sausage.
They rendered all the lard, and had enough lard for cooking and
baking. The homemade lard was used for everything - cookies etc.
Now days everybody has cholesterol. In those days people all got
fat. I think they ate too much lard.
RV: Were you surprised by anything that you found
when you worked with Shirley, the materials you gathered or anything
that was either emotional or very interesting to you?
EF: It was very interesting to me and I loved it.
I read everything when she had it done.
Before she printed, I had to go through it to find any mistakes.
She liked that. "Mom you have to read it," she'd always
say. Every once in a while I'd find a mistake. It helped too when
she asked me questions. How we did this and how we cooked. Even
recipes were included.
RV: So the book chronicles and tells a lot about
the history, culture and language of this way of life on the prairie.
A lot of that has changed now; so do you want to talk about that?
What has changed and how...
EF: What has changed is that they all have tractors
to work with now. When they had to work with horses they had to
work hard. They had the big headers. We didn't have combines either.
They made little haystacks for the wheat; then a wind would come
and the next day we'd rake it all up. Nothing was lost, everything
had to be used. You know those combines lost a lot of wheat. In
those days we didn't lose anything - they got it all together
working until the next morning. They threshed, and put it all
on a pile. It is very different than how they used to live. They
had their eggs, cream, milk, and everything you wanted to eat.
They had little hogs they'd butcher every two weeks.
These were butchered in the summertime, at about eighty pounds
and lived on that. They had their own eggs, raised ducks, geese,
and turkeys, and didn't buy things like we do now. Those days
you had a few groceries in the basket. We didn't know anything
RV: What is left of the traditions, customs or beliefs
in Ashley, for example? What's left of the older ways that you've
chronicled in the book?
EF: I don't know if there's much left. Now days
they have running water, automatic washing machines. Then there
was nothing like that; everything is very different.
RV: What kind of traditions do you still maintain
in your home? Food preparation or...
EF: We have it a little different - you see a recipe
in a magazine and you try it. But I still always go back to my
RV: What are some of those old recipes?
EF: Do you want it in food like strudels and cheese
buttons? Very few people make them anymore. If they do make them,
they might make them with baking powder - strudels you know. My
mother made some of those, but we kids liked the ones from bread
dough better. They don't get as soggy.
RV: It takes a while to make strudels, doesn't it?
EF: Yes, almost half a day until you get everything
done. Now days they don't make noodles anymore. The old people
always made their own noodles, but I still make them. They don't
can like we used to - we canned everything. My mother would can
a lot because the food kept that way, otherwise it would spoil.
Now they have freezers that we didn't have.
RV: So all the food preparation was entirely different.
EF: Entirely different than it was.
RV: And the amount of labor, it seems like...
EF: Labor too.
RV: So what else is different that you can think
of that you've seen in the years here?
EF: They have different beds now - they have waterbeds.
We had a spring and just one little thick mattress, while they
have the thick ones now. Then they had the husks from the corn
which was their first mattresses. They stuffed the husks into
a blanket or sheet, made a cover for it and slept on them.
RV: Just a comfort level.
EF: I never slept on that, but (385) these two were
still sleeping on them.
RV: Just a comfort level I suppose.
EF: Yes, just let it dry and then they put it in
a sack. It was messy all the time. We didn't use any. Maybe my
mother used them before my time. My mother had a lot of geese;
so she always made goose down pillows. I remember that we slept
on those and they were warm. If they didn't have them, I think
they'd of froze. You can buy them now, but they're not like the
ones they made. They weren't feathers - they were different. Now
they have sponge pillows; years ago they had feather pillows.
Had to hang them outside often, because otherwise they stuck together.
You get more air in because of the thickening on the outside.
They have different towels now. We didn't have towels like they
have now. It's much different.
We couldn't have washing machines the first years
- they didn't have the water. We had to use the washtub, a wringer
and somebody had to turn it all the time. Wintertime they dried
in the house because they couldn't hang anything out - too much
snow and too cold. The irons she'd put on the stove to heat, and
if you didn't watch it burned. They had to watch it pretty close
or the shirt would turn yellow. They didn't wear the clothes as
much either. They only used them for church, and when they came
home they took them off. Put everyday clothes on which didn't
need ironing. That's the way it was.
RV: Do you want to say something about the kind
of things you did as a child?
EF: We didn't have toys like they have now days.
I can remember I got a doll from my aunt, and I thought that was
the greatest thing I ever got. Otherwise, in the wintertime we'd
play goose in the snow and all kinds of games. We had different
games at home. We had a big piece of paper on the floor and we'd
lay around it and play a game. Or else you'd lay down on the floor,
put your leg up, and the other person would bring his leg up,
and over you'd go. Sometimes we played oshgoshla. (sp)
And then we'd go horseback riding; and we had to
watch the cattle so they didn't get out of the fence. When we
were done harvesting the cattle went into the fields and ate from
the stubbles. After school we had to watch the cattle, and we'd
snare gophers and sell the tails. Sometimes we got 10 cents a
tail. Dad would take them into the courthouse, and there's where
he sold them. And if he got 10 cents a tail that was very good
money. My brother and I were always out doing things like that.
Barefoot, no shoes! We had a pair of shoes which were for church
only. If you got a new dress, you had to wear it to church before
you could wear it elsewhere. My father was very strict with the
kinds of things we did.
We walked to the neighbor's one night my brothers
and my sister. We were about a quarter mile from home and all
of a sudden we heard coyotes. Were they howling! So we turned
around and ran home. We had nothing for light, but a lantern that
barely burned. No such thing as flashlights. They maybe had them,
but we never got them. They saved them so they could use them.
We all said little verses. Our neighbors would always pretend
they were the ones, (473) (German saying) that was a funny one.
It was a tongue-twister which was suppose to be said real fast.
We always had to laugh because we couldn't do it right.
RV: Your church then also changed, I imagine?
RV: What ways did that change, or were even the
EF: Yes, if the minister wasn't there a deacon would
give the sermon. They had a book that contained the sermons from
every Sunday, and that's where they took it from. One of the friends
read it. They would sing, and if they didn't have an organist
they would sing without it. We were all good singers. And we had
to go to church which was a must - rain or shine. Everybody had
to go to church and Sunday school. In the summertime we had to
go to German Bible school. We had to walk over two miles to the
church. And in those days I was scared; I'd rather stay home and
plow. When I was ten years old I plowed. That's the way church
was - getting together with friends, and they would stand outside
and talk for an hour. Then the man would invite each other; so
we always got invited someplace for dinner.
RV: On Sunday mornings?
EF: On Sunday morning they didn't go home, they
went visiting. When there was a mission fest, they invited different
congregations. Everybody went and didn't miss funerals either.
Weddings not so much. We had weddings at different
homes. When people had small houses they couldn't have it. Those
with larger houses had it. We didn't have a big house, but we
had a summer kitchen where the dance took place. In the afternoon
the old folks would dance, and in the evening the kids would dance.
RV: For anybody in your family that was married.
EF: In the afternoon they wouldn't let us get in
there. In the evening they let us dance. I suppose they were tired
by evening. The wedding went on for three days.
RV: You know that saying, "Spring rains and
old people's dances don't last long."
EF: Yes, that's what he always tells me.
RV: Is there anything else we should talk about?
EF: I don't know.
RV: We touched on most of the things, I think. Maybe
I'll ask you one more question about
what you think was the most important thing you learned from your
EF: Cooking and baking. Yes, I knew how to do everything
and when she passed away I didn't have any trouble, as knew from
before how to do it. And I passed it on. We had to do everything
and there was nothing that we couldn't do; whether we wanted to
or not. We had to work and learn to do things. Our home was a
real strict family. I can't remember anybody from the neighborhood
that didn't learn - they all had to learn. Even if they didn't
have much schooling, but that was the way it was. My sisters went
only through three or four grades, and dad took them out of school,
and kept them home they were needed for work. There was just no
time for anything. Now these kids get all the opportunity they
need; there is none better. So many stay out of school, even if
they have only one year left. Some day they'll be sorry.
RV: Sounds like you enjoyed that kind of re-learning
as you worked along with Shirley to do this book.
EF: Yes, I liked it.
RV: You can see there's a lot of love in that book.
RV: Thank you both for your work.
EF: You're welcome. Nice of you to come.
RV: Thank you.