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Prairie Weavers

New Germans from Russia exhibit follows threads of the Kempf family

Cox, Charlotte, Jay Gage, and Mike Miller. "Prairie Weavers." North Dakota Horizons, Spring 1996.


Hard work. Plain food. Sod houses. Dark colors. Tough times and tougher people.

This is how many of us picture the early settlers of the North Dakota prairies. In particular, it's how we tend to see those unusual Dakota families who call themselves Germans from Russia.

That picture, however, is worth another look. The special exhibition from the Libraries of North Dakota State University now touring the state and region, "The Kempf Family: Germans from Russia Weavers on the Dakota Prairies," is a brilliant refutation of those stereotypes, and a compelling introduction to the German-Russian heritage and culture.

"Brilliant" also describes the vibrantly colored, meticulously crafted, amazingly durable weavings that fill the Kempf Family collection. The shawls, blankets, headscarves, and tapestries are a rich interplay of jewel-like reds, blacks, golds, and vivid greens that cascade in and out of the intricate designs.

Edna Gage Jensen displays her great-grandmother Gottliebina Kempf's handmade "paradise" textiles from Bessarabia (Moldova).

hese weavings, some of them more than 100 years old, have been handed down from generation to generation through the female descendants of the German-Russian families who created them in their ancestral Russian villages of Beresina and Wittenberg and Alt-Eft in Bessarabia, and preserved them for their daughters, granddaughters, and great-granddaughters who homesteaded in places like Ashley and Forbes on the plains of North Dakota.

The family treasures that fill this traveling exhibit have been loaned by the Kempfs and other German-Russian families to the NDSU Libraries, which houses a permanent Germans from Russia Heritage Collection. The Libraries' purpose in taking this exhibit on the road is to expand its pleasure and enlightenment beyond those who might view the textiles on the university's campus in Fargo, and share it with the residents of the many small towns scattered throughout the state. Some of these towns are still heavily populated with German-Russian families who, because of distance, might never be able to see the collected beauties of this unusual culture's craftsmanship.

"This is just one example of how the Libraries carries out NDSU's mission as a land grant university, which is to reach out from the campus and bring learning and scholarship to people across the state," said John W. Beecher, Director of the NDSU Libraries. "We're pleased with the dynamic interaction that seems to take place when we not only 'take in' new expressions of prairie life to our collections but also send them 'back out' again and share them with others who cherish the northern plains heritage."

The Kempf exhibit started its journeys last summer in Strasburg, in the heart of German-Russian country in south-central Emmons County, at the Lawrence Welk Homestead. This was a fitting place to begin since Welk himself was proud of his heritage as a German from Russia, and many of the Welk cousins' families still reside in the Strasburg area today. From this site, the Kempf weavings drew visitors throughout the summer of 1995 from the little towns such as Ashley, Linton, and Hague that dot Emmons County and are filled with citizens who continue to celebrate their German-Russian roots.

Next, the exhibit was on display briefly in Hebron and Richardton in September, and then settled in for a five-month stay through February 1996 in Dickinson at the Joachim Regional Museum. "We are pleased to be able to display the textiles and clothing of our German-Russian neighbors here in the Joachim Museum," said Museum Director Dr. Carl Larson. "This area is filled with families whose ancestors came from the Black Sea colonies of South Russia to settle western North Dakota."

From March through May 1996, the Kempf exhibit will go to the City Hall in Beulah; during June and July it will appear at the McIntosh County Museum in Ashley; from August through mid-September it will travel to Oakes; through October it will appear at the Second Crossing Gallery in Valley City; and, after a "home stay" at the NDSU Libraries in early 1997, it will continue its travels to the Bismarck State College Library in summer of 1997. After that, its itinerary is anybody's guess. According to Miller, inquiries about other bookings have included places as far away as Pennsylvania and Texas.

Typically, at when the Kempf exhibit opens in a new place, there is a special program and a reception to celebrate its arrival in town. In Dickinson, for example, the NDSU Libraries invited civic leaders to a private showing of the exhibit in the evening after it was set up, with appearances by NDSU officials and a reception offering treats from the German-Russian cuisine. Then the following day townspeople were invited to a public opening at the museum and a special program featuring a hands-on showing of the textiles and historical background, presented by Jay Gage, curator of exhibits for the Libraries, and Ann Braaten, textile specialist from the Emily P. Reynolds Costume Collection. Gage, who was chief curator for this exhibit, is in the unique position of also being a descendant of the Kempf family on the side of his grandmother who came to America from Russia in 1901.

Gottliebina (Stolz) Kempf and her husband Johann "Georg" Kempf. 1995 Jay Gage, JMO Photography.

ust who are these Germans from Russia? Why did they call themselves that when they arrived in North Dakota in the late 1800s? What were their lives like then, and why do their stories still have the power to touch us today?

Beginning in the 1760s, enterprising German farm families migrated by the thousands to the Russian Empire, at the invitation of Catherine the Great, in search of more land and more freedom than they could hope for in a politically and economically turbulent Germany. Several generations later, when the policies of Nicholas II made these families no longer welcome in Russia, the same search sent their descendants to North America, to settle in the plains of the northern United States and Canada.

The Germans from Russia who homesteaded in the Dakotas brought with them their rich agricultural experiences from the steppes of South Russia and used them to cultivate and civilize the plains of North Dakota. Their history parallels the tales of immigrants from many Old Country lands who came to America to find a better way of life for their children. However, these German-Russians had to search for a new homeland not once but twice before they could begin to reestablish themselves and their culture.

Some of them came to the United States from the Black Sea area of Russia, and others from the Bessarabian villages of the Ukraine. And when these German-Russians then migrated to the Dakota prairies, they brought with them their Christian traditions, building beautiful churches and contributing a rich cultural heritage of music, folklore, foods, crafts, and textiles such as those we can now experience in the Kempf family's collection of weavings.

The Bessarabian textile treasures created on the Moldova steppes in Romania and the Ukraine during the 1880s are known the world over for their beautiful colors and their intricate designs. According to Michael M. Miller, NDSU's Germans from Russia Bibliographer, "The Kempf family textiles are not only fine examples of this genre but have an unusual family history as well."

As Miller tells the story, Gottliebina Stolz (Jay Gage's grandmother) designed and wove brilliant "Kanapee," or "paradise blankets," for her 1883 wedding trousseau in her ancestral village of Alt-Elft, Bessarabia in South Russia. Immigrating to America in 1901 with her husband Johannes-Georg Kempf from his ancestral village of Beresina, Gottliebina preserved her textile heritage through four generations of female descendants, while homesteading in a sod house in Jewell, near Ashley and Forbes in North Dakota.

Their neighbors, the Andreas (Schlobsz) Sackmann family, also have lent to the exhibit their cherished, unique plaid-twill Kanapee with felted lace, from their ancestral village of Wittenberg, Bessarabia. Created by Carolina Schlobz, these textiles feature remarkably complex twill plaids of orange, olive green, and purple. Other family heirlooms on display include examples of shoe-cobbling craft, camel hair weavings, bobbin lace shawls, and elegant woolen tapestries that are folk survivals from not only the Bessarabian but also the Black Sea German-Russian traditions.

The needlepoint tapestries were often used as floor carpets, table grammercies, or wall decorations, sometimes bordered with filigree lace made of copper filament with gold leaf.

The NDSU Libraries' Germans from Russia Heritage Collection also includes a silk-fringed black woolen shawl, which was purchased by Karl Kusler in 1910 when revisiting his birthplace in the village of Worms in the Beresan Enclave of the Ukraine, located north of Odessa. Karl Kusler was of the lineage of George Kusler, and Karl's youngest daughter Hilda, of Beulah, North Dakota, donated this family textile treasure in 1994.

The Black Sea Germans of the ancestral Catholic Kutschurgan villages including Elsass, Kandel, Mannheim, Selz, and Strassburg, all west of Odessa, are represented by a black fringed woolen shawl from the Degenstein family of Rugby, North Dakota. Another Black Sea treasure is the stunning black silk fringed shawl, embroidered with a shells and swan motif, contributed by Phillipine Baumgartner Berglund from Linton, in Emmons County.

As a Kempf family descendant, curator Jay Gage witnessed his grandmother Gottliebina Stolz Kempf presenting her only daughter with the ancestral Bessarabian textile treasures, combining the exquisite Kanapees and shawls with family blessings and memories. Gage remembers, "My grandfather, Jacob Pahl, had special admiration for his mother-in-law, Gottliebina, whose artistic genius is woven into these blankets."

In the same vein, Leona Sackman Nye of Ashley, a neighbor to the Kempf family, says, "My Aunt Frieda's textiles caused me to recognize the power of hand-made items as well as the importance of family sentiment." And Loretta Gebhardt Swiontek of Oakes, a great-granddaughter and family historian of the Kempf family, comments, "Researching my husband's family history intensified my appreciation for the history, folkways, and remarkable textile heritage of my grandmother."

The textiles are not so much history as living memories for today's German-Russian families. Even now, North Dakota's population includes between 30 percent and 40 percent of people from German-Russian ancestry. In fact, nearly 80 percent of the population between Bismarck and Jamestown claims some form of German heritage.

Gottliebina and Johann Kempf with their five children immigrated in 1901 to Jewell near Ashley. This portrait of the Kempf family was taken in 1910 at Forbes, N.D. Photo courtesy Loretta Gebhardt Swiontek.

The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at the NDSU Libraries is recognized as one of the outstanding research collections in both North America and the world. Overseen by Germans from Russia Bibliographer Michael M. Miller, the primary focus of its collection building is on the Bessarabian and Black Sea Germans. The collection provides valuable resources for scholars, students, and family historians to uncover the unique history of the Germans from Russia in the Dakotas. NDSU's North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies has published an annotated bibliography of the collection, Researching the Germans from Russia, which serves as a central resource for scholarly research in this field.

To document the history of the Germans from Russia for future generations, the NDSU Libraries staff is continually enlarging its compendium of oral history interviews, including some with members of the Kempf family. With the help of volunteers from the community, they are pursuing a global project to interview Germans from Russia, in both English and German languages, in the Dakotas and elsewhere in North America, as well as in Germany, in Siberia, and in southern Ukraine.

The NDSU Libraries have taken a leadership role in the development of global communications relating to the Germans from Russia. An international electronic discussion group based at NDSU, through the World Wide Web, provides a means of communication for the German-Russian community, students, scholars, and writers all over the world.

Today, at a time when many families in other parts of the nation have forgotten their heritages and the children of new generations have gone their separate ways, the German-Russian experience in North Dakota is a unique reminder of the ties that bind families together. The Kempf family weavings are but one example of those ties, but they are an important evidence of the fact that these hard-working, plain-speaking prairie settlers also had a love of beauty and an appreciation of the finer things of life.

The bright colors and rich designs of their tapestries and textiles are the embodiment of their belief that care and craftsmanship and a sense of family values can be transmitted down through the generations. Against a landscape filled with adversity for the Germans from Russia who settled the plains of North Dakota -- homesickness, language barriers, fierce weather, isolation, and scarce resources -- these weavings are a living symbol of their hope and their courage to prevail.

The story of the Kempfs -- and the story of the Germans from Russia -- is truly the story of all immigrants. Their success in creating a future for their families, on their farms and in their communities, makes a unique contribution to the history of the Dakotas. It has become an integral part of the rich fabric of America's cultural heritage.

This Bessarabian German traditional wedding of Ottilia Kempf to Jacob Pahl was held in 1913 at Jewell, N.D. 1995 Jay Gage, JMO Photography.

or further information about the Kempf and Stolz families, consult the following family histories available in the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at the NDSU Libraries' Institute for Regional Studies, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105, 701-231-8416.

  • Kempf, Norman R. The Kempf Family History: Johann, George, and Gottliebina Kempf. 1989. (Institute Room CS 71 .K32 1989)
  • Mitchell, Johanna. The Stolz Family History, 1850-1974. 1974. (Institute Room CS 71 .S8755 1974)
  • Swiontek, Loretta Gebhardt. The Kempf Family History. 1994. (Institute Room CS 71 .K32 1994)

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