Johnny Schmidt: Son of a Dakota Pioneer
Book review by by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota
Bose, B.A. Johnny Schmidt: Son of a Dakota Pioneer. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2002.
Omar Bose has lightly edited and organized for our pleasure a collection
of very short essays written by his father Ben Bose, whose parents
emigrated from the village of Heinrichsdorf, Volhynia in 1874. They
settled among fellow Mennonites in Bon Homme County, South Dakota,
near towns called Loretta and Springfield, not far from a reservation
where Sioux Indians lived. Since they settled on virgin land, they
experienced the most difficult pioneering. Ben, who characterizes
himself as Johnny Schmidt and writes in the third person, was the
second son in a family of eight children. The essays treat the years
from his birth to about 1911, though he clearly writes from the
perspective of life beyond that date.
Johnny (Ben) writes his accounts with a dollop of humor, and he
does not dwell excessively on details or tragedies. The central
fact of his life growing up in these circumstances was hard work,
but change, both technologically and in their lives, happened with
almost dizzying rapidity. Especially at first, the group was determined
to shelter themselves from contact with outside influences. As a
first defense, they taught the German language to the children.
Religious faith was important to Johnny (Ben) and his family; he
discusses services and rituals and refers frequently to a schism
that, for a time, divided the Mennonites in his community. Other
religious groups entered their purview. The initial religious and
cultural isolation which, they hoped, would preserve the life they
had lived in Russia, could not be maintained.
Bose records changes in agricultural technology and the arrival
of the first cars, a sewing machine, a better well, and other conveniences.
As family size and prosperity increased, new farm buildings replaced
the old. His group had frequent contact with Indians and neighbors
from other European ethnic groups, and they had to concede the necessity
of learning English. They found themselves fascinated by radio,
and when the circus with its exotic animals came to town, they found
the money to go.
Johnny (Ben) speaks of a powerful hunger for learning, so many
of the essays tell about his early teachers (some taught as many
as 60 children in a primitive rural school), his reading, and the
community's efforts to provide advanced education for their young
by building the Freeman Academy. He took advantage of all the educational
opportunities available. He read books sold by an itinerant book
seller, learned all he could from ministers and teachers, and attended
Dakota Wesleyan, a Methodist college located at Mitchell, South
Dakota. He married, became a teacher and school administrator and,
for many years, followed the lead of men he admired and traveled
the rural west selling books.
Since the essays deal with common experiences and are short, this
should become a very popular book. Readers may put it in the car
or the bathroom or wherever short waits invite a bit of reading.