Passages to Dakota: A Woman’s Viewpoint
"Passages to Dakota: A Woman’s Viewpoint." Prairies 10, no. 1: Spring 1986, 14-19.
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Andrew and Christina Neu celebrated their diamond wedding anniversary in 1982. The couple resides at Broen Retirement Home in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. They are descendents of German colonists who settled in Southern Russia, lived there for about a century, and then began immigrating to the United States in the 1880s. The following is a transcript from Christina Neu, recorded by Ida Hunt:
You want to know a lot from me, but I can’t tell you too much because I never was home. I was a year and six months when I went to my Grandmother Schwenk, to William Schwenk, and so I don’t know much about all this, but I can tell you some I know.
George Lagge, that was my father, son of Martin Lagge. He was born on June 25, 1853 in Worms, South Russia. He married my mother, Elizabeth Horning, in Odessa, South Russia. She was close in Artzes. That was a village close to Odessa.
Professor Bieman in Odessa married them.
They moved back to Worms and had their five children.
The oldest was Peter, my brother, born on May 25, 1883. Elizabeth, my sister, was born December 16, 1885. Another brother, Henry, was born August 8, 1886. I was born August 23, 1887.
So that was our first from my mother. She died when I was a year and a half.
Dividing the children
Then we were divided to our aunts and uncles. Peter, the oldest, went to good people. They educated him. He went to school and got a good schooling.
I went to my Uncle Henry. Elizabeth went to Uncle Fred Lagge. Henry was the only one who stayed home with Dad.
So when Father married the second time, the second marriage was to Frederika Schmeer, a widow.
There were seven children in the second marriage: three girls of my stepmother and four from my father and stepmother. Some died, and there were only two girls and one boy left.
My stepmother’s girls were Kathrine, Christine and Margaretha. Some of the children died, but I can’t tell you because I was never home.
From my father and stepmother were Wilhelmina, Carl, and Eva. I know only two when they were born. I know that but I forgot the dates.
Growing up in Russia
We were all born in Worms—my father, mother, and stepmother. So our village was a big village. We had a big church, Reformed. I was Reformed. The church had a big tower on it and on that tower was big clock. We could hear him out in the field; we could hear what time it was. The clock had three bells—a big one, a medium one, and a small.
When the little bell kinda’ talked, that was a little one died. The middle bell, that was when a young person died. The big bell rang when an old person died. Always it rang so much.
That was big church. We had our organ and the minister and we had a choir singing in the balcony.
Our village also had a big school house. It was not built like here. High it was, and long—one room, a real big room.
There were six grades in one room. Another room was two grades, the seventh and eighth grades, and so that was smaller.
We had two teachers, a German and a Russian.
Well, we had to be still. It wasn’t like here. When somebody comes, everything was real quiet.
When somebody knocked on the door and the teacher went to see who was there, if it was a man and when the teacher knew how high a person he was, we all had to stand up and wait until they were through the aisles and on the front, and then we could sit down. We didn’t move. We just had to be still and then they talked. Sometimes they talked a long time, and sometimes it didn’t take long. When they went out, we had to stand up and let them go out.
That’s the way it was in our village schools in South Russia.
Then we had the young ones. The older children like Peter would teach some of the younger children. Some of the other pupils were higher up, in the eighth or seventh grades, and so they could teach the smaller ones.
Classes were Russia and German
We had one hour Russian and one hour German. Then we had just like parochial school. We had our catechism and everything—writing in German. Then the Russian teacher came and we all had all from the outside, like the Czar and geography, in Russian. So that’s the way we learned. I could read and write in German just like nothing. And I know the creed, Lord’s Prayer and the catechism in German. My grandpa taught me that way.
So then I got to school. I had to stay there. I didn’t say anything.
I had to stay in the first grade, I think, only one winter. The second winter my Uncle Henry said to my brother Henry: “Henry, you tell the teacher that Christina can be farther on. She can read and write in the Bible and all this, and you get a Christmas present [if you talk to the teacher].”
I didn’t think Henry could do that. But sure enough he did. My German teacher gave me an examination, and then I was in the next grade with my older sister, Elizabeth, and others.
They were all bigger, and so they said, “Now that little thing! What would she want to do here?”
That was because I was so small for my age, you know.
I could talk Russian and I could read and write Russia. But arithmetic was terrible. I couldn’t understand it. They wrote on the blackboard—all little writings that you couldn’t even read it right, and so I just couldn’t get it. Oh, I was so bad in it. I had nice writings and could read well in both German and Russian, but in arithmetic I was way down in the end by the wall.
The Czar’s painful visit
One time at school we had a visit from the Czar and his high fellows. We must not have been polite enough because afterwards the teacher gave us a licking on our hands with a big, thick ruler—and my hands were swollen up to the wrists.
We all bawled, and when I came home told my brother George. He said, “You wait. We’re going to get them fellers.”
Both the German and the Russian teachers ate in a store. My sister Elizabeth worked there. The teachers were so bad, you know. If there was something wrong, they would just throw the children around.
So my brothers went after those mean teachers and chased them.
Afterwards, the teachers were nicer, a lot nicer.
Starting a new life
When I was in the eighth grade, I quit school. That was the usual practice. I was confirmed the first of June. I was not quite 15 when I was confirmed. I was confirmed on Sunday and Monday I had to go to my job to work.
I had to do all kinds of work from 15 years on. I worked on a threshing machine and I cut bundles open to get them down. I worked at my uncle’s until I was confirmed, but then I had to go on my own.
Well, I worked all this time and when I heard that my father wanted to go to America because Peter and George were in America, my three step-sisters were there, and then finally most of my family was there. And so they sent us a free card to come over.
Dad, he had to sell his land, you know. My father worked in the flour mill. He didn’t farm, but he had land his brothers rented. So he sold the land and let the boys know and they sent us a card to come over to America.
So we went.
But before we left Russia, we had to wait till the time was right because that was the time they had riots and you couldn’t go.
Our agent always said, “I will tell you when it’s the right time.”
So we stayed. I don’t know how long, maybe a month.
Our village was nice
Our village in South Russia was big. We had the deaf and dumb school there and we had three Jewish stores and two German stores.
One store was Yonker & Jepswell. The other we called Schumacher. So that was three Jewish stores.
The German stores were Scharer Store and Soloman Store.
Our village was more than a mile long and had lots of rows of houses. Our street was always the nicest. Every house was built of stones and they were soft, white stones and they were all square. That’s the way people built houses.
Each house had many squares. On the front of the house was always a little flower garden and the fences were all with cut stones and they were all whitewashed with lime. The flower gardens had little borders around them with a little seat so that old people could sit there in the evenings.
Our street was real wide. On the top north side and end of the village was a big building where they had beer and wine. When people traveled through, they would stop overnight. There was also a big barn.
We had the deaf and dumb school—and there were sometimes as many as 100 students from all over, even from Romania.
When the Revolution came, they took that school. There were beds for everyone, just like in a hotel. My brother Peter had a girlfriend who worked at the school. I was often there, you know.
Besides Peter’s girlfriend (her name was Caroline), the school had a cook, two teachers who were deaf and dumb, and a woman who was a nurse. She helped them sew and make fancy work. The boys had a teacher who taught them wood-working.
Students wore neat uniforms
The boys at the deaf and dumb school wore gray suits, like a blouse, and a belt with a buckle in front.
The girls’ uniforms were all with blue gamash, that’s the goods. That was all plain and they had a white apron with a bib up and ruffles around and in the back a nice big bow.
They were so pretty and all so clean. They went out and always walked in fours with the teacher in front. That was really nice. Often when I went up and they were in school and they were teaching, you could see just as plain when they had the Lord’s Prayer or came out with something else.
When they had to talk, they talked so nice.
One time, I came up and Peter’s Caroline wasn’t there.
“Where is Caroline?” I asked. And they said, “Auf dem Kirchhof!” (That’s the cemetery.)
The way it was
You should have seen the graduations! They had outside people from way out, and they were real rich. They brought a lot of stuff in. They were all decorated.
The school house was all decorated, too. People brought what they made, fancy work of all kinds. There were lots of nice things displayed in the school. These things were all sold, and the money went to the school and for the teacher’s pay.
The graduation celebrations and bazaars were always so nice as long as we were in Russia.
We had an awfully nice village that was peaceful for the most part. The boys sometimes fought. Uncle Andrew was in a fight once. The boys who lived in the south side couldn’t go up to the north side. The north-side boys didn’t like it because they thought the south-side boys stole their girlfriends! That’s the way it was there.
Land was divided
The land was divided. It wasn’t like here in America. In Russia we had a couple of acres here and a couple acres there. Some people owned their land, and rented land, too. I know my uncle had to rent from others. Grandpa Schwenk had land, but not enough. They rented from landowners in Berisofka, a Jewish town about 18 verst from us (a verst was two-thirds of a mile).
We didn’t have any nurses or doctors, and so we had to go to Berisofka when somebody was sick. I wasn’t sick too often, but I did have pinkeye. I was even afraid I was going blind.
When the young people went out in winter, we had a good time, usually going to a neighbor’s house which wasn’t too far away. We never went 100 miles as people do now in America.
Uncle Henry had his old-style accordion. He played and we danced. There would maybe be four or five couples.
There were no Russians living in our village, except the hired help, and that was mostly in summer. In the summer, we didn’t have good times—we had to work until midnight.
Working in the Black Sea
Houses were all nicely built with nice flooring. I worked at a resort at the Black Sea for rich people. They had real close maple flooring. We had three summer kitchens in a row where the hired people lived.
Soldiers lived across the street. They kept their horses and trained them close to where I lived at the resort.
Sometimes there was shooting all over, and we were frightened.
But when the soldiers came though, they’d sing. Oh, it was just the prettiest thing!
One Sunday afternoon I went down to the sea. It was close to our garden. It was such a hot day and I thought I’d go swimming. I didn’t know how to swim, but I went into the water anyway. If I’d gone one foot further, I would have gone down because I felt my feet lifting up. I was able to work myself back to shallower water, but I never went in again.
I worked at the Black Sea resort until fall, when I got homesick. I wanted to go home real bad, but I didn’t want to go all by myself. My boss ended up taking me to town, and there he found some people from Worms whom I could ride with.
It was so nice to be home again. After I had been there for some time, my father said, “We’re going to America.” I was so surprised!
The long journey
We had to go through lots of things, but we were always lucky. Sometimes we were afraid though, especially when we didn’t know if Father would pass. But every time we had exams, it was O.K., and so we went.
I couldn’t say all we went through. We had to take a bath, too, before boarding the ship. There was a bathhouse for the women and another for the men.
We had coats over us when we went into the bathhouse. We had to take our clothes off and people put them in steam and steamed them. The clothes were awful when they came out, but we had to put them on.
On our way to America, we had good luck. It was a big ship with many people on board. During the entire passage, there was only one night when we had a bad storm.
I didn’t even know it was storming because I had gone to bed and slept until morning. When I awoke, they told me about the bad storm.
The storm made some people very sick. There was a bed on top of mine. Two little sisters slept there, and one started to vomit. I felt so sorry for her. She vomited so that it started to run down on my bed. The smell became so bad that I had to go up on the deck to get fresh air. I wasn’t afraid to be on the deck by myself. I sat on the rail and looked right down into the water.
I wasn’t sick. Nobody was sick from us kids, not one, just my step-mother. She was always sick—change of life.
One of the passengers was a Jewish woman. She had real big eyes. She had two sons. One was quite tall, about 13 years old. The boys got into a fight with a Danish woman, whose husband was already in America. The Danish woman also had two children. I don’t know what the Jewish boys did, but one of the little Danish children started to cry and so they got into a fight. The 13-year-old Jewish boy jumped into the water, and so of course other people jumped in to rescue him. But when he was pulled back onto the ship, we never saw him again. We didn’t know if he was dead or alive. We never saw the mother anymore either.
And you know, when we came to Baltimore, I went out and looked up and there she hung her head out. She was there and they wanted to send her back. I don’t know if they sent her back or left her go.
It was beautiful on the ship. We danced a lot because there was music all the time. I danced with a Danish boy, but of course I couldn’t talk to him. He wanted to dance with me. I didn’t want to dance because my dad was against that. But Uncle Henry was sitting right by me when the Danish boy asked me. I said “No,” but then Uncle Henry said, “Go ahead.” So I danced with the Danish boy. But then Minnie, my sister (she was 11 or 12 years old) tattled.
Here comes my father and “bang” on my head. So I had to quit. I told Uncle Henry: “That’s your fault I went dancing.”
Uncle Henry was always down in the ship to help peel potatoes. That way he’d get his lunch.
We had real good eats there with white bread. We always had good eats.
My stepmother baked sweetdough bread, which was broken up in pieces and dried. In Russia, a sack was filled with these dried crumbs and taken to the field. The crumpled bread was usually eaten with sugar and tea. And so we took sweetdough bread along with us on the ship, too. We had our sugar and that’s what we ate.
Singing on the ship
We can’t say anything about the ship that they were so bad. You know, sometimes the boys would come around. There were other people we met, too.
There were the Baptists, and they sang. You know, I was a good singer, too. My father and all my brothers were good singers. When I got acquainted with this girl and her parents, they all started to sing. They sang a hymn I knew and I joined them. Other people on the ship came around and listened. We had a good time.
But you know, some came on that ship and they were so full of lice that the nurses (our ship had nurses) had to come and take the people down and wash them.
One woman had two little children and a baby. They were full of lice. The mother was very sick and so she couldn’t take care of the children properly. So the nurses took the children, cleaned them up, and brought milk.
We can’t say anything that they were bad there on the ship.
You know, some boys came around, and they said, “You want to marry me?”
One came around and he said to me I should go out with him.
Boy! If I went out with him, my father would be behind me! I wouldn’t go anyhow.
I said, “No! I’m too young to get married.”
I was not quite 18.
But there was another girl who did go. She went with one elderly. I think that man was even married. But her folks didn’t care! I think that was something! You find things like that!
I walked around, and then two boys came. They looked just alike. I think they were twins. They were tall, and I was walking back and forth. It was a long ship, you know. I walked and then they came around and wanted to talk and I should go with them and I said, “No.”
They said I should go with them and walk around with them and again I said, “No!” –and then I slapped one of the boys hard on the cheek.
See, they never came back again. You have to be careful in something like that.
Not afraid on the ship
I wasn’t afraid when I was on the ship. At first, I thought: “Oh my! Maybe the ship goes down!”
And it could happen! But it didn’t. We were lucky, and we finally reached America, sailing into Baltimore, and there was even a choir singing at the docks. It was the fourth of July at four o’clock in the afternoon.
Getting off the ship, we had to wait in a big building, and the Father had to go again and be examined. We sat on needles, wondering what would happen. It took a long time before he came out, but when he came out, he smiled, and then we knew everything was O.K. That was in the evening already, and so we got right on a train.
Some were not so lucky
My sister, Elizabeth, wanted to go to America before we went with her husband’s family. Elizabeth’s husband had trachoma inside his eyelids and the doctor doctored him and said he was all right. But when he got here, it wasn’t.
They sent him back, and Elizabeth and her husband eventually went to South America. We didn’t hear from them and we didn’t hear from them. We were out in Russia yet. They left before us.
Finally we received a letter. They were in South America.
Boy! I tell you! I was 15 when I saw her when they left Worms and I never saw her again. She died when she was 82. She had 12 children, but six died right away as babies. We wrote to each other often, and often said we would like to see each other again.
But we couldn’t, and so we had to take it the way it was.
All my relations left Russia, except my rich uncle and rich aunt. They were still in Russia when the Revolution broke out, and mobs came and burned down everything they owned. In the end, they didn’t have anything, and my uncle starved. He didn’t live in the village. He lived out by himself and had his hired help around him. I never saw him again.
Coming to the Dakotas, I had to work right away and my sisters and brothers were already married, except George. My oldest brother had a nice farm and I always went over on Sundays.
So when I went over there on Sunday, there was Mr. Andrew Neu there. They introduced me. My brother had met him on the ship when they came over, but I didn’t know him before.
Then, the next couple of Sundays later, he came back again. I said to myself: “That’s the man I should have. I think I should be his wife.”
But of course I didn’t know that he felt the same way.
Well, it wasn’t even a year when we got married. I was two years in America when I go married.
We were married on October 1, 1907, and had six children.
My married life was good. We worked hard to raise our children
the way they should be. I had them around the table and I sat with
them and taught them things. We have had a good life.