Hunhuskers, Red Cross Roosters, and Uncle Sam Whiskers: The McIntosh County German-Russians in World War I

Iseminger, Gordon L. "Hunhuskers, Red Cross Rooster and Uncle Sam Whiskers: The McIntosh County German-Russian in World War I." Midwest Review, 1992, 23-46.

The outbreak of war among European powers in August 1914 raised soul-searching questions for members of ethnic groups who had emigrated from these powers to the United States. To which of the belligerents, for example, did they owe their allegiance and support? Because the war was viewed, both in the United States and abroad, primarily as a war against Germany, for the large German element in the United States these questions were more troublesome than they were for most ethnic groups. This was especially true after April 1917 when the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies. Adopted land was pitted against Fatherland.

For German-Russians, however, the situation was even more poignant than for other German-Americans because of an additional dimension. "Our ancestors came from Germany and our cradles once rocked in Russia," was how one German-Russian expressed it. Should German-Russians support any country's war efforts when nation of birth and nation of residence were pitted against nation of blood? This article will suggest how one group of German-Russians, those living in McIntosh County, North Dakota, dealt with this difficult question.

Among the characteristics marking German-Russians was a dislike for war and military service. It was partly this dislike that had prompted their ancestors to respond to the manifestoes of Catherine II (1762-1796) and Alexander I (1801-1825) inviting foreigners to settle on the fertile Russian steppes bordering the Black Sea and lying along the lower Volga River. Among the inducements contained in the manifestoes were offers of free land, freedom of religion, and exemption from compulsory military service.

Catherine the Great's manifestoes became the basis for those issued by her successors. One of them, promulgated on July 22, 1763, at the end of the Seven Years' War—the third major European war of the century—contained the promise that "foreigners who have settled in Russia shall for all the time of their living there not be called to civil or military service against their will." Tsar Alexander I reasserted the promises made by Catherine II and enlarged on them in a manifesto he issued on February 20, 1804, just when German-speaking farmers and craftsmen in the German states of Württemberg, Baden, Alsace, and the Rhine Palatinate were beginning to bear the full brunt of Napoleon's invasions and occupation.

Given their dislike for military service and considering their experiences with war and invasions, it is not surprising that large numbers of colonists who accepted invitations to settle in South Russia came from those parts of present-day Germany that had been most ravaged by war. By the time German-Russians began emigrating to the United States in the late nineteenth century, they had established several hundred colonies near the Black Sea and along the lower Volga River.

Promises that German-Russians had accepted in good faith when they emigrated to South Russia and which they had assumed would be honored "for all the time of their living there" were, in their estimation, later broken. During the latter part of the nineteenth century many governments carried out "unifying" movements in attempts to consolidate and modernize their nations. A civil war was fought in the United States to strengthen and preserve the Union. Germany itself was unified in 1871. In Russia, the counterpart to these movements was the attempt by Tsar Alexander II (1855-1881) to introduce sweeping reforms designed to modernize peasant Russia, alleviate social ills, and consolidate far-flung Russian territory. Although the reforms were necessary, if not entirely well-intentioned, German-Russians protested. The reforms abrogated many of the rights that they had enjoyed as "privileged foreign colonists," although some of the "rights" that they had been exercising had not been specifically granted and, over time, they had enlarged on others.

Two pieces of legislation that were particularly odious were the Zemstvo Act of 1864, dealing with provincial self-government, and the Universal Military Conscription Law of 1874. Both struck at the image that German-Russians had of themselves as being superior to their Russian neighbors. Germans had gone to south Russia with the expectation that they could remain German, retain their religion, and preserve the German language—that they would, in short, be allowed to continue to enjoy a privileged status. Placing education, health, and economic matters under the jurisdiction of the local zemstvo institutions reduced the German colonists to the level of the Russian peasants who had been released from serfdom only in 1861. Most shocking and disillusioning of all was the Military Conscription Law of 1874 by which German-Russians were made subject to military service like the rest of the population.

Unlike the Black Sea German Mennonites who protested against the new conscription law on moral and religious grounds, the Evangelical Black Sea Germans did so on principle. The law violated pledges that had been made to them in official manifestoes. German-Russians also feared that during their six-year terms of active duty, their sons would be mistreated by Russian officers and discriminated against by fellow recruits in the Russian Army. Parents feared that their sons would be unable to attend worship services in their own language. Most bothersome of all was the prospect that should a German-Russian be killed in battle, his body would not be sent home for burial in the earth of the colony.

Not only were German-Russians disillusioned by the Russification program, their numbers were increasing and land was becoming more expensive and scarce. Fortunately, just as Germans were considering leaving south Russia, for both political and economic reasons, the American Great Plains were being opened to agriculture and settlement under the terms of the Pre-emption, Homestead, and Timber Culture acts. The wide expanse of prairie comprising large portions of the Plains states from North Dakota to Kansas, and so resembling the south Russian steppes, attracted thousands of land-seeking German-Russians. "Here it is just as it was in Russia" exclaimed the first Black Sea Germans joyfully, when in the spring of 1873, they drove stakes into the soil of what was then known as Dakota Territory, to mark off their claims. Besides free land and opportunity, America also offered freedom of religion, and there was no irksome compulsory military service.

Especially between 1885 and 1905 thousands of German-Russians came to America. Arriving in North Dakota later than other groups, they settled on the drier, less fertile lands of the Missouri Plateau. Concentrating in the twenty-three North Dakota counties that form what historians and demographers refer to as "the German-Russian triangle," German-Russians were the only immigrants who came to North Dakota from a semiarid country.

Because this article deals with the German-Russians of McIntosh County, North Dakota, it will be helpful to describe the county and explain why it was chosen as a focus for this study.

McIntosh County lies on the border between North and South, the second county east of the Missouri River. Together with Dickey, Emmons, Sioux, Grant, and Hettinger counties, it forms the base German-Russian triangle that extends through the center of the state with its apex just south of the Canadian border.

McIntosh County was opened for settlement in 1884, and the German-Russian settlers may have entered the county towards of the same year. They settled near present-day Zeeland in the southwest corner of the county. Most of these people were Evangelical Black Sea Germans who had left the areas of Glückstal, Liebental, Bessarabia, and the Crimea in south Russia. By 1886, many families had settled near the present-day towns of Ashley, Wishek, Venturia, and Lehr. And German-Russians continued to settle in McIntosh County, until it was almost 100 percent German-Russian, with the heaviest concentration of German-Russians of any county in North Dakota.

That German-Russians were among the first settlers in McIntosh County and that the county became increasingly German-Russian in complexion is revealed by the census figures. According to the census of 1890, the first one taken after North Dakota became a state, the county had 3,248 inhabitants; 2,053, or 63 percent, were German- Russian. Twenty years later, of the county's total population of 7,251, near1y 80 percent were German-Russians.

The population statistics for the seven townships forming the southern edge of the county are even more revealing of how rural and German-Russian McIntosh County was. A common migration route followed by the Black Sea German-Russians who emigrated to McIntosh County was to travel from Odessa on the Black Sea to a German port such as Bremen by rail. From here they took ship passage across the Atlantic to New York and rail passage to Aberdeen, Ipswich, or Eureka in Dakota. Eureka was for many years a terminal for the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway and, despite its small size, the world’s leading primary wheat market. Eureka was also the main collecting and dispersal point for hundreds of German-Russian immigrants and, as "the Odessa of the Northern Great Plains," it was the focus of their attention, the market for their farm produce, and the source of their supplies.

From Aberdeen, Ipswich, or Eureka, German-Russians made their way north to McIntosh County by team and wagon. It would be logical to assume that they settled first and in large numbers on the more desirable land on the southern edge of the county. The census figures for 1910 suggest that this indeed is what they did.

Coldwater, Jewell, Myrtle, Lowell, Johnstons, Berlin, and Odessa the seven townships, east to west, on the southern edge of McIntosh County. In 1910, the total population of these townships 1,607. In every township, with the exception of Johnstons in which the town of Venturia was located, every person lived on a farm. The majority, 90 to 100 percent (the exception again being Johnstons), of the male heads of household were farmers.

A total of 458 parents resided in the seven townships. Of these, 390, or 85 percent, had been born in Russia. In no township had fewer than 70 percent of the parents been born in Russia, and in most townships the figure was 90 percent or over. For almost 75 percent of 458 parents in the seven townships, according to the census figures, German was the only language.

In 1910, the southern tier of townships in McIntosh County was clearly rural and populated by German-Russians who had only recently arrived in North Dakota and who had not yet learned English.

To be sure, not all of McIntosh County was as distinctly rural and as decidedly German-Russian as the southern tier of townships. However, in Frieda Township, twelve miles north of the state boundary and on the western edge of the county, every one of the 265 persons residing in the township lived on a farm, 65 of the 70 parents had been born in Russia, and all of the parents gave German as their only language. Understandably, because the town of Wishek was located there, in Youngstown Township on the northern edge of the county only half of the parents had been born in Russia and about the same percentage gave German as their only language.

Only three towns had been established in McIntosh County by 1910—Ashley (683 population), Wishek (427 population), and Zeeland (196 population). As would be expected, fewer townspeople were German-Russians and larger numbers of them gave English as their language. Still, in Ashley, the county seat, of the 211 parents listed in the census, 116 had been born in Russia and 73 of them listed German as their only language.

By the time the 1920 census was taken, two years after the end of the period covered by this study, the population of McIntosh County had increased to 9,010, but the county was still predominantly rural. Just over 2,800 people lived in towns, most of them in Ashley (1,009) and Wishek (1,003). The rest were divided among the villages of Zeeland (323), Venturia (207), and Lehr (271). Danzig, platted in 1911, contained only a few dozen people.

In short, at the time of World War I McIntosh County was rural and populated almost entirely by German-Russians, some of them only recently arrived from south Russia and many of them knowing no English. It is time now to examine how these people responded to the issues raised by World War I.

Of the hundreds of young men in McIntosh County who were eligible for the draft in 1917 and 1918—738 registered on June 5, 1917, alone—only a few neglected to register or refused to heed their draft notices, some of them out of ignorance, others because they were prevented from doing so.

Jacob Maier, who lived with his parents east of the Coldwater Store, was arrested on October 30, 1917, and charged with failing to register for the draft, the first such case in McIntosh County. The press charged him with being a "slacker" and published accounts of his case made its way through the courts. A pathetic case was that of a twenty-eight year old man from Zeeland. Unable to read, write or speak English, he could not understand the regulations. Advised by his father and friends that he need not report to the draft board when his number was called, he failed to appear. Arrested as a deserter, he was inducted into the army and sent to Camp Dodge, Iowa. Had he requested it, he would have qualified for an exemption because he was married, had two small children, and had recently purchased a farm.

An unfortunate instance of bad judgement was the case of the Rieb brothers, George and Adolph. Their father, Friedrich Rieb of the Zeeland area, refused to allow them to register for the draft or report for induction. Both were arrested. Adolph was sent to Camp Dodge. Had they followed the regulations, both would have been exempted from service—George because of a physical handicap and Adolph because he was married and had a family.

When the draftees left for Camp Dodge, Iowa, Camp Lewis, Washington, or other induction and training centers, their parents and friends held celebrations—sometimes in each of the county's half dozen towns—with dinners, patriotic speeches in both German and English, and martial music. It seemed as if each community sought to outdo the others in the tribute it paid to the departing men.

The last event of the farewell celebration took place at the train depot, just before the train bearing the draftees pulled out of the station. Bands played, school children paraded with American flags, Red Cross ladies gave each fellow a Comfort Kit and sometimes a wristwatch, and purses amounting oftentimes to hundreds of dollars were collected and presented to the men. As the train pulled out of the station, the members of the crowd sang "America," "My Country 'Tis of Thee," and other patriotic songs.

When the county's quota of fifty young men—"the pride of McIntosh County people"—left for Camp Dodge on March 29, 1918, county residents staged a two-day farewell celebration. An estimated 4,000 of the county's almost 9,000 inhabitants gathered to say good-bye to the boys, 2,200 in Wishek alone. May 25, 1918, was a never-to-be-forgotten day in Wishek. Thirty-eight young men from McIntosh County joined 33 from Sargent County and 23 from Campbell County, South Dakota, who were on their way to Camp Lewis, Washington. A crowd reported to number over 3,000 gathered at the depot to bid their farewells." An exceptionally large number of people" were on hand in Ashley a month later to say good-bye to 27 boys who were leaving Camp Dodge.

Observing a group of McIntosh County draftees bound for Camp Dodge, the editor of the Kulm Messenger remarked: "There wasn't a downhearted lad in the lot and they all bore the earmarks of genuine 'hunhuskers.'" Twenty-nine McIntosh County draftees gathered in Ashley on September 18, 1917, prior to leaving for Camp Dodge. Among the songs that the crowd sang on the occasion was one set to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" and entitled "When the Call Came." The words went like this:

The boys of county McIntosh
In dear old North Dakota
Are on their journey to Camp Dodge
To fill the County's quota.

Just wait 'til we have learnt our stunt
When at Camp Dodge, down yonder,
We’ll make the old huns squint and grunt,
And all their generals ponder.

And should not all come back to you,
From camping with the Frenchies
Remember we were all true blue;
When fighting in the trenches.


‘Rah the boys of McIntosh
Down the Kaiser and the boche,
Honey don’t you cry for me,
I’m off to victory.

Only days after the United States declared war on Germany, the Ashley school board met in special session and responded to the government's call for volunteers by adopting an unusual measure. Any high school senior in good standing who enlisted immediately would be allowed to graduate at the end of the spring term as if he had attended for the full term. Less than a week later, two young men responded to the board's offer. One of them, Sam Miles, would have been the class valedictorian.

It must reflect favorably on McIntosh County German-Russian young people that many men enlisted in the navy, the army medical corps, and the artillery—rather than waiting for their draft numbers to be drawn—and that many young women volunteered to be student nurses. These young people bore names such as Moench, Klipfel, Dockter, Roehm, Bauer, Becker, and Mensing.

Both the Ashley Tribune and the Wishek News published photographs of McIntosh County young men taken while they were in training. The army may have provided both the photographs and the patriotic captions. C. C. Lowe, the owner and publisher of both papers, may have printed the photographs because he realized that to do so was good for his newspaper business. But, having granted all that, the photographs do not depict individuals wearing expressions of dread and dismay at the prospect of having to fight in a war, even in one against Germany. The photographs are rather of young men standing at attention, presenting arms, or saluting smartly—all seemingly proud to be wearing the uniform of the United States Army.

As young recruits are wont to do, McIntosh County trainees wrote letters home from camp. Published in both German and English in the Wishek News and in the Ashley Tribune, the letters reveal the thoughts and sentiments of young men who were away from home, many of them for the first.

Most clearly enjoyed being in the service and, apparently had adjusted to military life without too much difficulty. For some, the service offered an escape from the confining atmosphere of home and from the unrelieved drudgery and monotony of farm work. They wrote about the good food (meat and vegetables instead of "dough three times a day"), daily showers, clean clothes, beds with springs, opportunities for recreation, enjoyable work, having an hour off at noon, and being let off duty at 5:15 in the afternoon. Perhaps to reassure their parents, they also wrote of the many opportunities they had to attend Bible study and worship services.

John W. Ackerman wrote from Fort Stevens, Oregon: “Am having a keen time, and feel like a soldier." Jacob Rempfer was stationed at Camp Dodge, Iowa. "I like it very much," he wrote, "and so do the others. Give every man just one week of life at Camp Dodge in the National Army and he will want to stay here if he is a man of human nature that enjoys good health." He believed that parents were making a mistake if they prevented their sons from joining the army because in the service one received training, discipline, and medical care.

Jacob Klipfel, writing from Fort Riley, Kansas, compared the work he did in the army to what he had done at home and concluded that being in the army was the best job he had ever had. Vincent Wolf from Zeeland was among the first men drafted from McIntosh County. Two weeks after arriving at Camp Dodge he recounted his experiences in a letter home. Being in the army was not as bad as people had warned him it would be and he was relieved that he and fellows like him had so easily adjusted to the routine. He urged others to join up—"the sooner the better"—because, he promised, "most of them will strike it better [here] than at home, that's one sure thing." Wolf also sent greetings from "Jake," another McIntosh County draftee. "[Jake] likes it fine," wrote Wolf, "he said he would never go back again. He is tickled to death that he is down here." In camp in Washington state, Christ Kurle wrote to his nephew Edward: "I am a soldier now and don't know if I ever will be a farmer." From Fort Riley, Gustave Dockter wrote to his brother and remarked that being in the service made him realize how much he had been missing by remaining at home in McIntosh County.

Not every McIntosh County young man, of course, enjoyed being away from home and subject to military discipline. Adam Frey wrote from Camp Funston, Kansas, that he did not mind the army so much, but he did miss his sweetheart and his work. J. J. Doerheim was in training at Camp Lewis, Washington. Although he found army life to be easier than farming, all he could think of was returning home, hitching up his horses, and getting into the field. He would have walked every step of the way back to McIntosh County if the army would have given him permission to leave.

Enlistees no less than draftees adjusted quickly to military life. Christian Weis from Ashley was so satisfied with conditions in the navy that he could not understand why the fellows from his community did not follow his example and enlist. F. G. Grosz, also in the navy and in training at Camp Farragut in Illinois, encouraged others to join up because being in military service shaped a fellow into "a good moral, healthy guy." Enoch Becker, son of C. C. Becker—one of the county's earliest and most outstanding residents—sounded very much like a recruiter when he remarked that being in the navy was "one of the most wonderful experiences" that anyone could have. "[It] gives one a chance to see the world, and this is worth a lot." Frank J. Last of Lehr enlisted in the infantry from Logan County—the boundary between Logan and McIntosh counties bisects the town—but McIntosh County claimed him as one of its own. Last did not regret having enlisted, but as soon as the war was over, he wrote, "Last wants to be 'first' in getting out...”

Once the men had completed their training and were waiting for shipment overseas and especially after they had been in combat, their letters became more reflective and philosophical. Doubtless by this time they listened to a number of lectures detailing Hun atrocities and had been repeatedly reminded of why it was that they were fighting. Vincent Wolf wrote that he and his comrades were eager to get to France and "lick that d__ old Kaiser." Proud to be a soldier, Jacob Rempfer professed willingness to offer his life upon the altar of freedom in order to make the world a decent place in which to live. Fred Rempfer was eager to fight "for the Stars and Stripes" and for the people back home. When he wrote his parents that he had volunteered for duty overseas, Jacob Klipfel signed his letter, "Yours for liberty," Jacob Klipfel.

Frank J. Last was sobered by what he saw after arriving in France. Incensed at the plight of the refugees, he wrote: "I wish I could get some of our pro-German friends to see some of the real dirty work the [Boche] do. I don't see how anybody could ever 'stick' by Germany if they really knew how really mean and 'dirty' they are." A number of McIntosh County servicemen got their wish and were in action on the Western Front. Many were wounded. John W. Meidinger received a serious shrapnel wound in the celebrated battle of the Argonne Forest and spent two months in the hospital. But, he boasted reassuringly, "I got several Huns before they got me—at least one for every member of the family and then some." If Meidinger was correct, his was indeed a heroic action, for the Meidingers were an exceptionally large family in a county of large families. So many of his relatives located in Antelope Valley that the community came to be known as "the Meidinger Settlement."

Among the McIntosh County soldiers who distinguished themselves were Frank J. Last and Christian Kurle. Last saw action in the Toul sector and the Somme, where he was gassed. He was also at Chateau Thierry and at Soissons. Badly wounded in the hip by shrapnel on July 21, 1918, and unable to move, he was captured by German troops and interned in a prisoner of war camp for six months. He returned to Wishek as "one of the real heroes of the world war" and opened a photography shop. Weary of being asked by eager listeners to repeat the accounts of his military experiences, he published them in a series of articles in the Napoleon Homestead in 1919.

Christian Kurle was awarded the distinguished Service Cross for heroism on the Western Front. He also received the Croix de Guerre, this for rescuing a wounded comrade while under heavy enemy fire. Lt. Colonel Thomas J. Rogers of the United States Army, acting on behalf of the French government, presented the award to Kurle in ceremonies held in Wishek on August 12, 1919.

Besides those who were on active duty in the United States and overseas, more than two hundred McIntosh County men were in army training camps when the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. Their service stripes and honorable discharge stripes "unmistakable proofs" of their contributions to the nation's war efforts, the servicemen returned home to tearful and enthusiastic welcomes. To express their relief and thankfulness at having the men home again, county residents held celebrations that included parades, speeches, dinners, and dances.

In March 1919, members of the McIntosh County Publicity Committee began discussing a fitting memorial to the county's "brave sons" who had answered their country's call. Suggestions ranged from erecting large stone monuments, to establishing parks, to building bandstands. A suggestion given serious consideration was that when the county's new $75,000.00 courthouse was completed, the phrase "A memorial to the soldiers of McIntosh County, North Dakota, who fought in the Great War of 1917-1918" be inscribed on the cornerstone and that bronze tablets bearing the names of the servicemen be placed in the building's corridors.

Although the suggestions were all well intentioned, no monuments, parks, bandstands, or courthouses were dedicated to the county's war veterans. On July 4, 1919, however, Wishek sponsored a “Grand Victory Celebration," the biggest Fourth of July observance ever held in the county. The program included a parade, speeches, baseball games, wrestling matches, a band concert, and a dance. Veterans attended in uniform, businessmen closed their shops, and farmers took the day off and came to town. The highlight of the day's festivities was the dedication of the "Roll of Honor," a large bronze tablet bearing the names of the community's servicemen.

Observances did not end with the Grand Victory Celebration. McIntosh County residents apparently did not want veterans to think that either they or their contributions had been forgotten. On November 10, 1919, the eve of the day on which the Armistice had been signed one year previously, veterans were invited to a Victory Memorial Dance in Wishek. At the end of the year, the Wishek News published a special edition in which veterans described how they had spent Christmas in 1918 when most of them were still in uniform.

Veterans' memories of the war were kept alive in other ways as well. The American Legion was organized at a convention held in St. Louis, Missouri, May 8-10, 1919. Three months later, in August, even before the organization was incorporated by an act of Congress on September 16, 1919, plans were under way to organize posts in McIntosh County. Post Number 53 was organized in Ashley in the fall of 1919 by a number of veterans "desiring to preserve the memories and incidents, their associations and comradeships formed during their period of service..." The post was named in honor of Frank Piper, the first McIntosh County serviceman to die and be buried in France. Post Number 87 in Wishek was named for Fred Kelle, another McIntosh County serviceman who had died while serving on the Western Front.

It must reveal something about the sentiments of McIntosh County German-Russians that American Legion Posts were established in both Ashley and Wishek and that the posts were named for men who had died while fighting in a war against Germany. Also revealing is that when the much-decorated Christ Kurle died in February 1937, members of the American Legion served as pallbearers and the American flag was draped over his coffin.

The sentiments of the county's German-Russians regarding the war might be measured in yet another way. Ashley's golden jubilee book was published in 1938, Wishek's in 1948, and Nina Farley Wishek's history of McIntosh County in 1941. All contained short biographies of the county's pioneer settlers. Oftentimes the only children of the pioneers who were singled out by name in the biographies were sons who had been in military service during World War I. Three of the thirteen Remfer children—sons Jacob, Benjamin, and Fred—were in service during the war. C. C. Becker and his wife Caroline had eight children, two of them sons. Otto served in the artillery and Enoch in the navy. Biographers carefully noted if the son had served overseas and if he had been killed or wounded in action. Biographers also took special pains to point out that the son had been honorably discharged.

Finally, it would seem that the veterans themselves, even twenty and thirty years after the Armistice, if not proud to have served in the military during World War I, were at least not ashamed to admit that they had done so. Ashley's jubilee book in 1938 contained a recent photograph of the members of Frank Piper Post Number 53. Most of them were German-Russians; all of them were veterans of World War I. Wishek's jubilee book contained a photograph, taken April 18, 1948, of the surviving veterans of the Great War who still resided in the county.

Providing men and women for military service was not the only way that McIntosh County German-Russians supported the war. Their efforts were encouraged and recorded by C. C. Lowe, the owner and publisher of both the county's newspapers-the Ashley Tribune and the Wishek News. Lowe also owned the movie theaters in Ashley and Wishek, in which were shown such sensational and highly stylized films as The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin and Womanhood, the Glory of a Nation.

Lowe purchased the Ashley Tribune in 1915 and the Wishek News in 1916, coming to Ashley from Dickey and Lamoure counties—like McIntosh County, both were German-Russian communities—where he had also owned and worked on newspapers. Professing the credo that a newspaper was "the natural mouthpiece of the community" and insisting that "every resident and tax payer in the county should be a reader of the official county paper," Lowe vowed to publish papers that would appeal to the county's residents and at the same time promote the county's best interests.

To aid him in reaching his ambitious goal of placing his newspapers in every home in the county and convincing businessmen that advertising paid dividends, Lowe hired an experienced German-speaking staff and printed sections of both his papers in German. At the time of the Armistice, more than half the pages of the Ashley Tribune (the official county newspaper) were printed in German—local news, legal notices, sale bills, political ads, business advertisements, and war news. Lowe wanted his German readers to be as well informed as were his Yankee readers, even though printing in two languages required an added expenditure of money and effort because double the space was required for each time. By January 1918, Lowe had increased the number of subscriptions to the Ashley Tribune to over 1000, more than two and a half times what the number had been in 1915. Later in the year he noted that he had very nearly reached his goal of having one of his newspapers sent to every home in the county.

On May 4, 1917, shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, Lowe placed two representations of American flags on the front page of the Ashley Tribune, one at either end of the paper's name. They remained there until after the end of the war. A week later, on May 11, the American flag and a poem entitled "The Stars and Stripes" appeared in the Tribune's masthead. The flag and the "Pledge of Allegiance" or some other patriotic message appeared in the masthead weekly throughout the war. Beginning in July 1917 and continuing throughout the war, the masthead of the Wishek News carried a representation of the American flag together with the verse:

The emblem of the land I love
The home of the free and the brave.

Lowe made no secret of his sentiments regarding the war . He supported it, and he published examples of how and why he supported it in each issue of his paper.

Apart from what is suggested by their providing men and women for military service, the sentiments of the county's German-Russians cannot be so readily deduced as can those of newspaperman Lowe. Nevertheless, the following may at least suggest what those sentiments might have been.

Shortly after the United States declared war on Germany, county officials (the names themselves are revealing—Bader, Wolf, Reule, Remington, Doerr, Meidinger, Hildenbrand, Moench, Buchholz, Boschma, Dockter, and Maercklein) made the decision to fly the American flag over the courthouse in Ashley. The Tribune editor, in what may have been an excess of patriotic exuberance, proclaimed that Ashley men had all shaved off their Kaiser Wilhelm mustaches. In the same spirit, perhaps, Emil Klipfel advertised that he would trim Uncle Sam whiskers in his Sanitary Barber Shop.

County residents refused to get caught up in the war hysteria that gripped some communities in the United States. Children contracted German measles, as they had before the war, and not the virulent "liberty" strain of the disease that so sapped peoples's energies elsewhere. Nor did German-Russians in McIntosh County eat "liberty cabbage" during the war. The Ashley Cash Store advertised sauerkraut for Thanksgiving Day dinners in 1917 at seventeen cents for a large can. Most businesses—banks, insurance agencies, mercantile establishments, auto dealers, service stations, cream buying stations, grain elevators, and implement dealers—printed their ads in both German and English. During the Christmas holidays Auerbach's Store in Ashley featured sauerkraut by the five-, ten-, and fifteen-gallon tub and by the barrel. The editor of the Wishek News observed that no purpose would be served by changing names, including that of the state's capital—Bismarck. "Such things," he pointed out, "will not win the war for us and it is advisable that time be spent doing something else more helpful."

That businesses attempted to capitalize on the war can be inferred from their advertisements. Bakeries and grocery stores featured rye bread on Mondays and Wednesdays, the "wheatless" days. The Herr Mercantile Company in Wishek, among the largest and most reputable German-Russian business establishments in the county, urged shoppers to "do their bit" for the war effort by not purchasing cheap and off-brand goods. The Herr Mercantile Company, of course, sold only quality merchandise from well-established lines.

Within weeks after America's entry into the war, supporters organized a Red Cross chapter in McIntosh County. Membership increased steadily, and countywide drives raised money for the organization. Lowe published the names of members and donors in his newspapers, together with the amounts that they had contributed. Each issue of the newspapers also contained one or more columns devoted to Red Cross news. Junior Red Cross units were organized in the schools; boys made such items as trench torches and girls made and sterilized bandages.

June 18, 1918, was Red Cross Day in Wishek. Shopkeepers closed their stores and farm families were urged to take the day off and come to town. The program that began at 10:30 a.m. included music by the Wishek Military Band (every town in the county had a military band during the war, even tiny Danzig), singing by the school children, and speeches in both German and English. The Red Cross ladies served dinner at noon, after which the big event of the day took place. Articles that had been donated by community residents were auctioned off and the proceeds were given to the Red Cross.

Ashley residents held their Red Cross Day on June 20, 1918. Billed as "Win-the-War Day," it was among the biggest events ever held in Ashley. The program included music by the Lehr Military Band, a "patriotic" parade, addresses (all in German) by three prominent figures from Bismarck, and a dinner at noon. An auction was held in the afternoon to sell items donated by community residents, with the proceeds going to the Red Cross. One rooster was sold thirty times and netted a total of $60.00. "Some rooster!" exclaimed the Tribune editor. "That is sure 'pecking' the Kaiser good and hard."

McIntosh County German-Russians also bought Liberty Bonds. They were first urged to do so in the May 25, 1917, issue of the Ashley Tribune. "Erin Liberty Loan Bond," they were told, "ist eine Hypotheka auf die Vereinigten Staten von Nord Amerika. Kaufe eine." A technical term that is difficult to render concisely in English, Hypotheka would have been considered an appropriate word to use when urging members of ethnic groups to purchase Liberty Bonds, and native-born Americans would have thought the phrase to be particularly applicable to immigrants only recently arrived in the United States. Hypotheka might be roughly defined as a right that one acquires, for example to a piece of land, by making a downpayment. Then, to maintain the right to remain on the land and use it, one makes principal and interest payments regularly thereafter. By analogy, German-Russian immigrants had acquired a right to be in the United States when they immigrated, but to maintain the right to remain in the country and enjoy its benefits, they were required to make subsequent payments. They could make these payments by purchasing Liberty Bonds.

Throughout the war, catchy slogans and strongly worded admonitions appeared weekly in both the Ashley Tribune and in the Wishek News reminding readers that it was their "patriotic duty" to invest in America by purchasing bonds. "Buy bonds before it's verboten," they were warned. "Buy bonds and take the helm from Wilhelm," "A bond slacker is the kaiser's backer," and "A man who won't lend is the kaiser's friend" were among other reminders that were used. The phrases did not read as well in German as they did in English, but their message was clear nonetheless.

An intense advertising campaign preceded the Third Liberty Loan drive in April 1918. Large ads, paid for by the town's leading German-Russian business firms, filled three of the eight pages of the April 18 issue of the Ashley Tribune. One showed a spiked club, allegedly used by German soldiers with which to dispatch enemy wounded on the battlefield. Readers were warned that the same fate might befall them if Germany won the war in Europe and subsequently invaded the United States.

Campaign workers organized the county down to the precinct level. The slogan was "Not how little, but how much." The organizational meeting in Lowell district was held at the home of John Grosz. A committee consisting of John Rau, Fred Wohl, Jacob Weber, and Chris Fischer was charged with contacting all the residents in the district and asking them to purchase bonds. If people had no money, they were urged to borrow it.

The Third Liberty Loan drive in McIntosh County was a resounding success. "Over the top" was the phrase used by exuberant campaign workers when reporting on the success of the bond sales in their precincts. All together, county residents subscribed $177, 000.00, 133 percent more than the county's quota of $75,000.00. The Fourth Liberty Loan in the fall was also oversubscribed, but by a slim margin.

County residents were also urged to purchase War Savings Stamps. Lowe reminded his readers, many of whom were farmers, that just as farmers needed machinery with which to raise wheat, soldiers needed tools with which to fight a war. And the tools cost money. One War Savings Stamp would purchase one hundred rifle cartridges, a cartridge belt, or a bayonet scabbard. Two would buy two pairs of wool trousers or two heavy shirts. Three would pay for an overcoat and four for a rifle.

Lowe put it not a little bluntly when he observed that there were only two kinds of people in the United States—"Americans and traitors." Americans bought War Savings Stamps. "Which," he asked his readers, "are you?" The letters "W .S.S.," for War Savings Stamps, appeared dozens of times in every issue of the newspapers. In the April 15, 1918, issue of the News, for example, they were inserted between every item in the Local Happenings column—forty-eight times on one page alone.

The bold proclamation "Every Week is War Savings Stamp Week," together with the advice that "A Stamp A Day Keeps the Kizzer [Kaiser] Away , " appeared on the front page of every issue of the Ashley Tribune throughout the summer of 1918, encouraging readers to buy savings stamps. The Wishek News employed the words of a raucous cheer for the same purpose:

Rickety, rackety, roo,
O Bill, [William II] we'll get you.
Ja ich weis es,
With W.S.S.

Besides buying War Savings Stamps, investing in Liberty Bonds, and contributing to the Red Cross, McIntosh County German-Russians supported the war effort in such ways as economizing, collecting scrap iron, and doing what German-Russians did best—farming and raising foodstuffs.

One prisoner of war and one Croix de Guerre recipient do not, of course, a race of heroes make. Organizing American Legion Posts and draping the American flag over his casket when a member dies may not necessarily demonstrate support for a cause. Looking like "hunhuskers," paying high prices for Red Cross roosters, and sporting Uncle Sam whiskers may not in themselves reveal much about how McIntosh County German-Russians viewed World War I. Taken all together, however, these actions at least suggest the following conclusions regarding why the German-Russians of McIntosh County responded as they did to the issues confronting them because of the war.

That so few men of draft age neglected to register for the draft and that so few refused to heed their draft notices suggests that McIntosh County German-Russian young men complied with the nation's draft laws no less readily than did any other young men in the country. Indeed, Nina Farley Wishek wrote, "They were ready and willing, even eager to enter the great struggle." No matter how skeptical German-Russians may have been regarding the stories of German atrocities of the beginning of the war and no matter that initially they may not have wanted to become involved with it, once German-Russian young men were called into service, the war was no longer a questionable cause.

A second conclusion is that although heavy emigration from the steppes of south Russia to the prairies of North America coincided with a time of social and political upheaval in Russia, German-Russians did not come to America primarily for religious freedom or even to avoid war and military conscription. They came for land.

German-Russians had a land hunger, and this hunger drove them into undeveloped areas where they could find large tracts of free or low-priced land—first to south Russia, subsequently to the great central plains of the United States, to western Canada, to Argentina, and to Brazil. To be sure, German-Russians were disillusioned when Tsar Alexander II revoked the rights and privileges that had been granted them by Catherine II and by her grandson Alexander I. They resented that they were subject to military service; that they had lost the traditional right of self-government in their colonies; and that they, their children, their schools, and their villages were to be increasingly Russianized.

This disillusionment and resentment, however, does not sufficiently explain why German-Russians left south Russia. "It would appear," concluded Joseph S. Height, an authority on the Black Sea German-Russians, "that most Catholic and Evangelical colonists... left Russian to find in America the promise of 'free land for a free people.'"

A third conclusion can be based on the qualities that characterized German-Russians. German-Russians lived close to the soil and they were a thrifty, hard-working, God-fearing people who respected authority. They had a remarkable capacity for enduring adversity. They were accustomed to adapting to conditions not of their liking. When faced by the issues raised by World War I, they did what they had so often done. They accepted their lot and made the best of it. They obeyed the conscription laws. They heeded the admonitions to buy Liberty Bonds and War Savings Stamps. And, although they needed no encouragement from their government nor from the state food administrator to do so, they bent every effort to coax their land and herds to produce more.

Finally, by the time McIntosh County German-Russians had to come to grips with the issues raised by World War I, a century and more had passed from the time the first of their ancestors had emigrated to south Russia from Germany in order to avoid military service and to escape the ravages of war. German-Russians may still have had little time for war or for military service, but the actions of those living in McIntosh County suggests that they were not as opposed to things military as their ancestors had been.

Elwyn B. Robinson noted in his History of North Dakota that those who came to North Dakota and stayed in the state and on the land—he called them "stayers"—all shared certain characteristics. They were married and had families and they had been farmers before coming to the state. Foreigners were better "stayers" than Yankees, and those who had travelled the greatest distance to get to North Dakota were more apt to stay than those who had traveled not so far. German-Russians were among the best “stayers” of all. They had come the farthest and, apparently, they had come to stay.

Dismayed at the Russification program of Tsar Alexander II, Germans in south Russia had expressed their yearning, anxiety, and uncertainty by pointing to the sunset and exclaiming "Dort naus ist Americka!" (Away out there is America!) America meant land and opportunity, but it was far away and getting there would entail hardship and sacrifices. By 1914, there were few "Americas" remaining to which German-Russians could go if they were disillusioned with the government and dissatisfied with their circumstances. Moreover, although they had only recently arrived, those in McIntosh County had put down keep roots and the alternative of leaving their farms and migrating yet another time in order to avoid war and military service was, apparently, neither as attractive nor as compelling as it had been for their ancestors a hundred or more years earlier.

Reprinted with permission of The Midwest Review.


1.) Frederick C. Luebke observed that Americans of German origin were trapped in what he described as a "crisis of loyalty" in 1917 when the United States declared war on Germany. Many had developed a strong allegiance to the United States, but at the same time the bonds of affection for their German culture remained strong. Bonds of Loyalty: German-Americans and World War I (DeKalb, Ill., 1974), 3.

2.) Richard Sallet, Russian-German Settlements in the United States, trans. LaVern J. Rippley and Armand Bauer (Fargo, N.D., 1974), 100-101.

3.) Timothy J. Kloberdanz, ”Volksdeutsche,” The Eastern European Germans, “William C. Sherman and Playford V. Thorson, eds., Plains Folk: North Dakota's Ethnic History (Fargo, N.D., 1988),121-22; Elwyn B. Robinson, History of North Dakota (Lincoln, Nebr., 1966), 194,284; George Rath, The Black Sea Germans in the Dakotas (Freeman, S.D., 1977), 1-3. For the history, culture, and experiences of the Black Sea Germans in south Russia see the trilogy by Joseph S. Height, Paradise on the Steppe (Bismarck, N.D., 1972); Homesteaders on the Steppe (Bismarck, N.D., 1975); and Memories of the Black Sea Germans (Chelsea, Mich., 1979). Two key sources relating to the general background of the German-Russians by Karl Stumpp are The German-Russians: Two Centuries of Pioneering, trans. Joseph S. Height (Bonn, W. Germany, 1967) and The Emigration From Germany to Russia in the Years 1763-1862 (Lincoln, Neb., 1973). See also William C. Sherman, "Assimilation in a North Dakota German-Russian Community [Pierce County]" (Unpublished M.A. thesis, University of North Dakota, 1965).

4.) Kloberdanz, "Volksdeutche," 128-29; Robinson, North Dakota, 286; Rath, Black Sea Germans, 52-54; Sallet, Russian-German Settlements, 14-15.

5.) Kloberdanz, "Volksdeutsche," 129.

6.) Sallet, Russian-American Settlements, 4, 17, 22-28; Robinson, North Dakota, 286; Rath, Black Sea Germans, 53-73. Those less scholarly irreverently refer to the same configuration as the "'Great Sauerkraut Pyramid.'" Kloberdanz, Volksdeutsche, 131-33, 136-37.

7.) Kloberdanz, "Volksdeutsche," 132-34,137.

8.) Robinson, North Dakota, 172; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910; Population, III, 352.

9.) Kloberdanz, "Volksdeutsche," 131-32.

10.) U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910: Population, III, 233-391.

11.) U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of the United States, 1920; Agriculture, IV, Part 1,628; Manufactures, IX, 1127; Population, I, 552; Population, II, 1355; Population, III, 759.

12.) Ashley Tribune, June 8, 1917; November 1,1917; February 21,1918; May 2, 1918; June 27, 1918.

13.) Ashley Tribune, April 4, 1918; June 27, 1918; Wishek News, April 5, 1918; May 30, 1918.

14.) Kulm Messenger, July 26,1918; Ashley Tribune, September 20,1917.

15.) Ashley Tribune, April 10, 1917; April 27, 1917; May 11, 1917.

16.) Ashley Tribune, October 11, 1917; April 25, 1918; May 23, 1918; July 4, 1918; Wishek News, September 21, 1917; January 4, 1918; June 6, 1918; December 27, 1918.

17.) Ashley Tribune, October 11,1917; June 6,1918; August 8,1918; Wishek News, November 23, 1917; Gordon L. Iseminger, "C. C. Becker: McIntosh County German-Russian Pioneer," North Dakota History (Summer 1983), 4-13; Ashley's Golden Jubilee, 1888-1938, 84.

18.) Ashley Tribune, September 20, 1917; May 2, 1918; June 20, 1918; June 27, 1918.

19.) Many German-speaking Lehr residents were aghast when Last enlisted in the army. "Think of it," they demanded. "Going to fight our Vaterland frei willig!" Ashley Tribune, September 26, 1918; November 7, 1918; Wishek News, January 23, 1919; Nina Farley Wishek, Along The Trails or Yesterday: A Story of McIntosh County (Ashley, N.D.., 1941), 395-96.

20.) Wishek News, May 23,1919; October 17 ,1919; Napoleon Homestead, May- September 1919. The town of Napoleon is located in Logan County.

21.) Wishek News, August 15, 1919.

22.) Wishek News, November 14, 1918; March 13, 1919; March 27, 1919; April 10, 1919; May 16, 1919; Ashley Tribune, November 14, 1918.

23.) Wishek News, May 2, 1919; June 13, 1919; June 20, 1919.

24.) Wishek News, November 7, 1919; December 12, 1919.

25.) Ashley's Golden Jubilee, 38; The Chicago Daily News Almanac and Year-Book for 1921, (Chicago, 1920), 532-33; Wishek, Trails, 313, 327; Spirit of Wishek, Golden Jubilee: 1898-1948, 29; Ashley Tribune News, August 22, 1919.

26.) Ashley's Golden Jubilee, 38, 84, 144-45, 201; Spirit of Wishek, 32.

27.) Wishek News, October 5, 1917; Ashley Tribune, August 23, 1917.

28.) Ashley Tribune, January 5, 1917; Apri1 27, 1917; June 1,1917; October 11; 1917; November 29, 1917; December 6, 1917; January 3, 1918; Apri14, 1918; Wishek News, October 12, 1917; January 11, 1918. North Dakota had a good record for protecting civil liberties during the war. Edwin F. Ladd, in his first speech in the United States Senate in 1921, boasted that the state had been "an oasis of sanity in a desert of hysteria." Robinson, North Dakota, 367.

29.) Wishek News, February 8, 1918; June 27 ,1918; Ashley Tribune, September 20, 1917; January 10, 1918; February 21, 1918; May 30, 1918; June 6, 1918; June 27, 1918; July 11, 1918.

30.) Ashley Tribune, May 25, 1917; September 26, 1918; Wishek News, September 19, 1918.

31.) Ashley Tribune, February 7, 1918; March 21, 1918; April 18, 1918; September 19, 1918; October 31, 1918; Wishek News, May 2, 1918.

32.) Wishek News, January 11,1918; March 15, 1918; Apri1 5,1918; July 4, 1918; Ashley Tribune, March 7 ,1918; May 16,1918; July25,1918; October3, 1918; December
19, 1918.

33.) Wishek, Trails, 430; Kloberdanz, Volksdeutsche, 146.

34.) Height uses the German word Drang when referring to the German-Russian’s "irrepressible desire" to own land. Drang can be rendered not altogether satisfactorily in English as "urge," "an irresistible or impelling force," or a "strong motivating instinct." Those who experience these forces operating on them can be said to be responding to a drive, that is, they are driven. Height, Homesteaders on the Steppe, 323.

35.) The day after the United States declared war on Germany, Governor Lynn J. Frazier urged North Dakota farmers to plant every available acre in order to meet the need of more foodstuffs. Edwin F. Ladd, state food administrator, in 1918 asked farmers to increase their production of wheat and rye. Robinson, North Dakota, 368.

36.) Robinson, North Dakota, 246.

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