Passage to Dakota: A Man’s Viewpoint

"Passage to Dakota: A Man’s Viewpoint." Prairies 9, no. 4: October/November/December 1985, 22-27.

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I come from Russia. I was born in Neuburg, South Russia on January 3, 1885. My dad, Jacob Neu, was born in Neuburg on January 23, 1828. And my great-grandfather, I can’t tell how old. My great-grandfather was born about 1800. My mama was born in Neuburg on October 6, 1856. [Andrew also knew his great-grandmother. She was real old, short, little, humped over, and he thinks she lived to be about 100 years old.]

Dad was a carpenter. He made wine barrels, butter churns, and pails. He had the biggest basement to store it there—100 gallons of wine each. Me and my brother took a hose and stuck it in the barrel, and sucked the wine out. We drink and drink and drink. Sometimes we got a little too much. My brother said, “We don’t have to drink so much. Just a little bit.”

Mother had ducks and geese. We had a river run right through town. [Andrew had to herd the ducks.] I liked to throw stones at the ducks, and one time I hit a goose in the head and killed it.

I brought the goose to Grandma and said, “This goose is sick.”

“No,” Grandma replied. “This goose isn’t sick. It’s dead. You’ve been throwing rocks again.”

“No,” I said.

I swam across the river. A man had an orchard over there, and I used to steal apples and plums. The man caught me and said, “Hey! Come back!”

But I jumped in the river and said, “Come and get me!” and swam to the other side.

He stayed on the other side and was mad over there. I could swim like a duck.

My dad had a nice carpenter shop. But me and my cousin took kerosene and put it in our mouths, lit it afire and blew it all over. We got a big fire in the shop. Dad catch me sometimes.

Saturday afternoons a man came from the big town of Odessa. He had a lot of candy for sale. We didn’t have no money, and so we took eggs and traded them off on candy.

My great-grandfather died in 1890. My grandfather raised lots of grapes and plums, just like in California. We had a lot to eat. I helped in the garden and made wine.

Grandfather lived in Neuburg until 1892, and then he moved north. The name of the town was Kropapotter. It was a hard life over there. There was nothing to eat, only a little bit of flour mixed with water rolled up without any lard or anything.

When I was 13 years old, I had to go away from home. I worked for nothing, and I worked hard. I had to stay up to 15 years old. One day was cold. They gave me water, and I mixed it up with my feet and mixed it up to cover the building. My feet got so stiff from the cold I could hardly walk.

When I was 16 years old, I was confirmed. I don’t remember what kind of suit I wore, but I didn’t have any shoes. The man I worked for gave me his wife’s shoes to wear. They were three inches too long and curled up at the tips. I gave $5 for the confirmation picture. If I had a picture, I’d give $50 to see how I looked then.

When I was confirmed, I quit working for the guy. I got a good place. Mornings we go out, and we took a good jug of wine along, and we stay out all day in the field and come back in. Man said, “Andrew, you drink too much wine again.”

I said, “No, only four or five swallows every round.”

I was strong, 16 years old. I was strong. I work like a horse. I work one year for the man.

In October we move away to America. The 11th of November, 1901, we came to New York. Four days later, we come to Menno, South Dakota. We live there till 1915, and then we moved west 30 miles. We didn’t know many people there.

Once I heard Peter Lagge lived there, and then in another town. We was good friends together. I drive over Sunday. I drive and drive to get there. I stop and say, “Is Peter Lagge here?”

Man says, “He is in church.”

They come home about 12 o’clock, him and his wife and he brought along a nice girl. She was 19 years old. I never thought I had a chance for her. I guess I took her home in the evening. I ask if I can come again and she said, “Ya.”

Russia is the best country there is. Nice land. You go out and plow—level ground, no rocks. Not like around here. Up in hills, flat rock. Not like around here. You take a hammer and you can make pieces of the rock to build houses.

Russia was real good living as long as the Kaiser [czar] was there. He was a nice man, Kaiser and his wife. When crazy Lenin came, nobody knows how he killed Kaiser and his wife. With a butcher knife? I don’t know. From then on, it got worse.

Before that, farmer in Russia worked for himself. After that, farms were turned over to the government. All farmers worked together and have to give all to the government. Farmers were given just enough to live on.

We worked hard when we lived in Russia. There were no threshing machines, no binders. We had a scythe to cut wheat. Then we got a wooden fork, three-pronged, and raked the wheat into piles.

When we got done harvesting, we made a bed out of black dirt, took six horses with rollers, drove around the grain, and whap! whap! whap!, took the grain out and put another load on, put horses around again, all day up to night.

We sifted the wheat with big fanning wheels, working up to midnight, or one or two o’clock in the morning. Then we put the wheat in sacks and carried hundred pound sacks two or three blocks and upstairs and stored them.

Five o’clock in the morning you go out again and start up again all day long. It was hard work. Short nights. I didn’t get much sleep in Russia.

When I was 16 years old, I was a hard worker. We had good corn. When corn was ripe, we went out and picked corn in wagon, brought it home to the shed, all day and evening. The boys were 16 to 18. Sometimes, girls helped too.

We put corn in the shed and cleaned it. We put it in piles and worked till midnight. Early next morning we were back at it again.

We had a knife and cut corn stalks off and hauled them home for feed in the winter for the horses. We had really good horses in Russia. I never seen any better horses. We had them in barns, and never let them out in winter-time. We cleaned those horses every day, and even put their tails in water and washed them. We had real good horses.

On the wagon we had something that made a noise. When Father came home, we could tell by the wagon who it was. Each wagon made a different noise, and so you could tell who was coming by the noise.

It was a nice life in Russia. If I was younger, I’d go back again. I could drink the good wine. It was strong. I’d get strong again.

We had a kitchen—and a stove in it. We’d butcher hogs, and hang them in the chimney above the stove to cure for two or three weeks. [This was an efficient use of the smoke. The ovens, or stoves, were built inside the house. The chimney was built so wide that on the second floor of the house, there was an opening with a door. That is where they hung their hams, sausages, and bacons to smoke while heating the house and cooking.]

But some of the bigger boys would tie a rope around the chest of a smaller boy, put him in the chimney and drop him down—so that they could steal sausages and hams. They were good hams. If there was a high chimney, usually there would be a lot of good hams. Sometimes the boys got caught.

In Russia you can drive two or three miles, all on level ground. And it’s black ground. No rocks, good crops. Can’t figure out why the Russians have to buy wheat now.

We raised a lot of wheat. You wouldn’t believe me. You’d think I was a liar.

In the morning, a guy came with a great whip to take the horses out, ones they didn’t use for work, and then they’d drive them away to the pasture. Then came another man to get the cows. He’d crack his whip so that you could hear him coming. He’d bring the cows out, then the little calves, little pigs, and big pigs.

Then another man came. He had a whip, too.

In the evening, you came home and drove them in the street. Every cow and every horse and pig went to their own barn. Always the same place every day. Never, never did they go away. I never seen little pigs run away.

The man who had herded cattle on Easter brought a big basket, full of eggs and peaches. When they returned in the evening with the cows, one of the men was sick. Since there was no doctor around, we had to bring the police, and he said, “Dietrich, you ate 50 eggs and are sick.”

“No that’s not true,” answered Dietrich. “It was only 49.”

Grandfather had good workers. He had a big vineyard. We’d go out, some two or three grandsons, and he’d say. “Nay, nay. You go home. You make me no good work.”

We had to go home then.

Sometimes we got five cents for candy. Out in Russia, we’d get cold winters. Snow most of the time was three feet. There was no wind. It was good sledding over there.

In spring, around the first of March, we took our shoes off and threw them away. We had good weather. Not like over here. We had no cyclones. Not like over here. It was nice living over there.

The houses were about two to three feet thick. We’d build fires with straw, and in the morning the rooms would still be warm.

Bread was baked in stoves which were round and outside. We used a long stick and shovel on the end. We’d put a big loaf of bread on, about three-fourths of a pound, and put it on sticks. We baked bread that way. It was good bread.

Sometimes the stoves didn’t hold together very good. They were maybe made of brick. One time someone said, “Jacob, Jacob, hurry get money! The stove fell down.”

The boy ran in the house and got money. And sometimes not, because people knew stove wasn’t any good.

We had no doctor in our town. Odessa was a bigger town, but it only had a midwife.

Some of the treatment could be kind of crazy. One man got sick, and a woman put him in a wagon, hitched up the horses, drove him over plowed ground, clop! clop! clop! Then she brought him back and he’d be alright. He’d drink a glass of wine and he was alright.

Catholics were good friends, but never intermarried. And oh! sing! Can those Catholics sing! Jews lived in Odessa, too, since it was a big town, and people borrowed money from them.

One day we came to Rockham, South Dakota. We moved from Menno, South Dakota. We had a nice living there.

In 1932, when I started farming near Rockham, I got 19 cents for a bushel of wheat, 11 cents a bushel of barley, five cents a bushel of oats. I ran the threshing machine for my neighbors, and for the use of my machinery and labor, I got $5 an hour. I had six wagons and I put paper in the elevator. Anyone who sold grain had to pay the threshing bill first. Some paid. Some didn’t. I could still collect from some over there.

In 1943, we got $100 for an acre of wheat, $25 for corn, $66 for oats, and some alfalfa. We couldn’t grow much. We didn’t have enough to feed one chicken.

My father and mother owned a farm, which my dad sold sometime in the late 1920’s, and put all the money from the sale in the bank. In 1930, when the bank closed up, Dad got not a dollar out. He had nothing for living, so they went to my younger sister and lived there a year or so.

My oldest brother said, “I keep them.” They stayed with his family for about three or four months, and then my youngest brother came over to take them to his house, but soon his family didn’t have anymore room for them.

I tell my wife, Christina: “We go over and get Father and Mother.” At the time, we had two boys up here and no crops, but I said: “We believe in God, and He’ll help us.”

Father had a bed, dresser, and two chairs, and I took Father and Mother and their few belongings to my home and I tell my brother: “I keep them as long as they live.” That was in June or July of 1934.

During the cold weather, our house was very cold and there was not much to eat. But mama said, “That’s alright.”

She was sick, but not too bad. Then, in April 1935, I fixed up and went to town to get a load of wheat for seed. When I came home, Mama was dead.

Father was alright, but not very healthy.

During those years, we were never hungry, but we froze.

Then my dad got sick, and for about three months he was not so good and had to stay two or three weeks in bed. The doctor couldn’t help anymore. But Father had a strong heart. My heart is strong, too. He couldn’t eat for five or six days. He laid in bed and I couldn’t tell if he lived or died. Then he died one night.

We had a little crop next year. Not much. My youngest brother, John, moved to Minnesota in the spring of 1938. We drove out in the fall and came out here to Dent, Minnesota.

In Fergus Falls, corn was good, for 50 cents a bushel, and so I rented a 60-acre farm. When we came out here, Christina said, “How you make your living here?”

We bought a few cows and we had a nice income for the cows. Then we bought 10 or 12 more cows.

In the winter of 1940, there was a farm sale, 161 acres. I went to Fergus to get some money, but couldn’t borrow on land. But my son-in-law in North Dakota had some money, and he sent me $1,700. We bought the farm for $2,500, and moved in in 1941.

We had good luck there.

In 1947, my youngest boy went to the Navy. I told my wife, “Christina, we sell the farm and go to town.”

We sold the farm for $10,000 and bought a house in town for $6,000. We lived three years in town, and I tell Christina, “We find a 40- or 60-acre farm.”

We found a 40-acre farm, and lived on that farm for 17 years.

Out of Russia, we had good-sized towns. The farmers all lived together in towns. If I was younger, I’d go back. Russia is a better country than America when you compare the land. I still got my picture from my church where I was baptized in Russia. We had a great, nice church. Most people were Lutherans, but there was one Baptist church and one Catholic church.

My great-grandmother came from Neuberg, Germany. All came from Germany. My brother Jake’s neighbors came from Germany, and he brought an old atlas along. I tell him, “You come from Wittenberg? You find Neuberg, Germany.”

And he found it.

When they came from Russia, they used the name Neuberg.

Wine in Russia was not like wine in America. You could drink quite a few before getting drunk. Peaches were better than in California. Apples were better, too.

We lived not too far from Odessa, about 25 miles. Our village had a little store. All you needed was there. If you needed more, you went to Odessa. I went to school till I was 11, and I learned how to write Russian as good as German.

When we left Russia, we had a hard time. We stopped somewhere in Germany on our way to America, and we took a bath there. They said, “In the water, you Dunderweter!”

They pushed us right in the water and threw our clothes in big piles. We had to walk around naked to look for pants and shirts.

From then on, it was better. Then we came to Hamburg, and stayed there for one or two days, before getting our boat passage to America.

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