In the German Russian Farmlands of North Dakota

Götz, Karl. "In the German Russian Farmlands of North Dakota." Volk auf dem Weg, April/May 1952, 7-8, and continued in June/July 1952, 6-7.

Translation from the Original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado

One fine day I was able to take a great trip to the German Russian farmlands of Dakota in the United States. At the farm of Christian Keim, on old German Russian farmer, he and I immediately got involved in conversation, discussing farmland, the huge distances, and villages in Germany. 

Villages. Yes, he certainly wanted to know exactly how they looked. And also how they looked in Russia! Well, no, not the same, at least not with great spaces. With a twig I began to draw a village plat in the sand, and old Keim followed every stroke, asking questions in between. Laying our villages that way did not work in America. Every farmer took residence on his own land.  At first it may have seemed to them a lonely situation, but with time it would also assume some good aspects.

After dinner, mother Keim joined our group as we were talking about the old days. For example, that they had left Russia in droves because the Tsar could not keep the promises he had given the old ones, and old man Keim asked, “Should our men have done their duty for fifteen years, let themselves be beaten up like the Russians? And besides, cheap land was no longer available. And someone finally got the idea of going to America – no one knows how that happened originally. Even before me, other relatives had emigrated. But I can’t remember who actually followed them.”

In those days they went quite far north, all the way to the open prairie, since in the southern areas all the homestead land had already been taken up by other Germans, those who had come earlier from the Black Sea when whole hordes of them had emigrated. In covered wagons, pulled by a team of two oxen, they would drive for as long as three weeks after they had arrived at the final railroad station. The men walked beside the wagons in the deep prairie grass. Finding a site they deemed promising for growing grass and plants, they would arrange the wagons in a square and begin to measure the land. Then they built houses. Since there was neither wood nor stone on the prairie, they would dig long ruts with their plows, remove chunks of sod , cut them to equal size, stack them crosswise, and gather – at times as far away as the Missouri – tree branches, and with those and with sod they would fashion the roofs. Then they would put in a door and two windows, creating two rooms and a kitchen inside. The wall covering consisted of dirt and clay, and from raw pieces of wood they fashioned tables and benches. They also rigged up some beds by using posts and pieces of wood driven into the wall, and covering them with branches and straw. 

Mother Keim praised her sod house. The house was warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Winters were very cold, and summers would leave their mark from the strong heat. Using nothing but an axe she had personally dug a cellar under the house. All along there was plenty of time to cry. On the trip to America, a child had been given up to the sea.  She had great things to say about her old stove and would dearly have liked to have a similar one now. Never again could she bake such good bread.

And about the prairie! In those days it was empty and deserted as far as one could see or imagine. Bleached buffalo bones lay scattered everywhere, and these would prove to be somewhat of a boon for the new. One could sell them for oil, salt, flour, and a bit of wood for construction. For months on end they would gather buffalo bones and then take them to the city. And then there were the rocks. Father Keim would dig them up for such a long time that he would soon become unable to bend his fingers from all the digging for stones. His wife would load them onto a flat board, which she pulled across the grass like a sled while gathering them up. With some of the stones they might build their first well, and others of those stones would be used to strengthen the walls of their barns.

Next the sod had to be dug up, flax and wheat would be sowed, and the land would have to be processed with a harrow. The wife had to drive the team of oxen.

On Sundays, before they had wagons, they would gather by traveling on sledding boards. What fine times those were!

Soon, in the fall, slow treks of heavily loaded oxen carriages would wind their way to Eureka, which within only a few years had become the largest wheat market in the world. The gentlemen from Minneapolis, where the largest mills existed to accommodate the Dakota wheat, would have to be able to speak German in Eureka if they wanted to conduct business there.

The boys were forced to stay with the oxen outside the city before their fathers found the appropriate buyer. Team after team of oxen would drive through the city until there was hardly room for all the wagons and animals. The wide-eyed boys from the prairie, arriving in Eureka for the very first time, must have thought that all wagons in the entire world were gathered there. Day and night sacks were unloaded, and carts were taken into corn storage places and emptied. Day and night the corn would be loaded from storage onto railroad cars. Day and night, dust and the smell of corn lingered in the air.

In the stores, hay would be strewn across the floor, and between kegs, store furniture, and doors, and in all hallways, the tired, bearded farmers would sleep, awaiting the next day’s purchases.

Then, on the trip home, which often lasted several days, they would lash together as many as eight or even ten team, all the people sitting on the first wagon, and all taking full advantage of retelling and listening. But then came winter.

At times they would be snowed in so badly that one could not distinguish the houses in the whiteout. Talking about winter never ended, for winter invariable transformed smiling, sunny, mild skies into snow storms.   

Mother Keim herself had nearly become the victim to such a storm. It happened like this:  In those days people had not yet learned to put up a line between the home and the barn so as not to miss the path [during a bad storm, for example]. Well, on a nice February day the woman had laundry hanging on the line, and she observed how a wind came up and how a piece of laundry was blown off the line. Clad in only a light dress, with only a scarf around her head, she went outside to rescue the item. Suddenly the storm intensified with such force that it nearly tossed her to the ground. The ensuing snow storm made things appear so dark that she could not even see her own house. From previous experience she knew that people had actually frozen to death because they had stood still or sat down in the storm. So she took very quick, small steps that, as she thought, would take her a few meters forward. Walking in circles, she thought she would get close to the house. She yelled and stopped for a brief moment and listened to see whether she could hear one of her five children. Father had been away for weeks working in rail construction somewhere south. Her oldest, a daughter, was only twelve at the time. She hoped the children would not leave the house to look for her, or they would surely get lost! But during the howling and whistling of the wind and snow she could hear nothing at all. She yelled again, but could not even hear her own voice. She began to shake, thinking she had missed the house altogether. She was close to breaking down. At times she stood still just to pull her shawl in front of her face to be able to breathe better. Then she ran, ever faster, and without thinking where to. Once she stumbled and fell, but got up very quickly and grabbed with both hands for her shawl the wind threatened to blow away entirely. The snow seemed hard and as dry as fine sand. It was slamming like needles into her face. Suddenly she was thrown down. A whole drift of snow passed over her like a wild wave and tore her downwards. She tried again to grab her shawl, and she knew her hands were completely stiff. She was beginning to see bright, white lightning-like strikes and then lost consciousness. 

Her children were sitting in the dark house, very anxious and listening to the howl of the storm. The elder of the boys wanted to go out to look for mother, but his older sister hung onto him and held him back. She thought that mother had surely run into the barn when the storm came up with such suddenness, and perhaps she was sitting there, and they had to wait things out just as she was waiting. No one was to go even one step away from the house during a big snow storm, for it could grab you and tear you away, packing you under a blanket of snow and never to return. The boy began to cry, and the little ones did the same. Their sister tried to calm them, but to no avail. Eventually, though, they grew tired and fell asleep.

The stormy night gave way to a bright, sunny day. The children did not notice because the doors and windows of the house were completely covered with blown snow, causing the eldest to think it was still night time as she woke up and groped to count her siblings. There were no more storm noises, so, if there was no storm anymore, mother must be able to come back from the barn! But maybe she was not in the barn after all? The girl yelled loudly and shook her brother awake, but she also could see that some men from the neighboring area were already busy digging with their shovels.

When the men neared the door of the house, they heard the children calling for their mother, and one of the men called out through cupped hands that mother was OK. 

They then transported the children to another farm, where their mother was lying covered with warm blankets and with her eyes wide open.

During the stormy evening, a man and his brother had gone to the house to see whether they could even get to the barn, because they had not given the oxen their usual fodder. By then the storm had abated somewhat, and a few steps ahead they had spotted something dark in the snow and had approached it. It was a shawl, and the brother pulled at it and saw a stiff hand in the snow holding fast to the shawl. That’s how they had found the woman, and they had taken her into a house, rubbed her with snow, put her to bed, and brought her back to normal.

“Yes,” said the old woman to me, “those who come here with their plows will pay a heavy price to the prairie. But she is also beautiful, and during summer she always compensates for the bad things she has caused in winter.”    

During one of the evenings, I watched the city hall in Eureka in North Dakota, one of the United States, get pretty crowded with men and women. The agenda was for me to show slides of picturesque German valleys and forested mountains. At one point I overheard a man saying to his neighbor, “That’s bad land for farming.” Then came a photo of a small wine growing village with homes pressed closely together in narrow streets. I allowed the audience to do their thinking while they watched closely. The men leaned forward and looked intensely at the photos, and they turned heads and whispered with each other, and in the dark room one could often see a hand pointing toward the screen. “Man! Can people even breathe in such a crowded place? When they stretch, they might just put their elbows into a neighbor’s ribs.” The next village, which was nestled along a valley, seemed “more like it. At least there are small lawns between the homes, and one can see barns and stables. Still, everywhere, those hills! That must be pretty bad for plowing!” The next photo seemed still better. It showed a village on a plain. The street was lined with fruit trees, and the homes were surrounded by broad yards with linden trees and wells. But seeing the field strips in front of the fruit trees – to these folks those plots seem so small that they thought that neighbors could just talk to each other across them.  

So then there were more pictures of similar villages, but this time they specifically were villages from the Palatinate, Alsace, the Baden area, and Swabia, places from which their ancestors had emigrated to Russia when Tsar Alexander wanted to fill his lands on the Black Sea with Germans.

From a particular house, here depicted with a dark gable and carnations on the window sills, Konrad Schuhmacher, whose descendants were now in North Dakota, had emigrated. One of these descendants was sitting right there in the room. He stood up, slowly made his way through the middle aisle toward the screen, and sat down on one of the empty chairs in the front row. He had never heard the name of that village, and by now it was fifty years since his father had came from Russia. In small Dakota towns they were celebrating such golden anniversaries, and the whole year even the English-language newspapers were printing whole-page, German-language pioneer stories. The story of his own father’s history was one of them. The village he had come from in Russia was called Glückstal. That much he knew, but not the name of the original village in old Germany. His father had not known it, either, and it was likely also the case for almost everyone in Eureka if one asked them the name of the original village one’s ancestors had left from.    

A little later, when the room turned fairly quiet, the man in the first row asked, “How did you find out that we came from this village and from that house?” I tapped the ground with my pointer, and the man helping with the projector showed the next slide, which depicted the following page from an old book: “In this book you will find that Konrad Schuhmacher emigrated from this village to Russia. It lists the year and the date, and all his children are entered by name. The youngest was Martin.” A subsequent slide showed another page from the book, stating: “It is hereby certified that Martin Schuhmacher, originally from the village of Mössingen in Württemberg, has announced the birth of a son, Jakob, in Glückstal.” And in the same book, albeit thirty years later, one reads that “Jakob Schuhmacher left the Glückstal community and moved to America.” Also noted is this: “During these times a great emigration movement to America has begun.” Jakob Schuhmacher, of course, happened to be the father of the man in the front row.

Depicted again was the old house, then the large “good room,” showing people sitting around a table and dipping their spoons into a large bowl; then the iron stove with laundry drying on a wooden rack right next to it; the kitchen; a dish rack; and the cooking stove; followed by a large pitcher, the kind they would take to the fields; pots and pans; a smaller room with beds and a wardrobe with flowers painted on its  door; children and children’s clothes, aprons, and bibs; the women in their Sunday finest, including hats and ribbons; the men in their large boots, lederhosen, and buttoned-up white vests. The children, women, and men shown were all Schuhmachers, including various relatives living in the same village. Shown next were the barn; then the door with it strong beam across the top; followed by photos of plows and sowing machines and harrows; photos of hay making and potato harvesting, corn shucking, sheaf binding, grape harvesting and picking from fruit trees, cabbage slicing, and also of harvest festivals and even meat broth.   

After all the slides had been shown and a few appropriate words had been said, most of the people remained in the room. They came up and pressed around me in a large circle. Finally it became apparent that they wanted to see the slide show again, and there were remarks like, “That’s what the old folks had always told us, and that’s how it must have been.” And some things were, of course, kept all the way to Dakota.   

Next there were a whole number of questions, and indeed we had to turn the projector on and go through each photo again. Again and again, one of the men would step to the screen, point to a photo and talk about it. The photos of the valleys, the gardens, the narrow villages, homes and rooms were melding together to provide a homey and safe feeling; and photos of work and rest transmitted the happiness of the old homeland; so with all this they were beginning to grasp what they had heard the old ones tell, how in the steppes, even though they had enough land and good, flat land to boot, which they would keep plowing, and yet  they might also get really tired of those days, often s[ending much time during them in reminiscing about their old, original homeland in Germany.

The evening did finally draw to a close, and as people were filing out, a young farmer, whose German did not come easily to him, came up and asked whether one might be able to find the village where his own people had come from, and whether it might be possible to photograph the house and, just like in the slides, cousins and other relatives who might still live there. To be able to know where he came from, especially to be able to tell his children when they come to him with questions, all that would be worth a whole wheat harvest to him, provided so much information could be obtained for such a small price.

As I wrote down everything he deemed he needed to know, others came around with similar requests. Writing all this down would take quite a while, but they turned the projector on once again and, slowly, the photos reappeared, each for the third time that evening.            

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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