The 42nd International Convention of the German Russian Heritage Society, July 18- 22, 2012, in Bismarck, ND – A Look Back on a Major Meeting in the State of North Dakota

Tarnaske, Renate and Vossler, Günther. "The 42nd International Convention of the German Russian Heritage Society, July 18- 22, 2012, in Bismarck, ND – A Look Back on a Major Meeting in the State of North Dakota ." Mitteilungsblatt, November 2012, 4-6.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.

Trip to North Dakota

We, a small group from Germany, Renate Tarnaske and Günther Vossler, national president of the Bessarabiendeutscher Verein [Association of Bessarabia Germans], and his wife Hanna, were able to make a trip to the US between July 14 and August 4, 2012. There we also visited the states South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

Following our arrival in Fargo, ND, our first undertaking was to visit our cousin Mavis Ben nee Suko and her family in a place called Alfred, part of the larger community of Gackle. How did such a name come about? We found the answer in the Heritage Center in the HQ of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in Bismarck, the capital city of North Dakota.

“The first Black Sea area Germans from Russia arrived here in 1891. They, the brothers Jakob and Johann Müller and their five sons, had come from Neudorf near Odessa. The family group settled to the Southwest of today’s Gackle, in the so-called “Müller Settlement.”

The Gackle community was later established during the expansion of the Northern Pacific Railroad line. Construction of the rail line began in 1902 and was completed in 1903. In 1902, Johann Gross from Kulm, Georg Gackle from Alt-Posstal in Bessarabia, and Georg Elhard opened a trading post about ten kilometers [6 miles] south of today’s Gackle. By 1904 the railroad had reached the western edge of the community, and the store of the Gross, Gackle and Elhard families was expanded to include a grain storage facility and a post office. Following the completion of railroad construction, more and more families moved to Gackle, and the community increased its size very rapidly. During the years after 1900 seventy families settled in and around Gackle. The founders of the community were Georg Gackle, Georg Elhard, Johann Elhard, Jakob Bereth, Johann Hatz, Christian Kroll, Johann Hatz [sic] and A.F. Lehr.

Following a proposal by Georg Elhard, the community was named after the immigration guide, Georg Gackle from Alt-Posttal. The following churches were built in Gackle in subsequent years:

American Lutheran Church, Grace Baptist Church, Church of the Community of God, and St. Anna’s Catholic Church.

Together with our cousin Mavis and her husband Richard we visited the cemetery of the Gackle community, and reading the names on the gravestones we felt as if we were in a cemetery in Germany with all those familiar Bessarabian German names. We photographed some of the grave stones and are presenting them in this article.

Several times during those first days [of our American visit] we visited the Bismarck HQ of the Germans from Russia [GRHS – Tr.]. It documents the history of Germans who emigrated to the US starting from 1871 and thereafter. As we know, among them were many Germans from Bessarabia. This “Heimathaus” is a large, one-story building containing a conference room, a kitchen, and a large archive. To name only a few examples, there are very good and impressive ship’s passenger lists and index cards with the names of immigrants, also a large library and several microfilm units. The expansive archive room also houses several PC work stations. We were pleased to meet the friendly and helpful personnel, who always supported us with great enthusiasm and answered all our questions.

Filled to capacity was the large meeting space in the kitchen, to which Virginia Docktor had invited folks to a kuchen baking demonstration. The emphasis was on baking kuchen with fruit toppings, and she explained with much charm and enthusiasm how important the preparation of the dough was for a successful kuchen. Given the fact that in today’s America many prepared products are offered, Virginia Docktor had made sure that prepared baking mix would be available at the end of the demonstration.

The highlight of the first part of the trip was the 42nd International Convention of the German Russian Heritage Society from July 18 to July 22, 2012 held in the Best Western Ramkota Hotel in Bismarck, ND.

By our estimate there were between 600 and 700 convention attendees and many single-day attendees in addition. People were there to be informed, but also to get acquainted, and to firm up friendships or establish new ones. Following the opening event, at which around 500 guests filled the festive ballroom to capacity, participants scattered to attend a multiplicity of workshops. We’ll introduce some of the workshops in the following:

  • Presenting German settlements I the Odessa region, incl. Groβliebental and Hoffnungstal
  • “Es war einmal ein Dorf … [There once was a Village …]” -- film, discussion and conversation about the Kutschurgan region (east of the Dniester River)
  • Getting to know the Beresan region in the Odessa district

The major highlight of the convention was the presentation of Dr. Ute Schmidt’s book “Bessarabia – German Colonists on the Black Sea.” The book is now available in English, having been translated by James T. Gessele, whose ancestors lived in Hoffnungstal in Bessarabia. The introduction of this book evoked strong interest, and a local radio station transmitted a one-hour interview with Dr. Ute Schmidt. Also enjoying great response was an exhibit designed by Dr. Ute Schmidt entitled “Pious and Capable People …German Settlements in Bessarabia from 1814 to 1940.” The exhibit, presented in German and in English, had previously been shown in Minneapolis. Dr. Ute Schmidt deserves great respect, high regard, and much gratitude for her personal efforts on behalf of things Bessarabian. With her book and her exhibit she has provided new impulses for the work of our Bessaraiendeutscher Verein [Bessarabian German Association] in the United States and especially in North Dakota via the local organization. Interestingly, the book by Dr. Ute Schmidt is to appear soon in the Russian language as well.

During a PowerPoint presentation and workshop, Günther Vossler reported on the work of the Bessaraiendeutscher Verein in Germany. Sincere thanks to James Gessele for his interpretation of the presentation in American English! This small German group participating in the International Convention of the Germans from Russia held in Bismarck was taken care of with personal attention from our American friends. We also thank Michael Miller and Lonny Brakel for that.

We would also report briefly on the rest of our program and activities offered to us.

An impressive experience was our visit to the Heritage Center of North Dakota and of a reconstructed village of the Mandan Indians in the Fort Lincoln State Park.

Information Collected at the heritage Center in Bismarck

Before Germans and other whie settlers reached the area around today’s Bismarck, Indians of the Mandan tribe lived there. Bismarck was founded in 1872, at first as Edwinton, the name Edwinton going back to Edwin Ferry Johnson (1803 -1872), a chief engineer for the Northern Pacific Railway. Today’s name Bismarck, which was introduced by the Northern Pacific Railway, is derived from the name of the then German Reich’s Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. It was hoped thereby to attract the German Chancellor and German settlers to the city. In 1889, Bismarck finally became the capital city of the State of North Dakota.

Now let’s get back to the Indians who lived there before the white settlers arrived. They were Mandan Indians, originally a small semi-nomadic Indian tribe of the Sioux language family, living from around 1800 on the Missouri River and on its tributaries, the Heart and Knife Rivers. Archeological discoveries indicate that the Mandans had lived in the Ohio Valley before coming to the Missouri shores. In 1938 a great number of these Indians fell victim to a smallpox epidemic. The last full-blooded Mandan woman died in 1975. A few Mandan Indians still live, partially mixed with other Indian tribes, in reservations in North Dakota. Some older Mandans still speak their traditional tribal language. The Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park contains a replica of a Mandan village.

In conclusion, we would like to express our gratitude to our countrymen in America, especially for their hospitality and the friendly way they took care of us. We were really pleased, and we can only recommend a journey to North Dakota, that thinly settled prairie landscape. We met and talked with many countrymen. Today we can clearly state that our countrymen, the Germans from Russia, truly stand with their German history, which they preserve and maintain. Still, these days they are Americans with all their hearts. Their identification with their new homeland and with its ideals pleased us and did us good.

Following the days of the convention in Bismarck we went our separate ways. Günther and Hanna Vossler took a trip through North and South Dakota, a major highlight being Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, while Renate Tarnaske traveled to see friends in Portland.

Virginia Docktor during her baking demonstration.
Mandan Indian house.
The HQ building, pictured in front are Günther Vossler and Michael Miller.
The headquarters building of the Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS).
The archive room.
A tree in the headquarters building honoring donors.
Listing the Vossler family members who emigrated to North Dakota.
Many German names in the cemetery. The gravestone with the name SUSANNA in the private cemetery in Gackle marks the grave of Günther Vossler’s great-grandmother.

Text and photos by Renate Tarnaski and Günther Vossler.

Our appreciation is extend to Alex Herzog for translation and for Nancy Herzog for editing this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller