In Touch with Prairie Living
By Michael M. Miller
The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection at the NDSU Libraries in Fargo reaches out to prairie families and former Dakotans. In various ways, it affirms the heritage of the Germans from Russia is an important part of the northern plains culture. Jolenta Fischer Masterson, Sequim, Wash., a native of Strasburg, N.Dak., shares her experiences coming home to visit the places of her childhood in North Dakota.
For most of us, our first trip to a cemetery is a sad and mournful occasion. In the past fifteen years, I have learned to feel differently. With the help of a patient spouse, I have wandered through serene, well groomed burial grounds on hillsides in Missouri, and trotted through cow-pastures in Kentucky looking for the `cemetery in the grove' where rest the bones of a Revolutionary War patriot. In New England, we saw beautiful white marble monuments carved by the immigrant Italian stone carvers near Barre, Vermont. In Boston, slabs of shale serve well as grave markers. In Key West, Florida, where folks are laid to rest in concrete boxes above the rock formation, one lady's epitaph reads "I told you I was sick!"
The graveyards on the prairies are different. A summer or two ago, on a trip through North Dakota; I visited several cemeteries. Near Zeeland, by the old St. John's Church, lies a mother and her six children with date of death reading 1918. Was it the Flu epidemic? There were seven identical white iron crosses. The name was Feist. And the wind blew a prairie song in my ears.
We went out to Krasna, where the cemetery holds so many who came to that little corner of the world, next to a little church, the Holy Trinity Church, which someone has attempted to restore. In the distance is a round butte. Beyond is one of the long buttes so typical of the area. Here lies my grandfather, the picture on his stone as clear as it was in 1922. Over yonder are my great grandparents. Most of the graves are marked with the iron crosses, except for that one, over in the corner next to the fence. It is marked with a pineapple. Why? And the wind blew a prairie song in my ears.
We stop by the old St. Mary's Cemetery just outside of Hague. I have been here before. Caring descendants of these pioneers from the Kutschurgan region near Odessa, Ukraine, keep splendid wrought iron crosses in good care with frequent coats of aluminum paint. I found the grave of my great grandfather, Mathias Eberle, who died within a year of bringing his family to this new country. And I hear the song of the prairie as they did a hundred years ago.
The tour through the cemetery at Strasburg is filled with nostalgia. I knew so many of these people in my childhood: the butcher, the men at the grocery store, the postmaster, my cousins and great grand-parents, a grandmother. Even a former teacher rests here. The wind is stronger now.
We visit with Fr. Leonard Eckroth at St. Peter and Paul Church. He gives us directions to the St. Aloysius Cemetery. He said to take the "farm-to-market road." I smiled, because I remembered it as a "gravel road." A long past time, I knew the way. We drove by the historic Tiraspol Cemetery, the earliest cemetery for the new village of Strasburg. Somewhere I have a list of people who were buried there, now a wheat field.
Finally, we arrive at the grave of my great, great grandfather, Franz Karl Fischer and his wife, Margaretha Kraft Fischer. She would not immigrate unless all her children and grandchildren came, too. So they came; the ship's list on the Fulda shows 22 in their party. We knelt and with pocketknives cut away the grass around the gravestones. I said a prayer; and I thanked them for their courage. And the song of the prairie wind blew in my ear.
Information about the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
For further information about the collection, the future Germans from Russia television documentary, the Journey to the Homeland Tour to Odessa, Ukraine in May, 1999 and German-Russian heritage, contact Michael M. Miller, NDSU Libraries, PO Box 5599, Fargo, ND 58105-5599 (Tel: 701-231-8416; E-mail: Michael.Miller@ndsu.edu; GRHC website: http://library.ndsu.edu/grhc).