Stories of Immigrants from Early North Dakota

Lind, Bob. "Stories of Immigrants from Early North Dakota." Forum, 6 November 2011, C1 & C5.

Balzer Eisenzimmer in middle, and his brothers Andrew, left, and Mike.

For this North Dakota immigrant, there was much to learn. The language. Driving motorized vehicles (forget it). And something called a banana.

Balzer Eisenzimmer, a German from Odessa, Russia, came to Ellis Island in 1899 when he was 18 and then hopped freight trains to get to North Dakota.

One day he crawled into a boxcar that was carrying tropical fruit, including bananas.

He’d heard about bananas but had never eaten one. So he decided he’d snitch one and try it.
He didn’t like it.

But for good reason. He ate it like an apple, peel and all.

‘Tenacious folks’

This and other stories about Balzer, who died in 1955, come from Kathy Steffan of Fargo. Balzer was her great-grandfather.

Kathy once was the features editor for the Devils Lake (N.D.) Daily Journal, so she knows good stories when she hears them.

Many of those stories deal with immigrants who settled on the prairie and were, Kathy says, “tenacious folks indeed.

“In addition to the many stories most families tell of the tremendous hardships and struggles of these ancestors, there are also many stories that are touching as well as humorous.”

And she relates some of those concerning her great-grandfather.

Full day doing business

When Balzer arrived in Devils Lake, he got a job helping build Fort Totten.

Since he worked with Native Americans there, the first words he learned to speak in America were Nakota and Lakota languages, “with a decided German accent, of course,” Kathy says.

He married Catherine Burkhardt, also an immigrant. They had three children: Leo, Regina and Joseph. Catherine died in 1923 at age 34.

Balzer began farming near Devils Lake about the time those new-fangled contraptions called cars and tractors were showing up. But Balzer never drove either one; he did all of his farming with draft horses.

In later years, when he needed to got to another farm to trade, sell or buy something, his grandson Leo Steffan – who is Kathy’s father – would drive him in the family Ford.

“Leo knew this would be a long day because Grandpa  and the farmer would talk,” Kathy says.
They’d visit about the weather, the crops, community news. Maybe they’d look at where the farmer’s new well would be dug.

Then it would be lunchtime. The farmer’s wife would serve it, everyone would eat – and then there’d be more talk, right up to suppertime.

Well sure, Grandpa (and Leo) would stay and eat.

Finally, by dusk, Balzer and the farmer would talk business and a deal would be struck.

It would always be fair. And it would always be sealed with a handshake.

That’s the way it was done in those days.

Welcome television

Talking about new-fangled contraptions, how about this thing called television?

In 1955, his family gave a TV set to Balzer and Catherine.

Watching it became an event.

When Balzer came in from the field, he and his wife would dress in their finest church togs, sit down and turn the TV on.

Then, when the TV announcer said, “Good evening,” Balzer would answer, “Good evening.” He thought if he could see the announcer, the announcer could surely see him and was company right there in his living room.

Norwegians, too

While Kathy loves these stories about her German-Russian ancestors, she keeps her ears open for stories about immigrants from other countries, also.

You now know the story about her great-grandfather eating a banana, including the peel. Now there’s this story a friend told her about her Norwegian ancestors that came to North Dakota and met some of their relatives already here.

The relatives told them about a food that was wonderful: watermelon.

Well, eventually someone gave them one.

That Sunday, someone in church asked them how they liked it.

They said it was awful.

That’s because they thought it looked like a squash. So they cooked it.

Reprinted with permission of The Forum, Fargo, North Dakota.

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