Bringing Home a Little bit of German Heritage

Tandberg, Kathy. "Bringing Home a Little bit of German Heritage." Beulah Beacon, 12 June 2003.

Most of us are interested in our heritage and enjoy bringing a bit of it into our own modern homes. Many can only wonder how the ancestral home looked. Family photographs from the old country rarely displayed the village or farm which was left behind.

Old World picture books or television programs occasionally give us a view of European villages, but we don’t always know what we’re seeing.

Wilbert Adolf wants to do something about that. No, he’s not taking everyone to Europe with him on his next journey. But he’s doing something that will be almost as good when completed.

He plans to bring a big of German heritage home to you. Adolf is building a model German village. When finished, he plans to donate the village to a museum for enjoyment by the public. The realistic buildings in the village are built to scale, replicas of actual buildings from Germany.

Adolf was born of German from Russia heritage on a farm north of Hazen near the community of Expansion, now under Lake Sakakawea. He lived many years in Beulah working for the Beulah School District as a custodian. When he retired, he moved to Bismarck where he has been involved in many historical projects.

To date, Adolf has completed about 75 model village buildings, but has at least another hundred kits awaiting his busy hands. Five German companies make the kits for villages for countries all over the world, not just Germany.

Each building in the kit has an average of at least 250 pieces, but Adolf has put together some as elaborate as the train station which has 960 pieces.

Most of the buildings still exist and are in use. However, Adolf has many buildings which are recreations of those destroyed in the World Wars.

He completed his first building in 1967 after discovering the model kits during his European travels. The project is called Village Kleinstadt, which means small town in German. It’s not a replica of one particular town. Instead, the village will be made up of actual buildings from many German villages.

"I’m trying to reconstruct a village much like it was when the Germans left Russia in the 1700s," Adolf said.

Because of his great interest in the country of his ancestors, Adolf has studied and read much about the Old World of Europe. He has always been amazed by the architecture he has seen. He enjoys the rich, old beauty of the Old World.

"Much of Germany has a Roman touch like scrolls and curly cues and statues, because two thousand years ago, the Romans were there," he said. "Then you see baroque from the mid 1700s."

On every trip to Europe Adolf brings more model kits home to North Dakota. He said he doesn’t know when he’ll say he has enough. Perhaps never.

But looking at the existing buildings, one can see that the village will fit quite a large room when decked out with all the detailing.

"It will be much like it would be if you have a town of say 5,000 people with shops, churches, cemeteries, schools, railroad stations and depots," Adolf said. "Eventually it will have electric and street lights, just like any town."

Making it realistic is important to Adolf. He said the cars will have both rear and front lights, the ambulances will have flashing blue lights and there will be smoke coming out of buildings for the fire department.

The entire village will be electrified, so one can look into shop windows and see the tiny details inside, as well as outside.

Adolf has two dresser drawers full of thousands of tiny accessories for his village. These items range from people including entire marching bands, to trees, bushes and animals, as well as the vehicles and trains.

When looking at the hundreds of tiny pieces, it appears to be time consuming, tedious work, full of details, details, details. Adolf, who is now fully retired, enjoys these details. He has enjoyed hobbies his entire life, from building models to embroidery and learned that patience is the key.

"I enjoy doing it because you don’t have to look at the clock, you just do it," said Adolf, who works on as many as five different buildings at a time in different stages.

Love for one’s heritage is strong in Adolf, as it is in most of Mercer County. Because of this it’s fairly often to hear of someone’s travels to the old country. Adolf is a seasoned traveler to Germany.

The trek for Germans from Russia to North Dakota continued well into the 20th century, which often makes it easier to find the old home place and relatives who remained in Germany.

Adolf has traveled back to his ancestral land numerous times in past years. His first journey began in 1960, after a stint in the Air Force. He tried during his four years of service to get an assignment to Germany, but it never happened. So instead of returning home to North Dakota, he decided to go to Europe.

Adolf did what was perhaps a reversal of the journey of his grandparents, Fredrick and Christine Adolf. Perhaps it wasn’t the same ship, but hop on a ship is what he did. "It was a beautiful voyage," Adolf recalled.

Adolf traveled on the ship, Maasdam, from Massachusetts to Rotterdam, Holland, a port from which thousands of Europeans once sailed for America.

He found his way to Germany and loved it so much, he stayed 18 months.

Upon his arrival in Germany, Adolf noticed that while there weren’t many automobiles, there were numerous bicycles. He decided if that was good enough for the natives Germans, it was good enough for him.

He purchased a Hahn bicycle, and pedaled his way through Germany, Italy, France, Austria, Holland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and England.

By the time he returned to America, Adolf had 11,000 miles on the odometer. This same bicycle has returned to Europe with Adolf many times over the years.

Adolf returned to Europe once again in 1967-68. That time he stayed 19 months. He heard that East Germany was planning to open its border to visitors during the 450th anniversary of the Martin Luther reformation of Oct. 31, 1517.

"I thought it would be my only chance to get into East Germany. I had to write to their government for a 20-day visa and give them an exact itinerary of where I would be for those days," Adolf recalled.

Adolf enjoyed his travels in East Germany, but said he had the feeling of being watched. He said he also observed this in the people of the country.

"The people were low-key and very careful what they did, where they went," he said.

Altogether, Adolf has traveled to 17 different countries on his journeys. His third trip was in 1976-78 when he stayed 23 months. Since then he has been back many times, staying between five to seven weeks.

"I go in June because that’s strawberry, bing cherry and asparagus time," Adolf said.

Over the years, Adolf has made some wonderful German friends who give him a place to stay while in Germany. He spends time in the village of Plankstadt which is about five miles from Heidelberg.
"I know these villages better than most towns I know in North Dakota," he stated.

Although Adolf began his model village many years ago, there was a time when he was so busy with other projects that he just put it away and left it for a few years. He began working on it again in the 1980s.

Adolf is a man of history. German villages aren’t the only items of history he is interested in. He keeps quite busy serving on the boards of several historical museums, including the Former Governor’s Mansion site in Bismarck.

He is also a collector of more than 2,000 antique bottles. That collection includes one of the most extensive collections of pharmacy bottles.

These bottles, from 72 different North Dakota towns, are all custom-made embossed bottles manufactured before 1914. Adolf said no embossed bottle was made after that date.

Adolf gave a little history lesson on these, saying that any glass that turns purple is from 1914 or before. That is due to the fact that the manganese oxide that turns that old glass purple with age mainly came from Germany. With the start of World War I, that supply was cut off.

Adolf will continue to complete his village bringing his heritage home, making it a reality.

"That’s why I do it. I hope that when others see it someday, they will enjoy it and it will bring a little of their own heritage to them and bring back memories of their forefathers," Adolf said.

Wilbert Adolf has drawers full of thousands of tiny accessories for the authentic German village he is creating.
Wilbert Adolf holds a replica model building of the City Hall of Alsfeldt, built in 1512. He also holds a postcard of that building, purchased while visiting there.
This is just a small portion of the buildings Wilbert Adolf has created for his miniature German village.

Reprinted with permission of the Beulah Beacon.

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