East Area of Grand Island Settled by Germans From Russia

Budde, Gene. "East Area of Grand Island Settled by Germans From Russia." Grand Island Independent, 17 May 2005.

When the three Liebsack sisters get together, it doesn't take them long to start reminiscing and laughing about growing up in Grand Island's "Pollywog" neighborhood.

The neighborhood was roughly defined as the area consisting of Oak, Vine and Plum Streets, from First Street to the Burlington Railroad beltline.

The trio -- Arlene King, Norma Sperling and Carol Wells -- are native Islanders who grew up during the 1930s, '40s and '50s in the Pollywog area. That part of Grand Island was populated with families having Germans from Russia roots.

The Liebsack sisters are also descendants of a family who, at the invitation of Russia's Empress Catherine II, left Germany for the Volga valley in Russia. Their ancestor, Johannes Lobsack (the American spelling is "Liebsack"), was one of the early Germans to accept Catherine's offer.

Empress Catherine extended the offer to Germans by two manifestos, the first in 1762 and again the following year. Based on family records, it appears the small family of Johannes Lobsack was one of the 115 families that journeyed to the Volga River Valley and, in May 1767, established the Lutheran colony of Frank. The colony consisted of 525 settlers located in an agricultural area near Saratov and Engels, Russia.

But all that had been anticipated to fulfill the Germans' dreams failed to fully materialize. Yes, they were allowed to keep their native language and their religious freedom.

But upon their arrival in Russia there were no facilities, homes, towns or churches in the areas where they were assigned to locate. These shortages were eventually overcome, but as successive rulers replaced Catherine and her heirs, the freedoms and rights of the Germans in Russia were chipped away and the situation became desperate.

Hearing of opportunities in America prompted many of the Germans to leave Russia and make a final and worthy move to the United States. For the Heinrich (Henry) Liebsack family, it meant reversing the steps of the earlier Liebsack family. This time it was from Russia to Germany.

Leaving Germany for American required departure from Bremen. On the way to the ship a man approached the family and offered to take their large trunk to the ship. It was the last they saw of their belongings. All they had were the clothes on their backs, a teakettle the son was carrying and whatever remained in their pockets.

To top off the sad affair, Heinrich (Henry) and Anna Margaretha Liebsack and their two small children missed the boat. But it was a mixed blessing -- they had lost their trunk of goods, but the ship they originally planned to sail met with misfortune -- it sunk off the coast of England.

Henry's family then booked passage on the Chemnitz, a relatively new steamer built in 1901. The Chemnitz could carry 2,064 passengers, 129 in first class and 1,935 in third class.

They arrived at Grand Island in 1907 and made their home at 614 E. Division. They were neighbors to many other Germans who had left Russia and made their way to Grand Island.

Henry's granddaughters -- Arlene, Norma and Carol -- recall their grandparents had a cow and chickens and, in true German fashion, made sausage and home-brew beer. Because the Grand Island Germans from Russia had agriculture backgrounds, they were able to obtain jobs in that field. This work included the blocking and thinning of sugar beets. Work in the beet fields extended from Hall County westward to the Colorado and Wyoming borders.

Although the Germans came from Russia and were four or five generations removed from Germany, they were often referred to as "Rooshans" by their new neighbors. Even in Grand Island there was a hint of discrimination. The German language maintained by those in Russia apparently was somewhat different than that spoken by the local German population, not including the large Platt-Duetsche community.

Whatever the reasons for the slight language or cultural differences, it would take time for all segments of the entire German community to become homogeneous.

And what of the term "Pollywog"? What does it mean and why was it used in connection with an area of Grand Island?

According to Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the words "pollywog" and "tadpole" are synonyms. A tadpole is the intermediate stage in the development of a frog or toad, the stage between the egg and the mature adult.

Shallow ponds that are warmed by the sun are ideal places for the hatching and growth of pollywogs. The area in southeastern Grand Island that included the streets of Vine, Oak and Plum was low, unpaved and undrained. Runoff from areas to the north and west accumulated along the three streets. The numerous puddles were soon teaming with pollywogs.

The numerous pollywogs in the vicinity sparked the nickname for the area, the people and their outstanding softball team. Even the Plymouth Congregational Church that stood at the corner of Division and Vine was nicknamed the "Pollywog Church."

The kids played ball in "Pollywog Stadium," a slight depression near the west side of the Burlington tracks by Plum Street. The adult softball team -- coached by John Ditter, with Arch Dietrich as pitcher -- played their games at the former Burnett Park, east of the Burlington tracks and south of Highway 30.

The softball team did not have "Pollywogs" lettering on their uniforms but, according to the late Tom Anderson, the players preferred to be called by the nickname. Anderson -- a former Independent sports editor, historian and friend of the players -- was in a position to know.

During World War II, there was no question about the allegiance of the Germans from Russia community in Grand Island. Many of the young men from the area served in the military,including William "Paav" Dietrich.

Paav, a former softball outfielder, joined the U.S. Marines in 1940. He had the dubious distinction of being at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day of Dec. 7, 1941. Following the attack, Paav spent over three years fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.

The Liebsack girls -- Arlene, Norma and Carol -- also did their part for the war effort. They watched the many troupe trains go by their neighborhood on the Burlington Railroad tracks. Upon seeing the girls near the tracks, the soldiers would toss out letters to loved ones and ask the girls to mail them, which they did.

Time changes things. It could be said, "the old neighborhood isn't the same anymore."

The Plymouth Congregational Church -- the "Pollywog Church" -- was struck by lightning in 1967 and destroyed. The street and storm sewer improvements have eliminated the ponds that once produced pollywogs.

Further, the introduction of chemicals for various applications, including weed control and fertilizer, have decimated the frog and toad population, according to some experts.

The Germans from Russia community on South Vine, Oak and Plum no longer exists, although some descendants remain in the area. The Pollywog softball team and Burnett Park have vanished from the scene. The minor differences between Grand Island's "old line" German population and the later-arriving Germans from Russia have long since disappeared.

In a way, it is a shame the youngsters of today can't find some pollywogs to watch.

Gene Budde of Cairo is an historian and past president of the Hall County Historical Society.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Island Independent

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