German ‘Immigrant’ Tells Frontier Tales

Johnson, Larry. “German ‘Immigrant’ Tells Frontier Tales.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 7B.

Gottlieb Bauer was a poor, young German-Russian immigrant of 1915 North Dakota when Gordon Iseminger first introduced him to audiences throughout the state.

During Chautauqua performances beginning in 1979, Iseminger brought his mythical immigrant through the Depression years to the brink of cultural oblivion during the modern, ethnically integrated era of North Dakota.

But because of Bauer and other recent revivals of North Dakota’s ethnic past, the German-Russian immigrants live on in the minds of many North Dakotans.

Iseminger, professor of history at the University of North Dakota, created Bauer from the biographies of many German-Russian immigrants in North Dakota. Iseminger’s method of portraying Bauer was patterned after another composite immigrant, Ole Thorson, acted out in a previous Chautauqua series by P.V. Thorson, associate professor of history at UNO.

Iseminger says he enjoys portraying Bauer and is coming to identify with him, even though Iseminger is of Norwegian and probably Dutch descent. “I’ve never identified much with Norwegians,” says Iseminger. “I think I have become a German-Russian.”

In talking about Bauer, it is clear that Iseminger admires the resolve of the Germans who settled first in Russia and later moved to North Dakota in a quest for new land, while preserving their German culture.

“The knowledge that you’re out in the middle of the prairie and you’re completely on your own … that must have taken a tremendous amount of stamina,” says Iseminger.

“The ones who came here are the ones who came with practically nothing,” he adds. “It just boggles the mind how tremendously hardworking these people must have been.”

Bauer - the name means “farmer” in German - is a practical man, not overly enamored with education and politics beyond what he needs to live and farm in North Dakota.

He takes great pride in being German. “Some people think that because I came from Russia I must be a Russian,” Bauer says in one of his recorded performances, but “there’s not a drop of Russian blood in my veins.”

Like many other Germans from Russia, Bauer homesteaded in McIntosh County and built up his farm during the early years of statehood. He was a one-crop farmer, raising mostly wheat, and had limited interest in livestock and dairy.

His people started immigrating to North Dakota in 1873 after the Russian government embarked on a russification program that threatened the Germans’ cultural identity. “We didn’t want to be Russians; we’re Germans,” says Bauer.

Bauer tells of sickness on the ocean journey to America, when the dead were thrown over the side of the ships and eaten by sharks.

On the train ride to North Dakota, he picked up a stone so his wife would be sure to have one to use as a weight in making sauerkraut, because the Bauers weren’t sure they would find any stones in North Dakota.

When the train reached central North Dakota, Bauer saw so many stones he threw the one he had picked up out the window of the train.

In 1920, Bauer was one of about 70,000 German-Russians in North Dakota who made up more than 20 percent of the state’s population.

Bauer recalls how he picked buffalo bones from the prairie in the early years and delivered them by oxcart to Ellendale for cash. The bones were used in refining sugar.

Bauer built his house for practically nothing, making clay bricks from the soil to form a sturdy structure that cattle wouldn’t dam-[age] when they rubbed against the corners.

“German-Russian houses are a great deal like German-Russians,” Bauer claims. “They’re adapted to the prairie. They’re earthy ... practical ... durable.”

The church is the center of his community, he continues. There were three rules the Germans lived by in Russia, he says: “Never lose religion, and never lose nationality and never lose the mother tongue.”

The settlers in North Dakota were afraid of Indians even if they had suffered no harm from them. Bauer recalls how a neighbor once thought he heard an Indian sneaking through the grass and fired shots from his house, only to hit and kill his lone hog.

More serious frontier hazards were the fires, blizzards, accidents and illness. German-Russian couples usually had many children to help with farm work and to offset a high infant mortality rate, according to Bauer.

The large families, reliance on one-crop farming and their initial poverty made German-Russians more vulnerable to the Depression than other immigrant groups. Bauer says they had to swallow their pride and accept government relief during those years in order to feed their families.

They also had to borrow money and many eventually lost their most prized possession, the land, because of foreclosures. “The Depression ended the dream for many of us; we lost our land,” says Bauer. “It’s hard on a man to lose his farm.”

Gottlieb Bauer

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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