German-Russians' Roots run Deep
Noel, Tom. "German-Russians'
Roots run Deep." Rocky Mountain
News, 21 January 2006
A compelling chapter of Colorado history began with the legendary
Russian czarina, Catherine the Great.
This German-born czarina recruited skilled German farmers to colonize
Russia's Volga River valley during the late 1700s. Catherine promised
them the right to continue speaking German, practicing their Protestant
religion, and exemption from the Russian military.
When later czars reneged on Catherine's promises, the German-Russians
Volga Deutsch) began moving out of Russia. Some returned to Germany,
moved to Argentina or Brazil, and thousands came to the United States,
often settling in the Midwest. In Colorado they gravitated to the
beet-growing areas of the South Platte Valley, particularly Weld,
Morgan and Logan counties. Second Hoeing, a 1935 historical novel
Williams Sykes, offers a highly readable account of Colorado's
German-Russians. Sykes, a Fort Collins teacher, spent years studying
German-Russian students, their families, and their culture. She
puzzled by their large families of a dozen or more children, until
found that in Russia they were given additional acreage for each
As a teacher, Williams became painfully aware that German-Russian
left school to work on the farm and to marry early. Her focus on
labor earned her book national attention.
German-Russians protested the novel's focus on child labor and
stereotype, because of the beet- and dirt- stained hands and clothing,
The "Dirty Rooshian" charge, as Tim Kloberdanz notes
in his introduction
to the 1982 reprint of Second Hoeing, was exploited by Great Western
and other employers to justify housing them in chicken coops, boxcars
tar-paper shacks. By accusing German-Russians of thievery and disloyalty
especially during the world wars - employers could explain the
discrimination, tight regulations and low wages used to keep them
Hannah Schreissmiller, the blue-eyed, golden-haired heroine of
Hoeing, hopes to go to high school. That dream is crushed by her
death, leaving her to care for the baby, whose birth killed her
and her other siblings.
"Hannah," her mother said, "everything fall by you.
But you is strong.
Some day, the dirt, he don't bother you so much. Life, he is not
you don't make mad and fight him."
At age 4, Hannah had begun baby-sitting her younger siblings in
At age 6, she crawled through the dirt and clods, thinning and weeding
sugar beet plants. By age 16, she had been exposed to every part
sugar beet cycle, no matter how laborious and disagreeable.
Hannah is courted by the son of a white landowner. For seeing this
"American boy," Hannah's father horsewhips her, shredding
confirmation dress - her only fancy garment. Agonizingly caught
cultures, Hannah ultimately marries one of her own people.
Hope Sykes uses fine descriptive writing and dialect to tell the
The Schreissmillers and their countrymen start out as contract laborers
housed in Shag Town, which lay next to the now mostly demolished
Williams describes "one- room shacks with stove pipe chimneys
of the roofs at crazy angles, their weathered sides hugging the
yards, sagging fences hemming in dirty faced children. All drab,
colorless, with here and there a brightly painted house, a good
only adding to the sordidness of the scene.
"Separated from Shag Town by a dirt road were the stinking
adjoining the many- windowed red-brick sugar factory, fermenting
of shredded sugar beets from which all the sweetness had been taken."
German-Russians, thanks to their dogged work ethic and strong family,
church and cultural support system, usually worked their way up,
success stories like the Anschutzes, Colorado's wealthiest clan.
assimilated and overlooked as an ethnic group, German-Russians raised
only sugar but also Russian winter wheat, lambs and cattle as they
transform the Great American Desert into America's breadbasket.
Reprinted with permission of the Rocky Mountain News.