Tales of Immigrants’ Past may Have a Future:

Nixon, Lance. "Tales of Immigrants’ Past may Have a Future." Grand Forks Herald, 29 December 1992, sec. 1B & 3B.

A government worker stopped to visit Martin Wald of Strasburg, N.D., for two days in May 1939 and again for three days in June 1939. As a part of a Works Progress Administration project in North Dakota, the federal government was paying such workers to interview immigrants about history. They filled out forms that asked immigrants the names of the villages they had come from, the names of family members, even the ships on which they had come to America.

As part of the interview, the worker gathering the information – in this case a man named Ernest Borr – sometimes wrote a short biography of the person.

As it happened, Martin Wald had a good memory. Born in a German settlement called Selz in czarist Russia, he had come to the United States on board a ship that arrived in New York City Oct. 19, 1888. Three days later, on Oct. 22, he arrived in Eureka, Dakota Territory. He stayed there for three days inquiring about land, sleeping nights in the hay loft of a livery station.

He found work on a ranch for a year, then in the Kalbrearer coal mine near Hazelton. He filed his first land claim in Emmons County, N.D., on Feb. 3, 1890, and built an 8-by-12 sod house on it. He remembered that he plowed and sowed 22 acres to flax and reaped 40 bushels for a harvest. He filed a different claim later. Then on Dec. 28, 1892, he married Magdalene Keller. Father Bernard, the missionary at Fort Yates, performed the ceremony.

There wasn’t so much else to tell. He told the interviewer that in 1908, he hauled 32 loads of wheat to Eureka, S.D., by ox team and wagon. It was a distance of 50 miles. He told about the barn made of rocks, logs, and prairie sod.

5,000 interviews

There were more than 5,000 such interviews done in North Dakota between 1936 and 1940, some more complete than others. The pioneer biography files, as they are called, are at the State Historical Society’s archives in Bismarck.

The files have been used occasionally by researchers, but now for the first time, there’s a move to publish some of them.

Michael Miller, the Germans from Russia bibliographer at the North Dakota State University libraries, and his colleague Corinne Becker, an independent researcher, are selecting the interviews that were done with German immigrants from Russia and having the information entered into a computer system.

If NDSU’s Institute of Regional Studies takes up the project, they hope to begin publishing the interviews – probably in a softbound book – by the fall of 1993. The interviews from Emmons County will be first, followed by those from McIntosh, Grant and Logan counties.

“We pulled out the Norwegians and the Danes and the Scots,” Becker said. “We deal with the Germans from Russia. That’s why we’re narrowing the field.”

Becker said the interviews may be significant because the so-called Black Sea Germans, from such places as Bessarabia, Crimea and Odessa, have not been researched so thoroughly as those Germans from Russia who came from the Volga River region. North Dakota has many people who trace their roots to the Black Sea region.

Invaluable for family researchers

The interviewers will be invaluable for family researchers because of the family data and the place names they give, Becker said.

But there are problems with the interviews. Perhaps because Ernest Borr and others like him were not Germans themselves, or perhaps because the people being interviewed didn’t always know how to spell things, the interviews contain a lot of misspelled place names or family names.

“I have to decide whether to leave the spelling which is wrong or when I can go back find the correct spelling of the village or whatever it is,” Becker said. “What I’ll probably end up doing is including both. I’ll give the correct spelling as an editor’s note.”

Few women

There are few interviews with women. Among the 28 interviews with Germans from Russia from Emmons County, only one is with a woman – Sophia Kallenberger Beck of Linton, N.D.

“It’s the problem of history,” Becker said. “The women get lost in the shuffle.”

Those Germans from Russia Interviewed

Here’s a list of the Germans from Russia included in the Works Progress Administration interviews from Emmons County. Some NDSU researchers are hoping to publish the interviews with German immigrants from Russia, beginning with Emmons County in 1993.
• Baumgartner: Franz, Johannes, Joseph.
• Bauman, Sebestian.
• Beck, Sophia Kallenberger
• Bechtle, Daniel.
• Brossart, John.
• Burgad, Joseph.
• Dockter, Gottlieb and Martin.
• Feist, Jacob.
• Fischer, Jacob.
• Flegel, August.
• Geffre, Joe.
• Keller: Egidi, Max, Peter, Phillip.
• Mossbruker, Peter J. Ochsner, Philip.
• Pudwill, Heinrich.
• Reich, Mathias.
• Roehrich, Frans.
• Schneider, Albinus.
• Schulz, Henry.
• Senger, Anton.
• Wald, Martin.
• Welk, Ludwig.
• Worst, John H.

Photo Caption:

An immigrant cemetery on the North Dakota prairie.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald.

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