Hard Times on the North Dakota Prairie

Lind, Bob. "Hard Times on the North Dakota Prairie." Forum, 14 November 2010, 8B.

This was some way to start a marriage.

Samuel Kautz and Karolina Wolf were Germans living in Russia when they married in 1891. But seeing no future there, they immigrated to the United States in 1892.

The trip was bad. Instead of being on a passenger ship, they were loaded on a freighter in conditions they described as “terrible” and lived primarily on onion soup for the entire 14-day trip.

But the young couple made it to Hebron, N.D., where they homesteaded and where Sam built a sod house for him and his bride. But it was too late to plant a crop that year, they had no income, ate a lot of antelope because it was the only meat available, and survived primarily due to the kindness of other Germans from Russia who had preceded them to the area.

Sam built other sod buildings, then rebuilt them of stone. He was so good at it he was asked to construct stone buildings for others.

In the early 1900s, Karolina’s mother, Anna, moved from Russia to live near the Kautzes. Anna, she was the one with a temper.

Look out for Anna

Anna’s husband had died in Russia, but she married again. Though while on their way to North Dakota, her second husband either fell or was thrown off the train and died.

But Anna was tough. She homesteaded by herself and lived in a sod house built by her son-in-law. Then she married again and left the land, never completing the homestead requirements.

It’s said in the family that Anna wasn’t a good mother figure. Years later, one of her grandchildren told her she wasn’t washing clothes correctly, and Grandma Anna hit her granddaughter over the head with a washboard.

Breaking sod

These stories come from Kent Schluchter, Cavalier, N.D., who is married to Lori, the great-granddaughter of Sam and Karolina. Lori’s grandfather, Sam Kautz Jr., the last living child of Sam and Karolina’s 13 children, was interviewed by Kent, giving him such stories as these:

Sam Sr. was breaking sod with a team of oxen when the flies became so bad the oxen ran into a creek, pulling the plow with them. Sam had to wait for the oxen to come out before he could finish plowing.

One day a niece of Karolina was attending Bible school at nearby Trinity Lutheran Church when a tornado struck. The pastor took the children to a ravine for safety, but the girl wound up with slivers of wood and straw imbedded in her scalp. The church was destroyed.

Sam hauled grain to Glen Ullin, 30 miles away, by wagon. He’d haul 50 bushels of wheat, sell it, and buy six months’ worth of groceries, including dried fruit, a big food item. But the family also had eggs, milk, garden produce and meat from farm animals and antelope.

Karolina sewed most of the clothing for her 13 children, all of whom lived in the house at the same time.

Then came a day in which the world tumbled down for the Kautz family.

Sam had sold 4,000 bushels of wheat to the elevator and deposited the check in the bank. But soon he developed pneumonia. And at 9 a.m. May 2, 1925, Sam died. That was the exact time the bank closed, as the Depression was closing in.

In a matter of minutes, the family lost a husband and father and all of that year’s income.

Don’t try this at home

Many lost land and possessions in the Depression. But Sam says one area resident took matters into his own hands when his son, who was about to be married and needed a farm to live on, had trouble with the local banker.

His father went to the banker’s house, pointed a pistol at the banker and told him to give him three quarters of land the banker had foreclosed on or else.

The son got the land and lived there the rest of his life.

This method of doing business is not recommended by law enforcement officials, however.

Making a go of it

Sam Jr. married Erna Hertz, and they eventually became the grandparents of Lori.

Sam, now 96, still lives in the stone house on the homestead where he was born, plays the accordion, and with his razor-sharp mind has no problem remembering stories such as this:

After his father died, many people thought his mother would lose the farm. But with the help of her four boys, she won out, and the farm remains in the family today.

It didn’t hurt, though, that items were less expensive back then, Sam says. Kerosene, for example, cost 12 to 14 cents a gallon.

And there was lots of antelope to eat.

Sam Kautz Jr. plays the accordion at his 90th birthday party. Kautz’s parents immigrated to the United States in 1892.

Reprinted with the permission of The Forum

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