From Russia to Nebraska: A Tale of Flight, Unexpected Deaths and Resettlement

Kehler, Eunice and Ray. "From Russia to Nebraska: A Tale of Flight, Unexpected Deaths and Resettlement." Grand Island Independent, 18 February 2005.

After escaping the czar's military draft, Alexander Kehler made it from Russia to the United States early in the 20th century.
EDITOR'S NOTE -- Grand Island's Ray Kehler has these recollections of his father Alexander and uncle Jacob, both born in Russia.

Alexander Kehler came to this country from Frank, Russia, a settlement near the Volga River. He was born April 19, 1886, the second child to John Jacob and Anna Wagner Kehler.

But this history actually starts a century and a half earlier -- on April 21, 1729, in a small town in Germany. On that day a baby girl is born of German parents -- she later becomes Catherine the Great of Russia. She was the most remarkable woman of the time. Catherine II was empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796, when she died at 69 years old.

Our story continues around the area know as the Russian Steppes, a large, flat grassland. Russia was having problems with raiders, and Catherine wanted a stopgap in that area because of this problem. This is the reason she chose to offer a deal to foreigners, mostly Germans, in 1762 and 1763. She had contracts made that would give these people land to farm and a promise that they would never have to serve in the Russian army. This land was never deeded to the Germans; it was more or less a lease.

A lot of Germans accepted her deal. They prospered, and all along the Volga River there were German villages. The Germans more or less kept to themselves and didn't get too involved with the Russian people. These Germans were isolated from their own country.

The story now goes to John Jacob and Anna Wagner Kehler. They lived in Frank, Russia, and their religion was Evangelical United Brethren (EUB). This is important because Catherine the Great settled these villages according to their church affiliation. When the Germans from Russia moved to America, they tended to continue this practice.

After Catherine died in 1796, the reign of the czars began. Later, czars retreat on Catherine's promise and decide to draft the Germans into the Russian army.

Early in the 20th century, Alexander Kehler managed to avoid the Russian draft and, with his sister Anna's help, was able to come to the United States. She may have served as his sponsor.

Anna and her husband Henry worked for the railroad in Montana, and this is what Alexander did after arriving in the United States. Since the railroad work was seasonal, the family spent their winters in or around Culbertson, located west of McCook in extreme southwest Nebraska.

Alexander worked and saved money to buy a farm. Together Alexander and Anna helped their brother, Jacob, and his wife Marie come to this country. Jacob served in the czar's army and as soon as his time was up, he and Marie headed for the United States. Jacob was still wearing his uniform on the way over.

In 1908, Alexander married Kathrene Weber. She had come with her family to this country from Walter, Russia, another village settled with Germans by Catherine.

To this union (Alexander and Kathrene), four children were born. At this time influenza epidemics would cause many deaths, and Kathrene died of the flu on Jan. 19, 1919. She was 29 years old.

Alexander's next wife, Molly Shaffer Roth, who had lost her husband, Edward. She died of heart failure on March 1, 1920.

Alexander's next marriage was to Marie Elizabeth (Mary) Weigandt Flack on Feb. 21, 1921. Again he suffered the same fate on Sept. 30, 1922, his wife Mary died in Lincoln.

Still, Alexander married again, this time to Katherine Grasmick Poppe Foltz. She and her two daughters arrived in New York as steerage passengers in August 1922, and she moves to Lincoln to meet her sponsor.

There was a German newspaper in Lincoln at the time, and it would list new arrivals. This may be how Alexander came to know Katherine Foltz. Henry Weber, a brother to Alexander's first wife Kathrene, was also a "match maker," so it could have been Henry who brought the woman to Alexander's attention.

Sometime in 1923 the two were married in Lincoln, and Alexander brought the new family members to his farm north of Culbertson. Four of his prior children also reside on the farm.

Alexander had purchased 160 acres of good farm land in 1917 from a rancher who lived south of Culbertson. He was a hard worker and very religious. After the evening meal it was his practice for the family to read the Bible and sing hymns.

Alexander raised cattle, corn and wheat for market, and barley and oats for the livestock. They also had milk cows and chickens for their own use. In the beginning, they farmed with horses. When times were better he bought machinery.

Sometime in the spring of 1933, Alexander saw the need for a new windmill. He hired a man and -- along with his neighbor Henry Weber, a brother of his first wife, Kathrene -- started to put up the windmill. That's when a piece of board fell and hit Alexander on the back of his head. He immediately went to the pump and splashed water on his nose, because his nose had started to bleed. After the doctor had left, Alexander laid down for the rest of the day.

He then went on with his normal work -- irrigating his crops and performing other chores. He started to get sick and, 13 days later -- on Dec. 24, 1935 -- he died of blood poisoning. He was 47 years old. At home were 10 children, the oldest 21 and the youngest not quite 2 -- Dollie, Albert, Esther, Rueben, Marie, Lottie, William, Raymond, Kenneth and Ludella.

Alexander was a good man and always in control of the farm. So his death left quite a void. Alexander's wife Katherine (or Ketie) was now alone to raise the large family.

Katherine's story also started in Russia. She was from Balzar, another community that Catherine had settled with Germans. She was born Aug. 16, 1890, to George and Mary Foltz Grasmick. George was a farmer, and before the Russian Revolution, John also farmed.

Katherine's first husband, Alexander Poppe, was a member of the navy of Czar Nicholas II. He never returned from the navy, however.

Katherine's next husband was Henry Foltz. A flu epidemic claimed Henry's life, as well as the lives of his brother and mother.

As the Russian Revolution unfolds, life gets exceedingly difficult for Katherine and her children. But thanks in part to an insurance payoff from a brother of her late husband Henry, Katherine was able to make it to the United States with two daughters, her sister-in-law and her sister-in-law's five children.

After Alexander died in 1933, Katherine wanted to hang on to the farm. So she married Jacob, Alexander's brother, who had earlier lost his wife Marie, on Dec. 24, 1935. She said she married Jacob because she needed a husband and he needed a wife.

Jacob Kehler died of cancer on Jan. 10, 1957, at the age of 68. He had experienced a lot of good times, and a lot of bad times.

In September 1960, 70-year-old Katherine suffered a massive stroke and died in Lincoln. She is buried in Culbertson.

Katherine, a feisty German from Russia, had realized her goal. She had kept the farm at all costs. Today, the farm remains in the Kehler family, as it has been the previous 88 years.

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Island Independent.

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