100 Years Residency in Mercer County

Kilber, Marguerite. "100 Years Residency in Mercer County." Common, Supplement to Beulah Beacon and Hazen Star, 14 August 1986, 5.

Robert and Mathilda Lauf

The Lauf family is celebrating 100 years of residency in Mercer County. In 1885, Russian policies had made life hard in Arzis, Bessarabia so, having lost both their small sons to Measles, Robert and Mathilda decided to emigrate.

They traveled by train to Germany where they boarded a steamship for America. During the 14 day trip, the ship leaked so badly the trunks were floating about and Mathilda was so seasick she didn't care if it sank.

They spent the winter at Scotland, South Dakota where, on April 30 1886, Julia was born. Robert obtained a covered wagon, two oxen, tools and a plow. In May, they loaded the wagon and joined about thirty other wagons heading north through Mitchell, Aberdeen and Bismarck, Dakota Territory.

They heard reports of good land near Stanton and with seven other families, left the wagon train to homestead in that area. Robert selected land about three miles west of the Missouri River in what is now Mercer County and he and Mathilda began making a place on the endless prairie.

They unloaded the wagon and tipped it to create a crude shelter until Robert could turn some sod and build a sod house. Inside the house, they dug a hole and lined it with rocks to hold the fire. There Mathilda cooked and when it was cold, she heated stones, wrapped them in blankets and placed them in the crib to warm Julia.

Before winter, Robert walked fifty miles to Mandan to unload cargo at a warehouse for 50 cents a day until he had saved $14, the price of a stove.

With a stove, the sod house was quite comfortable, but sometimes a blizzard buried them. They had to take the snow into the house in order to dig themselves out.

The homestead prospered and children were born into the family until, by Christmas 1893, there were four children, Julia, Bertha, Emilea and young Carl, who entertained them with his mimicking two year old ways. On January 15, 1894 another son, August, was born.

For several weeks there was joy in the family and then disaster struck. Julia and Carl became sick with the dreaded diphtheria. At 2 p.m. on the 7th of February, Julia died, but little Carl struggled on unable to die and too sick to live. On the 9th of February, Robert returned to the house, perhaps from Julia's funeral, and asked, "Is the boy yet living?" At the sound of his father's voice, Mathilda saw the boy relax and he died. By the 14th of February, six-year-old Bertha was dead and four-year-old Emilea very ill. Emilea died four days later, she and Bertha were placed in the same coffin for burial near Julia and Carl in the Bohrer cemetery several miles northeast of the homestead.

Only baby August was left. He thrived that winter and summer and eased their grief, but the first week in November, the disease struck again and little August died the 7th of November at nine months and twenty-three days of age.

This was the darkest period in their lives. Mathilda lifted her face to heaven and poured out the desperation in her anguished heart. "Is there yet a God!" she pleaded. She was assured her faith held. Their loss was the terrible price extracted by the beautiful but harsh, untamed land where there were no doctors or medicine and she trusted her God to give the strength to prevail over that land.

They found the courage to continue and they rejoiced when a daughter was born in 1895. They named her Mathilda. In 1899, Robert Jr. was born and another daughter, Amalie, was born in 1904. These three children survived to adulthood.

By the time these last children were born, life was easier. In 1897, Robert had built a two room mud house. He used clay and water mixed by the horses feet into a gumbo paste with which he built walls about three feet thick. He would build a layer about a foot high, let it harden, then add another until the walls were high enough. It was roofed and shingled with wood. This house is still livable and was used until 1981.

They no longer feared Indian uprisings. Instead, the Indians often stopped to trade with Robert and Mathilda, exchanging necklaces, trinkets and beautiful cloth embroidered with colored beads for bread, eggs, meat and milk.

A school had been built about a mile from the homestead and all three Lauf children attended classes there. In 1902, their congregation, which had met in homes since 1889, built a frame church a little over a mile west of the Laufs. It was name St. Paul's Lutheran and regular services are still held there.

Robert and Mathilda farmed until 1925, when Robert Jr. took over. They were two days apart in age and both lived to be 74 years old. They died four months apart on the family farm in 1936.

The story of Robert and Mathilda Lauf exemplifies the tragedy, trials and ultimate triumph experienced by those indomitable pioneers who tamed the prairie and willed to use this beautiful land.

(My thanks to Judith Oldenberg and Amalie Kilber for their help.)... Marguerite Kilber

Reprinted with permission of the Beulah Beacon and Hazen Star.

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