The Willmans From Frank, Russia: German-Russian Family Made its Home in East Grand Island

Letheby, Pete. "The Willmans From Frank, Russia: German-Russian Family Made its Home in East Grand Island." Grand Island Independent, 25 April 2005.

There is a lot of Willman family history permeating some of the old, simple homes in eastern Grand Island.

Henry and Marie (Stroh) Willman, born in Germany, and their five children left Frank, Russia, for the United States in 1905. After arriving at Ellis Island, they wound up in Nebraska, then spent a few months harvesting sugar beets in Colorado before returning to Grand Island.

From that point on, the Willmans and three of their sons built four homes on East Division, South Vine and South Oak -- the area of Grand Island known as "Rooshin Town." All four houses are still standing and operational today, eight to nine decades later.

"Henry (the oldest son of Henry and Marie) built his home at 510 East Division," said Shirley Bruhn, a granddaughter of Henry and Marie. "They butchered their own pigs there and made their own baloney."

A Willman family history further recalls the early days of Henry and Marie in Grand Island:

"They butchered their own meat and boiled their own lard and made their own sausage. They raised chickens, tended gardens and somehow managed to get groceries for the schnitz suppe (fruit soup), grabble (doughnuts) and blina (potato pancakes)."

This fascinating history has captured Bruhn and Nancy Demuth, both in Grand Island. They are two of the Henry and Marie Willman's 18 grandchildren.

The last of Henry and Marie's nine children, David Willman, passed away in Grand Island on May 2, 2003, at the age of 93.

The family's genealogy goes back to Frank, Russia, one of the "German mother colonies" in Russia. Many of the villages were located near the Volga River, which led to the term "Volga Germans."

Some of the earliest memories passed down through the decades were those of marauding Cossacks and Russian soldiers.

"My mom told stories about the Russian soldiers," Demuth said. "They didn't like the soldiers."

The Willman family history adds: "The mothers of the children would tell them to hide under their beds whenever the Russian soldiers (Cossacks) would come riding on their big white horses over the hills."

The Cossacks were an ethnic group that lived in or near present-day Ukraine. In the 19th century, some Cossacks received special privileges and formed special units in the Russian army. (Ironically, during the Russian Revolution, most Cossacks fought against the Red Army, or Communists.)

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Russians began preaching hatred of Germans. Prior to World War II and the Russian Revolution, Germans in Russia were regular targets of government edicts, harassment and violence.

It also was about this time when Henry and Marie Willman decided to leave. From the Willman history:

"Finally, the day arrived for them to depart and with their family and luggage, they boared the boat that would take them to America. The boat was crowded with other eager travelers leaving the old country behind, looking forward to a great life in a new country ...

"Little Marie (one of the couple's children) remembers peering over the ship's edge, clutching her mother's hand so that she would not slip and fall. Her first sight that she remembers was the sighting of the Statue of Liberty standing in the New York harbor. To the immigrants, the statue meant a symbol of freedom."

The Willmans were able to rent a house on East Yund in Grand Island, in the middle of "Rooshin' Town." After the family spent a half-year working in sugar beet fields in Colorado, they moved back to Grand Island.

Henry Sr., who went to work with the Union Pacific Railroad, then built the family's new home at 510 E. Division. It was the first of four houses that Willman family members built in the area -- two were on South Vine and another on South Oak.

The family worked hard to make their lives in Grand Island, accumulating memories along the way.

Henry and Marie had nine children, but lost several others to stillbirth or miscarriage. One daughter, Frieda, died of a burst appendix at age 4.

Bruhn remembers her mother, Marie (Willman) Woodruff telling her that she learned English in the old Dodge Elementary School. Marie quit school in the eighth grade to help at home, not at all uncommon for the time.

Bruhn herself recalls learning the Lord's Prayer in German by age 3.

Henry Jr., an uncle of Bruhn and Demuth, married a woman who was sent over to America specifically for that purpose.

"Our grandfather wrote back to Russia and asked if there were any eligible girls 17, 18 or 19 years old," Bruhn said. "Our Aunt Katja (Katherine) came over and married Henry. She liked to read from the Bible."

Bruhn and Demuth also said their grandfather, Henry Sr., did not know any English when he arrived in Nebraska.

"He signed his signature with an 'X,' witnessed by others," the family history said. "Later, he learned a little English."

Henry Sr. died at 69, He had spent nine bed-ridden years with Parkinson's Disease. In attempts to find a cure, Henry Jr. took his father to South Dakota to see a healer.

Henry Sr. and Marie are buried in the Grand Island Cemetery, as well as eight of their nine children. One of their sons, George, is buried in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

John, another of the children of Henry Sr. and Marie, was well-known in Grand Island for his two grocery stores.

David was the last of Demuth's and Bruhn's aunts or uncles to pass away. He died on May 2, 2003, at age 93. David was a longtime worker at the Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant.

There is no shortage of Willman stories to pass down through the years. Demuth and Bruhn say their cousins, children, nieces and nephews have heard, and remember, many of the family chronicles.

"Our children are into this," Bruhn said. "They are aware of their heritage."

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Island Independent.

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