The John Stern Homestead

Hinrich, Joyce. "The John Stern Homestead." Herald, 19 December 2008, 1.

Reprinted with permission of  Joyce Hinrich, Mott, North Dakota.

John Stern was born May 2, 1882 in Bessarabia, Russia, part of the Russian Steppes country. The Russian Steppes is a semi-arid area much like our Great Plains and agricultural was the chief industry. John’s Uncle Andreas Stern was the first from the Stern family to immigrate to the new country in 1892, following many others which is recorded in history as the first “wave” of immigrants to the Dakotas in 1880’s. Stories of cheap or free farmland and jobs in areas where their countrymen has already settled brought forth a second “wave” of immigrants from Russia in the 1900’s.

So it was that in 1902, at the age of twenty and as part of the second “wave” of immigrants into America, John’s adventure into the new world began. Like others before him, he was seeking the opportunity for free land and to settle among those with similar religious beliefs and regional ties from Russia. To qualify for free land in Hettinger County at that time, and become a homesteader, you had to be twenty one years of age, a citizen of the United States (or declare intentions to become one), have twenty two dollars for 160 acres of land and an affidavit with a $12.00 fee for proof of intentions.

Upon arriving in America, he headed for North Dakota as did his uncle before him. In 1904 he filed for citizenship in Stark County and in 1905 he chose land two miles east of Mott, which had an artesian spring on it and filed his claim. The town of Mott was just coming into it’s own as well. W.H. Brown, owner of the Wm. H. Brown Land Company had just begun to build a small hotel (Hotel Brown) and was putting up the Mott Supply building. The population was about three hundred strong.

The first days on his land, John lived under an overturned wagon box, while building a 16 x 18 foot sod shack. Upon completion of the sod shack, he married Fredricka Roth of Glen Ullin and in the spring of 1906 they began to build the homestead which still stands today. Stones were hauled in from the hills on the southern part of their acreage and lumber brought in by horse drawn wagon from Glen Ullin, some fifty miles away. Mortar was made by John and Fredicka as they did in Russia, from clay, manure, straw and water and mixed by hand.

The first year of building the homestead, the weather turned on them in the spring, raining almost every day from May through the middle of June. All this rain left him without much profit out of his first crop of wheat and small grain, but in early fall, all the increased moisture made a wonderful crop of prairie hay for feeding stock. Mother Nature continued to touch John and Fredricka with a heavy hand. Winter that year was unusually snowy. The heavy snows started in December and did not let up until February. But the building of the homestead continued through rain and heavy winter snows and the homestead was completed in 1907.

By 1907 Mott was growing and adding churches to their community and John and Fredricka became very active in the community. John helped build the Christ Lutheran Church and served as Treasurer for six years. He was also precinct committee officer for some twenty years.

Fredricka sadly lost the first three infants born on the homestead and their burial plot still stands today behind the homestead marked by three home-made wooden crosses. (Mott had no cemetery until 1923). Six more children were born to the couple; Herbert, Christian, Marie, Helen, Adolph and Reinhold. Herbert was lost in 1923 and was buried in the then newly developed Mott Cemetery.

The family continued to work hard and grew strong, farming wheat and small grains on the land and raising a few head of cattle. The artesian spring provided a continuous source of good water for the homestead but it also brought the Northern Pacific Railroad near their homestead in 1910. The railroad acquired access to the spring and daily stopped by the farm to water their engines. As the Stern children grew older, only Reinhold, the youngest son, stayed and worked on the farm with his father, and continued to do so until the depression years. As the depression worsened and a drought hit the county, Hettinger county farmers were loosing their farms through the inability to make mortgage and tax payments. Reinhold and John, determined not to loose the homestead, worked other jobs to make extra income. Reinhold finally had to leave the farm, joining the Civilian Conservation Corp. earning thirty dollars per month. He would send all but five dollars a month back to the homestead. In the meantime, John was breaking horses and hauling sheep’s wool for his neighbors and drove school bus for extra income as well as working his crops and stock. The depression lifted to some degree in the late thirties, and slowly but surely posterity returned to the rural areas. Electricity came to the homestead in 1938.

More favorable weather improved crop yields in the 1940’s and again the Stern family pressed on and prospered. Reinhold took a wife in 1940 and started married life living with his parents on the homestead. With more commodities to sell, Hettinger county farmers benefited even more from the higher prices stimulated by the American entry into World War II. Within a span of five years, the farm debt in the sate dropped markedly; at the war’s end in 1945, North Dakota residents had accumulated the largest per capita bank deposits in the nation. As the history goes, John died in 1957 and Fredricka passed in 1968. A poem written in the form of a reverie by Mrs. Harry Day entitled “Our Homestead” shows how these hard working people felt about their homesteads:

When at eve the sun is setting
And its golden rays descend
On our shanty on the prairie
Like a good old trusty friend
Here we gather all so happy
In our shanty on the claim
Warm in summer, cold in winter
But safe from storm and rain.

The poem has ten other very descriptive verses about homesteading and ends with “But we are happy and contented, on these prairies wide and free”.

Memories of a grandson, Jim Stern of Mott:

Jim tells this fun childhood memory. “We went to the Lutheran Church in West Mott every Sunday. Dad and I would pick up Gramma and Grandpa at the homestead for church every Sunday morning and it was my job to get Gramma out of the house and into the car for which I was paid a quarter”.

Stern Homestead
Members of the Mott Gallery board tour the site with Jim Stern
Stern children grave.
Stern home westside, cupols are to pitch hay up for storage
This shows the storage area and original rock walls
More storage area and original rock walls

Window shows how thick the walls were. There is an etched "1947" in this area. Sterns believe that is when the stucco coating was applied.

Inside the middle section is the stairway to the sleeping loft, and also the hay storage area.
Jim Stern checks out an old family trunk in the sleeping loft.
Inside the living area.
This shows some of the interior wall construction
Walls were covered with wainscoting and wallpaper. Every space was used for storage.
An old calendar still hangs on the wall. Fredricka Stern lived in the house through the mid 1960's.
Lace and colorful valances brightened up the home on the prairie.

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