Piecing Together Heritage: Researchers Helping Families Trace Their Roots

Wurgler, Edie. "Piecing Together Heritage: Researchers Helping Families Trace Their Roots." Pierce County Tribune, 12 April 2003, 1-7.

Iron crosses like these are a familiar sight in cemeteries where German immigrants are buried.

Two researchers with Pierce County roots are making a valuable contribution to the history of individual families and the Germans from Russia Heritage Society in our state.

Estagen Zimmerman of Esmond and Mary Lynn Axtman Schmaltz of Fargo have spent time in recent years searching old records in order to assist friends and to compile information for the Germans from Russia.

Members of the Germans from Russia Historical Society are descended from families who originally lived in Germany. Catherine the Great, the ruler of Russia, needed good farmers, so she lured the Germans there with offers of free land. After numerous generations, many of their rights in Russia had eroded and the Germans became dissatisfied with their lives. So, after hearing of homesteading opportunities, many of them moved to North America, settling on the prairies in both the United States and Canada.

The Society has its international headquarters in Bismarck and has chapters throughout the United States, Canada and South America.

Estagen Zimmerman generally concentrates his efforts on requests from individuals seeking information about their ancestors. He was born in Harvey and grew up west of Esmond, so it was natural for him to do research about people in the southern end of Pierce County.

Zimmerman's father, also named Estagen, originally interested his son in family history. His father started his search by contacting neighbors for their recollections. Eventually he had to go to Rugby or Bismarck for written information. "I did local research for my dad," Zimmerman recalls. "One thing led to another, and I was able to piece stories together." Solving things remains his favorite aspect of research.

He says in our area the records generally don't go further back than about 1880. That's when the Germans from Russia started coming to North Dakota. The majority of immigrants arrived between 1900 and 1910.

Census records must be 70 years old before they can become public record, and details of the 1930 census became available in 2000. "Early census records, from 1790 to 1930, are more complete than recent ones," Zimmerman states. Early records contain a larger variety of questions and personal information which would now be considered inappropriate.

Zimmerman receives many e-mail inquiries from Canada. A lot of people homesteaded in both countries and have family in both. He also gets questions from other states. After doing considerable tracking of records of Germans from Russia at the headquarters in Bismarck, he bought his own set of documents from them. The Society headquarters has names of researchers as well as family histories, which is helpful in checking facts, he said. The North Dakota Heritage Center has immigration and naturalization records and newspapers, all on microfilm.

One thing he has learned from all his genealogical work is the need to double and triple check his facts. "Some people don't double check, and they can end up being completely wrong," he said. "Only one wrong name can throw you totally off."

His advice to would-be historians: "Take all the information you can find, because it gives you a place to start. But you must verify it because it could be wrong."

Some of Zimmerman's work was included in the documentary, Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices, Iron Crosses of the Great Plains which has been shown several times on Prairie Public Television. Since he has been seeking out little-known cemeteries for several years, he was able to give filmmakers names and locations that they didn't have on their lists. "I have relatives buried in just about all of them," he says.

On occasion he has discovered discrepancies in the numbers of people who are buried in cemeteries. Usually there are more buried than church records show. This probably happened when the church didn't have a resident priest and a visiting priest would conduct the funeral and then take the burial records to his home church.

According to Zimmerman, it's amazing the information that is "out there." Much of his research is done on the Internet, and it's getting easier all the time. Interest in genealogy is growing rapidly. "It's one of the main reasons older people are getting computers," he said.

He sometimes becomes frustrated because he can't devote enough time to his hobby. He is employed by Burlington Northern-Santa Fe and works away from home much of the time. But when he is in the area he can be found in courthouses, libraries, newspaper offices or browsing on the Internet. "It becomes an obsession," he laughs.

But if Zimmerman is obsessed with history, he is not alone. Mary Axtman Schmaltz has applied a lifetime of ethnic historical interest to several projects sponsored and organized by the Germans from Russia Historical Society. Mary Lynn was born in Rugby and has many relatives in the area. She grew up on a farm 17 miles south of Rugby and graduated from Rugby High School.

Even though her interest in history was sparked as a child in elementary school at Silva, she didn't act on that interest until her oldest child was born. While listing the grandparents and great-grandparents in his baby book, she started thinking more about her own family history.

She remembers as a child sitting in history class hearing the teachers talk about the Pilgrims. She thought it was fascinating, but after school she could walk to her grandma's house and hear her family's history, which was equally interesting. Each of her four grandparents had been born in Russia, and they told stories in their native German language.

Years later while living in Fargo she discovered the large collection of materials about Germans from Russia at the NDSU Library. Timothy Kloberdanz of the NDSU history faculty taught classes about the Germans from Russia, and she audited them several times.

Mary Lynn has written family history books about the Bohl family, the Bickler family, and the Axtman family. She has also helped with suggestions and proofreading for several other history books. In addition, she was instrumental in the publishing of Rose Marie Gueldner's cookbook, German Food and Folkways.

Mary Lynn has worked on several video projects for the Germans from Russia and Prairie Public Television. She provided names of people to film for Schmeckfest: Food Traditions of the Germans from Russia. "The late Theresa Kuntz Bachmeier of Rugby was the star of the last segment of the Schmeckfest documentary," says Mary Lynn. "Everyone just loved her!"

Mary Lynn also did location scouting and lined up people to be interviewed for the film, Prairie Crosses, Prairie Voices; Iron Crosses of the Great Plains. Several local cemeteries are featured. "The cover of the video case has a beautiful cross from a Pierce County cemetery," Mary Lynn says. "The video also shows the Fulda church cemetery iron gate."

Filmmakers are careful not to reveal the exact location of the cemeteries because of thefts and vandalism. And church members have been encouraged by the video makers to list the cemeteries on the National Register of Historic Places. "They feel that might make people think before they desecrate the cemeteries." Mary Lynn said.

"When we were filming in Canada for Prairie Crosses we went into a shed at the side of a cemetery, and there were lots of iron crosses just stacked up in a corner. They had either been replaced by stone markers or vandalized and ripped out, and no one knew where they belonged," she lamented.

In her capacity as a consultant Mary Lynn went to Europe with a film crew. She saw where the Germans had lived before they went to Russia. Many of the colonies have the same names in Europe, Russia and America. At one l,000-year-old church she visited in France she was surprised to learn the organist was familiar with Selz, N.D..

She is quick to give others credit for historic contributions they have made, specifically Mary Ebach and Grace Gross of Rugby for their work with various family histories.

Mary Lynn is working on a history script for a new video that mighty air next year. In it Christine Gross Jundt was filmed in the Balta Catholic Church. "I try to plug in everything I know in Pierce County in these documentaries," she says. "I visit Pierce County more than you would think. It's an important part of the Germans from Russia history in North Dakota."

Reprinted with permission of the Pierce County Tribune.

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