The John Schmaltz family of Emmons County: from Ukrainian Steppes to Dakota Prairies

Schmaltz, Eric. "The John Schmaltz family of Emmons County: from Ukrainian Steppes to Dakota Prairies." Emmons County Record, 29 January 2009, 5.
(Editor's Note: This is part seventeen of Eric Schmaltz's history of the John Schmaltz family.)

One of the Largest Families in N.D.

All nine Schmaltz girls arrayed in their summer outfits sometime during the latter part of the 1930s.

Other ethnic traditions persisted, however. Germans from Russia continued the long-held practice of addressing one another with unique nicknames. For instance, Ralph’s (1910-1972) nickname was “Rabbit.” In addition, the family for generations has bestowed their sons with first or middle names of “John” (or “Jon” in the case of my middle name). My father’s name is John, and my nephew, born in 2006, is named after him. My father also has a cousin named Michael John.   

The Schmaltzes seemed to weather the full brunt of the 1930s Great Depression fairly well. Both stores in Strasburg and Linton remained in operation, but misfortune touched family members in other ways. The youngest of the children, Felicia, suffered from a mental disability as the result of a difficult birth. Birth defects tend more often to afflict children who are born to women in advanced middle age. At a time when traditional, and especially Catholic, farm and small-town families were quite fertile and prolific, her mother Clara was about 48 years old at the time of her birth in 1932. In addition, other serious hereditary illnesses afflicted them over the years. Heart attacks plagued especially the Schmaltz men, while aggressive breast cancer haunted the Schmaltz women. For females who have carried certain physical characteristics on the Schmaltz side (i.e., if one looks like particular relatives), the danger of a genetic time bomb for cancer has only grown more acute over time. The relentless cancer curse has struck down each succeeding generation of women sooner—the first generation in more or less advanced age, the next in middle age, and now the young. In fact, for years a prestigious cancer institute has been granted permission to study the Schmaltzes’ cancer history, using the family as a living case study in the search for a cancer cure.

Eric Schmaltz. The author is immigrant Johann Schmalz’s great-grandson.  Born in Minot, North Dakota, in 1971, he is Assistant Professor of History at Northwestern Oklahoma State University, where he teaches Modern European and World History.  He expresses his eternal gratitude to old issues of the Emmons County Record as well as various extended relatives by blood or marriage who have assisted him with family history research over the past two decades, in particular Bro. Placid Gross, Mrs. Mary Lynn Axtman, Mrs. Nicole (French) Bailey, Prof. Amy Deibert, and Prof. Michael M. Miller.

John Sr. died on July 17, 1951, after a series of strokes in the previous months. Clara followed him in death on February 2, 1953. They are buried, along with several of their children, at the St. Anthony Catholic Church Cemetery in Linton.

After all these years, locals continue to recount memories of Schmaltzes in Emmons County and elsewhere in North Dakota. On the Lawrence Welk Homestead outside of Strasburg, I recall visiting with some of the older generation of area farmers in the mid-1990s who still remembered Great-grandfather giving them (as kids) candy at the store—one fleeting human connection with the ever-receding past. For a brief moment, their memories melted time away. 

Reprinted with permission of the Emmons County Record.

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