This Old Haus the Rev. William Sherman's Housework may Never end When it Comes to Researching the Architecture of the Germans From Russia

Schmidt, Steve. "This Old Haus the Rev. William Sherman's Housework may Never end When it Comes to Researching the Architecture of the Germans From Russia." Grand Forks Herald, 14 July 1996.

Norwegians may have brought lutefisk, but it was the Germans who brought sauerkraut and the look of Santa Fe to homesteads on the high Plains.

The Rev. William Sherman of Grand Forks marvels over this as he flicks though the thousands of photos of early homes of Germans from Russia in his research files.

"Who'd ever think you'd find adobe houses in North Dakota?" the pastor of St. Michael's Catholic Church says.

Yet the folders in his basement study, a treasure trove of information and art about North Dakota’s ethnic character, clearly show little "haus" after "haus" on the prairies made of sunburnt bricks of clay or mud.

They tell the story of Germans' ability to adapt to harsh cold and wind and a lack of trees or money to import wood to their home sites.

These photos, which Sherman began accumulating in the 1970s as a student and teacher of Great Plains sociology at North Dakota State University, recently have been supplemented by firsthand looks at the villages the Germans from Russia left behind.

Not until recently has the Communist Iron Curtain been lifted enough to let researchers and heritage groups, such as North Dakota's Germans from Russia Society, to get a close-up look at how their ancestors lived in what is now the Ukraine in the Black Sea region of the former Soviet Union.

Sherman, together with a former college student of his, John Guerrero, a dedicated globetrotter and amateur historian and photographer from Fargo, went to the Ukraine last fall to see for themselves how Germans built their houses.

They built them through a century of settling and forming prosperous villages on Russian lands, starting with an invitation from Catherine the Great.

German villagers, who kept their own culture amid those of surrounding Russian Communities, began to exit by the thousands when their host rulers reneged on promises not to draft Germans to fight wars for the Motherland.

From the photos, you can tell that the land they left near the Black Sea looks as if it easily could have substituted for the images in North Dakota Horizons magazine, of rolling prairies and flatlands and lightly trafficked highways.

Given the similarity of terrain, it’s perhaps not surprising that their first houses in the new country turned out to be almost perfect matches of the ones they learned to build and that still stand after 120 years or more in the Ukraine--now virtually emptied of Germans.

Sherman and his partner returned with about 2500 slides and prints from 20 different housing styles in 15 villages that were homes to the grandparents and great-grandparents of thoughts on North Dakotans.

He’s done some presentations to small groups, including architects in the valley. Eventually, though, Sherman intends to enrich his writings on the Germans from Russia with a book on their architecture and how they borrowed liberally from the styles they learned in Russia.

The first ones in this region were no-nonsense, no-frills, sturdily made and highly practical homes. They were efficient to the point where livestock barns were built right nest to the living rooms, and vegetable and grains were stored in lofts over the bedrooms. Houses often were long and low, designed for maximum protection against the elements and centrally heated with clay oven stoves. Sherman says he knew of one German settler north of Dickinson, ND, who had an adobe house where he claimed "not one single nail was used--until he put a wood floor in it."

Sherman says he hopes to learn what concepts of home and hearth the Germans had in mind when they first arrived in Russia and began adapting to the conditions they found they. "How do you build a house when you have no money and no wood? So they borrowed from what they say around them from the Russians. And they used the house plans they already had in their heads. So it was a combination of influences."

He believes research on architecture, combined with many other aspects of culture from the adaptable Germans from Russia, eventually will complement a big travel industry linking the descendants with their ancestral villages in Eastern Europe.

And as Sherman wrote in one of the first sketches of German from Russia architecture two decades ago, "A house is a testimony to the family that builds it, with its various years of struggle and success. But it is also a monument to a people with their collective experience, their migrations, their values and their achievements."

His hope is that enough of the buildings and their styles will be preserved, whether in Strasburg, ND or Strasburg in the Ukraine, to let future generations appreciate the quiet, humble and sturdy people who built them.

An expertly decorated prairie house with adobe walls south of Harvey, ND, was built early in the 1930s by German Mennonite settles from Russia. It has many of the same architectural features that visitors now can see on German-built houses in the Ukraine. The home region for many of North Dakota's pioneers recently was opened to visitors after the fall of Soviet Communists, who persecuted the Germans and tried to terminate their religion and culture. Photo courtesy of the Rev. William Sherman, Grand Forks

From his files of 7,000 photos of German-built homes, the Rev. William Sherman searches for architectural matches to photos he took last fall on a visit to 20 ancestral villages of North Dakotans in the Ukraine. Sherman, pastor at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Grand Forks and a commuting professor of Great Plains sociology at North Dakota State University in Fargo, has studied the culture of Germans from Russia for nearly three decades. Photo by John Stennes, staff photographer

The Rev. William Sherman of Grand Forks joins a translator, right, and other visitors outside a typical home built by former German villagers in what's now the Ukrainian community of Elsass. It's near Odessa, in the Black Sea region. On a recent visit to the former Soviet Union, Sherman found hundreds of homes matching those built by Germans from Russia when they emigrated to the Dakotas and Canada a century ago. Photo by John Guerrero

Reprinted with permission of the Grand Forks Herald, Grand Forks, ND.

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