German-Russian Houses in Western North Dakota

Carlson, Alvar W. "German-Russian Houses in Western North Dakota." Pioneer America 13, no. 2, 1981.

The American Great Plains are generally perceived by people today as a semi-arid region which displays little diversity in both its physical environment and cultural landscape. It is viewed as being monotonous to the many travellers who speed across it headed to supposedly more interesting landscapes farther east or west. The Great Plains is not only a transit region experiencing rural depopulation and farm consolidation, it is also a region of much historic cultural diversity (Mather, 1972, pp. 237-257). The Schefield area of western North Dakota was originally settled by German-Russian emigrants and is one area which well-illustrates this diversity in those vestige pioneer houses which remain today (Fig. 1).

German-Russian Immigrants

Thousands of Germans emigrated to a newly expanded Russia beginning in the mid-1700s and extending into the 1880s. The push factors which led Germans to leave their homeland included warfare, political instability and religious persecution, but it was the pull factors which prompted most to emigrate to Russia (Voeller, 1940, pp. 11-6; Sallet, 1974, pp. 3-4, 9-10). The Russian government encouraged German settlers to occupy their newly claimed territory in the lower Volga River and Ukraine areas to help control potential intruders, to introduce European technology, to cultivate and make large expanses of land productive, and to teach Russian peasants better agricultural methods (Height, 1973, pp. 1-2; Stumpp 1971, pp. 9-12). Government manifestos and Russian agents working in Germany consequently lured German families to the area by guaranteeing them tracts of land up to 80 dessiatines (over 200 acres) along with a host of privileges that included religious freedom, exemption from taxes and military service (Long, 1978, pp. 1-4; Becker, 1938, pp. 32-8, 57; Height, 1973, pp. 86-7). German enclaves were established in which the settlers retained their language and culture, particularly their religion. The colonies in Beresina in Bessarabia near the Black Sea, for example, were founded largely by Catholics from southern Germany (Voeller, 1940, pp. 6-8; Stumpp, 1971, pp. 15, 68).

Disenchantment developed within the numerous German colonies beginning in the 1870s when the Russian government revoked many privileges and subjected the males to conscription, the children to the Russian language in schools, and all colonies to Russian rule. They were also upset by a shortage of new land for sons (Height, 1973, p. 245; Stumpp, 1971, pp. 28-9; Sallet, 1974, pp. 3-4, 58). Coincidentally free land was available in the United States and heavy German-Russian emigration began in the 1880s.

Approximately 120,000 German-Russian immigrants entered the United States to settle in various parts of the Great Plains before World War I. Immigration from the region nearly ceased after this time. Most of these were Protestants, but a smaller number of Catholics, mainly from the Black Sea area, also emigrated. These largely settled in North Dakota where large expanses of unimproved land were available for homesteading in the counties immediately to the east of the Missouri River and west of the river on the Missouri Plateau. Many of the German-Russian Catholics were late arrivals and therefore settled chiefly on the Missouri Plateau (Sallet, 1974, pp. 36-9). They settled mostly in groups and some were helped in acquiring homesteads by immigration agents who this time represented railroad companies (Hudson, 1976, pp. 245-47; Sallet, 1974, p. 68).

The Dickinson, North Dakota area was primarily settled by German-Russian Catholics from Beresina in Bessarabia in the 1890s (Sherman, 1979, p. 9; Sallet, 1974, pp. 36-9). Many of those arriving in the early 1900s settled south of Dickinson in the vicinity of Schoenfeld, later called Schefield. German-Russian homesteading continued to World War I when they comprised the largest immigrant population in western North Dakota.

The German-Russian settlement of the northern Great Plains placed them in a physical environment similar to the one they had left in Russia—a semi-arid steppe suited for small grain crops and pasture. The irregular and meager precipitation of western North Dakota provided for short grasses, largely a grama-buffalo grass association, on the undulating and wind-swept terrain. Scrub trees were found in the scattered ravines and in patches at the higher elevations on the large buttes, in the Killdeer Mountains north of Dickinson, or in the Badlands. There was a general lack of wood for both fuel and building materials, although surface lignite was fairly commonplace. The Schefield area lies within the Golden Valley and Sentinel Butte formations which have sandstone outcrops. Silcrete was also found, but mostly on ridges and buttes where it was highly resistant to erosion. Splintery and poorly preserved petrified wood could also be found occasionally.

Early German-Russian Housing in North Dakota

The German Russians built small structures of grassland sod, some partially dugout, that were typical of the houses of many of the initial homesteaders in western North Dakota and elsewhere on the Great Plains. These represented the cheapest and quickest form of construction. The interior walls were usually plastered with a straw or prairie grass-clay mud and limewashed. Few had wooden floors as lumber was relatively expensive and the houses were intended to be utilized only temporarily. Considerable energy was instead expended on improving the homestead, usually 160 acres (a quarter section). The abandonment of the sod house for other house types mirrors an immigrant group's tenacity in retaining certain tenets of folk architecture as well as an indication of perceived economic success. Some of the German-Russian families in western North Dakota lived in these sod houses longer than other immigrant groups before they erected either a larger and more durable rammed-earth (fachwerk) house, or a mud and straw brick house, or, even later, a frame house (Fig. 2).

The German-Russian families in the Schefield area appear to have moved from sod to stone houses. These stone houses normally were rectangular one-room deep structures of two or three equal-size rooms. They are identifiable by their front antechamber (vorhausl) which led to the kitchen (Fig. 3). They could be enlarged by adding rooms at either end, but this was rarely done. The thick walls consisted entirely of local materials—pieces of silcrete, sandstone and occasionally petrified wood bonded together by a clayey gumbo. The limewashed interior walls were of clay plaster containing chopped straw (Fig. 4). Exterior walls were normally stuccoed in the same fashion. The gable roofs of the first houses were constructed with a ridge pole (firstbaum) to support smaller poles covered with sod, dirt and branches; later houses consisted of a sawed beam and boards covered by wooden shingles (Fig. 5). An attic or half-story provided additional space for the families. Plank floors covered subterranean cellars. The house fronts usually had southerly and easterly exposure to shield the doorways from the strong westerly winds, while the windward sides generally had no windows (Fig. 6). Mist or mistholz - dried manure and straw - was often burned to heat these houses (Hudson, 1978, pp. 7-8; Carlson, 1972, p. 150).

Antecedents to North Dakota German-Russian Housing

One must investigate the Catholic German pioneer settlement of Russia to gain insight into why the Schefield area immigrants built stone houses. It is interesting to note that German pioneers in the Black Sea area initially built small earthen houses as temporary shelters. Prior to the arrival of the Germans, peasants in Russia had a history of building (semeljankas (zemlyankas) which were often partially dugout (Height, 1973, pp. 121-25; Peterson, 1976, p. 19; Sherman, 1974, p. 187; Lehr, 1978, p. 29). Sod was often used in the construction of these houses, but their thick walls were also built of sun-dried clay and straw (adobe) bricks. Both the exterior and interior walls were plastered with a loam mixture. The interior walls were limewashed. Roofs consisted of poles covered with thatching of reeds and brush. The semeljankas frequently had peressingas, a small porch or entry way, which the Germans called a vorhäusl (Height, 1973, pp. 55-7; Sherman, 1974, pp. 186-87, 195). It prevented the cold winds from entering the doorway. Mistholz was used to heat the houses.

The German-Russians in the Black Sea area built larger and more substantial houses later, as the case of settling on the American Great Plains. These were constructed of quarried sandstone, limestone or molded clay-straw-manure blocks (kohlsteine). Gable roofs covered the one-story rectangular dwellings of two or three equal-size rooms. Barns and sheds were often attached to the houses which gave rise to elongated buildings known as einheitshauser or kolonistenhaus (Stump, 1971, pp. 56. 59; Height, 1973, pp. 55-8). Cellars were built under the floor or outdoors. Some structures gave evidence of rammed-earth construction where clay and stone were places between upright poles. The German pioneers had had experience with this type of construction (fachwerk) as well as with stone masonry in Germany. Small summer kitchens were found in most yards which were enclosed by stone walls (Braunagel, 1972). The colonists lived largely in street-villages where the church was dominant. They farmed their surrounding fields.


References Cited

Becker, C.H.

1938 A Historical Study of the Social Background of the German-Russians From the Volga District in Russia Living in Northern Colorado, Master's thesis, Department of Sociology, Colorado State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, Fort Collins.

Braunagel, Nicholas A.

1972 St. Maria Kirche Zu Strasburg, 1900-1931, manuscript in State Historical Society of North Dakota, Bismarck.

Carlson, Alvar W.

1972 Lignite Coal as an Enabling Factor in the Settlement of Western North Dakota, Great Plains Journal, Vol. 11, No.2, pp. 145-53.

Height, Joseph S.

1973 Paradise on the Steppe, A Cultural History of the Kutschurgan, Beresan, and Liebental Colonists, 1804-1972, North Dakota Historical Society of Germans from Russia, Bismarck.

Hudson, John

1978 North Dakota's Frontier Fuels, Bulletin, Association of North Dakota Geographers, Vol. 28, pp. 1-15.
1976 Migration to an American Frontier, Annals, Association of American Geographers, Vol. 66, No.2, pp. 242-65.
1975 Frontier Housing in North Dakota, North Dakota History, Vol. 42, No.4, pp. 4-15.

Lehr, John C.

1978 The Ukrainian Presence on the Prairies, Canadian Geographic, Vol. 97, No.2, pp. 28-33.

Long, James

1978 The German-Russians: A Bibliography, American Bibliographical Center -Clio Press, Santa Barbara.

Mather, E. Cotton

1972 The American Great Plains, Annals, Association of American Geographers, Vol. 62, No.2, pp. 237 -57.

Peterson, Albert J.

1976 The German-Russian House in Kansas: A Study in Persistence of Form, Pioneer America, Vol. 8, No.1, pp. 19-27.

Sallet, Richard

1974 Russian-German Settlements in the United States, (Translated by Lavern J. Rippley and Armand Bauer), North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, Fargo.

Sherman, William C.

1979 Ethnic Distribution in Western North Dakota, North Dakota History, Vol. 46, No.1, pp. 4-12.
1974 Prairie Architecture of the Russian-German Settlers, Russian-German Settlements in the United States (by Richard Sallet), North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, Fargo, pp. 185-95.

Stumpp, Karl

1971 The German-Russians: Two Centuries of Pioneering, (Translated by Joseph S. Height), Atlantic-Forum, New York.

Voeller, Joseph B.

1940 The Origin of the German-Russian People and Their Role in North Dakota, Master's thesis, Department of Education, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.

Location map The remains of a rammed-earth (fachwerk) house near Fairfield (Billings County), North Dakota (All photographs by the author).
A vorhausl on a stuccoed German-Russian stone house near Schefield, North Dakota. Exterior and interior walls of an abandoned German-Russian house near Schefield, North Dakota.
An example of a ridge pole (firstbaum) on a German-Russian building near Manning (Dunn County), North Dakota. The windows of this German-Russian house as seen here face south. Schefield, North Dakota.
A wooden vorhausl on a German-Russian house near Schefield, North Dakota. A smokehouse near Schefield, North Dakota.
A stone barn near Schefield, North Dakota. A barn with a stone foundation and a gambrel roof near Schefield, North Dakota.

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