40 Years of Research, Fun, Education and Community (1918 - 2018)
North Star Chapter of Minnesota Germans from Russia
By Carol Just
On October 29, 1977, a letter went out from Jeanne Appelhans to American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) members in Minnesota asking if anyone was interested in forming a Minnesota chapter. A November 11th letter invited them to an informational meeting at a TCF bank community room on December 4th. Judge LeRoy Yost volunteered to draft a set of bylaws which were submitted to AHSGR Headquarters on January 9, 1978. AHSGR President Ruth Amen came to Minnesota to meet a packed meeting room at the Southdale Library in March of that year and by June, 1978, Jeanne Appelhans accepted the North Star Chapter Charter at the AHSGR International Convention.
Thus, began forty years of fun, education, research, and community for members of the North Star Chapter. It is not likely that many of us would know one another if we didn’t have a shared interest in the history of the Germans from Russia. We can thank that shared interest for giving us such a strong community of friends and fellow researchers. Over these many years we have rejoiced at births, wept at funerals, danced at weddings, hosted conventions, created amazing programs, served gourmet ethnic food, demonstrated food ways and folk arts, and managed to get excellent press coverage in a largely Scandinavian community. Somewhere in that time, we created a bestselling cookbook (now in its 17th printing) and published two volumes of stories on the topic of “Growing Up German from Russia in America”.
In the early years, the North Star Chapter met regularly at the Community Room at the Southdale Library. There wasn’t much money in the chapter coffers. Members dug deep, they held garage sales and one member had her own paper drive. Craft and bake sales were a part of most meetings. Giving was also part of our mission and in May, 1980, the chapter sent a donation to AHSGR’s International Foundation in honor of Dr Adam Geisinger, AHSGR President.
We dreamed big! By July, 1981, the North Star Chapter hosted the 12th International AHSGR Convention at the Radisson South Hotel in Bloomington. With stellar news coverage by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Minneapolis Star and Tribune and local newspapers-word got out. Local cable news programs were in their infancy, but Al Oster managed to get air time to promote the North Star Chapter and the 1981 convention, and local morning TV talk shows gave us a few seconds of air time to promote the convention. At the close of 1981, the North Star Chapter boasted 104 family memberships.
By 1984 the North Star Chapter had sufficient funds to make a donation to help repair the Statue of Liberty. The statue that welcomed our ancestors to the USA.
Selfless, dedicated members created a welcoming space and encouraged others to join. Programs were creative: a mixture of serious and fun. For many years running, the chapter met at Stroh’s Brewery in St Paul (the old Hamm Brewery location) for “Octoberfest”! Musical entertainment by the “Harmonikrauts” (sometimes just a wax paper/comb band) beer and brats with all the trimmings became the standard. Nothing, however, compared to the radio skits written and directed by charter member Dallas Zimmerman and performed by chapter members called “North Star Players” in front of a microphone labeled WNSC. “The Schultz Family Saga” went on for years, complete with sound effects.
By 1986, the North Star Chapter secured tax exempt status. It was a pivotal year. Membership soared to 130 family memberships. The annual Christmas pot luck became the annual “Weihnachtsfest.” Newsletters took on a new look and still featured member biographies.
Also, that year, Garrison Keillor of “A Prairie Home Companion” fame wrote an essay about his beloved Anoka High School writing teacher, North Star Chapter’s very own DeLoyd Hochstetter.
Ever-focused on educating everyone on the story of the Germans from Russia, the North Star Chapter began donating AHSGR Journals and Clues publications to the Minnesota Historical Society.
1988 was also a banner year. 131 guests came to hear storyteller, Michael Cotter, for the North Star Chapter spring banquet and 10th anniversary celebration.
By 1990, North Star Chapter meetings moved to United Methodist Church of Peace, 6345 Xerxes Ave. S. in Richfield, thanks to Orvan and Evelyn Edmonson, North Star Chapter charter members and longtime church members, who made the arrangements. Now the library had a permanent home because the church offered storage. In those years, meetings included program handouts with information about the program, speaker, future programs and included chapter officer names and contact information. Long before everyone had email access, an active telephone committee made meeting reminder calls. 1990 membership was at 101 family memberships.
In 1992, the chapter was still hosting craft/bake/garage sales to raise money for programming and to purchase books for our ever-growing library. Board meetings were held in the home of anyone willing to host. Newsletter assembly often took place at the home of Rose and Bob Wood followed by coffee and lovely treats. Newsletter assembly was always fun and a great way to get to know one another.
1995 brought a new fundraiser: Potato Pancake Brunch organized by Fritz Herring. It was lots of fun and a good revenue source. The Spring Banquet that year was our first “Salute to Lawrence Welk” (the 2nd “Salute” was in 2015). Special guests included Jules and Lois (Best) Herman, famed headliners at St Paul’s Prom Ballroom, but in their early careers the two spent many years performing with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra, most notably during the Welk years in Chicago. Lois Best was the original Champaign Lady who later married Jules Herman, the lead horn player in the Welk orchestra. When the Welk organization moved on to Los Angeles, the Hermans decided to make Minnesota their home. The 1995 banquet featured a large exhibit of items from the Herman/Welk years including several ball gowns, musical instruments, and original music scores. Good advance news coverage brought new guests who became new members. Over 100 members and guests attended this event.
1996, under the leadership of Mayo Flegel and Sam Brungardt, our famous cookbook, Sei Unser Gast, was published just in time to promote sales at the 27th AHSGR Convention, June 10 – 16, 1996, hosted by the North Star Chapter and again held at the Radisson South Hotel in Bloomington. A Minneapolis Star Tribune Variety section cover story, “From Russia, mit Liebe” about the chapter and the convention once again boosted interest and membership.
Cookbook sales took the North Star Chapter treasury from meager to flush within a couple of years of publication, allowing the chapter to recover publishing expenses and keep cash in the budget to continue to publish. The income allowed the chapter to expand program opportunities, add publications to the library and share the wealth with other international organizations that shared our mission.
For the next decade, the North Star Chapter maintained a steady schedule of great programming, often bringing presenters to Minnesota from other parts of the country. Often the programs that debuted at the North Star Chapter became programs featured at international conventions. The North Star Chapter helped raise funds for the initial documentaries on the topic of Germans from Russia produced by Prairie Public Television (PPTV) and the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection (GRHC) at North Dakota State University. The chapter has also helped raise funds for books published on the topic of the Germans from Russia.
In 2003, the North Star Chapter celebrated 25 years with a gala event at the newly opened Mill City Museum, site of the original Pillsbury “A” Mill, located along the Mississippi River near downtown Minneapolis. Tours, music, storytelling and a big walk down memory lane highlighted the event.
Charter members at 25th Anniversary Celebration: Ken and Rosemary Larson, Carol Just, Imelda Maggli, Ardella Bennett, Bill Maggli, Ruth and Bob Hopkins.
In 2005, the North Star Chapter, thanks to the efforts of Jim Gessele and Duane Stabler, who gathered support to change the North Star Chapter bylaws to allow “dual affiliation” with AHSGR and the Germans from Russia Heritage Society (GRHS), meant that now chapter membership simply required proof of membership in either of those two organizations.
We all grew older, some members passed on, others joined, keeping the organization fluid and ready for the next decades.
In 2013, the North Star Chapter embarked on another adventure by publishing its first anthology, Hollyhocks and Grasshoppers: Growing up German from Russia in America, 148 pages, thirty-five essays written by North Star Chapter members. A conservative estimate of 1,000 copies in distribution means that the chapter was paid back initial costs within months and the anthology now joins the cookbook, Sei Unser Gast, as a vehicle to fund the North Star Chapter’s mission to educate others on the topic of Germans from Russia.
Welk tribute cast at Spring Banquet, 2015. Front Row: Kate Shirg, Jane Blecha Plumboff, Kae Blecha, Sharon Chmielarz, Carol Just, Glorian Anderson. Back Row: Chuck Kurle, Mel Meier, Steve Weninger, Sam Fiske, Chris Huber, Sharon and Larry Kleingartner.
In this 40th anniversary year, we now launch our second anthology, Watermelons and Thistles: Growing Up German from Russia in America. I don’t know what the future will bring but I am confident that in these past forty years, the North Star Chapter of Minnesota has left a mark on the souls of many of us who call ourselves Germans from Russia.
Authors note: I was among the forty-five that signed up for membership in the North Star Chapter in 1978. To assist in writing this North Star Chapter timeline essay, I paged through the history books lovingly kept by Evelyn Edmonson, Ardella Bennett, and others, including most recently, Helen Kleingartner.