Letter from J.M. Erbele
Lesterville, Dakota Territory (South Dakota)
February 12, 1889
Take note of this letter, and listen to it! It is urgent. Today, Wednesday, at 11:30 a.m., I received your letter of Jan 9 by mail train. I feel compelled, however, to reply this same evening because you do not seem aware of the urgency of the hour. Andreas was here from Sunday until the day before yesterday. We had our pictures taken, but they are not developed yet. Otherwise I would have enclosed one with this letter. Together with your letter, I also received one from August Stephan today. When I shall write to tell him about coming events here, I shall also enclose a photo for you. I intend to give you the rest of the pictures upon your arrival here. Now, to the more important matters.
Apparently, you do not want to discourage me in my plans to stake land claims here, which is right; but dear parents please take note that by next March 4, there will a change of Presidents here. It is possible that a Republican will take over the leadership, who will most certainly turn the territory of Dakota into a state of the United States Republic. It is also noised abroad that as soon as Dakota is a State, steps will be taken to reduce the number of claims to one person or family (160 acres equals 59 ¾ Desjatinen). Although we still have the privilege of staking three claims, I am not saying that each one should take three, but certainly two, that is father, Jacob, and Martin ought to claim two quarters each, which together would total 119 Desjatins in Russia. Then we three would own 358 ½ Desjatins. But if Dakota will be taken into the Union after March 4 of this year, which seems to be as certain as that two times two is four, then the Congress in Washington will pass a law, permitting each man to stake only one claim. That would be only half of what we can claim now, namely 179 ¼ Desjatins. Look, this is what you are missing with delaying and delaying
In ten to fifteen years, this land will be worth something and will increase in value with time. Why shouldn’t you than take advantage of the opportunity while it is still free? Why wait until next year when you can only claim half that much while now you can have all of it? With this hesitation, you lose more than you gain. If you get here early enough this spring, you could get a flaxseed crop. If God sends a good harvest; this would reimburse you three times for the loss of your house. Naturally, with a poor crop, this would be less, but you would still be able to plant potatoes and all other vegetables for the next year. For all this, you would have to pay if you came too late for the planting season and too soon for the winter’s rest. Buying everything in America makes a bigger hole in your wallet than it would in Russia.
You will probably say, “Well, potatoes and cabbage and other vegetables for the winter could be planted by Martin and Andreas if I stake some claim,” But remember, when I stake claims, the sod has to be broken, ploughed, the soil built up, and heaven knows what more needs to be done. If Andreas and I had ten more hands, we would still have all we could do. Besides that, I don’t want to stay more than six months on the land, then pay $200.00 for the preemption claim that I want to take, have some wood lots painted, and than return to the city where I can find easier work and earn twice as much. Because of that, I cannot settle down in the country, as you will have to do whenever you get here.
I am glad to give good advice to anyone who asks for it, but I do not obligate anyone to act on it or to follow someone else’s trail. Wouldn’t I be a donkey if things did not materialize exactly the way a certain Mr. Schaal is still dreaming in Gnadenthal? Then a Martin Erbele would be to blame for your misfortune; and if a hen lost a tail feather, then I would get it. Whoever does what I did, who works the way I did, who reads as many newspapers as I have read in America? In brief, whoever takes the pains that I have taken needs no one to tell him what it is like in America; he will discover that for himself.
To this day, I have had no one come to offer me his good advice. People think when a beggar comes to America, he can become a millionaire over night. I have to take care of myself, of my parents and my brother; I have not mastered the lucky strike and I am not almighty. Had I waited until someone gave me good advice, I would still be standing at the train depot in Menno. When I stepped off the train, it was my responsibility to go to work and try my best. I was fortunate. I have paid my debts and have more money at the moment than I need – not because of other people's advice nor pretending to have my packets full. No, only because I worked with my ten fingers and my five senses. Keep this about the imposing advice on others to yourselves; I wouldn't want friends to know anything about it; however, you can gather from it my attitude towards others.
You write in a little note that if I stake claims when you arrive, you would like to stay with me until Andreas is old enough and then move onto your own. Dear parents, that is impossible. Remember, that during this time all the land far and wide around me will be gone. Then I will have my property many miles away from you and yours will be far from me. I would like for us to be close together or at least close enough to cover the distance on foot, so that you can use mine the way you would like since I am planning to return to the city. But if we live ten or more miles apart you cannot use it; but how do you expect to stake a claim if you settle down in my little village. You have apparently forgotten, what I wrote you a year or two ago; remember that the train doesn’t go where there are no people. And here, where there are people the land is all taken, and railways are laid only into settled areas. So first of all the land has to be settled and populated until railway companies consider it profitable to spread their network of railways through these areas, with stations every ten, eleven, or twelve miles. People who either cannot afford land or don’t want it, settle around these stations. By and by some may open stores, repair shops, or other business places, where farmers and others can buy and sell. But this happens only after the land is claimed and settled. However, for someone to wait staking claims until all this has come to pass is like a stranger coming to Leiglitz and expecting to have a home or farmstead there without any effort. What would people say? Do you have money, for so much you can have it. And here people near villages or cites say, “For ten, 15, 20, or 25 dollars per acre, I will sell,” depending on the prospects of city growth and development.
When I went to Eureka late last year, where I plan to go again this spring, with my friend C. Weber’s horses, I was told that a man had sold two land claims, which three years ago were just lying there for anybody to claim. So three years ago, he claimed them and worked them for three years and improved them. Now he sold them for 1800 dollars that is 320 acres. From that, you can see that land here becomes valuable in time. But you must not think that this happens with every piece of land; not all of it has the same value for there are also worthless stretches here in America. But one is at liberty to leave the worthless and claim the better land. It is the same here with everything else. Therefore, the longer you wait and the longer you hesitate the more danger and the greater the loss for you. I know that over there you have no peace anymore; you feel drawn to both of us here. When I imagine myself in your situation, I fell that you want to be with us and we long to be with you. So if you decide to come, it is better to come earlier than later, better too early than too late.
Come as soon as you can make it, but listen, I do not want any blame in case you will not like it here. As much as I want to see you here, it would kill me and put me under the sod to listen to your reproaches. I know for a certainty that anyone who wants to work gets ahead here, and I have not the slightest doubt about your getting ahead here. I am sure that if we remain well and work together as we did in Russia, we will be farther ahead in three years here than in Russia after thirty. May God grant us good health and a desire to work, once we are together again, then everything will work out and we shall be helped.
It is, however, quite impossible to imagine America in Russia and to see yourself in it. One only has a concept of America after spending some time here. I really do not doubt in the least that you will like it here, but have not heard you say so yet. At the beginning of April, between the first and fifth, I plan to leave South Dakota and go by train to Eureka from where I want to get on the land. From this, you can figure that you will not find Andreas and me here if you arrive around April 10 to 15. If you figure on the 1st of April, remember that April 1 is March 19 in Russia; so we shall leave here March 19, your calendar. If you leave Russia around April 19, your time, and get to Bremen after that, buy your tickets through to Eureka, McPherson County, from Mr. Missler. But if you get to Bremen before we leave here, then it would be better to buy tickets to Scotland, Dakota, from Missler. It would be still better if you were here now so we could get you settled, but now I don’t know what to do nor what to buy so that you will be satisfied when you get here.
After considering all of this last night, I decided to buy one team of oxen, a cow, a wagon, and a plow, if you don’t get here before we leave. Since I would like to take my horse team along, I would naturally have to take a boxcar to Eureka, which would cost $53.00 from Lesterville. I wrote to tell you that we wanted to drive the team to Eureka, but people are advising against it. They say we would wear out the horses and not be able to use them when we arrive. By taking the freight train, we get to Eureka in 2 days. When I get there, I shall store my few belongings and drive the three miles to Peter Schott west from Eureka. He comes from Hoffnungsthal by Klostitz, therefore my countryman who must help me find land, and then the work will begin.
Should you arrive in Eureka before I have had a chance to write to you, go to Jacob Liedle who has a dry goods store and ask the way to Peter Schott. He will know where Andreas and I are at that time. P. Schott is the colleague of my C. Weber. I have been in Schott’s home and discovered that his wife is the sister of Christoph Sunger with whose son Johannes I studied in Sarata. I calculated how much money I will have left after buying the bisons, the cow, plow and wagon, and have brought my team to Eureka. That would amount around 150 to 175 dollars. Andreas still has about 100 dollars more, so together we would have about 275 dollars to use for staking claims and setting up a home place. Look, dear parents, that’s what we have earned in America. Isn’t that enough?
Well then, your source of income, the mill, is sold; how do you want to make your living if you plan to stay another year in Russia? Live off your savings? That would soon be gone, and then? Sit there with nothing? You can see for yourselves that there is no longer a rosy future for you in Russia. Come rather to America where you can live off your savings, which may be doubled in a few years, if God sends His blessings. You will lead a better and more peaceful life, and we shall once more be together again. When you get here, I shall be free and hardly ever think of Russia.
Dear Parents! Sell everything as well as you can and leave as soon as possible, better earlier than later. I would really like to stake my claims next to yours, and when Andreas is old enough, we shall take care of that. In the meantime, I shall try the following trick to secure some land for Andreas near us; namely, we cut-up territory between us. Then after Andreas is of age, he can claim it and we will lay it out properly. But we can only do this now when we are all together.
This year the weather in Dakota is golden with hardly any snow until now. On January 8, people here as well as in Central Dakota were still ploughing [plowing]. I have never experienced a milder winter in my life. But we cannot predict for next winter. Last winter, 1887-88 was extremely cold; I can’t remember ever experiencing a harder one. Today we have sunshine and a northwest wind, but it is thawing and reminds us of spring. Some trees are beginning to bud. According to the newspapers, there is an average winter with snow all around Dakota and Nebraska. Otherwise, we are both well and wish you the same. I am to send you greetings from C. Weber and his family and also from his father Heinrich Weber. My friend Weber also thinks it would be better for you and for us two if you were here too; then we could get on the land and start working.
Come as early as you can, in time to put in a crop so that we can get settled down. Cattle, horses, wagons etc. is much more expensive here than in Russia; but since one usually buys from other immigrants, the cost is less, and there is always an opportunity for selling.
It is two months and four days now, since I bought my yearlings; they were emaciated and miserable and one was goitrous. During this time, I fed them well and even groomed them. I paid 65 dollars for them and about three weeks ago someone considered them worth a 100 dollars; but I am not ready to let them go for that, because they will develop into large strong horses that in another two years will be able to do any work required of horses. Even now, they have the height of average horses, but not quite as muscular. However, they will only be a year at the beginning of May. I would price an ox team from 75 to 100 dollars, a cow 20 to 25, a wagon 55 to 65, a plow 25 dollars, etc. With the first opportunity, I shall send Andreas your last letter.
Dear Parents! I must write to you again, don’t delay, if you want to come this year. If you arrive too late to plant anything, you will have to buy everything you will need, and on top of that live out of your pocket for a whole year. But if you would even have a small flax crop this year, you would have your bread for the coming year. By coming a month too late for seeding, you would lose all that and live on your savings. When you take that into consideration, you will see that I am right and time is more urgent than you think. Nobody works for us if we don’t do it ourselves. On the bare land, like in the middle of a Russian steppe, we have to start a homestead at which we have to work with all of our energy. Otherwise we also remain bunglers here without land. So hurry up and get going. I know when you get here, you, like I, will not want to be without land.
Now I must close so that I get this letter with the first express train closer to you. You should receive it by February 19 or 20.
I am closing with the hope that you will realize the danger of hesitating and delaying and that the danger is constantly getting closer. I also hope that you will follow my best advice, so often expressed in this letter
Wishing you all that is best for you, I remain your son, J. M. Erbele
P.S. Don’t delay any longer, for you will never find peace
there again. You feel drawn to America.