A bit of Europe in Dakota

"A bit of Europe in Dakota." Harper’s Weekly, 11 July 1896.

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Institute for Regional Studies, North Dakota State Libraries, Digital Horizons

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Away out near the border-line of the two Dakotas, perhaps thirty miles from the Missouri and seventy from Fort Yates, lies a stretch of rolling prairie-land where lives a colony of peasants; the most remarkable, in certain ways, to be found in this country. They are self-isolated from the rest of the world, safe as they communicate through the medium of their marketing-place; the little town of Eureka. They have established a small section of Europe in the New World, and they are very, very slow to merge it into the type and texture of the newer civilization.

Just a word of history may make the life of this colony more interesting:

Toward the close of the last century, the Russian government invited a large number of thrifty German farmers to go to the fertile region in the vicinity of the present city of Odessa. There they were to establish farms and to bear an agricultural influence upon the roving tribes in the region. Each family was given a comfortable farm and the utmost freedom was promised. They were to be exempt from military service, to be allowed to maintain their allegiance to the German state of which they were a political part, and were to be allowed the fullest religious freedom. They settled in villages, went out by day to till their farms, and returned to their villages by night.

But as the years passed, the Russian government began to lose sight of its old-time promises as new rulers came to the throne. The peasants found their rights slipping away from them; found that in their courts, their language, and their religion, they were becoming assuredly more and more Russian than German. In brief, after many years they sought a home in America. Emissaries came out from Odessa and looked over the plains of Dakota. Some time about the year 1870, large numbers of these German-Russians settled near Yankton. Ten years later another agent reached the Western plains. He was commissioned to find a new home for more of the peasants who were tired of the encroachments of the Russians. He sought a degree of latitude as near to that of the Russian home of the peasants as possible. On the wide prairie where Eureka is located, just eleven miles north of the latitude of the city of Odessa, he chose a home for his people. The soil was like that of the region where they lived in Russia, the climate was the same, and the country was one of absolute, not conditional, freedom.

As soon as the news could be communicated to Russia, the hegira from Odessa began. In 1887-8 over nine thousand came; in 1889-90, three thousand; in 1891-2, four thousand five hundred - all of them settling in the region close about Eureka, and beginning at once the cultivation of wheat on the same careful, methodical plans that they and their ancestors had followed from the old German days down. The largest number of them settled in the counties of McPherson and Campbell.

Some families were poor, many of them were in comfortable circumstances, some of them were rich, as wealth goes among those who till the soil for a living, but all of them were industrious and inheritors of ancestral thrift. But they did not assimilate with American ways and customs - perhaps because there was neither opportunity nor inclination. They were a people by themselves as much as they were when, still German to the core, they toiled in the wheat-fields of Russia. The men assumed early the obligations of American citizenship but, for the most part, they remained distinctively foreign.

Recently, I visited this curious town of Eureka. There are changes going on, but very slowly, and it will be more than one generation, as things are moving now, before these foreigners are fully Americanized.

Low-roofed and broad are the houses of these peasants, veritable homes of earth. They are not the sod shanties of the Western boomer by any means, for these foreigners have a way of building for the future. They construct their homes in curious fashions and build them so substantially they will last half a century if necessary - last until greater prosperity and American influences call for houses of wood or stone. When the farmer has decided upon the location of his house, he plows up the heavy sod in the swale at the foot of one of the low Coteau Hills and draws it to his house in long strips. This sod is the roof for his house. He has been making bricks for days; huge clay and straw bricks, perhaps twelve inches thick by eighteen inches long. The clay subsoil affords material for a brick that will last for years. After the bricks are sun-dried they are laid up for his walls with the joints being properly broken. The interstices between the bricks are filled in with clay in a soft mass, making the wall solid and about two feet in thickness. The color of one of these walls as you see it on the prairie is a dark, soft gray; or when, as in some cases, it is plastered upon the outside, it is lighter in color. The walls are probably not more than seven feet high. From them coarse boards are built to a ridge-pole in the center to form a foundation for the sod roof. The sod strips are then laid upon the roof boards, still bearing their grassy furze, and the places between the strips are filled in with gravel and clay in a coarse stucco that makes the roof rain and cold proof.

The interior of the house is not so gloomy a place as you might expect. It is composed, in some cases, of only two rooms, but sometimes there are four or five. In the centre there is a wide hall. Opening from this are doorways to the other apartments. There are two heating plants in the house that frequently border upon this hall. They are built of clay and granite cobble-stones, which are thick upon the prairie in the vicinity. These stoves, or ovens, are several feet square and they have wide hearths and a somewhat rude top. There is a large chimney connecting with the roof. Hay or straw is stuffed into the stove. It burns furiously and with a tremendous heat. As soon as the smoke has passed up the chimney, a damper in the chimney is closed and the clay and cobblestones husband the heat for many hours. One firing at night and one in the morning are sufficient for twenty-four hours. There are windows for ventilation and light, but the tendency in the severe cold weather is to keep the house far too warm for health. The extreme contrast between the heat of the house and the cold of a Dakota winter is responsible for a great deal of eye-trouble among these immigrants. Not only is the house cold-proof, but it is fireproof. The fiercest prairie fires may leap upon it and over it and no harm come. It would also take a remarkably healthy cyclone to shake its squat walls.

The walls are plastered with clay on the inside and are then painted or kalsomined; the ceilings in almost all instances, being tinted a pronounced blue. The walls are plain white or decorated. In this decoration, much ingenuity is shown. The body of the wall will first be painted white. Then, with long corn-cobs and different-colored kalsomines, the walls are done in different-colored strips the width of the cob's length, which is dipped in the coloring matter and rolled up and down the walls to make a strange, but not inartistic graining effect. There is generally a piece of wainscoting of some neutral tint from three to four feet high.

The floor in the poorer houses is of clay, hardened almost to stone, and easily swept. Floors of wood are found in the better class of houses. There is as much attempt at homespun adornment as you would find in the home of the average Western farmer, perhaps more, while some of the houses are furnished with some degree of luxury.

The home life of these peasants seems to be particularly happy. By far, the greater number of them are church-goers; Lutherans and Presbyterians predominating. They have maintained their Old World simplicity at table, though their boards may be more generously garnished with delicacies than was the Russian custom. They buy very little in the way of groceries. Sugar, tea, and flour will very nearly complete the list. They make large, fine loaves of bread in their big ovens; the steady and regular heat being especially adapted to such baking. They are innocent of desserts. They raise vegetables - or go without. Some meat finds its way into their larder if they raise animals for food themselves. I do not know that I ever saw a healthier lot of men, women, and children than those I saw filling the streets of Eureka on a market-day. Their menus may be meager, but their muscles are not.

They are said to be a unusually honest people. The same simple, plain, common life they followed on the plains of Odessa has been followed here; and they have been wholly unprepared for the ways of the land-shark and the chattel-mortgage fiend.

It takes not so very long a time for the men to drop some part of their Old World style of garb, their sharp-visored caps, their great top-boots, and their leathern jackets; for they cannot so well replace them here, so they buy their new garments of the native type. But the women are slower to change. They are still clinging religiously to their bright short skirts, their white aprons, and their shawls about their heads. The folded shawl about the head will be the last garment that will succumb to American influences. What a royal lot of colors they come out in on a market-day! Such merry finery as I saw - shawls of many hues for the head, embroidered in fancy-colored silk-thread patterns; bodices of black, red or yellow; skirts of red, purple or green, falling like truncated cones from the broad hips to the coarse shoes; aprons of white, yellow or pink - verily they presented a kaleidoscope of color as they sauntered about the market-place or into the small stores, waiting for the horses or the oxen to finish their mid-day meals; then to take up the long journey homeward across the dim prairies in the night.

In person, the women are small, given to breadth rather than to height. The men are strong of frame, of average height, and look to be possessed of great endurance. All of them have the rather sallow complexion so common among the immigrants from the realm of the Czar.

These peasants are not only unique because they have brought into America a small section of Europe, their language and customs intact, but they have a claim to a uniqueness of another kind in that they haul to market in the town of Eureka more grain than is marketed in any other primary wheat market in the world. During the period between the day when the first load of wheat was drawn into Eureka last autumn and the time when the last load of the season was hauled in mid-February, there were unloaded from the wagons of these peasants three million bushels of wheat. In 1888, about nine hundred thousand bushels were marketed. Four years later, this had been increased to two million bushels and, this year, so prodigious is the crop with another million bushels added. Out of the wagons of these German-Russian peasants, who learned their trade of wheat-growing in the Old World, is unloaded more wheat year by year than at any other place in the world.

From twenty to fifty thousand bushels of grain are marketed per day. Much of this is hauled in from long distances - sometimes sixty or seventy miles away from the town. Some of the farmers still cling to the ox-team mode of locomotion and haul their wheat by slow and laborious stages. The wheat is shipped out as rapidly as possible. There are thirty-one different grain firms represented among the buyers on the market and there are about forty small elevators and grain warehouses with a storage capacity of nearly three hundred thousand bushels. The grain comes in so rapidly that the train-loads of wheat are very heavy. Poor crops a few years ago caused a turning toward other produce than wheat and some of the more progressive farmers are devoting a good deal of attention to stock and dairy farming. Some of the houses look at a distance, to be abnormally long due to the fact that the barn and the dairy are under the same roof - a continuation, in fact, of the house itself.

While this town of Eureka is the end of the railroad, and on the very frontier, and while some eight or ten saloons run at full blast even in prohibitioned South Dakota it is a remarkably sober and unquarrelsome lot of people who throng into this curious little place to send their wheat into the great arteries of trade. Almost to a man, the male members of the colony smoke cigarettes; pipes seem to be at a discount.

It will doubtless be many years before these peasants shake off their picturesqueness, if they shall be left to themselves as much as they are today.

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Harper's Weekly magazine published this historic text along with hand-colored photographs of Germans from Russia who emigrated to Eureka, South Dakota, and other locations in the Dakotas.

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