Hermann Family: Glimpses of Yesterday

By Alma M. Herman, Fargo, North Dakota, June 1990

ONCE UPON A TIME, centuries ago, people by the name of Hermann lived in Wittenberg, Germany. This southeast region between Baden and Bavaria, partly covered by Schwartzwald (Black Forest), was a part of Swabia. We, as descendants of the Hermanns of Germany, can only imagine their life in Wittenberg by blending it with overall German history because none of their history or legend came down to our generation. Although the name “Hermann” means “Master Man,” I cannot find it among world famous biographical names in my latest dictionary. We believe our forefathers in Germany were principally farmers.

From world history we know that the Thirty Years War had reduced life in Germany to a less than tolerable existence for the common people. Under the rule of the Empress of Russia, Katherine II (1729-1796), Russia acquired land from Poland. The Empress, born a German princess, was a strong and progressive ruler. Her policy was to draw Russia into the western world. To accomplish this, she instituted major reforms in the laws, improved education, and designed measures to draw skilled labor and professional men into her empire. She offered free land to experienced farmers. Large numbers of Germans in Wittenberg responded to Empress Katherine’s invitation. They left their war-torn Vaterland and migrated to Poland. The Hermann’s were among them.

Under the rule of Czar Nicholas I (1796-1855), Russia’s relentless armies drove the Turks out of a large area in South Russia, north of the Black and Caspian Seas. Eager to settle and develop this region of fertile lands, Czar Nicholas sent his agents and promoters to Poland to recruit some of the farmers who had come from Germany earlier with high hopes, but who were now bitterly disappointed in the conditions of Poland.

Once again, the German Wittenbergers, among them, the Hermanns, responded to the promise of free land and freedom to maintain their own language, customs, religion and culture in Russia. They left Poland and settled on a pleasant plain in Bessarabia, a strip of beautiful, productive land west of the Ukraine between the Dneister and Prut rivers in South Russia, northwest of the Black Sea.

My parents, Friedrich and Johanna Hermann, were born in the village of Beresina, founded in 1814. Beresina was a small village in the county of Klöstiz, province of Ackermann. Here the Wittenberger Hermanns hoped to build a sort of New Germany, preserve their heritage, and rebuild their lives.

Paternal Grandparents Johann and Katherine Hermann reared a family of four sons and two daughters in Beresina. Grandfather and three of the sons farmed on the free lands and kept orchards and vineyards. When Friedrich (my father), the second son, born in 1867, was 15 years old, his unusual aptitude for artistic design and quality workmanship came to the attention of the master carpenter and cabinet maker in the village. Father agreed to have him serve a 4-year apprenticeship. He worked long, hard days, learned well, and became an expert carpenter and cabinet maker. Before he could open his ship, Grandfather required him to help with farm work for one year without pay.

Maternal Grandparents Martin and Christina (Schlag) Bälder reared seven daughters and four sons. (Matheas died in infancy in a diphtheria epidemic.) The youngest daughter, Johanna, was a petite teenager when both her parents died. She had very dark brown hair and eyes the color of an azure sky. Grandpa and grandma Bälder left their family a very profitable business in wool dyes.

Happy Home in Beresina... On a large lot at Maulberre Strasse, lined with mulberry trees, Father built his own house and made the furniture for the new home. A lover of nature all his life, he decorated some of the walls with colorful murals of landscapes. In his carpenter shop at the back of the house, he kept very busy making furniture for all in the community – yokes for their oxen, cradles for their infants, farm wagons with yellow wheels for the farmers, and coffins for departed citizens, young or old. His gardens were filled with berry bushes and trees.

The citizens of Beresina could keep livestock in proportion to the amount of land they farmed. Father, not being a farmer, owned only a small tract of land at the Beresina River, which provided swimming in the summer and skating in the winter. Mother tended a small vineyard on the Insel (Island) in the river. Early mornings, shepherds and cowherds came through the lanes to take all the animals of the village out to the meadows for the day and bring them back to the village at milking time. The milkmaids rose early to milk the cows before they heard the bell of the cow herder in the lane.

In the fall of 1889, the year North Dakota in America became a state, a little girl was born in the Hermann home in Beresina. They named her Mathilda. She made the house on Mulberry Street a happy place, where Mother sang German lullabies and Father sometimes played his accordion. Life was pleasant and father’s business prospered. As time passed, three more little girls were born in that house and Mother was kept busy at the spinning wheel, the loom, and the wool-dying vat as Mathilda, Maria, Johanna, and little Amelia outgrew their homespun coats and dresses, one by one.

Sometimes in the summer, when Father was very busy in his carpenter’s shop, Mother would hitch the team of oxen to a small wagon and take her little girls out to the “Insel” (island in the river), where she would hoe corn or work in the vineyard while her little ones played near the wagon, where oxen patiently waited on the grassy bank.

School in Beresina... Mathilda remembers her first year in public school. In spite of the stern and strict schoolmasters who taught lessons in German, she loved to go to school and always took great pride in learning her lessons well.

Angels on the Ceiling... An Evangelical Lutheran church was built in Beresina in 1885. Mathilda remembers going to church with the family on Sunday mornings. She loved to look up at the two beautiful angels in blue heavens on the ceiling of the narthex.

Dark clouds over Bessarabia... Near the end of the nineteenth century, interest in “going to America” ran high among the families in Beresina. Mother’s brothers, John and Gottfried, had gone to America, first to North Dakota and then to Oklahoma to settle. Father’s brother, Christian, was drafted to serve in the Russian army after Russia had broken her promise of exemption from military service. The Czars made every effort to assimilate the Germans as Russian citizens. Local governments in the German communities were brought under direct rule of Russian appointees. Once again life had lost its flavor. The Wittenbergers were disillusioned and disturbed.

AMERICA BECKONS... “Give me your tired, your poor...I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Grandfather Hermann gave serious thought to leaving Bessarabia with his sons and families. Uncles Johann, Christian and Gottlieb (farmers) were in full accord, but Father had no desire to leave his work and go to America or anywhere else. He was content in his home and his work.

An unfortunate incident at school one day convinced Mother that she, too, wanted to leave Bessarabia. Russian schoolmasters were becoming prevalent. Mathilda came home early from school early one day with a badly swollen hand that she held out, explaining that the schoolmaster had used the edge of a ruler in punishment for being absent from school the day before when she stayed home to help with the babies because Mother was very busy.

Then, one fateful day, Mother came from Grandfather’s house to announce to Father at the supper table that plans to go to America had become final and any son who chose to remain in Bessarabia, would lose his inheritance. I leave to your imagination, dear reader, the mental anguish of my father on that day when he thought of leaving his home, his flourishing business, his two sisters, and his many friends to cross the awesome ocean and face all the unknown of a new beginning on a prairie in North Dakota, America.

The Long Journey... Early one morning on February, 1898, a neighbor’s wagon stopped at the house on Maulberre Strasse. Large, course bags of bedding and clothing and a small wooden chest were loaded into the wagon. The last tearful goodbyes were said to neighbors and friends gathered there. Father’s hand lingered on the doorknob as he closed his door for the last time. Then the wagon rumbled down the street and out toward the train station. Mathilda recalls how it hurt to see the treetops of home fade into the distance behind them. At the train station there was much excitement when all the Hermanns, Grandfather and Grandmother, four sons and their families arrived to see their first railroad train. Grandmother had to be helped aboard the train. She was in frail health, suffering from arthritis said to be caused by standing long hours in cold river water rinsing dyed woolen goods. Nineteen souls, including the children, were on their way to America.

Destination: Seaport... The train stopped at the German border. The next mode of travel was in freight cars where the emigrants sat on top of their bagged bedding and clothing, because the German authorities were afraid of diseases. In Bremen, the German seaport, there were wearisome delays. The excitement of being in a large city wore off. From a shallow water ship that carried the travelers, along with hundreds if other emigrants, out into the North Sea, they approached the Kaiser Wilhelm, der Grosse, largest passenger liner in the world in1898. This luxury ship was 627 feet long; beam 66 feet high; depth of hold 35.8 feet. It broke all speed records, used 250 tons of coal in a day, designed for a speed of 22.5 knots, and traveled 3076 miles in 5 days, 17 hours, 27 minutes under Captain Engelhardt.

Deep Down... Space does not permit the separate story of Mathilda’s memories of the ocean crossing in steerage quarters deep down in the hold of the giant ship. She most vividly recalls the sparkling white cleanliness up on deck where she was sent to get bread from the good-smelling bakery. Sometimes she took Maria, two years younger, with her. She remembers that Father slept on a table because there was no bed for him. Someone had miscounted. His sleep was often disturbed by stewards who woke him to ask him questions. There were seasickness problems in bunk beds. Disinfectant and deodorizing sprays after mop-ups made Mathilda bury her face deep into her pillow to endure the odors. A fierce storm at sea rocked the great ship mercilessly. The ship’s officer’s teased the frightened ones by saying, “No ship that had Germans from Russia on it has ever sunk.”

There were pleasant times, too, when the passengers sang heartily from their Reisen Psalter (Traveler’s Hymnals) such songs as “Nur Frisch hinen; es wird so tief nicht sein.” (“Bravely into the depths; they will not be so great.”)

Ellis Island... It was evening of the sixth day at sea from Bremerhafen when the Kaiser Wilhelm, der Grosse, with its Germans from Russia on board steamed into New York Harbor, past the Statue of Liberty, and was anchored for the night. On the morning of March 5, 1898, the gangplank was lowered at the pier and the passengers came forth from the great ship to take their first steps on American soil. Now they were faced with going through customs in the great hall on Ellis Island. The large red brick building was filled with throngs of anxious people. Only some found room to sit on narrow wooden benches, where they anxiously waited to see if the New World would take them in.

A wide staircase led up to the doctor’s and inspectors’ offices, where anxious young and old were examined one by one after full baths, while their clothing and baggage was steam-processed through machines and dryers. All nineteen Hermanns got clean bills of health and their immigration papers were in order.

The refreshed and relieved travelers were ushered on board a train in New York and began the American lap of their journey in the comfort of coach seats. From the overwhelming city lights and sights, they were on their way westward toward the Great Plains of North Dakota, where relatives and friends were waiting to welcome them. The special immigrant train stopped in Chicago. Looking from a train window, Mathilda was fascinated by the endless lines of horse-drawn carriages and wagons that disappeared under the train. She did not understand “underpasses.”

Mother was delighted at the sight of the neat little farms dotting the Minnesota and Wisconsin country sides – models of the new home she was hoping for. But as the train rolled westward through the barren landscapes of North Dakota, signs of habitation became fewer and fewer. Here and there a sheepherder’s shack or an abandoned sod house came into view on the seemingly endless flat prairie land. Father wondered about the future as he looked from his train window as the train steamed westward. Evening came down and rain began to fall against the window.

In the middle of the night on March 10, 1898, the Soo Line train stopped at the Kulm stationhouse. A small prairie town, Kulm was built around a flour mill. The rain had stopped, but distant thunder was still rolling in the distance when relatives and friends of the Hermanns rushed into the coaches to welcome the newcomers. Johanna, not quite four, was sleepily clutching the reading matter with pictures she had collected on the train.

Generous and hospitable, the town and country folk freely opened their homes to the Beresiners. The Gottlieb Doblers took my family in until they could file a homestead claim. The Fred Maier family shared their home two miles from where Father had filed for land and built a sod barn for shelter.

Finding water was a problem and meant hauling barrels of water on a rutsch (stone boat) from a spring that father had found a short distance from the sod house which the neighbors helped to build and in which the family lived during their first winter. There was little or no furniture. The family stood for their meals. An old cast-off cook stove and heater kept them reasonably warm through fierce winters. Manure was bought from a nearby sheepherder and used for fuel. It was piled outside and had to be dug out of the snow.

Children were born in the sod house... In addition to the four girls who came with Father and Mother from across the ocean, Jacob, Rosalia and Martha were born in the first and second sod houses. Richard was the first baby born in the frame house which now stands empty on the old homestead. I was born, ninth in the family; then came Frederick, Harry and William to make us a family of twelve children.

A Sod Church... There was still use for the old sod houses after the frame house was built. The neighbors cooperated in replacing the roof and thus a little congregation came to be. With the inside prepared with wallpaper with a merchant in Kulm donated, it served as a place of worship until the Neu Beresina Church was built in 1908.

Life was grim in the early days on the homestead in Dakota. But feather beds kept us snug and warm through the coldest winter nights. Things were better for the “second half” of the family.

Nature helped to add color to our lives on the prairie. In the early spring we found purple and yellow violets down by the duck pond. Moon-blue crocuses bloomed up in the north pasture. In June wild roses brightened the roadways; in July we brought armfuls of bright orange tiger lilies home from the hillside beyond the Soo railroad tracks. Each season brought its own glory with the sun rising over the east valley and setting beyond the gentle western hill. The blue of a flax field in bloom was rivaled only by the skies. The fields of ripened grain swayed in waves of gold squares framed by country roads. Huge piles of gray prairie rocks served as pleasant places for childhood play and were reminders of the hard work the pioneers put into the North Dakota prairies, our Homeland.

Sunrise, sunset....
Swiftly fly the years,
One season following another,
Laden with happiness and tears.
–From fiddler on the roof

Mathilda Brost, who told me these many things, is now 101 years old.

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