The German-Russians in North Dakota a Brief History

Read, Tamar C. "The German-Russians in North Dakota a Brief History." Festival of Ethnic Musical Traditions in North Dakota, 1983, 40-46, 49-50.
According to the 1980 census, Americans of German descent comprise the largest ethnic group in North Dakota. Few outside observers, however, are aware of the enormous diversity that exists among those in North Dakota who are identified as “German.” No doubt the largest and most visible segment of this population is that of the German-Russians (also known as Germans from Russia or Russian-Germans). At present, North Dakota has more citizens of German-Russian extraction than any other state, in the entire nation.

One finds an astonishing degree of linguistic and religious variation among even the German-Russians themselves. Nonetheless, the majority of North Dakota's German-Russians trace their ancestry to agriculturally-based colonies in the Black Sea region of South Russia. These villages were established in the early nineteenth century during the reign of Tsar Alexander I (particularly in the years 1804-1810). The composition of the Black Sea colonies reflected the different German provinces from which the original settlers emigrated: Wuerttemberg, Baden, Alsace, the Palatinate, and various other principalities. Each German-Russian village, however, was homogeneously Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Mennonite. Most of the Black Sea German villages were located near the port city of Odessa, in settlement areas known by such colorful names as Liebental, Glueckstal, Kutschurgan, and Beresan. Other major areas of German colonization in South Russia included the Crimea and Bessarabia.

Although the first German emigrants who settled in Russia were dismayed by the sight of the treeless steppes that greeted them, successive generations gradually adapted to the harsh realities of their environment. For nearly a century, the Black Sea German colonists enjoyed a relatively isolated life and were cut off from both their German homeland and their Slavic neighbors. Such self-imposed cultural isolation was disrupted in the early 1870s, when Russification measures were enacted by assimilation-minded government officials. The Black Sea German men folk, who had enjoyed freedom from compulsory military service since 1804, now faced the prospect of donning uniforms and marching in the tsar’s regiments like other Russian subjects. This new development, among others, prompted thousands of German- Russian families to consider immigrating to the New World.

The first German-Russians made their way to what is now North Dakota in 1884, settling on rocky prairie lands in the south-central part of the state. As in Russia, the emigrants in North Dakota tended to settle in tightly-knit groups based on common religious affiliation. Thus, one still finds German- Russian settlement areas in North Dakota that are solidly Roman Catholic or Protestant. In present-day south-central North Dakota, for example, German-Russian Protestants dominate much of McIntosh County and the eastern half of Logan County while German-Russian Catholics are concentrated in the southern half of Emmons County and in the western portion of Logan County. Other important centers of German-Russian settlement include the north-central portion of North Dakota (especially Pierce, Henry, McLean, Sheridan, Stutsman, Kidder, and Wells counties) and several sections of the state west of the Missouri River (particularly Morton, Grant, Hettinger, Stark, Dunn, and Mercer counties).

A German-Russian congregation poses at the entrance of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, 1914. The church once stood north of present-day Hazen, N.D. (Photo courtesy of Victor Knell and Timothy Kloberdanz.)

Although present-day German-Russian Americans are in many ways vastly different from their emigrant forebears who arrived on the North Dakota prairies in thick sheepskin coats, high Russian boots, and flowered head shawls, evidence of a strong German-Russian culture identity persists. In many areas of the state, the German-Russian dialects still can be heard, particularly among family members born before 1950. A variety of German- Russian food ways have been maintained and in some areas of the state have resisted being replaced by American ones. Distinctive German-Russian ethnic dishes include Gollodetz, Halupsy, Fleischkuechla, Strudla, Plachenda, Schlitzkuechla, Riwel Supp, Borsch, and Kuchen.

A vitally important aspect of the German-Russian cultural heritage in North Dakota is a strong musical tradition. Many German-Russians point with obvious pride to the success of the famous band leader Lawrence Welk, who began his musical career by playing an old family accordion brought from Russia. Welk grew up on a prairie farmstead near the German-Russian Catholic community of Strasburg, North Dakota.

For many German-Russians, certain community and family-related events (such as wedding dances) retain a rich Old Country flavor. Favorite folk songs of the German-Russians include "Schoen is die Jugend” (Youth is Beautiful); “Zu Strasburg, ein wunderschoene Stad” (To Strasburg, a Wonderful Fair City); “Wie die Bluemlein draussen zit tern” (How the Flowers Tremble in the Distance); “Wenn die Soldaten dutch die Stadt marschiere” (When the Soldiers March Through the City); and the always popular "Du, du liegst mir im Herzen” (You, You Dwell in My Heart); Many of these folk songs are similar to those performed by other German-speaking ethnic groups. Yet certain tunes-such as the beautiful “Wir sitzen so froehlich beisammen” (We're Sitting Together So Happily) have special meaning for the German- Russians, since the songs recall their ancestors' emigration to Russia following the devastation caused by the Napoleonic invasions in Europe. This particular song also is significant because it reflects a theme recurrent in other German-Russian folk tunes, as evidenced by the haunting line: “Im Krieg wird keiner verschont” (In War, No One is Spared).

The singing of folk songs by the German-Russians, however, does not represent a mere desire to cultivate what the German-Russians perceive to be a dying aspect of their heritage. Many German-Russians prefer to sing in the language of their forefathers because such singing is an expressive and deeply satisfying part of their lives, a comfort in times of both happiness and sorrow. Modern-day German-Russians may well share the sentiments of their Old Country elders who were never afraid to admit: “Habe ich wieder gesungen und a//es war wieder gut” (I Sang and Once Again Everything was Good).

Timothy J. Kloberdanz
Assistant Professor, Anthropology
North Dakota State University

Bubbling Quintet

Members of the Bubbling Quintet have several things in common, among them an interest in music from a young age and a German-Russian heritage. All band members had parents or grandparents who came to this country from Russia.

James Schwab, the group's organizer, and his older brother, Larry Schwab, both learned music from their dad, an accordion player who learned from other musicians, including Lawrence Welk’s dad who had brought over music from the old country. They always had music in their house. Their dad was born in Strasburg, N.D., in 1902 and their grandfather came to the Strasburg area from Russia in 1889.

James talked his father into buying him a $100 trumpet during his second year of high school. In addition to playing with the high school band, he played with a six-piece dance band known as the Silver Six. After high school, he began playing for public wedding dances with his father.

Larry was 12 years old when he began playing piano with his father for wedding dances and barn dances. Both Larry and James played for a time with Mattie Lipp's band, but in 1954 they left Lipp and asked Bill Mastel to join them in a group known as the Bubbling Trio.

Bill Mastel's father was born in Russia and later came to the Linton, N.D., area where Bill was born in 1928. His father was a violinist and his six older brothers all played instruments at home. He learned to play from his father and brothers and now plays accordion and trumpet.

Bubbling Quintet, Strasburg. From left: Larry Schwab, Bill Mastel, Gene Weisbeck, Doug Webber; seated, Jim Schwab.

As a result of several personnel changes or absences for such things as military service, Gene Weisbeck joined the group about 1955. His mother was born in Russia and came to this country at the age of 13. Gene learned some of the wedding marches from her when she sang them to him. He is the youngest of four brothers, all of whom played together. As a young man he played the accordion for barn dances and during the 1940s and early 50s he had three- and four-piece bands of his own.

In 1970, Doug Weber joined the group and Bill Mastel returned to complete the present Bubbling Quintet. Doug's grandparents came from Russia in 1890 and his parents were born around Ashley and Freeman. Doug plays bass horn and trumpet and began playing in an old German dance band, Becker and Bollinger, at the age of 16. Later, he played in the Venturia city German band, which played on the street corner every Saturday night.

The Bubbling Quintet has performed at Smithsonian's Festival of American Folk life in 1975, and also at the International Polka fest in Kitzbühel, Austria, in 1978.

James Schwab, trumpet, drums; Larry Schwab, piano; Bill Mastel, cordovox; Douglas Weber, trumpet, tuba; and Gene Weisbeck, accordion.

Merry Macks

Verna and George Mack, Pettibone.

The Merry Macks like to dance so much that they sometimes got home in time to milk the cows the next morning. George, 75, and Verna, 68, have been dancing since they were youngsters. George learned to polka on blustery days in school to the music of a comb and thin piece of paper; he learned the waltz and two-step to the music of his mother's accordion. Verna learned to dance by going to house parties and barn dances as a young girl.

When George and Verna were married in June 1936, Larry and James Schwab's father played at their wedding dance. Since then they have had 12 children, who all like old time music and dancing.

The Macks frequently dance with the Bubbling Quintet and traveled with them to the American Folk life Festival in Washington, D.C., in 1975. In 1978 they accompanied the Bubbling Quintet to the International Polka fest in Kitzbühel, Austria.

George's father came from Austria in 1885. His mother was also Austrian and both grew up near New Ulm, Minn. They moved to a farm near Sykeston, N.D., after they were married, and when George was two weeks old, they moved to a homestead north of Pettibone, N.D.

Verna's grandmother was born in Germany and her grandfather in Switzerland .They immigrated to a place near Kankakee, Ill., and then to Sioux Falls, S.D. After her father was born, they moved to a farm near Goodrich, N.D. Her maternal grandparents were Norwegian; her grandfather was born in Norway, her grandmother in Wisconsin of Norwegian parents. Verna's parents met and were married in Tuttle, N.D., where she was born.

Young German Singers
Napoleon Area

Young German Singers, Napoleon area.

The Young German Singers are descendants of German grandparents (and, in some instances, parents) who came from Russia in the late 1800s and early 1900s to settle in Logan, McIntosh, Emmons, and Oliver counties. With one exception, they all speak German. The singers, ranging in age from 30 to 56, are Catholic farmers living within a forty-mile radius in the Napoleon area.

One of the most striking things about the group, apart from their singing, is the network of the Vetter family relationships among the group's members. Of the 22 singers, 18 belong to the "larger" Vetter family, the oldest living member of which is Juliana (Vetter) Baumstarck, Conrad Baumstarck's mother, now living in St. Vincent's Nursing Home in Bismarck. She is an aunt of all the other members of the group with the exception of four, these being Tony and Lillian Wangler and Joe and Mary Ann (Wald) Gross. The 18 members of the Vetter family are mostly first cousins with a few brothers and sisters and one niece, Rita Wangler.

Their music comes mostly from song books which belonged to John Gross' dad, or to the dad and uncle of Ben, August, and John Vetter, all of whose parents came from Russia.

The group began singing together in earnest when, one New Year's Eve about three years ago, they wanted to go caroling and discovered that they knew only portions of songs, They started getting their songs put together because they also wanted to follow their parents' footsteps and enjoyed singing when they were together for name days, birthdays, and weddings. Since then they have sung for retirement homes, October Fest in Wishek, Sauerkraut Days in Wishek, State Farmers Union Convention, and other events including the dedication of the Cultural Heritage Center in Bismarck.

They have recently made recordings of folk songs and religious songs, which are being distributed from coast to coast.

The instrumentalists in the group are John Vetter, organist, who learned to play the organ from his father who was the first church organist in St. Joseph’s church near Linton; Tony J. Wangler, organist and accordionist; whose grandparents homesteaded near Kintyre, and who learned his music from his dad and an uncle, both of whom played the accordion; Carol Vetter, accordionist, who learned from her father and brother; and Tony R. Wangler, organist.

I Conrad Baumstarck, Joe and Mary Ann (Wald) Gross; John and Margaret (Schaffer) Gross, Isadore Gross, August and Loretta (Braun) Yetter, Benjamin and Delphine
(Erhardt) Vetter, Johh and Mary (Gross) Vetter, Julius and Carol (Wangler) Vetter , Kasmier and Anne (Wolf) Wald, Tony J. and Lillian (Weigel) Wangler, Tony R. and Rita (Unser) Wangler, and August and Phyllis (Bernhardt) Werner .

John Vetter, organ; Tony J. Wangler, organ, accordion; Carol Vetter, accordion; Tony R. Wangler, organist.

A Brief History of the Hutterites
The Hutterian Brethren are a Protestant sect stemming from the time of the Reformation. The Hutterites live in colonies that share all property according to Acts 2:44. This principle, as well as pacifism and a simple way of dressing, has set the Hutterites apart from the outer society.
The Hutterian Church was founded in 1528 by leaders of the Swiss Brethren. The early leaders began to establish colonies in the Tyrol region of Austria, but the persecution became so intense that they had to migrate to Moravia. There the Hutterites lived in relative peace from 1533-1633. By the turn of the century they had reached a population of 15,000. In 1633 the Thirty Years War broke out, taking a heavy toll on Europe and also causing the Hutterites further persecution. The Jesuits were determined to exterminate the Hutterite Church because they were declared to be heretics by the Catholic Church. This determination by the Jesuits started in the 1600s and by about 1750 there were fewer than 50 Hutterites who would not recant from the beliefs of the Hutterian Church. These few were then living in Romania. There they were also persecuted, so they, along with some Austrian migrants, decided to move to Russia. The move was made in 1770 with 70 souls. They lived in Russia for the next century. In 1874, the government took away two main privileges that the Hutterites cherished: exemption from military service and permission to teach German in their schools. Therefore, upon finding suitable land in America, they decided to make the move to South Dakota in the 1870s.
Since 1874 the Hutterites have established over 300 colonies throughout northwestern United States and southwestern Canada with a current population of about 30,000.

Forest River Community
Forest River Community was founded in 1950 by the New Rosedale Colony near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. Like every other Hutterite colony, Forest River has a farming operation of livestock and grain. They farm 2,500 acres and have 48,000 chickens, 20,000 pullets, 50 dairy cows, and 12,000 geese.

"We profess to be a Christian Church that seeks to live by the commandments of Christ Jesus as we are given to understand His Word." During its 30-year history, Forest River has associated with many people and communities of like persuasion, such as, Koinonia Farms, Americus, Georgia; Reba Place, Evanston, Illinois; Society of Brothers, Rifton, New York; Habitat for Humanity, Americus, Georgia; and many others.

Many of these 'contacts’ have been to help people in need, also to help people establish Christian communities, not only by aiding them financially but also by sharing know how and experiences relating to farming and community living. This zeal for outreach was especially encouraged by the late Joseph Maendel, Sr., who served as an elder of Forest River community from 1950-1978.

Tony Waldner; historian and host for this festival, was born to Hutterite parents in 1957 and spent his formative years at various Hutterite colonies.

He was educated in a one-room school, typical of Hutterite colonies. In 1976, after graduating from Bagley High School, Tony attended Bemidji State University. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education and a minor in German from the University of North Dakota in 1980. Tony currently teaches elementary German at the Forest River Community School.

Tony Waldner
Forest River Community

Hutterite Singers
Joseph Maendel Jr., Rachel Maendel, Mary Maendel, Barbara Maendel, Elizabeth Maendel, Elizabeth Maendel, Margaret Maendel, Jonathan Maendel, Paul Maendel Jr., Selma Maendel, Tony Waldner, Paul Waldner, Maria Waldner, Solomon Maendel, Sarah Maendel.

Reprinted with permission of the University of North Dakota.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller