Pioneer Stories

"Pioneer Stories." Ashley Tribune, n.d.

It was April 3, 1886. We drove from the Alt-Danzig train Station to Schiffskohs. There Pastor Pretzkau preached a farewell sermon for us travelers. There were many tears and I will not ever forget it. Then it meant to go on board and travel westward to Bremen in Germany. The next day we got on board the ship Dortina. All went well until the third day when a storm broke. We were all on the deck of the ship. The sailors shouted, "Come, you Russians and help us!" We helped with pulling the ropes and things went better than we thought although baggage flew from one corner to another. We had been to sea for 13 days when the captain came to say that we were approaching land. We rejoiced at getting solid ground under our feet again. On the 18th day we left the ship. Then it meant going westward again by railroad until we arrived at our destination where our friends were awaiting us.

In Tyndal, South Dakota there was much rejoicing over the reunion and many tears of joy were shed. All had friends who wanted to take them in.

Now it meant buying things, namely oxen, wagons and other necessities. Then the decision was made for all of us to drive to North Dakota. I built a canopy over my wagon and we were off to the north. But consider, my friends how I felt about driving 300 miles with oxen in a strange land. But we were on our way traveling from Tyndal to Delmont, farther and farther northward. When evening came, the oxen were unhitched and allowed to go free on the meadow land. A fire was started and food was cooked. Sleeping was a big problem. The mosquitoes were very bad. I remember my brother wanting to hide from them but the "beasts" got under the fur garment cover he put over his head. The found him there, too.

One day we met a man on the road and I asked if he could tell me whether I was on the right road and how many more miles we needed to go. He was very friendly; laid his whip on the ground and said, "You stay on this road and you'll come to the next town." Slowly we went on and on. At last we were in Ipswich. The trip had lasted about 10 days.

We found a land site and built a stove out of mud and stones. Dear friend, you ask, "You built first a stove and then the house?" Yes, dear reader, one must first have something to eat before he can work. We built a house of sod smeared with mud. The stove was heated with brush. Snow blew in often. When another house was built we made a big mistake. The door should have opened inward but we had it outward. When a snow storm came we had the problem of getting the door open. The house was dark until we removed the snow. Finally the house was completed. Now came stone digging and turning the sod over on about 3 acres. We harvested 5 bushel. You can see, dear friend, how we fared. In the area of Wishek (now) we picked bones and hauled them all the way to Ellendale with the ox team. There we sold them and used the money to buy food products such as flour, lard, coffee, etc. I remember well the time when my uncle Wilhelm Koth and I drove home from Ellendale where we had sold bones. We drove past a farm where we saw many nice chickens. My uncle needed a rooster so he called out: "Heinrich, this man has nice chickens. I need a rooster." But we could not understand the man, nor could he understand us. So I came close by, stretched out my arms, clapped my hands and crowed like a rooster.

What has been written here so far happened in 1886 and 87. Later we moved to the Zeeland area where I am now. Once more we had to build. First a barn. Why? I needed shelter for the oxen and the cow. I, too, lived in the barn until the house was finished. The barn was made out of sod. Next the house was built, also out of sod smeared with mud on the outside and whitewashed with lime on the inside. The roof, covered with sod, was not water tight. When house and barn were completed, stone digging began following by breaking up the land.

No I am coming to the prairie fires and our experience one day. I said to my wife, "Let’s go and burn a "fire break." That meant a pre-burned space to keep fire away from our place. It was said and done first around the haystack. Unexpectedly the fire would spread very fast. To the drivers of five oxcarts coming by, I shouted, "Och Sto Bochi wirith." - German interpretation: "Who believes in God, come and help!" We put out the fire but suffered burns on the face and hands. Once a prairie fire went by our farm closely, it did no harm except blacken the prairie. When everything was burned off, a fresh start was made. Once again bones were picked and taken to the market. These are some of my life experiences. But there were also snow storms that I lived through.

One day I was driving home from Eureka. I had gone about five miles when a big snowstorm overtook me and I hurried homeward. The storm increased more and more until at last I did not know where I was. Suddenly another driver appeared. It was Johannes Odenbach and his wife who had been in Eureka too. I shouted to Johannes, "We will perish in this storm!" "Stay with me; I will walk ahead and we will find our way home." We arrived at his place half frozen to death. I looked like a pile of snow for I had a full beard. Odenbach’s boys who were still up took over the horses and we went into the warm house. The next morning I started for my home, but it was bitter cold. Sleighs were left along the way, the horses unhitched, the drivers on foot seeking shelter somewhere.

Worthy Tribute:

On May 15, 1886 we came to North Dakota. I went to report here on our beginning and our experiences. When we arrived at our land site we only saw the sky and the prairie; not one bird, all was wild and empty. We were two families. Our first work was breaking sod to build a small dwelling place. We had two horses and two oxen to plow the sod. We sowed flax, planted potatoes and corn but nothing came up for lack of rain. We had no crop to harvest so we broke sod the whole summer long in order to sow next year. We also built a sod house and barn.

We searched for water with a hand borer for a long time while we drove two miles to get water. My husband was not at home. Once when I was at the spring a large prairie fire suddenly came. To escape from it I drove the oxen as fast as I could walk, fearing for my life. Luckily I had matches with me. I quickly set fire to the prairie ahead of me and with God’s help I escaped. The flames did not reach me but the smoke affected me badly because from it I could not escape.

We had a hard winter with much snow and storm. Father had to shovel a lot. At the house, barn and haystack we shoveled five-foot trenches. We had no money for coal. Our children constantly stood at the warming stove twisting wisps of straw to feed the fire and keep us warm.

But the next year we had a crop. We had very little money - not enough to buy flour, sugar and coffee, but we had milk and butter.

We were one of twelve families who built a sod church. The roof and floor were made of wood. Heinrich Levin was the carpenter. Our pastor made the windows, the pews and the altar. Oh, how happy we were when the church was finished. Now we had a church where we could sing and pray. The people became converted.

What is now left of the parish celebrated a Jubilee this year. Only four of the original members are still alive. My husband Andreas Lehr had been dead for 25 years and I am now 80 years old. But with the help of God and hard work of the people became wealthy. Live well until we meet again as we stand before the throne of God.

Christina Leno

Zeeland, North Dakota

Worthy Tribute:

Herewith I am sending you a report about pioneer days. Since I am often called upon to report on this subject I want to do it now and write about what I can still remember. I was 8 years old when I came to America with my parents in the fall of 1884. My family, the Valentin Boshees and others from Kassel, South Russia came to Menno, South Dakota. There, like all the others stayed with relatives and friends through the winter. In the month of May 1885 we went north. My father, as well as my Uncle Friedrich Klotz, each bought a team of oxen, a cow, a wagon and bare necessities. Our possessions were loaded into a freight car; we sat in the passenger car and were off to the north. Our first stop was Ipswich, South Dakota where the railroad ended at that time. There we experienced a typical Dakota blizzard and could not go farther.

After the weather was better and the snow had melted, our belongings were loaded into the wagon; we climbed to the top of it all, urged the oxen into a trot and were off to North Dakota. About 40 miles from Ipswich we made a stop at the place where several families had arrived earlier. My father, my uncle and several others found a hired man who had a team of horses and was experienced in surveying land as to sections, townships, ranges, etc. Together, the men went in search of land. They came back satisfied with what they had found. Once more our belongings were loaded on the wagon and in a trot the oxen took us toward our new home in North Dakota.

How long the journey was from lpswich, South Dakota to Mclntosh County, North Dakota I don't remember. But I do remember that we arrived at our destination on Pfingst Sonntag (Whit Sunday) and have since learned that it was on May 17, 1885.

When we arrived at the chosen land location, we unloaded our things and all went to work promptly. Every reader can imagine how Father and Mother felt being so many miles from a town under an open sky seeing nothing but miles and miles of prairie.

Soon the time came to turn over the sod and plant potatoes, Baschstan (melon patch) and some flax. The potatoes were not laid into the furrows like is done today, but were nudged in under the sod with spades.

The crude shelters were all made out of squares of sod Smeared over and filled in with mud. Usually a living room, kitchen and barn were all in a row. Somehow cook stoves and bake ovens were improvised. Heating stoves were made of stone and mud. Hay or brush (Burjan) in them mornings and evenings for warmth.

Next came haymaking. My father and uncle each bought a scythe to cut the hay like it was done in Russia. "We can mow this little bit of hay," they said. They were ausgespielt (exhausted) before noon of the first day saying the grass was too tough to be cut with a scythe. So they borrowed a grass cutting machine.

The small harvest was soon over for they had sown very little because it was so late in the season. Then came threshing time. This I want to describe because at that time there were no threshing machines. We did not have horses yet so the threshing had to be done with oxen. A round threshing place about 30 feet in diameter was cleared and swept clean. The grass was shorn down to the bare earth; the space was water-soaked, trampled down or rolled and left to dry to form a base. Now the grain was laid out upon the threshing place to a depth of about two feet. Now the oxen stomped out the grain by walking over it in the threshing circle. When it was all trampled out, the pitch fork was the straw stacker; the wind was the fanning mill. That was the first settler's threshing machine.

In the fall of the year, my father and several others of the settlers drove to Ipswich to buy food supplies for the winter. Such a trip usually took one week but this particular time it took only four days. This was fortunate because snow began to fall on their way home and a snow storm overtook them. The storm was so fierce that they saw only snow and most of the time did not know where they were. But the good old oxen knew the way home and that was their good fortune. They reached home late in the night and the storm lasted for an entire week. I have often heard them say that had they not arrived at home that night all would have frozen to death for the cold was so severe and the snow so deep that the oxen could not have come through it. The year was 1885.

I remember another hard time. I believe it was in the fall of 1886 or 1887. My father had driven to Ellendale to buy groceries. On the way, one of the oxen got sick causing Father to be away longer than expected. At home we had no bread and no flour. The children wanted food but there was none. Mother took some wheat we happened to have at the time, roasted it like popcorn and that was our food for three days -roasted wheat and water. We children didn't mind because it was something new. But dear reader, can you think or imagine how our mother felt with children in the house and no bread or flour. On the prairie, one thing helped us survive. It was the sale of the buffalo bones. Without them we would have had to endure severe hunger.

Crops at that time were small and poor. There were no opportunities to earn money, but there were the buffalo bones that we could sell. During one week the bones were gathered on the prairies and the next week they were taken to town and sold. That was our "threshing" work -picking bones into the winter. They were best found when the prairie had been burned off.

Churches and schools were non-existent. Worship services and prayer meetings were held in the sod houses and were better attended when one drove with oxen or walked than they are now -with the automobile.

This concludes a brief description of the experiences in the lives of the first settlers. One could write much more about the early pioneer days. The present generation has no conception of what the older generation experienced in those early years. But I must close now or someone will say "He wanted to tell it all."

With greetings, Adolf Boschee, Zeeland, North Dakota


Come, brothers, we want to move away
Our visas are written
To the Brazilian place
Because there are no winters there.
Our Kaiser will permit it
That we not be robbed of our freedom;
He has reserved a train for us
Because we depart for our money
And from Russia we must go
or serve as soldiers
And we do not want to go as "Radnik"
Therefore we must leave Russia.
And when we board the ship
God will show us mercy
And when we sail the sea
His angel will hover before us.
When we then arrive in that land
We will be joyfully received;
Fall on our knees and say
"Thank you, God, we are already here!"


O, old homeland, when I think of thee
My vision is often dimmed with tears
And quiet wistfulness wants to steal 'into my heart
As ever and always my spirit returns to you.
The lovely villages charmingly situated,
Framed by gardens filled with blossoms gay
And the great love locked within you
Will live forever in my memory.
O, new homeland that has received me
When no one in the wide world wanted me.
The protection and shelter you have since provided
That hold such great value for me.
I thank you from the depths of a full heart.
God grant that you be richly blessed!
Through wars and chaos and from hard times
May He mercifully preserve you henceforth.
O, eternal home, in the storms of life
You often beckon me with friendly hope.
After long wanderings in the cold wilderness
You promise me eternal rest.
There will I at last feel safe at home;
There will my homesick soul be quieted
There will all the problems be solved;
There will I plainly see all that is veiled to me here

H. Goerz

Our appreciation is extended to Alma M. Herman for translation of this article.

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