Interview with Elsie Gackle Wagner (EW)

Conducted by Gerald Wagner (GW), Jean Key (JK)
10 June 2000, Ellendale, North Dakota

Transcription by Gerald Wagner
Editing and proofreading by Beverly Wigley

GW: What is your name, your date of birth, and where you were born?

EW: Elsie Gackle Wagner, born 28 February 1904, in a sod house on a homestead two miles west of Fredonia, North Dakota.

GW: What is your father's name and where was he born? If he was born in Russia, do you know the name of the village?

EW: Gottfred Gackle, born in Alt-Postal, Bessarabia, Russia, 5 August 1861.

GW: When and where did he die? Where is he buried?

EW: 2 April 1938, of a heart attack in Fredonia, North Dakota, and is buried in the Congregational cemetery.

GW: What is your mother's name? Where was she born? If she was born in Russia, do you know the name of the village?

EW: Born Rosina Dittos, 21 June 1864, Alt-Postal, Bessarabia. Daughter of Adam and Christina Scherer Dittos.

GW: When and where did she die? Where is she buried?

EW: 30 January 1922, of cancer at Fredonia, North Dakota.

GW: When and where did your mother and father marry?

EW: 1883 in Alt Postal.

GW: How many brothers and sisters did you have in your family? Can you give their names in order of birth?

EW: Four boys and four girls:
Ottilie Gackle, born 9 December 1884; died 19 February 1885, Alt-Postal
Gottfred Gackle Jr., born 3 January, Alt-Postal; died 12 November 1978, Terry, Montana
Otillie Gackle, born 21 August 1888, Alt-Postal; died 19 April 1978, Fargo, North Dakota
Pauline Gackle, born 11 March 1891, Alt-Postal; died about 1989, Burnsville, Minnesota
Daniel Gackle, born 24 January 1894, Alt-Postal; died 25 October 1985, Carrington, North Dakota
Ida Gackle, born 15 May 1896, Alt-Postal; died 1897 Kulm, North Dakota
Otto Gackle, born 10 October 1898, Kulm, North Dakota; died 1991
Oscar Gackle, born 20 July 1902; died 14 Feb 1977, Monango, North Dakota

GW: When did your family come to North America? Do you know why they came to this country?

EW: Passport dated 7 April 1897, cost 10 rubles. Came so boys would not have to serve in the army and free land to homestead in America.

GW: Do you know how they traveled to this country?

EW: They left Alt-Postal and went to Bremerhaven, Germany, where they boarded an ocean liner to New York.

GW: Where did they settle? Did they homestead? Where?

EW: They settled on a homestead two miles west of Fredonia, North Dakota.

GW: Let's go back to your ancestors who came from Russia. What relationship were they to you?

EW: Great-grandfather--Philipp Gackle (1794?1850) born in Germany, died in Alt-Postal
Grandfather--Jacob Gackle (1824?1870) Alt-Postal
Father--Gottfred Gackle, born 1861 in Alt-Postal, died 1938, Fredonia, North Dakota

GW: Do you know where your ancestors came from in Germany?

EW: Ancestors came from Bernbach, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

GW: When did they leave Germany and live in Russia?

EW: They left Germany about 1803, went to Lodz, Poland, and in 1813, migrated to Bessarabia.

GW: Did your grandparents talk about how life was in the villages, such as social events, stories about other family members, nicknames of people or villages?

EW: They never spoke of the "old country"; of course, I was born seven years after they arrived in North Dakota.

GW: Did your parents, grandparents or other relatives ever say they wished they were back in the "old country"?

EW: They never spoke of it.

GW: Do you recall your family receiving letters from relatives who stayed in Russia?

EW: I don't recall that they ever received any communications from Russia.

GW: What language did you speak at home? Did all family members speak German?

EW: Everyone spoke German.

GW: Do you know the name of the dialect?

EW: They spoke the German Swabian dialect [Schwäbisch].

GW: Can you still speak this language fluently today?

EW: Not fluently as it has been so many years [since] I have spoken it.

GW: Can you repeat a story, poem or prayer in this dialect?

EW: No.

GW: Can you still understand German when spoken?

EW: Speaking German is not good, but I can understand most of it.

GW: Have you taught your children or grandchildren to speak German, such as phrases, rhymes or prayers?

EW: No.

GW: Were there other dialects spoken in your home by other family members or married?in spouses of German from Russia descent?

EW: No.

GW: What were some of your childhood chores that you were responsible for? Which ones did you enjoy and which ones did you not like to do?

EW: To gather eggs, and errands outside and dusting inside. My mother did not let me do baking because she could do it faster.

GW: When you did not do the work that was expected of you, how were you disciplined?

EW: No spanking. Don't remember scolding, as I was the youngest.

GW: Where did you go to school?

EW: A one-room country school about a mile away.

GW: How many years did you go to school?

EW: Eight years of country school, four years of high school (two at Kulm and two at Edgeley, where I graduated.) Business school for six months in Bismarck, and summer session at Ellendale N&I, then taught country school for two years.

GW: Did you go to school the full school term or did you have to stay home at times to help with work?

EW: Never had to stay home from country school. I went to the same country school all eight years. Then I went to high school in Kulm. After one full year in high school and after starting the second, I had to stay home to care for my mother when she got sick until she died. Then I had to cook and take care of the house for a couple of years till my father remarried. After my parents retired from farming and moved into Fredonia, I then returned to high school in Edgeley, where I graduated at age 21.

GW: Were there students of other nationalities at your school?

EW: No, all were German-Russians.

GW: What are some special memories about your childhood school?

EW: Christmas programs, box socials that were auctioned off. We had to learn to read and speak English.

GW: What are some playground memories, such as games and recess times?

EW: Ante-over, red rover, pum pum pull-away,

GW: How did you travel to and from school? How far was it to school?

EW: I walked most of the time. School was about a mile away. In bad weather my father would take me with a team and sled.

GW: What memories do you have of your teachers?

EW: Sometimes the teacher stayed with us and sometimes the teacher would have to sleep with me.

GW: What type of discipline was used, when someone did not behave during school?

EW: We had to sit in the corner and stay in at recess time.

GW: Was religion and church education important in your upbringing? If so, how did this influence your family values?

EW: My parents were very religious, no swearing, drinking or smoking. They were members of the Congregational Church.

GW: What were some of the religious activities you experienced in your daily family life?

EW: I was baptized and confirmed in the Congregational Church in Fredonia. There was always meal prayer and my father would read to the family from the Bible in the evening.

GW: In what language were church worship services and prayers?

EW: Services were all in German in the early years but later changed to English.

GW: Approximately when did these worship services switch to the English language?

EW: By the time I was age 15 [about 1919].

GW: How did your parents feel about this change?

EW: They were not comfortable with this in the beginning but later accepted it.

GW: Can you tell us about when you were baptized and/or confirmed? What special meaning did it have for you?

EW: All of this was in German. My religious up?bringing has been an important part of my life in daily living and rearing the family.

GW: Were there any special festivities for these events? Who and where were these held? Did you have a framed certificate of these events?

EW: These [events] were all important in our lives. Framed certificates were given.

GW: Were your parents and grandparents involved in founding a church or did they join a neighborhood church?

EW: My parents were instrumental in the founding and building of the Congregational Church in Fredonia.

GW: How did your family respond and react toward death?

EW: Deaths among infants were high. Two of my siblings died in infancy, and in my father's family there were 14 children born and six died as infants. Church bells were tolled after a death, one toll for each year of life. Sometimes pictures were taken of the deceased in the casket.

GW: Were Holy Scriptures, such as psalms, recited during times of trial or stress?

EW: My father would read special scriptures and psalms at these times.

GW: How did people express their grief?

EW: They believed it was all in the Lord's hands and went on with life.

GW: What traditional funeral songs were sung? Are you familiar with wrought-iron crosses as grave markers?

EW: "In the Sweet By and By" and "Nearer to My God to Thee." They [the crosses] were not the custom in the Fredonia/Kulm area.

GW: What kind of markers were used, if not iron crosses?

EW: Granite and slab markers.

GW: Is there anything else about spiritual upbringing you would like to tell us?

EW: There was church every Sunday, sometimes three times, and sometimes in Sunday evening.

GW: How was Christmas celebrated in your family? Tell us about what Christmas was like during the war or Depression times.

EW: There was church Christmas day and evening. Christmas Eve programs with children. Children would get a bag of nuts and candy. There were not many gifts, as church was most important and most people were poor.

GW: How did you celebrate Easter?

EW: It was celebrated a lot like Christmas regarding church activities. There were colored Easter eggs and the Easter rabbit for the kids.

GW: When you or a family member were married, where did it take place? How long did the festivities last? Tell us about the reception, music and dancing.

EW: I was married in my brother's house and immediate family members came. My brother's wife served a dinner for the family. After the wedding, we drove to St. Paul, Minnesota, to visit my husband's parents and sister and family.

GW: Were there money dances for the bride and groom?

EW: We did not have a dance but it was a custom for many to have barn dances and square dances.

GW: Did wedding guests get together to sing German songs? Do you recall any of these songs?

EW: I don't doesn't recall any of these.

GW: Did you participate in a "chivaree" for the married couple? What did the people do?

EW: Yes, they would make a lot of noise, sometimes they would steal the bride's shoe and the husband would have to buy it back. They also sang songs.

GW: What foods were served at special events? Were there special cured meats, Hochzeit schnapps, homemade beer, etc.?

EW: Kuchen, homemade beer and wine.

GW: Who helped with the food preparation?

EW: Family and neighbors.

GW: Can you explain the bridal clothes, decorations, ribbons and flowers of the wedding. Was there a "Liebsband" sash?

EW: There was no special wedding dress, just a nice regular dress.

GW: Were photographs taken of the bride and groom (Brautpaar)?

EW: There was no special wedding picture taken.

GW: How did you meet your spouse? Was it arranged, or unusual courtship?

EW: I lived with my parents, which was next door to the beer parlor and pool hall that he operated, and got to know him that way.

GW: What social events were available to meet your spouse, such as community and church events, blind dates, etc.?

EW: We went to movies and dances but he didn't dance.

GW: What music and entertainment was in your childhood home? Did anyone in your family sing, play accordion or other musical instruments?

EW: We had an organ and I took lessons. I played the organ and piano. My mother and father and we children would sing songs.

GW: Were you encouraged to play an instrument?

EW: Just allowed her to take lessons.

GW: Do you play tunes "by ear", rather than by written music?

EW: I played by written music.

GW: What styles of dancing did you learn?

EW: Square dance, waltz, polka.

GW: Were there traditional dances that survived from South Russia?

EW: No.

GW: Where did you go dancing?

EW: Saturday night dances.

GW: Did you attend barn dances? Who attended these dances - young people, a few older couples and/or families?

EW: I did attend [barn] dances. Both young people and couples came.

GW: What was the attitude of the older generation towards dance halls?

EW: Many objected to these activities. For card playing, the devil was in most card games, except ones like Old Maid and similar kid's games.

GW: Was there a community meeting place for people to socialize, whether in town or someone's farm or school?

EW: There were pie socials in country schools and basket socials at the beginning of school year.

GW: What were your favorite childhood stories? Do you recall any fairy tales?

EW: Goldilocks, Sleeping Beauty, Black Beauty.

GW: Were there superstitions about unknowns or scary stories about the bogeyman, ghosts, or hooting owls?

EW: Walking under a ladder, black cats, broken mirrors. May Day rhyme repeated would make the freckles go away.

GW: How did your family view "Brauche" or folk medicine? Can you tell specific techniques that were used? Do you recall any home remedies or cures?

EW: Garlic on bread as a protection against the flu, and Epsom salt as an antiseptic.

GW: What do you remember about the role of midwives?

EW: Midwives were common in the rural areas.

JK: Did your parents use any expressions from Russian, Turkish, Plattdeutsch or French languages? Where and when were they used?

EW: Wer sucht, der findet--Where you search, you'll find it. Das Hous vrlierit nix--the house doesn't lose anything. I gelobt shtenkt-self-praise stinks.

JK: Do you remember the German newspapers that you received in your home? (Newspapers known to the German-Russians include - Nord Dakota Herold, Dakota Freie Presse, Der Staatsanzeiger).

EW: My father got Der Staatsanzeiger and read it to my mother as she worked.

JK: What kind of information did your family gather from the newspaper?

EW: Current happenings.

JK: Did the family read the comics or "funnies"?

EW: I don't remember.

JK: What do you remember most when your family got their first conveniences such as electricity, first car, telephone, windmills?

EW: Telephone about 1918. My brother, Dan, got his first car in 1918, when he returned from the service. Electricity came to the farm in 1951 from REA.

JK: What do you remember most about the early days of radio? What were some of your favorite programs?

EW: Family radio programs. At age eight I remember hearing news of the sinking of the Titanic. [The Titanic sank on 14 April 1912.]

JK: What do you remember most during the early days of watching television?

EW: Didn't have much time to watch and then it was very poor due to distance from broadcast site.

JK: What do you remember about watching the Lawrence Welk Show?

EW: Christmas specials with families of musicians; family values.

JK: Which family member do you best remember?

EW: My oldest brother, Gottfred; his kindness and goodness to me. I remember Dan's impatience in harvest when I was driving horses.

JK: Who do you look up to and admire for portraying life's best qualities?

EW: My mother.

JK: Why did her life and personality have an impact on your life?

EW: She worked hard but took time to nurture, guide and love.

JK: Did women homestead and prove-up their land?

EW: Yes, I read about women who did.

JK: What were the expected outdoor tasks for women outside the house? Gardening, milking, poultry and livestock care or fieldwork?

EW: Women worked beside their husbands in the fields and with livestock until children were old enough to help and even continued after that.

JK: What do you remember of the special German foods which your mother or grandmother cooked or baked?

EW: Cheese buttons, strudel, kuchen, knepfla, kekla, pigs in the blanket [halupsy].

JK: Are German foods still prepared in your kitchen such as breads, borscht, strudels, halupsy, and kuchen? Have your children learned to prepare these foods?

EW: My grandson made cheese buttons and daughter still makes them.

JK: Have these recipes been recorded to pass down to the next generation?

EW: Yes, and there are some German-Russian cookbooks with these recipes

JK: Was there anyone in your family who had artistic talent and craft skills such as sewing, weaving, knitting, crocheting, quilting, broom-making, basket?making, bobbin lace, or others?

EW: Most of the women knit, crochet, sew, and do needle crafts, cross?stitch, and embroidery.

JK: Did anyone have skills in Scherenschnitte (paper cut-outs)?

EW: No.

JK: Did your family make their own clothes or tailored clothing for other family members? Where did they get the fabrics? How did they re-use old clothes?

EW: My sister made clothes for my mother and got material from a dry goods store. They made rugs out of old clothes.

JK: Do you recall any family member having quilting parties?

EW: Yes, the ladies and circles in church. Small stitches were a pain.

JK: What are your memories of reading women's activities and food recipes from the "Dakota Farmer" from Aberdeen, South Dakota?

EW: I cut out many recipes--stacks of them.

JK: How was this information used by family members?

EW: We used many of these recipes.

JK: Is there any topic we have not discussed which you would like to add?

EW: No, other than Saturday night was the social and shopping time in town, and most people were speaking German.

JK: Are there other thoughts or observations you would like to share?

EW: The depression years were very hard with little money. We grew most of the food (meat, milk, eggs, vegetables, potatoes, took wheat to the mill for flour). Clothes were hand-me-downs and patched upon patches, shoes were soled at home and we had home haircuts. Manure that froze in the barn in the winter would be cut into squares in the spring and dried for fuel in the winter. Corncobs and cow chips were used in the summer. Lignite coal was brought in in the fall. Many people were very quiet about their German heritage during the World Wars [I, II].

JK: What things such as skills, character qualities, or achievements do you want to be remembered by your next generations?

EW: Follow the motto, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

JK: How is your family history and culture being passed to the next generation?

EW: Through photograph albums, news clippings in a scrapbook, handwork such as doilies and afghans.

Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies
North Dakota State University Libraries
P. O. Box 5599
Fargo, North Dakota, 58105-5599

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