Interview with Emma Fischer (EF)
Conducted by Ronald Vossler (RV)
2 July, 1997, Ashley, North Dakota
Transcription by Lena Paris
Editing and Proofreading by Lena Paris
Prairie Public Collection
RV: We're going to be talking with Emma Fischer. Give me your name, age, rough background about yourself and where you've lived.
EF: I was born and raised on a farm about 10 miles northeast of Ashley, North Dakota in McIntosh County, and lived there until I was 11 years old, and then my parents moved to Ashley and bought a house. I had to work hard and help my mother who was crippled. We always had a lot of people working for us during threshing in those years. My brother and I had to milk 7 cows every night, feed the calves and chickens. Put the hay down for the horses when they came home so they were ready to feed. That was my work on the farm.
I went to school on the farm, but there wasn't much to that school; reading, writing, arithmetic and learning how to write. I was 11 when we moved to town, then I started school there. When I came to Ashley I started the fifth grade and finished the eighth grade and graduated from the eighth grade. I didn't go to high school because I was home taking care of my mother. I wanted to go so bad, but...
RV: So you're that force behind your daughters' education...
EF: Right, that's why I said she's going to get all the education I can give her, and I did.
RV: Well, some of what Shirley has written in her book Central Dakota Germans, or a lot of it, you really have lived haven't you? In a way, so a lot that was put into the book is...
EF: When we washed clothes father helped me. He turned the wringer which was screwed onto the tub. I had to wash the clothes, hang it outside, iron, help cook and bake. I had to help with everything because my mother couldn't work. My brother was 2 years older; he did a lot - like scrubbing and some of the heavy work. We also had a cow to milk and some chickens (035 - in town?)
RV: So you were kind-of the mother in the home doing a lot of work, very early, weren't you?
EF: Yes, I'd come home from school sometimes at 4 PM, and then I'd wash the biggest loads of clothes hang them out. In the morning I'd bring them in, go to school and in the evening I'd iron.
RV: So your childhood was very different than what...
EF: Many others do.
RV: Even then or more now?
EF: No, then it was hard work.
RV: Then it was hard.
EF: But we still could go and play baseball and horseshoe and things like that. In the wintertime we'd have games in the snow called "The Goose." I suppose you played that? We had all kinds of games, and had fun though. I had no trouble having company, even if I didn't go to school.
RV: When you played those games were they in English, German or mostly English?
EF: Mostly English, I think. I knew German, but the kids in town talked English. I had to learn it. I knew some, but not much.
RV: So there was a difference between town and farm kids.
EF: Day and night.
RV: What were some of those differences?
EF: They thought they were so much smarter, and didn't want to associate with farm girls and boys.
RV: Even though they were of the same background.
EF: Right. I had two cousins who told me how to speak and helped with our schoolwork. They helped my brother and myself.
RV: Was there teasing about the way you spoke?
EF: Yes, they sometimes did tease me a lot, especially my brother, because I could get along a little better than he could. He didn't have any patience, and he'd get angry.
RV: What did they tease you about? Do you want to say a little more about the teasing or the difference between the town and country?
EF: The first day I went to school in town, of course, I was scared. I was in this grade, I think, about three or four days; when the professor came in and said he'd like to see me after school. I thought I wonder what...so I went in and he said, "Well, I'm going to tell you one thing, Emma," he said. "Why don't' you repeat one grade?" That would help you a lot and the kids might be better. You know they're not so educated. And so I went back to the fifth grade, and had a good time. The kids weren't mean; they were nice. I got along real well with my teachers; it helped me. But that's the way it was (072) a dumb farmer, which wasn't bad and so was my brother. He had more of a rough time than I did.
RV: But the town kids wouldn't have done so well on the farm either.
EF: If they'd have gone out to that schoolyard they wouldn't have known anything, because the teachers didn't know anything. They were just kids that graduated from maybe 3rd or 4th Grade that were teaching us. Can you imagine what we got out of that? They were local, living out there, a lot of them. They couldn't get teachers, as they were hard to get and the kids wouldn't attend. In the summertime we drove with a buggy, and in the wintertime we drove with the sled. My older brother drove us to and from school. We had a lot of fun doing that.
The older ones had to stay home and work - plow the fields and rake. They had no time for school. They stayed home raked the hay for the threshers. I helped a lot by taking the wagons home and they would unload them, and I would take the wagon back again. About 3 or 4 PM in the afternoon; I'd have to take the lunch out for the threshers. Then I came home and helped my mother feed them. We had a lot of people to feed that night. Also worked for my brother driving the header box that was another job of mine because I was the youngest, I had to help.
RV: Because you were the youngest you had to help?
EF: Yes, I was. We always had work you know. The header sometimes came so fast throwing the grain - you sometimes was covered. You had to watch while you drove; if you didn't drive right, my father would scream. He'd get so mad because you couldn't get too close or else that big thing would come up. It had to lay just right.
RV: What was your reaction - now you've been talking some about your background in school and work. When your daughter, Shirley, started to write about and explore this ethnic, German background what was your reaction? What did you think she was doing?
EF: I didn't think she'd ever do it, because there was a lot to that. But once she started interviewing the older people; she got me involved. I had to go with her because she didn't know where they lived, and how they would react. So I was always with her for that part. And then, of course, when she wrote her thesis I knew she could do something with it. And I always told her too bad I didn't get an education like you had. So she better go and get all the education she can get. I told my grandchildren that all the time - remember, I'd always say, "Go to school as long as you can." Be glad you can. I cried my eyes out, and didn't ever go.
RV: Did that angered you that you couldn't go?
EF: Kids would walk by here and they'd say, "Emma aren't you going to school?" Nope, gotta stay home and that did it. Then I'd cry when they left; because they could go and I couldn't. Nobody knows what it's like.
RV: In this book there is a lot of you isn't there?
EF: My mother was a smart woman. She helped me get into this Brauche. She said you can learn it, and if I'm not here you will know it. There was one Brauche that she had that I didn't know. She said she couldn't give it to me or say it to me. She had to put it on paper and hid it. When she's dead I have to find it, and then I can use it. It was more like a (125) and then I looked and couldn't find it. We had a big Bible that belonged to my father and mother. One day we paged through it and I said, "Dad, look what's here." I found the Brauche in there.
EF: She wanted it so bad, and I said if I ever find it I'll give it to you because my mother couldn't give it to me. She had to hide it, you know, and I found it. And it worked, but I don't know if that was their belief. Their beliefs were very different.
RV: Do you know what some of those beliefs were?
EF: One that she found was for rash. It was called a "wildfire." There was a woman that came one morning she was all red and her head was full of rash. My mother said, "Just leave her here today, I can help her." And she Brauche her three times.
RV: So what did your mother do then? Could you explain?
EF: With her hands she'd go like this, and then she'd say a verse.
RV: Did she have the person lie down?
EF: No, sitting in front of her. By evening she was pretty good and went home. My mother had helped her.
RV: What verse did she say?
EF: (143) I haven't read that for so long, (145) and I think they said something about Brauche. But I just don't know. I have it written down though. And that's what healed her. Some had a pimple in the eye, dust or a little bug. They couldn't blink. I haven't used the stuff for so many years. I should have taken the book out when I started. I wasn't too interested in it. My mother was a Brauche. She had a lady friend who was all covered with rash; when they brought her here. Then my mother did Brauche to her three times that day. She said she could help her and she did. By evening the rash was almost gone. Then she went home. Then she said to me, "I can't give you the Brauche," she said. I asked her if she could give me that too so I can learn it. And she said, "not this kind of Brauche I must hide that," she said. When I die, you look through the house and find this Brauche ritual. I did find it in the big family Bible.
After I had it I called Mrs. Iszler, because she was a Brauche and wanted the healing ritual, so I gave it to her. I didn't use Brauche much, except when I needed it. Brauche is what this type of healing is called. Then you blow on the wound or rash three times. When a little pimple or bug got into the eye it itched so badly that if you didn't do Brauche soon the eye got all red and you had to put some cotton on it. Otherwise, you couldn't be up because the eye hurt so much. My mother would blow on it three times, and it always went away.
We had a carpenter who built a house. He came down in the morning and said, "I gotto go home." I said, "What's the matter?" "I got something in my eye," he said. It's all red and I can't blink. I said, "I'll help you, I can (191) Can you (191)?"he said, and I said, Yes, So I Brauche three times, and by afternoon he came down and was okay. He worked the rest of the afternoon. The Brauche helped him. Then I like to (195) something with the moon. If you have something that hurts you bad, or something you want to heal you look at the moon, and you say, (196) but you have to do it when the moon is full. You hold that, first quarter whatever it (198) and you hold that, whatever (200) and blow on it. It helps you and it heals it. I taught Shirley that, but I don't think she ever used it.
RV: Did most of the people...
EF: A lot of them did use the moon. It had a game when it was getting full.
RV: Would you say most people believed in...
EF: You have to believe. There were a lot of them that didn't believe, then it wouldn't help. It's something you need to believe in, absolutely.
RV: Do you want to say anything more about Brauche that you think is important for people to know?
EF: There's not that many around any more. I don't know if there's any in Ashley. I think the older ones have all passed away, and the younger generation doesn't believe in it; which I still do and always will. And I think Shirley does, I hope. When Shirley was sick, my mother did so much for her. She always had a stomachache. My mother took a string, wrapped it around the stomach three times. Then she wrapped it around an egg, and laid it in the ashes, but not too long. She'd work on it with a stick and she'd say, (222) And that would explode the egg, it was just terrible!
RV: What do those words mean in English?
EF: I don't know. If you ate something that didn't agree with you, that's when you got that. When you were sick, couldn't eat, no appetite; then my mother would do that, and put it on ashes with a little fire.
RV: Ask for that pain to go into the egg?
EF: Yes, she said, "As you burn the egg on the string, it should take away the pain from the stomach." That's the way I think it was.
RV: Maybe we'll talk a little bit about when you helped your daughter, Shirley, gather information for the book. How did the people you interviewed and talked with - your friends and acquaintances, what was their reaction or how did they respond?
EF: They had a good time, and loved to do it with me. If I had a question then sometimes they had something wrong, and then they'd giggle and laugh. Then I'd start them out again. I had a lot of fun doing it, and people were really nice to me. There were a few that said, "You don't have to come again; I want nothing to do with that." I had those kind too.
RV: Why do you think that is?
EF: I don't know maybe jealousy, I just couldn't figure it out why they didn't do it. It was people I knew real well - they were mean.
RV: What do you think is important for people to understand about the women of your generation of Dakota German background?
EF: I didn't get that quite right.
RV: What do you think about the different women
of your generation - the people, the world and the American public
don't know about Dakota German women. About the life here, or...
EF: They liked their small towns they lived in. People are friendly to each other, and there is no hatred. It happened very little that somebody didn't like you or some didn't like each other. I think they were pretty good - all of them.
RV: There's a lot of talk about the Women's Liberation Movement, and who really ran German households. Would you say that the men and women shared equally in the labor?
EF: The first people that came, the German Russians, their women had to work too hard. They had to share, but I think the men could have done a little more work - heavier work and left the women at home. My mother baked bread during the night, and anything for us kids to take to school. It had to all be done during the night, and don't know when she rested.
RV: How did this affect the women; just the overwork and hard lives?
EF: Overworked, and very hard lives, and some men were mean.
RV: Do you think the women were more isolated than men? Did they get to town less?
EF: Very little.
RV: Very little, the men got more...
EF: The men would bring in the groceries. At about ten or eleven years of age, I drove with my father to buy groceries. When he got home, he would say to my mother, "she knew how to spend the money." I bought more than I was suppose to. I bought things we kids liked - licorice and candy. We didn't buy very many groceries. They bought coffee, flour, sugar and a big can of syrup for the kids' lunch at school - syrup bread. Those old women had to bake a lot. We were a family of seven. My mother baked an awful lot of bread and we kids ate it, because we didn't have much more.
They butchered in the fall. Meat was plentiful, as they butchered three or four hundred pound hogs and made sausage. They rendered all the lard, and had enough lard for cooking and baking. The homemade lard was used for everything - cookies etc. Now days everybody has cholesterol. In those days people all got fat. I think they ate too much lard.
RV: Were you surprised by anything that you found when you worked with Shirley, the materials you gathered or anything that was either emotional or very interesting to you?
EF: It was very interesting to me and I loved it.
I read everything when she had it done.
Before she printed, I had to go through it to find any mistakes. She liked that. "Mom you have to read it," she'd always say. Every once in a while I'd find a mistake. It helped too when she asked me questions. How we did this and how we cooked. Even recipes were included.
RV: So the book chronicles and tells a lot about the history, culture and language of this way of life on the prairie. A lot of that has changed now; so do you want to talk about that? What has changed and how...
EF: What has changed is that they all have tractors to work with now. When they had to work with horses they had to work hard. They had the big headers. We didn't have combines either. They made little haystacks for the wheat; then a wind would come and the next day we'd rake it all up. Nothing was lost, everything had to be used. You know those combines lost a lot of wheat. In those days we didn't lose anything - they got it all together working until the next morning. They threshed, and put it all on a pile. It is very different than how they used to live. They had their eggs, cream, milk, and everything you wanted to eat.
They had little hogs they'd butcher every two weeks. These were butchered in the summertime, at about eighty pounds and lived on that. They had their own eggs, raised ducks, geese, and turkeys, and didn't buy things like we do now. Those days you had a few groceries in the basket. We didn't know anything about ketchup.
RV: What is left of the traditions, customs or beliefs in Ashley, for example? What's left of the older ways that you've chronicled in the book?
EF: I don't know if there's much left. Now days they have running water, automatic washing machines. Then there was nothing like that; everything is very different.
RV: What kind of traditions do you still maintain in your home? Food preparation or...
EF: We have it a little different - you see a recipe in a magazine and you try it. But I still always go back to my old recipes.
RV: What are some of those old recipes?
EF: Do you want it in food like strudels and cheese buttons? Very few people make them anymore. If they do make them, they might make them with baking powder - strudels you know. My mother made some of those, but we kids liked the ones from bread dough better. They don't get as soggy.
RV: It takes a while to make strudels, doesn't it?
EF: Yes, almost half a day until you get everything done. Now days they don't make noodles anymore. The old people always made their own noodles, but I still make them. They don't can like we used to - we canned everything. My mother would can a lot because the food kept that way, otherwise it would spoil. Now they have freezers that we didn't have.
RV: So all the food preparation was entirely different.
EF: Entirely different than it was.
RV: And the amount of labor, it seems like...
EF: Labor too.
RV: So what else is different that you can think of that you've seen in the years here?
EF: They have different beds now - they have waterbeds. We had a spring and just one little thick mattress, while they have the thick ones now. Then they had the husks from the corn which was their first mattresses. They stuffed the husks into a blanket or sheet, made a cover for it and slept on them.
RV: Just a comfort level.
EF: I never slept on that, but (385) these two were still sleeping on them.
RV: Just a comfort level I suppose.
EF: Yes, just let it dry and then they put it in a sack. It was messy all the time. We didn't use any. Maybe my mother used them before my time. My mother had a lot of geese; so she always made goose down pillows. I remember that we slept on those and they were warm. If they didn't have them, I think they'd of froze. You can buy them now, but they're not like the ones they made. They weren't feathers - they were different. Now they have sponge pillows; years ago they had feather pillows. Had to hang them outside often, because otherwise they stuck together. You get more air in because of the thickening on the outside. They have different towels now. We didn't have towels like they have now. It's much different.
We couldn't have washing machines the first years - they didn't have the water. We had to use the washtub, a wringer and somebody had to turn it all the time. Wintertime they dried in the house because they couldn't hang anything out - too much snow and too cold. The irons she'd put on the stove to heat, and if you didn't watch it burned. They had to watch it pretty close or the shirt would turn yellow. They didn't wear the clothes as much either. They only used them for church, and when they came home they took them off. Put everyday clothes on which didn't need ironing. That's the way it was.
RV: Do you want to say something about the kind of things you did as a child?
EF: We didn't have toys like they have now days. I can remember I got a doll from my aunt, and I thought that was the greatest thing I ever got. Otherwise, in the wintertime we'd play goose in the snow and all kinds of games. We had different games at home. We had a big piece of paper on the floor and we'd lay around it and play a game. Or else you'd lay down on the floor, put your leg up, and the other person would bring his leg up, and over you'd go. Sometimes we played oshgoshla. (sp)
And then we'd go horseback riding; and we had to watch the cattle so they didn't get out of the fence. When we were done harvesting the cattle went into the fields and ate from the stubbles. After school we had to watch the cattle, and we'd snare gophers and sell the tails. Sometimes we got 10 cents a tail. Dad would take them into the courthouse, and there's where he sold them. And if he got 10 cents a tail that was very good money. My brother and I were always out doing things like that. Barefoot, no shoes! We had a pair of shoes which were for church only. If you got a new dress, you had to wear it to church before you could wear it elsewhere. My father was very strict with the kinds of things we did.
We walked to the neighbor's one night my brothers and my sister. We were about a quarter mile from home and all of a sudden we heard coyotes. Were they howling! So we turned around and ran home. We had nothing for light, but a lantern that barely burned. No such thing as flashlights. They maybe had them, but we never got them. They saved them so they could use them. We all said little verses. Our neighbors would always pretend they were the ones, (473) (German saying) that was a funny one. It was a tongue-twister which was suppose to be said real fast. We always had to laugh because we couldn't do it right.
RV: Your church then also changed, I imagine?
RV: What ways did that change, or were even the sermons different?
EF: Yes, if the minister wasn't there a deacon would
give the sermon. They had a book that contained the sermons from
every Sunday, and that's where they took it from. One of the friends
read it. They would sing, and if they didn't have an organist
they would sing without it. We were all good singers. And we had
to go to church which was a must - rain or shine. Everybody had
to go to church and Sunday school. In the summertime we had to
go to German Bible school. We had to walk over two miles to the
church. And in those days I was scared; I'd rather stay home and
plow. When I was ten years old I plowed. That's the way church
was - getting together with friends, and they would stand outside
and talk for an hour. Then the man would invite each other; so
we always got invited someplace for dinner.
RV: On Sunday mornings?
EF: On Sunday morning they didn't go home, they went visiting. When there was a mission fest, they invited different congregations. Everybody went and didn't miss funerals either.
Weddings not so much. We had weddings at different homes. When people had small houses they couldn't have it. Those with larger houses had it. We didn't have a big house, but we had a summer kitchen where the dance took place. In the afternoon the old folks would dance, and in the evening the kids would dance.
RV: For anybody in your family that was married.
EF: In the afternoon they wouldn't let us get in there. In the evening they let us dance. I suppose they were tired by evening. The wedding went on for three days.
RV: You know that saying, "Spring rains and old people's dances don't last long."
EF: Yes, that's what he always tells me.
RV: Is there anything else we should talk about?
EF: I don't know.
RV: We touched on most of the things, I think. Maybe
I'll ask you one more question about
what you think was the most important thing you learned from your mother?
EF: Cooking and baking. Yes, I knew how to do everything and when she passed away I didn't have any trouble, as knew from before how to do it. And I passed it on. We had to do everything and there was nothing that we couldn't do; whether we wanted to or not. We had to work and learn to do things. Our home was a real strict family. I can't remember anybody from the neighborhood that didn't learn - they all had to learn. Even if they didn't have much schooling, but that was the way it was. My sisters went only through three or four grades, and dad took them out of school, and kept them home they were needed for work. There was just no time for anything. Now these kids get all the opportunity they need; there is none better. So many stay out of school, even if they have only one year left. Some day they'll be sorry.
RV: Sounds like you enjoyed that kind of re-learning as you worked along with Shirley to do this book.
EF: Yes, I liked it.
RV: You can see there's a lot of love in that book.
RV: Thank you both for your work.
EF: You're welcome. Nice of you to come.
RV: Thank you.