Historian’s Report

Nagel, Katherine. "Historian's Report." Emmons County Historical Society News Letter, January 2009, no. 111.

Note: Rev Max Speckmaier was pastor of Saint Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Strasburg, North Dakota, in 1914, when this publication was published in the German language which has been translated and published, Strasburg, Emmons Co., N.Dak.: Celebratory Publication ("Festschrift") on the 25th Jubilee of St. Peter and Paul's Parish.

“It was in the fall of the year 1888 when delegates from Strassburg, South Russia, came into Emmons County, where the town of Strasburg not stands, to look for suitable land for the arriving homesteaders.  What they found was unlimited space, uninhabited and empty, but there was lots of room to settle.  Far and wide nothing could be seen but a lone dwelling that belonged to a certain Mr. Petrie, who later became a prominent businessman in Linton, North Dakota.

After this first tour of exploration, several so-called German-Russians arrived in the spring of 1889 to take up homesteads.  The first of these stalwart, stout-hearted settlers were the three Baumgartner brothers, Jakob, Johannes, and Franz; Albinus Schneider, Kasper Feist, and two unmarried young men, Joseph Burgad and Jakob Feist.  Shortly afterwards a second group arrived, namely Egidius Keller, Peter Kraft, Jakob Geffreh, Franz Giesinger, Martin and Lorenz Schwab-all from the Kutschurgan district north-west of the city of Odessa. 

What the first settlers found was little more than the vast naked prairie.  It was, in fact, literally naked, for just prior to the arrival of the intrepid settlers a prairie fire had swept away everything except the bare earth and stones.  The first settlers arrived at noon on the 7th of May, 1889, and on the same day they started plowing up the sod and building the simple lowly huts of earth and clay.  That was enough of a hardship, but the very first night a heavy rain set in and weather turned so cold that the homesteaders had to remove the boxes from the wagons to provide some shelter for themselves and their families.

When the days grew warmer a plot of prairie was plowed and prepared for the sowing of grain, but the results were meager and the crop was rather poor.  The ripe flax which the men had cut with a grass mover was mostly blown away by wind.  In an attempt to save the rest of the crop, the people picked the flax by hand.  Much labor was now required to convert the small crop into money wherewith to buy food.  The nearest railway station was at Eureka, S. Dakota, where you could sell grain and buy provisions, but the town was at least 50 miles away.  The hardships the poor settlers had to endure on this long trip, particularly when there was a rain or a snow storm, can scarcely be conceived by the younger generation today.  And we should not forget that the draft animals of the first settlers were not horses, but oxen. 

The year 1890 arrived and with it another crop failure.  The poor people were beginning to suffer want and were filled with distress and despair.  The pioneers still relate even today how they used to cry all day, partly because of their poverty and misery, partly because of homesickness and longing for their native villages in Russia.  Many of them would have gone back, if the way had not been so terribly far and if there had been no ocean between America and Russia.

In those times of utter distress everybody, young and old, wandered over the desolate prairie day after day, looking for buffalo bones.  These had then to be hauled to Napoleon or Steele where one could sell them and buy the needed groceries with the bit of money.  One did not make much, of course, on the sale of bones.  For a wagon load you could get a sack of flour, which was the most important staple at the time.  One was unable to obtain any meat, except what you might occasionally get with a gun.

So it happened one day that three men went a-hunting, in the hope of shooting something that had meat and bones.  The three hunters were Jakob Feist, Egidi Keller, and Lorenz Schwab.  They set out in the direction of Beaver Creek where they expected to find some wild game.  They walked around for a long time, without seeing or finding anything.  Finally they spotted a bird, not very big and not too small; it was probably a snipe.  Now it was a question of quick action, for birds fly fast.  Lorenz quickly took aim, the shot rang out, and the bird fell to the ground-dead.  The three men hurried to the spot.  They lifted the feathered victim from the earth, but alas the poor thing was completely shot to pieces.  Lorenz was about to fling it away when Egidi cried out excitedly, “Give it here.  I’ll take it.  Meat is meat.”  That’s how precious meat was in those times.

What was worse than the lack of meat, was the scarcity of fuel and the nonexistence of roads.  The following incident will provide a graphic illustration.  One day Jakob Feist with his wife and his brother-in-law, Egidi Keller, hitched their oxen to their two wagons and drove to Beaver Creek to get some firewood.  They found enough wood to load up both wagons.  When they were ready to start back the sun was already setting.  The return trip was very slow, for the wagons were heavy and the oxen were plodding slowly and laboriously across the road less prairie.  Night fell all too quickly and it soon grew pitch dark.  Since the drivers could neither see nor hear anything, they soon lost all sense of direction, but the oxen moved forward through the night.  Suddenly a glimmer of light appeared in the darkness.  “That’s my house,” exclaimed Jakob.  He had the foresight to tell his people at home to set out a burning lantern in front of the house.  But suddenly the light disappeared again as the nocturnal wayfarers came near an intervening hill.  The drivers now separated and Jakob drove in the direction of his house which he soon reached.  Edgidi also drove in the direction of his house but missed it completely.  For a long time he drove around aimlessly in the darkness and finally fell asleep, but the oxen kept on going.  The people back home were beginning to worry, but eventually they crawled under the wagon-box and went to sleep.  When they came out the next morning they saw the oxen standing in the yard with a fine load of wood, on top of which they found Egidi, still fast asleep.

In the first years there was no church in the new settlement.  The nearest priests were 26 miles away.  They were the Benedictine missionaries, Fathers Bernard and Franz, who were stationed at Fort Yates.  The first priest to visit settlers was Fr. Bernard who also celebrated the first Mass for the community in 1889 in the sod house of Franz Baumgartner.  The joy of the settlers could not have been greater if an angel from Heaven had suddenly appeared among them.  In the same year, the first resident priest, Father Schmitz, arrived at St. John’s Parish in McIntosh County.  However, the Benedictine Fathers from Fort Yates continued to visit the settlers from time to time.

Similar accounts of pioneer experiences could, no doubt, be multiplied a thousand times and corroborated by the oral reminiscences of many old timers.  But even the brief reports presented here enable us to draw the well-founded conclusion that the obstacles and hardships confronting the Dakota pioneers were, by all odds, even grater and more formidable than those endured by the immigrant forefathers who settled on the steppes of Russia some 90 years earlier.

To be sure, the journey from Russia to America was not as arduous and dangerous as the trek of the German emigrants to the Black Sea, and the sod house on the prairie was doubtless more comfortable than the crude ‘semelyanka’ and the wattled clay hut of the steppedweller.  Moreover, the homesteader in the Dakotas also had the distinct advantage of having a better wagon, plow and other farm equipment.  On the other hand, he was seriously disadvantaged in several respects.  While the pioneer of the steppe received an interest-free government loan of 250-300 rubles to help him get established on his homestead, the settlers in the Dakotas (and elsewhere) received no government loans, but were often at the mercy of unscrupulous loan sharks who, at times, exacted a 200% interest on short-term loan.  Furthermore, while the Czarist government granted the homesteaders food-ration money until the first harvest, the settlers on the prairie were, in several instances, forced to pick buffalo bones in order to provide bread for their families.  In Russia, the colonists lived together in villages which provided the facilities of mutual aid and social contacts, whereas the settlers on the prairie had to live in isolation and loneliness.  Finally whereas the Czarist government even provided a stone church for the colonist enclaves, the first settlers of the plains had to be content with makeshift sod churches for several years.  What both pioneer groups had in common, besides their ethnic identity, was their precious heritage of a staunch faith in God, a proud capacity for hard work, and an unfledged determination to wrest an honest, decent livelihood from the good earth.  And this heritage, I venture to say, was the secret of their ultimate success. 

(As reported by Rev. Max Speckmaier, Strasburg, N D)

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