Johnny Schmidt: Son of a Dakota Pioneer

Book review by by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Bose, B.A. Johnny Schmidt: Son of a Dakota Pioneer. North Dakota State University Libraries, Germans from Russia Heritage Collection, Fargo, North Dakota, 2002.

Omar Bose has lightly edited and organized for our pleasure a collection of very short essays written by his father Ben Bose, whose parents emigrated from the village of Heinrichsdorf, Volhynia in 1874. They settled among fellow Mennonites in Bon Homme County, South Dakota, near towns called Loretta and Springfield, not far from a reservation where Sioux Indians lived. Since they settled on virgin land, they experienced the most difficult pioneering. Ben, who characterizes himself as Johnny Schmidt and writes in the third person, was the second son in a family of eight children. The essays treat the years from his birth to about 1911, though he clearly writes from the perspective of life beyond that date.

Johnny (Ben) writes his accounts with a dollop of humor, and he does not dwell excessively on details or tragedies. The central fact of his life growing up in these circumstances was hard work, but change, both technologically and in their lives, happened with almost dizzying rapidity. Especially at first, the group was determined to shelter themselves from contact with outside influences. As a first defense, they taught the German language to the children.

Religious faith was important to Johnny (Ben) and his family; he discusses services and rituals and refers frequently to a schism that, for a time, divided the Mennonites in his community. Other religious groups entered their purview. The initial religious and cultural isolation which, they hoped, would preserve the life they had lived in Russia, could not be maintained.

Bose records changes in agricultural technology and the arrival of the first cars, a sewing machine, a better well, and other conveniences. As family size and prosperity increased, new farm buildings replaced the old. His group had frequent contact with Indians and neighbors from other European ethnic groups, and they had to concede the necessity of learning English. They found themselves fascinated by radio, and when the circus with its exotic animals came to town, they found the money to go.

Johnny (Ben) speaks of a powerful hunger for learning, so many of the essays tell about his early teachers (some taught as many as 60 children in a primitive rural school), his reading, and the community's efforts to provide advanced education for their young by building the Freeman Academy. He took advantage of all the educational opportunities available. He read books sold by an itinerant book seller, learned all he could from ministers and teachers, and attended Dakota Wesleyan, a Methodist college located at Mitchell, South Dakota. He married, became a teacher and school administrator and, for many years, followed the lead of men he admired and traveled the rural west selling books.

Since the essays deal with common experiences and are short, this should become a very popular book. Readers may put it in the car or the bathroom or wherever short waits invite a bit of reading.

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