Stories of the Germans from Russia

Carol Just Halverson
Speaker, Germans from Russia Heritage Society Convention,
Fargo, North Dakota
July 10, 1993

Transcription by Deanna Toepke and Dorothy Denis
Proofread by Chad Burrer

Introduction: It's my privilege to introduce to you a relative, you know, you've got relatives, there's good ones and bad ones, some you can pick, some you can't pick. And this is one that perhaps I would have chosen, because she's a very interesting young woman. She has done some research into my home congregation, which is St. Andrew's Lutheran Church near Zeeland. And I find that in the approach that she took in telling the story of St. Andrew's is unique, because instead of just making a dry history of it, one of the things that she did was to prepare a pageant which was presented as part of the centennial celebration. The pageant told the story visually more than orally, and that, perhaps, more than anything would cause children to pay attention to the history of their people. It depicted the way – now, I didn't get a chance to see it, so I'm going with second-hand information, but obviously, it made quite an impression, because the local papers carried a good article about it and lots of pictures let you know just what kind of a history that story of St. Andrew's was.

Carol grew up at Berlin, North Dakota. She is the daughter of a farm couple. She is currently residing at St. Louis Park, Minnesota. She has been working for ten years now on her degree, and I think that one of the things you're going to find is that she has developed a fine sense of a storytelling art and craft that she was sharing a little bit with you earlier. I am not real sure what she's going to be talking about, because when it says St. Andrew's Beacon on the Prairie, I assumed it was going to be St. Andrew's Church, but I think there's more to it, because I see things up here that indicate to me that it's going to be a broader sharing that she'll have. So without any further introduction, Carol Just Halverson.

Well, thank you, and I'm really happy to be here. My favorite thing is telling stories. I have some handouts for you, because Karen said it's going to be a little broader. My mission is, yes, to tell the stories of St. Andrew's because it's a story I love to tell. But, I really want all of you to think about your role as bearer of the torches, storyteller for your own family, and here are some tools that will help you do some of those things. Let me know if you run out of them, I just sort of guessed at the number.

The story I'm going to share with you this morning is, indeed, the story of a pioneer church. And when I tell this story, it isn't usually a German-Russian crowd. I've done it in a few different churches, and I've done it for some senior groups. I tell them that this really is the story of all churches on the northern plains, all those rural churches. So, if I tell you the story, I expect that whether you are German-Russian or whether you're a spouse that's of another culture, from another European country or Asian country, that you, too, will get a sense of what it was like, and the role of the church on the northern plains. So, with that, I'll begin. After the story, I hope there's time to talk to you about how you, too, can do some of your own storytelling.

Do you think a building can talk? Have a voice of its own? Well, I do, and it doesn't matter when I go out to St. Andrew's Lutheran Church, or what the circumstances are, St. Andrew's tells me stories. And perhaps it's because, when the day comes that St. Andrew's is just a skeleton of brick and stone, when it can no longer meet the needs of its congregants. Its history will be at the mercy of the people it has told its story to: people like me.

My ancestors, and yours; most of you pioneered twice, and you all know that immigration story: some came down from Switzerland, spent some time in Germany. My ancestors were vineyardists in what's now Germany, then it was a series of princedoms or small little states. You know, Napoleon kept criss-crossing and taking their horses, and taking their sons. They just couldn't make it.

Catherine the Great, the German princess, married Peter, and she knew that they needed to have a buffer down there to protect their lands, and she knew about those hard-working German farmers and said, “You know, I'm going to give them a good deal and invite them over,” and that's what she did. And some went down the Danube and some went over land, and there were many promises – well, some were kept, some weren't, and it was a hard life. They didn't expect to have it be as hard as it was, but it was an opportunity to preserve their culture, it was an opportunity to have their own land, and we all know how important owning land is– if you're an agriculturist, you know how important having your own piece of land is. And so, the Black Sea Germans, that I descend from, arrived about 1804.

My ancestors came from the Glueckstal colonies, Kassel and Neudorf. And you know, it didn't take a long time. It was hard work, and, of course, the building supplies that had been promised them weren't there. It was a very hard time, but it also provided them an opportunity to have the isolation that they wanted so that they could really establish themselves using their own religion, using their own language, using the tools that they brought with them. And so, they made the steppes of the Ukraine bloom, and they fed an awful lot of people in Europe for a very long time. It worked very well for them. They were granted colonial status. That meant that they could use their own language. They could have their own government, and the best part of all, free from military conscription. So they didn't have to lose their sons. Sons could continue to stay with them. That all went just dandy, until the serfs were freed, about the same time our slaves were freed, and over the next twenty years, a lot of unrest developed, and there were a lot of jealousies. Because, after all, our German-Russian people were successful. We know why they were successful. Everything they did was pumped right back into their property, and they developed just beautiful, wonderful farms. But, unfortunately, in 1873, the czar abrogated those rights, and said, "Okay, folks, you have to become Russified." And we wouldn't think that's such a big deal, except that when your language and your religion and your culture means so much to you, well, it is a big deal.

Those young boys of conscription age knew that if they went into the military, it wasn't a two or three year stint. It was seven, eight, ten, twenty years. They knew that they were not part of the crowd, they would be given the grunt work. Very few were given really fine positions within the military. So not only did they lose their sons, they could no longer help on the farm, they would be sent far away, and it was risking the culture as well. And so, homestead land became available in Dakota Territory, and there were those who left as early as 1873, and went to, in my case, went to Yankton and they wrote their letters back saying, "This is a pretty good deal, you know, if you're willing to work hard, this is pretty good." And so there were those young couples. In my case, three of them left together, from the same village, and many of them had never been more than twenty miles from their own village. They only knew their own culture; they only knew their own religion. Odessa could have been the moon. They went to Odessa. They took a train to Hamburg, and waited there in a dormitory setting until they could get on their ship, and then they came to America. And, of course, they didn't go first class. You know, they rode in the bowels of the ship, and it wasn't an easy trip, particularly for the women. I might add [that] my focus is women's history, pioneer women's history, so I'm especially interested in their experience. Many of them were pregnant. They had to prepare their own food: zweiback [name of food unclear] and some sausage that they took with them, and they had these children that were running around the ship, and, at least, everybody got sea-sick at some point along that journey.

Then they got to New York. No Ellis Island. There was no Ellis Island then! They reached the island of Manhattan, and they had yet another journey to make. Well, they were already encountering problems. They didn't know the language. They knew a few words: Dakota, potato, ticket. They still had to get on a train, and get all the way to Yankton. It was an exhausting ride for them, and you've got to know that they doubted themselves along the way. After all, they were young men, my ancestors were in their early twenties! Look at our sons and daughters today that are in their early twenties. I mean, we barely trust them with the car, so it had to be a frightening experience for them. Those young women – some of them weren't much older than my sixteen-year-old daughter; they were already married. Saying goodbye to their family in Russia was a very painful experience. They weren't sure they'd ever see them again, and they might as well have been going to the moon. What was America? And then they got here, and it was a little colder than it was near Odessa, and that prairie grass was very tall. Prairie grass can have roots up to twenty feet deep! I mean, it wasn't easy. It was not an easy life for them. But they got here, and they set about the business of establishing themselves and their homes. And my ancestors – there were five couples that came from Kassel together, and they got on the train in Yankton up to Ipswich, they bought their supplies there. The men went on to McIntosh County which had just opened up the previous fall, and the men chose their land, and they wanted to be close to each other, so that's how they landed in that Beaver Creek area in McIntosh County, not far from present day Zeeland. They all wanted to be close together, and then they went back and got the women and children, and with the oxen that they had purchased and their wagons and their timber, so that they could frame their houses, they came and they settled in that area. And they all lived together at first, until eventually, they could build each of their homes. But you had to turn over that acreage first. So they all live together in this communal life for quite a while until each of them got established on their acreage.

Well, it was so lonely! You see, in village they had the pleasure, the joy of village life. And the hub of village life, in Kassel and in Neudorf, was the church. So, here they got to the prairie, and not only could they not live in villages, homestead law dictated you had to live on your acreage. So here's Katharina, with four children under five. And her neighbor, or her dearest friend, you know the social network that she was accustomed to, is over on the next quarter. And you know, you couldn’t pick up the phone, you don't exactly go running back and forth, and it was so lonely. It was really an isolating time for them. And so, they began to meet in each other's homes. Those developed into lay services. They would meet in each other's homes on Sunday
afternoons and reminisce, you know, talk about what it was like in the old country, sing some of those songs, and try to get a feel of what it was like in the old country. A lot of those songs, if you're a good Lutheran, you sing church songs, so a lot of those songs were church songs. It made them feel a little bit better, it was kind of a poignant thing, you know, "I miss home, but at least if I'm around all these people that are like home, then it'll feel better."

Eventually, they decided that they needed to have a church home, so somebody donated some land, and they decided to build a church. So, fifteen families chartered Andreas Gemeinde, Andrew's community, St. Andreas Gemeinde. You'll have to forgive my German, it's not my first language, but I do try. And so, the treasurer went around and collected fifteen dollars a family, and each family donated fifteen days of labor, and with stone-boat and oxen, they went about twelve miles up to a bluff where they could quarry some stone. They dynamited, and they got the stone out and they put it on the stone-boat, and they got it back to their area. And with stone and clay and water and straw, they molded this little stone church, which stands today, a hundred years later. It is one of only two left on the northern plains that are that German-Russian architectural style. It's really a treasured heritage. So they finally had a church. And it just meant so much to them. They really did believe the words of Isaiah: "I, the God of Israel, will never abandon you." And that's part of how they were able to keep moving on.

There's a WPA historic data project interview with Adam Meidinger, who was Karen and my great-grandfather. And, he was one of those early pioneers, and, actually the interview was with his daughter, but the WPA historic data project – its mission was to interview pioneers, or at least, pioneers' children, and it's a wonderful research tool for those of you who are interested in doing research. Now Adam had to make a supply run to Ipswich. He left on a Monday, because after all, he had worshipped in his neighbor's home the day before, and when he got to Ipswich, it was Saturday! That's how isolated they were. One day just blended into the next, and they lost track of the days. So, if you can imagine, losing track of time, that's exactly what happened. Adam bought a calendar, and he came back and he took care of the error, and day/date count, and that didn't happen again. But, in that same biography, it tells a story of how the church was built. That church was the beginning of the Beaver Creek settlement churches. It ultimately became the hub of a five-point parish. There were four other churches that started, and St. Andrew's helped financially and helped build those other churches. And, you know, that early mission statement at St. Andrew's continues today, even now, in the leanest of times, with their membership down to 50 baptized members, 32 voting members, they still give ten percent of their income to mission. It's not strange to me why it's still open. Well, by 1905, the St. Andrew's community was a lot more prosperous, and it was bursting at the seams. So, once again, they pooled their resources and someone went around and collected money, and they built a new church, and that's the building that remains in regular use today. What do you suppose was the driving force, you know, what made the church the center of their activities?

Over the years, I've interviewed a lot of people who were members of that church. And they talked about their confirmation days. Now confirmation, for a lot of you, was a benchmark. Some of you didn't have the opportunity to go on to high school. Confirmation meant that you had reached that adult status. And they talked about how they would meet individually with the
pastor, and then all five churches – the students would be confirmed together in the big mother church, St. Andrew's. And they would meet for two weeks before confirmation, and they would board with the neighboring families. And their purpose was a two week, intense course on confirmation study. On the big day, the big day that they were confirmed, St. Andrew's stood proud and tall. Those young students would walk from the parsonage to the church, singing their song, and it might be, "Jesu Geh Voran” (Jesus, lead now on to life-long day) or "So Nimm Den Meine Hande, and Fuhre mich” (Take my hand, oh, Father, and lead the way). And they would walk that short journey from the parsonage. You know, they'd cross the threshold in that big church, and somehow, they were different. And it would be young girls in pretty white dresses, and young men in stiff suits with their hair slicked back with a flaxseed tonic that was homemade. They just felt different. It was a day that memories were made, and I know that because when I interview people, and I say, "How old do you think that person is?" and he'll say, "She's my age. We were confirmed together." It is a benchmark. Or "He's my brother's age, they were in the same confirmation class." It was that important. Church was that important. You know, it was before bowling leagues, it was before the Elk's Club, it was before all those "English" things came along. The church was the hub of the family life. It was the hub of the community.

Baptism. I have a great baptism story. Baptisms were performed as soon as the mother and child could get to church, and as soon as there could be a pastor there to do it. Sometimes lay people did the baptizing. And in the old tradition, if it was a male child, there were two men and a woman chosen for sponsors, and if it was a female child, there were two women and a man. And, that, too, was an important part of church life to have the baby baptized in front of the entire congregation. Well, in my family, there were Jacob and Selma. And Jacob and Selma were unusual. They weren't like everybody else, they had a lot of fun. They were kind of laid back, and sometimes they just barely got to church in time with all their kids in tow. You know how it was on the farm, you didn't just get up in the morning and go to church, there were chores, and you had to get everything done and organized and when those children came: bang, bang, bang, there wasn't much time for spousal communication. So they got to the church and the pastor said to Jacob, "Vas Soll das Kinder Seine Namen heisen.” [What will you name this child?] And Jacob was on the spot, because he realized [that] he and Selma hadn't discussed this. Now I'm going to back up a little, because you see, they already had all these children, and nicknames were very common, and they had an oldest son, whose name was Marvin, but nobody knew that, because they all called him Boy. And so, everybody forgot his name was Marvin. So, here we are in front of the baptismal font, and Jacob is on the spot. And he looks at Selma, and he looks at everybody else, and he quickly says, "Das kinder seine namen sollheissen, Marvin." After all, he knew that was a name they liked. So the service continued, and no one was the wiser, and it wasn't until they got into the Model A, that Selma said, “Ach, Gott Jelz hab Mir Zwei Marvins!” It was quite a fix, but it's probably not an uncommon story, I don't know, that's just the one that I have documented in my family history. I went back to the records, because this is lore, this has been passed down. I went back to the records, and yes, there's a Marvin #1, and down about seven or eight, there's a Martin. They changed the name to Martin. So Boy could keep his name of Marvin, and the new Marvin took on the moniker of Martin. So the name Martin graces the baptismal role.

Now, St. Andrew's, like so many rural churches of its day, has long served as, what I call, a beacon on the prairie. She has provided the loving arms of support to a needy congregation. The beautiful white of her architecture surrounded by fields of waving grain tells us that there's a message, a place, and a purpose saying, “I have a reason to be here.” Now, sometimes, when I visit St. Andrew's – and I really like to be there alone. I can almost see the rows of buggies, in strict order, while the families inside are worshipping, the men on the left (as I'm facing you), women on the right. As you enter, the men on the right, women on the left. And they're singing. I can hear that harmony of voices raising tribute to their God. Singing praise and thanksgiving with unmatched enthusiasm, grateful to have made it through another week, hoping to get through the next week.

I see traditional old country weddings. The processions are just like they were in the old country. My grandparents, Karl and Katherina, were the first ones married in the new church. It wasn't completely painted yet, when they had their wedding. I see real candles on the Christmas tree under the watchful eye of the superintendent, who had a bucket of water nearby. I see church elders passing out bags of candy to rosy-cheeked children, who had just done their best, and each of those bags, you remember, has nuts and one of those hard chocolate candies that made your teeth hurt, and a shiny red apple or an orange. I mean, it was winter on the prairie, fresh fruit was very rare! Well, I see scaffolding surrounding that church, as the community of St. Andrew's is gracing it with a new coat of paint. You didn't contract that out, you took care of it yourself. I see prairie women picking wild prairie roses, or maybe going to their garden, carefully picking flowers that came from seeds that they brought with them from the old country, and gracing that beautiful altar. Snow white cloth, lovingly embroidered by their own hands. The church meant so much to them. So for years, the walls of St. Andrew's have echoed words of comfort, and encouragement from that old-fashioned, high pulpit. First in German, and then later, St. Andrew's, a progressive congregation, began having English services. All those years, messages of hope and strength, promise of the Holy Spirit, and it carried them through another week of life. Life that wasn't – it was unpredictable, it wasn't always kind.

Let's take a walk through the cemetery. While many of the gravestones in the cemetery are a testament to long life, others tell another truth: the painful loss of young children to epidemics, women to childbirth, men to farm accidents. Prairie cemeteries are full of stories of pioneer life, with their raw truth.

Now I have no doubt that Adam and Magdalena [Meidinger] were comforted, knowing that there was a place to properly eulogize, and properly bury young Gottfried. He was nine. He died the day after Christmas in 1899. I'm sure it was a great comfort to them. And ten days later, when Eva died, and twenty days later, when Christina died, the walls of St. Andrew's provided that comfort for them. Smallpox. Those are among the oldest professional stones. If you walk through St. Andrew's, there are also depressions in the earth where you know there were graves that went unmarked. There were people who couldn't afford a marker.

Life was tough, it was a hard time, but you know that below there lie probably the small remains of some very special person, lovingly prepared by a family friend. There were no funeral homes to ease you into your grief. Casket was homemade, lined with whatever fabric they could get. Sometimes that baby was buried in its baptismal dress. St. Andrew's provided the comfort that they needed to help them understand.

There's another story told on the tombstone: that of Christina, 1923. She died. She was a mother of three. But Christina didn't die until two-year-old Jacob and nine-year-old Edwin, and finally four-year-old Julius died of diphtheria, in the days and weeks prior to her death. And I believe that Christina – that her will to live lessened with each death. And that when her last child was taken, she prayed to go with them, rather than stay on earth without them. It was a painful, hard time for them. Once again, St. Andrew's provided the sanctuary for her husband, her siblings, her parents, to properly grieve and surrender her from her earthly life.

There's young Walter, eleven-year-old victim of runaway horses. And there are young soldiers buried there who died fighting a war. It was the war to end all wars. Their parents, just thirty and forty years fresh from an immigration experience, surrendered their sons. An experience made, in part, so their sons wouldn't have to go to war. St. Andrew's helped them understand, helped them survive the pain. And even today, when someone in the community dies, the church bell tolls. It rings across the prairie, and it tolls the number of years that they lived on this earth. It reminds the community of the one thing that's constant in their lives, their spiritual connection.

So, whether I'm there rejoicing in a wedding, bringing a child's baptism, joining young people as they celebrate confirmation, or passing through the gates of the cemetery, singing, "Wo Findet die Seele, die heimat die ruh? (“Oh, where is the home of the soul to be found?") The worshippers at St. Andrew's, most of them descendants of the original fifteen families, have known the gift of peace and tranquility. It is a treasured heritage. How do I know all this? I have listened to the voices of St. Andrew's, I have interviewed its descendants, and they speak to me every time I make that pilgrimage. For me, the walls of St. Andrew's tell many truths, and I am happy to share these truths with you. Thank you.

Well, that didn't take too long. Now we have time to talk.

Audience (A) 1: I have a question. How far is the church from Zeeland?

CH: Because I only go there one way, I'm not sure how to tell you to get there from Zeeland.

A2: Twelve miles north.

CH: And then what's the turn?

A2: It's the turn – there's a bridge you hit just before Docter's turnoff.


CH: Don't drag Docters into this.

A2: Ten miles north and two miles east, yah.

CH: Set your odometer when you leave Zeeland, and whatever that turn is, and you will cross the bridge?

A2: Nope, before you cross the bridge.

CH: Oh, excuse me. See, I cross the bridge, where I come from.

A2: If you watch, you can see the tower when you're going north.

CH: That's right, that beautiful steeple. Oh, it's a wonderful sight. And if you're real quiet, you can hear some of those voices. Walk through that cemetery. Walk into the old stone church. And, because they've just celebrated their centennial, the church is open, it's always open, and you can see the pews, you can see the old stove, you can see the altar. [some interruption.] Reverend Freyman is an institution there. He wasn't just there, he was the church.

A4: I was confirmed by him.

CH: Well, there you are. You have your own story. What song did you sing on your Confirmation?

A4: Oh, I don't remember. It's been so long ago.

CH: Oh, I bet if you think. It's in the data banks.

A4: I wasn't confirmed at St. Andrew's though, I was confirmed at St. Luke's in Wishek. He was the minister there.

CH: Yah, he was there for a while. That's right. His distinguishing feature was the tall hat. He always wore a tall hat. All his pictures show him in a tall hat.

A4: He wasn't married, was he?

CH: No, and as I said, he was St. Andrew's. Does anybody have any questions, first of all, and then I'll go on to what else I wanted to share with you. Often, when I do this, I usually am quiet afterwards, because then I get stories back from people. So as the day progresses, if you have a confirmation story, a baptism story, a church story of any kind, do feel free to share it with me, or if there's something you want to share today about your own particular church experience. How many of you have your roots in a rural church? Does that mean you were baptized, confirmed? Okay. How many of you have grandparents who went to a rural church? Okay. So, everyone here has a connection to a rural church. St. Andrew's was not so different from other rural churches. When I tell this story in a nursing home, I have Finnish ladies and Swedish men come up to me and tell me the same thing. The feelings were the same. The rural church was the connection for everybody. It was the one thing that you could count on. You didn't have to get so lonely anymore because the church was there. And you knew, for sure, you'd be worshipping every week. Yes?

A5: This is back on the trip out from Ipswich. I'm trying to figure out in my mind how the railroad got to Ipswich, was it the one coming up from the south?

CH: From Yankton.

A5: And that was already built?

CH: It was, in 1885. That's documented also in this WPA history, given by Magdalena Meidinger Aipperspach, who is his oldest daughter. Those histories are just invaluable, and they are at the Institute for Regional Studies on microfilm. That history, alone, has ten sub-stories I could tell you about, like picking buffalo bones off the prairie. She remembers it well. There was a visit from an Indian, she calls him a chief, and his scouts. Based on the interview, I would say that was not an unusual incident, where an Indian or two or three would arrive by pony, because, after all, they're just across the Missouri. And how her mother would offer him coffee and bread, and he and his people didn't know the language, but of course they would communicate with hand signs. And yes, her mother was frightened, who hadn't heard those awful stories? The Sioux uprising was only twenty-five years earlier, so they had heard those awful stories. But for me, finding that in their interview is proof that there was successful and friendly Indian-white contact, which is contrary to what the rest of us seem to think there was. After all, the 1891 uprising, and the messenger sent down from Bismarck, saying, "The Indian are coming!” is enough to scare the socks off everybody. I needed to know that there was some positive white-Indian contact, and in the case of Adam Meidinger, there was. Yes?

A6: It seems to me that one time I heard that German-Russians, as a whole, were more friendly to the Indian, Native Americans like the Sioux, compared to any other ethnic group and vice versa.

CH: Well, they were both a minority. They didn't know the language, they didn't know the laws. Especially as Standing Rock opened for homestead, the native peoples were very kind to the white people. It kind of got less of a friendship, after their value systems began to clash, but in the early times, yes. The pioneers wouldn't have survived, without the native people helping them, teaching them. Tim Kloberdanz, in a heritage review, just a few years back, talked about the relationship between the native people of Standing Rock and the white settlers there. It's really worth reading, if you're at all interested in that.

Well, I have a mission here today. I am forever begging my father to tell his stories, and my mother to share some of her stories, and most of you here, probably, at least have children, and maybe grandchildren. It’s critical, if we’re going to perpetuate our heritage. If we’re going to pass on that pride in our heritage, we need to tell the stories. And don’t think they aren’t interested, they are. Now, as I was telling some of you earlier, storytellers can take a little poetic license, like I do. I try to breathe life into those name and dates. Those of us who are genealogists, we get the names and dates, but it’s important to breathe life into those people. And sometimes you need a little trigger. So I might – in my house, I have a wall full of photographs.

[Displaying Photographs]

This was Bob. He died in the Normandy invasion. Bob never got to be old, never got to have children, that’s why my daughter has his last name for a middle name. Little snippets of information are all those children and grandchildren need, and I guarantee you they’ll come back and they’ll ask for more. You don’t have to do a half hour like I do. You know, you can go on.

That is my Aunt Aldina’s art. I tell my children she was sort of self-taught, but she has hundreds of designs. This was her prairie art. Look around your homes, there are things that you can talk about. When my oldest daughter was born, I had an aunt who came up to me and she said, “I don’t know if you want this, but I think this was my mother’s.” Well, her mother died in childbirth at the age of 37. She was a woman I would never get to know, but now I have a piece of her art.

That’s what you have to share with your children and grandchildren. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about painful parts of your life, but it’s critical that they get to know the young Walters. My brother, Walter, is sitting over there in the corner. He’s named for that young Walter that died in the farm accident. That’s how we keep these stories alive. That’s how we pass on this heritage. If this organization is going to be alive twenty, thirty, forty years from how, you have got to make it important to you to tell those stories. German-Russians are unique, so are Norwegians, so are Swedes, but we are German-Russians, and if we’re going to keep that history alive, we have to tell the story.

Look in your family albums. This is Katherina’s wedding, the first one in the big church. Here it was a big deal. They had a photographer come and take pictures in 1906. Here they are in front of the sod house. Now this is – when you find one of those pictures, you say, “What do you think this is?” This is the summer kitchen, this is the cooking crew, these two were the schnapps carriers. They each had a role, it was important, and if it wasn’t in your lifetime, then you go back in that memory bank and talk about the grossmutter. Talk about [how] she wore a head shawl diehle every Sunday. Why? Well, because that’s what they did in the old country. And she carried a sprig of mint. Sometimes those church services got long. And she carried a handkerchief that was embroidered, like I carry. This is another form of that folk art in my family. Those of you who know how to stitch, sit down with your children, make that quilt, talk about family.

This is Katharina, she homesteaded. She hangs on my wall. My oldest daughter is the spitting image of this woman. She now has a connection to her past. Her history’s very interesting. The family had no sons. They came here; homestead law said a woman could homestead. She and her sisters homesteaded there along Beaver Creek. My grandpa had this picture. Now, he didn’t always volunteer things, but because of the way time worked, he lived with my parents for a while, I was the youngest child. He and I had a very nice dialogue, and I would pull out these pictures and say, “Now, Grandpa, who’s this?” And he might test the waters and see if I was interested, but finally he would talk about it. This was his mother, she planted all those trees along Beaver Creek on her tree claim. “She had a tree claim?” “Oh, yes, my farm was her homestead.” “It was her homestead!” I didn’t know that I had women like that in my heritage until then.

This is her mother, standing in the sod house. You can see the sod floor. You don’t know the value of your pictures. You have to talk to you children about this.

This is Salomea. She and her husband were pretty old when they got here, but they had sons of conscription age, and they just didn’t want to risk it. And they had a well-established farm in Neudorf, so they were able to sell all that and come here with a little bit of money. She delivered a baby in a wagon box. Her – by herself! Yes, she was a midwife, she was also a Braucha.

If you dig and you search and you look and you check those records, everybody – my family isn’t unique. It’s the same as yours. Tell those stories, the children need to know. There’s a wonderful new game out: Lifestories. My nine-year-old loves to play Lifestories. Now, she doesn’t have a lot in her history that she can talk about, so there are questions in here that are called valuables, I think it is, and they’re for the kids who don’t have much to talk about their past. But the person you want to play this with is Grandma, because they talk about school experiences, about outhouse experiences, about, you know, how did Grandma punish? Do you really want to know? She went out and cut a switch. I mean, how else are those kids going to know? You know, I was just home at Berlin, and my nieces and nephews like to hear stories, and we always take a walk through the town, and my niece Kristi said, (it was raining) “Well, aren’t you going to go to one of those old buildings?” I took her to the outhouse. There’s and old outhouse still standing behind the post office, and I told her what the difference was between a two-holer and a three-holer, and how sometimes they had a moon cut out of the sides. This one did not, I don’t know, maybe they didn’t use it at night. And it had rolls of toilet paper in it, and I said, “You know, this isn’t right, there should be an old catalog here.” And that triggered all kinds of memories. We walked to the fire hall, that’s were the custom combiners used to sleep in my childhood. I mean, there’s stuff in my childhood my children need to know. That’s what you have to do.

If you need help, for instance, this is something just to help you along. If you’re interested in Native American history, [a book displayed] this is a wonderful explanation of what life was like for Native Americans, pre-white contact. Other cultures have their story-tellers, like the Native Americans. They had story belts, that they used or they had winter count blankets that they used. The Hmong have story quilts. The Hmong have a language that isn’t written down, so they tell their stories in pictures. You must learn to tell the story. Pick up anthologies that talk about the stories we tell.

You think you don’t have stories, but you do. Talk about you first day of school, when you didn’t know any English, and you couldn’t [were not allowed to] speak German. How do you ask to go to the bathroom, when you can’t speak English, and it’s against the rules to speak German? That might have been your first character building experience in your life. There are tools out there to help you with storytelling. Some people prefer to start out learning folklore, learning folk tales. I go to my daughter’s school and tell Native American folk tales. Those kids just love hearing, you know, they’re based on legends that they... ? end of tape ?

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