German Russians on the prairie before and after World War II

Karen Herzog | Editor-in-Chief, Momentum Magazine
University of Mary

The stories of the tribe of those calling themselves the Germans from Russia are narratives of grit and faith, tragedy and endurance.

Humble little bands from southern Germany had lumbered halfway across Europe to the Russian steppes at the offer of free land and autonomy by Czarina Catherine the Great. There they plowed and planted and built prosperous, German-tidy villages.

After a century or so, things changed. Russian political unrest began to frown upon their isolated contentment. The Czarina was gone and her promises with her.

And so, the big families of the German-Russians started arriving in the Dakotas around the 1880s as a confusion of children and baggage on raw railroad platforms in jumping-off places like Eureka, South Dakota. Der Vater would anxiously scan the waiting crowd for a man from their old village in Russia, the first to risk his well-tended vineyards and fields for this featureless ocean of grass.

Like coal-mine canaries, these harbingers had sensed the first drift of toxins in the air of their Black Sea villages, foresaw the ending of their way of life. They smelled trouble brewing in Russia and saw in America another offer of free land. Land was the prize. Land was what endured. Land was everything.

More and more, families took the risk and leapt across the Atlantic’s landless expanse.

I am the fourth generation of one of those families. My paternal grand-parents, Christian and Katharina (Gebhardt) Rempfer, proved up their 160-acre homestead in southeastern North Dakota in 1900. This story is mine, and theirs, and belongs to many others as well.

God provided the raw materials, humans provided the sweat and muscle.

German Russians on the Prairie Before and After World War II
The replacement of horse teams by tractor power changed a way of life forever.
The flatness and vastness of the landscape could only be captured in photos, like this one, taken from the top of the windmill.

January 1950s/60s – Dickey County, ND

By the time Dad came in from two hours of trundling the flat hay wagon through the frozen pasture, cutting the double strings of 40-pound bales with his pocket knife and off-loading them into a slow swarm of white-faced Herefords, he was temporarily snow-blind. His insulated coveralls and fur-lined hat were white with snow. His hands, when he stripped off his heavy leather gloves, were also white, the blood having long since fled his extremities.

On those scalding cold days, when Mom dressed her warmest to gather eggs and feed chickens, she would take down a relic of the old folks’ life in Russia. Folding the massive square of wool into a triangle, she would carefully tie it under her chin. As she crossed the farmyard, the fringed wool shawl—the babushka—bobbed gloriously red against layer upon layer of whiteness.

Intimately molded to the subtleties of the natural world—the smell of rain on spring-warmed soil, the proper plumpness of wheat heads undulating under a prairie wind—the tribe learned in this new place to offer directions in terms of gravel road, slough, railroad tracks, country school, grain elevator, church steeple.

March – Calf in the bathtub

The bathroom floor in our circa-1900 farmhouse sagged slightly to the north because it was an add-on. The original outhouse was still standing, past the lilacs and tucked under the scrub ash and elm planted by my father during the drought years of the 1930s.

Occasionally, on a sleety, chill March afternoon, I would get off the school bus and go into the bathroom to find a Hereford calf in the bathtub.

Wet calves chill fast on cold muck, and sometimes a mother would butt one away when he tried to nurse. These, Dad would bring in for a day or so, to prevent pneumonia and hoping that the mother would have a change of heart.

America saved this tribe from extinction in Russia, only to work another kind of dissolution in its proverbial melting pot. But this kind of speculation about the dim future was a luxury compared to the daily worries that go with dependence on the land. Above and over all, there was work to be done. Always work.

April – Baby chicks, meadowlarks singing

Self-sufficiency was a high priority—having one’s own gas pump, a large garden in the summer, full root cellar in the winter, hogs, fowl, beef and dairy cattle, and goose-down feathers for a traditional wedding gift of pillows.

Self-sufficiency was a high priority—Having one’s own gas pump, a large garden in the summer, full root cellar in the winter, and goose-down feathers for a traditional wedding gift of pillows.

The first true day of spring isn’t necessarily the equinox or even Easter.

Here’s how I recognized it: Waiting at the mailbox for the school bus to appear lumbering down our gravel road, the sun would shine with a new yellow-greenness. In the ditches, the surface of the puddles became delicate laces of ice overlaid with meltwater.

And there would be a meadowlark singing, effervescent, his song carrying for miles in the clear, cold air.

In the summer kitchen, baby chickens would be surrounded by a protective wall of corrugated cardboard, all soft yellow down, cheeping, warmed under the heat lamp.

That was the first day of spring. Even a blizzard after that would be a spring one.

For two or three generations after immigration, church, clan, language kept the tribe bonded despite the strictures of the Homestead Act, which required them to disperse from the old communal village to individual 160-acre farms.

That separation from village life was the first great unhooking of the tribe, though it wasn’t apparent at first. There was too much work to do. The great prairie sod was sliced and overturned. Wheat was planted. Barley and oats and flax went into the rich, thick clay. Cattle grazed behind barbed wire fences and piglets grew up to become homemade pork sausage.

The prairie was raw, but the work was familiar. The seasons of the plow, the disc, the rake, the harrow, the horse-drawn, and then steam-powered thresher.

The cyclical rhythms of the farm held.

June – Sun-cracked black hose

The first automobiles meant that large broods of young people could take Sunday expeditions to places such as Whitestone Hill.

The gritty bar of Lava soap on the sink left a gray puddle where Dad had scrubbed at the ground-in grease on his hands that was gradually silting in the river of his lifeline and the whorls of his fingertips.

Navy blue bruises under his fingernails and gouges and scrapes were always in various stages of healing from wrenching at stubborn, oil-coated bolts underneath some machine.

Sometimes when the wrench slipped, he would swear, but in German with “Gott im himmel!”, the closest he ever came to taking the Lord’s name in vain.

In the country, everything you don’t have on hand or can’t make or fix yourself wastes precious hours. With no nearby gas station to coast to when the tank reads ‘E’, it’s important to have your own gas pump by the garage with a sun-cracked black hose and a good credit record with the Standard Oil truck driver.

In a pinch, you can borrow from the farm down the road, but only sparingly and promptly repaid, lest you risk getting a reputation for being feckless.

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

-T.S. Eliot

On the prairie, church and country school kept transfusing life into traditional bonds that were stretching thin from the strains of fitting into a new land.

The Great Depression buckled that fragile stability. Farmers on the margins lost their homesteads, by drought or grasshoppers, to unpaid taxes. When mouths were too many around the kitchen table and crops dried up, young men went off to the Civilian Conservation Corps, the New Deal jobs program, or they were hired out to uncles or other farmers as field hands.

Then the tsunami that was World War II rolled out of Europe and the Pacific. When the war subsided, the old geography of pioneer life on the plains was changed forever.

The German language took a mortal blow as Uncle Sam homogenized ethnicities. The Dakota Germans’ Swabish dialect, with its mushy consonants, an antique relic of southern Germany, preserved in isolation on the Russian steppe for 150 years, gave way to English at church, school and on Main Street.

In contrast to the German parents’ dread of their sons being conscripted into the Russian army, the new Americans were proud of their sons’ service for this country. Above, my grandmother’s brother, John Gebhardt, and his son, John L. Gebhardt.
My grandmother, Katharina Rempfer, left, gave birth to 14 children and earned the highest compliment that could be given to a farm woman: “She could work like a man.”

After Pearl Harbor, when the Selective Service came looking, it found naïve, work-toughened farm boys conditioned to obedience. They were dispersed into the Army or enlisted in the Marines or the Air Force, though they’d never ridden on a plane, or the Navy, though they’d never seen an ocean.

Most survived but never returned to the farm. For one thing, tractors had put the horses out to pasture, and the labor of so many hands was no longer needed. That 160 acres of homestead couldn’t produce enough money to give all those sons the independence they wanted. They’d been to war, and they wouldn’t come back to be their father’s or their brother’s dependent
or hired man.

And the G.I. Bill opened up another path: education, a different future, possibilities other than working sunup to sundown on the farm.

For those who remained, the air seemed to ring with a coming loneliness. The remaining connection was the summer visit to “the home place.”

July – Children ran wild and free

Ours was the home place.

In the summer, our farm was gloriously overrun with waves of cousins, as my dad’s brothers and sisters returned to visit the relatives.

All day, we children ran wild and free, climbing on the old rusted thresher, a steampunk locust abandoned along a fencerow, crawling up the tall bale stacks, wandering through the pasture, keeping a safe distance from the bulls and snacking on shards of bright orange salt lick.

Quiet as a cathedral, with dust motes floating in the slanting sunbeams, the haymow in our weathered red barn held an immense hillock of loose hay in one corner and short stacks of bales along the sides.

Whatever else we played at all those long days, the best, the very best, was “The Rope.” It was glorious.

This beautiful rope hung in the cavernous haymow of our rambling red barn. An enormous barn spider, palpitating in its web, guarded the stairs, and to whom we gave a respectful, shuddering distance.

Thick as a snake, the rope curved over a monstrous pulley that slid on a rail along the entire length of the high-peaked ceiling. Doubling the rope into a sling, we’d sit or stand in the loop, climb a stack of bales and launch ourselves. Round and round the immensity, swinging in huge circles and arcs, we soared, letting go and dropping into the scratchy, fragrant pile of hay.

By suppertime, we’d be sweaty, grimy, crosshatched with scratches and straw in our hair, perfectly happy.

Everyone on a farm had work to do.

No one was allowed to slack. Small children were started out with easy chores—at the water pump and scoop shovel, set on the tractor seat with orders to just keep it going straight, locking the chicken coop against foxes, turning out the cows to graze, chaining the gates against their slow, bovine conviction that the most luscious grass is always just over the fence.

Everyone contributed. Grandmothers could still peel potatoes. Grandfathers could still drive the tractor and offer a great plenty of advice.

Aunt Pauline tended the clusters of cousins who returned to the home place every summer.

August – Steaming-hot cows, huge black horseflies

In the dark confines of a milking shed at the end of a 90-plus degree day, with 20 large bovine bodies radiating heat, the ambient temperature approaches the surface of the sun.

Fly spray in a pump discouraged the huge black horseflies not at all. As they tortured the steaming-hot cows, necks closed in their stanchions, the Guernseys would fight back with their only weapon, coarse tails that switched continuously. As I milked, compressed between two sweltering cows, I could anticipate either an occasional baseball-bat ‘thunk’ on the head from the tormented cow I was milking or—if Dad hadn’t trimmed the cow’s tail—a long dragging lock, which the cow could whip around my head to snap directly in my eye.

When I’d poured the last bucket of milk into the bowl of the cream separator, watching the yellow cream come out one spout and the blue skim out the other, it was my job to lug the skim in a crusted grease pail to the hogs, pouring it through the fence into the V-shaped trough, while the hogs stood in it with their front hooves to drink.

A bird’s-eye view of my Dakota tribe would reveal a fantastically intricate design of expected behaviors, mutual obligations, social strata, convoluted family trees and etiquettes formal as a minuet.

In the country, you help your neighbors, like them or not. If you shirk this obligation, the tribe knows it and labels you. The worst that can be said of anyone is that they are lazy or that they think they are better than others. To brag, to boast, is to lose face. The richest farmer in the neighborhood must be in appearance indistinguishable from the poorest. To provoke envy by displaying one’s good fortune is bad form.

Vestiges of this mutual obligation live on in the gravel road wave—two fingers lifted off the steering wheel as you pass one another, whether or not you recognize the car. The assumption is that anyone on this lonely stretch of road has some business being there. To ignore someone in your vicinity—even through window glass—is unpardonably rude. You are then regarded permanently by one and all as ‘too big for your britches.’

A crew building the farm’s new garage took shifts with the shingling. Only working together made farm life possible.

October – Hanging dust, red sunsets

Harvest creates hanging dust and red sunsets. Combines trundle along, row after row, round after round, stalks falling before
their teeth and silky grain pouring out behind.

All summer, a garden harvest was also being tucked away. A dirt-floored basement with a prairie rock foundation, 50 degrees year-round, populated by salamanders and spiders, housed shelves of Ball jars filled with beans and beets, pickles and soup, tomatoes, and peaches and pears. Potatoes in gunnysacks and braids of onions hanging from nails were stored in the cold room.

Language was the great divide that separated those children of the tribe born before World War II and those born after.

American G.I.s remembered their German but didn’t speak it at home. German stories and jokes that were uproarious to their elders at family gatherings meant nothing to little postwar American ears.

December – Stille Nacht, white steepled church

December was a breather. Outdoor work was mostly maintenance and repairs and worry about next year. Now there would be time to pay a visit on a Sunday to the relatives, where the grandpas and great-uncles would smoke cigars, play cards and argue politics in a mix of German and English.

Those grandpas and great-uncles were bound at some point to fix us children underfoot with a gaze and ask, “Sprechts du Deutsch?”

Our honest answer, which used up most of the German we knew, was, “Nein or ein bisschen.”

Grandpas were disappointed but stoic. They didn’t blame us.

Their memories of beautifully tended Black Sea grapevines and orchards would die with them. Jokes and expressions, beloved hymns in German, were replaced by a single “Stille Nacht” sung by the children by candlelight at Christmas Eve services. That night, at least, all the centuries of the tribe’s life were gathered in one place—an ornately carved Gothic altar and pulpit from their deep Black Forest life of antiquity, housed in an iconic white steepled church on their new prairie home.

Where there is bread, there is home.

German-Russian proverb

The grandparents, the ones who remembered Russia or whose parents did, are gone, and all that memory with them.

Nevertheless, they were proud to become Americans. And after all, with this tribe, sadness of one kind or another was familiar, an inevitable part of life. And their pragmatic nature understood that, after all, survival and their children’s survival, was worth the price.

And traits of the tribe remain: The first topic of any conversation is the weather. We notice each morning which direction the wind is coming from. When it doesn’t rain, even though we have plenty of city water, we worry. We worry about the land. How it’s doing. Is it too dry, too wet? When it blizzards, though we are snug in town, we worry about the cattle in the country. We plant vegetable gardens and are perplexed by those who don’t.

The ballast to this inherited worry is the bone-deep joy in the natural world, a love for big, open skies, the long view to the horizon, the blessing of a cottonwood’s shade on a scorching day. Gallant strings of migrating geese barking overhead pull us outside to wish them well.

We still belong to the land. That is the tribe’s legacy. †

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors.

It is the democracy of the dead.

Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.

G.K. Chesterton

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