Germans From Russia In "THE SETTLEMENT"
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Life on our high plains has always been rigorous and most early settlers were poor. Yet by reason of their strong personal relationship with God, their hard work and frugality, and their real sense of community (neighbors helping neighbors), the people of Friedensfeld (field of peace as the Settlement was first named) developed an oasis of diligent agriculture, growing numbers of diverse livestock, modest homes and tidy homesteads, good rural schools and a strong Christian community centered around the Immanuel Lutheran and Hope Congregational churches. Most of them spoke English, Swabian and High German until WW2. Our forebearers [sic] had not accepted "Russification" in the Old Country, yet they incorporated many Russian words and terms into their Swabian dialect, and this linguistic mix made their oft-repeated legends and stories absolutely fascinating. They knew the Scriptures, the classic German hymns and American gospel songs, studying and singing them in their homes as well as their churches. They were many-talented farmers, ranchers, builders, craftsmen, blacksmiths, and mechanics. In time some-of them and their descendants became professionals in education, business, Christian ministry and mission, engineering, architecture, journalism, music, government and service industries.
Their ancestors were Swabians (descendants of the ancient Celts and cousins of the Irish) who lived for centuries in the forests and highlands of southern Germany. In contrast to the Hessians and Prussians of northern and eastern Germany, the Swabians and their Bavarian neighbors were independent and "laid-back" in character, not easily regimented, sure of their own identity and values but also appreciative of other people and their culture. These creative, freedom loving people chafed under the increasing restrictions and heavy taxation of the feudal dukes and princes who controlled the lands and forests. They were often pillaged, plundered and ravaged by invading French armies, especially during the time of Napoleon.
Catherine the Great, a German princess married to Czar Peter III, became the Czarina of All the Russias after her husband's death. Of strong will and character, she developed her huge empire with political wisdom and economic genius. In July 1763 she issued an edict of invitation to immigrants from western Europe, offering them an array of inducements to settle and develop the regions along the Volga River and the vast, untamed steppes of southern Russia. Thousands of Germans responded and in only four years established 104 pioneer colonies along the Volga. Catherine died in 1792 and was succeeded by Czar Alexander I. A few German colonies had sprung up near the Black Sea as early as 1781, but when Alexander issued a new invitation in 1801, thousands of new immigrants from southern Germany trekked overland with carts and wagons or floated their families and meager possessions down the Danube in "schachteln" (box boats), establishing new colonies around the Black Sea and in Bessarabia between the rivers Dnjestr and Pruth. The Schaals and Doblers were among the founders of Teplitz, the Strobels and others of Beresina, and the Hasarts and Weisshaars help found Lichtenthal.
Many of the Russian Empire's promises to these immigrants were never fulfilled, and in time their civil liberties (administration of their own schools, freedom from conscription etc.) and religious freedoms began to be taken from them. The colossal magnets of civil and religious freedom, of new land to be homesteaded, and of other opportunities awaiting them in Amerika drew hundreds of thousands of Germans-from-Russia to the United States from the early 1870's until the outbreak of World War I.
They began to leave in 1872. Through 1886 to 1889 many of these people came to this country by ship through the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and finally crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Others went across country to the northern ports boarding ships and crossing the north Atlantic. They left most of their possessions behind along with family and friends whom many were never to see or correspond again. Their possessions that were brought with them were put in bundles and wooden trunks. These contained clothing, bedding, a few dishes, and a few personal belongings. The trip took from two to three weeks and was not an easy trip with many becoming ill.
They arrived at different ports of entry with most arriving at New York City stopping at Ellis Island for processing including medical examinations. Others arrived at Baltimore MD, Galveston, TX, and other ports. Sometimes family members were ill and temporarily held in isolation and later joined their families. Because of the language problem getting on their way west was difficult. Many railroad agents were trying to get the immigrants to sign work contracts with them. The authorities helped these people get on their way and were placed on the correct trains sending them to their destinations.
We can feel the excitement that surrounded these families as they made their way to their new homes. The Homestead Act was an answer to their prayers and hopes. With these thoughts they left South Dakota and headed south and west. We will never know how they pictured this country they were to live in but they had heard of the small town of Burlington and knew there was land to be taken up near it.
Burlington was a very young and promising town as the railroad had just been completed in 1888 making settlement possible. Bethune was 7 miles to the west and it was north of these towns that our immigrants came. The soil was a sandy loam making it easier to plow and till. With rainfall being scarce they felt that this was the better place to settle. One really wonders what went through their minds as they struggled to make a living on this Great American Desert. It was a very meager and simple lifestyle that was ahead of them.
Their first efforts were to open up the land and plant crops and establish homes. These homes were to be similar to the ones they left on the steppes of Russia. They were to make do with the materials present. Some of these people made "dugouts." A hole was cleared out of the hillside and they framed the opening with lumber and had a door. Some lived in their wagons that first summer. Most of their homes were constructed of sod and adobe. Adobe is a mixture of dark clay top soil, chopped straw and water. They mixed this up by stomping it with their feet and by using the family horse. This mixture was formed by hand to shape the base of the walls and layer after layer was applied until the walls were the right height. Some buildings were made with rock using adobe as mortar. The roof was covered with wooden planks and then sod was placed on top to seal out the weather. Some homes had wooden roofs. These homes were small consisting of two or three rooms with most having adobe floors.
As these German speaking settlers came into the community establishing their homes near each other they became known as the "Settlement." We may ask, why did they cling together in this land? There are several answers. They had just left the closed community that was home for many years and felt comfort by settling closely. They had all come from the same region and had a common language, a similar if not a common religion, and they were strangers in a hostile land where they needed each other for support and comfort. Without this help and support they would have given up. Many had to seek outside employment so that funds could be raised so that they could send passage money to the ones left behind. Sometimes families came over at separate times with the father and older boys coming first, because of the sons being taken into the armies, and the mother with the younger children coming later. The large family units were to help each other by providing funds for transportation for those left in Russia.
It was a difficult time and by pulling together to share a milk cow, a horse for plowing, seed to plant, machinery to use and a start of chickens they were able to survive. It was known that there was only one gun in the Settlement to be used by all. Even with this love and cooperation some had to leave the group to find employment and then return and keep up their claim. This was a time of struggle and heartache as they sought to establish a home on the plains.
One of the most difficult adjustments to be made was the coping with the climate and extreme weather conditions of this region. They had their first experience with severe blizzards, hail storms, prairie fires (there were lots of these), droughts, grasshopper plagues, summer heat, dry air and dirt storms. There were no streams close by so water was hauled for months from the Republican and Landsman rivers. If someone had a well, many hauled water from there till they could have their own well dug. The trees for protection and shelter were absent. The long hot days of summer with the bright sun beating down to dry the crops and evaporate the precious rainfall were factors that even the strongest found difficult to bear. They did find comfort in their cool adobe homes.
This year, 1892, more families moved into the Settlement. They were Johann Wahl, Martin Stahlecker and Samuel Schmidke who came from Scotland, South Dakota and Christian and Andrew Adolf from Russia. In 1895 a blizzard hit the area in the first part of April. New settlers coming in 1899 were Christian Gramm, Andreas Weber and John Zeigler.
In 1901 diphtheria broke out with 10-12 people dying. There was a Dr. Gillette in Burlington but he had not been summoned. Most illnesses and births were attended to by Mrs. Yale and Mrs. Adolf. In 1889 the Yale post office was established in the community at the Yale farm. Families arriving in 1901 were John and Joe Weisshaar, with Gottlob and Herman Amman coming in 1902.
More families came in 1906 and 1907. They were the Knodels, Johannes, Andreas, Jakob, Gottlieb and the widow Knodel, Karl Weiss, Johannes Weias, Peter Kodel, Karoline Schaal and Herman Stolz. The William Adolf family came in 1908. The mother, Margaret Adolf, was the community's midwife and nurse for many years.
In 1909 the first mail route out of Bethure went north. Mr. Ed Stahlecker was assistant carrier. There were 20-25 families in the Settlement by then.
The early 1900's was the time of getting established, crops were gathered, homes made permanent and the people were able to see a permanence coming to the community. So much of the labor of farming was provided by man power those early days. The scythe and threshing rock were first used to harvest those few acres that were planted. Horses were all important. Small grains were cut down by horse drawn headers and put onto barges with the family manning the pitch forks loading it neatly in huge stacks. These were made carefully so that they would shed the rain and would not settle in the middle as the crop could rot if water got into the stack. The main crops were winter wheat and corn. Later in the season the threshing machines came to the farms and the wheat was pitched into the machine and the grain was caught and weighed in '/s bushel measurements so that accurate count could be maintained. The grain was stored in graineries for use on the farm and some sold for cash. The straw was blown into huge piles and was used for feed for the cattle. The community worked together as farming took lots of man power to accomplish the tasks to be done. Walking and other physical labor that was required made for hardy individuals. Other crops that were raised were oats, barley and feed for the livestock. They kept animals that could produce food for the table, mainly milk cows, sheep and swine providing meat, milk, wool, lard and soap. Fowls consisted of chickens for meat and eggs, geese and ducks for meat and feathers for bedding and corn shucks and straw were used for mattress filler.
Homemaking was a busy and difficult task. Water was carried to the house and washing was done by hand. Cooking was simple at first
as their cooking was done on the earthen ovens constructed of adobe. They could bake their bread or simmer their meal in a kettle. Later cast iron stoves were purchased using fuel of corn cobs, cow chips, sage brush roots and anything else that would burn. The table was simple with long benches along the sides, most furniture being made by hand. Their trips to town were few with the father going in to make all purchases for the family. Many times the mother and children went to town once a year. Purchases were simple, flour was 60-70 cents per 50 lbs., sugar, syrup at 25 cents a pail, salt, coffee and other staples.
The first tractor was purchased in 1917 by Frank Kramer. Approximately 15 men were inducted into the service for World War I. We see changes of transportation and the mechanization of farming. The automobile replaced the horse and buggy. New families were the Meyers and the Hasarts.
The community was hurt by the events of 1929. Due to the stock market crash and the closing of banks in Burlington and Bethune, people suffered some severe losses. The loss of their life savings left a permanent mark on the community.
This farming region suffered through many trials. One was the drastic drop of farm commodity prices. In 1931 hogs sold for 7 cents a lb., corn was as low as 10 cents a bu. and there was the destruction of farm animals by order of the Department of Agriculture. To make things harder was the drouth that came. This became a time of decision and many families left this area. In 1935 the churches lost more than 130 members due to the drouth and resulting dust storms.
A tremendous change came to the farming community during the 1940's. The advancing of modern farm equipment made farming a little easier. Rubber tires on the tractors made for greater comfort. The tractors developed more horsepower so larger implements could be pulled allowing for the farms to grow in size. The nation was at war and the demand for foodstuffs was at a premium. This provided the area with a healthier financial base.
With the arrival of REA to the farming community many modern changes were made. Before this time many people had their own electrical systems which were small and unable to meet the needs of the times. With good prices most were able to enjoy a fine living standard and the farms were prosperous.
The first irrigation well was drilled in 1962 on the John Schritter farm. After this many wells were drilled which helped stabilize the agricultural base of the community. The early 1950's were drouth and dust bowl years again. Very little wheat or feed was raised during this period with people leaving the farms again. Cattle herds were sold off due to the lack of feed. Irrigation was used to water crops and produce some feed allowing for many farmers to hang on. The binder was being replaced by the baler and newer and larger tractors were seen on the farms. Self propelled combines were a great help.
Now in 1988 this community is still making its way with many of the descendants of those first pioneers still remaining on the land. The churches, Immanuel Lutheran and Hope United Church of Christ, are still active landmarking the endurance of this community. Although many new families now live in this community, it is still referred to by many as the Settlement. If those first pioneers could be with us now they would see that their dream of freedom and a home of their own became a reality in the presence of this community today.