Cathay Farmer Visits Ancestral Village
Johnson, Larry. “Cathay Farmer Visits Ancestral Village.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 6B.
CATHAY - Lester Seibold is traveling a road into the past that he knows never will end.
Physically, it has taken the 52-year-old Cathay farmer to Fargo, Grand Forks, Romania, the Soviet Union and, next summer, the Wurttemberg area of Germany.
In his mind, he has traveled back to the Age of Reason, the reign of Catherine the Great in Russia and the time when his great-great-grandfather left Germany on a difficult journey that eventually would lead his descendants to a farm near a small town on the central North Dakota prairie.
Seibold isn’t sure what sparked his interest, which led him to log 3,000 miles commuting to a German-Russian culture class at North Dakota State University and to take time off from farm work last winter to study history and language at the University of North Dakota.
But he says that no matter how much knowledge he accumulates about history, culture and his family’s ancestry, he will never be satisfied. “The more you know, the more questions you ask,” says Seibold, “and new information sheds light that makes you look at things differently again.”
Tim Kloberdanz, who teaches a German-Russian culture course at NDSU, describes Seibold as “the kind of student every professor dreams of having” because of his interest and passion to learn.
Seibold says part of the reason for his pursuit of knowledge is that he has a natural interest in history. “Another thing would be, how come I’m a wheat farmer? How come I’m a Baptist? And from there on, it just went . . . it becomes an unraveling mystery.”
In 1977, after taking Kloberdanz’s class, Seibold went to Romania, which his great-grandfather had left in 1885 to find new land, peace and personal freedoms.
A scouting party for the family first traveled to Palestine to find land to settle, but they found the country too unstable. On the way home they heard glowing accounts of Canada from an English army surgeon who had relatives in America.
So it was that they set out in 1885 to see land near Regina, Saskatchewan. That was about the time of the Louis Riel rebellion in Canada, which prompted 13 families from the village of Atmagea, Romania, to change their plans and settle in North Dakota instead.
Seibold’s great-grandfather homesteaded one-half mile west of Seibold’s present farm and his grandfather homesteaded just across the road that passes his mailbox.
Seibold recalls the deep depression in a nearby slough where the settlers scooped out clay to build their adobe homes on the prairie. The slough has been farmed over, wiping out another small trace of the past.
The Baptist Germantown Church, the focal point of the German-Russian community, was two miles west. It’s now the site of a roadside rest area. Seibold says that just a mile or two north of his farm, a Catholic church marks the settlement site of Germans who came from Germany. A few miles to the southeast, Norwegians settled and had their Lutheran church.
Each immigrant group kept to itself then, operating as a separate community, but time has eroded most of the intangible barriers thrown up by cultural and religious differences.
Seibold says his great-great-grandfather, Johannes Seybold (the last name was spelled differently then), left the Wurttemberg area of Germany in 1817 for the Black Sea region of Russia, where Catherine the Great and later Alexander I promised German farmers land and privileges. Catherine wanted the Germans, who were known as excellent farmers, in Russia to increase agricultural output.
Shortages of land and resistance to the influence the Age of Reason was having on Wurttemburg churches are among the reasons Seibold sees for his ancestors’ emigration from Germany. It also was a time of growing warfare. In the largely feudal German society of the time, Duke Frederick II of Wurttemburg assumed the title of king and was a despotic ruler, instituting universal military service.
“Fateful Danube Journey,” a diary of the river journey to Russia, tells of a harsh trip to the new land that some German emigrants didn’t live to see. Seibold says the Germans were made ill by polluted water, exposed to the elements in open boats and, finally, were quarantined in unheated buildings at the Russian border for 24 days, even during winter.
“How many survived is hard to imagine now,” says Seibold. “I’m sure many were disillusioned.”
His family’s names are listed in a book “The Emigration from Germany to Russia in the Years 1763-1862,” by Karl Stumpp, which Seibold says is a valuable tool for anybody tracing German-Russian ancestry.
Seibold’s mother also recognized many names in a rare book he obtained from a Canadian, “Die Deutschen in der Dobrudscha (Dobrudja),” about Germans in an area of Romania east of Bucharest between the Danube and the Black Sea. “To my mother it almost appeared like a letter from home,” he says.
Armed with that information, plus interviews with the oldest members of his family he could find and a written account by one of his mother’s aunts, he was able to trace his family back to 1786, when his great-great-grandfather was born near Wurttemberg.
Seibold’s ancestors left the village of Teplitz in the Bessarabian region of Russia in 1842 to settle in Dobrudja, which then was under Turkish control.
Many Germans left Russia because the government began reneging on privileges promised by Catherine and Alexander, including freedom from military service.
“There could be all kind of reasons he left,” says Seibold, adding that his ancestors were among the first to leave Russia.
“It was a hard life,” he says. “I’m sure he was disillusioned.”
In Dobrudja, the Germans could maintain their language, religion and culture without interference, says Seibold. Also, Christians were not allowed in the Turkish army.
“I think they had a good life,” says Seibold.
But when the Dobrudja region became part of Romania, the Germans faced a renewed threat to their lifestyle and once again they faced compulsory military service.
Seibold’s family left Romania in 1885, homesteading in North Dakota near Cathay, northwest of Carrington.
In the fall of 1977, Seibold and a brother, Eldon, went to Romania on a tour that took them near their family’s old home at Atmagea.
“I had no contacts over there,” he says. “I knew no one. It was really taking a chance.”
But they managed with some difficulty to rent a car and find Atmagea. Seibold located the church where his great-grandfather was married and visited ruins of the German emigrants’ adobe homes on the outskirts of Atmagea.
On the way back to his car to get more film for his camera, Seibold met a woman who spoke German.
She recalled his ancestors and knew where they had lived. Seibold s mother now corresponds with the Romanian woman.
“I was flabbergasted that I could make this connection yet, 92 years after the actual departure of my people,” says Seibold.
“You could really see the connection ... the countryside was just like North Dakota,” Seibold recalls from his trip.
He was unable to visit Teplitz, but he did fly over it on a side excursion to Kiev. From the air, the country around Teplitz also resembles North Dakota, he says.
Seibold now is brushing up on his German language to prepare for a trip to Wurttemberg next summer to continue his search into the past.
He acquired somme ability to speak German from classes at UND and from his childhood years at home.
“All of us had to learn German prayers,” says Seibold. “Grandma and Grandpa saw to that.”
Old German homes built by Germans who left Russia for Romania still stand on the outskirts of Atmagea.
Although time and elements have damaged the old houses in Atmagea, they were durable structures.
The same style of bricks made of clay, straw and manure were used by Germans in Russia, Romania and North Dakota.
Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.