|With Determination They Settled a County: Stories of Early Pioneers
Reveal Hardships and Struggles They Faced
Gehring, Karlene Hill. "With Determination They Settled a County: Stories of Early Pioneers Reveal Hardships and Struggles They Faced." Hazen Star, 22 September 2005, sec. 2B, 5B & 8B.
They picked and sold buffalo bones to make ends meet. They face fierce
winters with barely four walls to protect them from the elements.
Food was scare and often meals consisted of bread and milk, maybe
a chicken once a month.
But these early pioneers of Mercer County preserved and worked
to settle this county that was little more than barren land when
No to tribute to agriculture would be complete without remembering
and honoring those early pioneers who forged their lives on Mercer
Their struggles, tragedies and triumphs serve as reminders of what
it means to persevere and work to leave a legacy for the future.
It’s a legacy that continues today for everyone who calls
Mercer County home.
From 1936 to 1940, many of those early pioneers were interviewed
as part of the Historical Data Project. A Works Progress Administration
(WPA) program, the purpose of the Historical Data Project was to
preserve the rich history of the United States.
|Arriving in America, the
early pioneers built sod homes in which they faced the North
Dakota winters. This sod house belonged to either the Klindworth
or Pitts family in the Golden Valley area. Malvin Miller donated
the photo to the Hazen Library.
Sponsored by the WPA Division of Women’s and Professional
Projects and the State Historical Society of North Dakota, the project
involved interviewing early pioneers in an effort to gather their
biographical and historical information. While some early pioneers
gave only the information needed for a prepared survey sheet, others
shared their personal stories of settling Mercer County.
Their stories, which are on microfilm, are available at the North
Dakota State University, the University of North Dakota, and the
State Historical Society of North Dakota.
Loni Meyhoff of Hazen went through microfilm and copied the stories
and information provided by Mercer County pioneers. This information
is now available at the Hazen Public Library as part of its local
The stories told by the pioneers are captivating and humbling as
we are reminded of the debt that is owed to the steadfast men and
women who settled Mercer County.
COMING TO AMERICA
The reasons why these pioneers came to Mercer County are as varied
as the people themselves. Christian Usselman left his home in Odessa,
Russia in September 1885. He was 20 years old when he left Russia
because he wanted to get away from the Russian Army.
Christian left behind his three brothers, father and mother.
Discussing his life growing up, Christian said his family had lived
in Russia generation after generation for more than 200 years. His
family was wealthy but when Christian’s father told him he
had to join the Russian army and stay until he was a captain, which
would be at least eight years, Christian ran away from home. With
very little money, he borrowed 200 rubles from his cousin and started
Also arriving in America from Russia was Jacob Kruckenberg, who
immigrated to the United States with his parents Gottlie and Dora
in the fall of 1888. He was 17 years old and also left Russia to
escape the Russian army.
Jacob said all young men were expected to serve three years in
the army with low pay, hard work and long hours.
The trials the pioneers faced just getting to the United States
would have been enough to force many people to turn around, but
they forged ahead with their journey.
The Kruckenberg family traveled through Austria and Germany and
Jacob remembered they were sick through most of the journey, with
most of the trip spent in bed, both on land and on the water.
When the family landed in New York, Jacob had an eye disease and
came close to being shipped back to Russia, but after undergoing
several examinations by different doctors he was given permission
to continue the journey.
Christian’s journey was harrowing because he was running
away from home. He tried to cross the border into Austria but because
he did not have a pass, the officials threatened to send him back
to Russia. Christian ran away from the officials and hid in an old
building for two days without anything to eat.
He left the building where he was hiding to find something to eat
and met a Jewish man who offered to smuggle him across the boarder
for $50. Christian paid the fee and that same evening was taken
across the border into Austria.
Christian made his way to Germany and traveled through that country
for three days. He bought a pass to America but was robbed that
same night. He boarded the ship bound for America penniless. He
shoveled coal into the boilers, washed dishes and scrubbed the floors
for his room and board. He landed in New York City in 1885.
HEADING WEST TO DAKOTA
As the pioneers landed on the shores of the United States they
began their second leg of their new life as they headed west.
Coming to New York with no money, Christian worked at a railroad
round house cleaning passenger cars and as a tool carrier for two
months before heading to Enswich, S.D., where his second cousin
The Kruckenberg family arrived in New Salem in the late fall of
1888. There was about eight inches of snow on the ground and it
was bitter cold. The family stayed in New Salem where they constantly
asked people about a good location to homestead.
Shortly before New Year’s Day, Ludwig Werner Sr., a Mercer
County farmer, came to New Salem to buy his winter supply of groceries
and flour. He met the Kruckenbergs and invited the family to come
with him and stay at his home until they found a location to homestead.
They accepted the invitation and arrived in Mercer County with
a little cash and a few pieces of clothing.
“That winter Mr. (Gottlie) Kruckenberg walked all over the
nearby county in snow up to his knees looking for a nice level piece
He filed on a piece of land two miles west of the Wagner farm.
It took Christian longer to make his way to Mercer County. He lived
in South Dakota until 1901, marrying his wife Anna, in 1890. Finally
in the spring of 1901, Christian decided to start farming for himself
and set out with traveling companions, Jacob Hipfner, Franz Hoffarts
and Joseph Hoffarts.
Leaving their families in New Salem, the four men started by team
across the country for suitable land to homestead. They drove for
two days and decided to locate in Mercer County.
The four men worked together, ate together and slept together until
all four houses were built.
Christian said in his interview that of the four men, he was the
cook because none of them had ever cooked before. “The first
few meals that Usselman cooked were not fit to eat, but there was
no choice, either eat or go home hungry, the rest of the men were
angry over his cooking but that did not help matters as they all
took a chance cooking and none could do any better.”
By May 1901 the four houses were built and the men returned to
New Salem for their families.
MAKING ENDS MEET
The years were not easy for the pioneers as they worked to build
life in Mercer County.
Christian, along with his four neighbors, put in a crop that spring.
However, it was the beginning of three dry years and from 1901 to
1903, none of the settlers in Township 145 threshed one bushel.
In his interview Christian said, “Their money was all gone
and they already owed more money than they were worth, their credit
was exhausted and no work was to be gotten.”
In an effort to make money, Usselman, his neighbors and their families
picked buffalo bones. The bones were hauled to New Salem where they
were sold for $6 per ton. The money was used to buy food and clothing.
Christian remembered that in the winter of 1903 he went with out
overshoes or mittens. Food was scarce and all the family ate was
milk, coffee and bread.
“There was lots of wild game but the settlers could not afford
to buy guns and shells to shoot with.”
The first year the Kruckenberg family lived in Mercer County they
stayed with the Werner family. Jacob headed to western North Dakota
and worked on a cattle ranch that was owned by Theodore Roosevelt.
Working at the ranch near Medora for three years, Jacob told of
running as high as 3,000 head of cattle and 800 horses.
In the spring of 1892, Jacob returned to Mercer County and helped
his father on the farm.
“They had two oxen and a hand plow they had bought from Mr.
Werner. This was all they had to farm with, the seeding those days
was all done by hand and the cutting was done by hand.”
The first crop raised by Gottlie Kruckenberg was in 1889, which
was a good year, but it was the only crop raised up to 1895 due
to the drought. Jacob remembers that the family was very, very poor
and in 1890 they did not have one taste of meat for more than 10
“All they had to eat was milk, bread and a few eggs about
once a month. That was the hardest year they experienced. They were
hungry…and there was no money to be made no matter how hard
Like the other settlers, the Kruckenbergs picked buffalo bones,
which were hauled to New Salem, a trip that took 10 days.
Jacob said in his interview, “Those were days that will never
be forgotten by the old settlers. The settlers those days also knew
the value of a dollar. They did not spend one cent for luxury. What
little money they had was spent for clothing and money. When they
had more money than what they needed for food and clothing, it was
saved to build a new lumber house or barn as the women did not like
to live in the sod shanties without a floor in them or a piece of
In 1895, Jacob filed his own claim and built a one-room sod shanty.
He had no furniture and slept on the floor on old sacks and rags.
He married Emilia Wegerle of Mannhaven in 1898. The bride wore a
blue dress with a white waist, while the groom wore an everyday
blue work shirt and a new pair of common blue trousers.
The day after the wedding the couple went to their homestead shanty
and lived there. They slept on the floor, ate their meals on the
wooden block the same as before Jacob was married. About a month
later they bought lumber and made a bedstead, a table and two small
In 1910, Jacob and Emilia had their son, Ernest, who went as far
as the sixth grade in a country school near the homestead. The family’s
food was bought at Expansion, North Dakota from the Bohrer Mercantile
The closest railroad towns the early settlers had were New Salem
and Hebron, which was a distance of 65 miles. Jacob remembers there
were no roads.
“The whole wide prairie was one big road for them all.”
After working on a riverboat for three years, Jacob went back to
farming and raising cattle. According to Jacob’s interview,
“He done fairly good, made a little money, built up a nice
herd of cattle, bought five or six sections of land along the river
for pasture, along in the late 1920s when the crisis came on, he
made, he lost all his cattle, machinery and the land along the river.”
In 1936 when he was interviewed for the Historical Data Project,
Jacob still had his homestead and a house in Hazen, where he was
After living through three years of drought, Christian realized
a good crop in 1904. All the grain was taken to Mannhaven and sold
to the John Young Grain Company. Many times that fall, Christian
arrived at Mannhaven with a load before noon and there were so many
teams ahead of him that he couldn’t unload until 10 that night.
It was 1905 when Krem was established only 10 miles from the Usselman
farm. The first year the small community saw a flourmill started
by Samuel and William Richter. F.G. Klein also opened a bank, called
the Krem State Bank. Gust Wiest and Paul Goetz opened a general
store, with Steve Huber opening a beer parlor with Julius Froeschle
a blacksmith shop. John Bohrer was the first postmaster in Krem
David Richter started an underground coalmine one mile west of
Krem. The mine was 60 feet underground and the output per day was
from 50 to 80 tons. Coal at that time sold for 50 cents per ton
and it was a very good grade of lignite coal. The mine operated
for more than 20 years.
In the spring of 1906, a prairie fire started along the Knife River
where Beulah is now located. The fire swept across the country from
the Knife River to the Missouri, a stretch of 30 miles. From straw
stacks to cattle, horses and homes, Christian said the settlers
suffered heavy losses.
Christian and his wife had eight children, John, Margareta, Egina,
Peter, Frank, Engelina, Pius and Eagda. At the time of Christian’s
interview, all of his children were living in and around Hazen
According to Christian, in 1914 the railroad was built from Stanton
to Killdeer and the town of Hazen was started, which was only nine
miles from the Usselman farm.
Although life was hard as they settled on the prairie, the early
pioneers, who were in their 60s and 70s when they were interviewed
in the mid-1930s, never spoke with regret about their decision to
come to Mercer County.
By 1901, when boats started to run on the Missouri River from Bismarck
to Expansion, all the necessities for the settlers were shipped
by boat to Expansion.
“Lumber, machinery, clothing, flour, groceries, everything
was cheap and grain had a fair price. They all got along well and
were glad they came to America,” Jacob said.
Christian expressed the same thoughts when he was interviewed,
saying, “Even though there were many a hardship, he is still
thankful to God that he came to America, for in 1914 when the World
War (I) broke out in Europe, all the property that belonged to his
father and to his brothers was taken from them, buildings were burned
to the ground…and everything was taken away from them. They
were driven into boxcars like a bunch of cattle and shipped to northern
Siberia where they were starved to death. His (Christian’s)
three brothers and their families, his father, and mother were killed.”
The interviewer wrote of Christian. “Mr. Usselman is thankful
today that he did not like to go to school and did run away from
home because he did not want to go training in the Russian army.
He is 72 years old now and is enjoying good health. He is glad that
he was poor most of his life and above all he is glad that he is
living in America and is an American citizen.”
Through hard work, perseverance and determination, these pioneers
forged an agricultural tradition that continues today—more
than 100 years later.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Jacob Kruckenberg and Christian Usselman
are only two of many Mercer County pioneers who settled this area.
Other stories can be found at the Hazen Public Library. The stories
used in this article are curtsey of the State Historical Society
of North Dakota, the entity that owns the Historical Data Collection.)
Reprinted with permission of the Hazen Star.