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German-Russians' Roots run Deep

Noel, Tom. "German-Russians' Roots run Deep." Rocky Mountain News, 21 January 2006


A compelling chapter of Colorado history began with the legendary Russian czarina, Catherine the Great.

This German-born czarina recruited skilled German farmers to colonize Russia's Volga River valley during the late 1700s. Catherine promised them the right to continue speaking German, practicing their Protestant religion, and exemption from the Russian military.

When later czars reneged on Catherine's promises, the German-Russians (aka Volga Deutsch) began moving out of Russia. Some returned to Germany, some moved to Argentina or Brazil, and thousands came to the United States, often settling in the Midwest. In Colorado they gravitated to the sugar beet-growing areas of the South Platte Valley, particularly Weld, Larimer, Morgan and Logan counties. Second Hoeing, a 1935 historical novel by Hope Williams Sykes, offers a highly readable account of Colorado's German-Russians. Sykes, a Fort Collins teacher, spent years studying her German-Russian students, their families, and their culture. She was puzzled by their large families of a dozen or more children, until she found that in Russia they were given additional acreage for each child.

As a teacher, Williams became painfully aware that German-Russian children left school to work on the farm and to marry early. Her focus on child labor earned her book national attention.

German-Russians protested the novel's focus on child labor and the group's stereotype, because of the beet- and dirt- stained hands and clothing, as "dirty Rooshians."

The "Dirty Rooshian" charge, as Tim Kloberdanz notes in his introduction to the 1982 reprint of Second Hoeing, was exploited by Great Western Sugar and other employers to justify housing them in chicken coops, boxcars and tar-paper shacks. By accusing German-Russians of thievery and disloyalty - especially during the world wars - employers could explain the discrimination, tight regulations and low wages used to keep them in their place.

Hannah Schreissmiller, the blue-eyed, golden-haired heroine of Second Hoeing, hopes to go to high school. That dream is crushed by her mother's death, leaving her to care for the baby, whose birth killed her mother, and her other siblings.

"Hannah," her mother said, "everything fall by you. But you is strong. Some day, the dirt, he don't bother you so much. Life, he is not hard when you don't make mad and fight him."

At age 4, Hannah had begun baby-sitting her younger siblings in the field. At age 6, she crawled through the dirt and clods, thinning and weeding sugar beet plants. By age 16, she had been exposed to every part of the sugar beet cycle, no matter how laborious and disagreeable.

Hannah is courted by the son of a white landowner. For seeing this "American boy," Hannah's father horsewhips her, shredding her white confirmation dress - her only fancy garment. Agonizingly caught between cultures, Hannah ultimately marries one of her own people.

Hope Sykes uses fine descriptive writing and dialect to tell the story. The Schreissmillers and their countrymen start out as contract laborers housed in Shag Town, which lay next to the now mostly demolished Great Western plant.

Williams describes "one- room shacks with stove pipe chimneys sticking out of the roofs at crazy angles, their weathered sides hugging the dirt yards, sagging fences hemming in dirty faced children. All drab, colorless, with here and there a brightly painted house, a good fence, only adding to the sordidness of the scene.

"Separated from Shag Town by a dirt road were the stinking pulp pits adjoining the many- windowed red-brick sugar factory, fermenting noodles of shredded sugar beets from which all the sweetness had been taken."

German-Russians, thanks to their dogged work ethic and strong family, church and cultural support system, usually worked their way up, becoming success stories like the Anschutzes, Colorado's wealthiest clan. Now assimilated and overlooked as an ethnic group, German-Russians raised not only sugar but also Russian winter wheat, lambs and cattle as they helped transform the Great American Desert into America's breadbasket.

Reprinted with permission of the Rocky Mountain News.

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