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'Herman the German' Recalls Homestead

Gilmour, Gerry. "'Herman the German' Recalls Homestead." Courant, 26 June 1984, sec. 5F.


Leaving his parent’s farm was about the hardest thing Herman Pohle ever had to face in his life.

At age 72, when crippling arthritis forced him to give up his land and his love for farming in 1975, it meant leaving the only home he had ever known.

Now, at age 82, Herman Pohle lives at the Good Samaritan Center in Bottineau.

His parents in 1893 homesteaded the farm five miles east of Kramer after they arrived in Bottineau County from Saxony, Germany. In the first year, Fritz Pohle planted a small plot and built a sod hut for he, his wife and a small son. In 1902, he was able to build a wooden house for his family. Part of that house is still standing.

When Fritz Pohle came here, he couldn’t speak a word of English. "My dad couldn’t read, write or speak any English," Pohle said. "My mother could speak some, but not enough to get along. At home they spoke only German to us."

"When my father would do business, my older brother would interpret for him, later I became the interpreter. He couldn’t speak the language, you see, because he was educated in the old country, and they just couldn’t pick it up. It was such a broken language," Pohle remembers.

He said it was often a frustrating experience for his father to try and carry on a conversation with even a neighbor. "Most families would learn English as the children went to school, it was the other way around at our house," he said. "My father couldn’t do much business by himself. Oh, he would try, but they could never understand him."

The Pohle family belonged to the German Lutheran Church, though, and it allowed them to meet with their German friends. Services would be held at the schoolhouse or at the homes of one of the many German families living in the Elysian Township, Pohle said, with Mass spoken in German. In 1906, a Lutheran Church was built in Elysian Township.

Pohle went to school in a township school from 1911 until 1917 when he was 14 years old and big enough to join his father in farming. At the time, there was no high school to continue on to.

The family did well farming until 1919 when the first drought his North Dakota, bringing with it grasshoppers and a taste of the depression to follow. "By 1922, though, we had a good crop again," Pohle said. "We would haul our grain to White Spur or Gardena, since they were an equal distance apart and both had an elevator."

The good years were short-lived for Fritz Pohle and his family. By 1928, the first dust storms of the depression were starting to hit Bottineau County. The health of Fritz Pohle began to fail and Herman had to take over the farming operations. Fritz and his wife moved to Gardena.

By 1931, the drought was so bad Pohle could barely bring in a crop. The depression was to hold a tight grip on the county until 1936.

"Nineteen thirty-four was an especially dry year," Pohle remembered on a hot and remindful day of the ones during the depression. "Gee whiz, it was dry, we had to drive over 100 miles just to find hay and straw for the horses. At that time the only place you could find hay was the Red River Valley."

The horses in those years were the backbone of a farming operation, with threshing machines and steam engines alike being operated with horses. "It was hard working around those horses," Pohle said. "They can get so hot – it’s just a corker sometimes. And the water was so hot and stale it wasn’t even fit to drink."

It was in the depression years that Pohle became one of the first farmers in the area to raise registered Polled Herefords. In 1936 he started a herd of about 30 and bought a bull. "I just raised cattle so I could do something for a living," he reflects now. "There were some times when it was so dry that nothing grew – we had to depend on something for living."

Getting water and hay for the animals proved to be an even harder way to make living sometimes. It often meant a trip to Langdon, ND for straw and hay – a trip that could take from before dawn until far into the night to complete.

Pohle would make the trips in his relatively new 1930 Dodge truck. "Sometimes on the way back," he said, "the weight of the load and the winds would be too much. I remember traveling with the gas pedal plastered to the floorboard and only going 20 mph."

Butchering the cattle and often bartering the cuts became a way to keep above water for Pohle. "In those days there wasn’t enough cash flow. The way it is today is ridiculous. Sometimes they would open the cash register and there would be nothing in there, but that didn’t mean you didn’t eat. Pohle would bring in eggs and meats and so forth, that was the only way you could do it."

Pohle’s father died in 1937, during the height of the Dust Bowl. Fritz Pohle had seen the family farm grow from a homestead to 520 acres, but he only saw it prosper enough for his family to get along – not ahead. His mother died in 1947 in the Bottineau hospital after a 53-month-long bout with a stroke.

During the depression, Pohle had to drive to Velva, ND to get coal to heat his house. "It was cheaper that way," he said, "because we took care of the hauling and got it directly from the mine, a lot of others did the same. If you had a little money for gas and a truck to haul it in, you could get the coal for a dollar and a quarter a ton. By driving the 75 miles, 150 both ways, we could save about six dollars."

After the depression, things went well for Pohle. The WWII boom made up for some of the bad years and by 1951, Pohle was able to buy a new Dodge car. He paid $2,200 for the green two-door and he has it today, polishing it twice a year despite his arthritis. Prior to moving into the Good Samaritan Center he was driving it slow around the streets of Bottineau and the car looked like it was just driven out of the showroom.

After 34 years of driving, the car has only about 82,000 miles registered on the odometer. Prior to his move to the Center, collectors and youngsters hounded Pohle for years to get him to sell, but he refused. "It’s my transportation, I need it you know, I can’t get around other wise. Besides, if I sold it to some kid it probably wouldn’t last a week," he joked.

In 1954, Pohle erected a barn for his Herefords, 36 by 72 feet, which stood in sharp contrast to the one built by his father. Pohle said he used to pay between $500 and $800 for a prize Polled Hereford bull. He still subscribes to a national Hereford journal but scoffs at the $45,000 price tags on some of the show bulls. "I had some good bulls but I was never a big shot like that," he said.

During his years of farming, Pohle worked with a Fordson and later four different models of John Deere, D, H, B and R. In 1973, he sold his Dodge truck and two diesel John Deere tractors, a 20-10 and a 30-20.

For all his years on the farm, Pohle never found time to marry. He said he was too busy with his farm and taking care of his parents in their last years. And after being a bachelor for so many years, he said it was hard to find someone. "Oh, they used to joke about when a new girl would come to town, a new teacher or working girl but I just never found anyone."

Sometimes the joking went to far – and Pohle was harassed by some of the locals. He often found his farm vandalized. "Some people are just never happy unless they have someone to make fun of," he said. Pohle said he learned to ignore it.

In 1975, the arthritis crippled him so badly he could not continue farming. He had a house built and moved to 404 E. 10th St. in Bottineau where it still sits today. He moves now at a careful step with a wooden cane and insists he can get around all right saying he won’t use a wheelchair.

Parting with his farm in 1975 also meant parting with his collie-shepherd dog of 19 years. He had raised it from a pup. When Pohle left the farm and house with his neighbor, Rodney Kersten, and his wife and three children, he also left his only companion. He said the dog would have never liked living in Bottineau.

Now he often sits at the Center, the arthritis making it hard for him to move, and wishes he still had such a companion. The dog was used to growing up with only one master and Pohle said such dogs become loyal but overprotective.

Devotion to his master became the dog’s undoing and the Kersten family had to have him put away because he wouldn’t let anyone near the farm buildings.

"He was a faithful companion," Pohle says, "but he couldn’t mix with people. He was okay if he was around me but otherwise he was too protective. They say that where there is only one person on the place a dog becomes sharper, but they also become too loyal – his loyalty killed him."

Reprinted with permission of the Courant.

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