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The German-Russians - Part II - They Brought Bloom to America's Prairies

Hamil, Harold D. "The German-Russians - Part II - They Brought Bloom to America's Prairies." Farmland News, 15 August 1972.


Lawrence Welk is among those whose German forbears left Russia for America.
Among Americans with German names, especially in the Great Plains states, a large number trace their ancestry by way of Russia.

The story of these people has strong agricultural overtones. Their ancestors went to Russia from Germany in the Eighteenth Century on invitation of Catherine the Great. She was looking for able and thrifty farmers to develop raw land along the lower Volga and around the Black Sea.

The czarina's offer included freedom from military service, freedom from taxes and an amazing freedom to live as Germans in the depths of Russia.

In less than a century these people had made the steppes bloom, so to speak. But in 1871, the Russian government withdrew the special privileges they had enjoyed, and the movement to America was on.

Some of the first landed in Kansas. They included the Mennonites, who brought Turkey Red wheat and helped start that state toward becoming the greatest winter wheat growing area in the world.

In the long run, the Mennonites from Russia were far outnumbered by Catholics, Lutherans and others who were reacting to the czar's new rules.

Some went to Canada, some to South America, but the largest number chose the United States. As descendants of men and women who had braved the wind-blown Russian steppes, they were not awed by the prospect of settling in open, treeless areas. And it was in such areas that U.S. railroads were promoting settlement.

One of the first groups from the Volga region went to Hays, Kansas. Others from the Volga landed in Nebraska. Those coming from the Black Sea region tended to favor the Dakotas.

Many who came after the turn of the century went farther west, and for the early years of the sugar beet industry in Colorado, the Nebraska Panhandle and elsewhere, they provided the principal supply of hand labor for thinning, hoeing and topping.

Nobody has found reliable figures for computing the actual number of Germans who came to the United States from Russia. The 1920 census showed there were 116,500 persons in this country who were born in Russia of German ancestry.

Dr. Adam Giesinger of the University of Manitoba estimates that 300,000 came to the United States, Canada and South America. This, he concludes, is about three times the number who went from Germany to Russia in the original move.

Dr. Giesinger is one of many persons of German-Russian descent who have become interested in compiling information about their people.

Speaking at the third annual meeting of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) at Boulder, Colorado this summer, he said best estimates indicate there were about 400,000 Germans in the Volga and Black Sea regions when the migration to the Americas started in the 1870's

Giesinger and others agree that there are probably some two million persons of German-Russian ancestry in the Americas today. While they are widely scattered, the largest concentrations remain in the Great Plains states and the prairie provinces of Canada.

There were some 400 persons at the Boulder meeting, representing a dozen chapters of the American Historical Society, with a total membership of near 3,000. The chapters are designated as follows: Denver Metropolitan; Northern Colorado (Greeley area); Lincoln, Nebraska, Lodi, California (California Bay area); North Dakota; Oregon; Saginaw Valley (Michigan); Fresno, California; Southern California; South Dakota; Southwest Michigan (St. Joseph).

Lincoln, Nebraska figures prominently in German-Russian history, and one reason is that it was a key point on the Burlington system when that railroad was actively recruiting German families for settlement of new lands. Sutton, about 65 miles west of Lincoln, and several other communities in that area were settled by some of the early arrivals from the Volga region and some of the Mennonites.

The Burlington became a natural line of movement westward, and by the turn of the century there were German-Russian colonies in Hastings and McCook.

Many families went from Eastern and Central Nebraska to the new irrigated lands of Colorado and Western Nebraska to work in sugar beets. Many who came to the United states after the turn of the century stopped only briefly with relatives at Lincoln, Hastings or some other point and then moved on to Greeley, Fort Collins, Loveland, Windsor, Fort Morgan, Brush, Sterling or other places in the Colorado beet country. Similarly, many went to Scottsbluff, Bayard, Mitchell and other beet-growing communities in the North Platte Valley of Nebraska and Wyoming. Some went for only a summer or two, but many stayed and became a permanent part of thriving agricultural communities.

There is a bit of paradox in the fact that the two main streams of emigration from Russia crossed each other in the United States. The movement from the more northerly Volga region ended up mainly in Kansas and Nebraska, while that from the more southerly Black Sea country headed mainly to the northerly Dakotas.

In the literature available at Boulder the only references to Volga settlers in South Dakota mentioned Marion in the southeastern part of the state and the Belle Fourche area in the extreme west. Those who went to Belle Fourche were attracted by a sugar beet boom, about 1905.

Black Sea Germans started arriving in the Dakotas while free homestead land was still available. Here again, the new railroads were an instrument of settlement. Maps of both North and South Dakota that are part of the AHSGR literature show a wider scattering of communities with German-Russian people than one find in either Kansas or Nebraska.

The 1920 census showed three counties in South Dakota with more than 1,200 persons who had been born in Russia of German ancestry. They were Hutchinson, (Freeman, Menno, Parkston, etc.), McPherson (Eureka, Leola, etc.), and Edmunds (Ipswich, Roscoe, Hosmer, etc.). There were 800 in Brown County (Aberdeen), and 494 in Bon Homme (Scotland, Tyndall, etc.).

Of some 300,000 German-Russians listed in that 1920 census -- including those born in the United States -- the largest number was in Kansas, second largest in North Dakota and third in South Dakota.

One Session at Boulder was devoted to discussion of persons who qualified for a sort of hall of fame of Germans from Russia. Inevitably, the name of Lawrence Welk came up. One Californian remarked that Welk had not responded to an invitation to join the historical society and had seemed a bit indifferent as to his German-Russian origins. But Mrs. Walter Essig of Denhoff, North Dakota was quick to defend the man from Strasburg in her home state. She carried a book to show that Welk had written about his family's having come from the Odessa region of Russia and from Germany before that.

Edward Schwarzkopf, president of the University of Nebraska board of regents, was a delegate from Lincoln and there was mention of his brother, Sam, current mayor of that city. Both Schwarzkopfs are in a long roll of University of Nebraska football players of German-Russian ancestry, and they were mainly from Lincoln.

George Sauer, Sr., former coach at Kansas and Baylor, is one of them. Paul Amen, president of a Lincoln bank, is another. Ed Schwarzkopf said there were six German-Russians on the Nebraska squad with which he played at the 1941 Rose Bowl.

There were 10 individuals or couples registered at Boulder under the names of Amen, Amend, Ament or Amendt -- and probably all descend from the same family on the Volga. There were five Zeilers, four Lebsacks, four Deineses, three Hofferbers.

My personal interest in these people and their history is explained in part by the fact I have been with and around them in a variety of associations all my life. At Boulder I renewed acquaintance with Carl Amen of Loveland, Colorado and his sister, Mrs. Rachel Sullivan of Oakland, California. We attended a one-room school together in 1914-15 at Proctor, Colorado.

The registration list showed the place in Russia from which each person traced his family's origins. Two towns that showed up on more than 50 registrations were Frank and Norka. I hadn't heard of these places for some 30 years, but seeing them in print brought back memories of my days on the Daily Tribune at Hastings, Nebraska. I had written Frank or Norka scores of times in reporting the deaths of people born at one or the other place and who had lived out their lives in a new land where few people knew about things on the Volga, or cared.

Several at Boulder reported on recent visits to Russia. The old colonies are gone, and Germans who survived the revolution and World War II have been resettled, mainly in Siberia.

The Rev. Fred W. Gross, an ex-North Dakotan now living in retirement in Sacramento, California lost his father and several other members of his family in the revolution. Still he persists in developing contacts with remaining relatives in Russia. He has visited them in Moscow and in a remote Siberian province.

Communist leaders, he observed, have a grudging respect for the Germans in their midst. It is his theory that Germans are used to strengthen and buffer Russia's new Chinese borders, just as their forefathers were placed on the frontier to hold off nomadic tribes some 200 years ago.

When she earned her master's degree at the University of Colorado some years ago, Mrs. Emma Schwabenland-Haynes wrote her thesis on Volga Germans in the United States. For many years now, she and her husband have lived in West Germany, where she has uncovered valuable source material for the American Society, of which she is a vice-president.

Dr. Armand Bauer, agronomy professor at North Dakota State, has translated from German to English the writings of some early chroniclers of the German-Russian movement into the Dakotas.

Reuben Goertz, rural mail carrier at Freeman, South Dakota, a Mennonite, has photographed homes in Russia and has developed a set of slides illustrating similarities to early farm structures in the Dakotas.

The Greeley, Colorado public library has published a bibliography of what is undoubtedly the largest collection of writings about the non-Mennonite German-Russians in America. (The Mennonites, thanks apparently to pastors who considered record-keeping important, have an extensive and distinctive literature of their own.)

Theodore Wenzlaff of Sutton, Nebraska; Msgr. George Aberle of Hauge, North Dakota; Arthur Flegel of Menlo Park, California; Phil Legler of Denver and many others have staked out major responsibilities for translating and compiling historic materials.

A book about Volga Germans in this country, with emphasis on those who settled at Hays, Kansas was published a few years ago. The title is "Conquering the Wind," and the authors are Amy Brungardt Toepfer and Agnes Dreiling, both descendants of Hays colonists.

And so go the efforts of individuals in various parts of the country and from many walks of life to revive, by personal contact and by compilation and translation of written records, the story of a people that seemed at times to want to forget its past.

Reprinted with permission of Farmland News.

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