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The German-Russians - Part III - Lesson for Others in Their Hard-Work Heritage

Hamil, Harold D. "The German-Russians - Part III - Lesson for Others in Their Hard-Work Heritage." Farmland News, 31 August 1972.


Beet Workers posed for this picture at thinning time in a Weld County, Colorado, field some 60 years ago. All but man in derby and vest (probably the land owner) are presumed to be of one family. Adults and older children wielded hoes; smaller one removed excess seedlings with their fingers, crawling the length of the field on hands and knees - (Photo courtesy Greeley, Colorado Municipal Museum).
During my four years in high school I stayed in town from Monday through Friday in the home of the man who managed the cemetery.

His name was Thompson, and his world pretty well revolved around his family, his church and his job. It was only natural, therefore, that his contributions to mealtime conversation included frequent references to what he had seen and heard as he dug and covered graves.

He could be humorous or serious, depending on circumstances, but I was never sure what he saw in the story he told of the burial of a young mother.

At the conclusion of the grave-side service he had waited a respectable time before moving in to the lower the casket and "close" the grave. He was surprised to discover that the husband of the deceased held back and was staring at the casket and groping for a final comment. The words, when they came, were quoted by Mr. Thompson in broken English about as follows: "She vas a goot beet vorker."

Those were strange words for a man's final tribute to his wife. Or so it seemed to Mr. Thompson, and it must have seemed that way to me, or I would have forgotten the story.

If they were typical of thousands in the sugar beet country of Northeast Colorado, the young man at the graveside and his wife had come from Russia. They were of German blood, but their ancestors had lived in Russia for 100 years or more. They labored in the fields of a burgeoning sugar beet industry.

Most had known no English on their arrival. But any who had spent a single season in the beet fields knew the importance of a single English word -- work -- and it didn't make much difference whether it was used as a noun or verb or in some variation on either.

When a man and his family were being evaluated as prospective contractors to handle the hoeing, thinning and topping for a season, the employing farmer made a careful count of the number of "beet workers" who would be part of the deal. There were questions as to whether the wife and mother would go to the fields and how many children were capable of crawling on their knees at thinning time and how many could wield a knife at topping time in the fall.

Each good beet worker in a man's family was, therefore, a prime asset. When one's wife could hoe and top, and when she was willing to bring a nursing baby to the field and feed it during short breaks at the end of the rows, the family's effectiveness was greatly enhanced. Thus the young widower at the cemetery was merely striving for terminology that carried weight in the society of which he was trying to be a part.

The Work for which these people were noted hastened the day when countless families that had started as stoop laborers became renters and owners of a high percentage of the land on which sugar beets were grown.

At Boulder, Colorado, this summer there was a meeting of men and women with an interest in compiling the history of those German people who came to the United States from Russia. Their organization, formed in the late 60's, is the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia.There were frequent references to the heritage of hard work that is an important part of the German-Russian story.

(Those who worked in the sugar beet fields were by no means the majority of German-Russians who came to America. The first to come -- in the 1870's -- were here long before sugar beets had become an important crop in our western states.)

Since Boulder is only a few miles from some of the country's more productive sugar beet-growing areas, there was a lot of talk about the pain and hardship of growing up in a family that had entered the main streams of American life by way of the beet fields.

It came out in more than one discussion that the hard work and the status of a sort of second-class citizenship to which some felt they were assigned had the effect of making many German-Russians want to forget their origins.

One young woman from Fresno, California was obviously there to fill gaps in her family history. Her mother and grandmother, she said, had refused to talk about their backgrounds, except to say that theirs had been lives of hard work.

On the other hand, some men and women -- generally beyond 60 years of age -- pointed with pride to the fact that they had crawled scores of miles during several seasons, thinning the seedling beets until there was only one at each select interval.

Timothy Kloberdanz, a brilliant young man who will be studying toward an advanced degree in cultural anthropology this fall at Colorado State, was quick to remind everyone that in the annals of the beet workers of his and my home county there are cases of both adults and children who collapsed and sometimes died from overwork and exposure to the sun.

Later, after he had read in Farmland News the first of my three articles on the Boulder meeting, he wrote a letter that included this paragraph:

"Though we prospered in this country, it was primarily through the efforts of parents who died before their time and sun-blackened children who crawled through innumerable acres of sugar beets. The story of the German-Russian immigrant whose confidence in the American dream was callously exploited, and whose cultural heritage was deemed inferior by Anglo educators, will be lost in the belated applause that greets our accomplishments."

Tim went on to say there was precious little romance in the German-Russian story. But there are those who would disagree with him in broad principle. He forgets, I suspect, that many events that are rough in the passing inevitably become romantic in retrospect -- our wars, for example.

The older men and women could recall that there was high excitement in the spring when time came to return to the beet fields. It was the custom of most families to spend the winter in town, where the husband usually could pick up work, but many beet-working families were based as far as several hundred miles from the growing areas.

Jack Lofink of Lincoln, Nebraska recalls the stir that went through the German-Russian neighborhood in Lincoln when the Burlington started assembling cars for the special trainloads that would head for the beet country each May. It was a big disappointment to him that his mother was one who chose to take in washing rather than take her family to the beet fields.

There was some excitement at Proctor, Colorado on a spring day in 1917 when a special train let off several families that had been assigned to farms in the area. The Jacob Lebsacks had come from Hastings, Nebraska and were assigned to the ranch my father managed. They had come from Russia just before the outbreak of war in 1914. Mr. Lebsack had worked for the Burlington in Hastings, but when he came to Colorado it was with the intention of staying, and he did. After one year he was renting a farm. Eventually he owned one. His sons and daughters grew up and launched careers of their own, some in agriculture, some in other pursuits. One son, Clarence, operates a feed store in Sterling. Another, John, became one of the state's most prominent cattle feeders and for a time was president of a Sterling bank.

When the Amen families came to Proctor in 1914, it was not just to work beets. They came as purchasers of a sheep ranch that was eligible for water from a new irrigation district. They planned to develop the land and raise beets.

Conrad Amen, Sr., had come from Russia in 1901, inspired in part by the advice of Conrad Junior, who had been drafted into the Russian army. There were five other sons, and Conrad Jr. advised his father that his experience convinced him it would be good to get out of the country before any more young men were called.

The Amens stopped briefly at McCook, Nebraska after arriving in this country. They then went to Loveland, Colorado and in 1908 to Fruita, Colorado. The need for more land than was available at Fruita prompted the deal for the Proctor sheep ranch and the establishment of four separate farming units on it. During the 1914-15 school year, the 10 Amens in our one-room school at Proctor constituted almost half the enrollment. It was an exciting year.

(Two members of one of these families -- Carl Amen of Loveland, Colorado and Mrs. Rachel Sullivan of Oakland, California were at Boulder.)

The Amen and Lebsack stories illustrate, I think, the speed with which families passed through the strictly beet-worker phase. But even in their cases, the children were not emancipated immediately from the beet work when their fathers became farm owners or renters. Being able to do one's own field work contributed a great deal toward a profitable crop.

In the case of the Amens, things might have been rough for five sons if Conrad Sr. had not got out of Russia when he did. And for the German-Russians in this country there are sad might-have-been reports of what happened to hundreds of thousands of friends and relatives who refused to join the migration to America that started in the 1870's.

One reason I was interested in attending the boulder meeting and filling in some gaps in my knowledge of the Germans who came to this country from Russia was a desire to see if their history offers any lessons for minorities in this country that have failed to adjust smoothly to our late Twentieth Century society.

It seems distasteful to many to suggest that the formula of hard work is worth studying. It does bring pain and suffering at times. But it opens many doors -- the doors to better education, to name just one. It helps keep young people out of trouble, away from temptation and under strict adult supervision. And, despite obvious hypocrisies in many situations, it brings acceptance by others and contributes to harmony in community living.

But the word "work" is subject to far broader interpretations in our time than in the days of the forlorn young husband in the cemetery. Our technical society needs working people of a different type than those required to make the sugar beet fields glisten in the August sun.

S.I. Hayakawa, president of San Francisco State College, wrote an article for the new Saturday Evening Post last spring that included this paragraph:

If the Black Panthers had an iota of sense, they would drop at once all that half-digested Marxist jive they are now messing around with. They would throw themselves furiously into the study of mathematics, engineering and business administration. They would make the slide rule rather than the gun the symbol of their struggle for self-determination."

It is a cliche of some of our social reformers that the establishment won't give up its positions of power.

But the truth is that establishmentarian families and cliques are constantly looking outside for new talent with which they will share power in return for know-how and work.

It was that way, really, in the beet country 50 and 60 years ago. And the German-Russians made the most of it.

Reprinted with permission of Farmland News.

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