He who Will not Work, Neither Shall he eat
Herzog, Karen. "He who Will not Work, Neither Shall he eat." Bismarck Tribune, 12 March 2000, sec. E1.
Mit arbeit versicht man den ganzen Tag. "A guy could waste
the whole day working." At least that’s what my mother
told me was the rough translation of her wall plaque.
That plaque was a bit of self-deprecating humor, since "lazy"
was pretty much the worst thing people could say about you in German-speaking
communities. No family wanted to be known as one who didn’t
"keep the place up." One of my dad’s mantras was,
"He who will not work, neither shall he eat."
Which wasn’t a threat, just a fact of life for those who
worked the land.
"A German falls into work as another man falls into sin,"
was a saying attributed in North Dakota’s early pioneer days
to a bemused onlooker. I imagine that maybe the remark came from
watching immigrant families break the sod and work daybreak to dust
like mules. It’s not just Germans, either. The Scandinavians
and Ukrainians, Finns and Czechs all worked harder than most of
us can imagine.
If North Dakotans are desirable job candidates because of their
work ethic, what caused it? Maybe simply, those who didn’t
work hard didn’t survive. The grasshopper people died out
fast if they fiddled instead of storing up enough food to last until
In winter latitudes, the drive was to create enough food during
the growing season to tide one over the dead fields of winter, racing
the foreboding image of starvation in the cold.
That was a time when there was no government safety net under you.
The German’s didn’t depend on the Russian government
to tide them over until spring. They relied on family, kin and community
to help them through hard times.
And even then, sometimes the times were so hard that they were
inundated anyway – drought, grasshoppers, plant diseases,
hail, epidemics both human and animal.
Most kids from pioneer families have heard these amazing stories,
told wonderingly even by those who lived them. Men walking hundreds
of miles from the nearest rail head, with no assets but a strong
back and hands, to a brand-new unseen future, to homestead. Women
like my grandmother, who labored in the harvest fields like a man,
laying her newest baby on a blanket, breaking the work only to breastfeed.
Losing children to diphtheria, to whooping cough, to accidents,
to blood poisoning, to pneumonia.
In the early pioneer days, help was often far away. Doctors were
nonexistent in small towns or rural areas, and hospitals were far-off and
an expensive option. Midwives helped deliver babies or, more likely,
a mother or mother-in-law was called in.
My mother’s mother spent the winter in the wilderness that
was part of Saskatchewan in the 1910s. When grandfather went to
town, he walked for two days, leaving her, with a toddler and pregnant,
to listen to the wolves howl around the small sod hut at night until
They returned to North Dakota, where family and kin were circle
of support and labor, helping hands and midwives, brother-in-laws
and cousins and stepsiblings, all pulling together to survive the
first decade on the new prairie.
Family pulled you through. Community, which back then consisted
of networks of extended clans at birth and marriage, pulled you
There was no question of "if" or "whether"
Our farm was worked on in the summer by uncles, cousins, in-laws,
brothers and sisters. Farm machinery made the slow trips along gravel
roads to clean off aunts’ fields. Widowed sisters got their
share of the pork sausage after butchering time.
How to imagine their lives only two generations removed? The world
has changed so much, and our worries and fears are so entirely different.
Would they find us unspeakably frivolous to worry about whether
the garage door opener works or which college to send our kids to?
Reprinted with the permission of the Bismarck Tribune