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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 spring.

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 he returned.

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 through.

There was no question of "if" or "whether" to help.

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

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