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Immigration Much the Same

Johnson, Larry. “Immigration Much the Same.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 9B.


BUCYRUS - The search for “roots” for most North Dakotans leads back through musty old records and faded memories, to long-forgotten relatives in an “old country” that is now foreign.

For Heidi Thompson it is much easier. She immigrated to North Dakota in 1963, still corresponds regularly with her mother in Austria, and even managed to return for a visit a few years ago.

Unlike immigrants of the late 1800s and early 1900s, she has the benefits of modern travel and communications to maintain contact with friends and relatives in Austria.

But in some ways, immigration remains the same as it was in the early days of homesteading.

Immigration means pulling up stakes and building a new life. It also means that old ties, if not consciously maintained, can fade within a generation or two.

“My mother was really put out with me that the children didn’t learn German,” says Thompson, reflecting on her trip back to Austria five years ago with her husband, Bill, and their three children.

“I really should have (taught them) but I didn’t because when they were little, I was so busy learning English.”

Thompson found one foreign-born couple in Hettinger, the Adolf Schmidts, to speak German with after she arrived.

However, most of the people in the area are second- and third- generation Norwegians and Germans from Russia.

“They (immigrants) made the same mistake I have made; they didn’t teach the language (to their children). I really wish I had now.”

After the trip to Austria to visit her mother and old friends, Thompson was somewhat relieved to discover that “home” really is the family farm and ranch near Bucyrus in southwestern North Dakota.

“I was afraid; what if I like it (Austria) so much?” she recalls. But she says when it was time to return to Bucyrus, “I felt like I was going home.”

She still feels a few tugs of emotion, mostly around Christmastime, when she and her father once sang together “so out of tune everybody left the room.”

“Other than that (feeling), this is definitely home to me now.”

The visit to Austria seemed a bit strange, she says. She had become accustomed to open spaces and didn’t like the comparative congestion in Austria.

She remembers her first impressions upon arriving in Bismarck as a 17-year-old bride from the mountainous, green country of Austria, where she had delighted in family hiking outings.

Her husband had told her that trees don’t grow in North Dakota unless they’re planted, and she saw it was true.

“I had never seen so much barren land before,” she says of the trip from Bismarck to Bucyrus.

“There was a little bit of snow on the ground and you could see for miles, but I love a challenge, and it was a challenge.”

Although the geographical differences between Austria and North Dakota are great, Thompson says it was a similarity between people that made the transition easier for her. She found an open, friendly attitude among people in North Dakota.

“The people around here (Bucyrus) were just great. I never felt like an outsider.”

She speaks English with only the slightest trace of an accent but says spelling has been difficult to master.

“Still there isn’t a day goes by that I don’t have to look up a word,” says Thompson, explaining that in English, unlike German, words such as “enough” are spelled differently than they sound.

Thompson plans to send her oldest daughter, Charis, 17, a senior at Hettinger High School, to Austria for another visit before Charis begins to study nursing in Bismarck.

She plans to do the same with Cindy, 16, and Lee, 14, when they graduate from high school.

Both Charis and Cindy started studying German at school this year. Thompson says they’re making rapid progress, and can always get a little coaching at home.

Heidi Thompson, Bucyrus, has managed to fulfill her ambition to be a secretary despite the challenges of immigrating and raising a family on a southwestern North Dakota farm and ranch operation.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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