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Pioneers Tell Memories

Jansen, Bob. “Pioneers Tell Memories.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 7A.


As the 1930s and the Great Depression came to an end, some of North Dakota’s immigrant pioneers were given an opportunity to record some of the history in which they had participated.

Their memories and thoughts about the old country and establishing new homes in America were collected by traveling interviewers employed under the federal Works Projects Administration.

Most said they were happy with their new lives. However, some might have done things a little differently if they had had another chance.

“Well, if I could live my life over, I don’t think I’d come to North Dakota. The homestead made an old man out of me before my time,” said Adolph J. Stuth, Williston.

Stuth was born in Franzburg, Germany. He immigrated to the United States as a youngster and worked in Chicago factories for a time before breaking North Dakota sod in 1903.

“I had a good steady job in Chicago, but I was anxious to get out and see what there was to be had somewhere else,” he said.

“Things have been so different out here. In Illinois I would have been ashamed to live in a tarpapered shack, but out here I didn’t care. Everybody was doing the same thing just to get a little start.”

First impressions of America differed.

“When we landed in New York I was so disappointed in America that if I would have had the money to return to Sweden I would have gone right back again,” said Andrew Gustafson, Langdon, who left the old country at age 21.

“My first impression of America was not very good when I first came here, as we felt that we were lost all the time. Especially when we came to Bismarck and Mandan, which were very small towns at the time,” said Martin Graner, Huff.

Graner was born in Austria-Hungary and came to the Mandan area as a youngster.

Karolina Anderson, Ludden, left her home in a small Finnish village for America in 1902.

Upon her arrival, she was disappointed.

“There was always white bread and so much light eats, and such poor houses I never saw; and I would have gone right back if I had the money. I never saw people burning cow chips (before) and it didn’t look good to me,” she said.

Lina A. Haugen, Esmond, left Norway in 1928. “We did not see much of the country in America until we got into the Middle West. There we thought the whole thing was turned around,” she said.

“There we saw cows feeding out on flat fields, while in Norway the fields were almost sacred and no cattle were allowed there.”

The prairies, she recalled, “seemed like big oceans.”

Swan Peterson told of a “religious wave” that was rolling over his native Sweden in 1876. “We had revival meetings, and if anyone sat down to the table without a prayer he was a hog.”

Peterson was in his 20s when he came to America. He remembered arriving in New York with 11 cents in his pocket, and spending that the next day for popcorn.

In 1903, he started a shoe repair shop at Pembina. There were no other Swedes there; in fact Scandinavians of any kind were scarce. “There was only one Norwegian in Pembina, and he didn’t want anybody to know it,” Peterson said.

Peterson homesteaded in Williams County in 1908 and 13 years later opened a shoe shop in Williston.

His children, he recalled, weren’t allowed to speak English until they started school. That was because, Peterson said, he wanted his son to “learn English right.”

It was the availability of land that attracted most immigrants to North Dakota. But some had other reasons for leaving the old country.

Nestor Halonen of Dickey County emigrated from Finland in 1910. “I attended a political meeting as the Russians were trying to get control of the locality in which I lived. I, with others, opposed (Russian control), and the other two were arrested and I was given 24 hours to change my mind; and I left on that account.

Anterm Domaskin, who farmed near Ross, came to America from Russia in 1913, with the encouragement of two brothers who had gone before him.

He had unpleasant memories about serving in the Russian army and said he should have emigrated sooner to avoid military service.

“There they (the army) taught me what they called engineering. It was how to kill people. We were treated terrible, never had enough clothes nor enough to eat.”

Domaskin’s views about the government in his homeland had not changed over the years. “I think Russia has no business fighting Finland. That Stalin is a terrible skunk.

“The men in the army didn’t know that the people at home are suffering because Stalin takes everything, the bum.”

Many of the early settlers lost their farms when banks foreclosed on mortgages in the 1920s or ‘30s. Some then left North Dakota but others, like Nels P. Larsen, Williston stayed.

“If I had my life to live over again, I would sell everything and keep the money,” said Larsen, who was born in Denmark.

He also blamed economic hardship for his lack of attendance at church. “I would go to the Lutheran, but I can’t give them any money and they expect some of it if you go.”

Hard times were on the minds of many of the immigrant Americans.

William Abentko of Butte, a Ukrainian, recalled losing most of his 1903 crop during a September snowstorm. “Most of that winter all we had to eat was some cornmeal mush and soup with milk. Once a week we would have a potato for each of us. We considered ourselves lucky to have a cow, as a good many of our friends did not have one.”

For others, religious convictions may have influenced the way they pursued a livelihood.

Gerrit Van Beek of Westfield was born in Holland and homesteaded in North Dakota after living for a time in Michigan and Iowa. “I didn’t farm with oxen because they said if you farm with oxen you won’t go to heaven and I want to get there,” he related.

Emile Foussard of St. John had left his native France for a Rolette County homestead in 1882. He didn’t believe in borrowing money, and that philosophy caused problems after he was elected to the local school board.

“I don’t like mortgage on farm and I don’t want school to be in debt,” he said, telling of how he resigned immediately from the board when he learned that the other members didn’t share his viewpoint.

Christine Sorenson, a Williston Dane, recalled having some regrets upon her 1904 arrival in North Dakota. “I just couldn’t understand how anybody could live in such a country. The main street here was nothing but a dust bed,” she said.

Sorenson’s fiance had filed a claim on land 12 miles east of Williston. She told of attending a religious meeting and seeing “homesteaders there wearing overalls, and some had no socks inside their shoes.”

A few of the immigrants shared anecdotes about adjusting to a new country and way of life.

Daniel Nickisch came to the Wishek area from Germany in 1881. Although unable to speak English, he got a job working on the railroad under an Irish foreman for 65 cents a day.

“Some of the fellows who could already speak English to some extent called me aside and told me that if the boss said anything, for me to say ‘You big overgrown pig, don’t tell me what to do.’ Well, the boss happened to hear this conversation and he called me to the side and told me not to say that and, well, I didn’t know so I said what the fellows told me to say. He didn’t get angry because he knew the cause and its source.”

Nickisch also told of the time he needed a chicken, but couldn’t get one except from an English farmer. “Well, I went over to buy it but I couldn’t make him understand what I wanted. So I put out my hands as wings and flapped them, as if I was flying.

“Well, he still didn’t know what I wanted and I suppose he thought I was crazy. But finally I got a better idea and started jumping around and crowed like a rooster. Well, that did the trick and I got the rooster.”

Some shared memories of social life on the prairie.

“There were quite a few Frenchmen who lived around (us) and every week we would gather at one house during the winter for a party and dance,” recalled Emile Foussard.

He noted that there was usually “a lot to eat and a jug or two of liquor to drink” at those gatherings.

Asked to compare North Dakota with the country of their birth, some of the pioneers had mixed emotions. One of them was John O. Haugen, Maddock, who came from Norway in 1898.

He recalled that although it was difficult to make a living, there was no strife back among the green hills and mountains of Norway. But he had been stricken with America fever.

“I know that after I began thinking about going to America, I would dream about it both at day and night. I saw myself over here as a ‘gaardsman’ or farmer.

“I could see that beautiful place along a small river, the many windows in the magnificent building reflecting the glow of the setting sun, the well-fed herd grazing down the slope - in fact, not much different than this farm now looks with its location on the Sheyenne Coulee banks. I could see my contented family going and coming with cheerful expressions on their faces.

“Yes, I had dreams; and ma[n]y of them nearly became facts for me. If the Depress[i]on had not come, many of them would be facts today.”

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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