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Tribute to Louisa Kraus Uttke

by Eleanor Zeller Disseldhorst, 1996

Transcription by Margaret Templin
Editing and proofreading by Lena Paris


This is for mothers on this Mother's Day. I've just recently read "Homeland" by John Jakes about the German immigrants who came to this country in the late 1800s and early 1900s and it got me to reminiscing about my immigrant grandparents and especially my grandmother. We called her "mutter", that was short for "gross mutter" in German. She was born in 1863 in South Russia near Odessa in an area called Bessarabia, between the Pruth and Dniester rivers.

Many Germans had migrated in the 1700s early 1800s to that area and to the Ukraine and Volga River, at the invitation of Katherine the Great. She promised them freedom of religion, freedom from military service, and freedom to own land and property. In later years many of these freedoms were taken from them. However, they remained fiercely loyal to their religion, had their own churches and schools and they were very German.

She and her one sibling, a younger sister, were orphaned at an early age and placed in a Lutheran Church orphanage. It was more like a boarding school. She always said they had loving Godparents who cared for them and looked after their welfare. Her faith was nurtured in that school by her Godparents.

She had quite a good education learning Latin, Russian, and Polish, some Turkish and some Rumanian. She spoke impeccable German and often corrected our grammar. We spoke to her mostly in English and she understood every word, but she wanted us to be bi-lingual so she answered us in German.

She was so proud of her sister who became a nursing Deaconess. The nursing school in Bessarabia was modeled after the earlier tradition Kaiserswerth on the Rhine, in Germany. That is where Florence Nightingale had gone to study and observe nursing. So she always encouraged me in my quest to be a nurse.

She abhorred war. As a young child it was all around her and she remembered seeing bodies piled on carts and dumped in ditches.

At age nineteen she married and had four children, Elizabeth, Johannes, Carolina Varia, and Frederick. After these four she lost four or five infant or toddler children to childhood diseases or epidemics. The saddest and hardest thing for a mother is to lose her children.

In 1900 with a new baby in her arms she encouraged and convinced my grandfather to immigrate to the United States. Their son Johannes was fast approaching the age where he would have to serve in the Russian military.

So the arduous journey began. They walked, they went by oxcart and train through the Ukraine, Poland and Prussia to reach Hamburg where they found steerage on the ship. My grandmother was afraid that the baby would die in those awful accommodations on the ship.

Ellis Island was a paradise to them with baths, clean beds, decent foods and someone to help guide them to a train to North Dakota. The last 80 miles was again by oxcart, a covered wagon pulled by oxen.

They were tested many times on that lonesome prairie with few neighbors, no schools at first, no church (only an interim pastor), the usually sod house and stone barn my grandfather built. Another son was born and soon they all became citizens.

As the churches were built, the children were confirmed and encouraged in church attendance. At the end of 1917 the unthinkable happened to this mother who hated war. My Uncle Frederick was drafted to serve in World War I. He never got out of Fort Snelling, Minnesota because of the influenza epidemic and died. She had lost an adult child.

There were good times too. My sister wrote the local papers about pioneer days and this was one of her articles that was published:

    The Christmas tradition that I most value and delighted me as a child was the yearly visit to grandfather and grandmother's house. Grandfather did not drive a car, their main way of travel was a top buggy, a one seat buggy with a top over it.

    We had a car, a Ford that had to be cranked to start. In those days there was no other way to start a car. I can still see my father cranking the Ford when it was cold.

    The trip to my grandparents was about eight miles. The roads were only fair. How glad we were to get there. I felt like "Over the River and through the woods to grandmother's house we go." Only, believe me, there were no woods in North Dakota but there was a river.

    There were four of us girls and we were welcomed by our grandparents and then "gross mutter" would give us our Christmas bags, they were a great surprise for us. We knew that some of her delicious molasses cookies would be in the bag. They were made with cream in a wood coal stove. Oh! How I remember those molasses cookies. I've never been able to duplicate the recipe. There was also nuts, peanuts and candy.

    Another treat was baking ammonia cookies. These were usually shaped as Christmas trees or St. Nicholas and decorated with colored candy.

    Later we would play with an instrument. It was a toy but not a toy, it was a stereoscope. When you put in two pictures, one in each side and you looked into it there would be only one picture. Remember the three dimensional effect? We had to be careful with it, grandma said, so we could use it next year.

    I remember the sad times in 1928. My grandmother sat with my third oldest sister as she lay dying from burns received from a stove fire. I also remember when her son, my Uncle John, died of heart disease at age of forty-nine. Then my grandfather died and after that she came to live with us.

    We took her with us on a long trip to Oregon in 1936 and she enjoyed seeing her oldest daughter again. My aunt Elizabeth and her family had moved to Oregon in 1917. My grandmother enjoyed the Willamette Valley and the cooler climate. There was a drought and very hot weather in North Dakota that year. We even took her to California as far as San Francisco and Lodi then back over the mountains to Yellowstone and back to North Dakota.

    My mother died suddenly of cardiac arrest and again she lost an adult child. My mother and grandmother were very close, and for a time, we thought we would lose our grandma too. Her faith helped sustain us all. My younger aunt and uncle promised to watch out for grandma, who was living in a little house by that time.

    The last time I saw my grandmother was while I was in nursing school. My father called to tell me that she was in an old people's home not too far away from me and would I go and check on her.

    I found her on the second floor of a ramshackle old building at the end of a hallway, where she had her bed and her old fashion brown trunk. She was sitting in her rocking chair with her Bible in her lap. She told me how lonely she was.

    She read Psalm 121 to me in German, the one which starts, "I will look unto the hills from whence cometh my help." Verse eight of that Psalm says, "The Lord will keep your going out and coming in from this time and forever more." Then she said, "The worst thing is that only a Katholisch, a Catholic priest, comes here and I need my pastor."

    After I reported back to my father, within a short time he and my uncle made arrangement and took her to live at the Lutheran Home for the Aged at Eureka, South Dakota. She died in the nursing home in 1945 but she was serene and happy in her final days.

    So what is my grandmother's legacy to all of us? What is your grandmother's legacy to all of you? I see the same perseverance in adversity, the same faithful persistence in faith, and the same determination for their children.

    I think of my oldest cousin now 86 living alone in Oregon, still active in her church, doing her beautiful crafts and writing me letters about her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

    I see it in my other cousins and in their children and my nieces and in my children. Several of the cousins have studied nursing, some have advanced degrees, all have children. A few have raised children as a single mother. All have their faith in God to help them through.

    I think of a favorite song of my grandmother's "German Dialogue" 117. "Take though my hand dear father and lead thou me, till at my journey's ending I dwell with thee. Alone I cannot wander one single day. So do thou guide my footsteps along life's rough way."

I did this talk for Church and so I was constrained by time and, of course, I wouldn't have wanted to mention everything. I did want to say my grandmother's name was Louisa Kraus Uttke. Her parent's names were Henretta Rolauf (SP) and Christopher Kraus. It was the Rolauf family who were her Godparents and who had done many things for her and her sister while they were at the orphanage. In fact, they helped my grandmother when she was married and that sort of thing.

First about the ship and how terrible it was. They heard rumors on the ship about how all the girls' long hair would be cut when they got to Ellis Island, and that was not the case at all. They were inspected for lice and given strong smelling shampoo, and only those who needed it were given a hair cut. The rumors were much worse than the reality.

If you have read stories by Willia Cather "Pioneer Women and How They Hoped" then you will understand a little more about what they went through on the prairie.

My grandfather was a mason and he knew how to build rock barns, they called him a "Maurermeister" in German. Those barns and the sod house are standing today near Carson. Their homestead there was a good one but they missed the village and the neighbors and wanted to be more with others. The lonesomeness of the prairie is really something, and, of course, the weather.

My grandfather traded his original homestead for one close to where the railroad was supposed to come through, about ten or twelve miles north. A small town was started there and wouldn't you know, the railroad came ten miles south right near where we lived. Actually, close to the original homestead. So, there they were out on that lonesome prairie once again.

Esther and some of my other cousins do remember that homestead and maybe even the original homestead. Uncle Rudy was the only one born in this country but they all became citizens.

It was depression time when my grandfather died and when my cousin Esther's father, John (Johannes) died.

Then I go on to the place where I talk about North Dakota.

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