Noel, Tom. "Second Hoeing." Rocky Mountain News, 21 January 2006.
Sykes, Hope William. Second Hoeing. Lincoln,
Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1982.
A compelling chapter of Colorado history began with the legendary
Russian czarina, Catherine the Great.
This German-born czarina recruited skilled German farmers to colonize
Russia's Volga River valley during the late 1700s. Catherine promised
them the right to continue speaking German, practicing their Protestant
religion, and exemption from the Russian military.
When later czars reneged on Catherine's promises, the German-Russians
(aka Volga Deutsch) began moving out of Russia. Some returned to
Germany, some moved to Argentina or Brazil, and thousands came to
the United States, often settling in the Midwest. In Colorado they
gravitated to the sugar beet-growing areas of the South Platte Valley,
particularly Weld, Larimer, Morgan and Logan counties. Second Hoeing,
a 1935 historical novel by Hope Williams Sykes, offers a highly
readable account of Colorado's German-Russians. Sykes, a Fort Collins
teacher, spent years studying her German-Russian students, their
families, and their culture. She was puzzled by their large families
of a dozen or more children, until she found that in Russia they
were given additional acreage for each child.
As a teacher, Williams became painfully aware that German-Russian
children left school to work on the farm and to marry early. Her
focus on child labor earned her book national attention.
German-Russians protested the novel's focus on child labor and
the group's stereotype, because of the beet- and dirt- stained hands
and clothing, as "dirty Rooshians."
The "Dirty Rooshian" charge, as Tim Kloberdanz notes
in his introduction to the 1982 reprint of Second Hoeing, was exploited
by Great Western Sugar and other employers to justify housing them
in chicken coops, boxcars and tar-paper shacks. By accusing German-Russians
of thievery and disloyalty - especially during the world wars -
employers could explain the discrimination, tight regulations and
low wages used to keep them in their place.
Hannah Schreissmiller, the blue-eyed, golden-haired heroine of
Second Hoeing, hopes to go to high school. That dream is crushed
by her mother's death, leaving her to care for the baby, whose birth
killed her mother, and her other siblings.
"Hannah," her mother said, "everything fall by you.
But you is strong. Some day, the dirt, he don't bother you so much.
Life, he is not hard when you don't make mad and fight him."
At age 4, Hannah had begun baby-sitting her younger siblings in
the field. At age 6, she crawled through the dirt and clods, thinning
and weeding sugar beet plants. By age 16, she had been exposed to
every part of the sugar beet cycle, no matter how laborious and
Hannah is courted by the son of a white landowner. For seeing this
"American boy," Hannah's father horsewhips her, shredding
her white confirmation dress - her only fancy garment. Agonizingly
caught between cultures, Hannah ultimately marries one of her own
Hope Sykes uses fine descriptive writing and dialect to tell the
story. The Schreissmillers and their countrymen start out as contract
laborers housed in Shag Town, which lay next to the now mostly demolished
Great Western plant.
Williams describes "one- room shacks with stove pipe chimneys
sticking out of the roofs at crazy angles, their weathered sides
hugging the dirt yards, sagging fences hemming in dirty faced children.
All drab, colorless, with here and there a brightly painted house,
a good fence, only adding to the sordidness of the scene.
"Separated from Shag Town by a dirt road were the stinking
pulp pits adjoining the many- windowed red-brick sugar factory,
fermenting noodles of shredded sugar beets from which all the sweetness
had been taken."
German-Russians, thanks to their dogged work ethic and strong family,
church and cultural support system, usually worked their way up,
becoming success stories like the Anschutzes, Colorado's wealthiest
clan. Now assimilated and overlooked as an ethnic group, German-Russians
raised not only sugar but also Russian winter wheat, lambs and cattle
as they helped transform the Great American Desert into America's