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I Like Work! Work Satisfies! Work Tastes Better Than Food!

Larson Dick and Duane Sweep. "I Like Work! Work Satisfies! Work Tastes Better Than Food!" Dakota Student, 1980.


Standing erect, with a pitchfork in one hand and a small mug of beer in the other, Gottlieb Bauer says what he thinks and says it directly.

For Gottlieb, there are few ambiguities. His views are quick, simple and emphatic as he surveys himself, his past, his new homestead in North Dakota, his neighbors, merchants, politics and life in general.

Gottlieb Bauer is a German-Russian immigrant. He and his wife Carolina came to McIntosh County in 1885. He's made his start, weathered the first few hard years and established his new farm and life.

Gordon Iseminger, as Gottlieb Bauer.

Bauer is a portrayal by Dr. Gordon Iseminger, professor of history at the University of North Dakota, who developed the character for the 1979 Chautauqua.

"The character is real," notes Iseminger. "I made up the name. The name is a composite. Gottlieb seemed to appear most often in the files, and I was going to be a farmer, and `Bauer' is the German word for that. But Gottlieb Bauer is based on a real man."

"I'm a German from Russia - there's not a drop of Russian blood in me!"

The German-Russians were exactly that. At the invitation of Russia, they migrated to that country's Black Sea area in the 18th and early 19th centuries to cultivate the land and put it to use.

It was an excellent opportunity for many Germans to escape the military, war and taxes, and to acquire land, Iseminger said. The Germans established 3,000 colonies in Russia. They did not, however, become Russian. They stood apart from the native population, speaking German and preserving their own culture for more than 100 years. They enjoyed a special status, but that would change.

"The new czar," Gottlieb Bauer lamented, "in 1871 took away many of the advantages we Germans enjoyed. They tried to `Russianize' everything, and we didn't want to be Russians."

Particularly distressing, Iseminger noted, was the loss of the German's exemption from military service.

"The Russian army was a brutal army," Iseminger said. "It took away the productive years of a life when you should be setting up a farm. For a German in the Russian army, there was never a chance to rise in rank. You would always be just a foot soldier." He added that some terms of service could be as long as 20 years.

With their status and way of life threatened, the opportunities of America looked good. So, in 1885, at the age of 24, Gottlieb and Carolina Bauer left Russia and came to the unknown, open prairies of the Dakota Territory.

"We heard about America. There was good land - and cheap! It was like the steppe lands back in Russia. And all those freedoms, and no military service."

McIntosh County was opened for settlement in 1885. When Bauer arrived, there were only 282 people in the county. The land, climate and customs of this new land were strange and sometimes hostile.

"We suffered a lot of hardships then," Bauer recalls. "Often we didn't have enough to eat, and we never had variety in what we ate."

Starting out with next to nothing, the Bauer family made their home in a sod house for the first two years. There was no money for supplies that first year; what little money they had was earned by picking buffalo bones.

The North Dakota winter was a new and difficult challenge.

"I wasn't expecting that kind of winter," Gottlieb Bauer stated. "I saw snow 25 feet deep above our well. We had to dig steps to get down to the barns and other livestock. Our houses were covered right up to the chimneys!

"The winter of `88 was the coldest we ever had. It was so cold the vinegar barrel froze, and we had to buy it by the foot!"

Blizzards, prairie fires and drought were the worst natural hazards the new farmers faced. There wasn't much that could be done about these, but Gottlieb belived in what he could do for himself.

"Work is something that has to be conquered," he asserts. "The only real work is the kind that puts callouses on the hands."

Like his fellow German-Russians, Bauer embraces a strong work ethic and a sense of real value.

"I like land," Bauer states. "I cling to the land. Art, literature, that's fine, but the only thing with real value is land. I won't be separated from the land."

Sadly, many were, Iseminger noted.

"Some of these people had done so well," he explained. "They came over here with what they had in their pockets. They took advantage of the homestead law, got land, and then in the 1930s, during the Depression, there would be a bad year. They would be forced to mortgage their farm, and finally they would lose it."

The tragedies of the Depression would aggravate the hostility felt by many of the immigrants toward the monied and vested interests. Their suspicion of bankers, big business and "middlemen" had long preceded their arrival in the Dakota Territory. Their willingness to endorse government ownership and cooperatives created a fertile ground for what more traditional minds regarded as "radicalism" in North Dakota.

This view was not socialistic, Iseminger pointed out. "It's not the theoretical, Marxist, bookish socialism. It's cooperative socialism, forced on you by the necessity of living on a frontier."

He added, "It makes more sense to send out one person to look after 20 people's cows than to send out 20 people to look after the same cow."

In Russia, the government owned the railroads and saloons, and there were cooperative enterprises such as tree planting. Even if the German-Russians didn't like it, they got used to these concepts, Iseminger said.

"It was hard that first winter. It was hard because we were so different."

Along with the difficulties of starting a new life in a strange and severe land, the German-Russians immigrants also had to contend with their own form of "culture shock."

"Back in Russia," Gottlieb Bauer recalled, "we stayed apart. We didn't mix with the Russians. In America we didn't mix. We kept to ourselves."

"In Russia, no one looked down on us, but here, they looked down on us. When we came to America, we tried to live the same way we had lived in Russia. People thought we were ignorant. We didn't learn the language. Just as we resisted being `Russianized,' we resisted being `Americanized.'"

To some extent, Iseminger observed, the German-Russians had been passed by. By holding onto the things they cherished, they found themselves in a strange land with beliefs and ways of doing things that had not advanced much from when their ancestors had left Germany.

Even so, their culture had many strengths and traits that still characterize their descendants in North Dakota today.

"We spent a lot of time reading the Bible," Gottlieb Bauer remembers. "And we had our music. God, we loved our music! We had songs about everything. When we were lonesome, sad or feeling sorry for ourselves, we sang. And the whole world looked a lot better!"

Today, the German-Russians remain one of the most cohesive, identifiable ethnic groups in North Dakota. They are found throughout the state, but particularly in an area known as the "German triangle," from the southern counties up to Bottineau. Iseminger added that there are many differences between German-Russians in different parts of the state.

With his name, it might have seemed natural to Iseminger to develop the German-Russian character. That isn't quite so, he chuckled. He's of Dutch extraction, and his concentration was not on German history, but English.

Iseminger originally started looking for information for an article on English colonists in North Dakota but quickly discovered that there weren't enough of them to have settled in any cohesive element. The recent formation of a German-Russian society in the state prompted him to study that group instead.

The inspiration for Gottlieb Bauer came when the humanities office in Bismarck put out an announcement calling for possible characters for the 1979 Chatauqua.

"I had the information," Iseminger said. "It could have turned into a character, it could have turned into an article or a book chapter. So far, I have just used it as a character. I'm still planning on doing an article, though."

Iseminger's portrayal has drawn many compliments. After a presentation to the German-Russian Society in Minot, an audience member said, "You tell it exactly as it was told to us. You put yourself so into the character that you have become the character."

It might be true, Iseminger added: "In fact my wife says I'm becoming more like Gottlieb Bauer every day."

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
North Dakota State University Libraries
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
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