Tales from a far country: How Russian German immigrants settled South Dakota

Farm Forum

Jacob Huber, a farmer from Dodge, N.D., whose ethnic German parents had emigrated from Russia in 1906, took up his pen some decades later and started to write. He wrote down all the tales his family remembered from the old country and quite a few from the new.

“Eight miles west of Herreid, S. Dak., is a place where a group of German immigrants starved to death one winter,” he wrote. “They wrote a letter before the last one died.

“Near Burnstedt is another place where a colony died. The parents of Mrs. Rudolph Peltz homesteaded near Glen Ullen in the early days. One day the father came into the house and told his wife they would have to flee as there was an Indian uprising. The wife said she couldn’t leave as she had made up her dough to bake. They stayed and nothing happened.”

And so it goes, anecdote after anecdote for some 200 pages of manuscript. It’s a Germans-from-Russia version of all the news that’s fit to print – some of it just barely.

“The Stohlers settled two miles west of the Defiance church. They came late, so got the worst homestead in the neighborhood,” Huber wrote, and added in the space above the line: “1910.”

“The father, Constantine, was a tall strong man who was the illegitimate son of a French general in the Czar’s army, and a German Russian girl.”

Jacob Huber never quite finished his manuscript. He still was writing in 1984, when he died in a farm accident at age 72.

The entire manuscript is now in the keeping of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, donated by the Huber family. That family includes former Pierre resident Dalton Huber, formerly the chief financial officer for what is now Avera St. Mary’s Hospital. Dalton Huber lived in Pierre from 1995 to 2007.

Family treasure

The manuscript is a family treasure that has value to Black Sea Germans because of what it tells about the old country, including anecdotes that sketch a vivid picture of how ethnic Germans lived in Russia, and how they perceived their non-German neighbors.

The manuscript is valuable to everyone else because of what it says about the settling of the Dakotas.

“Life in the Dakotas was quite different for the Germans that settled there from the Black Sea region of Russia,” said Dalton Huber, who is now the director of finance for the New Ulm Medical Center in New Ulm, Minn.

Dalton Huber said his father, Jacob Huber — the son of another Jacob Huber and his wife, Catherine, who had come from Russia in 1906, and the grandson of Max Huber, who stayed in Russia – was keenly aware of those cultural differences from listening to immigrants. Born some five years after his parents arrived in America, the younger Jacob Huber grew up with the accents of the old country ringing in his ears.

“My dad loved to read and talk with people. He especially loved history. I spent mind-numbing hours waiting for him as he would coax stories out of some old duffers,” Dalton Huber said. “When dad got older, he realized the stories he remembered would be lost if he didn’t write them down, so he sat down and wrote about the neighbors and the stories he had heard from Russia. Dad was born in the U.S., but he had two siblings that were born in Russia. I don’t believe he knew them as they died before he was born.”

That is the hardship about Dakota that is implicit in Jacob Huber’s manuscript. And for every story he wrote down, there were some he never told, as his son, Dalton Huber, remembers.

“I remember going to the reservation to visit Albert Little Owl,” Dalton Huber said. “Albert was a scout with the cavalry when he was young. When I was little, he was pretty old. The tribes where I grew up were the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa. When the cavalry came through hunting the Sioux, these three tribes thought they would sign up and help. I don’t remember any of Albert’s stories and don’t remember if dad wrote them down.”

Looking back

But what Jacob Huber did write down has a great deal to say about life in ethnic German settlements in Russia — clearly a diverse place.

“My parents described the Cossack men as being rather small, but tough and wiry. They would be armed, their belt would contain a number of knives and pistols. They were expert horsemen, being able to swing through the underside of the horse while it was galloping along,” Jacob Huber’s account records.

And Cossacks are not the only group with strange ways and customs.

“When the Hubers first entered Russia, they settled in the northern part, but didn’t like it there, so when my grandfather was still small, they moved to Crimea. On the way to Crimea they passed some Tartar tribesmen who gave the Germans a watermelon. It was looked over, but the Germans didn’t know what to do with it. A Tartar, seeing how perplexed the Germans were, took a watermelon and showed them how you break it with your fist, then eat it. The Germans had never seen any watermelons.”

Food was not the only difference … religion was another.

Jacob Huber records that his grandfather, while mowing hay along a busy road one day, kept seeing Tartars stop to drink from his water jug at the edge of the field. So he took a strip of bacon and wrapped it around the mouth of the jug.

“Soon some Tartars came along, and one made his way over to the wagon for a drink of water, but when he saw the bacon rind on top of the jug he yelled, “Chooshke, chooshke” (“swine, swine.”) None bothered his water after that. The Tartar people are Mohammedans and will have nothing to do with pork.”

There were also differences with the Eastern Orthodox Russians, who practiced a different kind of Christianity than the Germans in Russia — with implications for farmers who hired Russian laborers.

“One springtime Fred Huber was short on hay, so he instructed his Russian helper not to feed any of his precious hay to the cattle, they could get along on chaff. The hay was needed for the horses that worked. Walking through the barnyard early Easter morning, Fred saw that each one of the cows had a small pile of hay in front of her and was eating it. He called to the Russian worker, demanding an explanation. The hired man answered with finality, ‘This is Easter morning.’”

With the Russians

The Huber manuscript includes anecdotes that show friction between ethnic Germans and Russians. For example, he reports a practice by some of the richer German farmers of hiring Russian laborers for room and board plus $65, payable at the end of the year, then finding some pretext to dismiss the laborer just before the year’s pay was due.

“When my father was small and saw what was going on he would say to his grandmother, ‘Those mean farmers will land in hell someday,” Jacob Huber records. “To which the grandmother replied, ‘Yes, they will, but what good will that do if those poor Russians have to pay the transportation charges?’”

Huber’s manuscript also includes some of the folklore about Gypsies – common in the Crimea – and other minorities.

“It was said that if they (Gypsies) gained entrance to a home they could bind the occupants with black magic, and take anything they wanted,” Huber wrote. “One common procedure when doubtful women came to the door was to lay a broomstick across the doorway at the threshold. If the lady was a witch she wouldn’t cross this broomstick. And my mother said that some of the non-German women would step across the broomstick without even noticing it, while others stayed outside and raved and ranted.”

Promised land

Huber’s family got along well with non-Germans — a good thing when they finally gathered their resolve and sold their farmland as a first step toward emigrating.

“Having been friendly with the Jews really paid off for my parents when the time came to leave Russia. After the land had been sold my parents regretted their decision to leave, so tried to buy land again, but wherever they went, doors were closed, so dad said to mother, ‘We will have to leave, the Lord wants us to.’

“First a passport had to be procured, but a new ruling came out saying people could leave Russia, but their money had to stay back.

“Hearing of my parents’ predicament, a Jewish friend went to my father and said he would be able to arrange a valid passport, but dad would have to have a certain number of one-ruble currency notes in his possession.

“The currency and the blank passport were procured, then the Jew slipped two rubles into the passport and went to the first official who had to stamp it. The Jew explained, ‘This is my brother, Yankel, who lives in Abraham’s Numbers and, not owning anything, would like to leave for America.’ The official removed the money, then stamped the passport without any questions.

“Abraham’s Numbers was a low-grade apartment house for Jews that were in financial difficulties.”

A train took them to what is now Lithuania, where they boarded a ship across the Baltic Sea and the North Sea to England, where they got on board a second ship for America. They had all their savings and the money from the sale of their farm with them; and Jacob Huber found it hard to keep that news to himself.

“My father happened to be talking with two men when one of them found that he had $3,000 and said to the other, ‘Imagine, he has $3,000 and is going to North Dakota.’ The other man shrugged and said, ‘Let him go!’”

What they found

Near Dodge, N.D., the Huber family met a relative, Fred Huber — that same farmer who had the hired hand in Russia who fed hay to the cattle on Easter morning. Now already familiar with America, Fred told them where they could buy a homestead from a man who didn’t want to stay. The homesteader was willing to sell for the $400 he had put into it and in exchange he gave the Hubers his two-room gable house, straw-roof barn, well, drill and mower. After receiving payment, the farmer went into the land office in Bismarck and relinquished his land claim; then the Hubers went in and immediately filed on it for a fee of $18.75.

But all was not well in America. Jacob Huber records the story of the Jacob Ziegler family.

“Their land was hilly and rocky so they worked hard digging rocks, then he would sit down on one side of the rockpile, while she sat on the other side, and both wept.”

North Dakota proved to be a land where the Hubers saw mule teams at work in an underground coal mine by Zap; where home-brewed whiskey was part of many a barter; where some of the neighbors might refuse water to passing teams; where cattle were thirsty for snow after the blizzards, and walls had to be chinked to keep out the cold; and where at least one grisly murder was committed by pushing a boy into an operating threshing machine — though vigilante justice soon followed. But it was also here in Dakota where the Hubers bought their first car, a Model T, in 1917. It was an auspicious moment for an immigrant family that was starting to prosper up in North Dakota, the promised land.