AAA Living – North Dakota

September/October 2007

Harvey Schilling taps a German tune on the accordian

Harvey Schilling taps a German tune on the accordian

German Russians found their place in North Dakota more than a century ago. Today, their vintage lifestyle draws travelers to the south-central part of the state.

In a list of the world’s gourmet foods, sauerkraut never seems to make the cut. But don’t tell that to the folks who make their home in what’s known as North Dakota’s “Great Sauerkraut Triangle.” Although called a triangle, this irregular polygon-shaped region (spanning roughly from Edgedale west to Linton, south to Zeeland and north to Napoleon) dishes out some of the best German food, architecture and culture this side of Munich. In the words of North Dakota’s most famous German Russian, 1950s band leader Lawrence Welk, the region is “wunnerful, wunnerful!”

My own heritage traces back to this area settled by German immigrants from Russia who fled the oppressive tsarist tyranny from about 1880 to 1920. I was born in Eureka, South Dakota, which, before cartographers drew state lines, was part of the German-Russian territory. As I travel through the towns of southern North Dakota, I recall a high school cheer my uncle taught me. “Wieners und wieners und sauerkraut,” he’d begin with his thick German accent, “we are from Hosmer, five miles out!” I bet we weren’t the only German descendants who shouted the rhyme.

Standing on a knoll above Welk’s childhood home in Strasburg, I watch the prairie grass sway as if orchestrated by the late conductor’s baton. A tiny lake sparkles in the distance behind a cluster of old barns, a granary and the simple sod house where Welk lived until his 21st birthday.

I realize that the charm of these towns lies in how they’ve held dearly to their traditions. The communities’ visible commitment draws visitors from near and far to reconnect with their roots—or just get a good bowl of borscht (hearty cabbage soup) or some cheese buttons (noodle dough filled with seasoned cheese and onions). In some places, such as the Edgeley Coffee Shop in Edgeley where kuchen (fruit and custard pastry) and a German burger (crowned with white cheese and sauerkraut) is served, barking, consonant-riddled German echoes in the air. The cook, Jean Neff, offers a friendly gutentag (good day) to me, before turning back to her conversation in German with some of the older customers.

Food from the Old Country is just part of the sauerkraut triangle heritage package. “Almost every one of those counties has a great museum,” says Bismarck history buff Michael Rempfer. The McIntosh County Heritage Center in Ashley is a perfect example, with an early rural Lutheran Church, a sod house, a one-room school and other historical buildings on site. These museums serve as living memories of the days when hardworking immigrants plowed the parched, rocky earth to plant crops and build communities. “You can still hear the accents of the people in most of those places,” says Rempfer. “The rural lifestyle—in some places you can still find the old buildings built with mud bricks and stuff like that.”

Mud bricks are really just a fancy name for dirt and manure. Historian Michael Miller with the Germans from Russia Heritage Collection says the state’s treeless terrain, much like the steppes of Russia from which the immigrants came, forced the settlers to use building materials other than wood. A well-preserved, original sod home still stands eight miles east of Strasburg.

More than any other buildings, churches received remarkable attention to detail. They were elaborate, using brick, stone and stained glass as evidenced by the St. Peter & Paul Catholic Church in Strasburg—proof of the importance of religion to these pioneers.

Just outside Hague, a Catholic cemetery contains as many as 70 ornate, black eizenkreuzen (iron crosses). Each cross tells its own story. Forged by immigrant blacksmiths in Hague between 1877 and 1941 (using skills they’d learned from their ancestors on the steppes of the Volga and the Black Sea regions of Russia), these prairie monuments can be quite intricate, with elaborate symbols depicting everything from angels to snakes. As I walk down the rows, I can almost imagine the sweat and sadness that went into each one of these crosses, timeless reminders of the hardships these pioneer families endured.

The crosses and other tangible history add to the beauty of this region. They’re a part of North Dakota’s heritage that should be treasured and shared for generations to come. Even if you don’t like sauerkraut.

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Germans from Russia Fall Fun

New Leipzig: The annual Octoberfest, Sept. 21–23, features German music and cloggers, traditional Germans from Russia food demonstrations, and booths and cultural demonstrations, such as loom weaving and plow sharpening. Contact: Mark Stetler at 701-584-2278.

Wishek: The 82nd annual Sauerkraut Day happens October 10 at the Civic Center. Eat wieners and sauerkraut, while enjoying German music at this free community luncheon. Contact Stan Deile at 701-452-2351.

Strasburg: Stroll the grounds of Lawrence Welk’s birthplace in Strasburg, 701-336-7519.

Napoleon: Logan County Historical Society preserves an historic schoolhouse, a house built in 1907, Logan County church, a blacksmith shop and harness shop; 701-754-2511.

Ashley: Browse more Germans from Russia pioneer history at McIntosh County Heritage Center circa 1900. Historic buildings include a church, sod house and school house; 701-288-3388.

Hague: Carry a handkerchief as you walk among the handcrafted iron crosses at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Iron Cross Cemetery, 701-336-7119. The effort manifested in these labors of love might move you to tears.

South of the Border

In addition to North Dakota, South Dakota is home to many of the German Russian settlements of the late 1800s and early 1900s, including one that largely has been preserved. Eureka, hailed as the “Wheat Capitol of the World” from 1887 to 1902, was a bustling center of commerce at the end of the rail line. Today, there is still plenty to see. The Pioneer Museum holds a fascinating collection of German-Russian artifacts, farm implements, period clothing and more. The City CafÈ is a popular place for German meals and two businesses bake sweet German pastries, The Eureka Bakery and The Kuchen Factory. An oddity, perhaps, is the City Cemetery, where native son and USA Today founder Al Neuharth has his headstone. Neuharth isn’t dead yet, but like most Germans from Russia, he plans ahead.

Ginny Prior makes annual trips to the Sauerkraut Triangle, eating everything except prune kuchen.

Photography by Ron Rouse.


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