Plains Folk

German Russian Country


Here’s something that puzzles me: the willingness of, shall we say, older-than-average people to sign up for bus tours. Recently I spent three days as a local-color person on a bus tour, and I tell you, I’m just too old for this-I am stove up. I can hike ten miles chasing grouse across the coteau, but sitting just kills me.

All right, I exaggerate, and I’m done with my mini-rant now, but I’ll tell you why I was willing to spend three days on a bus. The Germans from Russia Heritage Collection of NDSU Libraries, with the support of NDSU Extension, organized this thing called the Dakota Memories Heritage Tour. Its aims were to take travelers into the heart of German-Russian country, south-central North Dakota, and thus demonstrate the potential of this culture region for heritage tourism.

Well, it certainly did that. The bus filled up, there was a long waiting list of enthusiasts unable to secure places, and the expedition was a high-spirited success. Partly, of course, this was because of good handling of logistics, as in care and feeding of the travelers, but mostly it was because the historic culture of the Germans from Russia is, when you get onto the ground, so downright compelling.

I’ll get the essential thing out of the way first: I mean, food. We started out with orientation at the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center, where our hosts, Paul and Ann Nyren, naturally had to see we were stuffed full of beef. At the Lehr Tabernacle there were, among other things, borscht and strudels and kuchen. In Hague the café ladies catered into the Knights of Columbus hall with sausage, cheese buttons, and pie. The ladies of Ss. Peter & Paul in Strasburg served up knoephle soup and blachinda in the basement. To top it off, we cut got in on the St. Anthony’s fall supper in Linton, where they serve upwards of 1200 diners-which means it is not only a feast but also a spectacle. And I’m leaving lots of good stuff out.

As for the cultural features of the tour, I’ll have to leave a lot of them out, too, but let just mention a few.

• The Lehr Tabernacle, which I’d heard so much about from old Bob Erbele, one of my favorite legislators, but never seen. It reminds me of an old-time Chautauqua hall, built by German-Russian farmers as a facility for religious revivals. It stands on an old tree claim, surrounded by old cottonwoods planted to prove up the claim. While we were there, Cleo Boschee got some of us off-script out into the cemetery to witch graves with welding rods.

• St. John the Baptist Cemetery, where the long-time caretaker, Sebastian Meyer, had us laughing to tears with his droll wit, and then we sobered up in contemplation of the graves of victims of the diphtheria epidemic of 1898.

• St. Andrew’s Church, near Zealand, where a daughter of the parish, Carol Just, lovingly narrated its history, and the choir-average age, I don’t know, but their faces had wisdom lines like gulleys-unbelievable faces, real people in a real place faces-the choir chimed in with all the old hymns, like “Gott Ist die Liebe,” like they were born to sing them, which I guess they were.

Heck, it’s time for me to quit, and I haven’t even made my way from the evangelical country into the Catholic domain of German-Russian country. I tell you what, if you’re a Facebook user, look up my heritage tourism group there; it’s called “Heritage Trails.” There you’ll find photos and description and not a little bit of wistful remembrance of the German-Russian country. But not of the bus, I don’t miss the bus. Just the country, and its people.

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