Plains Folk

All That Are Left


The night of November 17, 1946, Jacob H. Lang, a German-Russian farmer south of Lehr, never went to bed. Instead he loaded some cattle and set off in his truck for West Fargo, intending to be first in line next morning at the packinghouse. At home in the Lang farmhouse, Jacob’s wife Pauline and their ten children, ranging in age from 13 years to 10 months, went to bed about ten o’clock.

Early next morning someone got a phone message through to Jacob that there was a fire at his house, so he started from home immediately, growing more uneasy, as he drove, about the welfare of his family.

Arriving home around 7:30am, he found the one-story farmhouse burned to the ground, so he hastened to the home of his brother Gottlieb.

There he found three of the children all right, but inquired anxiously about the others. “These are all that are left,” his brother replied—“whereupon,” the Ashley Tribune reported, “Lang was visibly shaken and near collapse.” Within a few days both Pauline and Jacob were admitted to hospital in Eureka, South Dakota, in a state of nervous collapse.

And then there was Chester, 12 years old, formerly the second-oldest child, now the oldest surviving, as his sister Orpha had perished. He was the only family member capable of talking about what happened.

He and two other children, seven-year-old Betty and the infant Robert, had been asleep on the ground floor of the house. The other children were sleeping in the basement. Around midnight Pauline discovered the house afire, with the fire blocking the door, whereupon Chester had the presence of mind to sweep up his baby brother and climb out a window. His mother and sister Betty followed. While they stood outside, the others perished in the fire.

They were Orpha Darlene, 13; Arbetella Arlene, 10; Darald Delbert, 8; Jennice Ivela, 6; Donna Mae, 4; and Bernice, 1.

A neighbor, Ben Koepplin, saw the fire and rushed over, but arrived too late to do anything but gather up the survivors and take them to shelter. The cause of the fire was uncertain, but likely had to do with the stove fire banked overnight.

More than sixty years later, Delmar Zimmerman pointed to the name of Orpha Lang on a memorial stone and said, “She was in my Sunday school class.” Delmar told me the rudiments of the story of the Lang family tragedy and later sent me a clipping from the Ashley Tribune.

The Lang family plot is in the George Station German Baptist Cemetery, seven miles south of Lehr, at the end of a mile-long prairie trail. Its site is gorgeous, in the middle of a pasture and right alongside a blue kettle lake.

Until recently the cemetery was in a shambles and was practically inaccessible. Delmar led other descendants of German Baptist pioneers of the locality in a campaign to clean up the cemetery, fence and mark it, and get the county to re-open access.

The day we drove out to the George Station German Baptist Cemetery, killdeers decoyed us away from their nests, bobolinks trilled, and Delmar pointed with pride to the graves of his grandparents, Gottlieb and Katharena Zimmermann. They gave the acreage for establishment of the cemetery.

And yet, despite its beautiful situation and its well-kept condition, this burial ground will always be identified with tragedy. There are the graves of Pauline and Jacob, and a single marker for the six children who died in the fire, along with two others who died in infancy. The family stone bears the legend, “I am the resurrection and the life.”


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