Plains Folk

The Mysterious Monument of Pembina County


You can’t really not notice it as you drive through Pembina County along Highway 18 east of Crystal, North Dakota. It’s a 20-foot-tall obelisk in the middle of St. John’s Cemetery, directly across the highway west from St. John’s Lutheran Church. It stands out in the level potato country of the Red River Valley like, well, a 20-foot-tall obelisk. It’s not what you would call an organic feature of the landscape.


This monument, too, is the strong and silent type. What were the people thinking when they created it? What were they trying to say? One of my fine seminar students, Joanna Olson, has investigated, and turned up as many questions as answers. This monument associated with the Schulz family, the Schulz Obelisk we call it, “speaks of affluence, of strength, and of dignity,” Joanna says. Otherwise, it keeps its secrets.


The Schulz family story in North Dakota, or rather Dakota Territory, begins with the immigration of Albert and Johanna Schulz from the German province of Pomerania in 1878. After a few years in Minnesota, in 1881 they took up their homestead in Dakota, building themselves a log house on the claim. They settled into a German rural community that soon founded St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Other kin were nearby.


The Schulzes prospered and were excellent farmers. One who knew them, Jim Puppe, says their rows were always straighter and their grain cleaner than anyone else’s. But children were the main harvest of the Albert and Johanna Schulz: twelve of them, most of them marrying into the local community.


One November morning in 1911 sixty-year-old Albert, according to the Crystal Call, was driving his car about fifteen miles per hour on the grassy shoulder of a rural road. When his wheels began to slip, he tried to pull onto the road, but only succeeded in rolling the car, and was killed in the rollover. His son Carl, who was riding with, survived the accident. Albert was buried in a central place in St. John’s Cemetery.


The Schulz Obelisk is situated at the graves of Albert and Johanna, who died in 1916. Affixed to the obelisk is a bronze plaque giving a biographical sketch of Albert and making reference to his auto accident in 1911. I always figured the obelisk, then, was placed as a monument to this successful homesteader and patriarch of a farming dynasty.


It turns out, however, from Joanna’s investigations, that the plaque was added later, and that the obelisk was not placed immediately after Albert’s death. It also turns out—and Joanna obtained granite samples from the quarry to confirm it—that the obelisk was fashioned of Barre granite from Vermont. Specifically, it came from the Rock of Ages Quarry. It must have cost thousands of dollars, a princely sum in the 1910s.


Sorting through various possibilities, the theory which seems most plausible is that the purchase and emplacement of the Schulz Obelisk derived from the settlement of Johanna Schulz’s estate, during the First World War. The absence of newspaper or other public notice of the arrival of such a remarkable monument can be explained by the desire of the family to keep the operation quiet during wartime, when people were supposed to be putting their cash into war bonds, after all.


It was son Otto, the quiet (I say “quiet” because there were other descendants who were more ostentatious about the family’s wealth) and competent son of Albert and Johanna Schulz, who settled the estate and likely procured the monument.


Family members still take pride in the Schulz Obelisk, but they don’t know much about it. It stands as general remembrance of their ancestral saga—and as evidence of the ineffable desire of prairie people to make a mark of remembrance on the land.


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