Plains Folk

On the Prowl in German-Russian Country


In recent months I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with a cadre of people from Emmons, Logan, and McIntosh counties of North Dakota, talking about the potential for grassroots heritage tourism in what we are calling German-Russian Country. With the rise of the independent traveler in 21st century tourism, it becomes ever more possible to attract the sort of curious and sensible travelers we can welcome into our small towns.


By “independent traveler” I mean a person who is looking for real things in real places. Independent travelers scout their own itineraries, using the internet; travel by personal vehicle, rather than in large groups; and delight in finding interesting artifacts of regional culture on the ground. The culture of the Germans from Russia, including everything from religious sites to foodways, is of terrific potential interest to these travelers.


As part of the effort to promote German-Russian Country in a constructive way, I’ve been prowling the countryside, cataloging forgotten features of interest, along with the obvious ones. Look up “German-Russian Country” in the online photo posting service, Flickr, and you’ll see images of many of the things I’ve been stalking. In fact, while you’re in there, how about sharing your knowledge about these sites?


For instance, at the south end of main street in the little town of Zeeland stands a compelling, inadvertent monument: the grand archway that once was the entrance to Zeeland Park. A century ago, and even during the Great Depression, Zeeland was a town of impressive vitality—including a formidable town baseball team that played in a fine ballpark. Which is no more. Stand under the Zeeland Arch, though, and with a little help you can conjure the glory days of this prairie town. If Zeeland is your town, and you know about this place, how about sharing your remembrances?


While you’re in the neighborhood, how about telling us about the Hilltop Cross that overlooks Highway 11 north of Zeeland? Who put it there? What does it mean? It’s in need of a little repair and maintenance, but when it was working, what color was the neon light that emanated from it?


German-Russian Country is, in fact, a landscape of faith, spangled with religious sites. There are the famous iron-cross cemeteries, of course, but many other intriguing places, too. Just who, for instance, of the St. Anthony parish in Emmons County, decided to build the Pray for Peace Shrine along Highway 3 and ensconce Our Lady of Fatima, along with her plaster admirers, behind glass there?


And who put all those old threshing machines, the Dinosaurs of the Prairie, in a line stretching up the hill from Highway 34? Was it old Custer Grenz himself, that inveterate collector of machinery, or did the family do it as a memorial?


And while we’re on the subject, let’s cut to the most important, and controversial, question of all: Just who, in German-Russian Country, makes and sells the best sausage of all? I’ll take nominations in product divisions, including head cheese, as well as nominations for best of show overall, the best of the Wurst. Man does not live by History alone.


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