Plains Folk

German Maids


The modest gravestone of Nina Farley Wishek, in the Ashley city cemetery, bears the simple legend, “Pioneer Mother.” Perhaps that’s enough, for Mrs. Wishek would have embraced both those labels, but what about “Author”? A teacher, and a poet, Nina Farley Wishek is most remembered as the author of a remarkable book—Along the Trails of Yesterday: A History of McIntosh County.

I know what you’re thinking, another musty old county history, but this one holds interest for people far beyond the confines of McIntosh County. For it records, in thoughtful fashion, the encounter of Anglo-American pioneers with North Dakota’s largest ethnic group, the Germans from Russia.

Born in 1869, Nina Farley came to McIntosh County before statehood to homestead with her parents, from Michigan. She got herself a teaching certificate and taught in several country schools, including ones with German-Russian pupils. In 1891 she married John Wishek, a businessman who was German (not German-Russian) and who actively recruited German-Russian settlers to the region. So the two of them lived at the confluence of ethnic cultures. They are considered, historically, the founding family of Wishek.

Now, Germans from Russia can be a little sensitive about their ethnic identity, especially about stereotypes thereof, and so a book about their culture by an Anglo-American woman is a contentious proposition. There is indeed some rationale for taking offense, for a somewhat patronizing tone occasionally seeps into the narrative. Mrs. Wishek sometimes praises the stolid heroism of the German-Russian pioneers a little too forcefully, whereas at other times she speaks wistfully of the early Yankee settlers who departed, leaving the German-Russians locally dominant.

And she includes one chapter entitled, “German Maids Whom I Have Known.” Meaning house servants, German-Russian country girls who came to town to keep house for Mrs. Wishek.

The titling of the chapter may have been a little insensitive, but it reflects a common historical reality. Throughout the Great Plains, Anglo-American townswomen recruited domestic servants from among the country folk, immigrant girls who entered such service to help their own families prove up and get established. This situation, so memorably described by Willa Cather in My Antonia, was not only common but also important. It was the way that Yankee families got to know the immigrant cultures of the countryside.

In this case, Mrs. Wishek got to know the country girls not just incidentally but also by insistently questioning them about their family histories, including life in the old country and immigration to North Dakota. “Often girls came into my home who had been over from the old country only a week or two,” writes Wishek. “As time passed and I became more conversant with the German tongue, I learned more of the Old World and the way in which they lived there.” She tells some of their stories, including one of a family traumatically divided by a case of trachoma, which caused a sister of the maid telling the tale to be turned back at Ellis Island.

The sister eventually made it to America, however, and became another in Mrs. Wishek’s series of German-Russian maids. “Today she lives in Ashley, highly respected and greatly loved by relatives and friends,” her chronicler concludes.

And we are left with this poignant narrative of cultural exchange, a book worth reading and rereading.

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