Main Body

Conclusion – Preserving the Past: German-Russian Landscapes in Western North Dakota

Anna Andrzejewski

The fieldschool introduced our class to a fascinating cultural landscape. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this landscape were buildings associated with the Germans from Russia, many of which date to the early twentieth century and represent first- or second-period buildings of this immigrant group. Although these buildings represent fascinating examples of buildings built by the Germans from Russia, there are additional stories embedded in the regional cultural landscape that also merit further study.

Interior of house on A. Jirges farm, showing rapid deterioration of paint, flooring, and wood frame. Photo by Alex Leme, June, 2017.

To study some of these buildings is a race against time. The remnant barn on the A. Jirges Farm shows the fragility of even some of the most sturdy of the buildings in this region. Many of the buildings we documented were abandoned, either because of condition or simply because they have outlived their usefulness. Should these buildings be preserved for posterity? What is to be gained (if anything) by rehabilitation and conservation (necessary in many cases)? Are there alternatives to documenting their history if preservation is not warranted?

This final chapter explores these questions with the aim of inspiring future scholars to study this cultural landscape and to prompt preservationists to consider some of the vital questions about the future of these buildings.

Questions for Future Study

Our sample size was limited simply because of time constraints. A week in the field yielded information on seven farms, but certainly more time and access to other farmsteads would produce even more data that would enrich the history recounted here.

Enough remains of the first- and second-period farmsteads of Germans from Russia in the region to continue to focus on documenting and studying buildings associated with this particular ethnic group. Given the cluster of farms in Stark County, especially south of Dickinson, this in itself would make a fascinating study of individual building types. Genealogical research would be able to flesh out connections between families and perhaps prompt comparisons of the study of buildings here and in Russia. Many of these buildings are threatened; they have been abandoned and fallen into disrepair, so time is a critical question if such a study will be undertaken.

To study the buildings of Germans from Russia to the exclusion of those from other ethnic groups risks simplifying a much more complex story about ethnic settlement in southwestern North Dakota during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While this history has been documented in previous studies for the state (most notably in Plains Folk), the buildings themselves deserve further attention.[1] We were fascinated by the story of the Germans from Hungary, who settled near their Germans from Russia neighbors. Studying the cluster of farms around Lefor, for example, would be a logical next step. It would allow questions to be answered about regional building traditions and how those dovetailed with ethnic building traditions during the early twentieth century. The buildings on the surface look quite similar, but without detailed study, it is impossible to tell if those similarities are skin deep.

Much more remains to be studied in terms of the outbuildings on these farms. We spent time documenting several barns, but in the interests of time, did not document all of them equally well. In addition, there are patterns of survival in other building types, including smokehouses and windmills, which merit additional study.

Given how interesting these folk buildings from the first and second periods of settlement are, it is easy to overlook the changes the farmsteads experienced across the twentieth century. And yet those changes are in themselves telling about the culture of immigrant Germans from Russia in showing how successive generations adapted to frontier life over time. As discussed in Chapter 4, the house on the Clemens Steier Farm shows how changes were already underway by the second generation of settlement. Studying patterns of acculturation over time tells us a lot about the Germans from Russia; it moves us away from thinking only in terms of “survival” of ethnic traditions and instead how descendants modified their ethnic ways of life in a new landscape.

Finally, there is much more to be learned about the patterns in the landscape in terms of the choices farmers and farm families made about how to live on the prairie and in a cold climate. The seemingly inhospitable conditions of the northern Great Plains were challenged by the permanence of settlement here as well as the nature of the adaptations – ranging from plowing the sod to siting buildings against hillsides to protect their occupants from wind – all of which deserves more systematic study. This sort of “environmental history” needs to be told in relation to the buildings, as they speak of the fraught relationship of humans to nature in this place and the endless struggles residents faced as they tried to settle on the treeless landscape during the last century.

Preserving the Folk Farmsteads of the Germans from Russia

Our class felt exceptionally fortunate to be able to have firsthand contact with the folk buildings of the Germans from Russia. These century-old buildings merit study as they represent unique survivals of the folk culture of this important ethnic group, and to date, these kinds of buildings have been minimally studied. Their relative rarity might seem an obvious reason to argue for their preservation – what might that look like and is there value in preserving these buildings?

We asked people we interviewed for this project about that, and received mixed responses. While our interview subjects felt the buildings were important, they also recognized that interest in them has waned with each successive generation. Peter and Marie Betchner lamented the changes, noting that deterioration and neglect are the main problems:

These barns…now the shingles are coming off or whatever, and they’re not fixing them. The problem is…they’re letting them go to ruin….anyway, you see it all. Pretty soon the doors are gone, then all of a sudden part of the roof, then the walls go down. That’s how it happens. You see a lot of that.

Karen Weiler also talked about her feelings about preservation, noting that while she knows the buildings are valuable, she recognizes change is inevitable. When her parents moved, she accepted the buildings were going into ruin:

Yeah, and I was really sad when my mom and dad left [the farm]…but as soon as they bought a home in town I realized home was where the heart is. I’m OK with it. It’s weird, but once they left…yeah.

We acknowledge that change has always been a feature of these landscapes, and preservation is inevitably at odds with this. Most of the houses we studied were abandoned; only the house on the Clemens Steier farm remained occupied. Some of the barns were being used, but others – such as the barn on the A. Jirges farm – have been left to deteriorate. In the case of active farms such as the Raymond Frank and Steier farms, new buildings, including houses and barns, stand alongside the older ones as older lifestyles and farm practices have, inevitably, given way to new ones. And St. Pius was demolished in the late 1990s, having outlived its usefulness as the anchor of this rural community.

In the face of this, it is hard to argue to preserve these buildings for their utility, because in many ways, they have outlived their lifespan. Some certainly could be repurposed, but the ways that they were constructed, too, makes this challenging. Jeff Frank told us about how he had to saw off the entrance door to his summer kitchen as the building had “shrunk” into the ground, since the door wouldn’t open anymore.[2] Without foundations, these buildings have a limited lifespan, and they obviously require continual maintenance – something hard to justify unless one is making use of them.

In lieu of what preservationists terms “bricks and mortar” preservation, there are other ways that the stories of these buildings can be told before they are lost. Part of the value of a “fieldschool approach” lies in preserving a documentary record of these buildings for future scholars. The drawings we produced for the fieldschool and have reproduced here can be used to draw conclusions about room use, material, dimensions, and other things. Once a sizable body of buildings has been drawn, richer stories along the lines of those told here can be written. We also documented the buildings with photography and the interviews we recorded also revealed much about family history and use of buildings over time. Collectively this sort of “paper preservation” might serve as a useful form of preservation instead of trying to keep the buildings around.

Of course, nothing can replicate these structures, and once they are gone, they are, in fact, lost forever. But hopefully this e-book will prompt others to attempt to tell the stories embedded in this rich cultural landscape, especially the folk farmsteads, before they vanish from the prairie.

  1. William C. Sherman and Playford V. Thorson, eds., Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History (Fargo, N.D. : North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota State University in cooperation with the North Dakota Humanities Council and the University of North Dakota, 1986).
  2. Jeff Frank, Pers. Comm., June 27, 2017.


Folk Farmsteads on the Frontier Copyright © by Anna Andrzejewski. All Rights Reserved.