In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the prophet Joshua was able to perform a miracle where he stopped the sun from going down until he defeated his enemies. While we cannot perform time stopping miracles or prevent the sun from going down, change is imminent and inevitable. It happens on daily basis; cultures and traditions are fading away as if they never existed before. In the midst of so-called globalization, everyone is starting to look the same, dress the same, and think the same, and yet polarization and xenophobia are apparent now more than ever.
Throughout this project we have been collecting information on the last traces of another setting sun. The drawings, the photos and the interviews might one day be the sole witness to the existence of German-Russian and German-Hungarian cultural traditions and building practices in Stark County, North Dakota. This project should not be seen as exclusive to the German-Russian or German-Hungarian histories, or even American history at large; rather, it is a contribution, albeit a tiny one, to the history of humanity that we all share.
It is said that if one is committed to the new, why bother with the past? Answering this question depends a lot on understanding the motive behind such quest. Do we seek through it an affirmation to our identities? Or a better understanding of the current situation which won’t be possible unless placed in a continuing series of events? Or is it an attempt to foretell the future as some may argue that history tells us most of what we need to know about the future? There is no definitive answer for this question yet answering it is determined on the availability of historical evidence and the nature of surviving sources.
In our project we relied primarily on architecture which can be best described as vernacular. By this I mean the type of architecture made by ordinary people not by star architects or contractors; it is the architecture of the everyday of a given place and time. This vernacular character or “authenticity” is what brought us to this part of North Dakota. The real value and the true quest was never in the lure of decoration, but rather in the richness of the human experience that these spaces had to offer. The social life of these spaces reflects the true irreplaceable essence of the culture which I had a glimpse of by talking to the very polite and friendly inhabitants and owners of those spaces.
To meet such an end, we measured and drew about twenty buildings to varying degrees documenting a total of six farms and one house. We had a total of nine informal interviews with second, third and fourth generations of German-Hungarians and German-Russians. We relied on the archives for the 1910 & 1920 federal population censes, and the 1910 agricultural census report and used documentary records from ancestry.com, and historic atlases such as George Ogle’s 1914 map at Stark County. We also used shape file data from the North Dakota GIS data maps. Secondary sources played a big role in understanding the context as we relied on existing literature such as Russian-German Settlements in the United States, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, and Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History only to name a few. This myriad of resources left us with a new challenge which is where should we start? Is it the buildings? the people? Or the landscape?
Despite the understandable skepticism of finding answers for our big questions in a small town such as Dickinson or the surrounding area by measuring old houses, we -with the help of the local population- tried. Knowing that the ability to grasp every single feature of a given culture or tradition is almost impossible, our job as “architectural historians” is to build the big image using the bits and pieces found here and there. A process that was described by the anthropologist Setha M. Low as spatializing where we try to locate physically and historically the social relations and social practices in space.
Architecture goes beyond being a mere building activity, as much as it is also a reflection of the social, political, and economic circumstances of its own time. In fact, some architectural historians have taken it further claiming that there is no art form that is completely intertwined with a particular society as its architectural expression for it being physically rooted in the geographic location of that society. Eventually, one could not see those houses standing in the middle of the prairie without questioning the artistic sensibilities, the economic wealth, and the technology the original settlers had to build those structures.
As a group we started this project with the aim of knowing to what degree those house ruins were meaningful to the collective memory and identity of the consecutive German-Russian and German-Hungarian generations. Members of our group, as you will see in the chapters that follow, posed a variety of questions that started by considering the houses position in the landscape, the techniques used to deal with the harsh climate and how it influenced their everyday life, why they settled where they did, and why it was important for some to build dioramas or create scrapbooks to commemorate a no longer existing town or farmstead. Although some of our projects ended up dealing with topics that might not have addressed architecture directly, all of us had architecture as a starting point.
The ability of architecture to reveal information can be illustrated through the close examination of the Stephan Boehm Farm for example. The farm is located just south of the Stark County line in Hettinger County (south of Dickinson), and consists of seven structures most of which are in ruins. The main structure has a traditional rectangular floor plan that is divided into three parts where the kitchen and the entrance at the middle and the parent’s room on one side and the children’s room on the opposite side. Putting aside the historical origins of the form as discussed by William Sherman, the architecture is relatively simple. The structures lack sophisticated decoration or any complex compositions; it is straightforward. Basically, a rectangular shaped gable-roofed structure.
Comparing the plan of the main structure on the farmstead to contemporary homes in the U.S., one would notice a major difference. Spaces have evolved to host single activities: dining room, kitchen, living room, reception, bedroom with at least two to three bathrooms per house one ought to raise some questions regarding the appropriation of space and its social life. In order to keep it narrow I would like to explore two aspects of thinking how this evolution occurred; first the gendered definition of space and second the public vs private territories of the house. In other words, where did visitors, if any, sit? Did both men and women sit together? If not, then they where did each sit?
In order to answer these questions, I had to rely on the informal interviews I had with Pete Betchner, Chet Steier, Tyler Schoch, Isiah Binstock and Jessica Reed. These informants helped us understand the evolution by pointing out – based on their memories of how spaces in these older homes and farmsteads – were used in the past.
Answering both questions requires an understanding to the frequency and the nature of home visits. In most cases home visits were, as far as I knew, exclusive to relatives and neighbors and took place during big events; such as marriage, a farewell of a traveling member, a religious celebration, etc., which according to Pete Betchner would happen three to four times a year. In case of good weather, the gathering would usually take place outdoors, though women would sometimes still be inside, otherwise men would gather in the parlor “parents room” leaving the central hall for the women. Women were in charge of looking after the kids and preparing the food, which explains their occupancy of the central hall. It was also common that women would embroider, crochet or quilt while talking with each other. As for men who would resort to the parlor room one would not expect them to just sit without engaging in an activity. Normally men would play cards and smoke tobacco while being served homemade beer. Although men and women would in many cases sit separately, Chet Steier told me about an event he remembers as a child where both men and women gathered in the central hall and emptied the middle allowing more space for dancing.
The central room was where most activities took place; it was a living room, dining room, a reception space for guests, and a kitchen. The heat generated from the cooking stove made this space the center of indoor activities. Taking care of the stove was the women’s task, which was in some cases a deadly task. Women were also more likely to spend time on decorating the house which was possible through using stencil and a sponge. As for the other two rooms, daughters would sleep with their parents in the same room (the “parlor room”) while boys would sleep in the other bedroom. In our case a small room for the boys was built just outside the main house. However, I do not have any idea how the room was heated during winter due to the lack of any heat sourc,e which might suggest that girls would sleep by their parents leaving the other room for the boys to use during winter.
One cannot avoid the eminent presence of the high plains in the collective mind of rural North Dakotans. Adapting to the cold, distant, and even hostile environment is a unique challenge upon which success or failure is determined. The region requires that you wrestle with it before it shows a blessing, or simply as Tyler Schoch described it “Being from North Dakota is doing it in North Dakota”. Eventually one cannot be on a farm without being subject to nature.
During summer farming season, men would be in charge of the land while women would take care of the house. Women were also in charge of feeding and milking the cows, a task that was usually performed by the daughters as the boys would join their father on the field. They were responsible for getting the kids to school, sometimes helping with slaughtering, and driving the truck to town. As for winter men would serve other jobs, mainly coal mining which was a large industry in the early twentieth century, while women were supposed to be a “Frutchlera” meaning that they should be able to sell anything in order to make money for necessities: crocheting, sewing and cooking for weddings and preparing hand held flowers for funerals.
How much did things change? With each generation comes a declining interest in farming. According to statistics, farmers are now under pressure more than ever, with a five times higher chance of commiting suicide. Small family farms are being sold to bigger family farms and younger generations are interested in jobs related to the growing oil industry, which according to Isiah Binstock and Jessica Reed, both 23 years old, made noticeable changes in Dickinson in recent years. Stop signs, street lights, mass produced apartments, and a wider variety of services all signaled a new modernization wave, which in turn created more jobs and brought more people to the town.
Farming is not alone in losing ground. German-Russian and German-Hungarian traditions are also waning with each passing generation. It started as early as the second generation, where children had to speak English in order to be admitted to local schools. Now almost none of the interlocutors I met speaks German. They are no longer familiar with German-Russian or German-Hungarian cultural and historic celebrations, nor showed any interest in knowing the current status or updates of any of both countries. The rivalry that used to exist between both German-Russians and German-Hungarians is almost gone. The change is best described in the words of Isiah Binstock who told me that living in Chicago or in Dickinson it is not that different.
The German-ness and the Hungarian-ness is not only maintained through the standing structures -or even its ruins – built by the grandfathers, but also in a grandma’s dish on thanksgiving every now and then, in a crochet laying over an old sofa, in a family black & white photo hanging on the wall in a worn-out frame, and a family name that insists to keep the story alive.
- Joshua 10:13 ↵
- John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 3rd ed. (London: Routledge, 2009), 18. ↵
- Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 17. ↵
- Thomas Carter and Elizabeth Collins Cromley, Invitation to Vernacular Architecture (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2005), 8. ↵
- George A. Ogle and Co., Standard Atlas of Stark County, North Dakota (Chicago: Geo. A. Ogle and Co., 1914). ↵
- Setha M. Low, On the Plaza: The Politics of Public Space and Culture (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2000), 7. ↵
- Check Noam Chomsky. “Hidden Power and Built Form – The Politics Behind the Architecture” in Reflections on Architecture Society and Politics. ↵
- Ismail Serageldin, “Architecture and Society," in Space for Freedom (London: Butterworth Architecture, 1989), 255. ↵
- William Sherman, “Prairie Architecture”, in William Sherman and Playford 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), 187. ↵
- Theresa K Bogner Montee-Nelson, The Banat German Hungarians who came to southwestern North Dakota (Dickinson, ND: T.K.B. Montee-Nelson, ), vol. 1. ↵
- Sherman and Thorson, eds., Plains Folk, 3. ↵
- Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1993). 1. ↵