18 September 2008

Jewish homesteaders: Prairie dogs weren't kosher

Footnote.com has released homestead records which should be a boon to those researchers whose Jewish ancestors were homesteaders. There is much information out there on these brave people who endured terrible hardship. Following are some resources. It will be interesting to correlate the resources against the Footnote.com homestead records.

At one point, North Dakota had five large and two small Jewish colonies; all failed, and residents moved to towns and cities and became businessmen.

Nearly 1,000 Jews homesteaded the region. Listen to a 2004 Dakota Digest broadcast of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, entitled "Jewish Homesteading Experience in the Dakotas." Linda Mack Schloff is the director of the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest and author ("And Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest since 1855"). The broadcast is here.

Check for Schloff's book on GoogleBooks and read some pages. The book focuses on the voices of four generations of Jewish women who settled the Upper Midwest. At the top of one page is a line by Isadore Pitts, whose family immigrated there in 1913. Why did they leave? "[My parents] got tired of eating potatoes and prairie dogs weren't kosher."

In 1936, Rachel Bella Kahn Calof wrote her memoirs about her life on the North Dakota prairie: "Rachel Calof's Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains." Purchase the paperback from Amazon here.

"In 1894, the 18-year-old Calof, a Russian Jew, was shipped to the U.S. to marry an unknown man and stake a homesteading claim with him in North Dakota. She later set down her memories of that time in fluid prose that occasionally reveals a biting sense of humor. Although her circumstances were often pathetic, Calof never is. She writes matter-of-factly about her 12'x 14' dirt-floored shanty, her husband's unappealing family and their unsanitary living arrangements. Each winter, her husband Abe's parents and brother would join them in their home in order to save fuel-an arrangement revealed only on her wedding day. There are pleasurable moments here too, like an impromptu supper of wild garlic and mushrooms (Calof does a taste test to see whether they are poisonous-"It didn't burn or taste bad, so I swallowed it"). Childbearing is particularly difficult: Calof seems to be constantly pregnant, and her superstitious mother-in-law keeps her secluded after the birth of her first child until she begins to hallucinate about demons. An epilogue by Calof's son, Jacob, picks up the courageous author's story in St. Paul, Minn., in 1917, while an essay by J. Sanford Rikoon on the phenomenon of Jewish farm settlements provides fascinating background." (Publishers Weekly)

The Jewish Women's Archive offers discussion questions and an interesting essay on the Calof book here.

There's yet another book about this period, "Dakota Diaspora: Memoirs of a Jewish Homesteader," by Sophie Trupin (University of Nebraska Press, 1988. 160 pgs.)

The Bismarck Tribune offered a story (September 17, 2006) about a granite monument being dedicated to honor immigrant Jewish families who settled near Garske in the 1880s.

The monument, about 25 miles north of Devils Lake, will be dedicated Sunday at 1 p.m. at the Sons of Jacob Cemetery, which holds graves of Jewish settlers and family members.

Hal Ettinger, of Lawrence, Kan., led the effort for the monument. He was traveling in the state on business a couple of years ago and decided to research his great-grandfather's gravesite.

"I knew that my great-grandfather was buried somewhere in North Dakota," he said. "He was attempting to homestead in Ramsey County. I did some homework and found that cemetery."

He found his great-grandfather's gravesite, outlined by a ring of rocks. A crude, rusted metal nameplate with his name and the year he died, 1891, was attached with barbed wire anchored into the ground.

His great-grandfather, Simon Ettinger, arrived at Garske Colony in 1886 and died only six months after receiving a land patent free title to 160 acres. His widow, with five young children, moved away, with only $10 in their pockets.

Ettinger saw 12 grave markers, mostly stones. Carved into many stones were the names and dates of adults and children, some with Hebrew inscriptions. He wondered what could be done to preserve his great-grandfather's memory and his desire to know more led him to other descendants of the colony.

A permanent memorial was what was needed, he decided and began a fund-raising drive for the monument, which would cost $2,500.

He contacted people in Devils Lake. Mike Conner, whose family homesteaded near the colony, adopted the cause.

"My parents always talked about how tough the Jewish settlers had it at the turn of the century," Conner said. "They went through some times that we couldn't imagine."

Conner manages the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board, which became the official sponsor.

The drive raised about $5,000 from all over the country; the extra funds are for cemetery maintenance.

The cemetery land is owned by the family of retired farmer Dennis Kitsch, 79. Nick Kitsch, his grandfather, bought the land in 1902 after most homesteaders had left, fencing it to keep the cattle out. The family has continued to maintain the cemetery, mending fences, gates and cutting the grass.

"It's a wonderful thing to put a monument here," the 79-year-old retired farmer said. "They were good neighbors. And future generations should know they were here."

Hal Ettinger agreed.

"It's been a very rewarding experience," he said. "It's important insomuch as it's a memorial to those individuals who attempted to homestead there. Without it, any record of their existence might just fade away."

Here's a link to Dianne Siegel's reflections on the visit to North Dakota to dedicate a memorial to the 90 Jewish homesteaders in the Garske Colony, near Devils Lake – September 17, 2006. Her RUBIN family was among the homesteaders

The Upper Midwest Jewish Archives at the University of Minnesota holds records on Jewish homesteaders. Box 34 holds records, including family histories, on the following families in North and South Dakota: SCHLASINGER, ROSEN, GREENBERG, EPSTEIN, PAPERMASTER, GINSBERG, CALOF, SIEGEL, WILENSKY, RUBIN, ZISKIN, STRIMLING, OSTRIN, GELLER, SCHWARTZ, SACHS, LOSK, SINYKIN, SHARK, MACKOFF, HURWITZ, BOBER, RIGLER and others.

The history of Rabbi Papermaster of Grand Forks, ND is detailed. Rabbi Isaac Elchanan convinced Papermaster to come to America to serve the community in Fargo. Although he moved to Grand Forks, his responsibilities were to every Jewish community in North Dakota without a rabbi. It includes the history of Congregation B'nai Israel, Grand Forks.

In the archives, find information on the Sons of Jacob cemetery in Ramsey County, ND, along with accounts of settling on farms or small and medium-sized towns, synagogue histories; a list of Jewish farmers who proved claims to homesteads and more. Find a flour sack and news clippings concerning flour sent to Israel in 1949 by the B'nai Brith in ND, lists of homesteaders who filed in clusters, lists of towns and Jewish merchants.

Here's a link to Dianne Siegel's reflections on the visit to North Dakota to dedicate a memorial to the 90 Jewish homesteaders in the Garske Colony, near Devils Lake – September 17, 2006. Her RUBIN family was among the homesteaders. She lists more names of homesteaders, and describes the community mikveh.

For the Jewish homesteading experience in Kansas, read this 2000 Jewish World Review article.

For even more information on North Dakota's Jewish community and cemeteries, click here for the IAJGS's International Jewish Cemetery Project, listing extensive details and more resources online.

There are more resources out there. Enjoy searching for them.

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