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Architecture Reflects Pioneering Cultures

Paraskeva, Sandy. “Architecture Reflects Pioneering Cultures.” Bismarck Tribune, 16 February 1982, 10A.


This side of diaries and journals, architecture leaves perhaps the most vivid trail to a people’s values, energy, creativity and perseverance.

It is even more revealing when a people moves to a new land, using an alchemy of tradition laced with new necessities. To move, for example, from forest land to great plains of grassland demands a cultural adjustment that is deeper than architecture, but architecture often is the only remaining key to the past.

In developing America, the log cabin seemed to be the most prevalent type of house. But the supply of lumber in the Dakotas was limited, requiring some settlers to look around them for building materials.

About 85 percent of the Germans from Russia who homesteaded in North Dakota built their first homes of sod or a straw-and-clay brick, according to John Hudson a Northwestern University geographer who has studied records of about 1,000 of this state’s early settlers.

Hudson in the article “Frontier Housing in North Dakota,” suggests that the German-Russians were the only pioneers who came from a physical background similar to that of this state.

He says they “were thus largely pre-adapted to the ways of life on the plains. They had the least need to modify their traditions. They were also the most likely group to construct sod houses.”

Norwegian immigrants were accustomed to using wood in the old country, and most who homesteaded in the Red River Valley continued to do so. Because those settlements occurred in conjunction with the development of the rail system in eastern North Dakota, supplies of wood weren’t a problem, says Louis Hafermehl, director of archeology and historic preservation with the State Historical Society.

If they happened to settle farther from a railroad or wooded area along a stream, some of those first Norwegian immigrants were forced to live for a time in a home made of sod before putting up what was usually a simple, wood-frame dwelling.

“There is no Norwegian architecture (in North Dakota).” says Playford Thorson, associate professor of history at the University of North Dakota.

Because Norway is forested and mountainous, its native architecture doesn’t fit here, Thorson contends.

But Ron Ramsey, architect and assistant professor of architecture at North Dakota State University, notes that the Norwegian immigrants who settled in the Red River Valley practiced a strict brand of Lutheranism. And that, he says, shows up in what there is of their architecture.

Ramsey says the Norwegians brought rugged, stripped-down qualities with them, and applied the same attitude to building construction.

Hafermehl says factors that influenced other buildings in North Dakota may have applied also to Norwegian ethnic construction.

At the time when white settlements were occurring with great frequency in North Dakota, the eastern United States was relying more on technology, and transcontinental transportation was improving.

“Many of those traditional styles didn’t last too long because materials were easy to get. Houses were mass-produced. Homesteaders could order a complete house from Sears and Roebuck and other sources for $300,” Hafermehl says.

“They would shipped the lumber and a variety of floor plans. It was efficient and/or inexpensive to provide housing that way so traditional ethnic characteristics were lost.”

The following is an account of Hans Westley, who recalled being 12 when his family moved from Norway to the Cooperstown area of Dakota Territory in 1881:

“The first thing we discovered about our sod hut was ants, found here and there; and not only that but once in a while we found lizards crawling about.

“But a hut such as ours, dug into the hill side, was cold in summer and warm in winter. In order to make it more homelike inside, and instead of having only the black sod walls and floor, we began making clay from gumbo and slamming it into the wall, fistful by fistful.

“One had to throw hard to make it stick. We then smoothed it out to resemble a plastered wall, and having finished this process we procured some lime and washed the walls with it, making them as pretty as plastered housewalls.

“For the floor we had to get lumber and lay it down. Aside from the long rafters inside holding up the roof, the room was open to the very top. The brush and hay laid over the supports was, of course, timber-dry, and from our stove the smoke-pipe went up through the roof, with the tinder nearby.”

Ed Sherlock was reared in a sod house in McHenry County. He had some similar memories for interviewers with the North Dakota Oral History Project:

“Well, I’ll say one thing, they get fleas in ‘em - these kind o’ fleas that come from the ground. You’ve got a heck of a time with ‘em.

“But you know how they used to do with them old houses? They used to take this yellow clay. You dig this black stuff off the top, you understand, and take that yellow clay down below and wet it a little and dampen your walls. You’d plaster just like you would a plastered wall, and they used to plaster that old sod house inside. They’re nice and warm.”

Hafermehl says the sod dwellings weren’t intended to be permanent; Hudson says they generally lasted about five years.

Historians point to the Rev. William Sherman of Grand Forks as an authority on early German-Russian housing in North Dakota. Sherman writes:

“There seems to have been four basic construction methods, all borrowed from the local Russian inhabitants ... puddled clay with occasional mixture of rock rubble, the adobe type of clay brick, the stone house with clay mortar and the rammed earth style.

“A fifth and less frequent variation was used by some early German settlers, a type of wattle and daub which is upright poles interspersed laterally with sticks and saplings in a latticework kind of structure. Clay was daubed onto the framework until the walls reached a desired thickness.”

He advises: “As it is difficult to separate the ‘German’ from the ‘Russian’ in the study of German-Russian housing forms, so also it is difficult at this distance in time to distinguish the ‘Russian-German’ from the early American. The question ‘who borrowed from whom?’ must be approached with caution and the investigator must be satisfied at times with some very tentative conclusions.”

Tim Kloberdanz assistant professor of sociology at North Dakota State University, says the clay brick homes were more durable than sod houses and didn’t wash as much in the rain. Clay brick also allowed better control of architecture since windows could be set and walls stuccoed and whitewashed.

With an eye toward functional usage rather than ethnic individuality, the German-Russian rammed earth dwellings are still being studied for their energy efficiency in natural cooling and heating, Hafermehl says.

The Johannes Goldade house at rural Linton is a particularly well-preserved example of the German-Russian form, says Jackie Sluss, formerly an architectural historian with the State Historical Society.

The house is constructed of handmade clay bricks on a sandstone slab foundation. Mortar throughout the house is a mixture of native clay, straw and water. Bricks were made by ramming a similar mixture into a wood mold.

Wet bricks were sun-dried for several months, Sluss explains. When dried, the bricks were hard enough to spark a flint and insulate against extreme heat and cold.

The house built in 1890, has been lived in continuously and currently is occupied by the Gerard Goldade family.

“There’s quite a bit of cold air that comes in, especially by the windows, but we keep our heaters going,” says Linda Goldade in an interview. “There isn’t anything that’s really wrong with it. We just don’t have enough money now to get another house.”

She says she, her husband and their son, also named Gerard, stay in the kitchen and bedroom and use the third room for storage since one of the walls is caving in. ·

It’s a 19-by-50-foot, one-story house, with gabled roof and the “vorhausel,” or entryway, characteristic of early German-Russian housing, Sluss says.

Nominating the Goldade house to the National Register of Historic Places Sluss wrote: “The existence of these houses on the North Dakota prairie symbolizes the continuity of highly stable German-Russian communities: rural and village communities bound by common church affiliations, language, customs, family and history.”

The Hutmacher complex at Manning is the best known example of the stone slab construction technique in North Dakota, according to the Historical Society.

This method was brought to North Dakota from eastern Europe by Ukrainian and German-Russian immigrants and was used most in the late settlement of the state’s southwest corner, says Kurt Schweigert of Bismarck, who prepared the Historical Society’s nomination of the Hutmacher complex to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Valentine Hutmacher farmstead was built at the complex in 1911 by an immigrant from South Russia. “And although in ruins, it established the ethnic-cultural continuity of the building method,” Schweigert says.

“The Frank Hutmacher farm (built in 1928) is a very late utilization of the stone slab building technique,” he says. It was abandoned in the summer of 1979.

“All of the Hutmacher farmstead buildings are made of sandstone slabs quarried, from nearby hilltops and erected crib-like with a clay-straw composition mortar,” notes Schweigert

Alexander Hutmacher, now of Dickinson, lived in the Frank Hutmacher residence until 1979, when he was 29. Frank was his father. “It was warm in the winter, and cool in the summer,” Alexander said in an interview, pointing out that the rock walls are two feet thick. “I considered myself lucky to be living in a house that old.”

Where immigrants settled, they also built churches.

The Holy Trinity Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church at Wilton is one of three original Ukrainian Greek Orthodox churches in North Dakota. Wilton’s Ukrainian Orthodox families worshiped in private homes until 1913, when enough money was available to build a church, according to the Historical Society.

None of the three has a congregation today. The other two are St. Peter and Paul’s at Belfield and St. Pokrova in rural Killdeer.

Carpenters John Krivatski and John Schowchuk supervised construction on the Wilton church and carved out the icon screen and handmade tabernacle, says Nick Kassian of Wilton, who looks after the church property.

“They didn’t have blueprints,” Kassian recalls. “They had a picture in their minds from the old country.”

St. Stanislaus Church at Warsaw was designed in Gothic Revival by Grand Forks architect John W. Ross.

Writing the nomination for the National Register, historian Schweigert said of the Polish church at Warsaw: “Since 1894 the building and grounds have been the center of organized activity of one of North Dakota’s most cohesive and persistent ethnic settlements.”

In addition to homes and churches, post offices were necessary. The Grassy Butte post office is the last known remaining example of Ukrainian-type log and clay plaster construction in North Dakota.

Built in 1914, the post office served the area until 1963. It is maintained by the McKenzie County Historical Society as a museum.

Ukrainian style of architecture is reflected in the Dan and Polly Cerkoney home built in 1909 near Gorham. The house, with four-sided roof, is of wattle and daub construction. The materials are cedar poles, wood and a clay mixture made of horse manure, straw and mud.

Reprinted with permission of the Bismarck Tribune.

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