Home History Culture German Russian History

Legacy of Three Generations

Stoppelworth, Denise Miller. "Legacy of Three Generations." Napoleon Homestead, n.d.


Louisa Rath Weispfenning
She sits quietly in the old wooden rocking chair and rocks back and forth, back and forth. The hardwood floors, splashed with handmade rugs, creak softly with each rock. Her hair is swept up tightly in a bun. Very few have seen it any other way. And, as she recalls days gone by, a gentle smile spreads across her face.

This week, Louisa Weispfenning will turn 100 years old. She continues to live in Fredonia, taking care of her 82-year old dependent daughter, Edna.

You can tell in a glance that Louisa has seen a lot in her lifetime. But, she fondly recalls here life and her journey to America.

Louisa was born November 5, 1894 in Albota, Bessarabia, South Russia to Justina (Necker) and Christian Rath. Her great-grandfather, Johannes Rath, had moved to Russia from Germany years earlier.

Life, as Louisa recalls it, was simple in Russia. There wasn't much land, so farms were quite small. "We didn't have as much land as farmers do here," she said, "they planted wheat, oats, and corn, just enough for their own use. On rare occasions, when the land produced more than they needed to survive, they would sell the excess to neighbors," she said. The harvested wheat was always made into flour, saving just enough for seed the following year. They milked a few cows and kept a few chickens, selling the eggs and butter for money needed to buy essential items. Although they depended on the land to survive, Louisa remembers it as a comfortable time.

"They made their living," she says.

Louisa recalls the insufficient amount of land in Russia, saying "The farms were so close together you could talk to your neighbor while you were out in the barnyard doing chores."

At the age of nine, Louisa, the second youngest of nine children, began helping in the fields by cultivating and hoeing corn.

Louisa and her siblings attended school at the local church. The younger students, such as Louisa, would attend in the morning, and the older students attended in the afternoon. One teacher taught all the classes.

The Russian schools taught two different languages. Every other day, classes would alternate between Russian and German. In addition, they also studied Bible history, the New Testament and the Catechism. They even went to school on Saturdays until noon. Sunday was church day and the services were always in German.

Louisa's older brothers and sisters were not forced to learn Russian. When the Germans moved into Russian under the Ruler Catherine, they were promised that their children would not be drafted until the third generation and therefore would not be required to learn Russian. But the Russian Army, in desperate need of manpower, quickly began drafting second generation Germans, such as Louisa's brothers. Unfamiliar with the Russian language, these soldiers were struggling to survive in a military which spoke a language they couldn't understand.

Louisa admits school in Russia was much different than the schools of today. "Today all they want is sports. But that wasn't like that then. We had to learn about the word of God," she said.
Louisa's education continued in America, but only for 55 days in the winter of 1908. A bad experience with the teacher, and no laws requiring children to go to school, made Louisa decide than an American education wasn't necessary. The American teacher, a pastor, was so strict, she said, that students got a lick'n whether they knew the answer or not. During those 55 days, she learned to read only a little English, but she can't understand much of an English conversation. Even today she does not speak or understand much English. In school, Louisa says, they spoke German amongst themselves.

Even Louisa's children will recall speaking German when they were in school. Louisa's son, Ray, tells of how the teachers would write each student's name on the board and each time you got caught speaking German she would circle one letter with red. If she got to the end of your name you had to stay in over lunch. "With a name like Weispfenning, it took a long time before we had to stay in," he laughs. "I felt sorry for the guys with names like Rath. They were always missing lunch."

Differences were also evident in Russian church life. In addition to instructing the children, the teacher also conducted the church services and funerals. He even baptized the children. Twice a year the pastor would come to the town to administer communion. At this time, Louisa says, the baptized children were brought forward and he would lay his hands on them. The two Sundays the pastor visited, the church was so full the young children were not permitted to attend.

As long as you were in good health, Louisa said, you attended church every Sunday. The children would sit in the front of the church, with the newly confirmed right behind them. The young married couples were seated in the middle and the older people sat in back. In addition, the men and women would sit on opposite sides of the church. This seating tradition carried through to America and lasted into the 1960's, she said. The only time the seating was changed was for special circumstances such as funerals. The mourners were always allowed to sit together, but the rest of the congregation maintained the seating order.

"They were strict then," she recalls.

One instance stands out in her mind. She described a Sunday service where one of the girls in the pew in front of her fell asleep and her head began to nod. Louisa, along with several other girls in her pew, couldn't help but laugh, "and we didn't even laugh out loud," she said. But the efforts to conceal their laughter failed. A deacon spotted them clasping their hands over their mouths in an attempt to cover their smiles, and made them stay after church.

"He told us if he ever caught us laughing in church again, he'd lock us in a room and not let us go home," she said. She assured me they didn't laugh again.

Church to the Germans was a somber affair. Only the teacher spoke, with the congregation joining in on the hymns and the Lord's Prayer. Nobody talked in church. "We didn't even dare say good morning," Louisa recalls. "We could only nod our heads." The silence would linger until the family returned home.

In 1902, with land scarce in Russia and the Homestead Act offering an opportunity in America, five of Louisa's siblings emigrated to America. They paid their fare with money from the sale of a portion of their father's land. Louisa said the letters her siblings sent telling of the opportunities in America, persuaded her father to take the rest of the family and join his five children in America. One of Louisa's sisters stayed in Russia and later relocated to Germany under Hitler's rule.

Christian Rath sold all of his land and possessions for $5,000. And, in May of 1907, they began their journey to America. Their trip began in a Russian city where they boarded a small ship and traveled to Liverpool. they stayed there for one week. There they boarded a huge ship destined for America. The ocean voyage lasted well over a week.
"The people on the ship were very friendly," Louisa said. They had one designated leader, traveling with them from Russian, who directed them on the trip.

All the meals in England and on the ship were included in the fare of approximately $200 per person. Louisa, who was not fully grown, and her younger sister were able to ride together for the price of one. The group of six emigrated to America for approximately $1,000.

The ship ride was long and 12-year old Louisa often grew restless. For entertainment, she says, they would walk around the ship and stare over the side, watching the waves lap against the side of the boat. Louisa said after a while, when the waves grew big, the ship would rock, and, "we would get the sickness."

When the ship finally reached America, they docked in Philadelphia, where they caught a train to Chicago. After a one day layover, they boarded the train that would take them to Kulm, North Dakota. The train ride to Kulm seemed slow. One engine would unhook the car and leave it set on the tracks until another engine came along and picked them up. Often they were left parked on the tracks for several hours at a time, and forced to sleep upright in their seats.

When the finally arrived in Kulm, there was no land left to homestead. The only available land was somewhere in Montana, too far away from the rest of Christian Rath's family. They settled in Kulm, splitting up and living with the five Rath children who had traveled to America five years earlier.

"Everything was so strange when we got here," Louisa said. Although the family had agreed on the move to America, they were sometimes homesick and lonesome for friends. But, they knew the move required them to make a new start in a strange land.

Eventually Christian Rath, unable to homestead, purchased a farm which he lost three years later. Christian then went to work as a hired hand in the area. Trying to help out, Louisa hired out to an area farmer for $140 per year. She worked there for one year, doing both house work and helping with farm chores.

When the year was up, at age 17, she married Christian Weispfenning, a neighbor. They were married in January of 1912. Louisa and Christ lived and farmed with Christ's parents. In time, Christ bought his father's farm, a farm now owned by Louisa's son Ted. The tradition of subsistence farming continued in America. They raised enough cows for milk for the family, along with ducks, chickens, geese and some hogs.

Each year 30 bushels of they harvested, were processed into flour and grits to feed the family. They had only two quarters of land and one pasture, which was shared between three families.

As other farmers on the prairie, Louisa and Christ were hit hard during the depression. There was no hay around for cattle so they were forced to sell all but six of their herd. They received $20 for each cow and $10 for each yearling.

Poor crops meant food was scarce. Louisa's children recall eating onions and garlic in cream for breakfast and bread smeared with bacon fat for lunch. Even butter was scarce.

One of Louisa's daughters, Alma, went to work for an area farmer. Her wages of $6 a month were enough to buy one load of straw to feed the six cows her family kept. The straw they purchased was often filled with thistles. "You didn't want to be in front of those cows if they coughed," Ray laughs. Although they recall the times with laughter, they admit those years were a struggle.

Christ died February 1, 1962. Louisa and her daughter, Edna, continued to live on the farm, which had no running water and an outdoor bathroom, until September, 1969, when she moved into Fredonia.

Many changes have occurred in the 100 years of Louisa's life, but her home still reflects the simplicity of the old ways. You will find no television set in this home. Louisa won't hear of it. A radio and telephone are her only link to the outside world. She seems to live comfortably without many of the material goods other consider "necessities" today. Louisa still attends church every Sunday, when her health permits. Otherwise, she is content to simply rocking in the old wooden chair, thinking of days gone by and reading her Bible.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
North Dakota State University Libraries
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
Libraries
NDSU Dept #2080
PO Box 6050
Fargo, ND 58108-6050
Tel: 701-231-8416
Fax: 701-231-6128
Last Updated:
Director: Michael M. Miller
North Dakota State University Library North Dakota State University North Dakota State University GRHC Home