ASHLEY — There is no way a couple of hundred Jewish immigrants could have known the land they came to farm would be so hard on their backs and their chisel plows.
These Jewish settlers came to McIntosh County around Ashley to establish early 1900-era homesteads; the 60 families made the location the largest of any Jewish homestead population in North Dakota or South Dakota. They traveled a long, rocky road in history to work the land and learn the agriculture, if they didn’t know it before they arrived.
They came from southern Russia, many sponsored by the New York-based Jewish Agricultural Aid Society, to a place far rockier than the road traveled to reach it.
They were there for a generation, or two, long enough to establish a synagogue in Ashley and, sadly, bury 22 of their own in a cemetery 3 miles north of town in the years 1913 to 1932. Nearly half died in the 1918-19 flu epidemic. Within several decades, most had moved on and, today, none remain.
The Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery was named to the National Register of Historic Places for being a legacy of the largest Jewish agricultural settlement in North Dakota and, as would naturally follow, the largest such cemetery. An association of far-flung descendants that sees to the upkeep and maintenance is sponsoring a cemetery rededication at 2 p.m. May 21. Everyone is invited.
Two weeks ago, in preparation for the ceremony, two handsome granite boulders were set beside the cemetery, each with a brass-imprinted plaque that explains the unique history of the settlement.
These were lowered with mechanical equipment and in their mute gravitas represent a time when these Jewish homesteaders faced the task of breaking the prairie of McIntosh County for the first time.
What a task it was because this prairie is not just any prairie.
It is rolling land dotted with thousands of shallow depressions filled with blue water. And everywhere across this lovely landscape are rocks, cobbles and boulders— some small as a baby’s foot, some larger than an old-fashioned hay wagon.
The hummocky hills, the depressions of water everywhere and the rocks are remains of the county's fairly recent, in geological time anyway, glacial history.
The last glacial period there was 12,000 years ago, while across a sea of water and time, the earliest Israelites were settling Israel, thousands of years before they built the Wall of Jericho. Onto McIntosh County, sheets of ice advanced from the north, grinding ancient Canadian Shield core bedrock for hundreds of miles as it pushed and stranding that rock as deep as 300 feet in some places.
State geologist Ed Murphy said he couldn’t characterize the county as the rockiest in North Dakota, but it is prolific.
“I would look at those rock piles and a lot of them were old and done with horses. There are huge rocks and I’d wonder how did they get them out?” he said.
No matter the effort to remove them from the surface, rocks in that quantity and depth will continually heave toward the surface. Even one just three cubic feet — an armful for a grown man — would weigh 1.5 tons, Murphy said.
The lucky homesteaders would have found themselves on the glacier’s outwash plains, much more suitable for cultivation; the unlucky ones found land on the glacier’s dead-ice moraines, where the grinding advance of ice and rock stopped and remained until man saw need to prize it out of the soil.
Thirty years ago, one of the descendants, Kenneth Bender, then living in Minnesota, said his grandparents arrived to McIntosh County in the winter and couldn’t see the rocks for the snow.
“They had to clear the rocks away an acre at a time,” Bender told the Tribune back in 1987. “My father was the youngest, and he did much of it.”
His grandfather, Kiva Bender, is buried in the Ashley Jewish Homesteader’s Cemetery, and a photograph of him with his flowing white beard is still affixed today to his tall, stone monument.
The cemetery is the most visible reminder of the Jewish homesteaders, but the building they used as a synagogue still exists, also.
Today, it is a pleasant two-story residence, a few blocks north of Main Street in Ashley. It no longer resembles the Baptist church it once was starting in 1902 until being sold to the Ashley Jewish Congregation of Beth Itzchock in 1917. It was a synagogue, served by various rabbis, until 1938 and then used afterward as a private home.
Lyle and Carol Fey bought it in 1983. The only remaining historical feature is the beautiful pressed tin ceiling and intricate molding in the upstairs’ area. Carol Fey said she treasures it and worries some future owner might tear it out in favor of sheetrock.
It had been so many years since the building was ever a church or synagogue and she can find no trace of that anywhere — except for that antique ceiling from yesteryear.
But she does love the way the house feels.
“I always feel safe here. It’s been blessed both by Christian Baptists and by Jews. It doesn’t get any better than that,” she said.
Rebecca Bender, of Minneapolis, a member of the cemetery board, invites anyone who attends the cemetery rededication to a reception afterward at The Hayloft, a preserved barn and entertainment venue near Ashley.
There, she may tell the story of how a patchwork quilt of America's homesteaders led to an occasion where the Jewish settlers and their German-Russian neighbors celebrated a Jewish wedding with wine and cake and danced together until dawn to violins and wash tub drums.
"This is America, where we respect, learn and celebrate each other's differences," she said.
And the granite rocks in the cemetery will add weight to that belief across another wide sea of time and history.