When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, about 80 percent of McIntosh County’s population was of German or Russian descent. Very few spoke or read English, or had American citizenship.
Yet, when the county became eligible for the draft, 738 young men registered the first day to join the American forces in fighting a war against their native countries.
University of North Dakota professor, author and historian Gordon Iseminger has spent many hours learning about North Dakota’s German-Russians, particularly those who settled in McIntosh County, located in the south central part of the state.
Thanks to the Federal Writers’ Project, established in 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, there’s no shortage of information. More than 5,000 folders of biographical information have been compiled to share the stories of North Dakota’s early pioneers, including those soldiers serving in World War I.
“Roosevelt wanted to collect every shred of historical material there was in North Dakota — diaries, folk remedies, newspapers, recipes and letters,” Iseminger said during a recent lecture at Rugby’s Prairie Village Museum. “More out of curiosity than anything else, I started reading the files.”
German-Russians were the second largest ethnic group in North Dakota, second only to the Norwegians, he said.
“According to the census of 1910, about 8,000 people were living in McIntosh County and, of those, 7,200 were German-Russian,” Iseminger said. “One of the reasons they came to North Dakota was so they could remain German-Russian … speak their own language, live in their own community and not get involved in politics."
When Russia declared war in 1914, that government ordered German-Russian young men living in North Dakota to return home to serve in the German and Russian armies, Iseminger said.
"I can’t find a single one who ever did,” he said. “They didn’t identify with Russia. They didn’t identify with Germany. They weren’t Americans, either. They were German-Russians living in America.”
At the start of World War I, the German-Russian immigrants hadn’t lived in McIntosh County long enough to learn the English language or American ways. They didn’t write letters or keep diaries. However, they read the local newspaper, which was printed in both English and German.
The Ashley Tribune and the Wishek News were both owned, edited and published by C.C. Lowe, who hired an experienced German-speaking staff in order to print sections of both papers in German.
“He wanted to have these newspapers in every home in McIntosh County. Given the way the subscription list increased, he must’ve done it,” Iseminger said.
After spending countless hours researching the McIntosh County newspapers, Iseminger came to the following conclusion: "The German-Russians had to have supported the war.”
“From the day the U.S. declared war on Germany, the American flag was on the front page of the Ashley Tribune — every publication, every issue, all the way through the war,” he said. “Lowe was not apologizing for being proud of being an American.”
Sometime during the war, a rumpus cheer taunting German Kaiser William (Wilhelm) II was published in the Wishek News. It read: “Rickety rackety roo, ole Bill we’ll get you …”
The newspapers included stories and photos of young immigrant men heading to war to fight as American soldiers and the large celebrations that took place upon their departure.
“There were 8,000 people in McIntosh County at the time of the war,” Iseminger said. “Three thousand people came to see them off. It was a big celebration.
“When looking at pictures of soldiers in the newspapers, one thing I noticed was they appeared proud, standing at attention. They’re fighting a war against Germany, and they’re proud,” he said.
Even though they couldn’t read or write, the German-Russian American soldiers somehow managed to send letters back home to McIntosh County. They shared their experiences, many portraying war in a positive light:
• “How nice it is to get away from the strict confines of community.”
• “I don’t have to work from dawn to dark.”
• “I get to take hot showers.”
• “They serve us meals with vegetables and meat three times a day.”
• “We’ve got it a lot better here than we did on the farm.”
• “I’m a soldier now, I don’t know if I’ll ever be a farmer.”
• “Sign up quick, because you’re better off in the Army than in McIntosh County.”
"It was very rare to meet a young man not registered," Iseminger said. "There were some fathers who actually locked their sons in the barn so they couldn’t get to town to register."
The McIntosh County German-Russians not only provided men and women for military service, they collected scrap iron, purchased War Savings Stamps and Liberty Bonds and contributed to the Army YMCA Fund and the Red Cross.
Large segments of the American population adopted an anti-German sentiment, prior to war’s end. Often times, this sentiment was carried to ridiculous extremes, Iseminger said.
“Hamburgers were renamed ‘liberty sandwiches’ and sauerkraut became ‘liberty cabbage,’” he said. “Children no longer contracted ‘German’ measles, but the more virulent ‘liberty’ strain of the disease.”
In North Dakota, some thought was given to changing the name of the capital city, which was named after German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.
“'Bismarck' was unacceptable to many, because it conjured up images of Teutonism and ‘Blood and Iron,’” Iseminger said.
When the war ended in 1918, more than 28,000 North Dakotans had served, and 474 were killed in battle.
The Prairie Village Museum's World War I programming will continue at 2 p.m. Sunday with a presentation by Glenn Blackaby, director of Minot's Dakota Territory Air Museum.
Blackaby will share pictures and stories and talk about the changing roles of pilots and their planes in World War I.
"This was still the era of the pigeon and observation balloons, as well as the Red Baron and dogfights," said Stephanie Steinke, collections manager of the Prairie Village Museum. "It was an exciting time in the history of aircraft and the formation of an air force."
The event, which is free and open to the public, will take place at the Prairie Village Museum, 102 Hwy. 2 SE, Suite A, Rugby.
Salvation Army doughnuts, made from an original WWI recipe, will be served.
"World War I was such a turning point in 20th century history ... It's so fascinating from a political and economic point of view," Steinke said. "But it was also its sheer carnage and lack of humanity that makes World War I particularly important.
"The things those men saw and fought through were absolutely terrible and should never be forgotten," she said. "It's our responsibility to tell the story."
For more information, call 701-776-6414 or visit www.prairievillagemuseum.com.