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Reflections or our visit to North Dakota to help dedicate a memorial to the 90 Jewish homesteaders in the Garske Colony located near Devils Lake – September 17, 2006

By
Dianne Siegel
Her family was among the homesteaders (Bessie Rubin & Davis Rubin)

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What a time we had!!  At first when Hal Ettinger first emailed that he was spearheading a project to dedicate a memorial to the 90 Jewish Homesteaders in the Garske Colony near Devils Lake – I thought “What a neat idea!   But, the September 17 weekend will be impossible.”  Meanwhile, our plans changed, I started helping Hal with some of the publicity, I was in touch with others who were equally interested and so North Dakota rose to the top of our weekend plans.    As my family and friends already know, I love family history.  I feel a part of those that have come before me. 

A letter was sent out this past May to some of the known descendants of the Garske Colony as well as other interested parties with the purpose of raising money to erect the granite marker. Donations were received from across the country as the story of the dedication spread. The Devils Lake Area Foundation (DLAF) gave the memorial fund $500. This was due to the sponsorship of Mike Connor and Dennis Kitsch at the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board who applied for the DLAF grant. An account at the Bremer Bank, Devils Lake for the “Sons of Jacob Memorial Fund” has been established so donations that continue to come in can be used for future expenses that would be incurred at the cemetery (e.g., fixing or in time replacing the fence, filling in ground hog holes around the headstones, restoration, etc.).

If one were to look at the pictures, one might get an idea of how really remote this cemetery is.  Twice we were told, “You can’t miss it!” and twice we could not find it, but we persevered and finally found this tiny cemetery in the midst of a farm, with a fence surrounding 12 – 15 graves.  It’s the quietest place I have ever been – not a single sound.  And of course the weather was wet and cloudy, which added to the atmosphere.  Many of the gravestones are children.  Several of the gravestones are made of tin.  A number of graves are unmarked.  

The townspeople of Devils Lake were beyond wonderful.  They were as excited as we were about this dedication.  They voluntarily mowed the grass in the cemetery and an area around it for parking of the cars, they added a flag, fixed the fence, mended the tombstones, brought out chairs for the dedication and some seventy or more joined us at the dedication and in a reception following at the college.  One story that was told was about a tin tombstone which is shaped like a box.  During a severe wind storm a few years ago a metal box marking the Adelman grave was blown across the countryside and found in pieces in farm fields some one and half miles away.  As the pieces were found, they were gathered up and the entire marker was put back together and secured in the way that seemed to best fit (the Hebrew wound up upside down).  Perhaps it is in its original gravesite, perhaps not.  But, it is back where it belongs.

North Central Granite, a local monument company in Devils Lake not only made the gray granite monument as directed, but also placed it on a granite pedestal, with a base of stones and bricks around it.  All of which was beyond their scope. It is another example of local support and it looks terrific. 

Rabbi Janeen Kobrinsaky from Fargo came to do the dedication and she did a wonderful job for an audience that was certainly mostly Christian. 

As the dedication broke up and people went back to their cars, Hal and I stood in that little cemetery and said to each other, “How did they do it?”   His great grandfather is buried in this cemetery; my great grandparents are buried in Grand Forks.   Both were part of the homesteaders that we were thinking about on that day. 

At the reception, we met so many nice people.  Most of them have lived in Devils Lake all of their lives.  Many of them still farm the same farms that their families were on a hundred years ago.   They recognized the names on the plat map, knew many of the families, told me where their farms were, and related stories of how their families had helped the Jewish homesteaders and how the Jewish homesteaders had helped their families in return.   I had pulled out Davis Rubin’s homestead documents and the man I was talking to told me that his great grandfather’s name was on the document as a witness who would vouch for the fact that Davis Rubin actually lived on his homestead as promised.  They had been neighbors. 

I had a long conversation with a local agricultural economist who wanted to understand why the Jewish farmers had not been more successful.  I think at the end of the day he understood that their lack of farming experience and know-how was one of the primary reasons, plus they couldn’t shoot and eat the wild animals and birds like their neighbors did, because of their kashrut restrictions.  Life was hard.  He said and I agreed, they actually did succeed as here we are – the descendents of those brave souls. 

I met a woman whose great grandfather was a Jewish homesteader by the name of Wolf.  He had married a Norwegian woman and she had more recently discovered her Jewish roots.  

I learned two new french derived words from Goldie Frenkel, sluce (wetlands) and coulee (stream). Goldie grew up in Cando, N.D. north of Devils Lake often came to Devils Lake. Goldie accompanied us on the drive up and back from St. Paul and told us many stories about what it was like growing up in the area.

I learned about the location of the mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath for women, from Mary Beth Armentrout. The mikvah had been built in a wetland “sluice”.  There was a lean-to of sorts to offer privacy to the women. The story goes that the mikvah was wrecked one day when a horse got away and ran right through it much to the chagrin of those using it.

There was much talk about the Calof family and of course the Rachel Bella Calof book.  We also met Mary Beth Armentrout who along with her brother Daniel Kitsch and Michael Connor have been the main caretakers of our cemetery and instrumental in the local support for the project.  The cemetery sits on a corner of the Kitsch farm – it was the Kitsch farm when the cemetery was founded in 1885 and it remains the Kitsch farm today.   Meyer Shark was there with his two children, Jan Frisch from Minneapolis and Steve Shark from Fargo.  Meyer lived in Devils Lake until he moved to Fargo when the children were young, but is very well known there.   Bev and Sam Fox were with us.  Bev has been writing a book for Jewish middle school students about mail order brides on the prairie and she wanted to experience the environment first hand.  And Hal’s friend Stuart Zemel was there to offer his support and friendship for the project along with Hal’s wife, Robin Byer and Leighton and I. 

And the publicity – it was really a hoot.  We made the front page of both the Grand Forks and Fargo daily newspapers and were mentioned in newspapers all over that part of North Dakota.  It was a happening for sure – I wish all of you could have been with us. 

If only our ancestors could look forward and know that they are both remembered and appreciated. 

Dianne Siegel
St. Paul, MN
September 27, 2006


Photographs and more information can be found at:  www.siegelphotos.net/North_Dakota_2006

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