Reflections of our visit to North Dakota to help dedicate a memorial to the
90 Jewish homesteaders in the Garske Colony located near Devils Lake
By Dianne Siegel
Her family was among the homesteaders (Bessie Rubin & Davis Rubin)
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 descendants 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.
St. Paul, MN
September 27, 2006
An Irishman’s reflections on the Sons of Jacob Cemetery Dedication!
By Mike Connor
His family was among the neighboring homesteaders and he still lives there.
It all started in the early spring of this year when Denny Kitsch stopped by my office and started talking about the idea of ‘putting a monument at the Jewish cemetery’ near our farm. He mentioned how Hal Ettinger was working on it with him and asked for my assistance, which I readily agreed to provide, since the cemetery has always been just ‘down the road’ from our farm as our family grew up.
Denny left me with a copy of a letter from Hal with some information about the project and I noticed his e-mail address on the bottom of the page, so until September 17th Hal & I corresponded by e-mail on almost a daily basis (with just a few telephone calls thrown in for good measure)!
The Devils Lake Area Foundation (DLAF) has a special ‘Centennial Fund’ created after the city-county centennial in 1983 which is earmarked for helping worthwhile community projects, so we started working on getting an application put together to the DLAF for some funds. This DLAF requires an ‘official sponsor’ (a legitimate non-profit organization or governmental agency) so I requested the Devils Lake Basin Joint Water Resource Board (a nine county governmental unit which employs me as their manager) to agree to sponsor the project which they agreed to immediately.
A local bank account was opened (again using the Joint Board helped by providing their Federal ID #) and contributions seemed to start flowing in almost immediately!
The best news was when the Devils Lake Area Foundation notified me that they had approved a contribution. Shortly after that, Denny Kitsch stopped by with some substantial contributions from the Kitsch Family Reunion! Soon both Hal and I could stop worrying if there would be ‘enough money’ to order the monument by the deadline date in order to have the work completed by September 17th!
All of a sudden the summer was gone and the dedication day was growing closer. North Central Granite staff did a great job of placing the monument and putting in the river rock we had decided would work the best for minimum maintenance around it. Steve Shark was a great help with several suggestions on how to make the actual dedication more comfortable for the folks attending! That morning I was up early to haul over the yard chairs and put the flag up, it was raining and windy while setting things up at the cemetery, but shortly after I left the rain quit and the day started to improve!
Back to the cemetery about noon for the ‘final check’, Denny Kitsch arrived to help and than I finally met Hal in person! The funny thing was we just started talking like we had always been around each other, which was one of the greatest things about being involved with this project, meeting so many wonderful folks from all over the country!
All the local folks were impressed with the inspirational and informative message that Rabbi Kobrinsky, from Temple Beth El in Fargo, shared with everyone in attendance. A twinge of guilt hit me as she explained how those visiting their family and friends buried in a Jewish Cemetery will leave some small stones on or near the person’s memorial. Earlier on Sunday, while doing my ‘final check’ I had brushed off what at first appeared to be a bit of bird droppings on the memorial, now I knew why the pebbles were there!
It was my privilege to bring greetings from Governor John Hoeven, US Senators Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad along with US Representative Earl Pomeroy to everyone in attendance. I found myself becoming a bit emotional, after Hal introduced me, looking down at the memorial immediately in front of me there were the names of so many people my grandparents and parents had known and worked with and I had grown up knowing. The names of others from Devils Lake came to mind also…..Mose & Bessie Meretsky who lived across the street from my parents, Sam Kessler who had the meat plant and frozen storage lockers where we stored our meat, Kopel Lentzer who had the army surplus store that all Devils Lake kids loved to shop in as they played ‘army’, Ikey Adelman, the car dealer who had my Mom and her sisters drive back some new cars from the port of Duluth (but they had never driven before!), Dave Glickson, Louie Friedman and of course Myer Shark, all clothiers who helped outfit our families through the years!
But, what really triggered my emotion was remembering how an individual whose family name is on the memorial here at the Sons of Jacob Cemetery helped my parents through a very stressful time during their early married years, when my Dad asked “how can I ever repay you?” the individual replied “Your parents helped my parents, now it is my turn to help you.” My Dad told me that story many times in his later years before he passed away in 1980.
What more can one say?
September 28, 2006
A Few Photos From the Reception Following the Dedication