Burchill talks at museumOn Aug. 21, Tim Burchill spoke at the Stutsman County Memorial Museum. His topic for the Front Porch Chat was the history of Jewish settlements in North Dakota.
On Aug. 21, Tim Burchill spoke at the Stutsman County Memorial Museum. His topic for the Front Porch Chat was the history of Jewish settlements in North Dakota.
More than 800 Jews filed for homesteads in N.D. beginning in the late 1880s, after they fled from their homelands where they were being persecuted for their beliefs. Most came to escape the Pogrom in Russia and many were aided by the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society of New York.
Burchill said most if not all of the settlements were unsuccessful and could be summed up in the title of one of the books written about some of their experiences here, “Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher.”
Some were also aided by synagogues in the Twin Cities through loans and gifts. Rabbi Wechsler of St. Paul assisted the first Jews to homestead in the Painted Woods settlement in Burleigh County. This first major settlement was considered a failure, because the Jews were not used to farming and though there was water and wood available, they endured severe hardships involving blizzards, drought and prairie fires, Burchill said.
They also encountered some problems with non-Jewish settlers who were there first. They had no strong leadership for the 80 homesteads, and Wechsler had to come out to mediate.
The second major Jewish settlement Burchill discussed was that of about 90 families in the Devils Lake area of Ramsey County. Though the non-Jews (gentiles) assisted the Jewish homesteaders in this area and lived in harmony with them, the tarpaper shacks the Jews built were not warm enough for the bitter cold winters and too hot for the extreme summer temperatures. They did establish the post offices of Benzion and Iola, but cold and hunger were common hardships. There was a lack of rabbis to preside over their spiritual holidays and rites such as the purification ritual that was deemed necessary for cleansing. By 1910, there were no more Jewish homesteads in Ramsey County, Burchill said. Most of these Jews, who had also been assisted by Wechsler, returned to the Twin Cities after they endured the necessary five years to be able to claim the land and then sell it before moving.
Burchill mentioned a third major settlement of about 80 homesteads in northern Burleigh County, between Regan and Wing. The first baby born in Wing was Jewish, but the good land was already taken before the Jews arrived and the land that was available was too hilly to be good farmland. There was no synagogue. The rabbi from Ashley or Wishek would sometimes help out, but by 1930, before the Great Depression, the last of the Jews had moved away, he said.
A Jewish settlement in McIntosh County was the fourth major one in North Dakota and consisted of about 100 men and women who filed for homestead land. Once again, the land was hilly, sandy and rocky and nature worked against the Jews. There was a synagogue built in Wishek and a church was turned into a synagogue in Ashley. Burchill noted one successful pioneer of Ashley, Rabbi Rubin. He was the mayor for a while and acquired 20 farms. Burchill said the Jews in this settlement were able to use the farming experience as a good transition to the American ways. They learned the language and customs and became merchants, cattle buyers, dentists, lawyers, etc.
Burchill recommended a book by Susan Berman called “Easy Street,” written about disenchanted Jewish settlers from Ashley who left and became part of a Jewish Mafia back east.
The fifth major Jewish settlement consisted of about 80 families who came to Bowman County in 1910. They were situated south of Rhame and adapted to life in North Dakota. Some even became cowboys. In Burchill’s words, this was a “happy settlement” with many of the Jewish settlers making lifelong friendships with their gentile neighbors.
Some smaller settlements were also located in McKenzie County (northeast of Watford City), Ward County (southeast of Minot) and Sheridan County as well as in some of the larger cities. Rabbi Benjamin Papermaster was the rabbi in Grand Forks from 1891-1934 and served as a circuit-riding rabbi for the state, performing circumcisions, and officiating at weddings and funerals.
Many Jewish people who were able to adapt to life in North Dakota by learning the language and customs used it to their advantage to become good at trade and commerce. Jewish immigrants in the big cities of the east were prominent in the garment districts there. Burchill said many of them opened successful clothing stores in North Dakota, including Straus Clothing in Fargo and Silverman’s Clothing in Grand Forks. In Jamestown, Beck’s Clothiers was opened by Morris Beck, a well-known and respected Jewish philanthropist and business man. In 1970 Straus Clothing of Fargo bought Beck’s Clothiers.
Today there is only one resident rabbi in North Dakota. He resides in Fargo and serves Grand Forks as well as Fargo. Burchill said there are three divisions of Jews: orthodox, reformed and conservative. There are still two divisions in Fargo.
To anyone wishing to read more about the Jewish experience in North Dakota, Burchill recommended “And the Prairie Dogs Weren’t Kosher: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest since 1855” by Linda Mack Schlof. He also recommended “Dakota Diaspora: Memoirs of a Jewish Homesteader.” The author, Sophie Trupin, wrote about fond memories of her parents homesteading in the Wing area and included vignettes about Jews from Russia, Poland, Romania and Galicia. Another noteworthy book that is about an 18-year-old Russian Jew who was sent to North Dakota to marry a homesteader in “Rachel Calof’s Story: Jewish Homesteader on the Northern Plains.” Burchill also referred to “Plains Folk: North Dakota’s Ethnic History,” published in 1985, as the “bible of ethnic history in North Dakota” and said it covers all ethnic groups in North Dakota.
The final Front Porch Chat of the season will take place 2 p.m. Sunday James Carlascio is scheduled to speak about life as a railroad conductor.