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Carol's Blog on Immigration Issues

Jewish Homesteading in North Dakota

As my research for A Chance for Land and Fresh Air cleared, a complicated series of circumstance had created a Russian Jewish farming settlement in the hills of Sharon, Connecticut.

 

Forbidden to own land or farm in the Russian Pale of Settlement, Jews had been confined to "unproductive" professions, which had exacerbated anti-Semitism. In response, young Russian Jews dreamed of farming—some in Palestine, and others in the Americas.  Inspired by the terrible situation of Russian Jews, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a wealthy Belgian Jewish philanthropist, supported early Jewish farm settlements in the US and Argentina.  In 1900, the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society (JAIAS) was established on Manhattan's Lower East Side with money from de Hirsch's estate to offer Jews loans for mortgages and farm implements, as well as the necessary information and supports needed by Jews who had never farmed succeed at farming.

Sharon was on the New York Central train line, a ride from New York not much longer than the two-and-a-half hours it takes today. Moreover, a number of farms were for sale in the stony hills above Sharon.  The new immigrants could stay in touch with the City's vibrant Jewish immigrant community—and, when they needed to subsidize their farm incomes, offer kosher vacations to New York Jews. Indeed, a good percentage of the JAIAS grants were for farms in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey, all within a few hours of the Lower East Side, and most of the farmers offered kosher resorts and farm vacations.

 

As I worked on the exhibit and the book, I met people who grew up in JAIAS-funded farming communities as far away as Saskatchewan, and Iowa.  Though I was charmed by their family stories, my mental image of the Jewish farming movement remained centered on the East Coast. 

 

Yet recently my dear friend Marnie Mueller announced that her great grandmother, Annie Kahan, had homesteaded in North Dakota, with expenses for clothing and food, and perhaps for seed and farming equipment, paid for by Baron de Hirsch. Whereas Jews in the east bought land that had already been farmed—and was often over-farmed—at the end of the nineteenth century North Dakota remained so unsettled by Europeans that the US government gave 160 acres to any European who stayed on the land for at least five years.

 

In 1968, the Washington State Jewish Archives at the University of Washington in Seattle conducted an interview with Annie Kahan's daughter, Marnie's grandmother, Sarah Siegel, who was eighty-three at the time. (If you want to hear Sarah's story, told in her lovely elegant voice, CLICK HERE.

The Archive describes the interview as follows.

 

Sarah Siegel was born in St. Paul in 1885. Her father, Louis Kahan, had emigrated from Poland in 1881 or 1882 to St. Paul, Minnesota where he repaired and rented houses to earn enough money to bring his family to the United States. In 1886, the family moved to North Dakota and settled on a 160-acre homestead just 10 miles from Devil's Lake, a colony funded by Baron de Hirsch. In addition to his farming activities, Mr. Kahan was responsible for the distribution of clothing and food sent by Mr. de Hirsch.

 

Mrs. Siegel relates how blizzards, grasshoppers and spring frosts hampered farming efforts. She describes the relationship that existed between the sharecroppers and the overseers from Devil's Lake, and briefly describes the Jewish Orthodox services there. In 1891 the family moved to Seattle, where they first opened a clothing store and then a trunk and suitcase factory. Mrs. Siegel discusses her father's writings on religion and his philosophy on religious unity. She also mentions other Seattle families who may have been at Devil's Lake -- the Shapiros, Julius Friedman and the Cohens.


The Jewish Virtual Library adds the following information on Jewish settlements in North Dakota:

 

At least 800 Jewish individuals filed for land between 1880 and 1916. They generally settled in clusters. Many [after 1900] were aided by the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society. In addition several of the earliest settlements, Painted Woods and Devils Lake, were aided by synagogues located in Minnesota's Twin Cities. Homesteaders endured great hardships such as plagues of grasshoppers, prairie fires, blizzards and drought. Most left after acquiring full land title (generally five years). A number settled in market towns along the two railroads that crossed the state and where they operated general stores.

 

By 1889 the country's growing railroad industry lured people to the eastern community of Grand Forks. A permanent congregation was established in 1892. It was from the pulpit of B'nai Israel Synagogue that President William McKinley urged the Jews to participate in the war with Spain. The city of Fargo also grew near the turn of the century and by 1896 a synagogue was chartered there. The Jews of North Dakota were engaged mainly in retailing. A few, such as Fargo Mayor Herschel Lashkowitz, and Federal Judge Myron Bright, distinguished themselves in politics.


A 1990 article by Janet E. Schulte in the Great Plains Quarterly offers more information on the 1200 Russian Jewish immigrants who homesteaded in North Dakota. 

 

What remains unclear in all these sources is how much funding Baron de Hirsch was doing across the United States before the establishment of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, which began with funds from his estate after his death.  If Sarah Siegel remembers correctly, in addition to assistance from synagogues in Minnesota, homesteaders may have been receiving help from de Hirsch as early as the 1880s. 

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Using All My Senses

Nathan and Rebecca Osofsky and their three daughters, Freda, Ida and Annie, soon after their arrival in Ellsworth

I kept discovering traces of several Russian Jewish farmers who lived up in Ellsworth between 1907 and 1920, where I now live. Finally, about a year and a half ago, I approached the Sharon Historical Society to ask whether they had done an exhibit on this seemingly little-known history. The conversation was short and to the point. No, there had never been such an exhibit. Would I curate one?

Though it’s hard to remember whether I even considered the skills and time involved, I’m a writer who was trained as an anthropologist: neither interviewing nor doing archival research seemed new. And I don’t think I considered what translating narrative into images on a wall would entail.

There were some sketchy months as both the director and the curator left and I continued my research alone. And then one day Marge Smith, the Society’s former curator, appeared. Although Marge would be doing two jobs until a new director was hired, she regretted the long absence of a history exhibit and was enthusiastic about my project.

I remember our first organizational meeting for A Chance for Land and Fresh Air: Russian Jewish Immigrants in Ellsworth and Amenia, 1907-1940. I had brought in an outline of the story and my sense of how each the three available rooms might be allocated. The first would describe the flight of Jews from the Russian Pale, and the creation of a fund by a Belgian Jewish philanthropist, Baron Moritz de Hirsch, to help Jewish immigrants purchase land and become farmers. The second room would focus on the decades the Russian Jews had spent in Ellsworth, subsidizing their dairy farms by opening their homes to kosher boarders. And the third room would follow these immigrants as their children reached high school age and they moved to Amenia, where they built a synagogue and turned the little village into a vibrant Jewish resort.

The timeline I had created to clarify the major events of my story seemed to excite Marge, who affixed it to the first wall with masking tape. (Over the next months, she would set it horizontally, decorating the major events with salient images, creating a dramatic timeline from 1880 to the present that covers one wall of the exhibit.) That day, Marge also taped up the photo I’d brought in of Baron de Hirsch, as well as other images and photos I’d begun to collect. Amazingly, she could already glimpse a visual story!

Marge listened carefully and imaginatively to whatever I brought her. I remember repeating a stirring anecdote a descendant had told me. “Let’s focus on half a dozen families,” Marge responded. “Telling their stories will make the most moving history.” I’d been troubled by how to weave together different family stories. Now, I saw I could describe the immigration experience through two families, the story of farming on Ellsworth through five other families, and the Amenia story through the same as well as new families.

Though I still had little idea of the ratio of images to text that viewers tolerate in an exhibit, I began to file both the narratives I was writing and the documents and photographs I was scanning under the appropriate family names in the Historical Society’s upstairs computer. Marge’s first storyboard showed me how we could combine a hand-written letter from a father to his son about life in Ellsworth with several photos and my narrative.

Watching Marge work with my material made me more creative. I began to tell the family stories in different ways—sometimes forming my narrative from a range of sources; at other times, letting the old-timer or descendant tell his or her own story. I also realized that we could cut up and re-use photos to emphasize the continuity of a character or story.

For months, our story remained two-dimensional—solely on the walls. Then Tim Euvrard, whose family farmed on the mountain, brought in old farming equipment for room 2. Room 3 would have a case of Jewish ritual objects in the center. When a friend lent a samovar, I installed it on the wooden table in room 1, and Marge suggested setting the table for tea, which we did with pieces from our own cupboards. For me, this table creates a poignant reminder of home life amidst the stories of uprooting told on the walls.

The last item to be added was music. Though the exhibit shows the resilience and inventiveness of the Russian Jewish immigrants, I wanted the music in room 1 to evoke the loss and yearning that are the price of that energy. Thus, Yiddish folk songs evoke the old world culture that was held onto even as it was being lost. In room 3, Benny Goodman, one of the great Jewish jazz musicians, should remind viewers that Amenia’s Russian Jews were already becoming Americans. But they were enriching America with their heritage as well as unique contributions.

Suddenly it was October 22nd, Opening Day! Though the opening began at four, by 3:30, cars were already parked on the lawn and soon after they reached far down the street. For the next several hours people packed into the Sharon Historical Society, obliterating all but the sounds of excited conversation, and making it hard to see either the narrative or the photos on exhibit. Over 230 people signed in—numbers never seen at the Sharon Historical Society. Since then, a steady stream of visitors has viewed the exhibit, some expressing gratitude and some visibly shaken by this untold story.

The exhibit is now permanently installed in Amenia's Congregation Beth David.  Read More 

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