Chapter V: Early years in Nebraska

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Transcribed by Michael A. O’Neill in December 2014
Transcribers note: This transcription of Emma’s book was created using Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software, which will result in capitalization errors; misspellings of proper names; and odd usage of prepositions or common words. Originals can be found at the location(s) listed on Worldcat, as well as in the Seattle Genealogical Society’s library.

In 1887 when Grandfather Miller left Russia, many Volga Germans were settling temporarily near relatives in Kansas and Nebraska before moving onward to such states as Colorado, Oregon, Montana, etc. In the same way, Uncle Hanarm and Grandfather planned to join their sister Margaret Schleiger who was at that time living in Sutton, Nebraska.

According to Uncle Henry, the chief national groups on their boat were Polish, German, Volga German and Jewish. The German passengers were given the best quarters, but the Volga immigrants were very well satisfied with the rooms to which they had been assigned. After having ridden for so long in uncomfortable boxcars, without any lights, plumbing or heat, and with nothing to sit on except their own bundles of bedding, they were very happy to accept the much greater comfort of their steamship quarters.

From all reports, the trip across the ocean was uneventful except for the fact that grandmother and most of the children were seasick, and were unable to eat the unfamiliar food furnished through the ship’s kitchens. Even their large linen sack of rye bread and smoked sausage was barely touched. Uncle Adam also remembers the voyage because he found his first marble on the deck of the ship one day. He tells that he thought it was the most beautiful object he’d ever seen, and hardly left it out of his hands for the rest of the journey.

Upon his arrival at Castle Garden, New York—which at that time was the port of entry for immigrants—Grandfather bought railroad tickets as far as Chicago. Here his money ran out, and he found it necessary to go on to Sutton alone, after placing grandmother and the children in a wretched Chicago hotel where they soon became acquainted with the bedbugs that had never been allowed to infest their own Russian home. The family must have been a rather frightened-looking group as they said goodbye. Their food supply had begun to run low, and the last thing that my mother called out to grandfather was to have a big sack of bread waiting for them when they reached Sutton.

Grandfather got to Nebraska on June 18, 1887, and at once telegraphed the necessary amount of money which he had borrowed from his sister. With this sum, railroad tickets were bought, and the final lap of the long trip was begun. While the family was on the train, some American people who sat across the aisle began to eat a cold lunch which they had brought with them. They noticed how attentively Adam and the twins were watching them, and offered the children some of their cookies. Since they didn’t realize how hungry the children were, they were very amused to see how greedily every morsel was swallowed.

After the reunion of the family in Sutton, the chief problem for all the older members was to find immediate jobs. Grandfather and the two oldest boys, Henry and John, worked on the railroad where they help to build the 1,100 miles of track which were laid in Nebraska that year. They were paid $1.25 for a ten-hour day. Grandmother found an American family for whom she did housework. And Emma, who had celebrated her sixteenth birthday on the boat, was put in a Hastings hotel, where she washed dishes for her room, board and a small weekly wage. And Kate (Albert), who was two years younger, was put in charge of Uncle Adam and the twins.

At this time the town of Sutton was barely seventeen years old. The first white person to live there was a Frenchman named Luther who’d staked out a claim in 1870. On August 12, 1871 the Burlington Railroad had laid tracks through the area, and from then on the town grew so rapidly that the population in 1890 was greater than what it was in 1940. The Volga Germans were, to a great extent, responsible for the boom period, since they had begun to settle there as early as 1875.[1]

In 1887, when our grandparents arrived, the town had just completed building a new $13,400 school; the First National Bank had already opened its doors; and several newspapers were in existence. A German Reformed Church had been organized as early as 1874, and had constructed a tiny church building thirty- by sixty-feet large in 1878. Two years later, in November 1880, a German Congregational church was organized by Rev. W. Süss and Rev. E. Jose.[2]

The Millers spent the first few days in Sutton with the Schleigers, and then Grandfather rented a tiny, two-room frame house that had been built by a Deering family a few years previously. (The Deerings themselves had already earned enough money to move into more pleasant quarters.) It was here that Uncle George was born on the night of March 23, 1888. Grandfather awakened the twins in the early part of the evening, and carried them to the Deering neighbors. But the two little girls stubbornly refused to sleep in an unfamiliar bed, and spent the rest of the night sitting side-by-side in a rocking chair. Years later, in the latter part of the 1940s, Uncle George Miller happened to drive through Sutton’s business associates, and looked up the house in which he had been born. The building was so humble and appearance that his friends jokingly asked how much money he was willing to pay them to keep this part of his past a secret in Portland!

There are only a few other stories that come out of the first year in Sutton. Mother remembers the death of her Uncle Hanarm who had died a few months after his arrival in Nebraska. While he was still lying in his bed, she happened to touch his cheek, and was horribly frightened at the cold, clammy feeling of his dead body. Aunt Katy’s most vivid remembrance is of the night her parents were gone, and she went calling on her Aunt Margaret without telling anyone of her intentions. Mrs. Schleiger rather foolishly put the child to bed. When our grandparents came home and found Katy missing, they began to look through all the barns and sheds in the backyard. Soon the neighbors heard the commotion, and several of the men formed a searching party. After more than an hour had gone by, grandfather happened to think of going to his sister’s home where he found Katy soundly asleep. When he returned home with the child, Grandmother wanted to give her a good spanking, but with the protective gesture of his hand, grandfather rolled her into the corner of her bed in back of mother and Adam, and refused to allow her to be punished.

In the meantime, Aunt Emma had spent seven very unhappy weeks in her Hastings hotel. She was still wearing her Russian dresses with their long dark skirts, and blouses button down the front with a ruffle overlapping the skirt. Since she couldn’t understand a word of English, she never knew what the waitresses were laughing and talking about when they came into the kitchen, and in her ignorance assumed that they must be making fun of her. She tells that she soon got so homesick that she could hardly eat a thing, and cried herself to sleep every night. Another Volga German girl, Louisa Krueger, who had found a job as a cook’s assistant in a neighboring section house, was in much the same predicament. The two desperate girls finally decided to walk the fifteen miles back to Sutton by following the railroad tracks, but just at that time, Louisa lost her job, and they used part of their wages to buy railroad tickets to return to Sutton in style.

During the remaining ten months that the family lived there, Aunt Emma worked in a local restaurant for some very kind American people. Their little girl had just started the first grade, and in the evening when she brought her schoolbooks home, Emma studied with the child and in this way learned to read the English language. Since she slept at the home of her employees, and seldom heard any German spoken, her ability to speak English began to improve remarkably fast.

Another important event connected with Sutton was the terrible blizzard of 1888. The morning of January 12, 1888 dawned balmy and still with almost a touch of spring in the air. Then there was a sudden shift in the wind and the temperature dropped twenty degrees. By the following day, practically all railroad traffic between the Rockies and Chicago was suspended, and in many towns, casualties occurred when the people were not able to reach shelter in time. Aunt Katy remembers this blizzard primarily because of the difficulty that grandfather had in getting out to the fuel shed, where he kept the coal and corncobs that constituted the chief supply of heat. After the storm was over, a pathway was dug from the back porch to the barn, and the tall banks of snow on either side towered high above the heads of the twins as they walked down the pathway.

Then in June 1888 the Miller family moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, whose history is closely linked with that of the Volga Germans. In 1874 when the first immigrants reach the city, two railroad lines—the Burlington and the Midland Pacific—had already laid tracks to the city. There were several straggling streets in which a dozen or more stores sold products such as red flannel, cotton batting, shot powder, rope, tobacco, calico, high boots and shoes, sugar & coffee berries. There were also two banks, about ten church organizations, and a single university building. A few doctors’ shingles swung in the prairie winds, and a score of lawyers were ready to do business. By this time, a lunatic asylum, a penitentiary, and a capital building had all been hastily constructed from lumber and stone.

Since the flat plains Nebraska resembled the steps of Russia, it was natural that the earliest Volga Germans felt at home here. The first settlers came from the colony of Balzer and probably spent their first weeks in a large immigrant house which was run by the Burlington Railroad in those years. Before long they settled in the southern part of town where they were joined by other Volga Germans from Walter and Frank. This district was soon called the “Franker Bottom,” a name by which it is still known today.

A few years later, the location of a Burlington Roundhouse in the northern part of town attracted a settlement of people primarily from the colony of Norka, but also from Huck and Kutter. Thus the so-called “Norker Bottom” came into existence. These people soon organized a Reformed Church under the leadership of a Reverend Arnold, but until they could afford to construct a church of their own, they met in each other’s homes. In the meantime, Reverend Adam Traudt, a student from the German Department of the Chicago Seminary, organized a congregational church in 1888. Under his leadership, a church building with a seating capacity of 150 was built in the following year. Our Miller grandparents may have been part of the group that helped to dedicate this church on March 24, 1889. These people were described by Superintendent Eversz of the American Home Missionary Society of the Congregational Church in the following report:

Brown were the happy faces and hard the hands that greeted us on that day of dedication. We looked in vain for evidence of wealth, but not in vain for those of hard work and thrift. They were all common, hard-working people, devoid of sealskin and satin, but not of devotion and love to God.[3]

During the winter of 1888 to 1889, the Millers first lived in a red section house next to the railroad tracks. Since the place was quite large, they shared it with an Irish family. However, friction soon arose between the two groups of children, and as quickly as possible, grandfather saved enough money to construct a two-roomed house on some railroad land nearby. The proverb “Klein aber mein” which was repeated by so many Volga Germans during those early years, seems to have been grandfather’s slogan as well. In this way he became a property owner less than two years after his arrival in America.

At this time, the whole Norker Bottom was unpaved, and consisted primarily of tiny shacks, similar to the one the grandfather had built. Still, in the same area there lived the Weckesser family whose son later became one of the first Volga German physicians in the United States; along with the Rohrig family whose son John became one of the outstanding leaders among the Volga Germans of Lincoln. Even in the case of other less well-known families, they considered the shacks only temporary homes, and before long they began to build two-story houses of their own.

Just as was the case in Sutton, grandfather and the two older boys continued to work on the railroad; grandmother went washing; and Aunt Kate, who was now fifteen-years-old, got a job washing dishes in the restaurant of a hotel. She later told that the tubs in which the dishes were placed were so deep that she had to stand on a box in order to reach the bottom. Since it was customary for the proprietor to put lye in the water in order to cut the grease, her hands soon became red and swollen as the fluid fairly ate into them.

Aunt Emma, on the other hand, had risen in the social scale. She was now able to speak English fairly well, and found a job making beds and waiting on tables in a Lincoln Hotel. Her wages were also much higher, and consequently she was able to buy a corset and some stylish American dresses, including her favorite of dark red wool–although her conservative relatives disapproved of the daring color. One of these dresses even had a bustle, and the family still laughs at the time Aunt Emma came to visit them in the Norker Bottom all dressed up in her latest creation. The bustle was just a little too much for Uncle John, and he bribed Adam to place a stick upon it while Aunt Emma wasn’t looking. Then he stood at the window shaking with laughter as she walked full of dignity out of the house and down the street toward town.

In the fall of 1888 Uncle Adam entered the first grade in a Lincoln grammar school that lay across the tracks toward town. Because of the distance of the school from their home, grandmother refused to allow the twins to attend. Uncle Adam carried a lunch, and did not have to come home at noon, but he told me how he would run back and forth in the morning and afternoon of the coldest months of the year, because he possessed no overcoat and found little protection from the bitter Nebraska winters in the overalls and cut-down clothing that had belonged to his father and half-brothers.

Since Uncle George was still a nursing baby, grandmother used to take him along with her when she went washing. One of her employers was always very kind to him, and would give him a silver spoon to play with after he was placed in a clothes basket. But at another house, his presence seemed to be resented. After he got a little older, the twins had to take care of him, and they remembered an early spanking that they got when they allowed him to stray away from the house to the gooseberry patch where he fell asleep near a treacherous creek.

The Miller family in 1888 (mother stands in front of grandfather)

The Miller family in 1888 (mother stands in front of grandfather)

Soon after their arrival in Lincoln, the Miller family had the picture taken that is shown to the right. The twins were then six years old, and had been given their first American dolls which they hold very proudly in front of them. In comparing this 1888 picture with the one taken in 1909 (see page 84) one cannot help but be impressed with the remarkable change in grandmother’s appearance. She was only thirty-eight years old when the first picture was taken, but her toil-worn hands, expressionless face and rounded shoulders all bear mute witness to the years of poverty which seem to have aged or long before her time. But twenty-one years later there is an almost regal dignity in her posture and features, while her soft white hair and lovely brown eyes make her a far more attractive woman than she formerly was. The same transformation seems to have taken place in countless other Volga German women after they experienced the greater economic security of life in the United States.

The Lincoln years, however, continued to be a period of great poverty. Since the family could not afford to spend very much money on fuel, Uncle Adam and the twins were sent out with gunny sacks to pick up the pieces of coal that could be found along the tracks. The little seven-year-old girls soon became a familiar sight to the firemen on the trains, and many of them made it a habit to toss out the windows additional chunks of coal so that their bags could be filled more rapidly on cold winter days. Whenever this happened, the children waved their hands in gratitude, and soon began to regard many of the railroad men as their personal friends.

Among these early Volga Germans, nothing was ever allowed to go to waste. Even the sugar spoon that Uncle Adam found along the tracks was scoured white and clean, and was used by the family for years afterward. And every summer, grandmother and the children would pick buckets of wild plums (called Schlähe) which were made into jam for the winter. Many of the Volga German families were too poor to buy beds in those early years, and were forced to sleep on the floor. None of the Millers can recall that this was the case in their family, but they do remember that grandmother filled her Russian-woven ticking with corn husks, and used them as mattresses during the three years in Nebraska.

Uncle Adam also told of the marble games that he played with the neighbor boys, and of the contests that were held to see who could walk the longest on the railroad tracks that when past their home. On another occasion a group of boys were swimming in the Lincoln Salt Creek when Uncle Adam nearly drowned and was rescued by a friend named Henry Schleiger to whom he gave a fifteen cent reward! Another story tells of an Indian woman who came begging for food. Grandmother had just baked some large rye loaves and gave the woman some of the spread. A neighbor lady, noticing some white flour that stuck to the bottom of the loaf, thought that the bread was moldy. Grandmother, with high indignation, told her, “Bei uns schimmelt das Brud net.”

While the family was living in Lincoln, Uncle Henry received several letters from Russia demanding that he return to Norka and serve in the Russian army. He then went to a lawyer by the name of Schmidt, who accompanied him to the courthouse where he filed his intention of becoming an American citizen. After that he was never troubled by the Russian government again. It was also during this winter that the family was visited one day by grandfather’s sister, Kathrinlis Spohn, who had come from Kansas to see them. The children remember her visit primarily because of the delicious apples that she brought with her. But for the rest of their lives they never saw her again. It may be that her Adventist religion created a barrier, because during the intervening years there has been practically no contact between her children and those of the other members of the family.

Then in the summer of 1890, Uncle John decided to leave the family and come out to the West Coast to work on a fishing boat in Astoria. The letters which he sent back to Lincoln were so enthusiastic that grandfather began to wonder if he should move his family once more. By this time he realized that the climate in Nebraska was both extremely hot in the summer and equally cold in the winter. Since his fuel bill was a considerable item of expense, he was interested in hearing that the Portland winters were very mild. As a result, a group of approximately six families, including grandmother’s brother, John Giebelhaus—-who had just arrived from Russia—-and the same Kruegers and Aschenbrenners who had accompanied him out of Russia, all got on the train and set out for the West Coast. Uncle Henry was the only member of the family to stay behind. The little house that grandfather had built was not yet sold when he left Lincoln, but before long a buyer was found and the money sent to Portland.

The chances are that this party of Volga Germans took the Union Pacific Railroad from Omaha, Nebraska to Portland. They arrived at their destination on October 27, 1890, and the story was later told that when grandfather got off the train and saw the Willamette River and the lovely green hills surrounding the city, he turned to his wife and said, “We’ve now found our home.” And for the rest of his life he never traveled further than a few miles from the city, nor was ever heard to express a wish to return to either Russia or Nebraska. The three-year migration of the Miller family had finally come to an end.

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[1] Clay County, in which Sutton is located, had 16,310 people in 1890, but only 13,000 in 1940.

[2] Protestant Germans from the Volga area of Russia had formerly belonged to either the Lutheran or the Reformed churches. After their arrival in the United States, they were bewildered by the variety of denominations which they found. The majority of the first immigrants or men and women converted and revival meetings. They stood ready to join almost any Protestant denomination which was not antagonistic toward revivals, and which granted them the freedom to hold prayer meetings and to worship in the German language. This freedom they found in the Congregational Church.

In 1846, the American Home Missionary Society of the Congregational church commissioned a Swiss minister named Reverend Peter Fleury to work with immigrants from Germany who had settled in Iowa. From this beginning, missionary work was extended into neighboring states. The first German Congregational Church in Nebraska was organized in the town of Fremont in 1872 a few years later, Reverend William Süss, who was born in Germany, and Reverend Emmanuel José, who came from the Odessa area of southern Russia, began preaching to the newly arrived immigrants from Russia as these families moved westward, they carried with them and interest in the Congregational church, and throughout the years, 30% of all German-Russian Protestants have belonged to the Fellowship of this church. Source: Eisenach, A History of the German Congregational Churches in the United States.

[3] Ibid.