The 4th of July Untitled HTML Document
John & Katie Christman (1914-1947)
Pioneers of Gilstrap Township, Adams County, ND
mostly by Inez "Tootie" Christman Larson
John Christman, Sr. was born in a small town, Freudental, about 20 miles west of Odessa, South Russia on April 27, 1892. He was one of 8 children born to Heinrich Christmann (1849-1905: Freudental) and Caroline Zeigler, who were married in 1876. Being of German ancestry he was known as a German from Russian or German Russian. Many people from Germany, where political fragmentation, economic hardship, denominational differences and the Napoleanic wars wore down the population, were lured to the Black Sea area of South Russia during the reigns of Czarina Catherine II, The Great (1762-1796), Czar Paul I (1801-1825) and Czar Nicholas I (1825-1855). It was the Russian leaders desire to populate this relatively unpopulated area, newly won in wars with the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), with hard working productive Christian citizens. Germans and other western Europeans were ideal candidates, since Russian peasants were still "owned" by their nobility landlords and, therefore, not free to leave their owner's estate. This changed when Czar Alexander II liberated the Russian peasants in 1861, and by 1871 all the special priveleges previously reserved for colonists were abolished. For a more detailed description of the history of this period see the accompanying links. By the early 20th century, life for Germans in Russia had lost much of its appeal. A movement to "Russanize" the German colonists was begin with the increased threat from a belligerent, united Germany, and military conscription was introduced in the early 1900's. Conscription was often for a long period (like 30 years) and was essentially a death sentence given the advent of World War I.

So, faced with the loss of their language and their own special German culture and conscription into the army, the three young Christmann brothers, Heinrich (b.1883), Wilhelm (b.1886) and Johan (b.1892) made the decision to leave Russia for America. Henry, the oldest came first, in 1905 according to the 1920 US census. He settled in Dakota Township, Adams County, North Dakota. John, Bill and Katerina (b.1894), Bill's wife, landed in Philadelphia, PA on May 15th, 1911 on the vessel SS Haverford which had departed Liverpool, England on April 19th. John celebrated his 19th birthday on the ship.


#18 on the above passenger list is Bill, #19 is his wife Katerina and #20 is John

John and Bill had their life savings, $500 each, with them when they left Liverpool. John had his mother sew the money in the seat of his underwear. Someone on the ship learned of this, came along in the dark of night, cut a hole in John's underwear and stole the $500. John later told his children that "this was the beginning of long john underwear with the flap in the back in America." At the time it was hardily a joke though. Imagine being in your teens in a strange country with a strange language and without any money. However, brother Bill gave John half of his money, so each had $250 with which to start a new life.

To get from Philadelphia to North Dakota where their brother, Henry, was living, a distance of nearly 2,000 miles, was no easy feat, especially given their only mode of transportation was their feet. They spent many lonely nights in farmers' barns, hungry and afraid. They scavenged whatever they could find that was eatable for food. Even just asking for food was difficult because of the language barrier. A favorite food was eggs often times pilferred from a farmer's chicken coop. One night John proudly came back with a hatful of eggs. Everyone was looking forward to a good omellette only to find out that it was going to be baby chick stew instead. The eggs had come from a setting hen's nest! Chicken coops were looked upon with suspicion after that incident.

They finally arrived in Petrel, North Dakota, which no longer exists, but was a thriving little town in the 1920's and 30's where they were met by brother Henry.


At the beginning John worked a few years for Henry. In 1913 he married Katie Kessler (b.1891), who was the sister of Henry's wife Carrie (b.1892). Katie was working as house maid for Carrie and Henry at that time. Katie and Carrie Kessler were born in Russia and immigrated to America when Katie was 2 years old. She was one of 9 children born to Philip Kessler and Elizabeth Wanner who settled in the German settlement at McPherson, South Dakota, a small town about 17 miles east of Eureka, South Dakota. Henry and Carrie had 16 children; John and Katie had 12.

John and Katie lived the first few years of their married life in a sod house, not unlike the one pictured below, in Gilstrap Township, less than 10 miles from Henry and Carrie. John purchased the land from a honesteader and they lived there until 1947 when they moved to Lemmon, South Dakota, which was 8 to 10 miles from their farm.

Thrashing season was a big event in pioneer days. In those days a thrashing machine, which is used to seperate the grain from the rest of the plant, was an expensive piece of equipment. So those farmers who could afford a thrashing machine would hire a crew, as it took several workers to operate a machine, and they would go around harvesting the crops of other farmers who didn't have a machine, for a fee, of course. John worked on one of these crews in his earlier years. The hours were long and the work was hard. One neighbor, Bill Evans, came in one evening after an especially hot and long day and said, "If anyone speaks to me, I'll cry!" Bill had been the spike pitcher in a bundle field for the whole day. A spike pitcher is the worker who stays out in the open fields to help load the bundles, which were 60 to 120 pound bales of grain, onto the wagons to be hauled to the threshing machine. Normally, jobs like this were rotated among the men, but that day poor Bill got stuck helping to load every rack that came out.

A thrashing crew could be as many as a dozen men, plus teams and wagons for many of them. Each farmer had to accomodate those who came from even a moderate distance, where the measure of moderate and long were by walking or horseback. Katie tells about the time she had a threshing crew and needed supplies from town. She and one of the older children had to get up early enough in the morning to make the 8 or so mile trip to town, buy supplies, return home and still get the bread baked for the men's noon dinner. When asked why she didn't just buy store bread while in town, she replied, "didn't think of it, and, besides, that would be a foolish waste of money!" For Katie, feeding threshers, and for that matter, anyone, bakery bread was a sin. Katie baked about 12 loaves of bread every other day. She always put her big brown loaves of freshly baked bread on a clean sheet on her bed. It was a glorious sight for hungry kids. On days she didn't bake, Mrs. Hale, a neighbor from about half a mile away, would usually visit to socialize and help Katie with her numerous chores raising a family of 12 kids. It was very natural to see Mrs. Hale, who was much older than Katie, come over the hill with a basket of bread dough in her arms. She would spend the day visiting and working, and then in the late afternoon pick up her baked bread and head back over the hill home. For Katie, Mrs. Hale was an angel from heaven, and for Mrs. Hale, Katy was good company and a warm oven!

When John was out threshing or busy with seasonal farm work, it was Katie's job to do the regular farm chores, which consisted of milking the cows, sometimes as many as 16, feeding the calves and other animals, etc. Sometimes she had to take small children with her. One way for keeping them safe was to pull the horse buggy down by the barn and packing the little ones in it. Other times she would stick them in cardboard boxes or an old tub. One day a large sow came into the barn and went over where one of the kids was in a tub. The child was so frightened by the pig's grunting and squeeling that he later had a minor convulsion.

Katie was used to being a nurse as well as a mother. For the treatment of colds and flus, she would put chairs close together around the pot-bellied stove and then put up blankets like a tepee tent over the chairs where the victims were placed. Then she placed a large cauldron of boiling water containing camphorated oil, or steam as it was called in those days, inside the tent-structure containing the patients. Each child sat on his chair for about 15 minutes inhaling the "steam." When she thought they were "steamed" enough, she bounced them into warm beds. It must have worked for very few of Katie's kids ever had bad colds or missed much school. Even the major 1918 flu epidemic, which took many lives, missed the John Christman family. However, brothers Henry and William were not so lucky. Twice a day for about two weeks, John rode over to Henry's and then Bill's to do their chores. John's theory was that a raw onion a day kept the flu away. His favorite cooking chore was to scramble up a bunch of eggs and onions for the family. The family's theory was that noone would come near enough to him to pass viruses or germs because he ate so many onions.

Blizzards were a formidable enemy in those days. One of the bggest ones was in March, 1920 when over a 3 day period snow piled up higher than the buildings. Tunnels were shoveled out between the house, barn and other essential buildings. However, these often blew in immediately, and so string, twine, rope, whatever was available, was strung out behind him by any person leaving the house so that he could find the way back in the whiteout conditions.

Fall of the year was always an intresting time when the 3 Christman families would get together and butcher livestock for their winter's meat supply. Sometimes neighbors would be included and the whole affair usually took up to a week. There would be 2 or 3 hogs and a beef for each family. Sausage, liverwurst, lard and about everything else connected to meat was made. Meat would be all over the house and yard. A smoke house was a necessity. It was lots of work but it produced a lot of good, economical meat to be enjoyed during the coming winter.

Petrel was the little town where Katie and John did grocery shopping in the early days. Martin Hersrud owned the grocery store there. One day John inquired about buying some fish. Martin's reply, "John, have you ever tried lutefish?You should try it, it's the best fish there is."

"How do you fix it?"

"Oh, you fry it," said Martin, knowing full well the only way to cook lutefish was to boil it (preferably after soaking it in lye).

When John got home and handed his "fish" to Katie, her first question was, "How do you fix it?"

John: "Martin said to fry it." So Katy commenced to fry it, and the longer she fried it, the stinkier it got.

John: "I think Martin must have sold us some rotten fish. We'd better throw it out." The next time John was in Petrel he told Martin about the "rotten" fish to which Martin got a good laugh, a little frontier, ethnic humour.

Once a year in the summer there was ice cream day in Petrel. Everybody came for miles around, and there were ball games, races and horse shoes. Usually visitors brought food for a picnic and spent the whole day. It was especially great for farm kids and everyone looked forward for months to this event. All the home made ice cream a kid could eat was available and free - someone was dipping ice cream out of the tall canvas buckets all day long - and many other kids to play with.

Racing of any type was a big attraction and entertainment. John had a team, half Arabian, half quarterhorse, of which he was very proud. Besides being quite fast, they were also a good working team. It wasn't unusual to see John racing his team at the county fair, or just racing someone, sometimes driving a Model-T automobile, going home from church. Racing was a big part of life in those days. John purchased his first car, a Model-T ford, in 1922. It was a big deal for the whole family. The children would go out and open the doors to just smell the new rubber floormats. The new car was soon used for racing at fairs. Both Hettinger and Lemmon had 3-day fairs usually involving car racing. Once John entered the Model-T Slow Idle race in a 4th of July celebration in Hettinger. The race consisted of starting your car and letting it idle twice around a half-mile loop with a judge accompanying each car to make sure the driver did not touch the gas lever. Everything was going fine for John, who had worked very hard to fine-tune the engine in the weeks prior to the race, almost to the finish line when a tire blew. Not only did the tire blow, but the wheel came off and rolled into a nearby lake. The formal race was finished for John, but a barefoot hike into the lake to retrieve the wheel remained.

The 4th of july was a big day in the early 1900's. There was always a big celebration in most of the local towns. However, if the major crop work wasn't done on the Christman farm by the 4th, there was no celebrating by the Christmans. No playing until the seasonal work,which included hoeing a big garden, pruning and cleaning the trees, shocking grain, etc, was finished. Each child received a nickel or dime, depending upon his age, for the work he did. The really big pay-off, however, came at the celebrations where foot-races paid a whole dollar and sometimes $2 to the winner. Any Christman child old enough to run was entered in a race. They did well, too, for winning often meant a new pair of shoes or some other longed for item. The incentitive to give your all was always present.

Belonging to a large family had its problems and rewards. John provided the discipline and Katy the love. There were hardships and "do-withouts", but also lots of fun. After chores in the summer times, evenings were often taken up with ballgames. John usually played while Katie sat close-by mending clothes, a never-ending chore. A love of playing sports was definitely instilled in the boys and carried on in their children and grand children. Back then the boys joined neighborhood baseball or softball teams. Herb, who had a super throwing arm, was a crack 3rd baseman.

Sometimes "fun" happened spontaneously. In the summer time quite often water fights broke out around the livestock water tank. They would usually start with just one "little ole bucket" of water being "spilt" by one kid on another! Esculation followed and before you knew it, everyone, attracted by the shrieks and squeals of the originaters, was involved. More buckets appeared, small children were dunked in the tank, and it seldom ended until the tank was emptied of water. What a delicious feeling to be doused by a bucket of water when the sun is blazing, the air is still and the heat poured out in 100 degree waves. Sometimes "Papa John" would appear with a bunch of thirsty cows. Then it wasn't so much fun. Pumping relays would be set up to replenish the water. The cows would be bellering and stamping, trying to lap up the small trickle from the spout, and it seemed to take forever to get the tank full again. Nevertheless, water wars would be on again the next day or day after next, and peace has not been obtained even to this day!

Grasshoppers, drought and extreme heat were the primary enemies in the "dirty 30's". Often with extremely hot days would come hail storms, the ultimate foe of a farmer with grain crops. However, hail for kids was not all bad because hail was ice and ice meant ice cream could be made. Along with the hail quite often came cloudbursts, torrents of rain, that could create as much havoc as the hail. It was not unusual to drive or walk across a bridge one minute, turn around and see the same bridge floating down the creek or river the next minute. Crossing bridges in those days was a moment of excitement in the naive minds of the small children. They were told to "hold their breath" until the crossing was complete. Of course, for the most part these were only small creaks and no real danger was really present. John loved to tell about one storm story where he, Katy and the older children were in town when suddenly one of these storms occurred. The younger children were at home by themselves. The dirt road home was slippery and almost impassable. Several times they got stuck but with the kids and Katie pushing they managed to get unstuck. But finally the ultimate catastrophe occurred. The car slid into the ditch and no amount of human power was going to push it back onto the road. It was getting dark and everyone was thinking about the small kids left alone on the farm. Fortunately, they were close to a neighbor's farm. Fortunate, because even today farms are not that close in rural southwest North Dakota. Katie and the kids stayed the night at the John Holdahl farm. They tried to phone home but the telephone line was down from the storm. Knowing the children left home would be worried and freightened, John set out to walk in the rain and mud the remaining distance, about 5 miles. It was late when he arrived home, but the kids were very happy to see him, even dripping wet and muddy as he was.

John was a kind, but strict, father. [Doug: It is easy to speculate where John's strict moral and disciplinary code originated. Read the attached Odessa History page to see that drunkenness, idleness, etc were often problems in the Russian Germany colonies of the 19th century.] Gilstrap Hall was noted for its dances in the early 30's. The Christman children were not allowed to go. However, one or two would usually manage to sneak off, or wrangle an invitation to "stay overnight" with a friend the night of the dance. Such rebellions were not always successful, but resulted in the disgrace of a quick trip back home with Papa John.

The strict ethical code at the Christman home included outlawing card playing. However, card decks had a way of appearing and then disappearing into the stove as soon as Katie discoverred them. And when there was a period without cards, daring young entrepreneurs would make 52 cards up using crayons and discarded cardboard. This usually occupied days of keeping children out of mischief, only to have the new deck end up as fire starter. It was suspicioned that there may have been more than fear of sinning in "Katie's Madness."

Christmas was always an enjoyable time. Gifts were simple - an orange, new mittens, a cap,etc. John always bought a large box of candy and nuts about 2 weeks before christmas. This was kept under their bed, and it was not unusual to see 4 or 5 pair of legs sticking out from under the bed anytime of the day. There wasn't much candy and nuts left when Christmas day arrived, but how much mischief can a kid get into under a bed?! John liked music and managed to buy a stringed instrument for each of the last 6 kids. Two had guitars, one a banjo, one a mandolin and one a ukulele. One or two played the piano. These children occassionally played in a string band at the Baptist church in Lemmon. Sundays and holidays often saw visitors at the Christman farm. Dinners might just be "borsch", but it was always tasty and enjoyed by all.


Probably taken in early 1940's.