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Ahlbrandts among Germans from Russia

By Cherry Sokoloski
North Forty News

If the United States is a melting pot of different cultures, one of the most fascinating ingredients is a group that emigrated to northern Colorado in the early part of this century: the Germans from Russia. These people, one might say, were "twice melted" -- once when moving from their homeland in Germany to the Volga River region of Russia, and again when they transplanted themselves onto American soil. In northern Colorado, they helped to ensure the success of the early sugar beet industry, first as stoop laborers for the beet fields and eventually as landowners themselves.

Numerous farming families in the Wellington area come from these roots, and this month's century family focus is on one of them, the Ahlbrandt family. Harry Ahlbrandt, whose grandparents settled here in 1907, now lives in the Terry Lake area.

The Ahlbrandt story of emigration began in the late 1700s, when Catherine the Great, czarina of the expanding Russian Empire and a German herself, made an enticing offer to Germans and other Europeans. Wanting to improve Russian agriculture and to protect the outer reaches of her realm, she offered free land, freedom of religion, exemption from military service and political autonomy to any who would colonize the cold steppes of the Volga River region. Many Germans accepted the offer.

While conditions were harsh in the new land, German colonies remained there -- and prospered - for more than 100 years. Traditional German values such as hard work, frugality and self-sufficiency were ingrained even more deeply to help people survive the daily hardships. The colonists were allowed to maintain their own culture, including their language and customs.

Then the political climate changed. In 1904, the Russians went to war against Japan, and the czar decided - contrary to the agreement made with Catherine - that he needed the German Russians in his army. Few of the Germans were willing to suffer the terrible army conditions alongside Russians with whom they shared neither language nor culture, so they looked west for a new life. Many emigrated to the United States.

On the other side of the world, the sugar beet industry was just getting started in Colorado. Loveland built a sugar factory in 1901, and Fort Collins opened one in 1904. Growing beets was very labor-intensive, and the Great Western Sugar Company went in search of workers who could handle the job.

Germans from Russia supplied the answer to the labor problem. The company lured many families from immigrant communities in Kansas and Nebraska, but they also went directly to the Russian colonies to recruit workers. Until the mid-1920s, much of the low-wage stoop labor supporting the sugar industry was supplied by this ethnic group.

Ahlbrandts heed call

At the turn of the century, the Ahlbrandt family lived in a Russian colony called Grimm, where Harry's great-grandfather served as mayor. His grandparents, Carl and Christina, heeded the sweet call of sugar when their oldest son was about to be drafted into the Russian Army.

In 1907, the Ahlbrandts arrived in the Fort Collins area with five children (they eventually had eight), and all went to work in the beet fields. Eventually, Carl got a job in the steam room at the sugar beet factory, located near Vine Drive. The family lived close by in Andersonville, in housing supplied by Great Western. Both Andersonville and Buckingham were built for the beet workers' families.

Today, all that remains of the sugar factory is the large warehouse on Ninth Street, incorporated in Fort Collins' Street Facility building.

Carl Ahlbrandt died in 1920, leaving a widow with small children. However, the family -- like many in this industrious group -- had carefully saved their money, and Christina was able to purchase a farm north of Wellington. The children helped run the operation.

By the 1930s, half the beet farms in northern Colorado were owned by Germans from Russia.

The Ahlbrandts' second son, Carl II, stayed on the farm to help his mother. He married Dorothy Wood, from a British pioneer family, and they raised three sons on the farm: Carl III, who now lives in Fort Collins; Harry of the Terry Lake area; and Jack, who is deceased.

Harry remembers taking part in both the spring campaign, when beets were blocked and thinned, and the fall campaign, when beets were pulled and topped. The entire Wellington school would close for "beet vacation," he said. While his family hired a good deal of field help, his father always set aside certain acreage for the family to take care of. Harry got plenty of experience in the fields and also used beet growing as a 4-H project.

In 1946 or 1947, said Harry, mechanized beet harvesters were developed, meaning the end of most hand labor.

After returning from the army, Harry married Arlene Briggs and they farmed for three years before he pursued a career at Colorado State University. They raised three sons, Jerry, Jim and Joe.

In the late 1950s, Christina Ahlbrandt sold the farm to her grandson, Lee Wagner. It is now operated as the Harvest Farm by the Denver Mission.

Germans keep culture

As a survival tool, the German virtue of working hard served this ethnic group well -- both on the Volga River and in northern Colorado. A favorite proverb of the people was "Arbeit macht das Leben suess" or "Work makes life sweet." The emphasis on hard work extended to everyone in the family. According to Ruth Wagner Haake, it was not uncommon for a pregnant woman to work all morning in the fields, then come in at noon to give birth.

Children worked long hours in the fields alongside their parents and often were behind in school as a result of field work. The work was not only back-breaking but dangerous, with laborers of all ages wielding 16-inch knives for topping the beets.

The customs of the Germans from Russia were inextricably linked to their German roots -- and to the beets they worked. Favorite foods included homemade sausage, noodles, dill pickles and a coffee cake called "dinna kucha," as well as preserved foods from the garden. To sweeten up the winter menu, housewives made gallons of beet syrup, a process that required three days of cooking down the juice.

A favorite custom was the wedding celebration or "Hochzeit," a three-day affair that included a Dutch Hop.

At times, the mix of Russian and German influences produced confusing results. For instance, the women wore babushkas and the men wore Russian-style lambskin coats, with the fur turned inside. Musicians played polkas for the Dutch Hops, but some heard a Russian or Polish influence in the tunes.

While the group spoke German, Fort Collins residents called their communities "St. Petersburg" and "Little Saratov." Some called the neighborhoods "the jungles."

Ethnic group persecuted

Unfortunately, the ethnic group suffered discrimination arising out of both cultures. Early on, they were called "dirty Rooshins," perhaps because of beet stains on their hands. The misnomer was hurtful to the German Russians, who took great pride in their clean houses.

Later, during World War I, the group was persecuted because they were Germans. Ahlbrandt remembers incidents in which German Russians were stoned as they walked from home to Linden Street.

It was difficult for the group to give up its German language, but the German Russians eventually began to identify with their new homeland. Harry's father, Carl II, was born in Russia and did not become a naturalized citizen until just before World War II. His children helped him study for the test, and he finished at the head of his class. Harry said his father was very patriotic and proud of his late-gained citizenship.

The melting pot continues to churn, and Germans from Russia are now integrated -- many very successfully -- into the American culture. Bitter memories of hard work and discrimination are still alive, but they are tempered by the sweetness of an occasional Dutch Hop and dinna kucha.

Thanks to the following for information about the Germans from Russia: Ruth Wagner Haake, Fort Collins Museum, and "History of Larimer County" edited by Arlene Ahlbrandt, Kate Stieben and Andy Morris.

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