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
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
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
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
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
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.