By the summer of 1929, there was a food surplus in the United States. There were piles of unsold wheat. Europe faced the same problem after Russia began exporting its wheat again. In the U.S., prices fell quickly. Farmers had two choices: plant less and wait for prices to rebound, or plant more to try to make the same money on higher yields. They chose to do the latter. There was, after all, pressure to meet their bank debts.
A glut of wheat in the market had driven prices down. There simply were not enough people to eat so much grain, especially when the product came from two nations that both possessed vast tracts of farming land. Greed as well as panic over losing revenue led farmers to make matters worse.
In September 1929, George Alexander Ehrlich sat at a wedding table and told his grandchildren the story of what it had been like on the Volga River in Russia, where he had come from. He spoke “a very old style of German,” mixed with Russian and “spiced with the dialect of Texas-Oklahoma.” In the Russian countryside, George’s father had been a leather tanner whom George accompanied to work so that he could learn the trade. George would have done just that if not for being drafted into the czar’s army on his sixteenth birthday. To avoid service, he had to leave Russia. In 1890, George boarded a ship to New York out of Hamburg, Germany. The ship got caught in a typhoon in the Atlantic. The captain sent out an SOS and told the passengers and crew to prepare for death.
Ehrlich’s story also becomes a part of the legend of the High Plains. Unlike the stories that John McCarty told in his newspaper, Ehrlich’s are true, as well as a reminder that those who settled the Great Plains were a diverse group of people with complicated origins. The Russo-Germans had been a migrant people for centuries. Ehrlich’s dangerous voyage to the United States gives his story a dimension of drama, suggesting that he nearly lost his life in his effort to build a new one.
George’s story was the founding narrative of the Ehrlichs and how they got to Oklahoma. At the wedding table, they “poured wine and quaffed beer and ate the spicy, smoke sausages.” The Russo-Germans were still regarded as strangers in the High Plains due to their accents, strange clothes, strange foods, and a German heritage that made them suspect during the First World War. After 166 years of bouncing from southern Germany to the Volga region of Russia to the former Cherokee territory of Oklahoma, they wanted only to be left alone. It seemed that, in the U.S., they were finally at home.
Because they did not fit into McCarty’s ideal of “the highest Anglo-Saxon stock” due to their different manners and hard-to-place accents, the Russo-Germans did not fit in easily. Their experiences reveal that, though the Southern Plains was generally a place for misfits, it was also a place that demanded some level of assimilation, and the Russo-Germans held on to their culture to anchor them during their migrations.
Russo-German culture seemed “frozen in place in 1763” and transplanted to the Great Plains as it had been in Germany. When they boarded ships for America, they carried “seeds of turkey red—a hard winter wheat”—in the pockets of their vests. The crop was resistant to cold and drought and made agronomists rethink the notion that the Southern Plains were unsuited to agriculture. “Turkey red” had allowed the Germans to move from the valley to the drier and higher steppes.
Though the Russo-Germans were attached to their particular foods and cultural traditions, refusing to assimilate to the cultures in the places where they migrated, they were adept at assimilating their farming habits to new soil and climates. Their introduction of “turkey red” to the Southern Plains was also beneficial to the development of the grain industry.
The Russo-Germans were “migratory” and “tough-nutted pacifists” who earned a reputation for draft-dodging. Some were opposed to war on principle, while there were plenty who fought for the United States during both World Wars. What they would not do was fight for the Russian czar or—worse—the Bolsheviks. Catherine the Great had promised them, in a manifesto dating back to July 22, 1763, that they would be excused from military conscription. It was part of a beneficial package deal she offered to bring Germans into Russia. The empress was German-born and preferred the manners of her own people. She also wanted farming colonies filled with people who were not Russian. She believed that the farms would be a “buffer,” deterring the warring tribes who roamed the steppe from pillaging villages.
What Americans interpreted as “draft-dodging” was more likely a habit borne out of the Russo-Germans’ desire for survival, considering that they were a vulnerable minority. However, the unwillingness of some to fight during both world wars, in which Germany was the primary enemy, raised suspicions that they were disloyal. Those who did fight were regarded as exceptions to the stereotype that the Russo-Germans were not properly patriotic. They were strongly assertive—“tough-nutted”—in their unwillingness to fight, perhaps due to their weariness of having to defend themselves in Russia.
Catherine the Great was eager for as many Germans as possible to populate the villages. Most of the migrants had come from poor villages in southern Germany, where families had suffered in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War. Catherine also suggested polygamy to increase populations, but the Germans were not interested in this at the time. Instead, they were more concerned with keeping dirt away from their homes. After arriving, they did suffer invasions from the Kirghiz, a Tartar tribe whose members burned the Germans’ church, raped women, and kidnapped babies. Captives were sold in Asia as slaves.
Though the empress had lured her people into Russia on the premise that they would have special benefits, those benefits were granted at the expense of their safety. Catherine wanted to diversify the Russian population with German blood, hoping that her homeland’s mores would rub off on her adopted people, but the newcomers were adamant about retaining their native habits and protecting themselves from extinction.
By 1863, a quarter-million Germans lived on the Volga. Another group of Germans, composed of Mennonites, lived near the Black Sea. The German colonists never assimilated fully into Russia. Meanwhile, Russians became resentful of their prosperous farms and their exemption from military service. Then, in 1872, Czar Alexander II revoked Catherine’s promises to them and demanded that the Russo-Germans stop speaking German and join the army. He raised taxes on them and revoked their exclusive licenses to brew beer.
The czar threatened the Russo-Germans with what they seemed to fear most: non-existence, both as a result of dying in the czar’s wars and in being forced to give up their cultural traditions. Russians who were trapped in serfdom probably disliked seeing non-Russians living relatively easier lives.
Meanwhile, in America, railroad companies had already drawn the ire of farmers in Nebraska and Kansas for their promotion of fraud. The agents began courting immigrants—their last hope to avoid bankruptcy. Immigrants traveled in groups, worked hard, and paid on time. Brochures advertising land were printed in German. Some Germans returned from the U.S. to the Volga, talking about what they had seen of the Great Plains. They liked it. It seemed like the “Promised Land” all over again, as Russia had been.
The settlement of the Southern Plains with immigrants, particularly the Russo-Germans, seemed mutually beneficial. The Russo-Germans had nowhere else to go, so they would be committed to their new homes. The railroad companies also needed settlers who would remain on the land so that the mortgages would be paid regularly.
Starting in 1873, villages along the Volga “became near ghost towns” as people boarded “small boats on the Volga to Saratov.” Then, they rode the train to a North Sea port where they took ships to major U.S. ports—New York, Baltimore, and Galveston. Many were amazed to see black people for the first time. In the 1870s, about 12,000 Russo-Germans arrived in Kansas. In fifty years, there would be 303,000 in the Great Plains. In Kansas, the Germans established numerous towns with German names and kept many of their traditional customs, including their tidiness and their fondness for singing.
The Russo-Germans’ movement from the Volga to the Southern Plains was swift and organized. Coming to the United States confronted them with aspects of the world that they had never before experienced in person, such as the existence of black people. Their naming of towns in Kansas coincided with their wish for their new homes to be compatible with their language and traditions in a way that Russia was not.
George Ehrlich turned eighteen during his trip across the Atlantic. He strapped his money to a lower leg and put all of his possessions into a small bag. Though the trip was only supposed to take two weeks, due to the storm at sea, George’s ship arrived in New York Harbor after two months. The ship had been lost at sea and ran of food, and some of the immigrants fell ill, but they had made it to America. It was New Year’s Day, 1891.
Ehrlich’s arrival on New Year’s Day is a happy coincidence, for he was starting over in a new land just as one starts over in a new year. Like many immigrants, he came from Europe with little money but an abundance of hope, buoyed by the knowledge that he had survived a dangerous voyage.
In the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, some Volga Germans were “shedding some of the thrift their forebears had practiced” by buying new tractors and borrowing money from banks to buy more land. The goal was to plant as much wheat as possible—fast.
The Russo-Germans were just as eager as anyone to be economically successful, but the pressures of life were different in the United States—more materialistic and acquisitive.
When George arrived in the High Plains, he initially stayed with relatives in LeHigh, Kansas and looked for work. He missed the land grab in 1893, when former Cherokee lands were opened up. Six years later, George heard that there were still a few sections left, far west of the prime land. During a trip from Kansas to Shattuck, Oklahoma in the fall of 1900, George staked his claim to “a quarter-section of rich grass at the base of [a] hill.”
Once the indigenous people had been run off of the desirable land, the land grabs of the late-nineteenth and early -twentieth centuries ceased. Desperate immigrants and other settlers with few to no options took what was left in the Southern Plains. George lucked into an appealing tract of land—fertile and green.
George returned to Kansas to make peace with his family, then he took a train back to Shattuck, Oklahoma with hundreds of other Germans, who were accompanied by livestock and precious items from home. When the immigrants arrived, they witnessed a land that looked like hell. The prairie had been burned by the Cherokee in revenge for being betrayed by the U.S. government for the third time. However, the Germans stayed, despite the cold and the prejudice they faced from Anglos. Some Anglo shopkeepers initially refused to sell them food, and others tried to pass an ordinance against speaking German. The Germans stayed no matter what. They were used to living in a treeless, unfriendly place.
The sight of a charred land did not deter the Germans, who were accustomed to the violence of invaders in their home countries. They were also accustomed to the tendency of the dominant group—in this case, Anglos—seeking to impose their customs on others, as well as their attempts to drive out those who could not or who did not try to fit in, such as the Russo-Germans.
George Ehrlich’s first job was as a ranch hand. To learn English, he carried a notebook in his back pocket, in which he wrote down new words. He married a fellow Volga German, Hanna Weis, and they had ten children. During the First World War, the family was nearly run out of town after a schoolteacher whom they invited into their home reported to the police that they had a picture of the German Kaiser in the house. The cops surrounded their homestead and searched it. George and eleven other German immigrants were accused of espionage, and rumors circulated that they were to be hanged.
Oddly, it was only when the Russo-Germans sought to conform to the American prairie through language and learning that they ran into trouble. A misunderstanding over a picture of the Kaiser made Ehrlich seem like a traitor. However, this notion was compounded by hysteria over the war, as well as the preexisting suspicion toward and dislike of the Germans.
Around midnight, the police went to the jail in Arnett, Oklahoma, where Ehrlich and the others were being held and took them to Woodward, a bigger town to the east. George appeared before Judge T.R. Alexander around 2:00 AM. The police explained that the Germans were spies. The judge spoke to George Ehrlich and asked what he was doing there. In his broken English, George explained that it was because of the picture of the Kaiser. The judge asked the Germans how many of them were supporting the war effort. All of their hands shot up. Ehrlich dug in his pocket and pulled out two hundred dollars’ worth of government stamps. The judge asked the sheriff how many of his officers had war bonds or stamps. None of them did. The judge dismissed the case.
The argument against the Russo-German immigrants was that they were insufficiently patriotic, which was merely an excuse for the Anglo settlers to legitimize their ostracism. Judge Alexander’s decision to release Ehrlich and the other German-speaking immigrants was based on the fallacy of the sheriff and other officers’ prejudice. Ehrlich’s ineptitude with language, which prompted the misunderstanding, did not matter in relation to the visual evidence of his willingness to buy government stamps for the war effort.
The youngest of the Ehrlich children, nicknamed Georgie, was doted upon for his boundless energy. One summer evening, on August 14, 1924, he wandered out onto the road, lost in the sand wafting in the air from the tractors. A cattle truck came along and ran him over—the driver never saw the boy. George Ehrlich and his wife, Hanna, remained shaken from the loss. Still, George thought that “he could live through anything.” He did not realize that in five years, he would live through something meaner than old Russia and a “storm-tossed ship.”
The Ehrlichs endured the pain of loss long before the dust storms overtook the prairie and dust pneumonia became the fear of every parent with young children. The loss of Georgie, coupled with George’s near-death experience on the ship that delivered him to America, taught Ehrlich about the fragility of life and the ease with which blessings could be taken away.