The Birkle Family – Germans From Russia

This is the story told to my father, Ben Birkel Jr., by Birkle uncles and cousins at the family reunion he attended in the summer of 1981 in Oklahoma; plus excerpts from “A Pioneer History of Shattuck” published in 1970; plus anecdotes from his mother and his own recollections.

Daniel Birkle, my great grandfather, was born in Dreispitz (Дрейшпиц) Russia, a settlement near the Volga river, on November 6, 1865. His parents were originally German, but had moved to Russia some time after 1763. They were part of a group of German families that moved there collectively, having been promised by Catherine The Great that they would be given land to cultivate, reduced taxes, religious freedom, and exemption from military service, as long as they farmed and maintained the land according to their relatively modern standards, and protected it from the nomadic Muslim tribesmen that would occasionally invade from the south.

When he was still a child, Daniel’s parents died of cholera and Daniel was raised by foster parents by the name of Gloss. By the late 1800’s most of Catherine The Great’s original promises to the German settlers had been nullified by subsequent Russian leaders, including the freedom from conscription, and as soon as he was an adult Daniel was ordered to serve in the Russian army. After several years he was discharged a lieutenant.

Fraternizing with non-German Russians was strictly forbidden, and Daniel returned directly to the German settlement. There he met Mary Dorothy Olenburger, and they married in 1890. (She was a Russian German also, born in Dreispitz on Christmas Day in 1873.) When they married, Daniel was about 24 and she was about 16. Not a particularly remarkable age difference in those times.

Their first child died at birth, but then they had a daughter Marie, and a son, Daniel Jr., followed three years later by another son, John. Cholera was still stalking through the settlements, and Daniel knew he would soon be re-conscripted into the Russian army and probably not survive. Mistreatment of the German settlers at the hands of the Russian government was growing ever worse, and after much deliberation, the family sought and found a way to come to America. They bundled up John (age 1), Daniel Jr. (age 4), and Marie (age 5), and Daniel and Mary (who was expecting another child at the time) joined the large exodus of German people who had vivid hopes of escaping to a better world.

Stealth was necessary because the Russian government did not want their productive German settlers escaping their grasp. First the emigrants had to leave the Volga river area and make their way overland nearly 1000 miles to St. Petersburg, where they could merge with larger groups of fleeing refugees to obscure their movements. The journey was not an easy one. Most members of this group traveled by foot and ox-drawn wagon, and at night whenever possible. Their vehicles deteriorated and finally broke down. The oxen eventually died. They continued on foot. Those that survived eventually crossed from Russia into East Prussia, where they found aid on their journey from a German underground organization.

(This would eventually prove to be a one-way journey: In 1918, during the Russian Civil War, the original village of Dreispitz was plundered for the last time, and burned down. Later – after World War II – Stalin declared the entire idea of Russian Germans a heresy and systematically broke up their families, shipping the men off to work camps and seizing their land.)

At Hamburg, Germany, Daniel and his family caught passage and traveled on the Pretoria. During the three week voyage on the Atlantic, Mary gave birth to their daughter, Olanda (Lillie). They docked in New York in 1898, but took a long time to get through immigration at Ellis Island since they could speak no English.

Eventually, the Birkle family moved west, and settled near Avard, Oklahoma, on rented land. While subsisting there, a fifth child Joe was born. Shortly thereafter they moved north of Waynoka and Ben Sr. (my grandfather) was born, in 1903. Daniel and his family completed naturalization and, in 1904, they crossed the Cimarron River and moved to Ellis County, settling four miles northwest of Shattuck on land granted to them by the government.

Their arrival on the Western plains may have felt familiar, if they knew the stories of what their own ancestors had been through when they first arrived at the Volga river: The land was utterly undeveloped. Long months or even years of back-breaking work would need to be done, clearing it, breaking the soil, and sowing the crops by hand. Only after several successful harvests would they even be able to consider constructing an actual house. They were very fortunate, for their land featured a flowing spring surrounded by big cottonwood trees (since gone).

At first, the family lived right next to the spring, in a dugout – essentially a hollowed out section of hillside with rudimentary reinforcement, a bit like a sod house – and worked the farm while building a permanent house nearby. This took years, but eventually they acquired a team of horses to help them, plus a bull and one cow. Homestead laws in Oklahoma prohibited residents from grouping together into villages — they were required to live on the land they claimed. With many hands to work in parallel, larger families found an advantage.

How the ravine looked to Ben when he visited the farm in 1981.

A more distant shot of the ravine as Ben saw it in 1981.

A view of the spring itself where the dugout was located.

They built the house on a hill near the spring. It was made of rock and mud, with 18-inch thick walls and two rooms. When Ben Jr. (my father) was there in 1981 he took pictures of the remaining wall pieces and found some tools along with (what he assumed to be) clay marbles.

Some of the rock wall remains. Shattuck, Oklahoma is visible in the background.

The window and door frames were made of split logs and the frame for the roof was made of rough two-by-fours with a shingled roof. The spring supplied their water for some time until they dug a well with a horse-powered drill.

On June 9, 1905, Mary Dorothy, Daniel’s wife, died in childbirth. She was 32 years old. Had they survived, her child would have been her 12th. Daniel buried her on the farm, on a little hill that she used to enjoy walking on.

The area is now open prairie but the grave itself has been hemmed in with freeway fencing to keep the cattle from stepping on it.

The grave with its protection of highway fencing built by the children.

This shot gives an idea of the desolation of the location.

With the passage of time, Daniel was married again to Katie Armbrister from north of Gage. To this union ten more children were born.

Ben: "Thats my grandfather, on my Dad's side, with his second wife. This photo was taken back in Oklahoma." Garrett: "He's the guy who was living in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl, and had like 19 kids, 11 by the first wife and 8 by the second or something?" Ben: "Yeah. Man, she looks a lot younger than him." Garrett: "A lot, yeah."

Only after the farm chores were done could the children play, fish in Pony Creek, and roam the hills (then with occasional groves of trees). The boys helped work the fields with horses and a walking plow, planters and “listers.” They planted all of the sod with “hand jabbers” and raised kaffir corn and broomcorn. Laughingly, Joe reminisced to my father, “Those boys were all broomcorn-pullin fools.”

They trapped skunks, possums, civet cats and muskrats, selling the furs. A skunk hide would go for about thirty-five cents, although the ones that were mostly black would bring as much as six dollars. Coyote hides brought a dollar and badger hides only fifty cents. Joe and Mary, who worked for Mrs. Brown in Shattuck, gave their earnings to their father, helping to sustain the large family.

The Birkles depended mostly on their own labor for food. They always had a large garden, raising enough potatoes and onions to last all year. The boys shot game for food. They butchered hogs (meat and fat for lard) and calves, made wurst and preserved some meat by salting it down and hanging it on high trees (or on the windmill) to dry, where it would keep all winter. The girls dried fruit and canned wild plums, grapes, and jellies. The family made sauerkraut in ten-gallon crocks, and picked barrels of apples. They roasted wheat and ground it into a coffee-like drink.

About the only “store bought” things were sugar, salt, pepper, flour, matches and natural tobacco leaves. The trip to town was made in a lumber wagon pulled by two horses or mules, though later a two-seated wagon was used. Going to town was a big event for the children, as they went only two or three times a year.

There were Sunday “get-togethers” at the creek where families would bring food, eat together, swim and fish. Saturday night meant baths, using a large galvanized tub in the kitchen, where it was warm. Joe remembered the smell of bread cooked over a wood stove, the value of a nickel, home-made lye soap and “cracklins.” After work was done evenings were full of laughter and play to the flicker of kerosene lamps. He referred to these as “the good old days.”

The first of the Birkle children went to the Maddox school north of Shattuck, a four-mile walk each way along dusty or muddy roads on the prairie and through the patches of trees. They usually shared a syrup bucket which served as a lunch pail, and jelly sandwiches.

Early-on it was necessary that the older boys go to school only on alternate years, since they were needed at home. Ben Sr. became embarrassed as a fourth grader because he was as big as the eighth grade boys, so he stopped going to school and focused on the farm.

Joe built a wood house on the prairie near the original family home.

Soon all the trees, wheat fields, and streams disappeared. Great clouds of locusts devoured all the meager growing things. The family tried raising rabbits, then turkeys (which could feed on the locusts), but to no avail.

Finally, they let the land go and moved on. Ben Sr. knew that if he stayed in Oklahoma his prospects were not good. The whole state seemed to be drying up and blowing away.

Ben Sr, in oklahoma.

During his visit to the extended family in 1981, my father Ben Jr. heard the following story about the “Dust Bowl” years:

“It began to get dark in the early afternoon. We could see a black curtain coming up from the ground on the prairie in the distance. We all climbed down into the shelter except for Joe, who had to take care of some cows. There were terrible roaring and crashing noises as the wind got louder. We were scared. Suddenly the trap door opened, as if the wind was trying to tear it off, and we saw this dirt covered ‘thing’ stumbling down the ladder. It had red lines across its middle and smelled awful. Mother screamed but we realized it was our father who had fallen in the mud after he scratched himself running into a barbed-wire fence.”

The "storm door" over an excavation where the family sheltered themselves during bad weather.

Ben Jr. walked around inside Joe’s old house while he was in Oklahoma, left just as it was when Joe’s family had to abandon it. There were old newspapers and some linens in the drawers. Wires from a revolving wind vane on the roof generated enough direct current to listen to a radio in the evening. A drum was filled with “white gas” and small pipes leading into the house had mantels (like a camp lantern) on the ends which could be lit after pressure was built up with a hand pump. Outside the old swaybacked barn moaned and creaked in the breeze.

Because of the multi-year drought there was no longer any way to raise crops so farm machinery was left to rust.
Farm equipment left idle during the drought.

At the height of the Dust Bowl, Ben Sr. traveled to California with an Olenburger cousin who was acquainted with some farmers near Banta, CA, where they found employment.

Jake Ohlenberg, the cousin from Europe who came to California with Ben Sr.

Ben Sr., working on the farm in Banta.

During this time my grandfather changed the spelling of his last name to “Birkel,” probably to make it look less obviously German, due to anti-German bigotry that was greatly intensified at the time by World War I.

This is where the connection to Shattuck ends, and the story of my father Ben Jr. begins. That’s a pretty amazing story itself but it doesn’t fit with this travelogue about Birkles in Oklahoma, so we’ll stop here for now.

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