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Preservation project helps western North Dakota man trace family roots

Graduate student Travis Olson from the University of Wisconsin-Madison sketches an architectural drawing of the outside of Tom Froelich's old family home. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)1 / 5
Tom Froelich's old family home is one of the homes of which the Preservation on the Prairie team created architectural drawings. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)2 / 5
Tom Froelich restored his old family home, built circa 1908. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)3 / 5
Tom Froelich restored his old family home, but couldn't do much to fix the curvature of the back wall, which remains original to the home. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)4 / 5
Tom Froelich discusses his family home with Anna Andrzejewski, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Kayla Henson / The Dickinson Press)5 / 5

DICKINSON, N.D. — A Stark County resident is tracing his German-Hungarian family's roots through a project called Preservation on the Prairie.

The project, which was sponsored by the Stark County Historical Society via grant from Humanities North Dakota, is headed by Anna Andrzejewski, a professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She, along with graduate students Travis Olson, Laura Grotjan and Carly Griffith, are working to preserve the history of Stark County's German-Russian and German-Hungarian families.

"We get out a tape measure and we create floor plans of the buildings as well as sometimes drawings of the exterior of the buildings," said Andrzejewski. "We’re using the buildings kind of to learn about the people, but we can’t do it just with measured drawings like this. We have to learn from maps, other kinds of records, atlases — talking to people is the best resource that we’ve found. You guys know when your properties were homesteaded. You have information that has been passed down to you about the history of these buildings, and that helps us fill the gaps."

The group held meetings in various places throughout the country to hear people's stories.

Steve Krebs read about the group's arrival in Stark County and attended all of their meetings. He introduced himself at the last meeting in Lefor, looking for anyone who might know something about his family's homestead.

"I’m the great-grandson of Casper Krebs — one of the great-grandsons — who homesteaded five miles southwest of here ... I’m kind of filling out a picture of my great-grandfather’s activities just in the past few days and the spread out of my own family," he told them.

The project inspired him to reopen a book of his family's history, created by his aunt and uncle.

“I’ve got the Krebs family book, and after the first night, I started looking at it. I hadn’t looked at the book in years and years and years. More and more details started falling into place as I was talking to them,” he said.

At the age of 35, Krebs' great-grandfather came to the United States from what is now Romania via port in New York City with his wife and five children. They took a three-day train ride to Gladstone, N.D., where they spent the first summer on relative Nick Herr's land. While there, they built a sod house on the land they were going to homestead. They lived in that house for six years, until their other house was built in 1911. Eventually, the couple had 16 kids.

Krebs never met his great-grandfather, nor his grandfather, Anton. He remembers going to the family's original homestead, but he didn't know then that it was the original, and he didn't recall exactly where it was.

"The trips were infrequent then. There might have been one trip out to see them a year, at most, I think," he said.

Krebs left North Dakota in 1981 and returned in 2014 to take care of his ailing mother.

"I missed basically a whole generation," he said.

Through the meetings, he met people who told him of a relative — Tom Krebs III — who probably lives on the original homestead.

"It's been 40 years since I've been to that farm, and because I was gone so long, I never met the son who now lives there," Krebs said.

Krebs, who has a doctorate degree in archaeology, said that people leave traces of themselves where they lived. Griffith likes using those homes to connect to the families who lived in them.

"I’ve loved to see the way that the story of the buildings opens up all these stories of families’ history, and the ways it’s brought people together to talk to each other about how their memories are similar or different," Griffth said. "It’s a really tangible way to start to uncover that history."

To put together a more complete picture of the region's history, they looked at various types of homes and agricultural structures. They saw houses made of stone, of railroad ties and of homemade brick derived from clay on the property.

"You basically had a house on every corner of land out there, once upon a time. Now you go miles and miles between houses, between farms," Krebs said.

Last year, they spoke with resident Nick Olheiser who showed them what the town of Sheffield used to look like.

"He just has an incredible memory. He’s kept these journals for every time he remembers some experience from his childhood on the farm … He also created a diorama of the town of Sheffield and what it looked like when all of the buildings were there. He showed us the diorama and where different people lived and where the school was, the church, so our conversation with him was really wonderful," Olson said.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison students like hearing everyday life stories the most.

"It’s the daily life things, recipes — we heard a lot about food — then also I (like) the stories between the different groups. There were German-Hungarians from one parish versus German-Hungarians, friendly rivalry, and then the animosity between German-Russians and German-Hungarians. There was a great story that they had at St. Stephens of how they felt about Lefor. We really got a sense, I think, of the people," Andrzejewski said.

There are plenty of other stories in the county, and the team plans to continue their work.

"In 1910 when they took the census, the German-Russians that were here made up about a little less than half of the population of the county. That made up about 5% of the population of German-Russians in America. Another about 40% were German-Hungarians at that same time. That made up about half of the German-Hungarian population in the country. This is a very unique place," Olson said.

"There’s a huge story to be told here," Andrzejewski said.