Peterstal - 1848 Village History . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This particular Village History was published in the English form in Joseph

S. Height's book "Homesteaders on the Steppe".

Copyright 1996, GRHS, 1008 E. Central Ave, Bismarck  ND 58501, (701) 223-6167

I. The Founding of the Colony

In the beginning of the 19. century, when the general proclamation to would-be

colonists was issued in the Kingdom of Hungary, where our forefathers from

Wuerttemberg and the Rhineland had already been settled as farmers, our

parents decided to emigrate to Russia. They arrived here in the summer of 1805

and built themselves wattled huts of reed and grass. The following year the

government completed the construction of houses made of stamped earth or

sun-dried clay blocks. The settlers were also granted a loan to enable them to

purchase needed farm equipment, livestock, and seed for field and garden.

Every year the colony has paid off 428 rubles of this loan, but there is still

an outstanding debt of 9,978 rubles. From the day the immigrants crossed the

frontier until they were completely established, the Crown also provided them

with so-called "day money", wherewith they were able to buy the necessary food


II. The Immigration

Our parents traveled together in groups of 10-12 families, without a special

guide or conductor. Some families came alone, but were also established in the

Liebental district.

Only three families brought with them a sizable sum of money. The rest had no

significant funds. The former were therefore able to plow and sow and raise

livestock as they pleased, for the steppe was vast and grass was abundant.

They obtained good harvests and raised fine cattle and sheep. The poorer

immigrants were eager, as far as possible, to follow their example, and

devoted all their resources to farming. They lived frugally on barley gruel

and potatoes. They dressed simply and were content to wear rawhide wrappers on

their feet, instead of boots. But in due course they made such progress that

they could afford better food and finer clothes.

There were, however, also some thoughtless people who cared little about

morality, agriculture, or animal husbandry. They enticed others into drinking

and frivolity, and ended up in an abject state of poverty.

Because the colonists were unacquainted with the local conditions of the soil

and the climate, little progress was made in the first ten years, despite good

crops and extensive grazing lands. In later years the pioneer settlers had to

give some of their land to the landless artisans and day laborers, so that

each family retained only 50 of the original 60 dessiatines.

In the beginning 40-50 families were settled here. Others arrived in

subsequent years, until, in 1816/17, the completed settlement consisted of 61

families. No orchards or vineyards were planted in the early years. Indeed,

the people were firmly convinced that neither trees nor vines could be grown

in this region.

III. The Location of the Colony

Peterstal is located on the Baraboi river, immediately south of the colony of

Freudental, and about 26 versts from Odessa. The single village street,

consisting of two rows of houses and an avenue of acacia and elm trees, runs

parallel to the river. West of the street, on the other side of the river, is

a beautiful hill with green grass, vines, and fruit trees. On the summit,

which provides a fine view of the colony, the settlers built their village


IV. The Naming of the Colony

The name Peterstal is attributed to an amusing little incident. One day, while

the chief mayor of the Liebental district was visiting with the local village

mayor whose name was Peter, the latter called his beadle, also named Peter, to

deliver a message to a neighboring colonist of the same name. Struck by this

coincidence, the chief mayor is said to have exclaimed: "Hier ist ein wahres

Peterstal!" (You have here a veritable valley of Peters).

V. The Boundaries of the Colony

The land belonging to the colony is bounded on the east and north by the

colony of Josephstal; on the south by Freudental; on the west by Mariental and

the Russian village of Majak. The land area amounts to 2,994 dessiatines of

level terrain, which is traversed on the east side by the Akershi valley, and

on the west by the Baraboi with its lateral valleys.

VI. The Soil

Our steppe has black fertile soil everywhere, except on the west bank of the

Baraboi and its four dales, where the ground has a heavy content of sand and

gravel. The Agricultural Society claims that this western terrain is

definitely suitable for the production of certain trees, such as walnut,

acacia and mulberry, but so far nothing has been done to demonstrate this


VII. Vineyards, Orchards, and Tree Plantations

Upon injunctions issued by the authorities we began to plant fruit trees,

vines, and mulberries at the end of the first decade. However, despite all

efforts expended on them, the trees did not thrive, largely because of the

saltpeter in the soil and the recurrence of dry summers. Because of the slow

and stunted growth of the trees, the colonists soon lost confidence and

interest in this branch of agriculture and began to neglect it. Our gardeners

soon became convinced that the climate of the steppe was only suitable for

nomads and gypsies. Some said, "I shall plow down my vines and uproot my

trees, and begin to sow rye or barley. From the income of the field I shall

afford to buy myself a fine woolen coat."

It was not until 1840 that a new attempt was made to grow trees. The recently

appointed superintendent of German colonies, His Excellency von Hahn, together

with the district officials, organized an agricultural society in the

Liebental area. This society was requested to exert every possible effort to

improve the gardens and vineyards, and to establish new plantations of trees.

Its president was the Freudental colonist Konrad Bechthold, whose research of

agricultural matters and tree-growing in this district will remain unforgotten.

To be sure, the superintendent and the society had a hard time trying to

overcome the people's prejudice and skepticism. But the undertaking took a new

turn when von Hahn simply issued orders that "trees had to be planted." Though

the colonists remained skeptical and reluctant, they obeyed the order. After

seven years many of the colonists were vying with each other, to see who could

develop the nicest orchards and produce the finest trees. In 1845 the two sons

of a local widow who owned a large vineyard, devised a method of channeling

run-off water and storing it in small reservoirs, so that they could irrigate

the vines during the dry summer. As a result, in the dry year of 1846, their

vineyard was in a more flourishing state than the best one in a wet year.

Everyone admired it, but apparently no one thought of emulating the method.

However, most of the present inhabitants did try to follow the instructions of

the agricultural society and have thereby managed to improve their

plantations. In the late fall of 1846, ditches were made on both sides of the

road leading to Freudental, and an avenue of trees was planted on the banks of


VIII. Wheat and Grain Farming

Our colony owes its prosperity chiefly to the production of wheat and other

grain. In the first decade the biggest farmer here was the village mayor, a

man named Pflug (plow!), who sowed 18-20 chetvert (95-100 bushels) of grain

every year, for which achievement he was awarded a silver medal by the Czar.

The other colonists sowed, on the average, only 18 to 24 bushels a year.

On the fertile virgin soil of the steppe the colonists were generally able to

produce good harvests, and our parents would have begun farming on an

extensive scale, had it not been because of obstacles they could not surmount.

In those years farm laborers were not easily available. The prices paid for

grain were low. Moreover, it was almost impossible to obtain the necessary

wood and iron for the construction of farm implements. Finally, the colonists

did not realize that only one day was needed to haul a load of wheat to

Odessa, sell it, make the necessary purchases, and be home again before


In the beginning of the second decade, as more people began to settle in the

neighborhood, farm laborers became more available and many a colonist now had

several children of working age. The price of wheat became unusually high, so

that the colonists were able to market their grain in Odessa at great profit.

Until the end of the decade the most productive grain was winter wheat. After

that the soil began to lose some of its earlier vigor and fertility.

Nevertheless, no attempts were made to preserve and improve the depleted soil.

On the contrary, the colonists continued to plow and harrow the fields year

after year and to sow more and more grain, in the hope of getting larger

crops. The result was that the farmers had to pick the stunted grain by hand,

because it could not be reaped by scythe or sickle. Indeed, the harvest was so

meager that it scarcely sufficed for livestock fodder, and the farmers had to

work on the fields of the Glueckstal colony in order to earn their bread and

the necessary seed grain. After the land was allowed to lie fallow from time

to time, it again recovered and continued to bear good harvests in the third


Through the efforts of his Excellency von Hahn, in cooperation with the

officials of the Liebental district and the agricultural society, a good deal

of light has been shed on the problem of grain farming. The farmers have

recognized the value of summer fallow and the rotation of the crops.

Consequently, despite the recent 8 years of drought, the colony is rapidly

moving toward greater prosperity in many respects.

IX. Animal Husbandry

Next to grain farming, the colony owes its prosperity to the raising of

livestock. It is a well-known fact that livestock does well in this district

and that its quality can be improved with proper care. However, it has

happened that outbreaks of livestock epidemics have carried off two-thirds of

our herds, but these losses were again made good in three years.

Although the pioneer settlers had received from the Crown only oxen as draught

animals, they were not used very long but replaced by horses. Soon most

farmers had four horses, and some had eight. The colonists preferred to use

horses, because they were able to work faster and no epidemics had ever broken

out among them. Moreover, they always sold at a higher price than other

livestock. For several years the government has helped us to make improvements

in the breeding of horses.

Our parents would have liked to raise sheep, but they claimed that there was

not enough grazing land available. Today the colonists admit that every farmer

could keep a few sheep without causing any harm to the steppe land. Families

would also find it easy to obtain their own supply of wool needed for clothing.

The Liebental officials and the agricultural society are studying the

possibility of raising clover, in order to increase the present herd of sheep.

X. Crafts and Trades

In the second decade only one family supported itself by operating a pottery.

Through hard work and thrift it has prospered so well that it is now a member

of the merchants' guild in Odessa and the owner of a profitable business. From

the beginning of the colony it was shown that blacksmiths, wainwrights,

cobblers, and coopers who were hardworking could make a good livelihood in

their special craft. The day laborer, who is so necessary for our colony, can

also earn a good income and enjoy a good life, without having to ruin his body

through excessive work.

Already in the second decade, the government had planned to establish a silk

industry and ordered the colonists to establish mulberry plantations. This was

done, even though the settlers had neither the interest nor the knowledge for

such an enterprise. Nevertheless, mulberry trees are still being planted by

order of the agricultural society. Perhaps our descendants will be more

successful in this field of endeavor than their forefathers were.

Apiculture, probably a very promising enterprise in the Odessa area, was

completely neglected by our parents. In our village there is only one colonist

who has several bee hives. The agricultural society, however, is seeking to

spread more enlightenment in this branch of village industry.

XI. Private Dwellings

When our parents arrived, the steppe hereabouts was completely uninhabited.

Only here and there in the valleys and on the plain one could see the ruins of

lowly dwellings where Tatars were supposed to have been living. That these

houses were inhabited by an uncultured race is quite obvious from their

irregular and wretched construction, and the large piles of ashes nearby.

Since these tumble-down dwellings were no longer habitable, the government

built new ones for the settlers. In the first decade there was no thought of

building regular houses, but in the second decade the colonists began to

improve the old dwellings and build new ones. In the third and fourth decades

most of the old houses were replaced by new ones, with sizable well-furnished

rooms, cellars, and adjoining sheds and barns.

XII. Community Buildings

In the first few years there was no school, prayer hall, community hall, or

storage granary. Soon a schoolhouse was built which was to serve all community

needs for some time. On Sundays church services were held there and on

weekdays it served as a school, a court room, and as a town hall. The attic

was used to store provisions until, in 1820, a storage granary was constructed.

In 1836 we began the construction of the existing community buildings. Since

the little schoolhouse had become too small to accommodate either the

schoolchildren or the Sunday congregation, the community discussed the

possibility of building a church. But the communal cash on hand amounted to a

mere 7 silver rubles and 43 kopeks, and the colony was still so badly in

arrears with its payment of the Crown loan, the unpaid taxes, and the orphans'

fund, that its total indebtedness amounted to 5,000 silver rubles.

Nevertheless, the community engaged an architect, and the church was completed

in 1837 at a total cost of 4,000 silver rubles. After the harvest of that same

year this sum was paid off, and also the outstanding debts. The attractive

church with steeple was also provided with interior furnishings, and the young

people contributed to the purchase of a bell.

A few years later we erected a spacious schoolhouse, purchased a house for the

mayor's office, enlarged the storage granary, and built barns for the communal

breeding stock.

XIII. The Schoolmasters

From the beginning our schools were poorly provided with teachers. The cause

of this was that they were hired as cheaply as possible. At the present time

the situation has changed completely. Only those men who have been examined by

the pastors are now engaged as schoolmasters, and they are paid an adequate

salary. Upon the injunction of the authorities the children are now sent to

school regularly, and are given an education in the service of God and their


XIV. Unfavorable Events

a. Crop failures.

Complete crop failure occurred in 1824 and 1833. In the first instance we were

still able to earn our bread and seed grain, and fodder for our livestock, by

working in the colony of Glueckstal. However, in 1833, things looked much

darker and we were compelled to apply for aid from the colonial

administration, and received money, bread, and seed grain. The entire loan,

designated by the term "Hilfsgelder", was repaid in 1837. Although we had many

other dry years, especially in the forties, we were still able to make regular

payments on our Crown loan and the annual taxes.

b. Insects and rodents.

Since 1840 we have had a series of dry years which produced a spawn of bugs

and caterpillars that caused a great deal of damage to the grain crops and the

fruit trees. The wheatfields also were frequently ravaged by the so-called

suslik, the steppe gopher.

c. Locusts and the so-called Prussiki.

These also caused great devastation in our fields in the beginning of the

third decade. They appeared again in 1847, and completely destroyed our fields

of maize. The prussiki, grasshoppers, have also appeared frequently, but

through the efforts of the agricultural society they are destroyed in their

breeding grounds.

d. Hail.

The only hailstorm to sweep through this colony was that of 1844, which

completely destroyed several grainfields.

e. Frost.

Hoar frost struck our vineyards and orchards several times. On April 17-18 of

the year 1848 we had such a severe frost that the grapevine shoots and the

leaves of the acacia and mulberry trees were frozen.

f. Fires.

A fire broke out in 1845 but consumed only one house. The owner, who was

blameless, was compensated for his loss by the Fire Insurance Fund.

g. Livestock epidemics.

We have had four epidemics here, each of which carried off two-thirds of our

herds, and impoverished many a family for several years.

h. Floods.

The Baraboi flooded several times. The most disastrous flood was that of

February, 1845, which caused damage amounting to 1,703 silver rubles. The

agricultural society is planning to provide flood control by building several

dams. The existing large Baraboi dam above the village holds such a large

quantity of water that we can water our cattle even throughout the driest


i. Diseases.

God be praised, our colony has not been afflicted by any epidemic or

contagious diseases. Indeed, we are in a flourishing condition, with a present

population of 351 males and 338 females. One couple is still living that has a

son of sixty-three and many great-grandchildren. In 1832, when cholera was

raging in Odessa, we also had a few cases, but fortunately no one died.

General Retrospect

If we consider the good fortune we have enjoyed here since the beginning, and

how, despite reverses and setbacks, we have been making substantial progress

during the forties, we must conclude: "These are the wise dispensations of God

who always does what is best for man." For, if we had not received crop

failures as well as bountiful harvests, disaster as well as good fortune, what

would have happened to morality and religion? With recurring change of

fortune, our colonists came to realize that thrift and economy can be

rewarding. Formerly the head of a family used to spend 60 silver rubles on

wedding festivities for his child, and 20-25 rubles for baptismal feasts.

Nowadays, a wedding costs no more than a christening, and this can be

celebrated with an outlay of 5 silver rubles.

The same is true of the trips to Odessa. Formerly the colonists thought it was

necessary to stay overnight, in order to sell their products and purchase the

household necessities. But now that our colonists have learned to economize,

they set out at two in the morning, take care of all their business in the

city, and are back home at three in the afternoon. To be sure, our colonial

administrators and village officials have played their part in this important

change, for they have ceaselessly striven to maintain good moral standards in

the colony. How difficult their task must have been in the pioneer years, when

the colonists, while enjoying the freedom of Russia in full measure, imagined

that no one could interfere with their liberties. Fortunately, Heaven itself

came to the aid of the authorities. Let us suppose that we had enjoyed

bountiful crops year after year and had to suffer no misfortunes through crop

failure, grasshoppers, epidemics and hailstorms, truly most of the colonists

would still be living in their primitive clay-huts, and the colony as a whole

would not have made any progress. We would have no vineyards, no orchards, no

plantations of trees. All the former good harvests would have been squandered,

and if we now had a couple of crop failures, we could scarcely survive. Why

are we now able to pay our current taxes and the annual assessment on the

Crown loan? And why, on the other hand, are there still unpaid arrears from

former years when crops were good? We have clearly indicated the answer in

earlier paragraphs.

We revert to the problem of agriculture. Since all of our land has been tilled

and no more grassland is available for our steadily increasing herds, our

colonists have had to lease many fields from our Russian neighbors. But now

this land is also becoming depleted, and the question arises, how will it be

possible in the future to improve the economy of the colony, particularly in

view of the fact that its population is constantly increasing.

Every colonist here is firmly convinced that no better land than ours can be

found anywhere, not even in Germany. The only thing that is lacking, is rain.

And yet, we have frequent precipitation of rain and snow every year. If only

the water that runs off into the sea could be retained for the benefit of our

good land, the problem would be solved! Of course, this water would have to be

conserved not only in ponds and depressions but also on level and hilly

terrain. If this were done, our colonists, ten years from now, would not

change places with the happiest inhabitants of the earth. Indeed, we would

have here a foretaste of the heavenly Eden, especially if the colonists

continued to cultivate their vineyards and orchards, and market their produce

at Odessa in untold quantity.

For this very purpose His Excellency, with the co-operation of the district

officials of Liebental, organized an agricultural society which is directing

its constant attention to the improvement of the colony and seeking to

discover sound solutions to all agricultural problems.

The original signed by:

Mayor: Schopp

Assessors: Klabe, Bauer.

Village deputies: Johannes Deifel, Friedrich Becker,

            Adam Ziegler, and some members of the community.

Village clerk: J. Ulrich Roduner (author)

Scanned by Dale Lee Wahl

Coordinated with GRHS


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