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A homesteaders' tribute: German-Russian immigrants build stone house near Mott

Press Photos by Linda Sailer Members of the Mott Gallery of History and Art offer tours of the John Stern home located 2 miles east of Mott on July 27. Additional photos may be viewed on / 3
Jack Griffin displays a woven covering that would be thrown over a horse to protect it from flies during a tour of the John Stern farmstead.2 / 3
The kitchen of the John Stern homestead is shown during a tour.3 / 3


When John and Fredricka Stern built their stone house in 1907, they could have never imagined the house would stand as a testament to the thousands of German-Russian homesteaders who settled in North Dakota.

The structure, located 2 miles east of Mott, demonstrates the style of architecture used by German families while living on the Russian Steppe. It provided living quarters, storage and animal shelter all under one roof.

"My grandparents were simple people," grandson Jim Stern of Mott said. "All they did was try to make a living -- nothing fancy. Who would have thought that people would come weekends to see their place.

Members of the Mott Gallery of History and Art hosted a tour of the structure on July 27. A similar tour will be offered from 1-4 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 25.

"I can't imagine living the way they did and all the hard work that went into building this place and still raising five kids," tour guide Jack Griffin said. "I wouldn't want to do it."

The home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It's considered to be the best original example of this type of structure still standing in North Dakota.

John Stern

Griffin told the story of how John Stern immigrated to America from Bessarabia, Russia, in 1902. He filed a 320-acre land claim in 1905.

During the first few months on his claim, he slept under an overturned wagon box until his 16-foot-by-18-foot sod shack was built near an artesian spring. He married Fredricka Roth in Glen Ullin on Jan. 1, 1905. Construction on the stone structure began that spring and the building was completed in 1907.

The lumber for the beams and roof was hauled by horse and wagon from Glen Ullin about 50 miles cross country before Lake Tschida was built.

Sandstone rocks that were a bane for the prairie farmer proved to be a valuable building material. The stones were hauled with a horse-drawn stone boat from a hillside on the south part of the acreage.

The attached barn was a convenience for the family to feed their animals. It provided a source of heat and created minimal contact from the winter winds.

Northern Pacific stop

The Northern Pacific, which ran a railroad track from Mandan to Mott, stopped by the farm for water for its steam boilers. As a little boy, Jim Stern remembers sitting under the trestle overpass and shooting the breeze with the engineers.

"I remember the engineers threw empty bottles of whiskey out of the train below there," he said.

In addition to the house, the farmstead featured a red-tile barn that Fredericka used to raise her chickens, ducks and geese. Stern suspects it collapsed because of the vibrations of trains passing nearby.

The Sterns generated electricity with a homemade wind charger, long before rural electrification came to the area.

Stern also remembers his grandpa washing his hands in a kitchen sink, with water flowing by gravity from a tank in the upper level. In later years, the home had a flush toilet, using the same gravity water. However, the water still had to be taken from the artesian well up to the tank.

There was a lean-to where the Sterns milked cows while hay was stored in a loft above the barn.

"In the early days when they didn't have any kids, Fredricka probably was in the loft and John would hand the hay to her through a dormer window," Griffin said.

Keeping the house warm

The sandstone walls were 22 inches in width, secured by a mixture of clay, straw and manure.

"I'd say the house was warm in the winter time with the walls, then with horses and hay in the loft offered more insulation," Griffin said.

The middle half of the house was used for storage, and stairs led up to a third bedroom. The Stern's youngest son, Reinhold, and his wife, Elsie, (Jim's parents) lived there for three years until they had their own place.

"It was heated by the chimney and I imagine it got pretty chilly up there," Griffin said.

When the wooden kitchen was added on, the doorway of the stone house was converted into a closet.

In total, the house-barn was 78 feet long and 30 feet wide. Most of the windows were on the south side.

Life was hard and medical care was minimal for the homesteaders. Fredricka lost her first three infants there on the prairie. They were buried in a small cemetery plot near the house because the Mott cemetery hadn't been established. In 1923, a fourth infant died and was buried in the town's cemetery.

They reared five children, Marie, Adolph, Christ, Helen and Reiny, who are all deceased.

Grandson's memories

Jim Stern, who lives a mile away, remembers taking his grandma to church with them. He'd escort her to the car and back to the house and then was tipped 25 cents for helping out.

"Grandma was a good cook and a good baker," he said. "I can remember coming over for many dinners and suppers."

He remembers his grandpa as a big man who stashed his smoking supplies in a cabinet that nobody could touch.

When his grandparents and parents got together, conversations were in the German language. Jim learned a few German words along the way.

He said grandma never owned a television, preferring to take care of her poultry or baking.

His grandpa died in 1957, and grandma stayed on the farm 10 years longer until moving into town to live with a daughter.

Stern isn't surprised that the building is still standing.

"The house been empty for nearly 40 years, but it was built well," he said.

Geno Sloan, a member of the Mott Gallery of History and Art, said the members worked 2 1/2 years to get the structure listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"The architecture itself is worthy and the little cemetery tells how difficult it was for the homesteaders," she said.

More information regarding the lives of homesteaders is available in Mott's museum located in the old First National Bank building on Main Street.