Anna Andrzejewski, Professor in the Art History Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will be in Stark County next week to preserve the history of the county's Eastern European immigrants — with a focus on their architecture.
While the project is called Preservation on the Prairie, they won't be working to preserve the physical buildings, but rather the memories of them and the people who lived in them.
"What we’re really interested in is preserving the history of these historical rock buildings as well as the memories and stories that go with them," Andrzejewski said. "In historic preservation, we would say that we’re not doing what is called bricks and mortar preservation, so we’re not actually advocating for preserving the buildings themselves. What we’re trying to do is capture their history and what they’re about before that is lost. A lot of these buildings are in ruinous condition, and a lot of these second generation … German-Russian and German-Hungarian people … are getting up there in age. We want to make sure that important history is captured and preserved for future generations, especially as the region right now is undergoing all of this change with new energy."
To further preserve the memories of these structures, the team will create architectural drawings of them.
"We’re going to create measured drawings. What this means is we’re going to be documenting the buildings, many of which are in ruin," Andrzejewski said. "We’re going to be creating floor plans and drawings that capture what they looked like originally so that we know, once the buildings fall down, what they looked like. Photography captures some of it, but you can’t take a picture of a floor plan or even some of the construction details."
While they are in town, Andrzejewski and her students will host a series of public meetings. They want to talk to locals and encourage them to share old photos, scrapbooks and stories.
"We’re going to be asking people to come share their families’ stories, and the stories that they’ve heard from their ancestors about what it was like to settle in Southwestern North Dakota in the early 1900s. A lot of these families have old pictures and old scrapbooks and we really encourage them to bring those things and share with us what they know," Andrzejewski said.
She said they could get their stories a variety of ways.
"We can just talk informally. We would love to record them just to have their memories captured in the form of an interview or an oral history and then we can use that information in a book. We really just want to talk to people and try to capture a sense of what it was like," Andrzejewski said.
These meetings will be: Monday, August 12, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Verein Hall in Scheffield; Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at St. Stephens; Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the community room of the Dickinson Area Public Library; and Thursday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Lefor.
She has made trips to North Dakota previously.
"For the past two years, I’ve come out with … research support from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’ve brought students out to the region to do some classes and to do historical research," Andrzejewski said. "September of 2018, I brought 7 students for a week to the area. We worked mainly in the area around Scheffield, documenting buildings associated with Germans from Russia. It was during that class … we discovered there was way more out there than we could do in that visit, so we decided to work with the Stark County Historical Society."
She has spoken to some people from the area already.
"Hearing people talk about their memories — and many of these stories have been passed down through the generations — helps us understand the buildings, but really the whole phenomenon of these people coming from parts of Eastern Europe and coming to the short-grass prairie of Western North Dakota and what they experienced in their first several decades," Andrzejewski said. "It’s not written down. The best way it’s preserved is through these memories that people have, and that’s what we’re trying to preserve and capture."
Local Robert Lefor started working with Andrzejewski last year.
“Last year, they called me and asked me to show them these houses and barns that were built out of stone. I took them and drove them around to the ones that I thought they’d be interested in. That’s about the support I’ve given them,” he said.
Lefor, who's family immigrated from Hungary, lived in such a building since he was six years old. Andrzejewski's team will be completing drawings of his grandfather's homestead.
"It’s a preservation of ancestors or nationality and I think it’s an important part of life. I felt so bad when I realized my grandparents and great-grandparents and my parents — once they died, you couldn’t go and talk to them anymore. It’s really a feeling that it’s out of your grasp," he said.
Andrzejewski first became knowledgeable about the rich history in the county through a project she did in the past with Next Era Energy.
"We worked with them several years ago on some historical research related to planning for the wind farms. That was how I learned initially about the historic buildings in the region around Dickinson," Andrzejewski said.
The project is funded in part by a grant from the North Dakota Humanities Council.