Just yesterday I heard from a friend of the Schmaltz family that Jim Schmaltz of Rugby, North Dakota, died on June 17, 2006, at the age of 78. I had interviewed Schmaltz at his home north of Rugby in January, 2003, on the very first trip of my Vagabond journey. Since that time he contracted West Nile Virus and never fully recovered from its effects. I'm sorry to hear he has died. He was a good man. As a small tribute to his memory, I am reprinting here what I wrote about my visit with Schmaltz. Rest in peace, Jim Schmaltz.
Jim Rocheleau and I drove north out of Rugby to see Jim Schmaltz on land he's farmed all his adult life. Schmaltz helped to found the Germans from Russia organization in North Dakota, and the chapter in Rugby (which has recently disbanded). Schmaltz is a man with a large voice and expansive gestures. Though he speaks German, you wouldn't say he speaks it with a German accent; rather his is the high, tight speech of his fellow North Dakotans: they don't talk like Canadians here, exactly, but you sure wouldn't confuse them with Texans either.
Schmaltz talked to me about the migration of Germans from Germany to Russia in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and about their migration from Russia to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the rights promised by Catherine the Great to the German immigrants started to be revoked by Czar Alexander and open persecution followed. Perhaps the fortunate of these Germans from Russia migrated to the United States; of those who didn't, some were shot, some were exiled to Siberia, most traces of them were erased from the Black Sea area they'd settled originally.
Schmaltz's grandfather ended up farming south of Rugby; his father farmed south of Rugby too. Life was not easy for those who immigrated to the extremes of the North Dakota winter. Schmaltz told a variation of the story I'd read in the Rugby Centennial book, about his grandfather and the local priest traveling by sleigh on a clear day when a fierce blizzard suddenly blew up. Schmaltz said they freed the horses, turned the sleigh box over, and took refuge in its protection. Next day neighbors or relatives saw the tongue of the sleigh sticking out above the snow and freed the men who had been singing hymns all night and praying to keep from falling to sleep, falling into the sleep that would mean death by freezing. In the bright light of the following afternoon, they were freed from the snow that had buried them, that had imprisoned them, that had protected them.
Schmaltz's father helped him get established well north of Rugby among the French and Norwegians there. "I had a friend among the Norwegians," Schmaltz said, "a fellow who was half French. He told me one of the leaders in the community said when I moved up here: 'Well, we've got to be careful now, we've got a German from Russia up here amongst us.'" Schmaltz farmed the place anyway, and now his son Jeff works the land. Schmaltz still helps out: "I don't know if he needs me but I have to do it, I can't sit in the house and watch him work...."
We sat in the house drinking coffee and talking with Schmaltz for three hours. His family's story will be important for me in understanding the life of Rugby and Pierce County. Like so many others in Rugby, Schmaltz opened his house to me, opened his heart, his life, and shared his understanding. How do you say Thank You for such a gift? I don't know. I suppose that the best I can do is write the truest account possible of the Germans from Russia in Pierce County.