Wheat was and is the crop of first importance. It is the backbone of our economy and has made Kansas famous around the world.”
– Erich Fruehauf, Kansas farmer in the 1930s and 1940s

Joe Distel was a third-generation American who ranched near Olathe, Colorado. He and his wife, Lola, were two of the nicest, most generous people I’ve ever known. They’re both gone now and I really wished I had told them that when they were still alive, but I know they had a life full of love and song. They raised five children on their ranch; I was related to them via marriage for a while.

Joe’s grandfather had emigrated to the states from the “Breadbasket of Russia” – Ukraine – in the late 1800s – he was one of the thousands of Germans from Russia, in fact, who made their long and hard-slogged way out of that country in the mid-1800s..So, to keep hold of their distant, if not obscure, roots, they called themselves American Germans from Russia.

When Joe told me this about 35 years ago – during a raucous Polish Polka Party – I had to laugh. Wow, I said, that’s capturing a lot of ethnic, cultural, and national stuff in only four words, isn’t it? But when he told me the rest of the story, it got interesting.

The story begins in the 1600s with the Russian Tsar Alexis I, who became convinced that his country needed the expertise and experience of German skills. He imported a bunch of tradesmen, families and all, by promising free land and autonomy from Russian whims, politics, and religion. His son, Peter the Great, spent a lot of time in the German Quarter of Moscow; these experiences are credited with sparking his intellect and curiosity about the Western World.

Eventually, the subsequent Russian monarchies allowed Germans to move into the Ukraine and farm the rich soil. Wheat had been grown in the area for centuries and under German influence, farms thrived.

But things started to change a few decades later. The various pogroms by various tsars had left some bitter feelings among Jews, Poles, and other ethnics. There was pressure for the Germans – who had maintained their national identify for more than 200 years – to integrate. Many of the Germans were now Mennonites and the Russians wanted them to join Russia’s military, and they didn’t want to. Seemed as though it was time to get out.

However, Germany was really no longer their home. But America, with its open prairies, was being marketed as the New Frontier. Kansas and other states were open to settlement. The Civil War had been won and fought and warm bodies were needed on those plains to build and plow!

Joe told me that winter wheat seeds were carried out of Russia by the emigrants, and brought to the states, somehow figuring that this would ensure their success. I cannot find any records of this, but there is no doubt: that the two – wheat and Germans from Russia. showed up in Kansas at the same time, and winter wheat made Kansas what it is. Those early immigrants were the ones who cleared the land, plowed it, planted it, then waited thru storms, tornados, and whatever nature threw at them. Some years there were good harvests, others not so good. That’s the way farming is.*

Within a few years, the immigrant families began to move further west, again answering the call of offers of more free land. And so some of the members of the Distel clan got as far as Colorado, and set down stakes. Literally. The Homestead Act of 1862 said you really had to pound stakes in the ground to get your land.

This story is particularly interesting today because of the hue and cry against immigration – at least, immigration from our neighbors to the south. Indeed, our history of the late 1800s is pretty filthy when it comes to this subject: Irish, Chinese, and Italian immigrants all faced extreme prejudice and hatred.

Some writers have wondered why Japanese Americans were herded into barbed-wire camps during Word War II, but German Americans were not. Mr. Fruehauf was concerned by the events of 1941. “…the farmers of German ancestry became understandably concerned and apprehensive, when the government rounded up the Japanese population of the West Coast and took them to detention camps….I am glad to recall that citizens of German background were never openly discriminated against in Kansas.”

Our Germanic roots go deep, entwined with the roots of shared religious values of Lutheranism and other Christian varieties that grew in the decades after Martin Luther’s reformation. The first German in America, at least the one that made the historical narrative, arrived in Jamestown in 1608. Polish laborers and tradesmen also began to arrive in 1608 – and are given some dubious credit for causing the first labor strike, at least among white folk, in the New World. My own family on my father’s side is German, arriving in Pennsylvania and Ohio in the early to mid-1800s.

Whenever I think about the story of Joe’s family, I am hit with the image of those men and women carrying what they could, children huddled in carts with perhaps a few household treasures, leaving the homes they had known for generations, pushed out, unwanted by the only homeland they knew. as they made the long journey from the Ukraine to Europe, then by the four-week-long ship voyages to America.

And wheat, perhaps? Clutching bags of winter wheat, which transformed America, indeed, transformed the world.

Today’s immigrants? Perhaps just as weary, pushed out by economic hardship and psychotic and dysfunctional governments, leaving the only homeland they and generations before have known. Carrying – what? A few possessions, perhaps no more. Do we Americans more often than not picture those bags holding guns and drugs and other forms of evil, and nothing of indispensable value to this country?

Just sayin’.

*An excellent, comprehensive history of American Germans from Russia is Norman Saul’s The Migration of the Russian-Germans to Kansas, 1974, and a great book about farming in general: 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World by Howard Graham Buffett