Thursday, December 26, 2013

So, where did all those Griesses come from, anyhow?

James R. (Jim) Griess died on Friday, March 21, 2014 in Lincoln. Jim was the source of much of our information and understanding about the story of the Germans from Russia who came to Sutton. He is missed. 
You may be new to Sutton or perhaps you've not been told the story, but still you've noticed. There sure are a lot of Griesses in this town.

As someone I used to know might have said, “You can’t swing a long-tailed cat in Sutton without hitting a Griess.” And you can’t even swing a short-tailed cat without hitting someone related to a Griess.

The definitive authority of the Germans from Russia in Sutton,
a thorough study of the migration to Russia and to Sutton with
family history and Sutton history by James R. Griess, Sutton
High Class of '59.
So, where’d they come from? It’s kind of a long story and an important story, for on some level the Griesses and cohorts have long defined Sutton for our neighboring towns.

The earliest settlers to the Sutton area generally came from Back East. There were a handful of Swedish homesteaders to the west as early as 1870 the same time that Luther French homesteaded the north 80 acres of downtown. French was more typical of settlers in those first years, grew up in Ohio, moved to Indiana, then to Wisconsin, and Iowa and finally here, movin’ west.

Young farmers were being crowded out in the east. Older fellows from Iowa to Pennsylvania were looking for better prospects and cheaper land in the West.

The first settlers came as individuals, a family or sometimes an extended family. The Grays were typical. Hosea Gray and his wife came to Sutton with son John and his wife Emma, daughter Ada and her husband George Bemis and the Cunnings. The four Brown brothers homesteaded in the northeast part of School Creek Township before two of them came to town to practice law and publish the Sutton Register. The Clark brothers became developers as well as the first physician and an early merchant.

Settlers from abroad soon came enticed by railroad advertisements and other publicity, Germans and Swedes mostly but Irish, Danes, Czechs, Bohemians and others were represented. Still, the individual or small family group was the norms.

The huge exception to these situations was the Germans from Russia. They came in bunches.

The first Griess invasion came in 1873 when 55 families of about 400 people left their villages of Worms and Rohrbach in the Black Sea region near Odessa, today in Ukraine. They arrived in Lincoln expecting to find farm land but felt the price was too high so they sat for a time. Some of their acquaintances had made this trip a year earlier settling in the Dakotas. Thirty-three of those 55 families drifted off before news of land in Clay County caught the attention of their leaders.

The bunch which first settled here was led by Heinrich Griess, Johannes Grosshans and Heinrich Hoffmann. These were not your poor, struggling immigrants. Griess was a young man who had sold off about nine square miles of Russian farmland for 100,000 rubles. The exchange rate was 52 cents per ruble – the man had $52,000 in 1873 dollars when he arrived. What does that mean? The “Measuring Worth” web site gives a wide range of answers depending…, but the low end comparison is almost $1 million in today’s U.S. currency. The others were similarly equipped.

Heinrich Griess, leader of the first group of
Germans from Russia who migrated from the
villages of Worms and Rorhbach arriving in
Sutton in
The Germans from Russia bypassed the homestead option for land acquisition for the most part purchasing railroad land – 16,200 acres at a cost of $112,480 – from 4 to 7 dollars an acre, much of that purchased by Grosshans, Griess and Company on September 4, 1873 and receiving special mention on page 202 of

We have good analysis of railroad land purchases for only two counties: Lancaster and Clay in Nebraska – Yippee! Check out for the cutest interactive map you’ll see this week. Click on the “Years” at the top of the map, 1870 thru 1880 and watch sections after sections being gobbled up. Those were folks from around Cleveland who settled in Lynn Township and into Harvard but purchases in the northeast part of Clay County were led by Grosshans, Griess & Co.

More bunches and not just a few individuals and families followed those first settlers from Russia between 1874 and 1914, the start of World War I.

A second category of immigrants from Russia were Germans from along the Volga River beginning in late 1874 with eight families from the village of Balzar led by Jacob Bender. The nearby village of Norka contributed many more.

So, how did Germans come to be living in Russia, of all places?

I can’t tell the whole story here. Jim Griess (Sutton High Class of ’59) took 335 large-format pages to tell his version of the story. Anyone connected to the Germans from Russia, with an interest in the topic or just looking for a fascinating book must have Jim’s “The Germans from Russia – Those Who Came to Sutton.” See or see us at the Sutton Museum for a copy (as soon as we restock.)

But briefly, in 1762 Catherine the Great was a German princess who found herself czarina of the Russian Empire – another great story – especially the part where she might have murdered her husband to get the role and the Russian people were O.K. with that. Catherine noticed that a huge portion of southern Russia was unoccupied, unproductive and paying absolutely no taxes. She understood that it was good farmland and she knew where good, honest, hard-working farmers could be found. Actually, it wasn’t in Germany.

There was no Germany. Did you know that? No nation called Germany existed until January 18,
This immigrant trunk belonged Heinrich Griess (or Gries as
spelled on the trunk.) The trunk is marked "No. 1" implying
multiple trunks - he had a large family and was "a man of
substantial resources." The trunk is on display at the Sutton
1871 after Otto von Bismarck had put all the pieces together. There were people who spoke the German language and were consider Germanic but they came from places like Hesse, Baveria, Prussia, Swabia, etc. etc. Germans who came directly to Sutton from Germany often identified their place of birth in the census as one of these city-states. My favorite census enumerator’s “best guess” is that several people in Sutton are listed as being from Dam State. That should be Darnstadt, a city and region in today’s western Germany. There was no Germany until 1871. The nation of Germany has been around as long as the town of Sutton. But I digress.

Catherine invited Germans to come to Russia to live. She established a set of generous conditions allowing the settlers to their own villages, language, churches, etc. living in little pieces of home pretty much to themselves.

Conditions in Central Europe were horrendous. These ancestors of Suttonites were in the midst of on-going wars between the French and the various Germanic states, then Napoleon stirred things up – ugly. Accepting Catherine’s invitation made sense. Many packed up and moved.

The first migrants settled in the Volga River Valley – hundreds of villages. Later another wave settled near Odessa in hundreds more villages.

Advance the clock about one hundred years and a couple of Czars to Alexander II who began to back off of those generous conditions (long story, see Jim’s book.) In 1871 the Germans learned they were to become Russianized – no more German language, churches, villages – now Russian. But, they had ten years to adapt or leave.

Meanwhile, back in American, railroads were laying track across empty plains where a population would certainly be useful. Railroad agents swarmed to Europe with aggressive Madison Avenue-like ad campaigns. Germans, Swedes, Irish, Bohemians and others began a new migration. For the Germans in Russia this was timely, fortuitous and, if they were religious, and they were, it was an answer to prayers.

So to Sutton they came, and to Lincoln, Scottsbluff, Kansas, the Dakotas, Colorado, really all over. Sutton is unusual in that immigrants from both major regions, the Black Sea and Volga area came here. The Sutton arrivals also all came from villages of the Reformed Church. There were also villages of Lutherans, Catholics and Mennonites, some of the latter settled around Henderson, assisted by earlier arrivals in Sutton.

How were the new immigrants accepted? About as you might expect. As a species we do poorly in accepting the New, the Different or the Other.

The railroads launched an aggressive advertising campaign with posters like this one
to attract settlers who would ride the trains and ship goods on those new railroads
being constructed across the open prairie.
The first groups from Russia were frankly wealthy. That helped. The later arrivals were not rich, many were poor and had been sponsored by friends already here. One story involves two brothers who came sponsored by a relative who would not buy them new clothes until they had earned them. These young men were on the streets of Sutton for several weeks wearing distinctive Russian peasant garb, embarrassing and not cool. However, several individuals quickly moved into the mainstream of Sutton life – office holders, professionals, merchants, etc.

We can find newspaper references pointing out the industriousness of the “Russians” as they were often called. But there are contrary references.

On one occasion a local paper noted that a group of Russians had arrived by train and spent the night on the depot platform before catching an early morning train west, likely to western Nebraska or Colorado. The comment concluded something to the affect that Sutton already had its share and he was glad to see their backsides heading west in the morning sun.”

Did all the Germans in Russia immigrate to America? They did not. Many stayed and were caught up in world history often with tragic consequences especially during World War II when they were alternatively courted and vilified by the Germans for being Russians and by the Russians for being German. Again, see Jim’s book; it’s complicated but worth sorting out.

The descendants from those Germans from Russia are a significant percentage of Sutton’s population. Add people who are closely related to that group and there aren’t many of us left out. Theirs may be a unique story in the strict sense of the word – one of a kind. Many of the surnames of the Germans from Russia have disappeared, either the folks left or the names “daughtered out” as the genealogists say. Regarding the leaders of that first group in 1873, Grosshans does not appear in the Sutton phone book. There is a representation for Hofmann. But as for Griess, yes there are some in the phone book.

The Selective Service Draft

by Jerry Johnson, Sutton Historical Society

Graduation is a time to celebrate finishing school and looking forward with hope and anticipation to the array of opportunities ahead. Such was not always the case.

Not very long ago graduating men and boys found a huge obstacle between them and those opportunities: the Selective Service Act, the Draft. The Draft had a way of not only influencing decisions but it made those decisions.

The WWI Draft Card of Carl H. (Jack) Nolde
The draft was used to select men for military service in major wars until 1973. I’ve found two misconceptions by those too young to have memories of the draft. One age group remembers the lottery system that existed after 1970. Others, younger, relate the draft to a time when rich guys paid others to serve – a phenomenon of the Civil War which they probably recently studied.

Draftees were a small percentage of soldiers in the Union army. Saving the Union was a popular cause that fed the fighting force for over two years. Lincoln then asked for authority to conscript soldiers and that threat sustained a flow of men that nearly met the needs.

There was no draft in the brief four-month long Spanish-American War. Europe was almost three years into World War I before the US formally entered and began to raise a force of 4 million.

The draft registration process for WWI was a three-day operation. Men aged 21 to 31 all registered on June 5, 1917. One year later on June 5, 1918 new 21-year olds registered and finally on September 12, 1918, just two months before wars end, all men age 21 to 45 were required to register.

Genealogists love WWI registration cards where men listed their birthdates, birthplaces, color of hair and eyes, build and a tall/medium/short selection. It may be the only place to learn a man’s middle name.

World War II threatened in 1940 when a survey of the US public showed 71% support for “the immediate adoption of compulsory military training for all young men.”  The Selective Service used a lottery system exclusively to round up more than 10,000,000 men aged 18-38 for service as voluntary enlistments were suspended in 1942.

Men leaving Clay County for service in World War II earned recognition in local newspapers. This group appeared in the Sutton News on October 29, 1942; the to-be soldiers were identified left to right (apparently not distinguished by row) as: Glen McCune, Glenvil; Marvin Pope, Sutton; Ernest Hanson, Sutton; Roy Ochsner, Saronville; Marlow Munson, Sutton; Erwin Wenske, Glenvil; Glen Swanson, Sutton; Kent Wilson, Fairfield; Alfred Davis, Glenvil; John Dunleavy, Harvard; Louis Drudik, Deweese; Gayle Gunn, Edgar and Edor Johnson, Edgar.

Selective Service drafted 1.5 million over the age of 18 and a half for the Korean War, just over half of those who served. A survey of draft age men found 64% satisfied that this draft was fair.

Onto Vietnam.

Army PFC Jack Schroder of Clay Center killed in Vietnam in 1967 at the age of 20.
Men of about those 50-year reunion classes lived this draft.

The Vietnam War officially lasted from November 1, 1955 through April 30, 1975. The US had “military advisors” “in country” from the 1950’s but things began ramping up as troop levels tripled in 1961 and again in 1962 then numbers got real serious in the mid-1960’s.

President Kennedy early on balked at the idea of drafting family bread-winners and by executive order exempted husbands. Curiously, marriages happened. As force requirements increased that policy was changed to exempting only fathers. Again, curiously, business in maternity wards picked up. These men were sometimes called “Kennedy husbands” and “Kennedy fathers.”

Certain professions such as teaching and other skilled workers were exempt allowing them to continue in those jobs. The Peace Corps was authorized in late 1961 and offered another escape from the draft. Personal note: had I managed the timing better I would have been in West Cameroon from 1966-1968 and not at all from a pressing desire to live in West Africa.

Society appreciated that education is a good thing; hence, the student deferment came into being. Curiously colleges and universities saw enrollment climb. Personal note: University of Nebraska, 1961-1966.

Marine PFC Thomas Leichleiter of Harvard, killed in Vietnam in 1969 at the age of 18.
Did the draft influence these decisions by young people to get married, have kids or go to college? No. The draft made those decisions. Believe me.

A classification system identified each individual’s relationship to the draft. Status 1-A was “available for military service.” It was from this pool that the county selective service office did their “pickin’ and choosin’”. There were several other “1’s” including for conscientious objectors, members of the Public Health Service and other services and 1-Y, qualified but only under greater need (asthma was one such criteria.)

Number 2’s were deferments – you were on “hold.” Classification 2-C was for the agriculture occupation; 2-S, “activity in study” – college student (five years for yours truly) and 2-A, other civilian occupation deferments.

Classification 3-A was for fathers.

The major Number 4 classification was 4-F, not qualified for any military service.

This serious imposition into our lives sometimes created memorable situations. A very good friend learned of his 4-F classification the morning of his wedding, a wedding that would have happened eventually but was timed to qualify for the “husband” deferment then in effect. Is that a true story? Take it from the Best Man.

Other “4” classifications were for completed service, sole surviving son, minister, alien and “officially deferred by law.”

Raise your hands all that have been waiting for one other group: Canadian immigrants.

Perhaps as many as 100,000 men who had exhausted this array of “outs” and still seriously did not want to serve then chose to leave the country. Canada was the most popular destination where officials did not extradite fugitives from the draft. That fugitive status remained until President Ford issued a conditional amnesty in 1974 and when President Carter later pardoned them.

The net result of the Vietnam War era draft is that over 2.2 million men were directly drafted between 1964 and 1975 and the draft is credited with “encouraging” 8.7 million additional “volunteers” including yours truly. Again, the draft not only influenced decisions but made decisions for us.

One more statistic: 58,195 men and women gave their lives in the Vietnam War and are listed on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Though I’m telling the story of the draft emphasizing those who were pressed, or “forced” into military service, a large number of those who served, probably most, did so truly voluntarily with full understanding of the consequences.  Society levied an obligation on them, an obligation that they met, willingly or not.

The names of no Sutton men or women appear on that wall in Washington. Three Clay County men are listed:

"The Village" is a book about the Marine unit of Marine Lance Corporal
Paul Fielder of Harvard. The web site at
does not have a photo of Paul Fielder. Can anyone help with that?
Marine Lance Corporal Paul Wesley Fielder from Harvard on Panel 10E, line 97, died September 15, 1966 in Quang Tin Province at the age of 20.

Marine Private First Class Thomas Allen Leichleiter from Harvard on Panel 18W, line 122, died September 21, 1969 in Quang Tri Province at the age of 18.

Army Private First Class Jack Wayne Schroder from Clay Center on Panel 28E, line 30, died October 17, 1967 in Binh Long Province at the age of 20.

Please read that last part again. Thanks.

Personal wrap-up: After I’d nursed my 2-S deferment for five years and tested other options our local Selective Service Board noticed that I’d graduated. They reclassified me 1-A and I learned I was to be on the next month’s draft call. I visited the recruiting offices in the Lincoln Post Office and “volunteered” for the Air Force. Was I “avoiding” the draft or a “draft dodger?” Of course, I just wasn’t very good at it.

The Air Force surprised me with an assignment to a missile wing in Wichita, Kansas as part of the Cold War. Wichita was not a bad place to spend “The War.” Then one thing led to another leading to Montana, Omaha and finally Northern California where, after 21 years I finally found a reason to leave. Few of those decisions were mine but I was extremely fortunate.

Finally, let me return to LCpl Paul Fielder who is listed above. Those who remember Paul speak highly of him, from a tough background, a kid who saw the Marines as his opportunity. His is a compelling story. A book, “The Village” tells the story of his 15-man Marine unit and of the night he was killed. A synopsis of that story is at
This photo of the Marine unit of Lance Corporal Paul Fielder was taken within two weeks of the attack that killed about
one half of the unit including LCpl Fielder. He is seen here kneeling at the right.

 My wife and I visited the Washington, D. C. and the Vietnam Memorial in April, 2013. It was her first visit to the wall where we stopped and paused for a time before Panel W1 where, on line 97 near the bottom of the last panel and near the end of the war is the name "Warren R Spencer" a tech school classmate, car pool buddy and friend from 1967.
Rita Johnson before Panel W1, the last panel on the Vietnam Memorial Wall where
the name of our friend Warren R. Spencer can be found. Warren was a B-52 radar
navigator whose plane was downed on December 20, 1972 during the Christmas, 1972
 offensive against Hanoi and Haiphong Harbor. One account of the incident is at
The panel is reflecting back to the east to the Washington Monument past the visitors
up the gentle slope of the early one half of the memorial. Smiles are rare here.
 This article first appeared in the Sutton Life Magazine in May, 2013. Contact Jarod Griess at 402-984-4203 or at for more information about this publication.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Israelson 1913 Letter from California

This letter appeared in the Harvard Courier newspaper December 13, 1913. It was from John W. Israelson of the Saronville Israelson family (more about them below).

Settlers in Clay County had often stopped "back East" for a spell before pressing on further west. Clay County also served as a stopping place for many who, after a few years or decades again picked up stakes and pressed on even further west.

California was a popular next destination with the Los Angeles basin drawing large numbers from Clay County as well as other Nebraska locations and other places that had been on the frontier.

The Sutton area had two specialized migrations as the Sutton Germans often joined family and friends who had earlier settled around the zinfandel grape vineyards of Lodi, California in San Joaquin County between Sacramento and Stockton. Saronville Swedes had their own California destination among the orchards around Turlock in Stanislaus County near Modesto.

John Israelson joined another significant contingent that choose Pasadena, Long Beach and points in between joining the migration that led to today's large population center of LA and Orange Counties.

1913 Letter from John W. Israelson shortly after he
moved his family to Pasadena, California

John W. Israelson was the second child and first son in the Israelson family.

The Israelson Family patriarch was Andrew Peter Israelson who was born in Asby, Östergötland, Sweden about 40 miles east of Jönköping, and 140 miles southwest of Stockholm, on January 8, 1824 to Israel Karlsson and Catterina Petersdotter. Andrew, or Anders married Charlotte Sophia Larsdotter in March of 1851. The next year Andrew and pregnant Charlotte left Gothenburg on the Swedish ship Carlos arriving in New York in August 26, 1852 and headed for western Illinois where daughter Emma was born in December, the first of twelve offspring in the family (three died young).

Mr. Israelson purchased railroad land in Sutton Township near Saronville in 1877 and moved his family to Clay County.

The Israelson family name has largely expired around here, or daughtered-out as the genealogists say. But the genetic heritage of Östergötland persists in Clay County and elsewhere with surnames such as: Aspegren, Pontine, Nelson, Hultman and many others - even Johnson (hand proudly waving from my keyboard), Serr and who'd have thought, Rolfes.

John W. Israelson was married to Amanda Charlotte Thry in Illinois in 1880. They adopted Ruth Francis before 1900; she was a member of the illustrious Sutton High class of 1912 and moved to California with her parents. My family records lists Ruth's death on March 24, 1918 in Los Angeles at the age of 22.

My "official" connection to John W. Israelson? He was my Great Grand Uncle - my great, grandmother Emma's brother - Jerry Johnson.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Trival Question in our Clay County News column for the December 4th issue

This item appeared in our column in the Clay County News December 4th issue:

  • Bonus memory item for the end of football season: The legendary Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, Harry Stuhldreher, Don Miller, Jim Crowley and Elmer Layden may still be the most famous backfield in all of football 89 years after Grantland Rice memorialized them in their senior season of 1924. They only lost only two games in their three years. They lost to Nebraska’s 1922 team 14-6.
  • Trivia question: what was the other team that beat the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame? See for the answer.








And the answer is:

The 1922 Nebraska team was the first of two teams to defeat the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame. The second team to defeat that legendary Notre Dame backfield was


Yes, Nebraska handed the Four Horsemen both of their defeats in their renowned college football careers. The 1923 score was 14-7. Full disclosure: on November 15, 1924 the Four Horsemen did earn their retribution as seniors defeating the Cornhuskers 34-6 in South Bend.

See  for more about that Notre Dame backfield where you'll find this line:

  • The renowned four horsemen played 30 games together as a backfield unit, losing only twice, both to the same team: the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

New Sutton Area Chapter of the AHSGR

A group of Sutton residents are forming a Sutton Area Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans From Russia. Members of the Sutton Historical Society wish this new organization well and look forward to working with the new chapter to further recognized the contributions of the Germans from Russia to the Sutton community.