THE PEOPLE AND COMMUNITIES OF THE 19TH CENTURY CENTRAL VALLEY
Volga German Immigrants
EARLY VOLGA GERMAN IMMIGARATION TO CENTRAL CALIFORNIA
On December 4, 1762 Catherine II of Russia invited Germans to come to Russia to settle. Because times were very poor in Germany, 104 colonies of Germans settled in Russia along the Volga River from 1764 to 1768.
When the Russification policies enacted in the 1870s threatened the Volga Germans’ way of life, many chose to leave the region. The letters of family and friends who had emigrated from Germany to the United States inspired several thousand Volga Germans to follow in their footsteps.
The first group of Volga Germans arrived in Nebraska in 1874. They worked for railroad companies such as the Burlington Railroad. However, the first Volga Germans who would later settle in Fresno, California did not arrive in the United States until June 19, 1887. This group of people derived from the villages of Straub, Stahl, Bangert, Kukkus, Laub, and Jost on the eastern shore of the Volga River, the Wiesenseite, or “meadow side.”
The exodus from Russia to Nebraska to Fresno continued until approximately 1914. There were several reasons why Fresno became the ultimate destination for this group. While many thousands of Volga-Germans had migrated to the United States prior to 1887, few had reached the Pacific Coast, and apparently none had entered the San Joaquin Valley. According to Conrad Metzler, one of the original immigrants, he and a number of the prospective settlers had been in communication with an agent, Misler by name, of the Nord-Deutsche-Lloyd Steamship Company, who recommended the “fertile lands” of the then little-known San Joaquin Valley.
Advertisements that fell into the hands of the Volga Germans referred to Fresno as the “Sommerland,” the land of constant summer. Other settlers mention articles in newspapers or brochures that spoke to them of the wonders of Fresno. On June 24, 1887, the Fresno Republican announced the arrival of the German settlers:
On Monday eight men and seven women [sic] immigrants from a German colony in Russia, arrived at Fresno having come for the purpose of securing occupation as farm laborers and, like most people from the old country, with the intention of securing land of their own in this country where land is yet so plentiful and so cheap. German peasants fresh from the fi elds of their nativity are not often seen here, and the odd dress of both men and women has attracted a good deal of attention…Bright colors predominate in the costumes…They are apparently sober and industrious people and are likely to find plenty of work…
The first party of Volga Germans to arrive in Fresno was comprised of 31 men, women, and children. The group consisted of John and Catherine Berg and children Peter, Maria, and Henry; John and Elizabeth Kerner and daughter Elisa; Christine and Maria Karle; Michael Karle; Mrs. Christina Andreas; Mrs. Sophia Metzler, and children John and Christina; Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Mehling; Conrad Mehling; Philip and Maria Nillmaier; George and Philip Nillmaier and children John, Conrad, and Adam; and John and Catherine Steitz.10 The second and third waves of immigrants brought the Huberts, Bopps, Scheerers, Lieders, Diels, Gleims, Hartwigs, Roths, Schwabenlands, Bitters, and Heinzes.
Throughout the early 1900s, German-Russians continued to arrive in Fresno and eventually migrated to surrounding towns such as Kerman, Biola, Madera, Dinuba, Reedley, Fowler, Sanger, and Selma. Land was prohibitively expensive when the Volga Germans arrived in Fresno in 1887, nearly $600 an acre at the end of that year. The Germans had become experienced farmers in the steppes of the Volga River region of Russia, and their natural inclination was to continue to farm in Fresno. After being forced to farm wheat in Russia, most knew no other trade when they came to the United States.
In 1892 there were 167 Volga Germans in Fresno, and a need was felt to open a church. They wrote to Jacob Legler, an assistant pastor from Straub, Russia, asking that he come to Fresno and help them start a church. He arrived in 1891. The church was organized on March 15, 1892 with 85 members. The first church was built in 1895 on D Street. Over the years, many more Volga Germans came to Fresno. In 1915 a new, very large Cross Church was built on F and San Diego. By 1920, the Volga German population in and around Fresno had grown to 8,000.
Because land prices were beyond reach, the men in the group initially worked as day laborers and on odd jobs to save money for eventual purchase of their own farms and to support their families in the meantime. The economic depression of 1893 proved to be a windfall for the Volga Germans as land prices plummeted and many farms were forced into foreclosure. As the rest of United States faced devastation and poverty, many of the Volga Germans, a frugal group of people with substantial savings, swept up land and became farm owners. Although most of these farms were outside the boundaries of Fresno City, the German-Russian farms and farming techniques forged a lasting impact on Fresno County’s farming industry. Having transformed the arid steppes of Russia into a fertile, arable oasis, the German-Russians performed similar miracles on the arid land near Fresno. Fred Koch writes: “With their ‘prudence, perseverance and push these immigrants became the most outstanding viticulturists and horticulturists of the valley…’” The German-Russians imported many agricultural products from Russia that would become staples in the United States, including: sunflower seeds (“Rooshian Peanuts”), the Klondike watermelon, and the hearty, frost-resistant strain of wheat known as Turkey Red.
Farming was not the only means of occupation for Volga Germans. The 1910 census shows that many Volga Germans were employed as general laborers, packinghouse workers, or railroad employees. Author Fred Koch noted: “beginning with the second generation, these people began to permeate the fields of education, commerce, religious vocations, arts, and professions. For most of them, their past ethnic affinity to the soil had become a matter of legend.”
The German-Russians assimilated into the American culture relatively quickly and eventually held the same occupations as their American neighbors, who were often themselves immigrants from other nations). The Ohlberg family from Kukkus, Russia arrived in Fresno in the late 1800s. In the 1920s they bought a store from another Russian-German family, the Stites. The original store, “Ohlberg’s,” was located near the 2300 block of California Street. In 1937 the Ohlberg’s moved their store to the corner of Kirk Avenue and California. Ohlberg’s stayed in this location until 1961 when it moved to Olive Avenue. The family-run operation was an institution in the Russian-German community and most Russian-German families purchased their groceries, meat, and drygoods from Ohlberg’s. Ohlberg’s German Sausage is still locally-famous today, however Ohlberg’s store closed in 1998.
At the turn of the twentieth century, Fresno saw a boom in immigrants from Russia. In 1900, 734 Volga Germans resided in Fresno. The population increased to 3,000 in 1908 and 8,000 by 1920. War erupted in Europe in 1914, and immigration to the United States ceased, essentially ending a three-decade flow of immigration from Russia to Fresno. In the late nineteenth century, the Volga Germans settled on the southwest side of Fresno’s railroad tracks. Known throughout Fresno as the “wrong side of the tracks,” West Fresno was home to immigrants from China, Japan, Armenia, and Russia.
Sources: Germantown, Fresno Historical Context, Architectural Resources Group, 2006.