Life in New Swabia – The County’s Frugal, Fatalistic Settlers

In 1834, German journalist Karl Neidhard visited farms in western Washtenaw County. He described two starkly different cultures existing side by side.

On one side were the “Americans,” mainly people of English ancestry, who had come to Michigan from upstate New York. Neidhard admired their neat, clean houses, but considered them careless farmers: they lost grain while harvesting, leaving it for their cattle, pigs, and chickens to glean from the fields. In contrast, he wrote, German immigrants lived in more ramshackle homes but cultivated their land meticulously.

The frugal Germans bent over and carefully cut wheat with sickles. The Americans, who swung large scythes, found that laughable. But the Germans almost cried watching the Americans feed good apples to their pigs.

The American women, Neidhard wrote, were the “equals of the most elegant European ladies in manners, figure, and dress… their sole occupation being to keep the rooms and kitchen clean and to beautify themselves and their dwellings.” But the German women did housework and worked in the fields. A Freedom Township schoolteacher named Emerson Hutzel recorded how his mother raked hay into windrows, piled it up in a haycock, then used a pitchfork to lift it onto a wagon. She also helped with harvesting and husking corn-in addition to the traditional women’s work of cooking, gardening, making clothes, and rearing children.

The hardworking Germans gradually won out. They saved more than the Americans, and their letters home about Michigan’s abundant land coaxed more immigrants to join them. Many Americans were glad to sell their farms, taking their real estate profits and moving westward to new frontiers. By the early twentieth century, plat maps showed Germans owning almost all the land surrounded by Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester, and Saline.

Most of these immigrants were from Swabia, the southwestern part of Germany, and they brought with them a distinctive culture and language. Even in the mid-twentieth century their unique dialect, full of scatological expressions, was still commonly used in western Washtenaw County-mainly

in homes, small social gatherings, and at work when no outsiders were present. And their values, so heavily dependent on personal reputation, left such a durable stamp on the area that a 1972 survey of Germans around Ann Arbor described a builder still doing work for farmers with merely a handshake contract.

Freedom, Lima, Lodi, and Scio townships were the center of this figurative New Swabia. It was a place marked by an unstinting devotion to the land, strong family ties, a frugality beyond imagining today, and a dogged fatalism.

Embracing the land

In the Old Country, most Swabians were farmers. But unlike other Germans, each Swabian son inherited equally. Because of this, almost everyone owned some farmland-but farms got smaller over time. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many were just five or ten acres. Unable to sustain themselves, many Swabians left for Eastern Europe, Russia, and especially America.

In Swabia, land was a fixed quantity. The only way to produce more crops was by working more conscientiously and efficiently. In America, though, land was almost free and labor in short supply. While many Americans started and then quickly resold farms, the Swabian immigrants stayed put. To them, land was almost sacred-a guarantee of the continuity of family.

Not only that, but the land in Washtenaw County was rich. Letters to Germany urged friends and relatives to come to America. “The food is good and there is plenty,” wrote a Scio Township farmer named Frederic Mast in 1847. “Even the poorest farmer has as good a table as the inns in Germany… “

An early twentieth-century immigrant once told me how he reveled in having an egg for breakfast daily. In Swabia, the family’s eggs had to be sold, and he never ate any unless he was sick. Family members would wait for and count on every single egg. If one were not forthcoming, they would check if the egg was still inside the hen, or if, heaven forbid, it had already been laid in a neighbor’s yard!

Nothing was wasted on a Swabian farm. According to Emerson Hutzel, who was born in Freedom Township in 1890, the ashes from wood fires were used to make lye, which was then mixed with surplus fats from butchering to make soap. Into the swill barrel went surplus skimmed milk, potato and fruit parings, and bran from making flour-all fed to the hogs.

The importance of thrift was instilled at an early age. When Hutzel and his brother fell off their bikes, only his brother was scolded, because he had ruined his pants. Emerson was wearing short pants and so had merely skinned his knees. Skin would grow back, but pants had to be bought.

Work was valued above all else in Swabian culture. Hutzel’s father, born in 1857, not only farmed his own land, he worked relatives’ and neighbors’ fields as a sharecropper. He usually came home after dark and cared for his livestock by lantern light. A neighbor joked that if Hutzel ever showed up during daylight hours, his animals would spook and run the other way.

“Dead by evening”

Farming is a dangerous occupation, and in the nineteenth century calamities were frequent. The Swabians’ response was a religiously based fatalism. Hutzel recalled that when lightning would strike close, his mother would pray, “Hilf uns, Gott!” (“Help us, God!”). When a farmer was scratched by a rat and died, the reaction of the community was that it was “God’s will.” The Swabians’ fatalism bordered on the morbid, as reflected in the saying “Morgen rot, Abend todt” (“ruddy in the morning, dead by evening”).

With such a dour view of life, the farmers’ pleasures were simple. Walter Hinderer, who was born in 1915, told me his parents never took vacations until they were quite old. For relaxation, they’d nap. In the winter, they might play cards. But on Wednesdays and Saturdays they went to Chelsea, visiting people and attending band concerts.

Music played an important part in Swabian life. Hutzel recalls his father often sang or yodeled on his way home. His mother could play the accordion and would hum or sing while doing her housework. Emerson and his brother learned the piano and violin, often playing the Swabian “Z’Lauterbach,” a traditional German song that lent its tune to “Where Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone?”

Then there were the pleasures of Swabian food and drink. Hutzel felt that ever-present Knoepfle were the equal of the Italians’ spaghetti, macaroni, and vermicelli. A flour-and-egg mixture was scraped off a board into boiling water, and the resulting noodles (spaetzle) were served with gravy. The Hinderers made wine using their own press, and the men took hard cider to drink in the fields instead of water.

Donald Katz, once a Swabian American farm boy in Waterloo Township, recalled women organizing ice cream socials at homes or at church, with proceeds going to pay part of the minister’s salary. Church suppers were held in homes, as well as box socials, where girls’ beautifully decorated boxes of food were auctioned off to the boys. At shadow socials, girls’ shadows were cast on a sheet in a doorway, and whichever boy bid the most won a partner for the evening.

Newlyweds were given “hornings.” Men and boys with bells, buzz saws, horns, and other noisemakers would surround the house and blast away. Then they’d be invited inside for refreshments.

Resisting the melting pot

Emerson Hutzel, like most of the local Germans, spoke the Swabian dialect, not High German. The languages are quite different, with distinctive words for many things. For example, houseflies in cultured High German are Fliegen; in Swabian, Mugga.

Children learned English at the local one-room schoolhouses but spoke the Swabian dialect at home. When they studied to be confirmed in church, they also had to learn the rudiments of High German, the language of Martin Luther’s Bible and of educated pastors.

Of course, the languages intermingled. The Bethel Church minutes for January 10, 1877, are in German, but they also note that the church would be gepenth (painted) with two Gutz (coats) and the wood would be gewarnischt (varnished). The minutes also mentioned Karpet and Weitwasch (whitewash)-all English words absorbed into the local dialect.

The Swabian community was very concerned about reputation and standing. Arthur Miller, a former Saline area farmer, told me that the Germans he knew “would never want to do a dirty deed. The news would get around.” The constitution of Bethel Church explicitly cited cheating as a sin to be punished by shunning.

Because the Swabians kept many of their foreign ways, there was some conflict with neighbors. Hutzel recalled unfriendly feelings between the Swabians and Prussians in Freedom and Lodi townships, which contributed to a split in the church at Rogers Corners into Zion Lutheran and St. John’s United Church of Christ. There also was conflict between the Germans and the few Irish in the area. A report from Lima Center School noted that teachers had to put the Irish pupils on one side of the room and the Germans on the other.

Lima Township resident Margaret Sias, who died in 2003, told me she had neighbors who laughed at German farmers’ accents. German women were also routinely excluded from social relationships, such as the flower fund collected for funerals. Sias thought the bad feelings arose as the Germans took over what had been English-speaking farms in the area between Dexter and Chelsea.

Fields before classrooms

School was not a high priority for the early Swabian families. A nineteenth‑ century German traveler to the Midwest, Francis Grund, reported that Swabian farmers disliked educated people. They remembered the “little scribblers” who worked for the king of Württemberg, the ruler of Swabia. These educated bureaucrats had harassed the peasants to get them to pay taxes and had fined them for disobeying the many regulations of the realm.

Even in the twentieth century, schooling was not a high priority, according to Dorothy Schanz Russell, a former student and teacher at Jerusalem School in Lima Township. Boys didn’t go to school until after the fall farm work was finished, and they stopped three or four months later, when spring work began. As a result, some men were still in the fifth or sixth grade at age twenty‑one.

Esther Landwehr, born in 1892, was German but not Swabian. Her grandparents came from Westphalia, Prussia, so the family spoke Plattdeutsch, the North German dialect, in their Saline Township home. She told me how she and her sister, Lillie, were outsiders at Benton School in Saline Township because they couldn’t speak Swabian on the playground or walking home. The girls came to understand Swabi an, but they would answer in English.

Landwehr went to high school, but it wasn’t easy. She rode the milk wagon to Saline but often had to walk the five miles home. In the winter, she stayed in town during the week. In order to finish an education, “you had to be determined and the parents willing,” she told me. “I don’t believe any of the Swabians [who attended Benton School] went to high school, but some of the English did.”

Records from 1905-06 at Landwehr’s Benton School show twenty children in the sixth grade, but a total of only eight in grades seven through nine. Of the eight, only one was a German boy; the rest were either German girls or English-surnamed boys. “Swabian boys weren’t education minded,” she explained.

Walter Hinderer told me the general pattern was for boys to finish eighth grade then go to work on the family’s farm. At seventeen or eighteen, they would start working for other farmers from March until December, returning to live at home for the winter until they married and started farming on their own, either renting or sharecropping.

Disciplining Swabian children at school wasn’t much of a problem, because they were used to being beaten at home. At the Northfield Township schools where Lydia Muncey taught in the mid-twentieth century, one kindergarten boy would put his arm up to guard his face whenever she spoke to him. At home he’d been told that if he didn’t behave, the teacher would whip him.

The main problems at school were vulgarity and profanity on the playground. Even the minister’s daughter took part. Germans, and rural Swabians especially, had a longstanding fondness for earthy toilet humor.

Freedom lovers

Above all, the Swabian farmers were rugged individualists who relied on their own labor to prosper. “Freedom Township was always Republican way back,” Hinderer recalled. “Democrats are more money spenders.” Their small-government political views followed from personal values. “You don’t buy unless you need it,” as Hinderer put it.

According to Esther Landwehr, “The main thing they appreciated was the freedom of the United States, being able to do what they wanted to do when they wanted to do it.”

Ray Schairer, born in 1922, had a dairy farm along Jackson Road west of Ann Arbor. He didn’t mind the routine chores, including milking the herd twice daily. With only twenty or thirty cows, he knew his animals well: “They all had different temperaments, and they became part of you. They were nice. I’d lean against the fence, and a cow would come up and lick my face.”

Schairer loved being “on the tractor, out in nature, the birds singing, wind blowing through my hair, and nobody out there but me and the Lord. We’d have lots of conversations.” Like his independent-minded ancestors, he appreciated “being your own boss. I wasn’t beholden to anyone. If I made a mistake, nobody would complain.”

Bill Lutz of Saline Township, the great-grandchild of an 1853 immigrant, still works an old-fashioned diversified farm. He raises a variety of different crops and different animals-like the traditional Swabian farmer who makes intensive use of limited acreage. One of his guiding principles is the very Swabian idea that if something still works well, it doesn’t make sense to spend money on something new. He still uses his high, hip-roofed 1884 barn.

Of course, the real hallmark of the Swabians is stubbornness. That’s why many are still part-time farmers, even though it pays little.

Still, even Swabians have left the land in recent generations. From 1950 to 2000, the number of farms in Washtenaw County declined by two thirds. Clayton Ernst of Freedom Township told me that a farmer raising just forty or fifty sows used to make a good living, but no longer. Farms have to get bigger and bigger to compete. Ernst noted, “My boy has to farm five farms to be a full-time farmer. The other four farmers got jobs in town.”

As farming faded, Swabian families put a higher priority on education. Ray Schairer’s brother became a botanist, his sister a nursing researcher. Walter Hinderer earned a business degree and became an accountant. Donald Katz became a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan.

As these examples suggest, Swabian children have often gravitated to professional jobs. There they can still enjoy much of the independence that has been always important to Swabians-whether on the farm or off.

[Originally published in the Community Observer for July, 2009.]

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