North Dakota Germans from Russia - WILHELMINA GEISZLER
On a spring day in 1898, Wilhelmina Geiszler watched from her home as flames burned on the horizon. Wind blew smoke across the prairie where her husband, John, was out plowing the fields.
It was not out of the ordinary. The threat of prairie fires loomed large in the minds of German-Russian homesteaders during dry spells in the spring and fall. Their trick was to watch as well as listen—they could hear the roar of a fire from miles away and they noticed when the wind shifted.
On this day, a stiff breeze blew from the southeast. So much Wilhelmina held dear was out in the fields—her husband, their cattle, and their horses. When the wind stilled at last, she must have taken a deep breath of relief. She asked two of her daughters, Mary and Anna, to gather the cattle. John, sensing something strange in the stillness, unhitched the horses and made his way back home.
But the wind picked up and the fire flickered up again, fast as lightning. Running behind the cattle, Mary and Anna each grabbed a hold of a cow’s tail to speed their progress. Mary made it safely across the firebreak, but Anna’s foot caught in a gopher hole, and the flames grew closer.
Wilhelmina ran to save Anna from the fire, but both were badly burned. Anna died that night, and Wilhelmina died two weeks later, leaving behind eight children under the age of thirteen. Historian Tom Isern calls her the “Martyr Mother of the German-Russians.”
The glazed clay bust of Wilhelmina Geiszler is located within the McIntosh Heritage Museum was created by North Dakota potter Laura Taylor Hughes, co-founder of Rosemeade Pottery.
Wilhelmina’s story remains one example of the sacrifices German-Russian settlers made when they immigrated and made their homesteads in North Dakota; it is also a story of great bravery and love.