Germans from Russia in Montgomery County, Iowa

by Bettie McKenzie, 1996


Primarily due to laws that allowed inheritance to go to the eldest son and because of the many wars with which the Germans were involved, the large migration from German states to the Volga and Black Sea areas in Russia took place. Catherine the Great in a Manifesto offered German immigrants freedom from military service, rights to maintain their religion and educate their children. The Germans were given land and a few things with which to start their new lives. They were also allowed to retain their language and govern their own colonies.

Catherine's purpose for the Manifesto was to set up a barrier of peoples against the Turks from whom Russia had recently acquired a huge fertile tract of land. The government was also interested in developing the land for agriculture.


In the late 19th Century the Russian government began to rescind the exemption from military service, and concern over other issues of autonomy were raised. The Russian government tried to re-inhabit the area with Russian people. Problems continued until the first World War which brought many persecutions to the lives of the Germans who remained in Russia. In the United States the opening of the Midwest by the Homestead Act in l871 offered opportunity. Open spaces, new growing towns and villages required settlers. The railroad companies sent agents and posters to Russia offering work and the possibility of land to all who came.

While most German Russians settled in the plains states, some chose to settle in other areas. Lincoln, Nebraska became a re-settlement center, but a few families chose to settle in Red Oak, Iowa in l875. Red Oak was a stop on the Chicago Burlington Railroad that was very familiar to immigration agents because of the many Swedish families who were coming to Montgomery County at this same time.

(See Karl Stump, Russian Germans and Richard Sallett, Russian German Settlements in the United States )


It is reported that Christine Smith and Jacob Wambold were the first families of Russian-Germans to settle in Red Oak. One scholar reports that a group of 25 stayed at the Red Oak Depot for a week in August of l875 but couldn't find work and went on to Nebraska. Hattie Plum Williams cites somewhat different numbers (see below). Whatever the number the evidence is that some families did stay. The 1880 U.S. Census identifies 13 family units and two single men. The families of Christian Smith and Jacob Wambold are among them.

In this little community there were 62 people, including 12 adults or 6 families (about half the households) headed by persons over 50 years of age. There are 27 young adults between the ages of l8 and 49, and 23 children 17 years of age and younger.

It is hard to determine how many remained in Red Oak for a longer period of time, and how many decided to move on west to larger settlements. Census reporting is made extremely difficult to understand because the census takers are often indicating that these families were German. Families we otherwise clearly know their place of origin and family history to be from the Russian settlements are just as plainly described in the census as German. We know from family histories that over the years those early families were joined by friends and relatives.

Between l880 and l925, thirty to thirty seven families in the Red Oak area were Germans from Russia in origin, many of these were multiple generation and extended family units. Wambold, Meng, Brenning, Smith, Schmidt, Ross, and Reifschneider are names of extended families found in succeeding census data.

Only the family of Henry Brenning became farmers. Other occupations were named as "railroad laborer" or "railroad mechanic", sometimes simply "laborer". When the single young women worked they were domestics or worked as a waitress or cook. Of course later generations had many varied occupations working for local businesses and industries.

In l880s Rochel Rosenfield, a Hebrew from Russia, was a bookkeeper and in 1925 Joe Cohen, a Hebrew from Russia, was also named in the census. Neither remained to found an immigrant Jewish community here.

Hattie Plum Williams, Nebraska historian of the Germans from Russia, says: "On June 11, l875 the first organized group of Volga Germans Protestants left Saratov for the United States under the leadership of (Heinrich Schwabuer). There were 12 families and l8 to 20 single young men, making in all between fifty to seventy-five persons. The company reached New York City in August where they were met and cared for by the harbor missionary who had befriended the delegates. He was now working in the interests of the Burlington and Missouri Railroad and was authorized to allow the leader of the group a rebate of $2.00 on each immigrant sent to Burlington and Missouri Territory.

"Largely through the influence of this harbor missionary, the company was sent to Red Oak, Iowa which was a district point for immigration on the Burlington and Missouri system. Small quantities of railroad land were still for sale in this area. But the land was too high priced and too hilly to suit the immigrants and they wanted to look farther.

"Meanwhile several families went to Kansas for land; some secured work on the railroad and remained in Red Oak, while many of the single men scattered out through the near by country hunting for work. After almost a week's stay in the depot at Red Oak, they received a visit from Cornelius Jansen who told them about the Russian German settlement at Sutton

"Through the good offices of the road superintendent of the Burlington they were brought to Lincoln and sheltered in the (Immigrant Home), from which those who were prepared to buy land could go to Sutton to investigate. . . After purchasing land from the railroad company the group left Lincoln for Sutton, arriving in September l875."

(The Czar's Germans, Hattie Plum Williams edited by Emma S. Haynes, Phillip B. Legler, Gerda S. Walker; pub American Historical Society of Germans from Russia c l975 p198)

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People live most successfully when they are in a supportive community. Immigrant groups prefer to live in neighborhoods of people like themselves. The German Russian immigrants to Red Oak were no different. With their own customs, language, and religion they shared many ties with others who came from the Volga river villages in Russia. In Red Oak they soon selected an area in the southwestern part of town on Third Avenue, Fourth Avenue and Southwest First Street (later renamed Broadway). In the 1917 McCoy's Red Oak Street Directory the neighborhood showed its ethnic character. This area was sometimes disparagingly called "Roosha town". The census records show that other immigrants from Sweden and Germany as well as families native to the United States also lived in houses in this neighborhood. One notable resident was Miss Virginia Kelley, a beloved school teacher who befriended many of the young people of the neighborhood in and out of school. The Kelley family originally came from Illinois and were well known in the Red Oak community for their public interests.

Third Avenue
104 L O Jahnke
109 Peter Meng*
110 John Bruce
111 Jacob Dumler*
112 Earl Spencer

200 Jacob Ross*
210 Adam Nazarene*
203 Conrad Ross*
204 John Deitz*
206 Reuben Menefee
207 Elmer Kelley, E.C.Palmer
209 Joseph Clark

300 Gust Wetterlind
301 Mrs. Eva Meng*
302 Michael Dietz*
303 J W Brummett
304 T C Fort
305 Ray Adams
306 Rollin Whitney
307 John Grasmick*
308 Willis Smith
310 Wm Halbert
311 Jacob Wombolt*

400 Andrew Newman
401 John Smith*
403 Michael Nazarene*
404 Albert Renn
408 Thomas Rouse
408 G.E.Wilson
500 Louis Bekal*

* These are families that have been identified as German/Russian descent. Others may also have been related but not identified to the Historical Society for this study.

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Some of the founders of families in the Red Oak Community were:

John Jacob Ross (1849-1923) was born in Balzaar, Russia. He went with his family to Friend, Nebraska in 1891. Later he came to Red Oak and was here in 1900. He married Katherin Miller in Russia in l872. His family thought that he farmed but whether this was his primary occupation is not known. There were 8 surviving children at his death: Henry, Alex, John, Anna, Mrs. Mollie Dado and Mrs. Ella Mullins of Red Oak, Mrs. Mary Dado of Fairmont, Nebraska and Katherine Yokel of Friend, Nebraska. Pallbearers were Henry, Alex, and John Ross, Conrad Ross, his brother, Taylor Mullen and John Grasmick. Descendants of John Jacob Ross living in Red Oak are Doris Larson, Kenneth Sparr, Ralph Dado, Barbara Dado Johnson, Bertha Sederberg and Sanders Ross.

Conrad Ross, the brother of John Jacob also came to this community, arriving in the United States in 1893. In 1910 the census lists his family as Conrad age 44, Susanne age 35, Emily 13, John 12, Katie 9, Henry 7, Conrad 4, William 2. His descendants today include Bonnie Dickerson, Deb Swanson and Jeannette Mirts of the Red Oak area. Katherin Elizabeth Miller Ross was the wife of Jacob Ross (1853-1910). She was born and married in Balzaar, Russia, and came to the United States with her husband, locating in Red Oak in l890. Her funeral services were conducted by the Lutheran minister from Creston, Iowa in her Red Oak home. She was survived by her husband and children and also by three brothers. A Red Oak descendant is Doris Ross Larson.

Henry Brenning, Sr. (1856-1946) was born in Saratov, Russia. He was married to Mary Walker in l875. They came to Red Oak in l892 and settled on a farm in West Township. With them were five children, Lottie, Henry Jr., Adam, Jacob, and Luther. The youngest, John, was born a few days after they arrived at Ellis Island. Henry Brenning farmed until his retirement in l918 and on his death in l946 the farm was sold. Mary preceded him in death in Red Oak in l931. His pallbearers were his grandsons Frank, Gilbert and Herman Brenning, David Stoneking, Saunders Schmidt and Gyron Giles of Omaha.

Henry Brenning,Jr. (1876-1951) was born in Saratov, Russia. He farmed in Mills and Montgomery Counties. He moved to town in l942. He married Mollie Messer in l910. She was born in Crimea, Russia. At the time of her death she had one sister living, Mrs. Adam Nazarene. Their children were Herman, Mrs. Arthur Sandquist, Mrs. David Stoneking, Mrs. Clarence (Bertha) Cromwell. Both were attended at the time of their death by friends which included from the Russia German community: Saunders Schmidt and Victor Meng.

Adam Brenning (also Branning) (1881-1952) was born in Russia. He came to this country in l892 with his family. In 1906 he married Katherine Wagner (1887-1980) Katherine was born in Kutter, a Volga River village, and came to the United States to live with the Brenning family. It was planned that she would marry Henry Jr. but she choose Adam to be her husband. They farmed in West Township in 1910, and continued to farm throughout their life. On retirement they moved to South Hill in Red Oak. Their children were Amelia, Gilbert, Frank and Adam Jr. Adam Jr. died during WorldWar II. A Red Oak descendant is Catherine (Katie) Fisher. (Katherine Wagner Branning b. in Kutter, Saratov, Russia 7 June l887, d. 6 October l980 Red Oak. Father was John Wagner, Mother Katherine. Came to Red Oak to work for Branning family, married Adam 1 September l906.) See They Didn't Have Perma Press, Women's Stories From Montgomery County, c1989 Women's History Committee, Bettie McKenzie editor.

Henry Jacob Dumler (1851-1930) was born in the Volga region of Russia. He was an expert dyer in Europe. In l873 he married Katherine Sarten who died in l891. He then married Katherine Eks in 1893 who died in 1902. His last marriage was to Mary Katherine Lightwood in 1908. He fathered 19 children, 12 who survived him. He had 50 grandchildren. His pallbearers included many familiar men from the Russian-German community: Adam Schmidt, Conrad Ross, John Grasmick, Peter Meng, John Nazerenus and Henry Schmidt. Mary Katherine Dumler (1869-1946) was born in Saratov, Russia. She lived in the United States most of her life. She was survived by three sons, three daughters, three step-daughters, two step sons.

Mary Katherina Dumler Ebert (1895-1974) was born in Saratov Russia. She came to Red Oak in 1908 and married Harlan Ebert, Sr. in l916. She was survived by one son, Harlan, 6 daughters and 18 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Red Oak descendants include Leah Fall, Mary Jo Bourn, Rosie Whipple, Ben Whipple, Harlan Ebert, Charlotte Palmquist, Mark Palmquist, Beth Russell, and Rebecca Hogberg.

Henry Peter Meng (b 17/September 1866 Messer,Russia d.Red Oak 16 December 1935?). Grew to manhood in Russia son of Henry Meng,was married in Saratov Christmas day, l890 to Margaret Schmidt. Immigrated to the USA in l892 directly to Red Oak arriving July 14. Member of the German Lutheran church. Pallbearers were Conrad Ross, Henry Ross, John Grasmick, John Peterson, Henry Conklin and John Nazarene. Burial in Evergreen Cemetery. Three children, George, Victor and Mary (Mrs. V.D.Telschow-lived at 205 South West First.). Brothers J.H. Meng of Oklahoma and Alexander Meng of Groton,South Dakota and Mrs. Mollie Kneidle of New Castle Ind. Funeral Serives by the Bethlehem Lutheran pastor. The 1895 Red Oak Twp Census shows Henry Meng and his wife Maggie ages 61 and 56 with 9 children only one, George (2 years) born in USA. Peter Meng is given as 27 years of age and Maggie age 29 is living with the family.

Margaret Schmidt Meng (wife of Henry Peter Meng) b. 10 March 1867 in Messer Russia, died in Red Oak 21 January l927.Member of German Evangelical church but during residence in Red Oak attended the Presbyterian Church. (besides children and grandchildren she was survived by two sisters. Mrs. John Shank of Akron Co. came for the funeral. Pallbearers: Louis Bekel, John Grasmick, Conrad Ross, Jacob Dumler, Henry Brenning and Henry Schmidt. She lived at the time of her death at 109 Third Ave(l927), where later Victor Meng lived.

Mollie Beckel Meng b.4 June l898 in Kueter, Russia, died December l985 in Stanton. The daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Louis Beckel she came to USA at age of 16. She married Joseph Hayward October 1916 and on his death, George Meng in l960 in Portland Ore. Daughters are Wilma Harper of Red Oak and Mary Louise Van Nordstrand of Savannah GA; Stepchildren: Mary Louise Meng, Portland; Margarite Leu of Olympia Wash; Victor Meng of Portland; brothers: Saunders Beckel, Portland; and Jackie Beckel, Olympia; sister Elizabeth Coday of Vancouver, Wa.

John Schmidt b. Saratov,Russia married Katherine Elizabeth Brenning (or Branning) in Russia. Katherine Brenning was the sister of Henry Brenning who had come to Red Oak in l890s. John was a professor in a Military Academy in Saratow and came to the USA to work at Ellis Island. In Red Oak he settled first with the Henry Brenning family and then moved to 3rd Avenue. He worked for 30 years for Lee Blue Dairy. His daughter Millie Schmidt Barton told her family story to many audiences in her life time.(See They Didn't Have Perma Press, Women's Stories From Montgomery County, c1989 Women's History Committee, Bettie McKenzie editor.)

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