Castle Rock’s German Community

The following story by Jim LeMonds appeared in the December 2010 issue of the Cowlitz Historical Quarterly.

During the first part of the 20th century, Castle Rock was home to a large contingent of German immigrants, many of whom were born and raised in Russia’s Ukraine. My maternal grandparents, Henry Berndt and Amelia Roller Berndt, were among them.  

The Germans from Russia were leftovers of an earlier migration, this one during the 18th century at the invitation of Catherine the Great. Her offer promised that Germans who came to the Ukraine to farm would be able to retain their language and religion and would not be subject to military conscription.

The Germans who accepted Catherine’s offer made virtually no effort to assimilate. Their communities in Russia were much like Amish communities in the U.S. today, with the focus on shielding members from outside influence.

By 1875, nearly all of Catherine’s guarantees had been revoked, and Germans living in Russia began to look to the U.S. and Canada for escape.

The Ledes, Reins, Stankeys, and Weinheimers came from Dubno. The Hansches, Kralls, Maschkes, and Kwandts from Polana. The Rollers, Berndts, Wiesners, and Roses from Rovno.

Although I’m not aware of their origins, the local Germany community also included the Kunnerts, Ruddes, Schaffrans, Liebichs, Wolskes, Kluths, Wendts, Peroutkas, Brockmans, Winters, Janisches, Glenzes, Bergers, Velkes, Kirschbaums, Kriegers, Horsts, Rosins, Birkenstocks, and Reimanns. Nearly all were Lutherans.

Many had known each other in the Old Country, and when they came to Cowlitz County, they quickly re-established ties. They intermarried, attended the same church, and kept their language and culture alive.

In 1899, George Finke – resident minister at Astoria – formally organized the German Evangelical Lutheran Church at Castle Rock. His churches were scattered along the Columbia and Cowlitz rivers, and he traveled by boat to minister intermittently to each.

The Castle Rock church was founded by Albert Rosin, Ferdinand Stankey, Gustaf Stankey, and their wives, along with Ferdinand son’s Rudolph. They initially held services in the Rosin home on Tower Road, northeast of Castle Rock, and then built a church at the corner of Fourth and Warren in 1906. Services were conducted exclusively in German.

The church went through several name changes over the years, and the congregation eventually moved into a new building on 1st Avenue. It is now known as St. Paul Lutheran.

The Berndt Family
My maternal grandfather, Henry Berndt, was born in the village of Walinigen, not far from Rovno, on September 10, 1887.

Henry’s father, August Berndt, was a barrelmaker. To obtain materials, August first applied for a permit that would allow him to cut a tree in a government-owned forest. The tree was felled and transported home with a team of horses. Afterwards, the stump was grubbed and a seedling planted.

Henry’s mother died of blood poisoning when he was an infant. His step-mother and two younger siblings also died of disease.

Henry’s older sister, Bertha, came to America aboard a cattleship, using a fake passport supplied by an uncle. She lived with the uncle’s family in Michigan, working in a cannery that processed fruits and tomatoes. She met and married Frank Janisch after a three-day courtship.

Bertha sent Henry $84 to bribe the appropriate officials and secure passage from Rotterdam to New York. He arrived at Ellis Island on the Bremen in 1907 and boarded with Frank and Bertha, who were now located in Racine, Wisconsin.

The Rollers were also Germans-from-Russia. Amelia’s brother Bill arrived in the U.S. in 1907. He paid Amelia’s passage aboard the George Washington in 1909. She lived with her brother’s family in Racine before marrying Henry Berndt on July 31, 1909.

Henry and Amelia traveled to Castle Rock by train in 1912 and stayed with her brother John Roller and his family for several months. They later moved into a house on Tower Road, off Spirit Lake Highway, east of Castle Rock.

Other German families living on Tower Road included the Janisches, Rollers, Winters, Rosins, and Brockmans. The Kralls, Hansches, Kluths, and Schraffrans were also located in the vicinity.

Suspicion of Foreigners
When the U.S. entered World War I, William Rhode was the minister at what was, by now, known as the Castle Rock Lutheran Community Church. Almost immediately, the town’s newly-formed Council of Defense, expressed concern that an organized group of Germans was holding regular meetings.

The Council asked Rhode to stop conducting German-language services. The congregation agreed to comply until the war ended. The pastor’s daughter, Elsie Rhode Rosin, noted that discrimination against Germans was common during this period.

By 1923, English and German services were offered on alternate Sundays. That same year, for the first time, church council minutes were recorded in English. By the late 1930s, all services were being conducted in English.

Probably because they were Caucasians, Germans in the U.S. were not subjected to internment camps during World War II, but there was plenty of distrust.

During the ‘40s, my grandfather, Henry Berndt, often stopped at Fred Krieger’s shoe shop in Castle Rock. He and Krieger conversed in German, which created rumors about “Nazi meetings.”

A complaint was also filed against German families living on Tower Road for allegedly failing to abide by blackout regulations. An investigation found no violations.

Everyday Life
Henry Berndt’s employment was closely tied to the timber industry. He hewed bridge timbers and worked on a section crew for McCormicks’ Logging Company, at a sawmill owned by Henry Dirkes, on a road-building crew for Taylor Brothers, and as log-bucker for Rodney Settlemeir and others.

At home, he cut wood for the stove and fabricated wooden hay rakes that were used at harvest to gather hay cut with a hand scythe and shocked in piles (kiebitzenheus).

Henry worked hard but was satisfied with his life. He was fond of saying, “Three meals a day, a warm bed, and a roof over your head is a pretty good life.”

Henry smoked a pipe, drove his cloth-top Model A at glacial speed, and enjoyed a good laugh. He liked to tell the story of Der Schwarze Katz (Black Cat), which involved three men who were terrorized by an enormous feline.

He was laid-back and didn’t enjoy disciplining his nine children, among them my mother, Evelyn. A swat with the newspaper was the only punishment he handed out. Amelia, on the other hand, had no aversion to disciplining the kids. She would put up with only so much, and then the wooden spoon would come out.

Amelia wore wooden shoes, drank cold coffee, and hummed when she worked. She was in charge of the house, which meant milking, cleaning, cooking, and taking care of the garden. She baked 10 to 12 loaves of bread per week in a woodstove and canned fruit in half-gallon jars. She also took in washing and ironing work from outside the home.

The kids hoed and weeded the garden, dug potatoes, cleaned the barn and the woodshed, butchered the chickens, shocked the hay, shelled hazelnuts, stacked wood, chased the cows, picked berries, and helped with the milking.

The Berndt home buzzed with activity and attracted many visitors.

Martin Mahlmin and his son Gottlieb – along with the family dog, Sport – often drove up from Longview to spend the day. No one was especially fond of the dog. Fred Krieger, Pauline Rosin, and Henry’s sister Bertha Janisch were also frequent visitors.

The biggest parties coincided with the arrival of Amelia’s relatives – the Roller clan – from Tacoma. They sometimes brought their friends, the Berwolds and Konshaucks, and stayed the weekend. Other German families from the Castle Rock area also showed up to join in the fun.

Henry was short and soft-spoken and a perfect contrast to Amelia’s brother John Roller, who was large and loud. During pinochle games, Uncle John liked to snap a card on the table, shout “Hot snot!” and roar with laughter.

Music was always a part of the festivities. John Roller played the coronet; Otto Hansch, the Jew’s harp; and  Yukon Driver, the accordion. Henry and Anton Horst would dance to the music in the Berndt livingroom, snapping their suspenders as everyone laughed.

Most days of the week, Henry’s hat was perfectly balanced on his head, but after a few drinks it tended to tip back noticeably. He and Yukon would have people hold a broomstick horizontally and then take turns jumping over it, backwards and forwards.

Looking Back
Amelia died in 1941. Henry in 1962. Their four oldest children – Grace, Elsie, Selma, and Anna, have passed away. My mother, Evelyn, turned 92 in November. She is the oldest living member of St. Paul Lutheran Church.

My grandparents and their German friends became American citizens, but they never gave up their language or their culture. Things are much different today.

My aunts and uncles retain an accent but little more. No one in my generation speaks German. In fact, I can’t think of a single tradition that has survived.

The connections to the past have evaporated in half a century. Stories, photos, and occasional meals of sauerkraut or borscht are the only reminders of who we were.

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