The sweet smell of recent rain filled the air as Ron Brossart looked out over the flat, grassy terrain. Although there were no headstones in sight – they had been destroyed years ago, crushed and used for road building – he was looking at a centuries-old cemetery.
The cemetery was not far from Odessa, Ukraine, the region where Brossart’s ancestors lived before immigrating to the United States.
“Looking at this cemetery, knowing that my ancestors were buried there…it was a strange feeling,” said Ron.
Ron and his father, Valentine, traveled to Ukraine in 2005 as part of a Journey to the Homeland tour through North Dakota State University. Led by Michael M. Miller, NDSU has been offering ancestral heritage tours in Ukraine since 1996.
Michael is the Director of the Germans of Russia Heritage Collection at North Dakota State University Libraries in Fargo.
“Looking at the sad developments in Ukraine, I am deeply concerned about the many friends and colleagues we have met on the Journey to the Homeland tours in the former German villages of the Black Sea and Bessarabia in Odessa,” said Michael. “Ukraine is the homeland of many German-Russian ancestors from Pierce County and North Dakota.”
The search for a
In 1804, the ancestors of the Brossarts left what was then Germany to live in Ukraine at the invitation of the Tsar of Russia. The Brossarts settled in the village of Selz. They were among thousands of Germans who emigrated to Ukraine, living there for about 100 years to enjoy the free land, religious freedom and other rights and privileges promised to them.
In 1871, the Tsar of Russia revoked the rights and privileges granted to German settlers. The settlers were appalled and angry and began to migrate out of the country.
In 1889 Johannes “John” Brossart, Ron’s great-grandfather, came to the United States from Ukraine. John, his wife, Franciska, and their son, John, took the train to Eureka, South Dakota. John left Franciska and her son with a relative near Eureka and traveled north, finding land near Hague, North Dakota.
John built a 14-by-16-foot mud hut and moved there with his family in July 1890. John and Franciska had a daughter in late 1890 and another son in 1892. A fourth child (the eventual Ron’s grandfather), Frank, was born in 1893.
The family spent two or three years closer to Hague – and added three more children to their offspring – but they were not making a good living. The soil in Emmons County was not productive. They moved north to Blumenfield in McHenry County, where they had two more children, and 10 years later moved again, settling northeast of Berwick.
Both Valentine’s parents had Ukrainian roots. His mother, Elizabeth Voeller Brossart, was born in Ukraine. She came to the United States around 1910 when she was 17 or 18 years old. Ron remembers her sharing stories about her childhood.
“She had fond memories of her life in Ukraine until the last two years,” said Ron. “They were doing well, farming some of the most productive land in the world. Then Russia started changing the rules.
Journey to homeland
Ron said his father was fascinated by his mother’s stories. When Valentine heard about NDSU tours in the early 2000s, he told his family he wanted to go. When no one else showed interest, he brought it up again. He wanted to go, and he wanted someone to come with him.
“At the time it didn’t really interest me, but in a moment of weakness I accepted” said Ron.
During their Ukrainian tour, Valentine and Ron visited the villages where their ancestors lived. They spent several days in Odessa, one day in France and a few days in Germany. They saw a building in Ukraine that was starting to become a museum about Germans who migrated to the area.
“Have you ever done something on the moment that you hadn’t really thought of, but turned out to be the best thing? This trip is one of the things in my life, I’m sure I’m glad I did it,” said Ron.
Shortly after their trip, Valentine’s health began to decline. He died on January 3, 2008.
leave a legacy
Ron later learned that his father had made a financial contribution to the Ukrainian museum they had seen on their trip. He also learned that there were photos of him and his father – taken during their trip in 2005 – hanging in the Ukrainian museum.
“Who knows if this museum will exist for a long time” said Ron. “Only God knows what will happen in Ukraine now.”
Valentine’s legacy was of great importance to him and he supported not only the Ukrainian Museum but also a new building on the grounds of the Prairie Village Museum in Rugby. It was his dream that a new building be created at the museum to honor those who settled in this area, enabling their descendants to have a better life.
The new building, which opened its doors in October 2021, was made possible thanks to the generosity of the Brossart family, as well as the support of many other donors and volunteers.
An exhibition in the new building of the Germans in Russia offers a detailed insight into the individual families who settled in the region. Visitors can learn about the people who came from Russia, including details about their original German homes, the region of Russia they came from, and information about their travels to America, such as ship names and ports of arrival.
The Prairie Village Museum opens Sunday, May 1 for the 2022 season.
As for future NDSU tours, they are postponed indefinitely due to the recent invasion of Ukraine, according to the NDSU website. The website states, “We don’t know what the future holds for Ukraine, but we hope that one day we can visit our friends again.”
Excerpts printed with permission from the Heritage Collection of Germans in Russia, NDSU Libraries, Fargo, ND. https://library.ndsu.edu/grhc
Andrea Blessum is the daughter of Jerry and Kathy Blessum of Rugby. She graduated from Rugby High School and the University of Mary. Blessum is a descendant of John Brossart and his family, Germans who lived in the Black Sea region of Ukraine in the 19th century. Blessum lives in Bismarck, where she works in public relations for MDU Resources.