Martyr Mother

Apr 19, 2018

The story of Wilhelmina Geiszler is a legend long told by the people of North Dakota, and I have been one of the tellers--here in this radio space.

I have called her the Martyr Mother of the German-Russians. Her legendary profile belies the modest marker on her gravesite in the Ashley Cemetery.

It has become my business to recount such legends, for during this calendar year I am designated historian in residence in German-Russian Country--defined by the Tri-County Tourism Alliance as Emmons, Logan, and McIntosh counties. As I prowl the landscape here, my gas tank is filled by virtue of a grant from Humanities North Dakota.

Briefly, again, here is the tragic story of Wilhelmina Geiszler. One afternoon in April 1898 husband Johannes was in the field plowing, and two daughters of the house were fetching the cows from pasture, when the wind changed. A prairie fire thus turned to threaten the farmstead, where Wilhelmina was at home.

The two daughters raced for the house, each grabbing the tail of a cow to speed progress. One of the two made it home safe. The other child, Anna, stepped in a gopher hole, fell, and was swept by the fire.

Horrified, Wilhelmina ran to assist her stricken daughter--right through the flames. Mother and daughter both died of burns.

One of the points I emphasize to the people of German-Russian Country, in talks such as the one I presented recently to a kind and cordial audience in Lehr, is the necessity of investing the landscape with story. It is narrative that gives meaning to life in a place. It is narrative that appeals to visitors, the independent travelers who wish to experience real things in real places. So, to make this point to the people of Lehr, I told them, one more time, their own story, the story of Minnie Geiszler--this time, for the first time, in the form of a ballad.

One more thing you need to know to understand the ballad: a glazed clay bust of Minnie Geiszler crafted by Laura Taylor Hughes, the founder of Rosemeade Pottery, reposes in an exhibit case in the McIntosh County Heritage Center.

To Wilhelmina Bauer Geiszler, Christian people, reach thine hand

Martyr Mother of the German-Russian people of this land

Thinking only of another, she sacrificed her life that day

As she was, immortal mother, lives still in memory and clay

A prairie farm, McIntosh County, in April 1898

Wilhelmina and her Anna died in a prairie fire that date

While Johnannes labored plowing, poor Anna fell to ground and lay

Courage and love her deed endowing, brave Minnie ran through fire that day

We sing the song of Wilhelmina, we view her visage cast in clay

There is a miracle that happens for believers, so they say

By her faithfulness engendered here for the people of the land

Brave Minnie’s cheek, in cold clay rendered, curiously warms to touch of the hand.

~Tom Isern