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The Team that Overworked

3/18/2004:

Today’s story is about teamwork – in a manner of speaking.

Christian Maiers was born to the village shoemaker in Berresana, Russia, in 1862. Christian and his wife, Gottleibina, had their first child, Amelia, in 1886 – the first of their eleven children, but the only one born in Russia. Because of overpopulation and land shortage, Christian and his young family, along with his parents and his brother, moved to the Ellendale area in 1886.

Christian had only $20 left when the whole family moved into a 12 by 18 foot sod house he built in Antelope Township. Part of it he spent on lumber for a roof, and the rest he spent on food.

At the time, the plains were strewn with bones left from the disastrous buffalo slaughters of the previous decades, and many settlers made extra money by selling these bones to fertilizer companies. Maiers decided he would do the same.

Christian used a wagon and a team of two oxen that his father had bought. One of the oxen was slow and lazy, though, and made the days seem longer than they were. Their cow, on the other hand, was very energetic, so when it was time to haul his load of bones to town, Maiers decided to hitch the better of his two oxen together with his cow.

In his memoirs, Maiers wrote, “Along with the other settlers, I started for Ellendale. This team of one ox and one cow was just like crazy. They would run nearly all the time, and I had a hard time guiding them in the right direction. Ellendale was 35 miles cross-country from my home. I had gathered some of the bones 35 miles west and north of home, because those close at hand soon disappeared.” Maiers went on to explain that the group didn’t expect to reach Ellendale until the next day, and they would camp out overnight that evening.

But his animals seemed to have other plans. “I could not hold my odd team in check,” he wrote, “and I steadily drew away from the rest of the party. When I got into the hilly country about 15 miles from my farm, my odd team... ran the wagon, filled with bones, into a trap of big rocks (and) part of the load spilled... Then the team became stubborn and wouldn’t move... Getting down on the front end of the wagon tongue, I scared the beasts enough so they bounded out over the rocks.”

Once more, the team was on the run, with Maiers now stuck out on the wagon’s tongue. Before he knew it, they ran the wagon into a swollen creek, where they all took a much needed breather. But when Maiers was ready to move on, he found they were stuck.

An Englishman named Schimmelmore was working in a nearby field and came over to help Maiers unhitch his overachieving team. Then the Englishman used three of his horses to pull out the wagon, which was now considerably lighter than when they had started out that morning.

“With the animals running once again,” Maiers wrote, “I reached Ellendale that same evening. I sold the bones for $4 a ton – and a ton was about all I had left.” The next morning, he bought supplies and headed back to Ellendale, again at a good clip. When they’d gone about 10 miles, they met up with the friends they’d started out with the previous morning. Maiers wrote, “They couldn’t believe that I had already been to town until I showed them the supplies I purchased.”

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

The Way it Was: The North Dakota Frontier Experience; Book Four: Germans from Russia Settlers: Everett C. Albers and D. Jerome Tweton, Editors