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New Jerusalem/Wamduska


Today is the Jewish observance of the first day of Passover.

North Dakota has had several Jewish settlements in its history, but they weren’t long-lived.

Beginning in the 1870s, rising nationalism in Russia led to persecution of Germans, Ukrainians, Jews, and Crimean-Czechs, and thousands emigrated to North Dakota. Between 1882 and the advent of World War I, more than 800 Jewish individuals filed land claims here.

In St. Paul, Rabbi Judah Wechsler’s congregation was overwhelmed with Jewish refugees, and he sought means for helping them start over. In 1882, he obtained a land grant and began an experiment with 11 immigrant families at Painted Woods, 35 miles north of Bismarck.

With no other avenues open to them, the settlers tried valiantly to make the abrupt adjustment from village life in the Ukraine to the harsh conditions in their new home.

Unfortunately, Wechsler chose land that would prove disastrous. While it had trees and water from the adjoining Missouri River, the terrain and soil proved difficult, even for experienced farmers.

The settlers named their settlement New Jerusalem, but trouble arose when neighbors complained that they had settled on school land. The disputes were resolved, but the colony was in for further troubles. Historian Gunther Plaut wrote, “The Jewish settlers had many children and seemed old at thirty-five... they felt they were objects of charity. This proved a disastrous deterrent to their independence and initiative.”

Meanwhile, Jewish newspapers were still alerting Russian and German Jews that North Dakota was providing free land, and more families arrived. In its most prosperous year, the settlement had 55 families and 1,400 acres under cultivation, along with 53 horses, 56 oxen, 61 cows, and 86 calves. Jewish residents from St. Paul contributed more than $30,000 to help finance the colony, but crop failures in ‘84, ‘85, and ‘86, along with prairie fires, crippled the venture. In 1888, the settlers tried to start their own town, named Nudelman, but by 1901, the 20-year experiment had failed; only three families remained at New Jerusalem.

Near Devils Lake, another attempt to establish a Jewish settlement was taking place at Stump Lake, which the Indians called Wamduska. Here, in 1881, a number of Jewish visionaries were gambling that if they built it, the railroad would come.

In the winter of 1881-82, about 15 Jewish men staked adjoining claims and reported to the Grand Forks Daily Herald that they were developing a new town called Adler that summer. Charles Adler said, “We shall break up at least 1500 acres and push the opening of good farms at once.”

One of Adler’s partners, M. J. Mendelson, said he was setting up a thousand-acre farm near the lake. The articles states, “He proposes to engage in farming operations on the same gigantic scale that characterizes all his undertakings... nothing short of a full grain bonanza farm.”

Within months, Adler built a 3-story, 46-room hotel and tavern beside the lake named the Wamduska House. Stores, houses, saloons and a school also sprung up. Unfortunately, the railroad chose a different route, and within a year, the fledgling town was abandoned. The impressive Wamduska House remained a lasting testament to the failed vision. For some time, it was used as a hunting lodge, but in 1954, it was unfortunately demolished.

Written by Merry Helm