Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Wilhelm 'Columbus' Hieb


People who grew up in the German Russian regions of the state likely knew at least one person who either moved to Lodi, California, or who had relatives there. This was the result of a quest by Wilhelm Adam Hieb, who became known as “Columbus” for encouraging others to join him there.

Hieb (heeb) was born in Neudorf Russia in 1852 and came here with his young wife, Catharina, on the S.S. Hermann in 1874. They settled in Hutchinson County, Dakota Territory, near what is now Menno, South Dakota. Catharina died during their tenth year together.

After two decades on the prairie, Wilhelm missed the more temperate climate of south Russian, so he decided to find a place more similar to where he grew up. In 1895, he and two friends, Gottlieb Hieb (no relation) and Jacob Mettler, headed for California and toured the state by train.

Wilhelm liked Los Angeles and its orange groves, but he wanted to grow grapes. They headed north and finally found the perfect place: Lodi. Hieb went back to Dakota, sold his land, and became the first German Russian to move to Lodi.

With him were his second wife, Charlotta, and their eight children. In 1975, Hieb’s youngest child, Pauline Walters, told the story to the Lodi News-Sentinel. Her father bought 30 acres a mile south of Lodi and planted some of it into Zinfandel and Mission grapes. The rest he put into pasture to raise cows to keep them afloat until the grapes were mature enough to produce.

It wasn’t until a few years later that others began to join them. Polly said when other Dakotans began arriving, they’d always stay with the Hiebs. The town did have a hotel and a restaurant, she says, “but this wasn’t for the thrifty Dakotans. People came and went from our house, and this went on for years. Sometimes families would stay with us for two or three weeks until they could find a place.”

It was about this time that Wilhelm became known as “Columbus,” as he enticed more and more of his former neighbors to migrate to Lodi. Even his mail came addressed to Columbus Hieb. He would meet Dakotans at the train depot and drive the men around until they found what they needed. Land was inexpensive – about $25-35 an acre – and the sandy soil was ideal.

Some people farmed, others worked in wineries or canneries. Nearly everyone prospered, and the migration increased. Back in Dakota, it became a sort of joke among German Russians – to ensure their children’s survival they taught them three words in English: Papa, Mama and Lodi.

Polly remembered a day in the early 1900s when an entire train car of Dakotans arrived. This time there were so many, their home wasn’t large enough to accommodate everybody. Her brother was sent on horseback to tell earlier migrants to come and get some of them. Meanwhile, she helped her mother prepare food for everybody. “It didn’t matter how many came,” she said, “we always had food. We learned how to manage on the spur of the moment.”

Columbus Hieb’s vineyard was one of the first commercial wineries in the Lodi region. After his grapes started producing, he shipped his wine in 50-gallon barrels to Hosmer, SD, where it was marketed. The initiator of the “Lodi connection” died on this date in 1929. He was 77.

Source: Hieb-Vogt, Bev (great-granddaughter).

Mays, Myrtle. “Columbus Hieb Began Migration to Lodi.”

Lodi News-Sentinel. 10 Jan 1975. Reprinted in Heritage Review Sep 1983: Vol 13 No 3: 20-21.

Bismarck: Germans from Russia Heritage Society.

Vossler, Ron (documentary script). “Heaven Is Our Homeland: the Glückstalers in New Russia and North America.” Glückstal Colonies Research Assn, 2004.