The hidden history of Colorado’s Germans from Russia



Even the toddlers in this large German-Russian family near Greeley helped work in the sugar beet fields. Although ethnically German, their people lived on the Volga River in Russia for several generations before coming to Colorado.

Greeley History Museum

Wherever you see an old sugar factory in northeast Colorado, you can probably find a krautburger nearby. This favorite local lunch is part of the cultural legacy of the Germans from Russia, the people whose work in the sugar beet fields fueled the region’s prosperity but whose very existence has become obscured by history.

Mexican food is the house specialty at The Border Restaurant on Main Street in downtown Windsor. The enchiladas, chile rellenos and chimichangas are big sellers, but one of the most popular menu items stands out from the rest: the krautburger. 

Mexican restaurants don’t typically serve krautburgers. In Windsor, however, it seems perfectly normal. Windsor lies at the heart of what you might call northeast Colorado’s Krautburger Triangle, which covers the area between Brighton, Fort Collins and Sterling. Travel within the triangle, and you can generally find a nearby restaurant that serves these dough pockets stuffed with seasoned ground beef, cabbage and onions. Venture beyond, and you’ll get a lot of perplexed looks if you try to order one.

The krautburger flourishes here because it is the Colorado homeland of the people who brought it over from the Old World – the people known as German-Russians, or Germans from Russia. Although many Coloradans have never heard of the Germans from Russia, or are simply confused by the seemingly oxymoronic term German-Russian, their history and culture is deeply embedded in the way of life of the northern Front Range and northeast Plains. Krautburgers are just the tip of the iceberg.

From Germany to Russia to Colorado

A little more than a century ago, northeast Colorado was in the midst of an economic boom thanks to white gold – sugar. Farmers grew sugar beets in fields throughout the region, raking in millions of dollars when local sugar factories turned the beets into pure, white sugar. The sugar boom couldn’t have happened without workers willing to work long, hard hours in the beet fields, and the original migrant laborers who met this need were the Germans from Russia.

Germans are from Germany, and Russians are from Russia. So what, exactly, is a German from Russia? John Kammerzell, president of the Northern Colorado Chapter of the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia, has a lifetime of experience answering this question. His family has been fielding similar queries since they arrived in the United States from the Volga region of Russia in 1906.

Kammerzell, a retired U.S. marshal now living in Fort Collins, remembers how his grandparents bristled as they told him how their old neighbors in Brighton used to call their family “dirty Russians” – or “dirty Rooshuns,” as the locals pronounced it. The name-calling stung Grandpa Johannes and Grandma Emma because it simply wasn’t true: Not only weren’t they dirty, they weren’t even Russians; they were ethnic Germans.

The story of how the Kammerzells and other German families came to live in Russia begins with Russian Empress Catherine the Great. (With the possible exception of history professors, no group seems to be as knowledgeable about Catherine the Great as German-Russians.) In 1763, the German-born Catherine put out an open invitation for Germans to come settle along the Volga River in Russia, promising them cheap land, freedom to keep their own language and religion, low taxes, self-governance and exemption from Russian military service. For German peasants yearning to own their own land and escape the misery of the recently ended Seven Years’ War, it was an attractive offer. More than 30,000 Germans moved to colonies in the Volga region. They called themselves the Volga Deutsche.

The Germans thrived for many generations, successfully farming the fertile steppes. Then, near the turn of the 20th century, the Russian government began reneging on Catherine’s promises, pressuring the Germans to adopt Russian ways and conscripting the men into the military. Kammerzell’s great-grandfather Georg Victor Kammerzell was drafted into the Russian army, leaving behind his home in the town of Frank to fight in the Russo-Japanese War, a horrific conflict that presaged the trench warfare of World War I. His family received no word from him for several years. They assumed he was dead.

“One day, this guy in uniform came walking down the road into Frank,” Kammerzell said, repeating an old family story. “My great-grandmother saw him, but she didn’t realize until he got very close that it was her husband – he’d lost so much weight and was so unkempt. As soon as he got home, he said, ‘We’re leaving.’ ”

Like thousands of other German families along the Volga, the Kammerzells came to America, bound for the beet fields of the Great Plains.

For the rest of the story see the September/October 2017 issue of Colorado Life.

 

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