Devils Lake college hosts play based on life of Jewish homesteader
GARSKE, N.D. – A narrow strip of native prairie stretches eastward down a gentle hill from the Sons of Jacob Cemetery, pointing the way to a shelterbelt about a mile away that marks the original homestead of Rachel Calof, the Jewish pioneer who documented her life of raising a family on the harsh North Dakota Plains during the late 1890s and early 1900s.
Calof was a young Jewish bride who emigrated from Russia to New York City in 1894 to marry a man she had never met and move to North Dakota, where she would raise a family in a tiny 12-by-14-foot shack that also was occupied by an abusive mother-in-law and several other family members.
While living in St. Paul, Calof wrote a memoir at the age of 55 that chronicled her story.
After her death, her children found the memoir, which became “Rachel Calof’s Story” and was published in 1995.
It since has been adapted into a one-woman play, “Rachel Calof: A Memoir with Music,” which will be performed at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday at Lake Region State College in Devils Lake.
The play, which stars actress Kate Fuglei, was arranged for the stage by Fuglei’s husband, Ken Lazebnik, and is directed by Ellen S. Pressman. Music and lyrics are by Leslie Steinweiss.
Members of the Calof family and production crew members will conduct question-and-answer sessions at the end of each 80-minute performance.
Other events this weekend include an acting workshop by Fuglei on Saturday and daily bus tours from Lake Region Heritage Center in Devils Lake to the Sons of Jacob Cemetery, located northeast of Garske, a tiny community about 20 miles north of Devils Lake.
The Garske Colony, which initially was settled in 1883, lasted until about 1920. Several members of the community eventually moved to Devils Lake. But others, such as the Calofs, moved away from the farm and North Dakota.
The Sons of Jacob Cemetery largely was forgotten over the years.
It may have disappeared from the landscape, had it not been for the descendants of Nik Kitsch, on whose land the cemetery lies. The Kitsch family became the cemetery’s unofficial caretakers for much of the past century.
A granite monument honoring the Garske Colony settlers was placed in the cemetery in 2006. The monument lists the names of 104 original Jewish homesteaders of the Garske Colony.
It was a project initiated after Dennis Kitsch met Hal Ettinger, a descendant of one of the colony settlers. The then-Kansas resident first visited the cemetery in 2004 while on a business trip to North Dakota.
Ettinger found the grave site of his great-grandfather, Simon Ettinger, which was outlined by a ring of fieldstone rocks, with a crude, rusted metal nameplate with his name and the year he died, 1891, attached with barbed wire anchored into the ground.
Simon Ettinger had arrived at the Garske Colony in 1886. He died just six months after gaining free title to 160 acres. His widow, with five young children, then moved away with a total of $10 to their name, Hal Ettinger, who since has died, said in 2006.
Ettinger and a local Sons of Jacob Cemetery Committee raised money to research and restore the cemetery, which contains 17 marked gravestones, although the many small, unmarked mounds dotting the ground indicate many more are here. Some grave markers include inscriptions in Hebrew.
Like other homestead-era cemeteries, the marked gravestones include names of several children, the earliest one of a 19-month-old Kaufman boy, in either 1885 or 1888. Others include: Anna Carter, 1902-1914; Charlotte Greenberg, 1902-1906; Israel Greenberg, 1892-1903; Joseph Canter, 1905-1918; and Benny Parks, son of Charles and Fannie Parks, Jan. 31, 1910-Feb. 13, 1910.
The Garske Colony lasted only until about 1920.
Links to the past
While many moved on to other cities and states, several settled in Devils Lake, establishing businesses, such as Shark Clothiers and Friedman Clothing Store.
The local Sons of Jacob committee also raised funds to bring the one-woman play to Devils Lake. The play previously has been performed in New York, Los Angeles and at the Minnesota Jewish Theatre in St. Paul.
The idea came when four Devils Lake-area residents, Mike and Ellen Connor and Rick and Shirley LaFleur, saw the play in St. Paul last August and met with members of Calof’s extended family, as well as Fuglei and the production team.
“Even though we live just over a mile from the Sons of Jacob Cemetery and have the opportunity to visit it quite often, it was awesome to sit in the theater and hear Rachel’s words come to life, visualizing a barren treeless prairie, pitch dark when the sun set, bitter cold in the winter, scalding hot in the summer and looking at the outline of their shanty home on the stage,” Mike Connor said.
If you go:
A one-woman play, “Rachel Calof: A Memoir with Music,” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday at the Robert Fawcett Auditorium at Lake Region State College, 1801 College Ave., Devils Lake.
For tickets, contact the Lake Region Heritage Center, 502 4th St. NE, Devils Lake, at (701) 662-3701, or Lake Region State College, Robert Fawcett Auditorium at (701) 662-1600. Tickets are $10 for adults or $25 for family. Limited tickets are available for tonight’s performance.
Other related events:
- Bus tours to Sons of Jacob Cemetery and the original Calof homestead, 2 p.m. today and 10 a.m. Saturday. Tour leaves from Lake Region Heritage Center. Call (701) 662-3701 to reserve a spot.
- Acting workshop with Kate Fuglei, 10 a.m. Saturday, in the courtroom at Lake Region Heritage Center. Limited spots available. Call (701) 662-3701 to reserve a spot.
For more information about the Sons of Jacob Cemetery and the pioneer Jewish community in the Devils Lake region, go to: www.sojnorthdakota.org