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Lodi's Dakota Club says goodbye after 66 years

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Posted: Wednesday, December 30, 2009 12:00 am

For Luella Bitz, attending the dinner dances with the Dakota Club meant having some social time with fellow Germans.

"Germans like to dance and they like to eat," she laughed.

Like many Germans in Lodi, Bitz migrated to the Lodi area with her family from the Dakotas. The club, which began in 1943, was formed by those who moved from both North Dakota and South Dakota as a way to get together and have parties.

Now, after 66 years of countless dinners, games and fun, the club has decided to call it quits.

When it was incorporated in 1943, the club consisted of 185 male members, plus their wives, totaling 370.

Bitz, a member for 25 years who served as the club's 29th and final president, said that in recent years the number has dwindled to only 74. The club's low membership and lack of funds has made it difficult to continue, she said.

"It's not something everyone wanted to hear," she said. "It was sad. We sang 'Auld Lang Syne' at the last dinner."

Many of the Germans of Lodi from the Dakotas came during the time Katherine the Great was in power in Russia, Bitz said. The Black Sea area was opened up, where many Germans migrated to.

Russia was at war and many Germans were forced to serve in the Russian Army. To avoid this, many Germans left and came to the United States. North Dakota was open for homesteads, where many applied. After surviving brutal winters in the Dakotas, as well as the Great Depression, most had no crops or money. In the late '30s they began relocating to the Lodi area to take advantage of its job opportunities.

According to local historian Ralph Lea, in 1930 approximately 30 percent of Lodi's population were Germans from Russia.

The Dakota Club was then formed as a small social gathering for the people of the Dakotas. Bernice Rohrbach, who has been a member of the club for 55 years and served as its last treasurer, said the membership grew and in 1943 was chartered as a non-profit.

Membership was at first limited to people from North and South Dakota, but was later opened up to those from other states. For many years, the club was one of the most sought after clubs in Lodi and there was a waiting list to join, Bitz said.

"It was a really great social time. They worked hard all week and that was the social gathering for the month," she said.

Until 1995, only male members were allowed to serve as the club's officers and board members. For the 1996-97 year, Rohrbach became its first female president.

"We worked just as hard as the men preparing food, and we weren't mentioned," she said.

She said it was also partly due to the fact the club was having trouble getting officers. In the past, the board consisted of seven members. In recent years, they were down to five members — all women, except for one man.

From 1943 until 1996, the club held many weekend picnics, which included various games, like Bingo and raffles.

Bitz said the club always had great prizes, and recalled the year a picnic table was given away. One member, determined to win, bought 50 tickets for $1 each. Bitz bought only one ticket and won the table.

"It was just a fluky thing," she reminisced.

While looking though some of the group's history, Bitz came across an old poster that featured some of the prizes given in the early days. She was surprised to find some of the prizes had been a washer and dryer and coffee maker.

"It's just amazing because this was in 1946, after the Depression," she said.

German food such as kuchen, cabbage rolls and bratwurst were served for the dinners. In the early years, only German accordion bands would play for the dances. When rock 'n' roll came on the scene, it was incorporated into the dances along with western bands, in hopes of attracting younger crowds.

One year, when the "Hee Haw" show was popular, the club put on a "Hee Haw" performance. Rohrbach played the part of Minnie Pearl. She said the event was a lot of fun and drew a large crowd.

Annually, a rope pull pitted the people from North Dakota against the people from South Dakota to determine which were the strongest. Bitz said a trophy was given, and North Dakota was almost always the winner.

In 1993, the club celebrated its 50th anniversary at a special event, which took five years to plan by a committee of seven couples.

Numerous fundraisers, headed by Emil Stigmayer, were held for the event. He organized several spaghetti dinners, which were the most popular. He also made many raffle and auction items, ranging from footstools to the replica of a Dakota grain elevator. Bitz said the event provided a considerable amount of money for the club's finances.

In recent years, the club has been unsuccessful in attracting younger members, and many of its older members are either dying off or unable to drive, Bitz said. With membership at an all-time low and no money left, the decision was made to close up. The club held its last dinner and dance on Dec. 12 at the American Legion Hall.

Lea said the loss of interest in the club is due to the fact that the Dakotans have already integrated into Lodi. Many may have relatives still in the Dakotas, but they are not coming here anymore.

"Their kids were born here, so they don't consider themselves Dakotans," he said.

Rohrbach is saddened that the younger people couldn't be enticed to join.

"It's a different world out there," she said. "We hung in this long and had good times together."

Contact Features Editor Pam Bauserman at pamelab@lodinews.com.

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  • posted at 9:35 am on Tue, Jan 5, 2010.


    Educator:Let me provide some comments in answer to your questions.Most of the Germans lived in farming villages with neighboring villages occupied by Armenians, Jews, Russians, etc. There was contact with these different villages throughout the century or more from the beginning of the settlement in the early 1800s, but very little intermarriage and cultural mixing with Russians. The Germans spoke German and few Russian words; kept their own religions and cultural practices. In 1871, the Germans in Russia lost some of their earlier rights and were required to serve in the military. They resented these changes and the move toward more "Russification". But, the main reason they left Russia for the US, was the availability of "free land for a free people". Also, many of the German settlers in Russia spoke regional variations of German that went back to earlier times; meanwhile, the standardization of "hochdeutsch" had gone on in Germany. The versions differed. I recommend your reading of Joseph Height's "Homesteaders on the Steppe", 1975, North Dakota Historical Society of Germans from Russia.

  • posted at 8:33 am on Tue, Jan 5, 2010.


    First, a slight correction to an other-wise great article. The Lodi area Germans from Russia were mostly Black Sea Germans, or "Schwarzmeer Deutsch". As such, they were invited in the early 1800s by Tsar Alexander I, not his grandmother Catherine the Great, to settle in the Ukraine.As a member of the Northern California Chapter of the Germans from Russia Historical Society, in Sacramento, I am very sorry to hear of the Dakota Club's ending. All of us appreciated this group's role in Lodi, the "capitol of North and South Dakota", in passing on our GR heritage. Thanks to all of you for that!

  • posted at 3:26 pm on Wed, Dec 30, 2009.


    Correction--Many North Dakota Germans are descendants of Germans who immigrated from Russia. The immigrants came mostly in the later 1800's and early 1900's.

  • posted at 3:18 pm on Wed, Dec 30, 2009.


    EducatorI believe many of the North Dakota "Germans" migrated from south Russia. It is true that the North Dakota "German" is different than German spoken in Germany. My grand parents came from South Russia and homesteaded near Burnstead ND. My father was schooled by a Russian priest and had a Russian prayer book which he could read.It is my understanding that Russia needed farmers and made it attractive for Germans to move to Russia to become farmers. The Germans were treated poorly--- as immigrants usually are and many left Russia to homestead in the US.I think we can all understand why they downplayed their Russian connection.

  • posted at 2:21 pm on Wed, Dec 30, 2009.


    Unfortunately, most of the old "Dakotan's" are currently residing at Harney Lane and 99. My neighbor was, what he called, a Dakota German. But he and my former Doctor, both of the same persuasion, told me that there is a lot of Russian blood and culture in these people. But they didn't want to celebrate the Russian component. My neighbor also told me that his parents actually came from Russia, and did not speak "proper" German. He also said that his parents had a hard time talking with people from Germany because the dialect was so different.I am wondering if this was true. Why didn't they celebrate their Russian heritage?Can anyone elaborate on this? I can't ask either of them anymore, because they are both at Harney and 99.

  • posted at 5:26 am on Wed, Dec 30, 2009.


    It is certainly sad to see the end of the Dakota Club. The members have gotten old and tired of doing all of the work in planning. It seems like the younger generation like to just sit around and complain and let the old timers do all of the work. They have no reason to complain if they do nothing themselves. This isn't just with the Dakota club but with many clubs.I will miss the Dakota club and their events.

  • posted at 4:43 am on Wed, Dec 30, 2009.


    Ah---the good ole days.I recall the excitement created by all the posters advertising the annual Dakota club picnic. A good time was had by all. My dad used run a "penny pitch" game there. Players would toss pennies hoping to win a can of fruit donated by the old Stokley cannery. Thanks to all the old "square heads" that made this club and this picnic fun.



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