Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Black Sea German immigrants who moved from southern Russia to the Northern Great Plains in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries carried a blend of German and Russian culture that distinguishes them from neighboring ethnic groups. One component of this culture is a basic vernacular architecture that was executed in a variety of ways by individual builders.

These buildings are not the ephemeral sod structures commonly associated with Great Plains settlement; rather, skillful builders used a range of materials from clay and rammed earth to stone and balloon-frame construction. Fundamental to all the buildings except frame is a basic clay mixture that serves as a load-bearing material in walls, as a mortar, and as filler between floor joists. Puddled clay is a freehand method of construction that utilizes no wooden forms to erect load-bearing walls. Instead, clay is piled directly on the foundation up to a height of about thirteen to eighteen inches. Stones are often combined with the clay in regular courses near the exterior surface of walls to serve as filler. Batsa is the term used to describe sun-dried bricks made of puddled clay. They are shaped by pressing the clay into wooden molds to form bricks ranging in length from ten to eighteen inches. Rammed-earth walls are formed by piling puddled clay between vertical wooden forms and compressing the clay with a handheld ramming device. Masonry construction employs puddled clay as mortar in loadbearing walls of either coursed rubble or fieldstone. Traditional balloon-frame construction is also used, in some cases with batsa bricks placed between the studs of the exterior wall to serve as insulation.

Black Sea German houses represent an unusual synthesis of German, Russian Ukrainian, and other western European architectural features. Their domestic architecture developed through an integration of specific morphological prototypes expressed in the form, scale, function, and materials of each building. A typical house is distinguished by its one-story height with a loft and an attached vestibule (vorhausl) on the long side leading into the kitchen. The rather narrow, rectangular shape is covered with a gable roof. A smaller two- or three-room dwelling is known as a semelanka, while larger house-barn combinations, which provide living quarters for people and animals under a single roof, are called kolonistenhaus.

Rooms are subdivided by partitions made of wood, puddled clay, and batsa, creating houses two or three bays wide and one or two rooms deep. A central kitchen is typically flanked to the left by a parlor or living room (stube) and sometimes by a storage or sleeping room on the right. Some dwellings have a black kitchen (schwarze kuche), a small, centrally located, six-foot-square room that functions as a separate space for preparing and cooking food. Abutting the black kitchen and heating the parlor and rear bedroom (kammer) is a large clay oven (bachofen), which is distinctively Black Sea German. The spatial arrangement of the black kitchen and bachofen is not uncommon in many regions in western Europe; the form was subsequently transplanted through the Black Sea region to several settlement areas in the Northern Plains.

See also EUROPEAN AMERICANS: German Russians.

Michael H. Koop Minnesota Historical Society

Koop, Michael H. "An Analysis of German-Russian Houses in South Dakota Based on Their Origin, Form and Materials." Master's thesis, University of Wisconsin– Madison, 1989.

Schnurr, J. Heimatbuch der Deutschen aus Russland. Stuttgart: Landsmannschaft der Deutschen aus Russland, 1967–68. Sherman, William C. "Prairie Architecture of the Russian-German Settlers." In Russian-German Settlements in the United States, edited by Richard Sallet. Fargo: North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies, 1974: 185–95.

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