American Historical Society of Germans From Russia

Central California Chapter

sunflower logo      Our Fresno Story

As Told By Elsie Sturges
Reprinted From the Fresno Historical Society Journal

A picturesque element in Fresno County History is the story of her German-Russians. Since the first immigrants arrived from the Volga region of Russia on June 19, 1887, because life was becoming increasingly difficult there, they have been weaving themselves into the development of the San Joauquin Valley.

These Germans were no longer permitted to live as Catherine the Great had promised when she issued her proclamation on July 22, 1763 inviting colonists to the Volga, so they had sent out scouts to America to find a place to settle.

Famine, the diminishing land divided among families for 110 years and revoked privileges of the manifesto caused many to sell their belongings to finance the trip to America. The same pioneering spirit that caused them to leave Germany brought them to the promise of the San Joaquin valley.

Two hundred fifty immigrants garnered ticket money (fare to America was about 400 rubles or $200) and left the villages of Straub and Stahl on the Wiesenseite (meadow side) of the Volga on May 8, 1887, traveling by wagon, train, and boat through Poland, East Prussia, and Bremen to Liverpool, the port of embarkation. When they docked in New York they intended to go to Lincoln, Nebraska.

Fifty-two days later, 31 of these pioneers arrived at the old Southern Pacific depot in Fresno, California.

According to Alex C. Nilmeier of Fresno, his grandfather Philip Nilmeier had become acquainted with a Jewish salesman on board ship. He was a man of the world who believed the San Joauquin Valley had great potential as an agricultural area. Mr. Nilmeier was able to convince ten families to change their destination.

No one met them when they arrived, of course, so they piled bedding and belongings in the corner of the depot. The women and children stayed with the bundles and the men went off down the dirt road that was Tulare Street looking for work and lodging.   Mr. Goldstein of Cutler-Goldstein Hardware heard them speaking German and asked if he could help. The immigrants were overjoyed to hear their language spoken in this strange place. Mr. Goldstein had a large two-story rent-house for some of the families and Mr. Nilmeier started to work for him the next morning carrying brick and hod.

On June 24, 1887 the Fresno Republic reported the arrival. In part, it said, "German peasants fresh from the fields in their nativity are not often seen here, and the odd dress of both men and women has attracted a good deal of attention when seen on the streets. Bright colors predominate in the costumes of both sexes. The are apparently sober and industrious people and are likely to find plenty of work if they are quick to learn the customs of the country."

The names of the original settlers are familiar to the people in the Fresno area. They were:

From the colony of Straub:

  • Mr. John Carl Kerner, age 32
  • Mrs. Elizabeth (Rudolph) Kerner,age 28
  • Elisa Kerner, age 2
  • Christian Karle, age 29
  • Mrs. Maria Christina (Wulf) Karle, age 33
  • Michael Karle, age 32
  • Mrs. Christina Elizabeth Metzler, age 33
  • Mrs. Sophia Elizabeth Metzler, age 45
  • John August Metzler, age 13
  • Christine Margaret Metzler, age 6
  • John Conrad Metzler, age 21
  • Mrs. Maria Chrisitina (Rudolph) Metzler, age 23
  • John Daniel Steitz, age 38
  • Mrs. Catherine (Seifert) Steitz, age 31

From the colony of Stahl:

  • Mr. John August Berg, age 35
  • Mrs. Catherine Berg, age 35
  • Maria Catherine Berg, age 16
  • Peter Berg, age 13
  • Henry Berg, age 3
  • Philip Nilmeier, age 37
  • Mrs. maria Catherine Nilmeier, age 35
  • George and Philip Nilmeier
  • John Peter Nilmeier, age 13
  • Conrad Nilmeier, age 10
  • Adam Nilmeier, age 4

From the Steppe

  • Jacob Mehling
  • Mrs. Jacob Mehling
  • two children
  • Conrad Mehling

As reports filtered around the world the migration picked up momentum; 1909-1912 were peak years for Fresno. "Rooshian Town," that unique entity of neat homes and carefully swept yards, grew and blossomed. Germans spread to Reedley, Kerman, Biola, Madera, Dinuba, Selma, Sanger, Del Rey, Fowler, and other outlying communities.

For a comprehesive article about the Germans from Russia in Fresno see The History of German-Russians in Fresno County, by G. Ray Schwabenland, Dr. Peter J. Klassen and Noel Frodsham. AHSGR Work Paper No. 14, April, 1974. The article can be viewed at the Fresno library or the Work Paper can be purchased from the AHSGR store.

Central California Chapter 
Copyright 2002 AHSGR - Central California Chapter