Prussian Emigrants Experienced Joys, Hardships as Kansas Homesteaders

1 / 2
"The Old Home Place" tells the story of one Kansas farm through the centuries.
2 / 2
Otto and Augusta Bruchmiller posed for their wedding photo on April 9, 1870.

Small-scale modern homesteaders can learn many lessons and skills from homesteaders of the past. In The Old Home Place, author Joy Lominska looks into the history of the farm she and her family currently live on and operate as organic vegetable market farmers. Through interviews and letter-writing, Lominska pieces together a history of the farm’s evolution through time. This excerpt comes from Chapter 2, “Expanding the Farm,” which covers the successes of the farm while under the ownership of Otto and Augusta Bruchmiller in the late 1800s.

You can purchase this book online: The Old Home Place

November 11, 2006

Dear Fredericka,

If the pasture is not mowed regularly it will turn into woods. Little tree seedlings come marching into the grass and spread rapidly. So I am letting them know where their limits are. When I am on the tractor, I see the land in a different way. I can feel every dip in the ground, see where the grass grows thick and where very little grows, where wild strawberries are under the grass.


August Otto Bruchmüller and Augusta Henrietta Fredericka Sparr were both emigrants from Prussia, where their families lived on opposite sides of the Oder River. The Bruchmüllers lived just east of the river, at the head of a marsh called Oderbruch, drained around 1750 to create more farm land. Water was pumped off the land creating polders, or drained fields, below the water table. The surname Bruchmüller likely means the owner or operator of a grain mill near the marsh. The Bruchmüller family lived in the village of Zehden, with polders stretching to the west of the village towards Berlin. Today Zehden is on the Polish side of the border and is known by its Polish name of Cedynia.

Augusta Sparr’s family lived in the small village of Stolpe on the west side of the Oder, near Zehden. Like in Zehden, polders stretched away from the river. Augusta’s uncle Frederick Wilhelm Sparr may have been the first member of the Sparr family to leave Stolpe for the United States. In 1848, a time of political unrest in Prussia, Frederick boarded the ship Leibnitz, crossing the ocean in steerage. On the ship manifest, he gave his occupation as cabinet maker and his destination as Cleveland. Perhaps he was the scout, checking out this new country for the family and writing to them what he found. Augusta left Stolpe with her parents and sister nine years later, when she was only three years old. They sailed on the ship Kosmos, arriving in New York on June 22 and making their way to Kansas. They may have passed through Cleveland, because Frederick arrived in Kansas in July of 1857, at the same time as the rest of his family. Also on board the Kosmos and traveling to Kansas was another family from Stolpe, the Wiedemanns.

Otto lived in Zehden until he was a young man. He was trained as a locksmith and had served in the Prussian military. He probably came seeking better opportunities, as so many did during the nineteenth century. He sailed from Hamburg on the ship Saxonia, traveling in steerage, arriving in New York on May 21, 1868. Otto was twenty-four years old. He arrived without any family and made his way fairly directly to Kansas. In his pocket he carried an identification document, folded twice to fit. A handwritten form, filled out by the local pastor in Zehden, identified August Otto Bruchmüller as the son of Wilhelmine Bohnstadt and Carl Ludwig Bruchmüller. He was born on December 17, 1843, and baptized on December 26 of that year. The document, issued in 1862, was used as proof of age for the military in Prussia. Otto was nineteen years old when he received his birth paper, and he probably enlisted (or was conscripted) in the military shortly after. Family memory says he served two years in the Prussian army.

Many members of Augusta’s family seem to have disappeared from the records. Perhaps they died after arrival in the U.S., or perhaps her father died and her mother remarried. Augusta may have lived in and around Lawrence, Kansas, with her aunt and uncle for several years. Uncle Frederick and Aunt Mary appear to have done well in Kansas. In 1858, Frederick erected a store building in Lawrence that became a hotel named the Lawrence House by the early 1860s. Aunt Mary signed a petition in support of women’s suffrage in September of 1867, along with several prominent Lawrence women. Among the petition signers were Mrs. Rev. Cordley, Mrs. J.H. Lane, and Sara Robinson (who signed her name “Mrs. ExGov. Robinson”), all early settlers who, along with their husbands, played leading roles in the civic life of Lawrence, including advocating that Kansas be a free state. Since it is likely that Augusta lived with her aunt and uncle for several years, the ideas and activities of their household probably impacted Augusta’s political development and may reflect the feelings of both Otto and Augusta. She was thirteen years old at the time her aunt signed the petition, which contained this statement:

Whatever, then, may be the opinion of fair ladies who dwell in ceiled houses in our older Eastern States and cities, who like lilies, neither toil nor spin, whose fair hands would gather close their silken apparel at the thought of touching the homelier garments of many a heroine of Kansas—whatever they may say in reference to this question, we, the women of the Spartan State, declare, we want to vote.

By 1875, the Sparrs owned over 160 acres of river bottom land in North Lawrence, now considered some of the richest farm land in the world, purchased from the window of the famous and controversial free state leader and later U.S. senator James Lane. Otto declared his intention to become naturalized in November of 1868, renouncing Germany’s Kaiser. The next that is heard of him was on April 9, 1870, when he married Augusta Sparr. Otto was twenty-six years old and had been in the United States almost two years. August was one day short of her sixteenth birthday and had lived in the United States for twelve years. They soon altered the spelling of their last time to “Bruchmiller.”

The wedding photograph shows Augusta at almost sixteen, a young lady in an ornate dress, her dark hair pulled back rather severely, with deep-set eyes and just a trace of a smile. She appears slightly plump, although tightly corseted. There is an air of gentleness about her face and hands. Otto is a slim man with a thick shock of dark, rather unruly hair. His ears are prominent, a feature later passed on to the next generation; he has a large nose, sloping shoulders, and keen blue eyes. His mustache does not quite disguise an unusual facial shape, perhaps caused by a slight harelip. While Augusta was pretty, Otto was probably not considered exceptionally good-looking. Both, however, had the strength to work hard to make a beginning in a difficult new land.

An ad in the newspaper on Saturday April 9, 1870, the same day as Otto and Augusta’s marriage, offered “…for sale, on reasonable terms, 20,600 acres of selected land in Delaware Reserve (Douglas and Jefferson Counties), embracing lands of every grade, from $4 to $35 per acre….” This was opportunity! A young couple could work hard, save money, and buy their own land. On the next day, the paper stated: “Yesterday was a busy day. The farmers having pretty generally got their small truck [produce] in, came to town to do their trading. Massachusetts Street was blocked with teams for a distance of three-quarters of a mile.” Otto and Augusta would have worked their way through the crowds of farmers to the justice of the peace to get married. Otto was working as a laborer for a farmer north of town, about two miles south of the site of their future farm. They probably picked up some supplies and headed for their new home in Sarcoxie Township. Prices listed in the paper for that week included:

Flour $8-9 per barrel
Soap 6 ½ ¢ lb.
Sugar 12 ½ -15 cents
Bacon 35-40 cents
Eggs 12 ½ – 15 cents per dozen

It is difficult to determine exactly where the Bruchmillers lived for the first few years of their marriage. Their neighbors can be found in the 1870 census. Just before the name Bruchmiller are listed Benjamin and Carrie Jenkins and two small children. The Jenkins family owned land worth $10,000. Someone with that much land would need farm hands, so it seems likely that the Bruchmillers lived on land belonging to Jenkins and did farm labor for him. (Ironically, Otto and Augusta’s older son Carl later owned part of Jenkins’ land). This would have been a way for a town-raised locksmith to gain farm experience, as well as to become familiar with methods and crops for a new land. Of course, all of the farmers in the area were dealing with a new land, experimenting to see what grew well.

It was not an easy time. The Jefferson County Mortality Schedule from June 1869-June 1870 reported that most deaths in the country were of children under age one, followed by those between one and five. There were thirteen deaths in Sarcoxie Township that year, including a one-month-old baby who died of bronchitis, three-month-old and one-year-old babies in the same family who died of scarlet fever, and a thirty-seven-year-old woman who died of typhoid fever.

In addition to health challenges, there was a daunting task of converting open grassland into farmland. Settlers plowed under the tall prairie grass to plant crops, often using oxen. Utilizing materials at hand, farmers hastily erected stone or rail fences for their animals and built cabins and barns, occasionally of logs but more often of milled lumber hauled from Lawrence.

By 1875, Otto and Augusta were no longer farm laborers but were renting a farm near their former employer. They needed more income, as children had begun to arrive. In December of 1870, daughter Anna Augusta was born. She had the soft, round face of her mother and was the shortest of the Bruchmiller children. She was followed in March of 1874 by a brother, Carl Herman. Carl resembled his father, with a thick shock of dark hair. He grew to be tall and can be identified in photos by his prominent ears.

Since Otto and Augusta were now farming for themselves, although on rented land, they had to report their farm information on the 1875 state agricultural census. They were farming 120 acres, all but twenty of it fenced. The fences consisted of fifteen rods of stone, eighty rods of rail, and ten rods of board, with no hedge fences (Osage orange). In 1867, the Kansas legislature had passed an act entitled “An Act to Encourage the Growing of Hedges and the Building of Stone Fences,” providing for payments to farmers who erected stone or Osage orange fences. This encouraged new settlers to erect permanent fencing for their livestock. The crops were varied and no fairly small acreage: five acres of winter wheat, four of barley, twelve of corn, two of oats, one of potatoes and eight of millet. There were two acres of orchard. That leaves eighty-six acres for the home site and garden, plus pasture for the animals. The family had already acquired some livestock. They owned two horses, two milk cows, five other cattle, three pigs, chickens, and a dog. Other farmers in the area were also raising spring wheat and buckwheat, although these declined in popularity through the years.

Although Augusta had two small children to care for in 1875, she was producing income for the family. She sold 300 pounds of butter that she churned from the cream of the two cows, in addition to what was consumed by the family. She sold fifteen dollars of poultry and eggs. The family also sold or slaughtered $440 worth of livestock. They were working hard to save money for their own farm. Both Otto and Augusta contributed to the household income, as well as providing food for the family. The farm was about six miles from Lawrence, the nearest town for marketing, and they likely took their produce there for sale.

There were challenges. Times were relatively prosperous until 1873. In 1874, there was an invasion of grasshoppers that strained farmers’ resources and patience. The year had begun with good rains to start the crops, but by the first of July there was a drought throughout the Midwest and stretching to the Atlantic coast. Grasshoppers arrived in western Kansas about the first of July, and moved eastward. Although Jefferson County was spared the worst of the damage, the year must have been difficult. The following is a description of the devastation:

It would tax the powers of an abler writer than this to clearly portray the changes that ensued. The tree yesterday laden with its heavy drapery of green, to-day denuded. The peach and pear and apple trees, with luscious fruitage, withered as the fig tree accursed. Gardens with lawns and shrubbery and flowers, now lifeless, seared and fallen to decay. The cottage embowered, now exposed and blistered by the burning heat of the summer sun.

Farmers in eastern Kansas were generally better established than those farther west in the state and were better prepared to weather this setback. Millet, also called Hungarian, raised by many farmers in the area was more drought resistant than many crops, and may have helped feed the livestock, particularly poultry, through the crisis. Wheat was probably harvested before the worst of the grasshopper attack, providing some food for the family. Grasshoppers returned in 1875, causing the trains to carry sand to counter the slime of grasshoppers on the tracks and farmers to devise ways of trapping the insects. On June 8 of that year, a severe wind and rain storm damaged what crops were there and destroyed farm buildings. By the end of the year, many had left the area, and the population of the country had dropped by 1,000.

The hard times of the 1870s (as well as those in the 1880s and ‘90s) spawned political movements with agricultural roots. Farmers were dissatisfied with the amount of money appropriated by middlemen and with their own lack of market control. The Grange was founded in the 1870s to address these and other concerns of farmers. The Grange was active in Jefferson County and Sarcoxie Township, with a Grange Hall built a few miles from where Otto and Augusta lived, although there is no evidence that Otto and Augusta joined.

One of the Bruchmillers’ close neighbors was also German. Augustus Charles Siler and Lizzie Snite Siler bought land in Sarcoxie Township in January of 1871. Their farm was rolling land, directly across the road from where Otto and Augusta would later live when they owned their own farm. Augustus was a Civil War veteran, shot in the knee in the battle of Big Shanty in Georgia. His leg was amputated (three times, due to infection the first two times), and he walked with crutches for the rest of his life, refusing to use his artificial leg because it caused so much pain. On September 2, 1865, Augustus applied for a pension as an invalid. He may have used this pension to help buy the land in Kansas, but how he managed to navigate his rough acres on crutches and support a family is almost beyond comprehension. His descendants believe he was able to manage because he had a strong, hard-working wife. In 1875, the Siler family owned 160 acres, a good-sized farm for the time. According to the census, Augustus paid out $200 in wages during the year 1874, which would have helped get the farm work done. He raised twenty-five acres of corn, twelve of barley, a half acre of potatoes, and nine acres of millet. Lizzie sold 300 pounds of butter from their four milk cows, and they owned an amazing sixty-four head of other cattle. It was probably easier to raise and sell livestock on crutches than to walk behind a horse-drawn plow to plant and cultivate crops. Still, it could not have been easy. In 1875, the family already had five young children. They no doubt had to help their parents a great deal.

Also in the neighborhood were T.C. Heaton, a blacksmith, who lived near Knowledge Hill School; Lovicia T. Patty, a widow raising her teenage sons on a farm south of O’Neil School; and the Bolden family. The Boldens were a black family that owned land and farmed about two miles from the Silers. The integration of the area did not last long, as the few black families moved away by 1880. The forty acres that became the Bruchmillers’ farm, and later ours, must have been rented in 1875, as none of the names on the census match names of owners on the abstract. Either there was no house or there was a one-room cabin on a stone basement. Allen Permaine and Elizabeth Miller were living on the family land in the river valley near Lawrence, but they took out a mortgage on their land to the north, probably to build a small house.

Names on the 1876 map reveal the origins of the local settlers: Siler, Klaus, Gallus, and Miller (German); Canavan, Ballagh, O’Neil (Irish); McSherry, Campbell and Stewart (Scottish); and Ousdahl (Norwegian). William Skeet, who features prominently later in the story, was from England.

After saving money for seven years, the Bruchmillers had enough money set aside to look for a farm of their own. Land changed hands frequently in the early years of settlement, and it was not difficult to locate a farm for sale. Otto and Augusta did not have to go far to find their own place. 

Excerpted from The Old Home Place by Joy Lominska with permission. Buy this book online: The Old Home Place

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368