A Bit of Merck History

By Mathias J. Merck

son of Joseph and Katharine Merck


In about 1860 a Russian prince married the daughter of a German noblewoman who was, I believe, a relative to the German ruler at the time. They settled in Russia. Following that transaction, the Russian government invited German families to settle in Russia with offers to help them get established. Quite a few people moved over there, established colonies or communities, built churches and schools. A lot of these colonies were named after the settlements they came from in Germany such as Manheim, Baden, Elsatz, etc.

Most people thrived successfully and some had a little rougher going. The communities were about 2 to 7 miles apart. They were approximately from 150 to 300 in population. Those people who prospered bought land and others had to rent. The size of the land parcels was approximately 3 to 10 acres.

They built houses and developed nice yards, gardens, and fruit trees. The fruits and vegetables were of a first class quality. Most everyone raised grapes, berries, and fruits; there were about 6 to 16 living units in each settlement. Farming was out a ways. People acquired or rented land wherever it was available—sometimes 10 miles or more. Population was increasing and land was getting scarcer.

My father, Joseph John Merck, lost his parents when he was about six years old, and the family was divided, and he grew up with other people. He had to earn his keep and in his spare time he was allowed to go to school. Education was his most important desire. He learned to read and write German and Russian.

When dad was 18 he was drafted into the Russian Army for 5 years. He said it was a "dog's life". He was a very strong person and of high principles.

After dad returned from the service he was determined to locate his family—two brothers, Carl and Frank, and his two sisters. Veronica and Marian. Someone told him that his sister Veronica worked in a hotel at Odessa, so he decided he would try to see her and establish his identity as part of the missing family member.

He went to the hotel; after waiting a few hours, she came out. He approached her in an attempt to talk to her, but she wasn't willing to listen until he asked her if she had a sister Marian and three brothers-Carl, Joseph and Frank. About 2 to 3 years later dad married Katherine Cecilia Eberle.

(When the family was in South America, they visited two sons of Veronica. I don't have any information as to whether they kept in contact as dad did all his correspondence in German and no one remembers any discussion on the situation.)

Dad taught reading, writing, and arithmetic in the Catholic school. The church, school and priest's residence were about three-quarters of a mile from our home. It was a beautiful church built of stone. The priests were strict. Whenever we saw a priest we had to say "Blessed be God". If we didn't, we were in trouble. For shopping we had to go about 10 miles to the town, Rostelnaja, which was the nearest railroad. About once a week peddlers came around. They were Jews and brought loads of pastry and other wares such as sewing items, etc; the Jewish people never did go into Russian settlements because they always beat them up—real bad sometimes.

There were numerous Russian villages and when the Germans and Russians got together, it ended up in a fight most of the time. The Germans always came out winning. The German people ate better food and were stronger.

The Russians had a celebration once a year and they took a lot of food to eat at the cemetery—some special dishes, rice, and Russian pastries. We kids would stand on the outside of the fence to watch them. They were very generous and gave us quite a bit of food which we took home to eat. It could have been a Memorial Day-type holiday.

The houses were built like a long ranch house here. There were no basements, but everybody had a cellar in the ground for refrigeration and also wine. One end of the house was a barn. Between the house and barn there was storage. The living room and bedrooms were on the other end.

Heating was with a big oven fired with straw. Mother baked bread and pastries. The oven had a door about 14 x 20 inches. To bake, we heated the oven with straw and when it was hot enough, we would pull the ashes out and place the bread and pastries inside and close the door. It worked well. In the kitchen we also had another cookstove and cooked with straw. Next to the kitchen was the diningroom and when we had meals, the younger kids, about under 12, would eat separately. The same when we had company. Sometimes we ate out of the same dish. A lot of adults ale the same way. "What fun"! When a youngster was old enough to eat at the adult's table, it was a special event for him or her.


Dad and mother were great singers. Many times they would sit in the living room in the evenings and sing without music. They also sang when we had company. We children would listen and enjoy it. I don't remember what we used to play with except we would roll walnuts instead of marbles. We never lost any of these "marbles" because we ate them when we got tired of playing.


As time went on, people who didn't own any land had a hard time getting land to rent because the owner's started to farm it themselves and, as a result, dad inquired about rumors that the Brazilian government invited families to come to Brazil. They offered free land and help to start a new venture.

Also it was rumored that those eligible for draft into the Russian Army would be drafted. Felix was then of an eligible age. This did not set right with the parents, so they decided to move on.

Before leaving, our mother packed 3 or 4 grain sacks full of bread and packed other types of eatables for the trip. We had to carry the food with us on the train and boats. We boarded the train at the nearest station (Rostelnaja) about 10 miles from where we lived. The train took us through Germany to Antwerp, Belgium, the seaport. Somewhere along the line they took all our clothes and treated (deloused) them. So many people were traveling in groups and the authorities made sure that everyone's clothes were clean. Going through Germany all railroad stations provided hot water so the people could have tea. We used our own kettles and food. When we got off the train at Antwerp, we saw for the first time a woman all "dolled up" with lipstick, etc. We thought she was the most beautiful creature, not knowing that it was rouge and lipstick. This took place approximately the year, 1909.

On the Boat to Brazil we were the center of attention. Mother was our barber. When she would line us up on the deck to cut our hair, people used to gather about us and were quite amused. Now and then other people asked her if she would cut their hair. Of course she refused. There was a threat of lice. Her excuse was that she had a full time job with her family.

The food on the ship wasn't always the best. We own bread and other food that we brought along. On the boat we met another family also on their way to Brazil. They had two daughters and two brothers from another family.


We landed at Brazil, supposedly the land of opportunity and bananas and pineapple. This fruit was the only good part of the trip in Brazil.

The day after we landed the government provided us with transportation inland—5 or 6 mules and one horse. The reason for the mules was they were more dependable on the trails. These trails were so narrow that you could hardly pass anybody coming from the opposite direction. They fastened two baskets large enough for adults on each mule—one on each side—for the women and children to ride in. Men had to walk. The trails were very steep on one side and high on the other side. Luckily no one fell or they would have landed in the water below. As we started on the trail, all adult men were provided with a large knife and holster with a gun or revolver as standard equipment. It was wild country—full of wild animals, reptiles, monkeys, and parrots and other birds.

After about 4 hours of traveling we came to a settlement. They had a large bunkhouse with room for about 250 people. The whole building was open inside; there was no privacy. From this place the men worked to build roads. They already had finished a stretch about one-half mile long and wide enough for a wagon. They were building a roadway toward the town we came in on, and from the town that we started from toward our camp.

The authorities provided food, etc. but a lot of people got sick from it. It wasn't very sanitary. There was no way to bake bread, so dad dug an opening into the wall of a hill to use for baking. Our situation was much worse than the people that used to travel here in the early days. We did not see any Indians but we had to be prepared for any undesirable wild animals and reptiles. It was too primitive.

We used to say the Rosary many times. A few Catholic missionaries came to say Mass outdoors.


Our family worked hard and saved all they could. Our parents were always trying to make arrangements to leave but the government tried to discourage us. Finally, after about 2 or 3 months, a private party had enough equipment to take us to the coast. It cost us more money. Transportation inland was free, but to go out we had to pay our way. We stayed in the port that we first landed at for about 2 days. A stalk of bananas cost 25 cents and, believe me, we ate a lot of them. Mother used to fry them in butter which, I think, was very reasonable.

We had no problem getting boat transportation to Argentina from there. After a day and a half we landed at Buenos Aires, the capitol. It was a beautiful city!

The government provided free transportation by train to any area. Dad asked to be taken to a German Catholic settlement, if possible. The authorities treated us very nice.

The community helped us get living quarters of one room for the folks and us smaller kids. The older ones got jobs right away on farms. There was a great demand for help and the pay was good. We stayed in this area for about a year and then we moved on to another area. After we settled again the people fixed up an old wheat storage shed into a schoolroom. Dad had over 40 students. He taught reading, writing, arithmetic, spelling, etc. After school season was over he worked in the fields harvesting and threshing.

In this area we had no church, so once a year a missionary priest came about Eastertime and all the people decorated a large room in an old building-alter and everything. The people organized a choir; it was surprising how many people could sing. The priest usually stayed 3 or 4 days. This was the highlight each year. People came for miles to attend Mass and receive Holy Communion. The people always fixed special food such as fried chicken, potatoes and all the trimmings, special pastries, etc.

When groups of people visited together, the popular refreshment was Mate', a green tea served in hot water. They used a large coffee cup and a metal tube with a strainer on one end. The people sipped the tea through that tube. When one person was finished they filled it again for the next person. When the crowd was large they had two cups going. When we visited with the Spanish people in their homes, it was not polite to refuse it. Many times they were insulted and it was best to apologize and leave.

People butchered beef for their meat; sometimes lamb. There were restaurants but the stores and meat markets usually barbecued meat Friday and Saturday for shoppers to eat there. It was very nice.

The native tongue in Brazil and Argentina was Portuguese and Spanish. The Argentine natives were a very hot- tempered people, quite a bit like the western United States. Outside the cities were large cattle ranches and lots of farming. Lots of cowboys carrying guns and knives. If you respected and treated them kindly, they were your friend for life. If you made them angry, they were ready to shoot or fight. The best thing was to make friends with them. Brother Joe was the only one that learned to speak Spanish.

This was not the way our folks wanted to live. Farmers had to move around every four or so years because land had to be rested from raising crops. Wheat was the crop raised at this point.

In the meantime Dad and Mother communicated with mother's relatives in the United States--namely Uncle Joe Eberle, Uncle Felix Eberle, and the Moffenbiers. Mother's relatives, the Eberle's, left Russia sometime before we went to Brazil. They offered to help us to come to the United States. The reason we didn't try making arrangements to leave was because of lack of money. Uncle Felix vouched for our employment on his farm.

When we were ready to leave, we went to Buenos Aires for our ship but the US Counsul, after inspecting us, would not let us go through New York because Felix and one other member in the family had glaucoma (eye disease). So dad went to the German Counsul and they told him they can get us into the United States through Mexico. Because we were Germans, they could help us. They told dad that it is a longer trip and takes about two months.

When we were in Buenos Aires we had to wait about a week for a boat and the people there wanted us to stay. They offered us all kinds of jobs for everyone at good wages. Help there was very scarce. The hotel we stayed at had very good food, but the hotel was full of bedbugs. We were glad to leave there. It was about 1911.

We went to Mass every morning. We saw some beautiful churches. The church we attended most had 21 altars and Mass was being celebrated continuously day and night.

When we we left, we traveled on a Spanish ship and that was terrible. We used to get fish soup once each day. The other food wasn't any better. That was a good place to lose weight but no one was interested. We had to change boats; fortunately, we got on a German boat and everything was so different. The crew and officers spoke German and treated us like their own family. The food was good and they were very generous with their pastries, etc. The boat stopped at Havana, Cuba for 3 days and we enjoyed fresh pineapple and other fruit. We were not permitted to go into Havana as there was a revolution going on.

We eventually arrived at Vera Cruz, Mexico. We stayed there about a day and a half. We had the experience to eat our meals in a very lovely German restaurant. The food was beautiful.

Our trip to Mexico was very hard on our parents; we were very mindful of our parents. Some of us had toothaches and other minor ailments. But Tony got very sick and we were on the verge of losing him for about four days. Our parents and those that understood the situation prayed and prayed. I think it was our parents' praying and devotion to him that saved him.

We arrived in North Dakota the year 1912. My sad moment was when I stuck my head out the window of the train and lost my only cap I ever owned. Too bad!!

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