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Karl Hepperle

March 1968


"You will starve to death over there!" wailed his mother when Karl Hepperle, thousands of miles from the Plevna, Montana site that was to be his homestead, announced sixty years ago that he was going to America. She was much distressed.

In answer to her dire prediction Karl quoted an old Russian proverb, "The honest hand will go through the land." He felt sure that he could succeed in the new land. Little did his mother dream then that his determination to go to America would save her from starvation in the not-too-distant future.

The Hepperles in Russia owned a large farm and were well to do. They hired a number of workers to help with the farm, boys for the field work and girls for housework - and to milk the cow, as was customary there.

With Karl Hepperle it was not economic necessity, as it was with many emigrants, that compelled him to leave his native land, but an inner urge that would not be denied. He must go to America!

When his mother saw his determination, she told his father and his father, too, tried to dissuade him. He offered Karl his share of the inheritance at once if he would stay and farm, but Karl could think only of America.

He didn't want to leave without his parents' consent, but his mind was made up. "Voluntarily let me go," he told his parents, "or I will go anyway." In the face of such determination his parents decided they could only yield. "I don't know whether the ship will sink with him or whether he will discover a gold mine in America!" his father had exclaimed, but they let him go with their blessing.

So it was in 1908 his father bought his ticket for him, including ship passage and train fare to Eureka, South Dakota. Eureka was chosen as his destination because they knew some people there who had emigrated from Russia about two years earlier.

Before he started his ocean voyage Karl asked an old fellow who had crossed the ocean several times what would be good to prevent seasickness. The advice he received was, "Eat garlic or drink vodka." He didn't try the vodka, but as the ship plowed its way across the ocean he ate garlic until he couldn't eat any more. When he could down no more garlic he started eating lemon and hard sugar.

Whether that formula was responsible or whether he owed his feeling of well-being to some combination in his makeup that made him a sailor he didn't know, but he was thankful he didn't have a moment of seasickness the entire voyage. He watched plenty of others who did, however!

He arrived in Boston with just $25 to his name so he didn't linger long but continued on his way to Eureka. In Eureka he received a job offer almost immediately from a farmer who wanted him two months at $50 a month. With his finances in the condition they were he didn't hesitate but took the job at once.

They were a gracious couple who treated him right, and he did his best for them, too. But one thing he stipulated when he hired out to them: he would not milk cows. Back in Russia milking cows was strictly women's work. Hiring out to work for someone else was demeaning enough; hiring out to milk cows would have been too much!

They agreed to that condition, and after the day's field work was done he would take care of the horses and do the other barnyard chores. Then he would wait inside the fence where the cows were while his employer and wife did the milking. After the milking was done he would turn the crank of the cream separator and feed the milk to the calves.

He hadn't worked there long, though, until his ideas began to change. Customs just weren't the same here as in Russia so he began helping with the milking, too. Soon he started getting up earlier in the morning, and he would have two or three cows milked by the time the boss appeared. At the end of the two months his employer rented out his land. His wife told the renters, "We have thirteen hired men, but none as good as Karl" - the Russian-German boy who had learned to milk cows.

In the years 1903-1906 he had attended school in Odessa, and it was during those years that he made his decision to leave his native land. A student from the University of Odessa would occasionally visit in the home where Karl boarded, and it was from this student that he learned that the Communists, working through the university students, were planning to overthrow the Czar government. His friend was not in favor of the revolution and avoided these meetings, but his warnings of what was ahead were responsible for Karl's determination to emigrate to America. And before many years those warnings proved all too accurate.

In 1917 the Communists overthrew the government, just nine years after Karl left Russia, and all private property was subject to seizure. His father's property was no exception. Looters ran wild through the land, carrying off whatever they could get their hands on. As Mr. Hepperle (Karl's father) watched them dragging away his possessions he saw among the looters a boy who had formerly worked for him. Calling the boy by name, he remonstrated with him, "You know that belongs to me; why are you taking it'? "But Uncle," the lad replied (he was not actually uncle; that was a term of respect), "if I don't take it, someone else will." Mr. Hepperle recognized the inevitable and conceded, "You are right; go ahead and take it."

Before long the real tragedy began to emerge; while the Communists had pitted the 'have-nots' against the 'haves', it soon became evident that many of those who had not managed before to provide for themselves could not or would not manage now that they had someone else's property. Food production dropped alarmingly, and by 1920 starvation was widespread, those who had become the 'haves' starving along with the dispossessed.

In 1920, Mr. Hepperle sought help from his son Karl in the United States - the same son who had been warned by his mother, "You will starve to death over there!" ('over there' referring to America). Karl was able to send food parcels to his parents through the American Food Administration. Then in 1923 Mr. Hepperle wrote to ask for help to get them to America.

Karl sent them tickets, but before the tickets could be used Hepperles had to sneak to Latvia. They succeeded in getting to the border, but there those who had helped them asked for another $100 to get them across the border so once more they wrote to Karl. When the $100 was paid and they were able to cross over into free territory it was, as they described it, like getting out of hell into paradise.

The horrors were now behind them, but multitudes, including many of their own family and kin, were not so fortunate. Only two of Karl's brothers came when his parents did. Another brother would have come, but his wife was not yet ready to leave her parents and relatives. Later she had no choice about leaving, but America was not her destination when she parted from them. The destination was Siberia. Brother, his wife, and some of their children, along with many other people were taken in boxcars over 2,000 miles.

The women were settled in barracks tall enough to stand upright, wide enough to stretch out. The men were taken 200 miles farther to work in the woods. They wrapped their legs with tree bark as they worked in snow crotch deep. Within thirty days more than a thousand had died.

When the brother was next heard from, about two or three months later, he was back in his home again where his wife and children, just skin and bones, had preceded him. He was still in danger there so he crossed over the Caspian Sea into Caucasus for several years.

Here there were American stores where he could buy if he had American money so Karl sent him some, but after several times he wrote to quit sending because "they were getting jealous and making him suffer for it." Little wonder that Karl Hepperle, in Montana, praised the Lord that he had reached freedom while freedom was within reach.

After World War II refugees from Russia streamed into Germany, and Mr. and Mrs. Hepperle began getting appeals for help, help they gladly supplied. Some of those writing were from the generation born after he left Russia. One family found his address on the street in Berlin and wrote for help.

They sent many dollars worth of food and clothing to those pleading for 'eleventh-hour' help. Mr. and Mrs. Hepperle cried over the letters of thanks they received realizing that it was only through God's mercy that they had been able to render assistance.

Karl's parents, too, were very active in sending relief to the refugees. They had lived in Plevna for awhile after coming to the United States, then moved to Missoula. They became naturalized citizens, and now from their position of blessing were eager to help those who were suffering as they had suffered.

Mr. Hepperle, Sr., was given a permit from Missoula city authorities to go from house to house to collect clothing and shoes for the destitute. He collected one-and-a-half tons which he shipped to Germany for those who had fled Russia after World War II.

Shoes that weren't good enough to send he repaired and made them good enough. A Missoula shoemaker donated the sewing Mr. Hepperle couldn't do himself, and two local stores gave him strings. They also gave new shoes that were out of style.

In the freedom and security of his new homeland Karl's father lived to be over ninety years of age, his mother eighty-six. Of their thirteen children, only three in America are still living.

As for Karl Hepperle, he is now seventy-nine (in 1968) and is in good health. When he was operated on a few years ago, the doctor assured him his condition was as good as that of many men in their fifties.

 

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