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​Ashley Jewish Homesteader Cemetery: Unique Insight Into Pioneer Life

Culture | February 23rd, 2022

By Sabrina Hornung

sabrina@hpr1.com

Photo by Sabrina Hornung

All cemeteries are historically significant, this is true. One can learn a lot about ethnic and religious concentrations of the area, but once they get onto the Historic Register, it gets especially interesting.

On November 17, 2015, the National Parks Service of the United States Department of the Interior added The Ashley Jewish Homesteader Cemeteryto the National Register of Historic Places.

According to the National Registry’s announcement, “Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery is the only permanent physical reminder of the McIntosh County Jewish farming community – the largest Jewish agricultural settlement in North Dakota.”

Rededication of the site took place in May 2017 and two educational plaques were installed on two large boulders that day, to share the rich history of the site as well as acknowledge its registry status.

The site is located off of Highway 3, three miles north of Ashley, which is located in south central North Dakota, just 20 miles from the South Dakota border.

There are no tree rows to shelter the small graveyard from the notorious winds on the prairie, and the gravestones are surrounded by a chain link fence. Some monuments have porcelain photographs, which are as clear and sharp as the day they were installed, placing a face to the name etched in stone. Some monuments have Hebrew inscriptions and some are embellished with the Star of David. Aside from the main cemetery there is another small fenced area where the children are buried.

Interestingly enough, our state had the fourth largest number of Jewish homesteaders in the United States.

According to one of the plaques outside the cemetery gate, “The Ashley/Wishek Jewish community retained its religious identity far from any major Jewish population center, as evidenced by this traditional cemetery. They were a nationally registered Jewish congregation in 1907, before they owned a central building of worship or had a formally trained rabbi.”

The plaque also noted that like many pioneer congregations, they traveled on horseback to neighboring sod houses or barns for “Minyan,” which relies on 10 men for certain prayers. Weddings were celebrated on the prairie under a wedding canopy with homemade wine and sponge cake and they danced to the tune of lively violins and washtub drums.

According to the plaque, from the 1880s until the 1930s 1200 Jewish farmers lived on over 250 homesteads. Over 400 Romanian and Russian Jewish immigrants fled religious persecution and pogroms under the czarist regime.

Starting in 1905, Jewish Homesteaders settled on close to 85 farms in McIntosh County alone.

Life wasn’t easy in that time frame and the land they settled, riddled with stones and boulders, wasn’t all that forgiving either; in fact if you head that way you’ll see rock piles stacked by generations of area farmers.

They experienced prairie fires, drought, winter adversities, illness, the flu pandemic and the Great Depression…

At the end of December The Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery Board announced that they were looking for a caretaker for the Cemetery. The association as well as descendants had appreciated the previous caretaker's hard work for the past decade. The work consists of mowing the grounds once or twice a month, depending on the weather, making sure no headstones lean or fall, and filling in badger holes if needed, then reporting back to the board.

“There are no descendants or family of those buried in the Jewish Cemetery still living in McIntosh County since the death of Leo Cohen in 1981. Dr. Cohen was the long-time Ashley dentist. Despite this fact, there has always been a close connection between the Jewish homesteaders near Ashley and their descendants and their German-Russian neighbors, as is referenced in the book ‘Still,’ written by my late dad, Kenneth Bender, and myself.” said cemetery board member and author Rebecca Bender.

She went on to say, “These warm feelings continue to this day. The Ashley Jewish Homesteaders Cemetery is the only pioneer/homesteading Jewish cemetery in North Dakota which has continually been cared for, funded and watched over by descendants of those interred at the Cemetery, in conjunction with local citizens of the neighboring town,” 

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