"Happy the man who fondly thinks of his forebears,
Who likes to tell the willing listener the tale
Of their achievements and greatness, and is glad
To see himself a link in the beautiful chain."
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1837)
What is it about looking at old family photos? Sometimes what you see is someone young who you only knew as old. Sometimes you recognize that the strong jaw, the doleful eyes, the distinctive nose on ancestors you never met are the same as what you see in the mirror or in the faces of your children. They have been gone a long time and yet some of their DNA courses through your veins.
|Henry Miller, Joel Miller, newlyweds A.R. and Esther Miller Epp, Lydia Miller, Dora Traudt Miller Photo from 1929|
The photo was taken in Nebraska, probably Auroa. The family had a 150-acre farm near Stockham in the area. But neither Henry or Dora Miller were born in Nebraska. They were both born in the village of Norka, Russia.
According to the Norka website, "Norka Russia was founded on August 15, 1767 by colonists who predominantly originated from the area now comprised of the current State and cultural region of Hessen, Germany. These colonists were drawn to Russia by the Manifesto of Catherine II who wished to develop lands on the southeastern frontier of the Russian empire. The colony of Norka was located on the unsettled Steppe, not far from the west bank of the Volga River, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) southwest of the frontier town of Saratov. Norka grew from a fledgling settlement to become one of the largest and most prosperous German colonies in the Volga region." There were other colonies settled in this broad area at the invitation of Catherine II, some of them by German-speaking Mennonites. Norka was not Mennonite. Most in Norka were of the Reformed faith. There was also some Brethren influence. Though located within Russian borders, Norka colonists retained their German language and culture. They were often called "Volga Germans".
|Parochial Certificate (Church Transfer) brought by the Miller family when they immigrated. |
It is signed by Wilhelm Stärkel, a well-known Norka clergyman. Found on Ancestry.com.
Henry was ten or eleven when his family immigrated to Nebraska in 1892. Why? Emigration from Norka to the United States had begun in the mid-1870s with the revoking of many of the privileges granted to the colony by the Manifesto of Catherine II and some of those first emigrants ended up in Nebraska. A famine in 1891-1892 may have been the motivation for the Miller family to come to America when they did. His family at that time included parents, Johann Heinrich Müller (7/4/1859-4/21/1933) and Christina Vögler Müller, (1/23/1861-12/17/1917) a sister and two brothers. Additional children must have been born after their arrival. Siblings listed in his obituary include Mrs. John Miller (Maggie, born 7/29/1884), John (born 4/21/1886), Peter, William, and Jacob (born 8/14/1889) Miller. Sometime after their arrival in the United States the Müllers became the Millers.
|Henry P. and Dora Traudt Miller|
Married October 23, 1904
Dora Traudt was just six months old when her father died and twelve when her mother died. Her brother Peter became her caretaker.
|Esther Miller was born September 29, 1905.|
|Esther with Abraham shortly before his death.|
We learn of Dora's faith from her obituary. "In the year of 1911 Rev. Frank Wiens was conducting evangelistic meetings and she found peace in the blood of Christ. On August 25, 1912, she was baptized and received into the Mennonite Brethren Church at Eldorado where she remained a faithful member." Esther remembered this baptism as the first she witnessed.
Three years after their marriage the couple had purchased a farm five miles west of Stockham and two miles from their Miller parents. Initially there was no house but they lived with other family members for a time and eventually built a four-room house. They spoke Norka German in their home and High German at church. Church was five miles away and travel there was usually in a top buggy with a team of mules. A young Esther would stand between her parents during the trip to keep warm (sometimes she fell asleep standing there). The home was also two miles from school. Esther didn't start school until she was eight and had to learn English.
Two more children joined the family. Lydia was born in 1910 and Joel was born in 1914. Soon Dora's health declined. In early 1916 they rented their farm and moved to Harvard. Ten-year-old Esther did the housework (with some help from her father) and cared for her young brother.
|Henry P and Dora Traudt Miller with Esther, 12, Joel, 3 and Lydia, 7|
Photo was taken November 16,1917 while the family was living in Lake Charles, Lousiana.
Thinking warmer weather might help his wife, Henry purchased 80 unimproved acres near Lake Charles, Louisiana from an agent who visited Harvard. The family traveled to Louisiana by train in early 1917. Nearby were some experimental farms where they stayed initially. Someone (a rich man) asked Henry if he knew someone from the north who could work on his experimental farm to try to grow different crops generally grown farther north. Henry asked, "How will I do?" The man looked at his hands and said, "I think you will do." That winter was one of the coldest for that area and some people saw snow for the first time. Esther and Lydia attended the local school even showing up on a day that was too cold for the rest of the pupils. The church they attended was in English which was hard for Dora who wasn't used to speaking it. The damp weather did not help Dora who was not getting any better. Henry didn't like the way of farming and was homesick for his farm in Nebraska. When war was declared in the spring of 1918, they decided to move back to Nebraska. Their land sold on the last day they were there. They had purchased a car while in Louisiana so it was loaded onto the train with the family for their trip to Nebraska.
And so they returned to their little home near Stockham. Henry and Dora would remain here for the rest of their lives. They decided to remodel and expand their house. A basement was dug, a bathroom and two more rooms were added along with a radiator furnace and carbide lights. They returned to their beloved church in Eldorado where Henry would be installed as a deacon in 1930. Esther returned to the school and now Lydia joined her as well and eventually Joel would come too. When Esther completed Eighth Grade she came home to work. Dora's health was still not good and Henry needed the help. There were cows to milk, wheat to shock, stack and load and corn to husk.
In 1923 a men's glee club from Tabor College presented a program at their church. Several participants were invited to the Miller home for supper before the program. "I am A.R. Epp from Buhler, Kansas" said a handsome young man as he shook Esther's hand. She married him in 1929. A.R. was a teacher and though his school was in Oklahoma they returned to Nebraska for the summer months. And so it was that both of their children were born at the Aurora hospital, Harold on August 4, 1930 and Mary Ann on August 2, 1932. Then A.R. accepted a position at the Eldorado School and so they were close for awhile.
|Lydia, 31, married Eli Cook August 16, 1942 after both of her parents|
had passed away. Mary Ann Epp Kliewer is the girl in the middle.
The Depression with its accompanying drought and dust storms reached Nebraska. Henry couldn't raise much feed and the cows had to feed on Russian thistles. Prices of grain dropped to 25 cents a bushel. Milk cows sold for $20 a head; pigs were killed and buried. The Aurora Bank closed.
|Mary Ann,2, and Harold,4, celebrating their birthdays in Nebraska.|
|Henry married Mary Buller 10/27/35|
Dora had passed away at the age of 53. A year later Henry remarried. Mary Buller of Hillsboro, Kansas became his wife. They did not have a long marriage. On the evening of July 1, 1941 during harvest Henry was injured in a tractor accident. He died on July 4. His obituary notes, "While in the most excruciating pain he spoke of notifying the children. He remarked, 'Today I'm going home yet', 'Now I am almost through' and 'How is it here so beautiful.' Through his departure the children have lost their most beloved father and grandfather, and the church one of their faithful members, and the community has lost a respected neighbor." He was 59 years old.
What if they hadn't come?
|In 1971 Esther, left, visited her brother Joel |
in California. They had not seen each
other for 30 years
likely since their father's funeral
Henry and Dora Miller may have had extended family members and friends who endured this this travesty. But their children and grandchildren did not.
|Joel Miller with his wife, Effie and son Darrel|
probably taken in the early 1940s.
The family moved to California sometime
between the deaths of Dora and Henry.
This marriage ended in divorce.
Norka website by Steve Schreiber This is an amazing website full of great information about Norka. Definitely worth taking the time to explore.
My Life Story by A.R. Epp
Dora Traudt Miller obituary
Henry P. Miller obituary (2 - one translated from German by Katharina Epp)
My Life Story by Esther Miller Epp (unfinished and unpublished)
You might also enjoy this post: Found: A Letter to Cherish which tells a little more of the family of A.R. and Esther Epp and their children.