On April 6, 1917, Congress declared war on Germany and America entered World War I. At this time, several thousand Germans-from-Russia lived in Weld County, many having arrived after 1902 to work as “stoop laborers” in the sugar beet fields. These immigrants were descendants of Germans recruited by Catherine the Great of Russia to settle and farm in autonomous colonies along the Volga River and other places in Russia starting in 1762.
For almost 100 years, the German colonists enjoyed the protections promised by Catherine the Great, including exemption from military service and cultural autonomy (German language, customs, and religion were preserved). However, Czar Alexander II instituted “Russification” programs starting in the mid-19th century that imposed radical changes on the German colonies and the freedoms they once enjoyed. In addition, several periods of drought and famine forced many Germans in Russia to immigrate to Canada, South America, Mexico, and the United States.
These hardy and hard working people–German by culture and language, but Russian by nationality–quickly became indispensable as laborers who tended thousands of acres of sugar beets in Weld County’s irrigated districts. But, not all residents understood or approved of them, derogatorily called them “Rooshins” or “dirty Rooshins,” and were perplexed by their habits and customs. For example, they snacked on sunflower seeds, which locals called “Rooshin peanuts.”
Greeley’s East Side between the railroad tracks and the sugar factory saw an influx of Germans-from-Russia and by 1905 the area was nicknamed “Little Russia.”
Anti-German sentiment across the country intensified in the months following America’s entry into World War I. In Weld County, people of German ancestry were regarded as potential threats to national security and their perceived lack of allegiance to the U.S. or their opinions about the war efforts could have dire consequences. In January 1918, Weld County Judge Herbert M. Baker and District Attorney Harry B. Tedrow issued an edict to ministers and teachers in parochial schools that German language classes would not be tolerated. German clergymen in Windsor closed their parochial schools at this time, as did pastors in other districts.
National security was of tantamount importance, and throughout Weld County vigilante societies had been quietly organizing and arming themselves to root out and confront the “pro-German peril” lurking among them.
At midnight on April 4, 1918, the first raid in Weld County by anti-German vigilantes occurred at the Tinsman ranch a mile north of Severance, CO. David Meier, a 40-year old tenant lived there with his wife and five children. Meier had repeatedly made disparaging remarks about President Woodrow Wilson, Red Cross drives, and the Liberty Loan program and was considered a rabid “pro-German”. Wasting no time, four vigilantes entered Meier’s dwelling, yanked him out of bed and hauled him into the barnyard where he was instantly surrounded by 30 armed men sporting a kettle of boiling tar and a bag of feathers. His captors ripped off Meier’s nightshirt and while his terrified wife and children watched, the half-clad, trembling farmer dropped to his knees, screamed for mercy, cursed Kaiser Wilhelm, and offered to kiss the American flag.
Eventually, “out of consideration for the children,” Meier’s tormenters opted for a humane solution and spared him the indignity of a coating of hot tar and feathers. He was released under the condition that he pack his belongings and leave in 10 days . . . or be hanged.
The following evening, Mr. Meier attended a Liberty Loan meeting at Severance and purchased $500 in Liberty Bonds. The Greeley Tribune reported that he “. . . took the oath of allegiance to the United States, offered to make a statement to his fellow Russian-Germans to be published in the newspapers and persuade his neighbors to buy Liberty bonds.” The Liberty Loan workers at Severance pleaded for the vigilantes to annul their demand for Meier’s departure, as he was now a very willing voice who could easily persuade other Weld County “Russian Germans to see the light and become bona fide Americans.”
Word of the Severance vigilantes spread quickly. Public officials praised the Severance vigilantes for the “moderation” they had shown in this first successful campaign to stamp out pro-German sentiment in Weld County.
Written by Peggy Ford-Waldo, Development Curator