The Minds of the West: Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917

By Jon Gjerde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 8 They Soon Abandoned Their Wooden Shoes
Ethnic Group Formation

When Herbert Quick wrote his autobiography in the 1920s, he considered at length his immigrant neighbors, principally of German birth, with whom he had socialized throughout his life. His musings highlight the local color that the immigrant peoples splashed across the Iowa countryside in the late nineteenth century. As a child, Quick's German friends enabled him "to step from the atmosphere of frontier Iowa to a land of wooden shoes and peasant simplicity"; he was able to travel spiritually "to a new moral world without leaving the farm." He observed a folklore, common in Germany, that took root in the middle western soil. He was told about the mystery of a butterfly that flew through a barn in Germany on a bitterly cold winter day as workers thrashed grain. When Quick ventured that the butterfly had survived the cold because it had been hatched in the warm barn, he was quickly corrected. "It vasn't a butterfly at all," his acquaintance contended. "De man ve vas vorkin' for vas a vitch" who had "made himself into a butterfly so he could fly in to see if ve vas vorkin' hart enough!" Images of witches had moved to the United States along with the immigrants themselves. 1

Despite this cultural transplantation, Quick assumed that the "process of assimilation" of immigrants into American life had begun, "as is always true in such cases, with conflict of minds." 2 "The human elements" in Iowa, he argued, "were thrown together into a human hash" and "from it time has cooked a dish of perfectly good Americanism." The American character resulted, in Quick's mind, from two powerful forces. First, fol-

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