July 31, 2016

Colony of Russians Arrives to Farm *UPDATED*

No one knows exactly why they came in early 1916. It was assumed that they were avoiding one of many purges in soviet Russia. (*1) But on January 12th, fourteen railroad cars carrying over 100 Russian colonists and their possessions arrived at Jerome Junction, southeast of present day Chino Valley. They brought with them 151 cattle, 103 horses, chickens, geese and all their household furniture and goods. (*2), (*3) & (*4)

In order to promote the area for farming, an enthusiastic pamphlet had been published.  It praised “Little Chino Valley” as “the only adequately irrigated body of rich, productive land in this great producing mining district of Arizona,” having the “perfect soil for potatoes” and “perfect conditions for dairying.” (*5) These promises undoubtedly brought the Russians to the area in the first place.

Their journey to this point was long and hard and there would be further challenges ahead. But the people of Prescott were excited to see these new immigrants and welcomed them openly.

The Russians first stop in the western hemisphere was Guadalupe, Mexico, and they entered the United States via San Diego. (*3)

The emigration was "due to an undesirable situation which has arisen since the frequency of revolutions in recent years in that country. Many of the Russians are highly educated, and among them are several who are fully conversant with the customs as well as the language of the Americans," the newspaper reported. (*6)

They elected Wasiley Pivovaroff as their chief spokesman to negotiate the settlement of the new land between them and the Haysayampa Alfalfa Farms Company. (*3)

"They entered this field under happy conditions in building up an agricultural future, by having over 2500 acres of land under development to winter wheat, alfalfa, Sudan grass, rye, and other yields, all of which have passed the experimental stage in being raised by dry farms." (*6)

("Dry farming" is farming that relies completely on what Mother Nature provides in precipitation. During wet cycles in this arid country, one can be successful farming this way, but during dry cycles, like the one that ushered in the Dust Bowl, it's impossible.)

Minorca Chickens
A.H. Bisjak, whose parents owned land adjacent to the colony, related that the Russians raised a particular breed of poultry called Minorcas. (*1) These birds are known to be noisy, flighty, and not particularly good meat producers. Today, they are considered to be more ornamental than agricultural.

The Russian's plans were well thought out. Initially, they sent a nucleus of builders. The first step was to build two large buildings. These would house all the colonists until individual homes were built. Then, they would be used as a Greek Orthodox church and a school that would "accommodate about 40 pupils, there being that number ready to be enrolled." (*7)

"With very little delay, the men set to work on the construction of 25 farm homes. Each family will have from 20 to 120 acres.  The colony will own a track of 3000 acres that will be worked under the direction and advice of Prof. A. M. McOmie, who for many years was connected with the state university." (*2)

McOmie would become more than just an agricultural advisor to the Russian colony, he would become both a liaison and a champion for them as well.

The Russian colony proved to be very industrious. In less than two months, they had already built 20 houses and the schoolhouse was holding English only classes. The county Superintendent of Schools came to visit and was welcomed with a "‘good morning’ by nearly every one of the 22 pupils who a week ago knew nothing of the English language." (*8)

However, the January of their arrival, a large blizzard, followed by a warm rain, caused great flooding and damaged the the canals and diversion dams meant to lead the water from Watson Lake to the waiting grain fields.

Amazing account of one of the largest winter storms in the history of Yavapai county, Arizona.

The paper reported that the "Repairing of the diversion dam...has commenced and water will be turned into the main canal (soon)." (*9)

Unfortunately, the damaged caused was much more extensive than originally thought and it would take quite some time to eventually repair the system. This caused a temporary crisis among the colony and a contentious meeting of the Prescott City Council.

Before the Council, Prof. McOmie argued passionately for the colony. He pointed out that the colonists "would be greatly handicapped should the city refuse to allow them to use its water. On (their) behalf, he offered to erect huge tanks at the colony to store the water in if the city would (only) start its big pump once a week and run it long enough to fill the tanks." (*10)

The mayor and two of the three council members "favored the plan on the grounds that the Russian colony was a good thing for Prescott and deserved all the support the city could give it." (*10)

The first year's crops were saved.

It was a big victory for the colony as well as McOmie who was developing a close relationship with the immigrants. He became a fluent speaker of Russian and referred to the colonists as his "official family." He invited "every resident of Prescott to pay ‘his children’ a visit, promising that it will prove interesting and instructive to all who accept." (*11)

"The Russians were a very thrifty, hard-working people," Bisjak related. (*1) Unfortunately, the Haysayampa Alfalfa Farms Company was having difficulties with finances and the Russian colony was having difficulties with the Haysayampa Alfalfa Farms Company.

The Russians used teams and scrapers to help build irrigation canals into Chino Valley. "And somehow or other," Bisjak said, "they didn't get all their money out of it." (*1)

A January 18th, 1917 article in the Prescott Journal Miner revealed a lawsuit that the Russian colony filed against the Hassayampa Alfalfa Farms Company that specifically enumerated the colony's complaints.

First, the Company failed to provide the water necessary in 1916 in time to save the Russian's crops. The Russians sued for $14,995 for the crops they lost that year. 

Additionally, the Russians did work in preparing the land and were never paid for it. They plowed extra land, preparing it for future farming and put up fencing. For this, the Russians sought an additional $15,854. However, the Russians wouldn't get the money they sought as the Hassayampa Alfalfa Farms Co. was going out of  business. (*12)

(Note to any genealogist who might be looking or some of the names of the Russian colonists: Click on footnote (*12). Page 1 reveals the names of the 20 plaintiffs.)

This, coupled with the declining precipitation of the dry cycle years, caused the colony to leave in mass in 1921 after only 5 years. (*5)

Farming in Glendale, AZ
They arrived as a unit and they left as a unit. "They all boarded a train with all their livestock and all their equipment and everything," Bisjak recalled. They moved south into Glendale, Arizona where irrigation for their crops was assured. Many of the Russian surnames can still be found there today! (*1)

There was, however, one member of the Russian colony that stayed behind. "When they left," Bisjak remembered, "they brought a big old black chicken over. My mother said, 'What's that for?'

"That's for the boy," was the reply, "and so we had that little old black chicken for years and years and years. Nothing happened to it until it died." (*1)


Author's Note: Reviewing the readership of this blog by country, Russia is second only to the United States, comprising 10% of its readers! To my Russian friends: Welcome! I'm glad you found me and I offer this article to say thanks!

Have you seen this recent article?

When Nature Was the Only Drugstore
A description of 19th century remedies from nature that were particular to Arizona. Today these seem humorous if not ridiculous!

Tourist Tip for my Russian friends:
A vacation in Arizona is the trip of a lifetime!

Fly into Phoenix and visit the Sonoran Desert. There's no other ecosystem like it in the universe! Then, of course, there's the Grand Canyon. Both of these are World Heritage sites.

Between the Sonoran Desert and the Grand Canyon, be sure to visit the central portion of Arizona!

From Interstate 17, take Route 69 into Prescott and visit all the beautiful and historic sights. Then take 89A north to the ghost town of Jerome. Continue on 89A through the gorgeous red rock outcroppings of Sedona (where many movies have been made and several movie stars live!) Stay on 89A through breath-taking Oak Creek Canyon which leads to a look out at the top of the canyon where Navajo Indians sell beautiful jewelry, pottery and other ornaments. Continuing a few miles takes you through the Ponderosa Pine forest and back onto Interstate 17 to head into Flagstaff, another beautiful, historic town; then off to the Grand Canyon from there!

Jerome, AZ
Sedona, AZ

Sonoran Desert

Grand Canyon

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(*1) AH Bisjak, Oral History; Sharlot Hall Museum Archives; Tape #940
(*2) Yavapai Magazine; February, 1916. Pg. 5 col. 1
(*3) Prescott Journal Miner, 1/11/1916; pg. 5 col. 5
(*4) Prescott Journal Miner, 4/4/1916; pg. 3, col. 4
(*5) (Prescott) Daily Courier, 1/7/2001; pg. 14A col. 1
(*6) Prescott Journal Miner, 1/13/1916; pg. 3 col. 4
(*7) Prescott Journal Miner, 2/2/1916, pg. 3 col. 3
(*8) Prescott Journal Miner, 3/9/1916; pg. 1, col. 2
(*9) Prescott Journal Miner, 3/10/1916, pg. 5, col. 5
(*10) Prescott Journal Miner, 4/4/1916; pg. 3, col. 4
(*11) Yavapai Magazine; April, 1916. Pg. 8, col. 3
(*12) Prescott Journal Miner 1/18/1917 Pg. 1 Col. 6 & Pg. 6 Col. 2


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