The idea of founding a Latvian farming colony in northern Wisconsin began brewing during the mid-1890s. By the summer of 1897, the first parcels of land in Lincoln County had been sold to immigrants living in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
But Lincoln County was not the only area considered for the colony. In particular, Marathon County, immediately to the south, was mentioned by correspondents to Latvian newspapers in America and in the homeland.1
Even before immigrants began to buy property in Lincoln County, at least three Latvian families were farming in the Town of Wien just west of Edgar, a young village2 in Marathon County. Although he was a booster of the Lincoln County settlement, the Lutheran minister Hans Rebane paid several visits to Marathon County and wrote approvingly of what he saw there. However, the area would remain a colony that never was.
Among those interested in the potential of northern Wisconsin as a new home for Latvian immigrants was 40-year-old Bertul Biederman (Bērtulis Bīdermanis) of Boston. Wanting to see things for himself, in November 1897 he traveled by train to investigate the Lincoln County colony and to explore other nearby opportunities. Biederman reported his observations in the newspaper Amerikas Vēstnesis.3
While Lincoln County was acceptable, it was Marathon County that particularly pleased Biederman. A mile beyond Edgar, Latvian farmers had bought land a few years earlier, Biederman wrote.
“I liked the area a lot,” he reported. “The little town of Edgar is nearby. That’s worth a lot, because farmers can sell all they produce locally and by the same token buy all they need for their homes.”
Biederman liked the place so much that he bought an 80-acre parcel next to where the other Latvians had settled, although he sold the property five years later in 1902, according to Marathon County land records. His neighbors were the Jurawitzes, the Stelbowitzes and the Siksens. Many of the other farms in the area belonged to German immigrants.
Although the colony held promise, ultimately a series of family tragedies doomed its potential.
The first Latvian to acquire land in the Town of Wien was Charles Siksen (originally Kārlis Siksne), who in June 1895 bought 80 acres under contract for $400, making a down payment of $100, according to land records. But Charles may never have lived in Wien. Instead, his parents, Klaw (Klāvs) and Katherine, youngest brother, John, and sister, Olga, settled there. Meanwhile, Charles in 1898 headed to Alaska to prospect for gold.4
Klaw died in January 1899 and he was buried in the cemetery of the older St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church5 in the Town of Wien. Charles’s other brother, Albert, moved from Chicago to take over running the farm. However, the family did not hold on to the property for much longer. In 1900, Charles gave power of attorney to Albert, who sold the acreage for just $200. The Siksens moved back to Chicago.
Joseph Yurawitz (anglicized from Jāzeps Juravics) in November 1896 bought 80 acres north of the Stelbowitz property, according to land records. He settled there with his wife, Katherine, and their 9-year-old son, Edward Joseph. The family had emigrated from their home near Suginčiai, Lithuania, near the southern border of modern-day Latvia.
It was in the Yurawitz home that the Rev. Rebane held services when he came to Marathon County. Rebane wrote that he noticed young “Edy” and his interest in studying for the ministry.6 In 1901, Edward Yurawitz was sent to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he completed high school at Concordia College. After that, he attended Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, graduating in 1910. Ordained as a minister in the Martin Luther Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lincoln County, Yurawitz briefly served that congregation as well as the Zion Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church In Chicago and a German church near Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
The Rev. Yurawitz married Lucy Amhaus, the daughter of German immigrants who lived near the Latvian settlement. Their first child, Edgar Yurawitz, was born in September 1911, but died 22 days later.7 He was buried in the cemetery of the newer St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wien, the spot marked with a gravestone adorned with a lamb and tree stump, symbols that were used to memorialize the death of a young person.8
In 1912, the Rev. Yurawitz became pastor of the Latvian Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Boston and also conducted services for congregations in Baltimore, Cleveland, New York and Philadelphia.9 Settling in Boston, the Yurawitz couple soon was joined by his parents, Joseph and Katherine, who in 1913 sold their Marathon County property for $4,600, according to land records.
That left the Stelbowitzes as the last remaining Latvian farmers in the Town of Wien.
Edward and Louisa Stelbowitz came to Wien around the same time as the Siksens. The Stelbowitzes were Baptists, which may explain why they were not mentioned by Rebane in reports of his mission trips that were printed in Amerikas Vēstnesis. The couple had two children who died in infancy, so the Stelbowitzes only had each other when they arrived in America in 1890. At first, they settled in Louisville, Kentucky, and then moved to the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. By 1895, they were farming on the 80 acres just north of the Siksens.
Around 1911, Louisa “was paralyzed by a nerve attack,” according to her obituary in the German Baptist newspaper Der Sendbote. Then, in February 1914, their house burned down. The Stelbowitz couple sold the property two months later and moved back to Chicago. Louisa died at the end of the year.10 Edward lived until 1936.
Today, other than the two gravestones, no trace remains of the Latvian settlement in Marathon County.
1. For example, see J.S., “Par kolonija,” Amerikas Vēstnesis, Jan. 1, 1897, 31, and C. Koezzel, “Vēl reizi par latviešu kolonijas dibināšanu Ziemeļ-Amerikas Sabiedrotās Valstīs,” Tēvija, July 2, 1897, 2-3.
2. The village was incorporated in 1898. For background, see Allen and Jane Huebsch, eds., Edgar: An Illustrated History, 1898-1998 (Edgar, WI: Edgar Centennial Committee and New Past Press, Inc., 1998).
3. B. Biederman, “Kolonijas lietā,” Amerikas Vēstnesis, Dec. 15, 1897, 57-58; Jan. 1, 1898, 66; Jan. 15, 1898, 73-74.
4. C. Siksen, “Par latviešu dzīvi Klondeikā, Aļaskā,” Amerikas Vēstnesis, Aug. 15, 1899, 61-62. By 1904, he was in the Oklahoma Territory, where he bought a 40-acre parcel of land, only to sell it two years later and return to Chicago. See “Sold His Farm,” The Cement Courier, Aug. 4, 1906, 1.
5. Two related St. John congregations are found in the Town of Wien and each has its own cemetery. St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church, located at 120500 County Road N, was organized in 1869. Disagreement about an unordained pastor heading the congregation led to a breakaway church forming in 1882. The breakaway St. John is located at 119415 Huckleberry Road in what is known locally as the “high steeple” church. Klaw Siksen is buried in the County Road N cemetery. Edgar Yurawitz is buried in the Huckleberry Road cemetery. For more on the history of the congregations, see “Church in Town of Wien Founded Sixty Years Ago,” Marshfield News-Herald, June 5, 1929, 3; “About Us,” St. John and Bethlehem Lutheran Churches, accessed July 17, 2022, https://stjbeth.org/st-john-about-us; and St. John Lutheran, accessed July 17, 2022, http://www.stjohnelcaedgar.org.
6. H. Rebane, “No mūsu misiones darba lauka,” Amerikas Vēstnesis, Oct. 15, 1910, 77-78. Also see Jēkabs Zībergs, Svētdienas skolas lasāmā grāmata (Cambridge, MA: The author, 1920).
7. Stevens Point Daily Journal, 14 Oct. 14, 1911, 11.
8. The symbology of gravemarkers has been considered by a number of scholars. A good introduction is found in Holly Everett, “American Gravemarkers and Memorial Assemblages,” in Simon J. Bronner, ed., The Oxford Handbook of American Folklore and Folklife Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 425-451.
9. The Rev. Yurawitz’s time in the ministry lasted only about a decade. After a falling out with the congregation of Trinity Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church, he stepped away from work among his fellow immigrants. Yurawitz and his wife briefly returned to the Midwest to establish a Lutheran mission on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. When the project failed because of a lack of funding by the Missouri Synod, the family moved back to Boston, where Yurawitz worked as a laborer. The April 1930 federal census still listed Edward Yurawitz as living in Boston with his wife, two children and father. However, soon after that he disappeared. Yurawitz popped up in July 1930 in Hinton, West Virginia, where he had been arrested for being drunk and in possession of alcohol. (West Virginia was a “dry” state from 1914-1934.) Yurawitz was reported to be hitchhiking back to Wisconsin. For details, see “Yurawitz Gets Release From County Jail,” Hinton Daily News, July 25, 1930, 1. The author Fred Wahlers, A Short History of Concordia College at St. Paul, Minnesota (St. Paul: Concordia College, 1953), 13, noted that Yurawitz, “after serving as pastor in Wisconsin, in Boston, and North Dakota and preaching in the Latvian, German, and English languages disappeared, and all traces of him were lost.” The former Lutheran minister may have died about 1937 in California.
10. “County Correspondence,” Wausau Pilot, Feb. 17, 1914, 5; “Stelbowitz,” Der Sendbote, Dec. 30, 1914, 829. Der Sendbote (The Emissary) was published in Cleveland, Ohio, from 1866-1971.