Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

February 1994


Published in Great Plains Research 4:1 (February 1994). Copyright © 1994 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Used by permission.


As historians of immigration have turned their sights from the cities to the countryside, they have discovered "ethnic islands" which retained Old World cultures to a greater degree than urban immigrant clusters. In this thoughtful study, Carol Coburn shows that the village of Block, Kansas was an extreme case in its isolation, homogeneity, and the durability of its ethnic culture. Therefore, while Block may not be representative, its past provides an opportunity to study the mechanisms by which an ethnic island maintained a distinctive way of life within mainstream American culture.

Coburn argues that the German Lutheran culture of Block's settlers was transmitted to succeeding generations through "educational networks": church, school, family, and the outside world. She argues that in Block, first settled in the 1860s, primarily by Germans from Hanover, German culture was used to preserve the Lutheran religion, which was conservative, isolationist, and patriarchal. This symbiosis of religion and culture was reinforced in the parochial school, which existed primarily to give moral training. A hub of social activity, schools reinforced family and community values in ways that were "pervasive, authoritarian, traditional, and total" (p. 80). Habits of private life were central to the shape of public community. Family members filled prescriptive roles that echoed extended families of the peasant past. The practice of endogamy and family rituals of birth, baptism, marriage, and even Sunday dinner spun networks of belonging. At church, school, and home, the residents of Block created an insular community with an uncanny resemblance to their European peasant past.