The Seifert Farm near Juneau, Dodge County, Wisconsin

1910 plat map, section of Town of Oak Grove, showing the properties of August and Julius Seifert. Click to enlarge.

Anna Seifert wrote her letters from the Seifert family farm, where she moved after her marriage to Julius Seifert in 1902. A dairy operation, it was adjacent to the property of Julius’ father August. After Julius died in January 1933, their son Norman (1914–1985) took over. Anna lived on the farm until her death in 1958.

In 1983, Lester Seifert reminisced about the rural community he grew up in: “Allow me to begin at home on our family farm about half-way between the little cities of Juneau and Horicon in Dodge County. […] In the 1920s there were ten farmsteads owned and occupied by the following families […]  1) Seifert, 2) Schoenemann, 3) Koepsel, 4) Zastrow, 5) Herrick, 6) Wrucke, 7) Bogda, 8) Schulz, 9) Pufahl, 10) Pufahl. Eight of the ten farmsteads were German. The Herricks were called Yankees, although they really came from western New York. […] The Bogdas were Bohemians who chattered away in German with their friends and neighbors. Of course, there have been many changes.  […]
If Wisconsin is indeed ‘America’s Dairyland,’ then it is the Germans and their descendants who have made it so. As my uncle Otto Lichtenberg used to say: ‘Nur die Deutschen sind dumm genug, sich so vom Vieh festbinden zu lassen.’ [Only the Germans are dumb enough to tie themselves to their livestock.] It is true that dairy farming greatly restricts the going and coming of the farmer because of the regularity with which cows must be milked. […] In return, a dairy herd almost automatically assured continued fertility of the fields. All of us, I suppose, enjoy seeing a fine herd of black and white cows out on a green pasture. […] Most of the German farmers have been very proud of their farms and of their appearance, especially of the farmstead. Accordingly, they have tended to keep the buildings and fences in good condition. (Seifert, Lester W. J. 1983. Some German contributions to Wisconsin Life. Yearbook of German-American Studies 18: 173-184.)

Northwestern College, Watertown, Wisconsin

“The Black and Red,” 1936–1937, p.443

The first item in this collection is a postcard that Anna Seifert sent to her son Lester on January 25, 1932, addressed to “Mr. Lester W.J. Seifert, N.W. College, Watertown, Wis.” The previous fall, Lester had begun to study for the ministry at Northwestern College in Watertown, Wisconsin, a college of the Wisconsin Lutheran Synod, and the current home of Luther Preparatory School. The college was just 20 miles from the family farm.

At Northwestern, Lester was on the editorial board of the student paper “The Black and Red.” He also played on the football team and was involved in other activities such as theater. In June 1937, he graduated with a degree in liberal arts.

Graduation from Northwestern College, “The Black and Red” commencement issue, 1937.

University of Wisconsin–Madison

1937 map of the UW–Madison Campus, drawn by Hans Werner. Source: Madison Libraries Digital Collections. Click to enlarge.

From July 1937 until September, 1938, Lester Seifert attended the University of Wisconsin–Madison as a graduate student in the German department. His mother’s letters were now addressed to “Mr. Lester W.J. Seifert, 307 N. Frances St., Madison, Wis.” In an Oral History Interview with the Minds@UW project in 1976, Lester Seifert talked about his student days here:

“I had really pretty much planned to go into the ministry, in the Lutheran ministry. But at the time, the young ministers finishing the seminary weren’t getting calls, and so I thought I’d just take a little time off and study in the meantime. So I came to Madison to do some graduate work before going to the seminary. […] I hadn’t decided whether I’d do it in German or whether I’d do it in Greek. [I had] six years of Greek, […] but I found the people in the German Department so much more cordial, so much more interested in me as a person, that I decided in favor of German rather than Greek. […] This was the fall of ’37, when I came. […] I got my MA after the first year, that is in the spring of ’38, and came back again for another year. But then I got a fellowship to go to Brown, and I went there and finished my degree there.”

Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

Lester Seifert started his fellowship at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, in the fall of 1939. His mother’s first letter sent to Providence is dated September 27, 1939. His Ph.D. advisor was Professor Hans Kurath (1891–1992), a native of Austria who had immigrated to the United States in 1907. A leading scholar in American linguistic geography and regional varieties of American English, Kurath directed the Linguistic Atlas of the United States project started by the American Council of Learned Societies, which produced several atlases of regional English. Kurath and other linguistic geographers recognized the important influence of non-English languages on regional American English, including Pennsylvania Dutch (Pennsylvania German), and therefore suggested that Lester Seifert and a fellow graduate student at Brown, Carroll E. Reed, though, investigate variation in the German-descended vernacular language of rural southeastern Pennsylvania. Seifert and Reed received their PhDs in Germanic Linguistics in April 1941. Seifert continued to work as an instructor in the Brown University German Department for another year.

Rural Southeastern Pennsylvania

Lester Seifert’s research on the Pennsylvania Dutch language was based on interviews with nearly one hundred speakers of the language in rural southeastern Pennsylvania, especially in the counties of Lancaster, Berks, and Lehigh, where Pennsylvania Dutch originally developed in the 18th century. In the summers of 1940 and 1941, he and Carroll Reed bicycled through the countryside to reach their interview consultants. In 1940, Anna Seifert wrote eight letters to her son addressed to “Fogelsville, Pennsylvania, General Delivery.” In the following year, she wrote six letters which she sent “General Delivery” to Pillow, Elizabethville, and Middleburg, Pennsylvania.

Most of Seifert and Reed’s informants were older male farmers, but in the town of Fogelsville, for example, they also included a 35-year-old plumber, an 18-year-old student, and a 66-year-old professor, – all males. All were non-sectarian (non-Mennonite or Amish) speakers of the language. Interview subjects answered a specifically designed questionnaire with Seifert and Reed meticulously writing down each response. This work became the basis for the Word Atlas of Pennsylvania German which was published by the Max Kade Institute in 2001.

A Word Atlas of Pennsylvania German, page 169. Click to enlarge.

The joint fieldwork of Seifert and Reed yielded clear patterns of geographic variation. This map shows regional differences in the use of everyday vocabulary items that can be traced back to the settlement history of German-speaking immigrants and their descendants in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The words depicted are Poddre/Karrelle (beads), Schmals/Fett (lard), Eemer/Kiwwel (bucket), Schpootyaahr/Harebschd  (autumn), hocke/sitze or setze (to sit), Zoiger/Zeeche (clock hand), Lutzer/Ladann (lantern), and blafft/gauzt ([the dog] barks).


A vast cache of Lester Seifert’s original research materials from this time, including notebooks and ledgers, is housed at the Max Kade Institute. Among other things, Lester kept a detailed record of his expenses during the field trips. On June 19, 1940, a few days before he headed to Pennsylvania for the first time, he recorded a balance of $25, having received $20 from Professor Kurath in addition to $5 he had on hand. On this day, he spent $9 for a bicycle, $3 for a room for one week, 40 cents for dinner, and 15 cents for cigarettes.