My maternal grandfather, Nicholas Klotz, was born in Austria. From the beginning, Grandpa Klotz had an exciting life. In the early 1800s Austria was taken over by Napoleon. Grandpa remembered an octagon-shaped fort with portholes and a stone-slabbed roof. It was used in times when raiders came through the Brenner Pass, near where the family lived. At one time Austria was one of the most powerful countries in Europe, but by the time he was born, the country had been through many wars. Each time Austria suffered greatly and lost some of its territory.
The Austrian people grew tired of war. In 1847, Joseph Ludwig Schneller, an uncle of Grandpa's who was a sea captain, ship owner and importer/exporter, fitted a sailing vessel for a trip to America. About July 11, Captain Schneller set sail with members of the Klotz and Schneller families, including 6-year-old Nicholas.
The Klotz family settled in Fond du Lac county, where Grandpa received whatever education he could in the common schools of the area. His father was a firm believer in education, so when his brother-in-law, Father Anton Schneller, suggested Nicholas come to New York and attend 51. John's College at Fordham, he gave his permission. Grandpa always said he received five years of education in the two years that he was at 51. John's.
Nicholas returned to Wisconsin to work on his father's farm, but in 1858, when he was 17, he began the adventure of his lifetime. His uncle, Captain Schneller, who had -brought the families to America, offered him a trip to California on his sailing vessel.
The only complete water route at that time was around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, which was still a primitive country. Naked natives were a common sight along the shores. Theirs was not one of the new clipper ships that made the trip in 100 days or fewer. Their journey took a year, and they had to endure as many as 200 days of boredom and seasickness. Despite the drawbacks, thousands of gold-seekers were willing to pay $300-a large amount in those days-to reach California. The alternative was a land-sea route through the jungles of the Isthmus of Panama. With the best connections, this route could be negotiated in as few as eight weeks if the traveler survived the hardships and tropical diseases. Also, they often waited many weeks for a ship out of Panama City bound for San Francisco.
When Captain Schneller's ship arrived at San Francisco, ships of every description were riding anchor in the harbor. Of the tens of thousands of prospectors who streamed into California during the gold rush of the late 1840s and 1850s, many arrived in vessels such as these.
Grandpa's experience with horses on the farm helped him secure a job driving freight wagons from San Francisco to Sacramento. Business was booming in Sacramento: the heart of life, trade and vice. Grandpa was a deeply religious man, and apparently he did not succumb to the many vices and temptations. My mother told in later years how, after a day of business in town, he said, "Oh dam, I was going to get a glass of beer when I was in town and I forgot," so surely drinking was not one of his problems.
There were no railroads west of the Mississippi, so freight was hauled in wagon trains. Lone wagons were easy prey to bandits and Indians, which still abounded in that wild country. Grandpa Klotz joined other drivers to form wagon trains-sometimes as many as 25 long-with high-wheeled wagons, each pulled by a team of six to 20 oxen, mules or horses. One man drove his team and also guarded the freight on his wagon. The drivers were called bullwhackers or mule skinners. The wagons lumbered along at a mile or two an hour, making about 100 miles in a seven-day week. There were no Sundays west of Omaha.
When the Civil War began, Grandpa was ready to join the army, as all young men were being conscripted. President Lincoln decided the freight drivers were needed where they were, and he told them to stay on their jobs.
According to family legend, Grandpa told this story of his first trip to Salt Lake City. He had to wait for other wagons to make up a train for the return trip. There was a shortage of help due to the war, and at times a driver had to wait weeks. Having heard of the beautiful Mormon Temple, Grandpa decided to see it while he was waiting. He was amazed to find the entrance guarded by a man "with an Irish brogue so thick you could cut it with a knife."
"How come an Irishman like you came to be a Mormon?" Grandpa asked.
"I'm not a Mormon. I'm a Roman Catholic," the man answered, "but I work here. The Mormons are good people. They mind their business and want you to mind yours. But have you met their leader, Brigham Young?"
The Irishman took Grandpa in to meet the "President" as he was called.
Grandpa spent one winter working on a ranch owned by the Mormons, 160 miles from Salt Lake City. The people he lived with that winter were kind and considerate. Knowing he was Catholic, they never served meat on Friday, nor ate any themselves. This was one of the rules of the church at that time. They surely endeared themselves and the Mormon people to my grandfather.
The rancher had no money, so Grandpa was paid in gold dust, which was carried in a little canvas pouch called a poke. He did very little mining himself. When he got back to Salt Lake City, his pack was stolen. Although he needed and valued the gold, what he considered his greatest treasure was a crucifix that had been a gift from his uncle, Father Schneller. Grandpa told his Irish friend how awful he felt.
"Have you reported it?" the Irishman asked. "There isn't a man comes here that we don't know where he comes from or where he is going. Report it and come back in a few days."
When Grandpa returned, there was his pack. Brigham Young asked to see the precious crucifix, which he examined and handed back with the advice, "Take good care of it. Never lose it again."
By this time the freight line on the railroad was extended to Omaha, and Grandpa was moving closer to home. He had grown to manhood in the West. He loved the country, but his family was in Wisconsin. In 1865 he returned to the farm in the town of Eden. He married, raised a family and was elected a state assemblyman and sheriff of Fond du Lac County.
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.