As I grow older, I have many regrets. One is that I never listened more when Mother talked about coming to America from the old country.
She was born in a small farming village of Bohemia near Prague, or Praha. The village of Chrudim (we thought of it as Rodheim) was about 20 miles from the capital of Bohemia-Praha.
Their house was small, half of it being a barn for the poultry and animals. Grandfather would walk out each day to the sugar beet fields to work, often 16 to 18 hours a day. Another principal crop of that area was hops, from which the famous Pilsner beer was made.
Mother often spoke of tending the geese. Goose or carp is the traditional Christmas dinner entree. The feathers were also an important factor in the family's comfort. The feathers were plucked and "stripped" for pillow down and "featherbeds," which were similar to our present-day comforters.
Mother and her brother, Rudolph, were the only two of 17 children to reach adulthood. Most died in infancy, with the exception of one, little Tony, who lived to be 5.
The soil was rich, and farming was one of the main occupations. Grandfather was a farmer and a shoemaker for the castle at Prague. He was also a musician; I remember him trying to teach us to play the violin.
Much of the land was forest, which was always neat and clean because the frugal peasants gathered up any broken branches for fuel. Most of the land belonged to either the nobility or the German rulers; the peasants were reduced to serfdom.
This period of time preceded the great European depression of 1907. It was then that my grandfather decided to leave for America, where he could work for himself and be free from constant fear and pressure. Stories circulated about America, where the streets were paved with gold, and roasted pigs, complete with knives and forks, ran down the streets!
A Mr. Martinek, who left earlier for America, wrote to Grand-father, urging him to come to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. At that time Mr. Martinek owned a tin shop on 16th Avenue West, now commonly referred to as Little Bohemia, 16th Avenue. I never heard how he reached Cedar Rapids.
Grandfather worked at the T.M. Sinclair Packing Plant-later Wilson's-in Cedar Rapids and saved enough money to bring his family over. It was common practice then for one to come to America, save his money, and bring another over, then another.
Grandfather didn't send money, but tickets. As soon as the tickets arrived, Grandmother gathered up what they could carry in bags and bundles. With my 12-year-old mother and 2-year-old Rudolph, the trio walked the 20 miles to the train station that night.
There they took the fourth-class "immigrant" train, which took them to the harbor city of Hamburg, Germany. A shuttle train of some sort took them to their ship. I recall Mother speaking of the North Star, which could have been either the name of the line or the ship itself. They went by steerage, which Webster defines as, "a section in a passenger ship for passengers paying the lowest fares, and given inferior accommodations-located near the rudder."
Between 1892 and 1932,85 to 95 percent of all immigrants to the United States came by steerage. It was the responsibility of the steamship company to prepare the immigrants' manifests, made up of the famous 29 questions. These were set up by the United States, composed primarily of name, nationality, trade, destination, health, name of sponsor, and how much money they had-usually $30.
The cost of the trip was around $30 at that time, which paid for everything, including food. They were hustled, bag and baggage, to a lower deck, then to one below that, the orlop deck. Imagine a large room about seven feet high, as wide as the ship and one-third its length, located in the bow or stern. Floors and ceilings were iron or wood. Through the center there was a shaft to the hold. A framework of iron pipes formed tiers of two-by-six berths. The beds were made up of metal strips with straw-stuffed burlap for mattresses. The rooms-which held about 300-were duplicated on other parts of the ship. This section of the ship experiences the most violent motion, dirt from the stack and odors from the hold and galleys.
The immigrants ate from shelves or benches in passages of the sleeping compartments. The toilets and washrooms were inadequate; only saltwater was available. The inadequate ventilation, foul air, vomit of the seasick, odor of unwashed bodies and the stench of the nearby toilets made one nauseous.
Many just lay in a stupor caused by the foul air-there was no fresh air-and the continual babble of tongues. There was a very small deck where they could sometimes go outside.
The fatality rate for steerage ran about 10 percent. Mother told of bodies-mostly those of old people or young children-being slipped into the sea at night.
Each passenger was issued a plate, cup and spoon. The food was thin soup and stringy beef. Many didn't eat, or just couldn't. Utensils, hands and faces were washed in cold saltwater in the same basin or barrel.
One group was avoided because of their thieving habits. They would sit on the deck, combing lice from their long, dark hair. In such close quarters, everyone had lice. When the ship docked, these people appeared in beautiful black dresses and gold jewelry.
This trip across the ocean took two to three weeks. Imagine living under these conditions for that period of time! How happy everyone was as they crowded on deck to see the Statue of Liberty! They were awed by the "Great Lady."
As they left the ship at Ellis Island with their bags and bundles, they wore a tag around their necks proclaiming their name and manifest number. They were ushered into a large registry hall-more than 200 feet long and 100 feet wide, with a 56-foot vaulted ceiling. In this hall was a maze of passageways with iron-pipe railings called "the pens," separating the immigrants by ship or manifest number. The immigrants waited there for their manifests to be checked. Interpreters speaking 15 different languages helped them through their examinations.
During the three-day routine quarantine, baggage was disinfected, and everyone was examined for possible contagious diseases such as scarlet fever, measles, diphtheria, and more particularly for the five epidemic diseases: cholera, plague, smallpox, typhus and yellow fever.
Here they also were checked for ailments such as chronic alcoholism, trachoma and any form of tuberculosis or mental deficiency. Anyone with one of these, or any physical disability that would prevent them from earning a living, would be deported.
Then the immigrants had to wait for friends, money or directions telling them where to go. Fortunately, my grandmother had a pre-paid train ticket. An interpreter saw that she, her children and their baggage got on the right train-to Cedar Rapids.
Grandfather met them there and took them to the house of some Bohemian friends to stay for the time being, Later, they bought a large two-story house on 15th Avenue, which had been moved in from lower Third at about 10th Avenue.
Mother went to school for about a year. When she turned 13, her parents decided that it was time she earned some money, so she went to work in the Quaker Oats Company packaging department.
Her forelady, "Josie," liked her, and told her that if she went back to school for a while to learn more of the language, she could become a forelady too.
Her folks thought the idea was "foolish." She had to earn money, so she didn't return to school. She stopped at the dime store each payday to buy a pretty cut-glass goblet-she liked pretty things. I have the one remaining goblet. The rest of the money-her wages-her father took, as did many fathers of that day.
My mother and father met at the Quaker Oats plant where both worked. Despite the language barrier, love conquered all; they were married when she was only 17.
Mother's brother, Rudolph, went on to school, but like most boys and girls in that day, he went only until he was 16. Then, like all good Czech people, he went to work at the packing house. Men's factory wages here were about $4 per week. Like Mother, most of his wages went to their father.
He received his first citizenship papers; one had to get one's final papers within seven years. I remember Mother reminding him he had to pay his "head tax," which was $1 every year.
Originally, the tax was 50 cents. By 1891, it was $1. By 1918, the tax was $8. This money was used for the administration of the immigration service. Mother became a citizen when she married my father, and thus was exempt from the tax. The tax was abolished in 1952, when it was replaced by a $25 visa.
One day Uncle Rudolph received a letter from the Czech government, informing him that he had to return to Czechoslovakia for military service because he was still an official citizen of his homeland. It was nearly time for his first papers to expire.
I was 14 at the time. How I worked with him so he could pass his citizenship test! To pass, one must know more about our government than most ordinary citizens do-the making of laws, senate, congress, etc. When he received his papers, he gave me a Bulova wristwatch that I treasured for years; I still have the battered remains.
My father was Irish. His family had been here for generations, but he always told us children that Mother was special. She came from "across the water." I suspect that is the reason why our family cherishes our Czech ancestry.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
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.