Grandpa often wished he was a landowner like his brother-in-law, Giuseppe Spera. His prosperous olive and lemon groves allowed him to work in the fresh air and sunshine, and during slack time, he fished in the Gulf of Castellammare. But Grandpa was a shoemaker. He was always too busy for leisure time.
During family gatherings, he heard repetitious stories of the horrors of war and uprisings. His forefathers had fled Greece because of the barbarous Turks. Now, Grandpa faced the heavy taxes that had been levied in Italy for 100 years to support the military.
He wanted to raise his family free from heavy taxation and wars, and he still dreamed of being a landowner.
One day, Grandpa received a letter from his cousin in America. Cousin Luigi said free land was available in Nebraska by fulfilling six months of residency and farming the land. Grandpa had no knowledge of farming but could learn for the privilege of land ownership. Just think! Free land!
Grandma was not so excited, but consented to the move. They agreed that Grandma would remain there with Rosie, the oldest child, until Grandpa could file on some land.
Disposing of his business, he booked passage on a merchant vessel to America, landing at Ellis Island, New York, in February of 1888. Because of the language barrier and not knowing where to go, he began walking down the street. A kind woman called from her window in Italian, "You must be freezing in those light clothes; come in and have coffee and a sandwich!" Hearing his plight, she referred him to a bachelor friend, who offered him shelter in his apartment. Grandpa slept on the floor on his first night in America.
Arriving in Nebraska, he learned the free land was gone! By this time, Grandma was already on her way with 4-year-old Rosie and 4-month-old Mary, so he rented a shop on 13th and Jones Street and opened a shoe shop in Omaha, Nebraska.
When Grandma and the girls arrived, she related the excitement of crossing the Atlantic Ocean-how Rosie refused to eat and how the ship's cook would favor her with fresh biscuits and jelly. She marveled at the fascinating gas lights in New York and seeing her first bananas ever! Grandpa then related how everybody wanted their shoes repaired, rather than purchasing new ones, and they all wanted boots! This was rural America.
Living in cramped quarters in the back of the shop, they began to learn the new language, mostly from food products and kind neighbors.
Five years later, Cousin Luigi informed Grandpa that several homesteaders, who were his neighbors, were discouraged and wanted to sell. Grandpa quickly bargained for their land in Custer County and moved his family to a small frame house with no foundation, consisting of a kitchen, pantry, sitting room and one small bedroom. This building was later used for a schoolhouse. Grandpa then opened a shoe shop in Anselmo, farming the land until my father and his brother were old enough to work it. My grandfather realized his dream of land ownership and blessed his descendants with American citizenship. What a privilege!
Joseph F. Lepant
Grand Island, Nebraska
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.