Rough Journey From Poland, Russia, to America

Grandparents’ endured minor ship wreck and one violent storm after another on trip to United States.

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My grandpa was born in Poland Russia in 1852. He met his spouse in a village where he went for a haircut. She was taking care of children there for $9 a year. At 19, Grandpa married Grandma, 16, and they left for America.

They left Antwerp, Belgium, November 24, 1874. There were 628 Mennonites aboard their ship, the SS Vaterland. This group had an unusually rough journey. The ship was badly damaged due to violent storms. It lost three propeller blades. The first in the English Channel, the second halfway across. They kept limping along till they neared the United States, where the last one was lost. The ship's voyage took 21 days.

When they started out the weather was nice. Everything went fine until midnight, when they collided with another ship. The ship wasn't damaged seriously but needed repairs. They returned to London. After six days the ship was ready to go, but smallpox broke out among the children in eight families. They were ordered to leave harbor at once. The sick children were transferred to a hospital ship, where two lost their lives in the transfer. They sailed out five miles from the harbor and remained there till they were released.

En route the seas became so boisterous and the waves so violent that they clapped together above the ship. The machinery was damaged to the extent they could not continue. Word was sent to London, Liverpool and Antwerp. The damaged ship turned around and started limping back to Liverpool. An American liner came to their rescue. While transferring passengers from the damaged ship to the American, water rushed in to where they thought the ship would sink. The lifeboats were filled. Thirty-five passengers did not find room in the lifeboats and had to remain on the sinking ship.

They cried to God to have mercy on them and receive their souls. During their greatest distress a sailor went down into the ship to see how far they were from filling with water. The sailor came back up and said the ship would not sink. There was another wall that prevented the water from filling the entire bottom of the ship. Their ship was towed back to Queenstown.

Grandma and Grandpa arrived at Hutchinson, Kansas, at 11:00 on a cold wintry night when the temperature was 12 below zero. They wandered about the streets of a strange country-penniless, hungry and homeless-until a man came along and opened an empty store building for their whole party to crowd into.

Grandpa and Grandpa eventually settled in McPherson county in Lontree township, so-called for its lone tree. They had $5 to start out with. There was grass five feet high, and there were no trees or buildings. Grandpa hired a man with a team of oxen to plow the sod. He also built a sod house. The lumber for the windows, doors and roof had to be hauled with oxen from Halstead, as McPherson had no lumberyard, only three shacks. Grandpa had to quit working on the roof before it was finished in order to earn some money and make a living. While he was gone, there was thunder and lightning and rain. Mother, with the children, would move from one side of the house to the other to keep from getting wet. A tin can with tallow and a wick in it was the only way of lighting the house.

One time Grandpa had a team of barn horses he tried to break in. When he couldn't handle them alone, he called for Grandma's help. With her holding onto the lines, they stumbled along in a field of hand-cut com. The horses ran onto the com pile, pulling Grandma along. They threw her against a pointed cornstalk, which cut about a four-inch gash in her side. Grandpa brought her a mirror to look at her wound. When she saw her own intestines, she fainted.

An old man took seashells the size of a hand and scraped the insides, which produced a powder that he applied to the wound. It healed, despite her being big with child. She didn't miscarry, either. This showed how God cared for them.

Another time one of their children was very ill. Sure the "Child would die, Grandpa found some boards, nailed them together and placed them outdoors. When the little life fled, the corpse would be placed on the table and packed in ice, as the custom was then. However, God saw fit to heal that illness.

There were no innerspring mattresses, only hay in the comer of the room to sleep on. Grandma wore two slips under her dress in the daytime, one of which she would shed at night to spread on the straw for a little protection. Later, boards were nailed together to

hold the straw between them, forming a modem bed. Unfortunately, this didn't keep the rats away, and they annoyed the children.

When it got too hot in the straw at night, Grandpa often would go into the yard and find a place where the breeze would blow. With two bricks for a pillow, he would sleep. Sometimes some of the children followed him outside and slept on the ground too. In the morning, Grandma would look pitifully at their eyes, swollen shut due to insect bites. Sometimes their mouths were swollen shut too, so they couldn't eat all day. There were no doctors or money, so they had to trust their care to the Lord.

Sometimes Grandpa wouldn't get the pay due him. He walked to Lindsborg to work, staying all week. One time he walked home with only a few ears of com. Another time he received a runty little pig. Both times he walked home weeping because he knew he had a hungry family waiting at home. It was on one of these weekends that he found Grandma with a new baby, three days old. She and Grandpa were so hungry, and there was nothing to eat. She got out of bed and soaked some cornmeal with water, putting it on the stove to dry a little. Grandpa was so hungry that he could scarcely wait to stave off the awful hunger.

When the Alto mill at Halstead was built, Grandpa worked there. He also raised pigeons. He had as many as 200 pairs, and he knew them all. The squabs were taken to town to sell. It was a good business. When the pigeons were real hungry at their nighttime feeding, Grandpa would say it was a sign of bad weather.

Grandpa fathered 16 children and lived to be 91 years old. Grandma died at 82; she was more feeble. She never learned to read, so Grandpa would read to her. She loved to mend, and she lovingly mended things for her grandchildren in her late years. She never went to a doctor or a dentist, and never wore glasses.

Mrs. Gilmore Unruh
Moundridge, Kansas


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.