Mother Came to Land of Opportunity By Way of Ship’s Crowded Steerage

Woman worked for wealthy New Yorkers, while future husband, as a blacksmith, fitted handles on train cars.

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On May 5, 1909, my mother disembarked from an ocean liner onto Ellis Island in this land of opportunity. Everyone was glad to leave the ship. Third class, or "steerage," was crowded, and many were seasick corning across. Mother was 17 years old – a typical Norwegian girl. She wore her Sunday clothes: a white, long-sleeved "waist" and a black wool skirt long enough to cover her high-top shoes. When let down, her brown hair was long enough for her to sit on, but it was neatly braided and pinned up under her hat. She wasn't long on Ellis Island, for she had a cousin to meet and a job already waiting. She worked as both an upstairs maid and a cook for wealthy New Yorkers, until she and my father were married. When Pop was courting Mom, she worked for the Putnam family. Their son, George, a small boy at the time, made a nuisance of himself whenever Pop came to call. George Putnam later married Amelia Earhart and promoted her flying career. (This was Mom's only claim to fame!)

My father came from southern Sweden on November 17, 1909, also at the age of 17. He came through Ellis Island, and he, too, had family here and a job waiting. Although he had grown up on a farm, he was a blacksmith by trade, and one of his first jobs was fitting door handles on Packard cars. He met my mother at a Scandinavian club, and after a trip to Sweden and Norway to meet their families, they were married April 3, 1915. His wedding suit cost $3.50. They eventually settled in Iowa and raised four children. When we were young, we children were often embarrassed by their accents and old-country ways.

Father had borrowed money for passage to America. His first job paid $3 for 60 or more hours of work. He not only paid off the loan quickly, he was able to retire when he was 53 years old!

They both had eight years of school in the old country, but it did not include English, and the math was all metric system. They learned both in a hurry over here so no one could cheat them. Pop was the most honest man I ever knew.

The greatest legacy they gave me was their inherent love of music. They both sang a lot, and my father played the accordion. He loved to dance and taught Mom. She didn't know how because she was raised on a tiny island where their activities were all at church. Times were hard in the '30s, but somehow they scraped up $100 to buy a piano for me, the only girl, so I could take lessons. They would be so proud if they knew that I play the organ at church.

When I was 6, Mother took me home to Norway with her. I remember that it was beautiful, but still rather primitive – no electricity or plumbing, not even a bridge from the mainland. We went by boat. I met my only grandparent, Mom's father, but all I can remember of him was his red hair and red beard, and that he loved to chew on coffee beans! He died a year before the Nazis invaded Norway. One of Mom's sisters and her only brother also came to America. Her brother was killed in an explosion aboard the ship he worked on; her sister died in childbirth.

Of my father's seven siblings, only three came to America. When their father died, the land and money was left to the boys, European style. Pop had to go back to Sweden to collect his share. After they came to America, my folks saw the advent of automobiles, radios, movies, television, airplanes – even a man on the moon! They loved America, but never lost their love for their homelands. I'm glad they came, and I am very proud of my heritage.

Bernice Johnson Baker
Lexington, Missouri


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.