Swedish Ancestor Among Immigrants to Land of Opportunity

Ship held in New York Harbor to allow president’s funeral procession to pass.

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In search of the land of opportunity, my Swedish ancestor, Gus Johnson, arrived in New York City Harbor in September 1881. The immigrants could not disembark until President Garfield's funeral was over. Whales were sighted during the trip and the passengers nearly capsized the ship rushing to one side to observe them.

According to stories Gus told family members, children were allowed one pair of leather shoes a year. He wore his when he should have been more careful and was left with nothing but wooden shoes to wear. His sister, who was about his age, went to Sunday School and met Gus close to the church, where they exchanged shoes. He continued to church and she, wearing his wooden shoes, went home.

His mother made cheese for the family. It was stored in a manure pile to "ripen." No doubt it was good, but I can not eat Limburger cheese because of the smell. Every Christmas Granddad Johnson bought a large round of cheddar cheese. He also enjoyed his salted herring, which was soaked and poached for yuletime.

Genealogy records for Gus are scarce. He celebrated his 20th birthday on the ocean coming to America. I think I have found the passenger list, which listed Gus as six years older than his actual age. A genealogical friend assured me he would add to his age if he were going to a foreign land. He was also listed as Aaron Johnson, but officials in New York City told him it was not a Christian name, so he took his brother's name – spelled Gust – on his naturalization papers. I wonder if it wasn't on purpose to escape compulsory military service. We will never know.

Granddad settled in Illinois, where he worked for a Swedish farmer. He met my grandmother, who had an English background, when she came to work for the same Swedish family. After a period of time he had a choice of some acres or money and two horses. It is no wonder that, after being in this country for 11 years, he took the horses and money and married my grandmother. Later they moved near Independence, Kansas. Some of my earliest memories of visiting their home are of Grandmother reading the Independence Reporter, Capper's Weekly, and The Weekly Kansas City Star to Granddad as they sat in their yard in the evening, resting from their daily work.

In 1925, my parents bought a Model T touring car. As a Christmas present they took Granddad and Grandmother Johnson to Poteau, Oklahoma, to see a daughter who had been spoiled as a youngster. Whipped cream was her favorite. Grandmother took two half gallons of the night's cream when we left early in the morning. What a trip! Mother, Dad and my year-old sister in the front seat, my grandparents and three boys, the oldest not 6, in the back. Wrap robes kept us warm. Highways weren't marked as they are today, and they were gravel for the most part. We were on the wrong road three times. The last time we were nearly in Fort Smith, Arkansas, before finding out we were not on our way to Poteau. Grandmother was getting weary and kept saying we would have butter by the time we arrived. Sure enough we did!

Granddad was not accustomed to modern facilities. Every day when nature called he cranked the Ford up and went out to the country where he could perform his "chores." He was very frugal.

In November 1945, when I returned from two years overseas, I took my fiancée to meet Granddad. Where was he? That 85-year-old man was out in the kafir cornfield with a gunnysack, pail and butcher knife, cutting off the heads of the kafir that had been missed by the combine. That is my last memory of my Swedish granddad, who passed away the following April, timidly complaining to the end that he could not go to the outdoor toilet.

Merle W. Austin
Collinsville, Oklahoma

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.