Family Traveled to America in Search of a Better Life
In November of 1912, our mother, with her mother and two sisters, journeyed by ship, The Martha Washington, traveling 21 days across the ocean in search of a better life and prosperity. She was 12 at the time.
Her family had lived in a small town called Store, near the big city of Celje in Slovenija. At that time it was part of Yugoslavia; as of June 1991, it is independent. They went by train to Trieste, where they boarded The Martha Washington the following day. Mother said it was a huge ship, which was later sunk during World War I by the Germans. The passengers were all given physical exams before they were allowed to board. For awhile they enjoyed smooth sailing and a sunny sky, then suddenly it got cloudy. The wind began to blow and rock the vessel. Mother and one of her sisters who was on deck grabbed a pole so they wouldn’t be swept into the ocean, as all the dishes and everything that was not attached were. The sailors came to their aid and took them to their room, where Grand-mother and another aunt were in bed, seasick. The sailors closed the heavy windows, which made the room dark. When the storm subsided and the heavy windows were opened, they could see fish as large as oxen or buffalo, which were following the ship. Mother said they were afraid they might never see land again, so they were very happy when they saw the Statue of Liberty.
When they came to shore, they were told to watch for their trunk and possessions. When they claimed theirs, they were told to proceed. They rode on a small boat for a short while. When they reached land again they were taken to a railroad station in New York. There, for $1 each, Grandmother bought boxes containing salami, cheese, canned meat, bread, fruit, oranges, apples and bananas. They had never seen a banana before and were not sure they were edible. By then they were getting tired but still had a long journey ahead.
They rode the train from New York to St. Louis, where they transferred for the rest of their trip. Their destination was Breezy Hill, Kansas, a small settlement where immigrants came to live near Mulberry, Kansas. At the Mulberry station a man with a horse-drawn wagon was waiting to take them to their home. Grand-father and my uncle were already in America, having come a few years earlier to find employment and a place for the family to live.
My father came from Slovenija to Breezy Hill, too, where his sister and family lived. Our mom worked as a cook at the boarding house where the men without families lived. This was a coal mining area. Mom and Dad became acquainted and were married in 1917. They borrowed the money for three acres of ground in Camp 50, Girard, Kansas. There they built the home where my two sisters and I were born. It cost them $800 to have the new four-room home built, complete with pantry and clothes closet. There was no electricity in the area until later. They had a cow, two pigs and a good number of chickens. They worked hard in the garden to grow a lot of vegetables, which Mother would can in preparation for the winter. With no refrigerators, our mother and the neighborhood women had to prepare everything at the time it was needed. Mother was a good seamstress and made all of our clothes, as well as all the beautiful handiworks: embroidery, knitting, and crocheting, which she did after the rest of her day’s work was done.
This was considered a melting pot. People of all nationalities were our neighbors: French, Belgians, Germans, Poles and Italians. Our community was called Camp 50; most of the settlements were named after the numbered coal mine nearest them. The language barrier was a problem but somehow the people seemed to understand one another. Mom and Dad attended adult education classes and learned a lot. They both became naturalized citizens of the United States, and we were very proud of them. I attended classes at the night school because I was afraid to stay at home alone in the evenings. The night school teacher gave me a group of people to teach English to, and when they understood the language, they were promoted to his class, where he taught the Constitution and government.
Through the years, my parents kept in touch with their relatives and friends in Slovenija. They taught us the Slovene language: how to converse, read and write. My sisters and I still keep in touch with our people in Slovenija.
We went to Slovenija to meet and visit with our relatives and friends with whom we had been corresponding. We were greeted and treated with such love and hospitality, we can now say, “We know how it must feel to be a queen.”
Mom and Dad worked hard for what they received. They didn’t ask for a handout, only for the opportunity and privilege to work for a living. Dad was a coal miner for more than 40 years. On his knees, underground, he risked his life for $2 a day, but not every day, as there was not such a demand for coal. He was handy with wood carving and made scythe handles and wooden rakes completely by hand. The men used scythes in those days as there were no lawn mowers.
The coal miners in the area went on strike in 1921 for better working conditions and better pay. Mother was with the group of ladies who marched to try to keep the non-union men-called scabs-from going down in the mine to work. The men stayed at home and took care of the children, as the leaders thought there would be less trouble if the ladies marched.
There are 35 second-generation Slovenes in our singing group called Zivio Slovenci. We march in parades, attend homecomings and sing for special events. These are the same songs our parents sang. Visiting and singing the songs from their homeland was their recreation. We are trying to keep the culture and language alive in this area; we are proud of our Slovenian ancestry.
Angeline M. O’Korn
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.
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