Land of Opportunity: Immigrants Meet at Wedding

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By Capper's Staff | Mar 14, 2013

My folks came to the United States, the land of opportunity – my dad from Bavaria and my mom from Austria – to have a better life. My dad had to quit school after the fourth grade and study to become a tinner and roofer. They met here at a wedding. She was a bridesmaid and he played the accordion, which he had brought along with him to make a living, before he became a full-time tinner and roofer. I remember my folks telling me why there were so many steps to climb at Ellis Island. They believed those who couldn’t reach the top or were out of breath when they got there were sent back, as they probably had heart problems and couldn’t work.

My hometown, Johnstown, named after a Mr. Johns, was a friendly place – no locked doors, etc. The various nationalities in Johnstown found work with the Bethlehem Steel and Ironworks and in the mines. My dad had to learn to communicate with his customers through his expressions, his hands, etc. They only spoke German with my two oldest sisters. When my sisters started speaking English in school, they decided they’d better learn English too. After that they only spoke German when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about!

I was baptized, and my first Holy Communion and confirmation took place at one of the oldest churches in the city. It had survived three floods and two devastating fires. I never questioned why we belonged to this church instead of one of the other two Catholic churches we passed on the way to ours; perhaps it was because ours was German.

Johnstown is in a valley, completely surrounded by mountains. My mom said that during the 1889 flood she was baking cakes in an outdoor stove. When the water began to rise, she grabbed the cakes and went up to the second floor, where she threw one over to the next house. She watched houses go by with people sitting on the roofs. At the end of the street was a big hole in which houses and people disappeared.

Our town flooded again in 1936. I was in the eighth grade, and the nun said, “Go home, as the water is already flooded under the bridge,” so we climbed over the bridge and went home. That Sunday they set up a table in the upstairs hall, and before the priest said Mass there, he stood before his congregation and cried. I had never seen a man cry before and it touched me deeply.

My dad’s business completely disappeared; the water came in the back door and went out the front, taking everything with it. We were thankful he had a truck, as the Red Cross gave work to men with trucks hauling all the goods, blankets, shoes, clothes, etc., which came in from all over the United States. We youngsters got our first pair of roller skates that some kind person sent along. We went up to the church and school every day, slapping jars of Vaseline on the grill work, trying to get the mud off. The next day it was back. At the school we sorted wet and muddy books, papers, etc., trying to save something. We worked every day so the school could open that September.

Margaret Esper
Romeo, Michigan

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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