America! Were the stories really true? A person could work at the profession of his choosing and could worship God – in freedom in this land of opportunity. I had learned from childhood that our ancestor Abraham had been promised by God that he would be the father of a great nation. Maybe that was to be America. Political unrest was great in Prussia following the Napoleonic Wars. The grand alliance of Prussia, Austria and Russia fought amongst itself. Prussia did not receive the constitution that its citizens desired. Even though Jews were given equal status in politics and business, I did not trust men with political power.
In May 1848, the National Assembly met in Frankfurt. It adopted a Bill of Rights and wrestled earnestly with the problem of German unity, even as uprisings in various parts of the country were put down by troops. Knowing some of the participants, fearing knowledge of some of my past activities and being of Jewish background, I feared for my life. I did not believe in expandist wars – taking human life to expand one's borders – I believed in the sanctity of life. After all, I was studying medicine to practice the profession of my fathers before me: It was tradition.
Although I knew the heartache of breaking family ties, I still made plans to take refuge in America. In 1862, Prince Otto von Bismarck was appointed president of the Council of Ministers by the Prussian king. This unscrupulous man would serve the cause of a united Germany, a very powerful state. So why stay in Prussia? Tradition? I would continue my family's tradition in America. My mother was a nurse, as was one of her sisters. My family had always been involved with medicine. I would go where there was freedom to voice dissent, and freedom to worship as Father Abraham did.
Landing in New York during 1869, I traveled to Omaha, Nebraska, with a family I had met on the ship. They were meeting some cousins who had homesteaded farms in Nebraska. Being farmers, they wanted their fair share of some of that rich soil That part of the country had not been involved in the great Civil War. War again. Here it was brother against brother.
Needing money to finance my medical schooling, I found work in a tobacco store owned by a man named Herman Meyer. He was married, and he and his wife, Cecelia, had two boys, Adolph and Joseph. A third son, Henry, was born the same year Herman was killed in a tragic accident. I had resumed my medical studies that year, but I felt so sorry for Cecelia that I returned and managed the business for her until she could handle it. She was not business minded, and this was her only source of income. After a period of mourning, I asked her if she would consider marriage and letting me help her raise the boys. It wasn't a hard decision, as we were fond of each other, so we were married March 15, 1870. Now that I was settled, the difficult part was not being able to complete medical school. But I would have a son and send him to keep tradition alive in the Rich family.
Omaha was a thriving new community, bustling with commerce and trade from new settlers on the prairies. There was freight from the riverboats, and the Union Pacific Railroad that spanned this large country finally linked up in Utah. Before President Lincoln's assassination, he had pushed through legislation for the Homestead Act, whereby a man could buy 160 acres of land for $1.25 per acre, provided he lived on the land and farmed it for six months. In the next 20 years, millions of settlers passed through Omaha, filing for homesteads on the western prairies. Many of these people were immigrants from Europe, just as I was, seeking freedom from oppression, and hoping for employment or business opportunities.
On December 5, 1870, my wife, Cecelia, presented me with a son, Max Lee. The tobacco shop prospered, and in the ensuing years, we were able to educate the boys, enrolling Max in the Omaha Medical College on Pacific Street.
Max Lee Rich graduated medical school in 1893 and served the communities of Brainard and Wisner before establishing a practice in Grand Island, Nebraska. He served the pioneers and their descendants who settled the plains. One son, three daughters, two great-granddaughters, and two great granddaughters-in-law followed in the medical profession.
What a legacy our pioneering forefathers left us. What a privilege to be an American and live the dream that was theirs!
Submitted by Joseph F. Lepant
Grand Island, Nebraska
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.