SUNBONNET DAYS - CHAPTER II - WE HEAR OF KANSAS AND NEBRASKA
It was on a Saturday in late autumn of 1854 that Uncle Christian's letter arrived. It must have been Saturday because we children were playing at home instead of studying at school, and it certainly was late autumn because Father was mending the shingles and sweeping the roof. This chore invariably preceded winter; for unless the dust was removed from the roof before the first snow, the spring thaws would wash it from the shingles into our cistern.
Cloud streamers, on that memorable Saturday, unfurling from the summit of the Jungfrau, portended imminent storm. Because of the threat of winter, Mother carried the butter to our customers in Orvin so that Father could give the day to the roof. Several hours later she was on her way home, walking up the winding road. But Father was so busy with his work and we children were so engrossed with our playing, that we did not notice her until she had almost arrived home. Suddenly one of us, seeing her, announced her approach with a shout, and all three of us tore away as fast as our feet could patter to meet her. To our joy we saw that she carried a letter. Now, in 1854, a letter in the Swiss mountains was something to talk about for weeks.
"Who's the letter from?" we clamored in French.
"From Uncle Christian," Mother responded.
We wheeled about, racing each other, eager to be the first to shout in German the big news to Father.
"Indeed!" exclaimed Father, not interrupting his sweeping. Then, as mother came up, he added, "Read it to me, Jeannette."
While mother broke the wax seal of the letter from America, Father stopped the sweeping of the roof and came to the edge of the wide eaves, where he stood leaning on the broom listening. The letter was in German, which Mother read with difficulty. The letter has long since been lost, but it was so very important that I recall the message vividly. As nearly as I can remember, the opening paragraphs were something like these:
"My dear brother: You cannot do better than to come to America immediately. If you remain in Switzerland you will grow old without being any better off than you are today. Labor is so cheap and land is so dear with you, that no matter if you should live to be a hundred and have health and strength to work to your last day, you could even then have scarcely earned enough to buy yourself a farm to leave to your children.
"With us, land is practically given away. With what money you can realize from the sale of your possessions, you can fit yourself out here as a farmer with implements, work animals, wagons and all of that.
"Only last May President Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, converting part of the Indian lands into two new territories, Kansas and Nebraska. Kansas is just across the river from St. Joseph. All this summer people have been taking up lands within the very sight of this city. The laws allow a farmer to become owner of one hundred and sixty acres by living on it, by building a house on it, by cultivating the soil, and, at the end of five years, by paying only one dollar and a quarter an acre.
"Because of nearness to St. Joseph the land is especially desirable, for St. Joseph affords a ready market. This city is the largest place between St. Louis and San Francisco and is destined to be the greatest city in western America. It is now the chief terminus for the California, Oregon, and Mormon trails. The Rocky Mountain trappers and the Indian traders of the plains are supplied from this market.
"I suggest that you leave Orvin about February 1, which will bring you here in April, in time to cross the Missouri River and select the farm you desire in the spring. The laws of the United States permit foreigners to take up land on the same terms as the citizens of this country. So generous are the Americans that they have even given the right to foreigners to vote in these two territories within six months after they have made their declaration of becoming citizens of the United States."
As the letter reading progressed, Father became more and more excited. Finally he threw his broom from the roof and exclaimed:
"Let the next tenant sweep this roof. Now, we are going to America."
Down he came, took the letter from Mother and, beginning at the first, read it all over again. Not only did the letter urge Father to take us to America, but it went into every detail of the journey - what to take, how to save money on the way, how to take a sailing vessel from Havre to New Orleans, and thence by river steamboat to St. Joseph. Since at that time there were no railroads west of the Mississippi River, European travel for the West was usually by way of New Orleans, which ranked second to New York as the port of entry for immigrants.
One part of Uncle's letter puzzled us greatly. He told us to sell the greater part of our clothing.
"In America," he wrote, "the people launder every Monday; therefore, you will need few changes."
What an amazing country where the people laundered every week! In Switzerland we laundered twice a year. In our house we had a large, well-ventilated room, where we hung our soiled linen from autumn until spring. Week by week, as we took new clothing from the wardrobes, we hung our soiled clothing in the laundry room. Not until spring did we have a wash day. Everybody helped - women, men, and children. After the washing came an orgy of ironing. Then all the winter things were laid away and we drew on our supply of clean summer clothing, discarding the soiled garments week by week without washing them until the autumnal wash day. Such a custom required fifty or more complete changes of dress for each person. It also hampered a change of fashions.
Well, no wonder Americans had money when they could have free land and did not need to invest so much in clothing! Each one of us was bursting with enthusiasm by the time the letter was concluded. For my part I could hardly wait until Monday when I could run to school with the news.
When Monday did come Adolph and I were on our way as usual by starlight, for we lived so high up the mountain that we had to begin our journey early lest we be tardy. Our feet fairly flew as we hurried down the mountainside. Adolph ran to see his friends; and I first stopped at the home of a school mate, Elise Jendervin, where I usually left my lunch basket until noon, when I returned with her to warm my food in the Jendervin oven.
"Elise," I cried, "we are going to America!"
She was thrilled as much as I was, and ran off to school with me to help spread the tidings. One of the first children we encountered at school was Louise Schmidt, my bosom friend, but her faced paled when I told her.
"Oh," she gasped. "Not all the way to America?"
Her words brought to me forcibly the startling realization that America meant not only farm ownership and wash days every Monday, but also the parting from friends. Other children, however, crowding around for details, gave me little time for regrets. When was I going? Why was I going? Was I afraid of the sea? The teacher showed her interest by uncovering a wall chart and hunting out on the map such places as New Orleans and the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. For a day or two all the talk at school was about my prospective voyage, and I felt quite distinguished.
The interest at school was nothing to the stir at home in preparation for departure. Every night when I returned from school, I found a new form of activity. One night, for instance, I came home to find Mother rendering butter in a kettle on the stove. She boiled the butter until it became clear, then poured it into buckets where it cooled and hardened again. Altogether she rendered twelve gallons of butter to be eaten on the voyage. In those days steerage passengers supplied their own provisions. Salted butter would turn rancid in the months required to cross the sea, but rendered butter would last indefinitely. Mother also packed cheeses, dried prunes, dried cherries, and dried apples.
Father provided two large wooden sea chests, iron bound to withstand the rolling of the ship. We already had a large trunk. These three containers were to hold such of our belongings as we intended taking to America. Everything else had to be disposed of. Part of our surplus clothing we donated to the poor. All except our religious books we gave to an aunt.
Some of our best clothing we gave as keepsakes to friends and relatives. To Louise Schmidt I presented some of my finest dresses. I did not know what to give to Elise Jendervin, for she had plenty of clothing. At last I decided to give her my doll. It was the nicest thing I had and I hated to part with it, but at last I gave it to her.
Most of our clothing, however, was sold at auction. Our friends spread the word across the mountains and valleys so that the entire countryside knew of the sale. On the appointed day farmers and villagers came to bid for our possessions. Had I kept a list of the articles sold that day it would give an idea of the prodigality of a peasant's wardrobe. I do recall, however, that after Father had given away many of his linen shirts and had selected a few to carry to America, he still sold thirty-six; and Mother sold sixty pieces of fine underclothings, all of homespun linen. These were eagerly taken up by the bidders as were our pieces of furniture, our hand tools, our bin of barley, and our cows and goats.
Since the mountaineers knew nothing of checks and banks, purchases were paid for with silver. Of this, Father kept out enough to defray our expenses to New Orleans. The remainder he carried to Orvin in a sack and entrusted it to Doctor Kupfer, a noted physician of that day. Father relied on the doctor's wisdom and honesty to effect an exchange of the sack of silver for American money. In due time Doctor Kupfer handed Father five hundred dollars in the form of twenty-five American gold double eagles. This money Father concealed in a money belt worn about the waist beneath his underclothing.
On my last Saturday in Switzerland my girl friends held a coasting party in my honor. Each girl brought her hand sled, and for hours we coasted down the slopes of Orvin. It was a jolly affair, my last childhood party. In a few months, as I shall relate in its proper place, my last childhood play days suddenly vanished. Everybody at the party seemed to have a good time, except Louise Schmidt, who rained tears all over a hand-knit purse she gave me. Had her parents and mine been willing, she would have abandoned her family to journey to America with me.
Our preparations ended, our goodbyes said, we loaded the sea chests and the trunk on a hired wagon, climbed on board ourselves, swallowed the big lumps in our throats, and bade goodbye to Montagne d'Orvin, the Jungfrau, the forests, and pastures, and the valleys.
We left the mountainside buried under huge drifts of snow. The next spring mountain flowers would bloom beside the melting snowbanks, but one Swiss girl and her two Swiss brothers would not be there to gather the Edelweiss nor to play with the goats and calves as they came out to crop the first blades of grass.