Wednesday, August 22, 2007

An Immigration Story (Part III)

Today's post arrives late, and tomorrow will probably pass without new information, but SAY-LAH-VEE as the French say. 8-hour department meetings to prepare to greet the new academic semester do not leave much time for me to go on my usual rail about economics on my blog.

In my last two episodes we learned something of how my family came to the United States as immigrants from Denmark. Two days ago we learned about an old spinning wheel that my great great grandfather used as a gerry-rigged bellows, and had become worn out from hard work (much like the immigrants themselves who come here). Yesterday we learned that my ancestors came to this country somewhat casually, and not necessarily in a fully formalized way by first entering Canada, then following what work was available along the St. Lawrence River and then Sault Ste. Marie, MI, eventually landing in Plano, IL. Not only that, but they didn't all speak English from day one! The nerve! Today we will hear the story of how they built their life and eventually became landowners in Nebraska, the eventual home to most of my extended family today.

Stories of homesteads and cheap land in Nebraska were the motivation necessary to bring them to this state in February, 1880. Grandpa and his family and John Andersen and his family plus three other Danes loaded everything they had on two railroad cars and then got aboard these cars themselves and travelled to the end of the line which at that time was Lowell, Nebraska.

Uncle J*** said that Grandpa used to recall that when he looked south from Lowell and saw nothing but sandhills he said that if they did not find anything better than that they would go back to Illinois. However, they travelled to a place seven miles south of where Minden [Nebraska, ed.] is now located and there made their home.

Although homesteads were still available, Grandpa decided to buy an “improved quarter” rather than hunt for a good homestead location. He paid $400 for this farm. However, the improvements included only a one-room, dirt floor dugout on the west side of a draw and dug well on the east side.

Because Minden had not been founded it was necessary to go to Gibbon [NE, ed.] or Kearney [NE, ed.] to sell produce and to buy needed provisions. This was a hard two-day trip with a team of horses, in that it was 29 miles to Gibbon and 27 miles to Kearney. When Grandpa made these trips it left Grandma alone with a young family. However, Uncle J*** said that Grandma did not worry about anything except the possibility of an animal or a herd of animals falling through the roof of the dugout which was ground level on one side. There were some wild cattle, wild horses, and some buffalo in the area at the time.

Crops were good in those early years, but one of the first winters caught Grandpa and Grandma without a fuel supply. Fuel was very hard to find in that there was little wood available, because every year for hundreds of years prairie fires had burned all trees except those in sheltered spots at a crook of a stream. When the early snow came it became necessary for Grandpa to take a shovel and a length of rope and go to the corn field to find fuel. He would uncover corn stalks, cut them off, lay them over the rope, and when he had gathered a large bundle he would tie them up and carry them home.

The good crops enabled them to make good progress. After two years in the dugout they built a sod house. By 1892 they had a frame house, they had outbuildings and a good orchard and garden. In 1904 a fine addition to the house was completed. Uncle J*** said that Grandpa was proud that his former employer from Illinois, J*** L****, and his wife came to visit them one year and spent a while month in their home.

To return once more to the spinning wheel. Uncle Jim said that spinning wheel was one of their best toys when he was a kid. He said they would run it by the hour, and that along with the fun it provided it was often the cause of a fight when a brother or sister would cause the belt to come off.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

An Immigration Story (Part II)

Today is Part II of a three-part series on the immigration experience of my own family from Denmark in the late 1860's to early 1870's, as written by my grandfather. In yesterday's excerpt, we learned of a spinning wheel that had been passed from my great-great grandfather to my great-great uncle, which was now worn out and broken. In a sense it represented both the struggles they went through to achieve something more, and the power of the American entrepreneurial spirit. Today, we get the story of how my family was able to arrive here.

To get back to the original story that thoughts of this old spinning wheel brought back to Uncle J***, I will start with Grandpa’s arrival in the United States. He was M**** B***, born in Denmark on October 5, 1849, and he landed in Canada in 1869. After arriving in the “New World” he got a job on a boat that worked the St. Lawrence River. From that boat he transferred to a boat that sailed the Great Lakes. His primary objective at this time was to travel until he found a place where he wanted to settle or where he could find a good job. When he got to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, he found a job at the “unheard of wage”, as Uncle J*** said, of four dollars a day. This job was in an open pit copper mine.

These good wages allowed him to save money rather rapidly and it was not long until he was able to send money to Denmark to bring his brother **** to the United States. **** also worked in the copper mine until the two of them heard of good jobs being offered at the Plano Binder Company in Plano, Illinois. (The Plano Binder was a hand tie forerunner of the McCormick Reaper.) The two of them went to Plano, but by the time they arrived all of the jobs had been filled, so Grandpa went to work for a farmer by the name of J**** L*****.
The story now goes back to Denmark and to my Grandma’s side of the family. Her brother J*** A**** had come to Plano to get his start and had saved enough money to bring his sister, my grandma, and his fiancee Tante M*** to the United States. The two of them were packed and arrived at the pier to board ship to come to the United States. However, at the last minute Tante Marianna lost her nerve and did not go, but Grandma made the trip by herself. She was sixteen years of age at that time. Tante M*** did come at a later date and did marry Uncle J*** A****.

Uncle J**** said that Grandma used to tell of the first sighting of the Statue of Liberty when all of the passengers went on deck and gave a great cheer for what was to become their adopted country.

Grandma was in a new strange country and could not speak the language. After the ordeal of going through customs she was trying to think of a way to order a meal in a restaurant when the waiter told her to talk Dane because he too was Dane. He not only helped her order a meal but he wrote notes for her to use in ordering future meals and making railroad transfers and the like. One side of the note was written in Dane, the other in English.

Grandma got to Plano and expected to meet her brother, but although he had waited for her for several days he had decided that he had to go back to work. Communications did not allow them to contact each other. However, they did get together and Grandma got a job working for a family by the name of A**** D****. My dad got his name from this employer, and I in turn have that name.

Grandpa and Grandma met in Plano and were married there on February 19, 1878. They rented a farm from J*** L**** and farmed in the Plano area for the next two years. Their oldest child **** was born May 21, 1879. (**** was my Uncle J***’s father.)

So, the history of how my great-great grandfather got here is somewhat vague. What is somewhat interesting here, is that he seems to have first come to Canada, then worked along the St. Lawrence river, and probably first arrived through Sault Ste. Marie, MI. Although there were no formal restrictions or quotas on immigration until 1924, the government was trying to document new immigrants, which is ultimately why Ellis Island was founded in 1892. So even though no law prohibited my ancestors' entry to the US, one could surely doubt whether their entry was documented or controlled in the ways immigration is now regulated. I imagine there are several thousand stories like this one in nearly every US citizen's background, and the hypocricy and prejudice that dominates the debate over immigration needs to be set aside in favor of reasonable arguments about National welfare (rather than the special interest welfare of certain interest groups).

Monday, August 20, 2007

An Immigration Story (Part I)

Dear All,

I often write posts on this site relating events in the news to abstract economic theories and technical empirical studies. This mountain of theory and evidence so often gets dismissed by skeptics of economic science as irrelevant to their own lives and families. Too often we struggle to see the human face of the opportunities free markets afford us. Jagdish Bhagwati also speaks of this need for a more human face for topics such as immigration, trade, and globalization.

The story begins in Nebraska in 1974 with an interview by my grandfather with his uncle, my great-great uncle.

Too often we neglect to keep account of family history until the source of such information is no longer available. For that reason I shall always be pleased that on Friday, February 15, 1974, I was fortunate enough to be able to have a visit about such things with my Uncle **** **** of Minden, Nebraska.

At that time Uncle **** was 88 years of age and had just returned home from the hospital. He had been hospitalized because of an ulcer and possible heart problems. However, on this date he was in good spirits and very able and willing to visit. He was best able to visit with one person at a time because his hearing was poor. He and I sat at the kitchen table while others present were in the living room.

This story of family history started when I asked Uncle **** if he remembered his mother’s spinning wheel. He said he sure did and wondered what had become of it. I told him that I had it and had started to restore it, that it was in pieces in a box, and that the wheel would need some repair parts which I planned to make. He told me to keep it as nearly like the original as possible and added that he would like to see it again. I assured him that I would bring it to Minden for him to see after I had completed the restoration job. He told me that the Danish name for a spinning wheel is “ruck.”

(This is not a part of our visit, but I believe should be of interest to those who might read this account. My dad, ******* ******, told me that when Uncle **** was a young man he used the wheel and pedal to drive the bellows on a forge that he built. The wheel could not stand the strain and broke up. Dad said he gathered up all of the parts and put them in a box which he placed on a shelf in the shop. Here they stayed until his parents **** and **** **** moved to town in 1917. At that time Dad asked his mother for the spinning wheel and she was pleased to give it to him. Dad always planned to restore it, but did not get it done.)

I will continue with the transcript tomorrow, and I will post it in 3 parts. It speaks to the history of my own family, but also to the history of this country as a Nation of Immigrants, in the words of President John F. Kennedy.