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The Story behind the Immigrant's Journey


When researching the history of our family farm for my book, Butter in the Well, I found stories written down by Julia Olson that her mother—Kajsa Runneberg—had told her about their homesteading days. Julia was our neighbor to the north, and was like a grandmother to me. She was born in 1884 and grew up on same farm as I did, decades later. Julia moved to the next homestead when she married the neighbor boy Joe in 1911, and died when I was in high school in the early 1970s. (Julia gave me two old quilts that I’ll guess were made in the house we both grew up in.)

Here’s the story of Julia’s mother’s journey to Kansas, that I wrote in a diary form, as if in Kajsa’s own words. (Photo of Julia and Kajsa Runneberg, circa 1886.)

March 7, 1868

Ellsworth, Kansas — I want to keep a journal of our adventure into the American Plains so I will have an account of what our first years were like.

In spring of ’67 we traveled from Klevmarken, Sweden, to New York City, America, by ship, then by train to Jacksonville, Illinois. Now a year later, we’re back on a train heading for the open prairies of Kansas.

We traveled from Jacksonville to St. Louis first. In Illinois we saw meadows of grass, wooded areas and towns. The scenery was much the same until we got past Kansas City. Then there were very few trees and the prairie grass stretched as far as the eye could see. The few towns we’ve gone through were very small and new. The farther west, the sparser it has gotten. I’ve heard Kansas called “the Great American Desert,” but everything looks green. Of course it’s spring now. Maybe the whole countryside dries up in the summer.

We were to get off at the town of Salina, in Saline County. Our friends in Jacksonville put destination tags on us and our belongings since we don’t know much of the American language yet. Most people in Jacksonville were Swedish, so got along fine. Carl knows a few American words, since he had to work and did the shopping when we lived there.

The ride has been wearing on us. This morning Carl looked like he didn’t feel good. The motion of the train car bouncing on the track and smoke from the engine’s smokestack has made us all a little sick.

I was trying to watch the railroad station signs at each stop, but they were not always in sight. Each time Carl tried to find the conductor, to see if that was the place we were to get off. Instead of trying to ask, it was easier to point to his name tag.

At the last stop Carl rushed up to me and said: “Gather up our things and Christina! We’ve got to get off. This is Ellsworth. We missed Salina!”

I panicked when I realized we missed our stop. But, I knew Carl would figure out a way to get us back on the track to our destination. We have found overnight lodging and we will travel back to Salina tomorrow.

This was an extra expense we didn’t need.  

 March 30, 1868

Carl came down with the fever and chills of ague that night here in Ellsworth. Thank the Lord he is finally getting over it. It could have been worse. I could have become a widow with a 15-month-old baby in a strange American town.

We’ve been at the Railroad Hotel for over three weeks. I’ve had to help the cook prepare and serve the meals in exchange for room and board for our small family. We were to find a innkeeper so kind.

Tomorrow we’ll get back on the train heading for Salina. This time we will get off at the right town.”  (Excerpt from Butter in the Well © by Linda K. Hubalek)

I find these stories fascinating, although Kajsa must have been in a real panic when it happened. We’re so connected with cell phone these days and can get help almost immediately. But think how the early immigrants in the 1800s had to rely on themselves or the help of strangers.

If you see someone that could use some help today, think of Kajsa, and reach out a hand. No matter what century, everyone appreciates help…

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Comment by J.S. on October 28, 2011 at 7:45pm
I never did get to the pumpkin patch but my daughter takes her little girl out there every year.  She looks forward to it.  I'm so glad you're going to write more books.  A woman I used to babysit for was going to name a little girl Kajsa if she'd had another one.  She's a Swede as was my stepmother and also loved the books.
Comment by Linda Hubalek on October 28, 2011 at 7:28pm

Hello J.S from Salina! Do read the books again and pass them around too so others enjoy them.

Did you ever make it out to our Bison Farm, or our fall pumpkin patch and maze? We retired after the 2009 fall season, and so now I'm back researching another book series.

Thanks for emailing "hello" from up the road!

Comment by J.S. on October 28, 2011 at 7:14pm

I love those books and have read all of them, more than once and was thinking about reading them again the other day.  I couldn't believe it when I read your post.  I'm from Salina so they mean so much. I was so sad when I read the last one and there were no more.  They're great books.  Thank you.

Comment by Linda Hubalek on October 28, 2011 at 7:10pm

So many of us in America had ancestors that came from other countries, and so many stories lost because they weren't passed on.

I recently lost my mother-in-law and went through her belongings this fall. There was a box of old photos dating back to the late 1800s-early 1900s. Luckily she had written names on the back of them. These immigrants came from the Czech Republic in 1874 and settled on the untamed Kansas prairie. What a journey to leave their homeland and come to the middle of the United States!


Comment by B J Elder/WA on October 28, 2011 at 6:52pm
It is so wonderful you have these stories and have put them into books for others to read, enjoy, and learn from. My mother's parents immigrated in the early 1900's, a year apart. The day after my grandmother arrived they were married. A marriage that might not have happened as she was traveling across the country by train to Washington state. At one of the rest stops a gal started talking to her in Dutch and asked her to go home with her to see her mother. Thankfully the conductor had grandma stay where she was... turns out she was very close to getting taken and put into white slavery.
Comment by Carol Vickers/OH on October 28, 2011 at 3:00pm
I enjoyed your post.  Our ancestors were such strong people.  When I think of all the things they survived it is amazing.  My mom came by ship from Italy to join her parents who were already here in the states.  She was 12 and travelled with a male family friend who was also immigrating.  She could travel with him by day but at night had to stay in the "women and children's quarters" of the ship.  When I think of how alone she must have felt, it makes me cry.  How worried her parents must have been too.  I guess it puts today's hardships in perspective.
Comment by Linda Hubalek on October 28, 2011 at 12:27pm
Hi Pam, I bet you'd love my ten books then about pioneer women. They are available in books or ebooks under my name www.LindaHubalek.com. Have you been to Sweden by chance?
Comment by Pam/NY on October 28, 2011 at 12:06pm
Loved the post...we travel a lot. When we are over seas, we always try to ask questions of college aged kids...because most have studied English in school. Love the stories of the early days of mid America.
Comment by Linda Hubalek on October 28, 2011 at 11:26am

Thanks for the note Irene!

I used the title "Butter in the Well" for my first book because one time the rope broke for Kajsa, so there actually  is a crock of butter in our farm well...

Comment by Irene Gallway on October 28, 2011 at 11:09am
Nice post Linda, I grew up on a farm and we always had "butter in the well"  due to no refrigeration. I liked this story.  It shows the strength of character people in that generation had.  I can't imagine going thought such a frightening experience with a sick husband and baby to care for.

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