Memories of Coming to America
By Sigurd N. Normark
One Sunday in the spring of 1925, I felt restless and decided to ride my bike to see my good friend, Tage Mellquist. About half way between our homes, we met each other. I told him, "I came to see lf you would like to go to America with me." He said, "I came to ask you the same thing." That afternoon we went home and started to formulate a letter to an old man in North Dakota. He was a brother to Tage's grandfather. In order to secure a visa to emigrate from Sweden, we needed an affidavit that we would get work as farm workers. We mailed the letter that day.
We did not hear anything all summer. In the fall, my friend received an answer. On a Sunday afternoon, after a soccer game, Tage showed me the notarized letter, written in English which we could not read. We took the letter to the town mayor to translate it for us. We kept every thing top secret. We wrote to the American Consulate in Stockholm, and included the affidavit, asking for a visa to go to America. In a couple of weeks, we received the answer that we could go as farm workers to North Dakota.
Then there was the question of how to get the money to pay for the steamship ticket. When my mother passed away and father sold the farm, each of us children inherited 500 kronor, equal to $100.00, which was under the guardianship of our Uncle, S. A. Normark. One day, I walked to his house and asked for the money. As I was not of age (only 18 years), it was up to him if I would get it. He was generous and said I could have the money. What ever happened to the interest on the money I never heard. Maybe there was none.
Burträsk had a fine singing chorus. If I had been accepted there, I might never have left Sweden. My twin brother, Sigvard, had joined some time before. He had a beautiful baritone voice. At the time, they needed second tenors and tried me out. Evidently it was too high for me. I was told to wait until my voice was more mature.
Maybe I should mention something about my friend, Tage Mellquist. We were of much different temperaments. He was slow and easy going, except in the soccer game where he was tops. He came from a rather well-to-do family, but his father was very stern. He favored the older brother who was of much quicker temperament, and not as stubborn. Tage and I got along fine. We could sit up and talk until late at night, even though we did not always agree on everything.
Now that we had the visa, we needed an affidavit that we were not entangled in anything, and free from military service. Next spring, we would be up for conscription (military service).
My father never said very much, but one morning he took me aside and said, "Why don't you forget about the whole trip? You know we have all the work we need here." "No," I answered, "I have already made up my mind, and there is nothing to stop me." I told him I had all my papers and money ready and would leave Monday morning. I could see his eyes drop and he said, "Maybe I worked you too hard and didn't give you enough time to play." "No," I answered, "I have always enjoyed my work here, and we have worked fine together, but the Viking spirit has gotten hold of me and there is no turning back."
The night before we left, I had supper at my friend's house. His mother took me aside and said, "Try to have Tage write home sometime." She was not too sure about her son.
On an early September morning, the chauffeur, in an old open Cadillac, came to take us to Skellefteå to board the train to Stockholm to the Swedish Consulate. Father did not eat breakfast that morning, but very little was said among us. I said goodbye to everyone, and with my suitcase in hand, stepped into the car. I don't remember much about what was in the suitcase, except a long white linen nightshirt that reached to my toes, some cheese and hardtack, and a little psalmbook that my sister, Emelia, gave me when I was confirmed.
I must mention Emelia again. I believe she was a saint. I had only been in America a couple of days before I got a letter from her. She encouraged me to be a good boy.
We had never been in a big town before, but we found our way around Stockholm. We were in no hurry to leave because we had a whole week to wait before we could get the steamship in Göteborg. It also was too far to go home again. We even looked up some girls from our home town one evening.
On arriving in Göteborg, we got a room close to the train station. We counted our money after we had paid for our steamship ticket, and realized we would starve if we stayed the rest of the week there. We put two and two together and went back to the Swedish-American line.
We told them our story and asked if there was another ship that would leave sooner. After some discussion, they told us to take the train to Bergen, Norway the next morning at 3:09 a.m. Evidently the Norwegian kroner was lower, so they made money on us by exchanging the tickets. It was usually up to me to make the decisions, and to see that we were on time. That night, I did not sleep much.
We arrived in Bergen just in time for the ship, Bergenfjord, to set sail. That was the only time I felt like crying. If only there had been someone there to wave farewell to me, but there was none.
My hardtack and cheese were pretty hard by then, so my first meal on the boat tasted pretty good the first night. There was fresh milk and everything. However, after rolling on the North Sea all night, I could not taste food the next morning. I felt the same way most of the week. I also had a little difficulty understanding the Norwegians on the boat.
Three thousand of them had been in America and spoke half English and half Norwegian. One stormy night, the ship took a heavy dip, and I met an old Norwegian on the deck. In the morning, he said, "I thought the end was coming." I also had trouble walking because Swedes walk to the left and I always bumped into people walking to the right. The time spent on the boat was rather long. The cheese and hardtack had so bound up our stomachs, we had not been able to go to the bathroom for a week. We had to do something about it, so we bought some of the black beer they served, thinking it would help us. I believe it kept us sick the rest of the way. We spent ten days on the ocean, and we were surely happy to see land at Ellis Island. Small boats came alongside and sold apples and bananas. We got some strings on the deck and sent down a quarter for some apples. Instead, we got some nice red tomatoes. We took a bite and never tasted anything so sour. We could not eat them and did not know what they were.
Before going ashore, we all had to receive a physical examination. That bothered my partner, Tage. He said, "There is a young girl secretary sitting next to the doctor. I'm not going in there." I said, "You have to." "No, I am not going," he said. I said, "You will just have to walk in sideways. She doesn't know you, and you don't know her."
Once ashore on Ellis Island, we waited and waited. Finally, they gave us a brown lunch bag and hung a tag around our necks. We then boarded a train for Selfridge, North Dakota. After an hour on the train, we opened the lunch bags and investigated the contents. We found two slices of white bread and a can of sardines. We had seen a lot of herring and sill, but never a rotten sardine. After a lot of trouble trying to open the can, we took a bite and spit it out. It was made up with tomato sauce which we could not stand, so we closed up the can and put it back in the bag. A man sitting next to us began to talk to us. When we did not understand him, he waved his arms and grabbed the lunch bag, took out the sardines and ate them. We later learned from an interpreter that he was afraid we would be poisoned by the lead in the can.
The train ride was long. I don't remember that much about it, except we stopped in Chicago for two hours. We got off the train and tried to find something to eat. As we walked along the track, we saw a sign that said "Waffles." The word was the same as in Swedish, except the spelling. We walked in with a Norwegian and sat down by the counter. I said "voffler." The Norwegian just opened his mouth and pointed to his mouth. We all got waffles. We had a little trouble paying for the waffles. I think we offered all the smallest change we had. There was a little time left before the train would leave, so we ventured out on the street. We wanted to buy a clean shirt and a tie. Luckily, we met a man who could see how green we were. He asked us where we were going, in Norwegian. We told him we wanted to find a store where we could buy a shirt and a tie. He then asked us where we were going. We told him it was a farm In North Dakota. He told us that the shirts we were wearing were good enough. All we would need there would be a pair of overalls and boots. We wondered what kind of place we were going to.
We boarded the train on time, on the last leg for North Dakota. How long the train ride took, I don't remember. I had more or less forgotten the day and the date. The extra seven hours we got arriving here mixed me up. We arrived in Mobridge, South Dakota late in the evening. There was nothing to do except find a place to stay. There were very few people around. The train to Selfridge, North Dakota would not leave until 11 a.m. the next morning. We still had about thirty miles to go. Someone showed us a shed with sort of a bed in it where transients used to sleep.
We had had nothing to eat since we had eaten the waffles in Chicago. It was late and we were hungry. There was nothing in the shed except a bushel basket filled with apples. We decided between us that the apples were not counted, so we took one each and ate it. We were brought up to regard stealing as a terrible sin, and it bothered me when I tried to sleep. We woke up the next morning surprised to find the weather so nice, and no snow, although it was almost the middle of October. In Sweden, there was a lot of snow by now.
We arrived in Selfridge about noon. It was the end of the line and we were hungry again. Selfridge is a very small town, with a post office, general store, a cheese factory and a coffee shop. We went into the coffee shop and had something to eat. We asked where Mr. William Ostrum, the relative of Tage, lived. We were told he lived seven miles out on the prairie. We went to the general store to find someone who could talk to us, and hoping someone would come around and take us out there. After spending some time there, we each bought a pair of overalls and a bag of candy. We still had no way to get out to the ranch and no phone to call. I believe the Good Lord was with us from the start. That afternoon a man, running for sheriff, was on a campaign trip to visit the farmers around the area. He promised to take us out to the ranch in his Ford. We arrived at Ostrum's place after a silent ride because we could not talk to him. I took out my wallet and showed him the three dollars I had left, and wanted to pay him for the ride. He would not accept any money for which I was glad and thanked him. Tage had $12.00 in Swedish money left. That did not bother us. We had come to America to make money.
We introduced ourselves to the family, Mr. Ostrum, his son, daughter and son-in-law. Mr. Ostrum said he had forgotten his Swedish, but we managed to make ourselves understood. That evening, we had the finest beef stew to eat, with white bread and butter. In Sweden, white bread was mostly reserved for Christmas and holidays. Rye bread and barley bread were the usual fare.
Mr. Ostrum was a big rancher with some 300 beef cattle, pigs and horses, but there was very little work on the range. The harvest was finished, and the cattle were grazing on the prairie without much attention. The next day each of us got a saddle horse. We rode with the son to see the cattle. I remember particularly a dead cow lying on the hill. In Sweden, this would have been a great loss, but the son just rode up to the animal and kept going. In the afternoon, we practiced throwing a lasso on a fencepost without much success.
The next morning, Saturday, October 12, 1925, we went with Mr. Ostrum to an auction sale where we saw roping of calves and steers, and the buying and selling of cattle. There he also sold us to the highest bidder. He had no work for us during the winter months. He had hoped we would have come earlier in the fall during the harvest. We were not actually sold, but the ranchers looked us over. My friend, Tage, was picked first. He was bigger and looked stronger. He was to work on a sheep ranch. After a while, a young second generation Norwegian cattle rancher came and talked with me, and said I could work for him for a dollar a day, board and room. He was a fine man, with a wife and two small children. We got along fine. He was surprised at my ability to help him fix wagons and whatever there was to be fixed around the place. I told him my father was a blacksmith and a carpenter. Besides laying bricks in the summer, we did all kinds of repair work.
He gave me a beautiful team of dapple gray horses. They scared me at first. In Sweden, I always drove with only one horse which was easier. He showed me a large manure pile and told me to spread it over the whole new field. I am sure it was cold, the wind was blowing all the time, but I not mind it because I came from the north and worked hard to keep warm.
He also gave me a saddle horse I could use whenever I wanted to. On Sunday, I rode over to the Ostrums', about seven miles away. It could be seen from where I lived, because there were no trees on the prairie. I heard there was a letter for me over there, from one of my sisters and I never forgot it. By the time I returned home, I could hardly walk. I was a poor rider. The horse threw me off once when we abruptly came to a fence. However, I became a good rider because I was light, only weighing 135 pounds.
I felt much at home with the Olof Sandlands. They treated me nice. The children tried to teach me English. My friend, Tage, did not fare as well. He could not adjust as easily. He came over to see me one day and was very sullen. He said, "Why did we ever come to this God forsaken country?" I said, "We are here now, and must make the best of it." He said, "I have to sleep up in the attic among tools and harnesses. At mealtime, I have to get down on my knees and pray for the little I get to eat." Tage found another place where he got room and board for the winter. The ranchers were not in the habit of paying anything during the winter months.
I could relate many stories about my work on the ranch which may not be of much interest except to myself. However, I will tell a few. Once I took a load of grain to the mill with a pair of mules. It was a frosty morning with ice and a little snow on the ground. There was a heavy load on the wagon. A sled would have been better. Having never driven mules before, I did not know what they could do without shoes on their hooves. The road was up and down. When it was uphill, the mules would fall down, get up and pull some more. Sometimes both of them would fall down. I was scared. I did not think they would live until I got to the mill. It was a different story on the way home. It was cold. All I had on was a suitcoat over the overalls that the farmer had given me. I tried to make the mules run, but it was impossible. The more I beat them, the slower they walked. That night, it was hard to fall asleep, because I accused myself of cruelty to animals.
Another time, the team of horses ran away with me. They were thirsty and I did not unhitch them fast enough. They ran around the barn, dragging the wagon. They headed right for the watering tank in the yard. The wagon knocked a big hole in the tank and the water ran out. Mr. Sandland asked me if the horses got hurt. I told him no. The next day he had a man over to put new staves in the tank.
I had fun, too. I was allowed to use his gun and ammunition. I shot jackrabbits and prairie chickens. The rabbits were fed to the chickens. The rabbits were so big. One day, I got two of them and it was all I could do to carry them home on the end of the gun over my shoulder. Mr. Sandland also showed me how to trap mink and weasels. I got six weasels and one mink. When I got the mink, I did not know what it was because I had never seen one before. It took me quite a while to subdue him. I had nothing to do it with, but finally got a string from the saddle, put it around his neck and tightened it until he was no more.
Christmas was approaching. I had become acquainted with the daughter of the family where Tage lived. Almost every Sunday, I would take the saddle horse and ride over there. They served the finest lamb roast for dinner. What she saw in me and not in Tage, I don't know. Anyway, I bought her a Christmas present, a little silver basket, which was the only thing I found in the store that looked like a present. The folks made fun of me. They said it was the end of a romance when a boy bought a girl a basket. It was the end, because the next month I left for Minneapolis. In the Sandlands' home, they celebrated Christmas Eve. I don't remember too much, except that a little girl asked me if I was homesick because I spent so much time in my room. I told her no. She tried to cheer me up by having me learn a Christmas poem. I was never really homesick. It was too far from home to ever entertain the thought.
The Sandlands took me to a Christmas party at the school house. Indian boys were boxing on the outside. They gave me a pair of boxing gloves and asked me to put them on. I didn't want to make any enemies, so I did not put them on. Inside the school, I felt more at home, especially when they sang "Silent Night." I sang it at the top of my voice in Swedish.
I liked living on the ranch, but I wanted to attend school and learn English. I told Mr. Sandland I would do my chores in the morning and evening if I could go to school during the day. He said I could go sometimes, but would not agree to let me go every day. It did not take me long to say, "Well, then I will go to Minneapolis." It was in the middle of January. They told me there was nothing to do there in the cold winter. I told them I was going anyway. I was promised $1.00 per day. Mr. Sandland took me to the bank and gave me a check for the two and one half months I had worked for him. I must have received some of it in cash.
I don't remember that Mr. Sandland saw me off on the train, but I bought a ticket to go to Minneapolis. On the train, I became acquainted with a man I tried to talk with. The only questions I could answer were how long I had been in America, where I came from, and where was I going. In the Sandland home, they spoke Norwegian to me. I had no address in Minneapolis and no friends. I was trusting Him who had watched over me so far and would go with me the rest of the way.
Through an interpreter, I learned that some man was willing to take me to a rooming house. I was a little apprehensive, because he had his clothes rolled up in a bundle slung over his shoulder on a cane. Some people were talking but I did not understand them. After a long wait, I finally got a room at the boarding house. They did not understand me and I could not understand them. A man took me up to a room on the third floor. He told me I could get board on the first floor. A Swedish family ran the boarding house so I felt right at home. The food tasted good, because I had had nothing to eat since early morning - it was now supper time. After talking with them for a while, I went up to my room. All my belongings were in a little suitcase. I tried to dry my shoes by the radiator. It was the middle of January.
Snow and cold did not stop me from going out to look for a job the next morning. At the first job where I stopped, they were plastering but I did not get a job. I never liked plastering anyway. The second job was a big million dollar building, all covered up for the winter in order to work. The bricklayer boss came around as I was talking to a man making mortar. He pointed him out to me. The foreman was a rough Swede. I asked him for work. He asked me what I could do. I told him that I could lay bricks. He asked if I had any tools and I told him no. He told me to get a hammer, trowel and a level and come back in the morning. I had to find a hardware store and buy the tools.
First, I had to find a bank so I could cash my check. I asked a man who looked like he might be Swedish. He said he would show me a bank. He was an honest man and did not rob me. I did not know anything about hoodlums and robbers. He helped me get the check cashed, and asked me for a quarter for cigarettes when he left. At a hardware store, I bought the necessary tools and returned to the boarding house with hope in my heart.
The next morning, I could not get out of bed. I was sick and could not go to work, which made me feel even worse. What really happened to me, I could not figure out. Later that day, I felt better. The next morning, I took my tools and a lunch bag, and went to work in downtown Minneapolis at 8:00 a.m. The foreman told me to go up on the scaffolding with two other men. He returned after an hour and began to yell, "We don't want work like that." My knees started to shake. I thought the work was to be plastered like we did in Sweden. Instead, it was finished work. It was a short wall with three men working and all I had time for was to put in the last piece of brick, because it seldom fits. I always had to cut it off to make it fit, or there was too much room.
It was cold in the basement where we worked, but it did not seem to bother me. I had on a pair of overalls and a suitcoat that the farmer had given me. It must have been too big, because he weighed over 200 pounds and I was a mere 135 pounds. Time went by rather fast until I went home the second day. It was a large building with many exits. Instead of going out the north exit, I went out the south exit. I thought nothing of it. I kept walking until I realized I was lost. If I had known the address where I lived, it would not have been so bad. Coming from a little hamlet in Sweden where the houses were not numbered, and having never been away from home, I did not realize that I had to remember the street and house number in order to ask for directions. I finally met a policeman. By that time, it was getting dark. He asked me where I lived. I told him I did not know, but I remembered there was a Swedish church close to where I lived. He turned me around and told me to follow Tenth Street straight ahead and I would see my boarding house. I finally found the place.
Saturday night I was home, rinsing out some underwear, when there came a knock on the door. A man came in and introduced himself as a member of the Travelers Aid. He asked me how I was getting along. When I had left the train, there was a woman talking to the man who was taking me. I did not understand what they were talking about. He told her where he was taking me. She, in turn, had told the man to look me up. He was a fine Swedish man. He invited me to come to his home on Sunday for dinner. After a fine dinner, he told me I could come and live in their home, with room and board for $7.00 per week. Their name was Franzen. He bought me a lunch pail and his wife packed my lunch.
The Franzens were church people and took me along to church Sunday morning. In order to understand the preacher, I read the gospel text for the Sunday in Swedish from my little psalmbook that my sister had given me. In that way, I could understand a word here and there. The Franzens also helped me to join an evening school. There were so many in the class that I did not learn very much. I remember one time, the teacher asked us if we could spell "Washington," and we all answered in unison that we had learned that where we came from. There were mostly Scandinavians and Germans in the class. I used to walk home with a German girl. I tried to talk to her, but she could not understand my Swedish. It was too cold to learn English on the back porch.
My work at the Young Quinlan million dollar building went along nicely. I learned fast and the foreman liked me. I got a job for my friend, Tage, who stayed in North Dakota over the winter. He came to work on my job, but did not last very long. He was a better ski jumper than a building laborer. I also tried ski jumping one day, but fell before I came to the takeoff, and rolled the rest of the way down hill. I decided that if I broke an arm or a leg, there is no one to take care of me. I tried cross country skiing, but did not do well. I did not know how to apply the wax to make my skis go easier.
I enjoyed my work with the James Lakes Company, and received a pay increase from 45 cents to 75 cents an hour. I sent some money home to my folks in Sweden. Minneapolis was a fine place to live. There were transportation and recreation places. I joined a soccer club where we often had games and practiced. Once we went to Duluth, Minnesota, by bus where I met some acquaintances from Sweden.
However, the work came to an end. It was the beginning of 1927 and work was beginning to slow down. I had heard so much about Chicago, so together with a carpenter, we went to Chicago. It was no place for me. I did not yet have a union card, and everything in Chicago was union. I rode up and down the streetcar line, but it was always the same story, "No card, no work." My rooming house was not the best, either. My bed partner was picked up by the police for being a burglar. My carpenter friend did not fare much better. He took the train up to Waukegan, looking for work. He came back and told me I should go there because a big brick building was going up there. Next morning, I took the North Shore train to Waukegan and found the job. I talked to the foreman in my best English. He did not promise me anything, but gave me an address of an old Swedish bricklayer. He told me that he could possibly help me.
I stopped at the man's house, but got no answer. So, I waited until he came home from work. He was John Unger. He had no work for me either, but said if I would help him building brick walls in his basement, I could have board and room with them. That way, he could find out if I knew my trade. He warned me not to tell anyone I had worked in Minneapolis as a non-union bricklayer, because then I would have to pay a special initiation fee or go back to serve a three year apprenticeship. Mr. Unger was foxy, and had a lot of influence in the Union. He wanted me to act like I had just come from Sweden and had learned my trade back there. There was a rumble from some of the younger bricklayers who said, "Here he comes from Sweden and gets a union card right away, and we have to serve three years."
The initiation was over, but work was slow. A union card did not help much to find work. Times were beginning to slow down. If you were not in with the established gangs, you could get a week's work now and then on a foundation or a chimney.
There were not many cars around the bricklayers. I figured that in order for me to find work I would have to get around better, so I decided to buy a car. I had a couple hundred dollars left in Minneapolis which I sent for.
My twin brother, Sigvard, came over from Sweden at that time. I borrowed $50.00 from him and put that with my money for a down payment. He thought I was out of my mind to buy a big, expensive, brand new Pontiac for the price of $700.00. Although I had no work, I promised to pay the salesman $60.00 a month. I had the finest car on the south side of Waukegan. All I had to do was to learn how to drive it. I was not the bravest person, but after a few scratches, I managed. I drove to outlying towns to look for work. Luck was with me because I found a big residence where I worked eight weeks and was able to make many payments on the car. As a twenty year old, I was making good money, $1.75 per hour. Most of my friends were making 45 cents an hour, and some less.
My brother had learned the plumbing trade in Sweden, but did not have a union card. Therefore, he could not find work in his trade. He took some garden work with poor pay, and also worked as a chauffeur for an affluent family. He also worked in a factory. He came home and told me his partner had gotten his finger cut off. I advised him to quit, so he returned to Sweden. Even bricklaying was a week here and a week there. It was in 1928, the beginning of the Depression. Things were not too bad for me. I had some money saved up and made a bad investment in the stock market.
I had a room in the basement and sometimes board with the Ungers for the work I did around the house. Although I was like a son to them, sometimes I felt that the dog was fed better than I was. If I did something extra, Mr. Unger would give me a check. For ten cents I could get two pieces of rye bread and a bowl of soup in the restaurant, so I never went hungry.
This has been the second phase of my memories. The first is from my childhood in Burträsk, Sweden. The third is my fifty years of happy marriage to Helen, beginning July 11, 1936.
Copyright © Deborah Schilling/Thomas Bundy