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.
“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…