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My Trip to America


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By A. Bartell, Esse, Finland.
Translation by Ann-Sofi (Sundqvist) Gäddnäs from Ytteresse.
Published in Jakobstads Tidning, 1946

Courtesy GSF
In 1909, three youngsters, A. Bartell (thought to have been Björkell), John West and Jakob Sundqvist left Esse, Finland to strike it rich in America. Jakob Sundqvist (1881-1941), the grandfather of Ann-Sofi Sundqvist (translator), sent money home to Ytteresse from America. As a result the Påvall farm remained in the family. Jakob returned to Ytteresse and married Selma Johanna Johansdotter Englund (1889-1975) in 1915. They continued life and the family traditions on Påvall, which still remains in the Sundqvist family. John West also came back to Ytteresse where two of his sons still live on Påvall.

It was the 1st of November 1909. In those days emigration was common. Everyone who wanted to try his luck in a foreign country could do it without much difficulty, all that was needed was an identity card from the priest, a passport and money for the ticket. Two other boys from Ytteresse and I decided to travel to America just a few days prior to November 1. I will never forget the farewell from my home and my family. My mother’s last words were: “As long as I live I will pray for you, remember that”. I can still see her sitting at the table crying. It was not easy to cut the ties with my loving family and home.

But, the trip came true. My two friends Jack Johnson (Jakob Sundqvist) and John West and I left in an upbeat mood with great dreams. Once we arrived in America, everything would be perfect! I stopped at Lassfolk, Ytteresse for a couple of minutes to say goodbye to my aunt and her family. The trip then continued. My brother, John, took me to the train station in Kållby. Others joined us at the station; however I don’t remember who they were. John was a quiet and kind brother and I still gratefully remember his words of wisdom as we said our farewells. I was only 18, he was much older. He and my other brother Anders had also been in America as teenagers. Alex Blomqvist our teacher happened to be at the station and he wished us good luck on our journey. The last words I heard were those of my brother John, “We shall forgive everything”. I loved my brother and there was nothing special to forgive, but he wanted to make sure that all was right when we said goodbye.

The trip by train to Hangö took the rest of the day and all night. During this trip I suddenly realized that I was far away from home because, at the shelter for emigrants, the inspector only spoke Finnish. Unfortunately none of us spoke good Finnish and consequently we did not know what he said and could not answer. He shouted, “You know Finnish but you are too proud to speak!” Well, I thought later that he only wanted to scare us.

After one night in Hangö we embarked on the streamer Arcturus, which would take us to England. The trip continued without any major problems, but I must mention that together with us on the trip were people who did not behave properly. We shared a cabin with people who seemed to respect neither God nor people. We ate potatoes and herring, but it was ok, because we had enough food from home in our luggage to last many days. We came to Hull, where horse drawn wagons awaited us. The horses were large, with hooves the same size as the small wooden boxes we used to ferment yoghurt (fil) back home in Esse. The horses took us to the railway station and from there we took the train to Southampton. If I remember correctly, we only had to wait two days there and then we embarked on the White Star Line’s steamer Oceanic. All went fine and the weather was great, but we felt a bit sad. John West was most sad. He must have felt the same way as the writer of the song “The girl I left behind me”. I did not really know about his feelings, but there was a certain person in Esse who he missed more than others. I also remember that he used to sing “vem kan segla förutan vind” (who can sail without wind).

At sea, I did something I regretted later. When the last food brought from home was eaten and the butter box was empty I threw it overboard. A few other things went overboard as well, like clothes infected with Southampton vermin. But the butter box was brand new. My father had made it especially for me. I could never make such a box myself. I should have saved it as a dear memory from home. But I did not think about that because we were on our way to the land of gold: America.

On the 17th of November we arrived in New York. We were nervous as to how to manage ourselves because they would inspect and examine us. We had, of course, been checked many times during the trip without problems. We did not have any problems in New York. I cannot describe the happiness I felt when they confirmed that all was fine and we could continue the trip to our destination: Moline, Illinois. In Moline, we started work and we were paid 18 cents/hour. Unfortunately I only managed to work 12 days, then I became almost blind. On the train from New York I had a cold, which later affected my eyes. Luckily, with some help, I found a good My Trip to America eye doctor in Moline. My eyes got better soon and after one month, I was able to return to work.

Our stay in Moline did not last long. The following April, we travelled to Duluth, Minnesota where it was easy to find jobs. There were a lot of sawmills in Duluth.

I could disclose much more about my experiences in America, but it would make my letter too long. Perhaps the reader would be bored by my lack of storytelling skills. Someone might wonder what happened to the big dreams that took us to the big country in the west? What have you done all these years?

Well, I have cut trees in the forests of Minnesota and northern Michigan. Many years ago, I also took a trip to Butte, Montana to work in the copper mines, but I did not stay long. During the last 30 years, I have been working in the iron mines here in Michigan.

It was not long before I realized everything was not as promising as expected, but here I was. America is a land of possibilities, but it requires hard work to manage. I considered, “Don’t you think it is good that we somehow are able to manage,” and I have learned that if you feel satisfied and grateful without the worldly treasures you dreamed of, you can be happy in America. During my stay here, I have noticed many improvements for the workers.

Our thoughts of sympathy here in the USA have often been with our dear motherland during the terrible years of war. We still feel this sympathy and we hope that in the future you will experience peace and brighter days.

My two friends travelled back to Finland after a few years’ stay here and as far as I know they are still in Esse.

My mother died in 1912. Her advice and prayers during these many, long years have accompanied me as a lovely memory.

Dear greetings,
A. Bartell
Negaunee, Michigan February, 1946”

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