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The Suitcase -An Immigrant's Tale

Tandberg, Kathy. "The Suitcase - An Immigrant's Tale."Hazen Star. 23 September 2010, 8.


In 1916, Henry Wiest was drafted into the Russian Army and fought in World War 1 at the Turkish front

Have you ever longed for something, wished for something so much that even though obstacles stood in your way, it never left your mind? This is the story of a man with such a longing. It is the story of Henry Wiest and his family's journey to America, shared here by his granddaughter, Carol Davidson, and her family.

Henry Wiest was a proud American who loved this country so much that he immigrated here not just once, but twice. The first time was as a child with his parents and siblings; the second time was as a man, with his wife, Matilda, and their young daughter, Elsa.

They came with just one small suitcase.

It was just a few years after Henry had been forced to serve in the Russian Army that the family was able to follow their dream and leave Russia.

They had no baggage, no trunk, just one small wooden suitcase for the three to share. One small wooden suitcase 30-iriches long, 19-inches wide and 10-inches deep with one handle and locks, carefully handcrafted by this Russian immigrant, this man who never forgot his dream of going to America.

The suitcase has become part of Mercer County's history as it has been donated to the Mercer County Museum by his granddaughter, Carol.

Henry's story begins with his birth on May 10,'1892, at Leipzieg, Besserabia, Russia, the son of Jakob Wiest and Karolina Hilscher. Henry came to America the first time in 1899 with his parents, a young boy of just 7.

The family, including an older sister and older brother, traveled from Russia to Bremerhaven, Germany. From there they sailed to Montreal, Canada, traveling next by train through New York City to their destination in North Dakota where the family homesteaded near Elgin.

The Wiest family, Elsie, Matilda and Henry in 1929 wearing photo studio clothing.

The family settled into their American life among the many other immigrants who homesteaded land in the state. Life was good until the day of Henry's 16th birthday in 1908 when his mother died in childbirth.

His father remarried a local widow, Sopie Seidel. Sadly, three years later Sopie also died in childbirth. As told by his great granddaughter, Jakob grew so despondent over the loss of two wives that he no longer liked living in America. He thought things were better back home in Europe, so he returned to Russia with his five younger children.

Back in Russia, Henry never forgot America and knew he wanted to return. In 1914 he married Matilda Fronz. The couple planned their future together and America became Matilda's dream as well. It was decided that first they would help with the fall harvest, and then they would immigrate to America.

Carol said before the young couple could leave, Henry, like so many young men in Russia, was drafted into the Russian Army to fight in World War I. He spent four years at the Turkish front before he was able to go home to Besserabia in 1918.

Henry and Matilda still kept the hopes of their American dream. But things were changing in America. By 1910, 13.5 million immigrants were living in the country. The United States Congress began looking at ways to restrict the masses coining across the ocean into the country.

In 1921 the American Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act. The quota system limited the number of foreignborn residents of a nationality to no more than 3 percent of the number of foreign-born residents of that nationality living in the United States in 1910. The law applied to the counties of Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Asian Russia and certain islands in the Atlantic and Pacific.

In 1920, and again in 1921, Henry applied for emigration to leave his home country for America, but he was told the Russian quotas were filled and that it might take as many as 15 years for them to be accepted.

Then the 1924 Act was passed by Congress, aimed at further restricting the Southern and Eastern Europeans, Jews, Italians and Slavs.

Henry perhaps for the moment felt his dream slip from him, but then he learned that Brazil didn't have quotas on immigration. Plus, the quotas from Brazil into America were not usually filled. So Henry came up with a new plan. The family would go to America by way of Brazil.

Finally in December 1925, Henry, Matilda and Elsa sailed with several relatives to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Little Elsa was just 7 when she first sailed from Russia for a new land, just as her father had been so many years before on his first voyage to America with his parents.

To pay for the voyage, Henry indentured the family for work on a coffee plantation in Brazil. On the voyage, he heard from others that this wasn't a good plan because the plantation in was known to be hard and the workers were treated more like slave laborers.

This concerned Henry. When the ship landed in San Paulo, he found a new job working construction and was able to obtain a loan to buy out his contract with the coffee plantation. Carol is still amazed at how her grandfather was able to obtain a loan in a foreign country with nothing but a new job. Henry worked in Brazil four years before leaving the country. Carol remembers her grandfather spoke about his job there.

"He worked on a new six story high rise, Martinelli's department store. It was the first high rise building in the city in those days," Carol said.

On Jan, 2. 1929, Henry and his family finally were given immigration status to America, They boarded the Western World Steamship bound for New York City. Then they headed to North Dakota where they were sponsored by an uncle, John Kisse. Henry became the uncle's hired man.

Henry was satisfied. He had finally made it back to America and North Dakota.

"They were dirt poor and struggling, but the United States was so important to him that he went out and bought a framed photo of the United States flag. He sold his first bushel of wheat to buy that flag," Carol said. "He wasn't even a citizen yet, but he had to have the flag in his house," Carol's husband, Lynn, added.

Carol said it took Henry about four years of working for other people to save enough money to buy his own farm. "The first place he bought was south of Hazen right on the Oliver County line," Carol said. Henry added to his land with an adjoining section of land and then later a third quarter. He retired at the age of 55. He and Matilda moved into Hazen. Elsie married Emil Goetz and they gave her parents two grandchildren, Carol and Marian (Kay), and they also lived in Hazen.

Henry and Matilda Wiest celebrated their 50th anniversary in 1964 at Hazen.

Carol has happy memories of spending as much time at her grandparents' house as she did at her own. She spoke fondly of the suitcase that always meant so much to her grandfather.

"He always kept the suitcase. I think it was a happy memory of the terrible trauma it took for him to get back to America after so many years. Others came with a trunk. He came with a homemade suitcase he made in Russia," she said.

Carol said the family left much behind because there was so little room in the suitcase. Her mother mentioned that there were a few articles of clothing anda few personal belongings.

"There were three of them to share this suitcase. My mother's sad story is her father made her leave behind her one beautiful possession, her porcelain doll," Carol said.

That her grandfather would make a suitcase for their travels was of no surprise to his granddaughter. "I knew him as Mr. Fix It.If your doll was broken, any toy, any household thing, he could fix it. He was very talented and was always building things," she said.

One of her favorite things he made for Carol was a handmade doll cradle, beautifully unique with little spindles.

Carol said she thinks her grandfather could be a harsh man but never to his only granddaughters.

'They spoiled us with love. I remember how I used to go upstairs and sleep in their big feather bed. I loved that and them," Carol said fondly of the grandparents she was very attached to.

Matilda died first, then Henry. They are buried in the Peace Lutheran Church Cemetery north of Hazen.

After Henry died, there was an auction sale, but first Carol and her sister were able to take whatever they wanted.

"I look the Hag picture that always hung in their home, and I took the suitcase. Our granddaughter has the little cradle," Carol said, adding that the flag picture would one day be passed down to her daughter.

This handmade wooden siutcase, measuring 30-inches by 19-inches by 10-inches, was made by Russian immigrant Henry Wiest, who came to Mercer County with it filled with his family of three's possessions.

Carol and Lynn. who is a Beulah native, live in Roswell, N.M. It was a hometown visit this summer that brought Henry's suitcase back to be donated to the county museum. Retired and downsizing, they could think of no better home for the suitcase than the museum representing the place her grandfather loved

Returning it home, one might say, just as Henry returned home to North Dakota from Russia to settle in Mercer County with his family.

While Henry lies to rest in the soil of the land he fell in love with as a boy, his suitcase will remain a testament to the fulfillment of his dream.

Reprinted with permission of the Hazen Star.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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