By Baylee Vrtiska

My entire life I’ve been taught that hard work can get you further than anything else. No matter the circumstance. And it all started with Peter Foale, my third great-grandfather.

Peter and his brother, William, left Liverpool, England, in May 1848 for the same reason as many immigrants before them – to pursue the American dream.

Upon Peter and William’s arrival in New York City, Peter became ill with a fever and was hospitalized. William found a separate place to stay, but when he returned to retrieve his brother, he was misinformed that he had died and was already buried. A heartbroken William took all the money and clothes they had and left the big city.

As William headed west toward Michigan, Peter sat in a hospital bed, anxiously waiting for his brother to return – something that would never happen.

Alone and confused at the disappearance of his brother, Peter also headed west, but to Ohio instead. There he married Susan Hewitt, and they had two sons, Oscar and William. Peter lost another William close to his heart when his son died shortly after birth. Despite another tragedy, Peter worked even harder to provide for the family he still had.

A family photo of Peter, Susan and Oscar Foale. Photo courtesy of Kim Vrtiska.

In 1856, Peter, Susan and Oscar migrated to Nebraska, arriving on July 4, America’s 80th birthday. Their first home in Pawnee County was a rail shanty covered with hay.

The family suffered hardships. Two years after moving to Pawnee County, the shanty burned down after a prairie fire swept through the area. The family lost everything they had, but there was no time to dwell on that. Peter worked hard to build a small log cabin that he and his family lived in for the next 10 years.

In England, Peter and his father were prominent stone masons. They built their own church and other lavish buildings. In Nebraska, things were different. Peter walked 30 miles to Brownville to catch a ferry to Missouri where he could do masonry work. This meant he only saw his family once a month. According to my grandpa, each time he returned home he would walk the 30 miles again, but this time with a sack of flour on his back.

Doralyn Cheney, author of Stories of Settlers Along the Nemaha, said that Peter’s hard work enabled him to purchase “one of the most valuable homesteads in this region,” totaling to almost 800 acres, a large amount of land for that time period.

As the use of clay bricks increased, Peter found himself being called upon to lay them, a job he did not enjoy. The changing of times took away one of Peter’s greatest talents. My great uncle once said, “Peter hated bricks until the day he died.”

The concept of hard work didn’t stop with Peter, but neither did the hard times. His son Oscar worked hard to earn an education during a time when it was being stripped from him because of the Civil War.

In 1886, Oscar married Anna Ciple, a Czech woman from Prague who didn’t speak English. Despite this language barrier, the two had five children, four girls and one boy.

Ida, Oscar’s eldest daughter, married Rudolph Vrtiska and gave birth in 1926 to twin boys, one of them being Floyd, who would become my grandpa.

TWENTIETH CENTURY BRINGS MORE HARDSHIPS

My grandpa grew up very poor on a farm north of Table Rock, Nebraska. He had no desire to continue farming, so in 1944, when he turned 18, he started training to become a mortician, a training the Great Depression never let him finish.

The depression hit my family hard. The near 800 acres that Peter worked so hard to attain was almost completely gone, and my grandpa’s family was well on their way to losing their home.

My grandpa and his brother, Lloyd, approached their Uncle John as he was working in one of the fields and begged for help, tears streaming down their faces. John agreed to loan the money, but only if the brothers would farm the land together.

My grandpa Floyd and his twin brother Lloyd at their 90th birthday celebration in October of 2016 in Table Rock, Nebraska. In January, a few months later, Lloyd died. My grandpa is now one of the last left living in his generation.

“Right there in the middle of that field my brother and I formed a partnership,” Grandpa Floyd said.

My grandpa and his brother sacrificed everything to take care of their family at a young age, something that many of the men before them experienced as well. Initially, life wasn’t easy for any of them, and yet they all worked hard to live lives anybody would be proud of.

Peter arrived in the United States with hope for a new beginning. Within 48 hours he lost his brother and was left with nothing but the clothes on his back. However, through hard work he managed to make an amazing life for himself and his family.

The entire Vrtiska family at Peru State College’s 2018 commencement ceremony, where my grandpa received the Distinguished Service award. Photo courtesy of Terri Vrtiska

At the young age of 18, my grandpa almost lost everything. He abandoned his own dreams and worked hard to provide for his family. Today my grandpa is 92 years old. I can’t imagine going through all the hardships he did, but to him, that’s just what they had to do to survive.