Thursday, May 12, 2016

1909 Greektown Chicago -- You are There

One of my most fervent wishes is to get as close to my ancestors as possible. I yearn to look into their apartment windows, listen to their dinner conversation, or shadow them as they go about their daily work. Perhaps what I want most is to sit with them and ask questions:  what made you leave your birth country, where did you settle in the US, what were your communities like in America, and what did you do for entertainment?

I came closer to my ancestors than ever before when I discovered a journal article on JSTOR by Grace Abbott, “A Study of the Greeks in Chicago,”

Grace Abbott, 1878-1939, 1930 Nov. 17, 
Library of Congress Prints and
 Division Washington, D.C. 
20540 USA

published in 1909. (Note: for more information on JSTOR, please see my post of Sept 30, 2014) Not only did Ms. Abbott live in Chicago during the times my Greek ancestors were there, but she studied Hull House census data gathered from the Greek community and then wrote about her findings. As I read her piece, I found answers to some of my questions about the lives of the Greek immigrants to Chicago, including my great grandfather Peter Flessouras, who came to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

From my research, I know that Peter Flessouras came from Pigadakia, a small village south of Tripoli in the Peloponnese area of Greece. (Please see my post of Nov 16, 2015 to see maps of Peter’s Greek homeland.) 

But I didn’t know until I read Abbott’s Study that:
 “Most of the Greeks who come to the United States (were) from the Peloponnesus.” (p. 380) 
This area of Greece has so much rocky terrain that farming is difficult. When my husband and I visited the Peloponnese in September of 2015, we saw this challenging terrain.

View of terraced land once used for
farming in Vatheia, taken
by Bert Schuster, Sept 2015

With agriculture as the principle means of livelihood at that time, the lack of good crop land led to a larger migration from the Peloponnese than from other parts of Greece where the soil was more conducive to farming. This small piece of geographical information partially answered my question to my great grandfather: why did you leave Greece?

Ms. Abbott also reveals an interesting behavior of Greek immigrants: 
“All of them talk of ‘the Athens’ as though it had been their home, but although it belongs to them in a very intimate sort of way, very few of them have ever seen it. For example, out of 424 who live within a few blocks of Hull House 205 came from Sparta, 102 from Tripolis, and 5 from Athens. Moreover, most of those who say they came from Sparta and Tripolis, have not really lived in those towns but in the country villages nearby.” (p. 380)
I can see why my great grandfather might say he was from Tripolis as no one outside of his community would have heard of Pigadakia, 15miles south of there. 

Ms. Abbott provides a fact about the life of my ancestors in Greece that I did not know: 
“There is peasant proprietorship of land in the Peloponnesus and most of those who emigrate have lived on small farms which they owned and worked for themselves.” (p. 385) 
So, my Greek ancestors were not tenant farmers as my Irish and Swiss forebears likely were. 

Perhaps this experience working for themselves helped steer the Greeks into areas of the American economy that would allow them to be more independent than if they went to work in factories.

I have heard from talking with Greek Americans that an entry-level job for Greek immigrants, as for many other ethnic groups who came to America, was working on the railroad. Ms. Abbott confirms this:
 “Like other foreigners most of the Greeks must first serve an apprenticeship in the gangs that do the railroad and general construction work for the country.” (p. 386) 
Steam shovel doing construction work for the Western
 Pacific Railroad, Thompson, P. J., 1906, LC-USZ62-29487,
  Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
 Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

But the fierce desire for independence and an entrepreneurial spirit which the Greeks brought from home combined to make their time on the railroad
 “…shorter than with most nationalities.” (p. 386) Within a short while “…he has learned some English and has accumulated enough money to venture on a small commercial enterprise for himself. He becomes a peddler, perhaps later owns a fruit-stand and finally an ice-cream parlor.” (p. 386)
Since there were no farms in early 20th century Chicago, Greek farmers adapted to their new conditions by peddling food instead of growing it. Some photographs from the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs Division show how peddling foods was not unfamiliar to Greeks. (Note: I came across these photos on the internet but did not know their source. I sought the help of Maureen Taylor who is known as "the photo detective" for her skills in photo identification. Thank you, Maureen, for identifying the source of the following two photos.)

Poultry pedlar in Greek costume, Athens, Greece, c1895,
 LC-USZ62-65904, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
 Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

Areopagus and Theseion, N.W. form Athens, toward sacred way to
 Eleusis, c1907 Jan. 31, LC-USZ62-66122, Library of Congress
 Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.

Peter Flessouras described himself as a peddler and huckster on several birth records of his children and on the 1910 Chicago, Cook, IL federal census. However, unlike many of his cousins, he did not progress to become the owner of a grocery, a candy store or a restaurant. Here is a photo that could have been my great grandfather:

Street peddler pushing his cart past Kentron Cafe and Mouzakiotis
 Music Store on Halsted St., courtesy of the
National Hellenic Museum, Chicago, Illinois

Another question that tugs at my mind: what kinds of institutions did the Greeks build in their new American communities? Again, Ms. Abbott provides an answer:
 “The largest settlement of Chicago Greeks is in the nineteenth ward, north and west of Hull House. Here is the Greek Orthodox Church, a school supervised by the priest in which about thirty children are taught a little English, some Greek, much of the achievements of Hellas…here too, is the combination Greek bank, steamship ticket office, notary public, and employment agency, and the coffee-houses, where the men drink black Greek coffee, play cards, speculate on the outcome of the next Greek lottery, and in the evening sing to the accompaniment of the Greek bagpipes or -- evidence of their Americanization -- listen to the phonograph.” (p. 380)
As part of the Hull House papers, period photos were taken that add to the data collected from door-to-door interviews conducted by census collectors trained by Hull House. Fortunately, some photos from the Hull HouseYearbooks of the early decades of the twentieth century are online, thanks to the University of Illinois at Chicago. These add to Ms. Abbott’s description of the activities that the Greeks pursued after hours:

A Group of Greek Wrestlers – Hull House Gymnasium,
6375.JPG, Hull House Yearbook, 1927, p. 39,

Hull House Yearbook, 1910, p. 24,

In conclusion, genealogists seek ways to connect with their ancestors. Since we are physically unable to talk with those who have passed away, one tool that enables us to “visit” the times our ancestors lived is through contemporary written and photographic materials. Journals from our target time period can be very useful in building a picture of vanished lives. JSTOR provides a way to access many such journals. 

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