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The Greeks of Berrien County, Michigan
by Elaine Thomopoulos, Ph. D., © 2007

Click photos below
for expanded views

Tending sheep in Karyae, southern Greece.
Peddling fruit and vegetables in Chicago, ca. 1910.
Candyland in Benton Harbor was a popular gathering place.
The countryside reminded them of Greece.
War devastation by Germans.
Greek specialties at Bridgman's Greek Islands Restaurant.
Traveling to America on the Queen Fredericka.
'Popcorn John' Mousatson
Karagon's Grille, south of New Buffalo
Emery Fruit Farm Resort
Riviera Resort in Stevensville
Fruit Belt Chapter AHEPA Members
Daughters of Penelope Members
Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church
Annunciation and St. Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church
Rev. Christos Moulas
Greek school children
Bake sale at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.
Allegiances to both countries.
Michail Kerhoulas, at age 22

"Can you go to America to save the rest of the family?" Yianni's mother asked. Early the next morning she heard the door slam behind him. Despite the risks and hardships he expected to face in America, he summoned the courage needed to help his family. When he arrived in the United States, he could not read the signs or ask for directions. He did not have enough money for his train ticket. Thus Yianni began his journey to America -- a stranger in a far-away land, separated from loving relatives and friends, and with the burden of the family's future heavy on his heart. (Interview of John Arvan, 2002.)

The Early Immigrants

Beginning in the 1880s, Greek immigrants started coming to America because of devastating economic conditions in Greece. They planned to earn enough money to feed their families, pay off family debts, provide dowries for sisters they had left in Greece and then return to Greece. They were uneducated young men, primarily single, from the poor farm villages of Greece. Some left wives and children in Greece. They worked bone-tiring long hours at menial labor in industrial cities like New York, Chicago, Gary, or Detroit. The immigrants started first as laborers, working in the factories or steel mills or shining shoes. They also worked on the railroads and mines in the West. Wanting to have a business of their own, many became peddlers, and then they went on to operate small businesses such as such as restaurants, candy stores, grocery stores, or flower shops. They planned to return to their homeland and rejoin their families in Greece. By the 1930s, from one-third to one-half of the early pioneer Greek immigrants to America did repatriate.

Many Greek immigrants who settled in Berrien County had previously lived and worked as laborers in big cities like Chicago or Gary. Some felt that it was better to raise a family in a small town, rather than in a big city. Also, the countryside, with its grape vines and fruit trees, reminded them of Greece.

Only a few Greeks lived in Berrien County, Michigan in the first two decades of the 20th century. According to the 1900 census, no one was recorded as having been "born in Greece." The 1910 census records only six people who were "born in Greece," although there were 12 recorded as having been born in Turkey. These were most likely immigrants of Greek descent. The early immigrants to the county settled primarily in the Benton Harbor area.

Greek immigration to the United States decreased drastically after 1924 due to immigration restrictions against the peoples of the Balkans and Southern Europe. There was widespread prejudice against these people at this time. In 1924, the quota for Greek immigrants was set at 307 per year.

The Later Immigrants

Not until the 1950s, after the enactment of the Displaced Persons Act, did immigration resume in significant numbers. There was a surge in the number of men and women who reported Greece as their country of origin in the Berrien County 1960 census. In 1960, the census reported 175 men and women "of foreign stock that reported Greece as their country of origin." In 1950, only 36 had claimed Greece as their "birthplace," 74 in 1940, and 55 in 1930.

Even more Greeks immigrated with the enactment of a more lenient immigration policy in 1965. After the 1980s, very few came to the U.S., due to improved economic and social conditions in Greece and stricter immigration laws. There is no infusion of new immigrants into Berrien County at this time, nor is it anticipated in the future.

World War II and the Greek Civil War left Greece poverty-stricken and devastated. Greeks able to immigrate to America arrived full of determination to advance themselves. Like earlier waves of Greeks, they were willing to work 10 to 14 hours a day to put poverty behind them. The immigrants who came to Berrien County after World War II felt grateful to leave war-ravaged Greece. The Greeks suffered through World War II under the occupation of the Italians and the Germans, as well as during the Greek Civil War. The Civil War between government troops and the Communists took place from 1945 to 1949 and ended with defeat for the Communists.

The Civil War created greater havoc than World War II. Michael Kerhoulas said, "Brother fought against brother, father against son. In World War II, you knew who your enemy was. During the Civil War, you could not even trust your neighbor. He could kill you."

The later immigrants often came to Berrien County to join family members who had previously settled there. The early immigrants often sponsored them. The women who immigrated in the 1960s and 1970s worked long hours beside their husbands in the family businesses, as well as keeping up with the household tasks and raising their children.

Family Separation

For both the early and later immigrants, hope in the new land was tempered by sadness because of family left behind. Pitsa Arvan recalls, "I missed my parents so much I thought I would die. I cried and cried."

Because of immigration restrictions, hard economic times in the 1930s and restriction of travel during the period of the Wars from 1940 to 1949, some of the earlier immigrants never saw their parents or siblings again, and many of the early immigrants' children never met their grandparents, aunts or uncles who had remained in Greece. For years at a time, even married men who had traveled to America to earn a living were separated from their wives and children. Even mail had a difficult time getting through from 1945 to 1949. Not until the 1950s and 1960s were many of the early immigrants and their children able to journey to Greece to see relatives.

Nick Thomopoulos describes the 1962 reunion of his mother with her sister in Greece, whom she had not seen in 40 years: "She saw us and said several times, 'Who are you? Who are you?' My mother started crying and said, 'I'm Maria. I'm your sister.' Startled, Aunt Diamantia took a few moments to get her composure, and then all began screaming, crying, hugging, and kissing."

At present, with the ease of air travel and better economic conditions, some of the later immigrants travel back to Greece regularly.

Intermarriage

In the early years of the twentieth century, Greek men outnumbered Greek women, since the Greek women did not immigrate until later. Quite a few of the men married outside of their ethnic group. It appears that the Greek community of Berrien County welcomed the non-Greek wives. According to the 1959 Daughters of Penelope Annual Convention Ad Book, four of the local Daughter of Penelope officers were not Greek, although married to Greeks. Alma State, an immigrant's non-Greek wife, organized the chapter and later was elected District Governor of Michigan. Another non-Greek woman, Harriet Andrews, served as chapter president.

The immigrants' children also married non-Greeks, often over the objections of their Greek parents. Marriage for love is a New World phenomenon. In the old country, marriages were arranged.

For the intermarried couples of the second generation, love proved stronger than the fear and reality of family rejection. A son of an immigrant Greek couple, after he married a non-Greek woman, had to leave the family business for a few months. One father, who had married an Irish woman, objected to his daughter marrying a non-Greek whom she had met while vacationing in Michigan. The father became estranged from his daughter because she rejected the Greek man he had selected for her in favor of her true love.

Work

The early Greek pioneers, with hard work and perseverance, established successful businesses. They worked primarily in the food service business, especially restaurants. The early immigrants often offered jobs in their food service businesses to their brothers, cousins, nephews, and friends who had recently immigrated. They, in turn, after a short period of apprenticeship, often ventured out to establish their own restaurants.

As early as 1909, the Olympia Ice Cream Parlor advertised regularly in the local newspaper. Owned by James Andros and George Spiris, it stood at 128 Pipestone Street in Benton Harbor. According to the Polk Directories and recollections, Greek-owned food service establishments from the 1920s to the 1960s were concentrated primarily in Benton Harbor and St. Joseph. They included: Palace of Sweets, Harbor Restaurant, Manhattan Waffle Shop, Main Cafe, Market View, Candyland, Moutsatson Restaurant, Ace Lunch, Main Restaurant and Bar, John Kanalos Restaurant, Aragon Bar, Lions Bar, Silver Beach Concession, Fifth Wheel Café, Shamrock Restaurant, Chop House Restaurant, Michigan Hotel Café, Barrel House Bar, Abe Frank Grocery, Oasis Grocery and Liquor, Apollo Bar, Nick's Red Garter Bar, Burger King, Rocket, Other businesses included the Pappas and Manos shoe-shining/hat-cleaning shops, the Michigan Hotel and a small but busy popcorn store operated by "Popcorn John" Moutsatson. Some of the early immigrants also developed subdivisions and invested in real estate. Through the 1960s in the south part of the county there were the following businesses: Greg's Grille, Karagon's Grille, Log Cabin Barbeque (later known at Greek Harbor), Calvin's Grille, Buffalo Cafe, J and J Restaurant, Little Castle Restaurant, and Billion's Grocery. Sunset Shore Subdivision, Steven Roumell Law Office, Theo's Lanes, Pearl Grange Food Processing, and the trucking business operated by Nick Katsulos and John Giaras. Taking advantage of their location in the heart of the Fruit Belt, there were also several Greeks who farmed.

Others established themselves in the summer resort business. They catered to the hundreds of vacationers who came to frolic in Lake Michigan and enjoy the countryside from the 1920s until the 1960s.

AHEPA and Daughters of Penelope

The national organization of American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) was organized in Atlanta, Georgia in 1922 as a reaction to harassment by the Ku Klux Klan. The Fruit Belt Chapter Number 292 of AHEPA received their charter in 1933. According to their records, the chapter enrolled 30 members during its first year of operation. Through AHEPA, the immigrants worked hard to maintain their ethnic origins, as well as to become good citizens of the United States. The Daughters of Penelope Andromache Chapter (women's auxiliary) organized in 1934. The Daughters of Penelope hosted rummage sales, bake sales and other drives to raise money for the Greek Orthodox Church. Together with the AHEPA, they held annual picnics to benefit the church. The Daughters of Penelope stopped functioning after the formation of the Philoptochos, a women's church organization, since they felt it was too difficult to support both groups.

Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church

Young college student Joanna Bilionis, when interviewed stated, "You can't separate the two; if you're Greek, you're Greek Orthodox." Since nearly 100 percent of the early Greek immigrants were baptized in the Greek Orthodox faith, having a Greek Orthodox Church in the community was very important.

In 1949 the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church was built at 725 Broadway in Benton Harbor. On November 23, 1950, a banquet was given for the burning of the mortgage."

Annunciation and St. Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church

Today, the church congregation has moved from Benton Harbor to New Buffalo. In 1982, the church purchased the former Tin Tree Theater on Behner Road in New Buffalo, which they remodeled as a banquet facility, which is known as the American Hellenic Center. In 1994, the church purchased the former Golden Door Restaurant at 18000 Behner Road, just across from the American Hellenic Center. Blessed on November 12, 1995, the remodeled facility served the parish as a second church -- St. Paraskevi.

In 1996, the congregation sold its original church, the Annunciation. Since the sale of the original church, the congregation has celebrated services at the 18000 Behner Road site. The New Buffalo church became known as the Annunciation and St. Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church.

Priests who served the church in the early years included Rev. Ioannis Panos, Very Rev. Chrysostom Trahathaes, Rev. Irenios Souris and Very Rev. Christos Moulas, who served the church from 1955 until his retirement in 1982. After Moulas retired, other priests who served the congregation included the Very Rev. Archimandrite Efstathios Metallinos, Rev. George P. Savas, Rev. Theodore Vaggalis, Rev. William Conjelko, and Rev. George Topitges. Since 1992, Rev. Basil Stamas, from Kalamazoo, Michigan, has served the church, with Rev. Paul Martin joining him in 2005. Cantors have included Nick Dorothean, Nick Argondelis, Michail Kerhoulas, George Bilionis, Presbytera Angela Stamas, James Bouramas, Presbytera Nikki Martin, and Spiro Polymeris.

Greek School

The immigrants wanted their children not only to retain their Greek Orthodox religion but also to cherish the Greek language, history and traditions. Tom State writes, "On October 4, (1945) a school committee was appointed and decided to have school services in Benton Harbor on Thursday afternoon and in New Buffalo on Friday at the expense of $15.00." For decades the school has educated young Americans in the Greek language and traditions in classes held after regular school hours or on Saturdays.

The immigrants' children, on the most part, retain at least a basic speaking knowledge of the language. However, many of the grandchildren have not retained the language, especially if their mother or father is not Greek.

Maintaining Culture and Traditions

The Berrien County immigrants and their children take pride in their Greek heritage, which goes all the way back to classical Greece and the contributions of renowned ancient Greeks who paved the way for Western civilization. Objects in the home and businesses, such as pictures or models of the Parthenon, busts and photos of philosophers, reproductions of sculpture and ancient vases, photos of Greece, as well as books, remind them of this heritage. In their homes they also have mementos of village life, home altars with religious icons and votive lights, and delicate handmade doilies, embroidered tablecloths and tapestries, or hand-woven blankets.

They stress Greek values like filotimo (treating others with kindness, respect and honor) or filoxenia (kindness to strangers).

The immigrants celebrated traditional holidays, such as Easter, Christmas and New Year's Day, and name days (day sacred to the saint whose name a person bears) by serving traditional foods, such as lamb and pastichio (pasta) and dancing and singing Greek songs.

Reaching Out to the Community

The annual events organized by the Greek community brought Greek culture to the broader Berrien County population. Starting in the late 1930s, the AHEPA and the Daughters of Penelope hosted annual Greek picnics. In the 1950s and 1960s, up to 1,500 people flocked to picnics held at the Davros/Douvas Resort and at Sportsman's Park, where they enjoyed Greek food and danced to Greek music at the all-day affair. In the 1970s and the early 1980s, annual "Greek Nights" held at the Bridgman American Legion replaced the all-day picnics. From 1985 into the 1990s, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church served gyros and Greek pastry at the Venetian Festival, held annually in St. Joseph. Since the purchase and renovation of the American Hellenic Cultural Center, the Annunciation and St. Paraskevi Church has held its annual Greek Nights there, attracting 400 to 500 people. Since 2000, it also holds a two-day Greek festival in the early summer.

Throughout the years the non-Greeks of Berrien County have enjoyed delicious Greek pastries such as honey-drenched baklava baked with layer upon layer of thin philo dough, or powdered sugarcoated butter cookies called kourambiethes. Hundreds of women used to line up to purchase the delectable "take-out" Greek pastries baked annually and sold from the Benton Harbor church by the Philoptochos women.

Greece and America: Two Countries Now

Immigrants and their children have felt the pull of two countries: Greece and America. Nick Fatouros, when his son posed the question, "Which do you like best, Greece or America?" responded, "I like America. I like both. I have two patridas (countries) now."

A few of the immigrants felt they weren't truly accepted in either country. Demetra Andreason said, "The sad part is you are here, and the people see you as a foreigner because of the accent I have. And then I go home to Greece and they also take me as a foreigner. So I am a foreigner in both places."

Ties to Greece

The immigrants continue to have strong ties to Greece. The Greek Americans have assisted Greece since they first arrived in America to the present. During the 1940s, the Fruit Belt AHEPA Chapter raised $1,058 for the Greek War Relief and contributed funds for a Greek hospital. The immigrants have always sent money and packages of food and clothes to their families in Greece. They helped to build churches and schools in their old villages.

God Bless America

The Greek immigrants and their children see themselves as American. Several of them, in the interviews conducted by the History Center at Courthouse Square said, "God Bless America." They credit America for giving them opportunity and take pride in their American citizenship. They have served in her wars. Over 25 percent of young Greek men in America joined the U.S. Army during World War I -- the highest percentage of enlistment in the U.S. Army of any immigrant group. The members of the local Fruit Belt AHEPA Naturalization Committee taught fellow Greeks the responsibilities of citizenship and encouraged them to become naturalized. The Fruit Belt AHEPA Chapter supported non-Greek charities such as the Community Chest, Red Cross, Good Fellows and local hospitals. They sold over $200,000 worth of war bonds during World War II.

Many Greeks accepted positions of leadership in various organizations, including the Masons, Elks, Moose, Chamber of Commerce, American Legion, IOOF, Girl Scouts and children's soccer leagues.

Achieving the Dream

The Greeks have always comprised a small minority of Berrien County's population. The 2000 federal census lists 390 people of Greek descent residing in Berrien County, out of a total of 162,453 residents, a mere 0.2%.

Although small in number, the Berrien County Greeks have had an enormous impact on the community. They have been active in the business community, served valiantly in the armed forces and taken leadership roles in various organizations.

When the Greek immigrants came to America, they were short on money and education, but long on drive, ambition and strength of character. Michail Kerhoulas sums it up: "We have gone from no shoes to driving a Cadillac ... The poverty punished us so much we didn't want to fall back."

Because the Greek immigrant families stressed the value of education, their children have become successful professionals and entrepreneurs. The Greek immigrants have achieved their dream of "making a new life" for their families as well as contributing to the community. They have enriched Berrien County with their vibrant ethnicity, enthusiasm and community spirit.



This article is based in part on a publication and an exhibit that was presented by The History Center at Courthouse Square, in partnership with the Annunciation and St. Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church. The exhibit is now on permanent display at the Annunciation and St. Paraskevi Greek Orthodox Church, 18000 Behner Road, New Buffalo and can be viewed by calling (269) 469-0081. The project was funded in part by a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


 


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