Last week’s post struck a rich vein of local Lithuanian lore, which I continue to mine this week, after hearing from Wally Surgis (Lith. Sudrius) about another interesting tavern-keeper, immigrant Tony Romanowski (Antanas Ramanauskas), who owned a grocery store/tavern on East Reynolds from what appears to be the 1920s to the mid-1950s. Tony, whom Wally Surgis describes as only about 5-foot-3 and very round, with “Peter Lorre” eyes, lived in the attached house at #1729 E. Reynolds and cooked food and gave out drinks to poor Lithuanian immigrants in the area. According to Wally, “Tony would feed and house the poor of the neighborhood, and even bought enough life insurance to bury the ones who had no family.”
Tony’s moving service to his fellow man was probably part of a larger fabric of Lithuanian immigrant communalism in a neighborhood between 16th and 19th Streets on E. Reynolds that rivaled the north 15th St. and 11th St. and Peoria Road areas for its concentration of Lithuanian residents. We already know that during the infamous 1932-36 “Mine Wars,” when thousands of Progressive Miners of America went on strike, corner groceries and taverns acted as food collection and distribution points or “commissaries” for hungry mining families. According to Wally, mutual aid in the neighborhood long after the 1930s included sharing personal fishing catches and canned garden produce.
To get a sense of the persistence of the E. Reynolds Lithuanian community from the year 1900 or so up through the 1950s, take a look at these snapshots taken by Genealogics from the Springfield City Directories of 1951 and 1956, including familiar Lithuanian names like: Genewitch, Valatkas, Brazitis, Sockel, Turasky, Alane, Casper, Urbanckas, Bernotas, Tisckos, Kosavich, Sivels, Kostinence(?,) Gorda (?), Koslouski, Ro(a)manauskas, Kerchowski—and Orback(!!)
Finding my Lost Orback Family
Here is where my passion for the stories of other families—and of a community—gets unexpectedly personal. The Anna Orback living at 1729 and ½ E. Reynolds in 1956, right next to the Railroad Tavern at #1729, which had since been sold by Tony Ramanauskas to a Mrs. Frances Casper, is my long-lost great aunt! (Tony is listed as living at the rear of the tavern.)
How serendipitous that a few days after I hear about a man with strong ethnic loyalty and a big heart who is helping all the old and poor Lithuanians of his neighborhood, I also learn that one of the closest and poorest of those immigrants, who happens to be living right next to Tony, is my own, lost aunt Anna. Could there be any doubt that she was one of those whom Tony housed, fed, and possibly even buried?
My great aunt or “Teta” Mary Yamont (Marija Baksyte Jomantiene), who was like our grandmother, spoke only Lithuanian. She, herself, was of modest circumstances and lived in a three-room house at 2102 N. Peoria Rd. But I remember hearing nothing, ever, of Mary’s own sister Anna, either from Teta or my father. Sometime in the years after Teta died in 1978, I remember hearing maybe once of a second great aunt in Springfield who was unmentionable: someone of very close blood, considering we had so few relatives on our Springfield Lithuanian side, yet someone I had never met.
How strange and miraculous to find her—Anna Orback–suddenly on May 31, 2014 in a snapshot from our city directory, and to learn the family shame that was hidden along with any mention of her. According to several newspaper reports, Anna’s husband Frank, also a Lithuanian immigrant, reportedly had died of methyl alcohol poisoning at age 39 in 1926, and Anna had sued three people, Joseph Ponder and corner grocery owners Anthony and Ursula Lawrence (Launikonis), for selling him that alleged wood alcohol. (I don’t know yet how the suit turned out).
Even more clippings relate to the criminal history of Anna’s then-fatherless son Joe Orback, starting in the trough of the Great Depression in 1932 with an arrest for burglary and larceny at age 17, in connection with an attempted break-in met by a police ambush that left one of the youths Joe was with shot dead. Joe requested and was given probation for his first string of property crimes, but is reported to have violated it within a year and to have been sent to Menard for a term of 1-5 at age 18.
Anna and Frank also had a daughter, Elizabeth, and a son Frank, Jr., who got an upstanding job as a driver, married a Frasco, and built onto a home, but may have fallen on hard times or perished before his mother Anna reached old age on E. Reynolds. And so, I find myself grateful that tavern-keeper Tony Ramanauskas was there for Anna, whom I’m now told was alcoholic, in her declining years. (The story of Tony and the old, poor and alcoholic immigrants left behind on E. Reynolds by the 1950s is the flip-side of the immigrant success story whereby the young, educated and successful American-born of the 1930s and 1940s left the immigrant neighborhoods.)
The 1924 Springfield City Directory lists Tony as a grocer at 1729 Reynolds with wife Mary (later, also living with his brother John), according to Genealogics. (Readers will remember that in 1927, the Kasawich family of “Three-Day Lithuanian Wedding” fame owned the grocery/tavern at the corner of 16th and Reynolds.)
Scrolling back in time, the 1906 Springfield City Directory listed quite a few more Lithuanian-owned taverns that apparently did not make it till the 1930s, roughly the beginning of the tavern and supper club coverage in my first blog. In 1906, William Anskis owned a tavern at 1931 Peoria Rd; John Brazis, a tavern at 805 E. Washington; Michael Dunkus, one at 729 E. Washington; Charles Gedmin (Gedman?), 800 E. Washington; George Kamiczaites (Kamizaitis), at 1800 S. 11th; Mssrs. Kaslavsky (Kazlauskas) & Burezik, at 1428 E. Reynolds; and Mssrs. Yuris & Kalosky, at 112 S. 7th St.
Why did more of these very early taverns not survive? It is awe-inspiring to consider the possibilities: 1. Those that were in the famous “Levee” area might have been burned or sacked in the 1908 Springfield (White) Race Riot, or 2. They could have been put out of business by 1920s Prohibition and never recovered, as some did after stints as groceries or confectionaries. Imagine coming to the U.S. with no education, money or language, fighting your way up through the mines to save enough to open a “beer parlor,” even a hole in the wall, only to be hit by the disaster of Prohibition—followed by The Great Depression.
Enabling Alcoholism vs. Social Safety Net
Suddenly, through this study of Lithuanian tavern life, I understand the manifold reasons why many Lithuanian-Americans in Springfield were poor, living in crowded or substandard housing and with little money after two generations on American soil. The times were very, very hard. There was a lot of alcoholism. And seeing how little headway many of the first-wave immigrants and their descendants had made here, without having seen the causes, must have been frightening—even incomprehensible–for the mostly professional and educated Lithuanians who arrived as refugees or displaced persons (“DPs”) after World War II.
These new immigrants, like my father, could easily have seen “tavern life,” i.e., alcoholism, as a cause, and not mainly a result of the poverty and lack of opportunity faced by first-wave immigrants–first in their homeland, where they were not even taught to read and write–and then here in the U.S., where they were cruelly exploited then abandoned by the coal mines. Although drinking was never part of my family life, I have come to believe that the human psyche is far too sensitive for the extreme hardships of life, leading many individually–and when such brutalities are widely shared, even communally—to a culture that numbs the senses when such hardships cannot be escaped.
Alcoholism was certainly an ugly reality of immigrant family life all over Springfield. At the same time, corner groceries and taverns seem to have been the only/first visible nodes of immigrants’ economic progress–not only for the families that owned them, but also, as the story of Tony Ramanauskas demonstrates—for the surrounding neighborhood when tavern proprietors communally shared some of their modest success through a sense of ethnic loyalty/responsibility. And, finally, corner taverns are were what remained, along with the poor and outcast of once-vibrant ethnic neighborhoods, after younger generations progressed and joined the American mainstream, leaving their families and communities behind.
Helping World War II Displaced Persons
Along the way, tavern owners like Sam and Mary Lapinski helped displaced persons (DPs) who immigrated after World War II. Violeta (Abramikas) Abad remembers that her immigrant family, including her parents and baby sister Regina, lived in a third-floor apartment above Lapinski’s Tavern for several years after their arrival in the U.S. under the U.S. Displaced Persons Act of 1948. Violeta says, “In fact, my father sponsored his brother and family to come to America in 1951 from the DP camps in Germany, and they also lived with us above Lapinski’s until my Uncle Vincas was able to save enough money to move to their own apartment.”
After reading last week’s taverns post, Violeta says she shared memories with her first cousin Laima (Abramikas) Milaitis of moving their mattress out on the porch/balcony on summer nights because it was too hot to sleep inside the third-floor apartment. After its first years above the Lapinskis, the Abramikas family made its way to middle class success in America with a speed that the First Wave of coal-mining immigrants had found elusive. Mr. (Walter) Abramikas, who had been a forestry professional in Lithuania, worked a union job at Fiat-Allis, which hired many immigrants after World War II. This allowed him and his wife Stephanie to save enough money to get into rental real estate–and send their two daughters to college. In my own immigrant family, also thanks to a good union job, parents who had never gone to high school sent five daughters to college and straight to the middle class.
As for the first generations of coal-mining Lithuanian immigrants and their children who faced many harsh decades of minimal opportunity in Springfield, I am now convinced that institutions like the church and neighborhood taverns and groceries fulfilled the critical function of building and preserving the communal bonds that could often be an individual or family’s last means of survival and support. May we always view with respect the people who had to face such incredibly tough times, study these times for perspective, and pray that they never return.
Sincere thanks to Genealogics for my serendipitous discovery of my lost great aunt while researching the Ramanauskas tavern on E. Reynolds.