The day in 1912 when she first arrived in Springfield, 16-year-old Lithuanian immigrant Mary Ann Yezdauskas was greeted and taken by her brother to buy a brand new coat and hat at elegant Bressmer’s Department Store. Then sister and brother posed together in their finery at the Herbert George Photo Studio. The purpose? To chronicle for anxious parents back home the major milestone just reached by a young daughter who had safely weathered her voyage to join an older brother already established in the United States.
A copy of the photo sent home to Mary Ann’s parents Antanina and Vincas Yezdauskas (Yezdauski) survives today, along with the refurbished steamer trunk that carried Mary Ann’s possessions across the Atlantic. Following is the story of this immigrant wife and mother from an era of formidable housework and few labor-saving devices: a story of strenuous toil and lost children that undoubtedly was shared by many immigrant women.
After arriving in Springfield, Mary Ann first lived with her unmarried older brother, Antanas (Anthony), who had paid her passage to America and welcomed her to Springfield. According to daughter Helen (Sitki) Rackauskas, Mary Ann worked at Springfield’s International Shoe Company, then at her aunt Emma Gedman’s Saloon at 808 E. Washington.
While a barmaid, Mary Ann met coal miners who came to the saloon to cash their paychecks. One of them was Lithuanian-American Anthony J. Sitki, whom she married in 1918 at St. Vincent de Paul Church. Anthony was born in 1896 in the coal-mining town Scranton, Penn., to Lithuanian immigrants Annie (Valentine) and her coal-miner husband Adolph Stozygowski-Sitki.
Child Deaths and Debts
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Mary Ann’s hardships began with marriage and childbearing, since already as a young person and perhaps even a child, she had known a life of hard work. However, according to daughter Helen, Mary Ann’s greatest sufferings were as a mother who lost five of her seven offspring as either infants or children. Compounding these losses, each new burial loaded significant, new debt onto the struggling family, requiring decades of weekly funeral home payments nearly as crushing–and enduring–as a mother’s grief.
Daughter Helen, now more than 90-years-old, can still remember her parents’ struggle to pay, especially when her miner father didn’t have work. No matter how young and tiny the deceased child or infant, certain corners could not be cut. This made serial infant mortality not just an emotional tragedy, but a financial one, as well, for many immigrant families.
After Mass every Sunday, Helen remembers going with her mother to visit her siblings’ graves. “It was a sad childhood,” she says, especially remembering how her sister Josephine died at age 12, screaming in the agony of peritonitis in a hospital that could not help her after her appendix burst.
Perhaps it was the souls of her lost little ones that Mary Ann was thinking of when she began to love and raise songbirds and exotic flowers. By the time Helen and Raymond grew up and left home, their mother had so many canaries, African violets, and other exotic indoor flowers, that husband Anthony enclosed the back porch of the family home at 1820 S. 16th to create a special room for the living things his wife tended with so much love and care.
For a time, Helen recalls, her mother even experimented with capturing native songbirds like cardinals in a special cage, freeing them when she could not get them to sing or mate in captivity. Mary Ann “loved the outdoors” and had the most talented green thumb in the neighborhood. “She just really loved, and was really good at raising living things. She was able to grow flowers nobody else could,” Helen recalls. Also able to grow the most challenging plants from mere cuttings, Mary Ann attracted the attention of the African-American greenhouse operator at 16th and South Grand, who unsuccessfully asked her to work for him, and then inherited her prized hibiscus after she died.
Cooking and Keeping House
Helen remembers home food production—especially her mother’s backyard farm with rows of vegetables, cherry trees, chickens and geese. Amid the constant work of collecting eggs and baking bread and pies, Mary Ann canned hundreds of quarts of green beans and mushrooms. She made blood sausage and various “head cheese”-like dishes, such as jellied pigs’ feet or pigs’ feet in aspic (košeliena). She prepared the grated potato casserole kugelis, cold and hot beet soup, and many other Lithuanian dishes, including potato pancakes for meatless Fridays.
Sunday chicken dinners were a feature of Lithuanian immigrant life all over Springfield, but “bird lady” Mary Ann would not slaughter her own chickens. Helen recalls that a Russian neighbor was called in for this task.
Easter featured blood soup made from fresh blood drained from the neck of a slaughtered goose, mixed with vinegar to keep it from coagulating. The blood later was cooked with prunes and plums.
Nothing from their animals was wasted. So during long winter nights with no television, Helen says she and her mother and her brother Raymond would huddle in the basement and pull the down off goose feathers to make pillows. “Mom kept a barrel in the backyard where the feathers were washed and then dried on a grate in the sun during the summer,” Helen recalls. “Then in the winter, when it got cold, several nights a week, we would go into the basement and sit next to the furnace, plucking the feathers. It would take two whole winters of all of us working to make maybe one pillow.”
Besides that, the labor-intensive job that Helen liked least was pitting cherries for homemade pies. Her mother-in-law performed another tedious household chore that I have never heard of: stretching curtains. And before the days of professional carpet cleaners, Helen reports that her mother Mary Ann would wet and crumple into balls torn newspapers, throw them on the rugs, and then sweep them across the rugs to collect dust and dirt. Rugs were also taken into the basement to be beaten.
Wedding Traditions from the Old Country
After Helen graduated from Feitshan’s High School and Brown’s Business College and went to work at the Illinois Department of Finance, she met and married Lithuanian-American George Rackauskas. On her wedding day in the 1948, her parents met the newlyweds at the door to their home on South 16th, for the reception, holding a tray.
On the tray was a dish of salt, several pieces of rye bread, and spicy, warm vyritos (made with whiskey) in a shot glass. “George and I dipped a piece of bread in salt and ate it, then drank a shot of vyritos,” Helen says. The bread symbolized good times, the salt, bad times, and the vyritos, marital happiness.
Father Casimir Andruskevitch, who had grown up in the parish, married Helen and George at St. Vincent de Paul’s, where Anthony and Mary Ann had been married 30 years earlier. Two cooks were hired to serve chicken, ham, kielbasa, barrels of beer, and other foods in the basement of the home on South 16th.
John Mezeilis played the accordion, and the reception lasted for two days, according to Helen. She’s not sure whether this encompassed both daytime and night-time, since she and her groom departed the first night in his 1939 Pontiac. Helen reports that they would have gone farther than St. Louis if their car hadn’t broken down.
Poverty and ‘Mine Wars’
Helen recalls that her father had mine work only from September to February, when the operators and their customers had stockpiled enough coal to last until the following autumn. It was a cruel system for the mine worker and his family.
As a child, Helen remembers her parents receiving letters from the county with stickers that entitled the children to a form of public aid: free shoes and winter coats from the upscale Myers Brothers Department Store. “We were old enough to be embarrassed, but happy to be getting such nice things,” Helen recalls. “Myers was a really expensive store.”
To help her mother learn English, Helen’s father bought her a radio soon after they were married, and insisted she respond in English even when the children spoke to her in Lithuanian. Originally illiterate, Mary Ann had taught herself to read and write from library books by the time Helen and Raymond were in high school, and remained a lifelong patron of the public library branch on South Grand Avenue.
During the 1932-36 “Mine Wars,” Helen says her father Anthony stayed with the United Mine Workers of America. This put him at some risk from striking Progressive Miners of America. One morning before Anthony was going to drive to work, a friend called to warn that some Progressives were waiting at the corner of 16th and Cornell to club his car.
Anthony took another route. But that night, Helen recalls, somebody threw bricks through the window where her baby brother Raymond was sleeping in his crib.
President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Authority (WPA) provided striking and working miners alike some extra income with the building of Lake Springfield. Helen says her father bicycled to the construction site to help install riprap.
Helen’s father Anthony died in 1951 at age 55 from a heart attack somewhat related to mining. Another miner had been arguing with him while driving back from their Peabody jobs in Taylorville. After the other miner got physical, Anthony got out of the car and collapsed suddenly and died right at his own front door. He had an underlying heart condition that had secured him a reprieve from working underground, so that he had been working “up top” his last day at the mine.
A daily Mass-goer who still, in her 50s, wore her hair in long braids, Mary Ann never got over her husband’s death. She had high blood pressure. But no one anticipated the fatal heart attack that struck her down at age 56 in 1952, after only one year of living without her beloved Anthony.
Today, the steamer trunk that accompanied Mary Ann (Yezdauskas) Sitki to America more than 100 years ago is a cherished fixture in the Springfield living room of her granddaughter, Mary Ann Rackauskas, D.D.S. Mary Ann’s two daughters also are proud Lithuanian-Americans raised on many stories about their grandparents and great-grandparents. Amanda is completing her training to be a plastic surgeon, and Lindsay is a marketing professional in Shanghai, China. (Mary Ann has a brother, Greg, who is also a dentist.)