Croatian American history exhibit opens in Slavonian Hall

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It is a theme of human history: People under pressure – either by threat of violence or economic distress – are forced to leave one location and seek better circumstances in another. History is riddled with such migrations of groups of people. It continues to be an issue of our own time. As of this writing, the international press has fixed its attention on a “caravan” of people seeking to cross from Guatemala into Mexico.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Eastern European populations were undergoing similar stress and were looking for places to go to build a better future for themselves and their families. In the Balkans, the Southern Slavic peoples found themselves caught between the internecine struggles of great empires. The Balkans were a conflict zone between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Turkish Empire and the Russian Empire. For the people in the middle, there was violence and economic depression.

In Croatia, on the Adriatic coast, cutbacks in seafaring ships by the Austro-Hungarians and the construction of railroads meant the loss of livelihood of many who had been reliant on shipping and on running horse-drawn transportation. Agricultural failures made things worse. The option to emigrate to the United States, called taking “the road to nowhere,” became the option that many young men from Croatia took. Because they were skilled in fishing and seafaring, many found themselves at coastal towns along the west coast of the United States, including Tacoma.

Croatians and South Slavs came to Tacoma and found a fit for themselves as part of the fishing fleet and in the boat building and lumber industries that were popping up on the shores of Puget Sound. They formed a community in Old Town and became an indelible part of the social fabric of Tacoma.

Members of the Tacoma community formed the Slavonian American Benevolent Society and in 1901 opened Slavonian Hall as their cultural center. Slavonian Hall is one of the few ethnic fraternal meeting halls still in place and members of the society have assembled a permanent history exhibit in one of the downstairs meeting rooms. Called “Croatia to America: Preserving Our Croatian Heritage,” the exhibit was made possible by a grant from the Pierce County Historic Preservation Grant Program and by the SABS membership.

The heart of the exhibit is a set of eight large information panels that show historic photos, diagrams and documents. The introductory panel gives a summary of the forces that led to the Croatian migration. Other panels tell the story of the contribution of Tacoma’s Croatian Americans by focusing on specific family groups.

One tells the story of Simun Kazulin, a Croatian boat builder who married into Gig Harbor’s Skansie boat building family and became a great ship builder in his own right. His descendants became involved with restaurants like Harbor Lights as well as ship-building operations like the Kazulin-Cole Shipyard on the Hylebos Waterway.

Martin A. Petrich’s newly widowed mother, Catterina, arrived in Tacoma and established a boarding house in Old Town, which catered to newly arrived Slavonians. Catterina was asked to lead the parade that celebrated the 1901 opening of Slavonian Hall. Martin himself went on to establish the Western Boatbuilding Company and a number of his descendants are some of Tacoma’s civic leaders, including Port of Tacoma Commissioner Clare Petrich and State Representative and Superior Court Judge Jack Petrich, who died in 2010.

The images in the exhibit give the viewer a good sense of what life must have been like in Old Town at the turn of the century, with dirt roads and horse drawn carts and with the men of the community out to sea for much of the year. (Croatian/Slovenian fishermen fished all the way up into Alaska and were gone for much of the year.)

In addition to photos and information panels, the exhibit includes a glass case filled with cultural artifacts from the old country: musical instruments, shoes and clothing with heavy embroidering. There are some of the ribbons and documents dealing with Slavonian Hall as well, including a receipt for the $3,000 loan that was made for the building of the hall.

During the time of the large migrations of Eastern Europeans to the United States, ethnically based fraternal societies were a way for immigrants to orient themselves in their new surroundings. Every group that had a population of any size in Tacoma would have formed such an organization here. Germans, Italians, Japanese and Norwegians all would have had their own meeting halls to help out newcomers and to function as a cultural and community hub. In Tacoma, only the Slavonian Hall and Normana Hall (of the Sons of Norway) have managed to hold onto their buildings and continue to acknowledge and celebrate their heritage traditions.

Members of the Slavonian American Benevolent Society will celebrate the opening of their new exhibit the evening of Nov. 2. The exhibit will then be open to the public Nov. 3, 1-4 p.m. It will also be opening during the course of the year in conjunction with other events in Old Town, such as the Job Carr Cabin Pioneer Days celebration.

For more on Slavonian Hall and the Slavonian American Benevolent Society, visit www.slavhall.org.

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