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Utah's Ellis Island: The Difficult "Americanization" of Carbon County

Utah Historical Quarterly

Vol. 47, 1979, No. 2

Utah's Ellis Island: The Difficult Americanization" of Carbon County


ETHNIC DIVERSITY CHARACTERIZES Carbon County. This variety forms a unique cultural resource around which county residents may identify, either as descendants of an immigrant group or as individuals coming into daily contact with the ethnic mix. In addition to immigration, railroads, coal mining, and labor—reasons for the immigrant influx— form an intregal part of Carbon County's history and in turn comprise a key aspect of the industrialization and economic growth of Utah and the nation.

Ethnic diversity raises questions of ethnicity and the adjustment of immigrants to life in America, Utah, and Carbon County. Such questions center around concepts of "Americanization" and "accommodation." The Carbon County experience affords an excellent opportunity to view ideas of adjustment, for in the main, the county functioned as Utah's Ellis Island, a principal entrance point for numerous immigrant groups, primarily southern and eastern Europeans, but including some thirty-two different nationalities.

The present investigation examines the reasons for Carbon County's attractiveness, its ethnic diversity, cultural maintenance in a new environment, and the virtual accommodation of ethnic groups to the existing society—all these factors helping to form a unique social milieu. That this character forms a significant part of Carbon County's past and remains a cultural resource is visually exemplified by the Lynn Fausett murals in the Price Municipal Building. Elements of county history are skillfully and colorfully painted by a native son with ethnic diversity very much a basic theme running throughout the work.

Railroads and the developing coal industry beckoned laborers to the area now known as Carbon County in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1882 the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad opened up the vast coal deposits of Carbon County, and the railroad's coal subsidiary, the Utah Fuel Company, by 1900 had become Utah's chief coal supplier. Four main coal mining camps developed: Winter Quarters, acquired by the D&RG in 1882; Castle Gate, 1883; Clear Creek, about 1898; and Sunnyside, 1900. The demand for labor proved the major impetus for immigration.

Responding to the demand for workers were numerous immigrant groups, part of the general influx occurring throughout the United States. In Carbon County the 1900 census figures indicate the presence of Canadians, Chinese, Danes, English, Finns, Germans, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Norwegians, Scots, Swedes, Swiss, and Welsh. Soon after 1900 South Slavs (Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes) and Greeks entered the scene, followed later by Spanish-speaking peoples.

How were these immigrants attracted to Carbon County? Coal company agents and railroad representatives often operated both abroad and at Ellis Island, New York, recruiting foreign laborers with the promise of work and wealth, often promoting a mythical America. Padrones, or bosses, of a particular nationality also provided workers. These labor agents would supply laborers, extracting a fee from both the worker and company to which they were contracted. In Utah and Carbon County the prime example of the padrone system occurred among the Greeks where Leonidas G. Skliris became known as the "Czar of the Greeks." The Japanese labor agent, also providing workers for Carbon County, was Daigoro Hashimoto.

The grapevine also served to increase immigrant awareness of Carbon County. Once settled, laborers would write back to their homelands and send for relatives—mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, uncles, cousins. Thus, Carbon County and its mining camps became places of destination for tickets purchased in the old country. One incident illustrating a summoned immigrant's arrival into Castle Gate was recounted as follows:

Then the train coming, we took the train. We got into Castle Gate. It was just getting dark, when the conductor started to holler "Castle Gate next" ... It was a little place, a mining town. I got off there in Castle Gate. My brother and sister thought I was coming the next morning. I don't find nobody there. . . . There was snow on the ground and you coming out of that air on the train you know, I shiver. The litle depot was a box car. The best thing I thought for me is I got a piece of paper and write my sister's name and my brother's name.

Another significant aspect to the influx of immigrant laborers was their apparent fluidity of movement. That is, the workers often moved from Colorado to Utah and to other work sites throughout the Intermountain region. The flow of men between the coal areas of Colorado and Carbon County appears to have been especially strong. Such a phenomenon transcended nationality and occurred among metal miners as well as coal miners.

Carbon County's ethnic diversity was characteristic almost from the outset or at least from the formation of the area into a distinct county in 1894. The county's foreign-born population in 1900 and 1920 was:*

Census statistics reflect only the settled population. The movement of workers from place to place is not injected; nevertheless, the figures do illustrate the diverse elements, and the fluidity factor would in all probability inflate the figures.

The various mining camps were themselves multiethnic, reflecting the county's quality. In 1903 in Castle Gate there were 356 Italians, 108

English-speaking, and 10 Austrians. Sunnyside contained 358 English, 246 Italians, and 222 Austrians. Clear Creek had 128 Finns, 172 Italians, and 95 English; while 181 English, 126 Finns, and 74 Italians lived at W T inter Quarters. By 1914 the population in these four camps was divided as follows: 1,421 Americans, 663 Italians, 138 Japanese, 1,245 Greeks, 434 Austrians, 97 Finns, 21 Negroes, 21 French, 12 Germans, 7 Scandinavians, and 1 Swede. The towns of Price and Helper contained a conglomerate of all groups.

How did immigrants respond to the new environment encountered in Carbon County's camps and towns? In most cases their first impulse was to congregate where others of the same nationality resided. This was either voluntary or forced, as wen "Jap' sections of towns developed. Castle Gate had its Italian section, while Helper by 1914 had become an important area of settlement for South Slavs attracted by business opportunities there. Earlier, Finns had settled in the Scofield and Clear Creek area where they suffered greatly in the mine disaster of 1900. Greeks were labeled as "clannish," but the basic need to be among the familiar was only a natural response.

In one instance, a Utah Fuel Company officer offered an interesting explanation of the situation ina 1917 letter regarding ventilation in the amusement halls at Sunnyside and Castle Gate:

Our primary object in building the amusement halls is to make it a kind of a center for people in the camps, instead of as at present—the tendency for each nationality to keep to themselves. Nothing will tend to help this situation more than a rapid change of atmosphere in the halls eliminating the present practice of Americans moving to other seats in case Greeks or Italians take seats immediately adjoining them. The primary reason for moving usually being that bodily odor from the foreigners is offensive.

Any apparent leniency directed toward the Greeks or Italians was not afforded the Japanese as the same official in various telegrams sought a separate Japanese Hall and "Jap" pool hall for Sunnyside.

Immigrants sought security among those who spoke the same language and who could offer assistance with such exigent needs as finding a job. These people brought with them language, religion, beliefs, and customs, products of their cultural heritage. Congregation in camps and distinct sections of towns only accentuated the elements of cultural difference. The establishment of fraternal groups, coffeehouses, boarding houses, churches, and, later, businesses, all aimed at security and cultural maintenance. Assimilation into American society was not a primary goal because Japanese and most Mediterranean immigrants initially viewed themselves as only temporary workers in America.

Finnish saunas dotted the Scofield and Clear Creek countrysides; individual as well as public saunas enabled the Finns to enjoy their traditional baths created by running water over hot rocks. Greek miners suffering from homesickness, especially because women were not initially present to honor them with feasts on their name days, gathered in coffeehouses for social life. In the Helper and Price coffeehouses, basil plants lined the window sills, and calendars and pictures of Greek patriots hung on the walls. Men drank Turkish coffee and smoked the nargile, played cards, read Greek newspapers, and spent hours talking. Sunday dress for Greeks, and most immigrants, meant a sign of respectability. In Helper, Greeks utilized the YMCA showers to wash prior to donning suits for Sunday visits to the coffeehouse.

Fraternal organizations flourished in Carbon County. Italians organized Stella D'America ("Star of America"), Castle Gate (1898); Principe Di Napoli ("Prince of Naples"), Castle Gate (1902) ; Fratellanza Minatori ("Miners Brotherhood"), Sunnyside (1902) ; and Societa Cristoforo Colombo ("Christopher Columbus Society"), Castle Gate (ca. early 1910s). The Slovenska Narodna Podporna Jednata ("Slovene National Benefit Society"), affectionately called the "Snappy J," served Slovenes in Carbon County. (The Slovenian National Home in Helper still functions and serves as a testimony to the importance of such groups.) Croatian lodges were also founded in the county, as well as lodges of the Jugoslav Socialist Federation. These organizations were formed to help mitigate the problems of employment in an industrial society. Some functioned as types of labor unions, while others, such as the Jugoslav Socialist Federation and branches of the Italian Socialist Federation in Scofield and Clear Creek, were political. Economic and artistic needs were served by various groups. Greeks also had organizations—Pan Hellenic Unions—fostered by Greece to nourish the idea of repatriation.

The immigrants sought to maintain various customs and traditions while making a living in Carbon County. Italians were either accompanied by or had sent for wives earlier; but by 1910-17 Greeks, South Slavs, and Japanese were taking picture and "mail order" brides from their respective nationalities, with some returning to the homeland to marry. Weddings, funeral processions, open-casket viewings, and the memorial wheat of the Greeks were important customs celebrated in traditional ways. Ethnic foods simmered in all parts of Carbon County. "American" children wondered in horror why pork entrails were being cleaned on public water spouts. Yet, outdoor ovens in Helper summoned many a child, of immigrant parentage or otherwise, to indulge in a piece of homemade bread after school.

Folk beliefs continued in many households. Belief in the occult and in folk cures was especially significant and most often transmitted by the women. The mal occhio or "evil eye"—the idea that human envy could cause harm and could be transmitted by a mere glance—was held by many southern European peoples. Among Carbon County Greeks the authority for folk beliefs prescribed cures, explained dreams, predicted the sex of unborn children, and read the shoulder blade of the Easter lamb, feeling its bumps to foretell what the year would bring.

The desire for cultural maintenance was natural, but the realities of the new environment often produced irony in the attempt. In trying to maintain and foster cultural ties, immigrants altered or adapted to new conditions, customs, traditions, and beliefs; thus their practices were assuming new meaning and form. Gradual change occurred as immigrants came into contact with American institutions and ideas, but those who favored 100 percent "Americanization" of the new immigrants sought to expedite the process by the abrupt stripping away of cultural differences. It must be said, however, that many viewed this Americanization as a panacea for the country's ills in the post-World War I period.

As mentioned earlier, some immigrant men began taking brides in the post-1910 years. Greek women were summoned from Greek villages by anxious miners. In some cases prospective brides arrived alone with tags on their clothing that identified future husbands. Such was the case of one Cretan woman who traveled to Carbon County and was left waiting near the railroad tracks in a sagebrush flat thirty miles from Helper. Greek women traveling alone were burdened with the concern that their morals would be suspect, since in the homeland daughters were chaperoned with "paranoid obsession." At the Latuda Japanese camp second cousins were wed, a marriage unthinkable in Japan. Likewise, South Slavs chose brides through correspondence, not only contrary to custom but beset with many difficulties. Italian, Greek, and South Slavic men also eventually intermarried with women of other immigrant groups or resident American women. The Japanese, however, stayed to themselves and did not attempt to enter American social life. Thus, while clinging to old ideas, the immigrants developed new approaches and responses.

The role of unionization in creating a gradual change in immigrant life was especially significant in Carbon County. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries unions struggled for life in Carbon County, and in that fight the immigrants were of signal importance. During the strikes of 1903, 1922, and 1933, Italian, Finnish, South Slavic, and Greek miners figured prominently, as they did in keeping the fire of unionism burning throughout the period. The activities of various union organizers, such as Frank Bonacci, make this especially evident.

Many immigrants viewed unionism as a legitimate remedy for solving problems associated with work in mines. The concept was new to some, but others, such as northern Italians who were familiar with unions in the old country, attempted to articulate grievances to fellow workers in an effort to improve the work place. Thus, various immigrant groups came together for a common cause—a cause that transcended ethnic lines. The contact was not ahvays harmonious, as some groups, such as the Greeks in 1903, were used as strikebreakers. Mexicans were brought in primarily after the 1920s. As in other areas the Japanese appeared to have steered clear of unionization efforts.

Once an economic base had been achieved, many immigrants left the labor ranks and entered business and the professions; again, this effected a gradual change in behavior. After the 1903 strike Italians, mostly northerners, were blacklisted from Castle Gate and settled in Helper where they founded a bank and opened stores, saloons, markets, and other small businesses. Many of their children later entered the professions. Also in Helper the South Slavs found an environment conducive to their seeking improved status; they initiated business ventures, some, such as the Mutual Mercantile Company, in joint interest with other nationalities. Greeks likewise broke the labor ranks in the 1920s. On one occasion Mexican laborers entered Carbon County to work under a Greek contractor who was bringing in a water line through Price Canyon. Upon completion of the contract many of the Mexicans remained to work in the mines where they experienced many of the same conditions as other immigrant groups.

Some Italians turned to farming, while other Italians, Greeks, and Basques herded goats and sheep. The first Basque sheepman in Clark's Valley was chronicled as follows:

Sheepmen began to come into the valley to find grazing land for their flocks. Gratien Etcheborne [sic] was the first to arrive. Fie came in 1910 and filed the first claim on the land in 1916.

Basques, however, never gained a strong foothold in Utah's sheep industry because of the willingness of Mormon sheepmen and their sons to continue herding. Carbon County contained both French Basques and Vizcayan populations, with Price housing a Basque hotel and boarding house.

Post-World War I suspicion of foreign and alien groups provided impetus for formal "Americanization" efforts. In Carbon County immigrants' participation in strikes branded them as "un-American," and their seeming ambivalence toward serving in the military, even though many purchased war bonds, infuriated native Americans. This sentiment prompted an editorial in the News Advocatecommenting, "Feeling against such dirty low-down grafters is running high in many towns in Utah.""

Even prior to the war, stereotyped images of "W'ops," "Bohunks," "Japs," and "clannish Greeks" intensified nativistic sentiment. Adding fuel to the fire was the practice bymany immigrants of sending money to their families abroad in support of relatives and to provide dowries for sisters. A poignant example of nativistic sentiment appeared in a fifth grade Huntington, Utah, student's essay on "What Utah Dav Means to Me."

... In our mining camps, we can, if we will, stop the Greeks and Japs from their work, and give our own men and boys a chance for work, giving them the money instead of others. If Utah paid her money to her own people instead of other places, we might be rich now. . .

Such fears were deeply rooted; and interestingly, the same fear of foreign labor currently exists in the United States.

In any event, in 1918 a state committee on Americanization was established, with Arch M. Thurman one of the most active members. Thurman stated his fear that "The presence in our state of large alien groups presents the possibility of a real menace to the welfare of the state." He continued by urging the necessity of giving immigrants the opportunity to know American ideals and institutions. If not, those who were preaching discontent would instill them with un-American ideas, thus endangering America's free institutions.

On March 20, 1919, an Americanization bill became law, having been introduced in January by Sen. George H. Dern. It originally maintained that any alien between the ages of sixteen and forty-five residing in Utah—except those physically and mentally disqualified—unable to speak, read, or write English required by fifth grade standards must attend public evening school classes. Willful violation of the act was considered a misdemeanor and was punishable, upon conviction, by a fine of not less than $5.00 nor more than $25.00. The State Board of Education and a state director of Americanization were to oversee the program. Under the 1919 law sixty-three Americanization classes were maintained within the supervision of school authorities. Classes were held in Granite, Salt Lake City, Carbon, Jordan, Tooele, Logan, and Ogden districts. Attendance in 1919 of all classes was 60.253.

In anticipation of the Americanization Act, the University of Utah in the summer of 1919 offered a course of training for teachers in Americanization work. During the summer of 1920 the course was repeated, and similar courses were conducted at Brigham Young University and the Agricultural College in Logan. 20 Dr. R. D. Harriman, a member of the State Committee on Americanization, stated in a report to teachers: "The purpose of this work is not only to acquaint the foreigner with American institutions and ideals, but also to make it possible for him to enter actively into his American life."

Public response to the Americanization law was favorable. The consensus of the citizenry was that aliens should be required to become Americanized. In February 1923 the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce established an Americanization committee. A national congress of the Sons of the American Revolution met in Salt Lake City in 1923 to discuss the Americanization effort. The national chairman of Americanization for the organization, Harry F. Brewer, stated:

You will hear further from this year's committee as soon as possible, but don't let procrastination be the thief of time and opportunity; the anti- American is on the job ALL the time, in season and out; should we let him out do us in Industry?

Americanization of the immigrant was the national vogue. When it appeared that Americanization was not succeeding, residents of Utah, keeping in step with national forces, advocated immigration restriction.

A. C. Matheson, director of registration, thought to propose a law making it incumbent on employers not to hire aliens who had not conformed to the Americanization law, but considering labor shortages and the absence of such laws in neighboring states, he relented. Enforcement was extremely difficult, and the law was destined to fail for reasons set forth in a 1924 report:

The Americanization law . . . has been found unsatisfactory. The compulsory feature is obnoxious to the foreign people. It creates an attitude of mind not conducive to learning. Its enforcement to the letter is expensive and uninviting to the communities with large numbers of the foreign population.

Americanization was considered most important in Carbon County schools, and its "desired" results were admirable. But compulsory adherence led to problems. First, what was "Americanization" or the true prototype of an "American"? Immigrants had believed that America was a land of many peoples. Intolerance and prejudice, rampant in the 1920s, forged a negative example of Americanism. Carbon County Italians responded to the movement by organizing the Italian Americanization Club in 1920; but this was ephemeral, and, in the main, response by immigrants was negligible.

Immigrants viewed the law with ambivalence. Forced compliance represented to many a stripping of cultural distinctiveness. A study of South Slavs has shown that the law was unnecessary in some instances, as those who needed language training obtained it voluntarily. Italians, Greeks, and other groups paid relatively little attention to the law. The Japanese, however, were the most compliant. The reasons for this and for prior observations concerning the Japanese have been attributed to their cultural training in patient acceptance and the belief that their position as workers in America was temporary. In addition, the Japanese culture emphasized a law-abiding attitude, and the training of children under the Bushido code stressed good behavior and diligent study. In an ironical sense, by attempting to comply with "Americanization," the Japanese were in essence adhering to their own cultural traits.

The process of accommodation, or adjustment, of Carbon County immigrants to life in Utah proceeded gradually. Tragically, children were torn between the cultural environment at home and the values encountered at public schools. For Greek children, there were Greek schools and American schools. Some found Mormon racial attitudes difficult to understand, and some felt a bitterness at the intense antiforeign sentiment typified by Ku Klux Klan activity in Price and Helper in 1925. A Serb miner summed up his feelings by stating: "They call me everything but white man. . . . Yeah, sure I leave Carbon County. You could die down there and nobody care."

Yet, children were educated in American public schools, and parents committed to life in America encouraged their offspring to betterment through education. Immigrant businessmen were successful, and the turbulence of earlier years waned somewhat after 1933, except for the Mexican-Americans who were recruited to work in Carbon County mines during the labor shortage of World War II. Among these peoples the stigma of prejudice continued longer than for others. Perhaps a reason for this, and an explanation for the dispersion of other groups into American life, can be found in the fact that after the restrictive immigration legislation of the 1920s, Japanese and southern and eastern European populations were no longer being fed by newcomers as in prior years, whereas the Mexican influx continued. So, with regard to the former groups, language maintenance and many traditions and customs were further modified, since many times their significance was tied to Old World conditions. Even though cultural traits were modified in the accommodation process, cultural maintenance in the broad sense was not lost. Ethnic identification continues.

Thus, the legacy left to Carbon County is ethnic diversity. Whether it be the Greek Orthodox Church, Saint Anthony's in Helper or Notre Dame in Price (the former reportedly built in response to Italians, the latter to the French), or the remaining business blocks built by immigrant businessmen—their existence is testimony to the county's past. The character of Carbon County's past is also its future character, because as coal begins its new reign as "king" the diversity of population continues.

In conclusion, a final irony remains: through efforts to force conformity, the result was, in most cases, a stripping away of a certain identity, the same identity that is now sought by people trying to find "roots" or to reidentify with their ethnic heritage. Fortunately for Carbon County residents, the diversity of character that marked its beginning is still evident. Such a cultural resource should indeed be preserved and remain a source of public pride.

Home of the Louma brothers, Finnish miners at Clear Creek. George Edward Anderson photograph, USHS collections.

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