The immigrants from Rihia

By Dimitrios G. Kokoris

 

The Immigrants from Rihia by Dimitrios G. Kokoris

Article Published in Odyssey Magazine, Winter 2012-2013

It was the end of the 19th century and the young men of Rihia, a small village located about 60 miles southeast of Sparti (the capital of Laconia), were leaving to seek a better life than the one that they currently had or expected to have.  They had heard about the great opportunities that existed in America (Ameriki), which at the time was experiencing tremendous economic growth.  America had opened its doors to Europe and was allowing a large influx of immigrant workers that were needed to support the insatiable expansion of the economy.  The immigration of the Greeks, as well as other Europeans, occurred in two waves.  The first wave took place between 1880 and 1924, and the second wave occurred after the end of World War II.

Rihia, which is located in a valley surrounded by mountains, had experienced a significant increase in population following the Greek War of Independence of 1821.  The population had increased from approximately 270 in 1830 to 1,069 by 1920, a four-fold increase that was straining the food growing capability of the poor rocky soil.  By 1940 the population had peaked to more than 1,350.  The family plots that they grew grains on were not large enough to support the large families that were typical for that era, and with each passing generation the plots became smaller and smaller as parents partitioned their land to pass on to their children.  For many, the plots became so small that not enough grain could be grown to sufficiently feed their families.  The village had no source of available running water and the difference between a successful and unsuccessful grain harvest depended solely on the seasonal rains.  A wet season might produce a successful harvest with enough grain grown to feed the family (and possibly generate a little surplus), but a draught would be devastating. 

Opportunities in the village were few and the future looked bleak for the latest generation of villagers.  The majority of young men were slated to become either farmers or goat/sheep herders.  Neither occupation guaranteed that their family needs would always be fulfilled.  Some families had debts to pay off, and families with daughters had the additional expense to provide the customary dowries for marriage.  A solution had to be found, and that solution was to immigrate, something that Greeks had been doing for thousands of years founding colonies in the Black Sea, Anatolia, Sicily and other places.  The burden to immigrate primarily fell on the oldest male children (or adults) who felt compelled that it was their responsibility to support the family by finding work to earn enough money to send back home to pay off the family debts and the future dowries required to marry-off their sisters or daughters.  The exodus of those immigrating males reduced the demand on the natural resources (fewer mouths to feed), created less competition among the remaining males for the farming and herding jobs, and the money they sent back home was used to pay off debts and/or to purchase goods and services that they otherwise could not afford.

The first wave started with just a few brave individuals.  When they arrived at their destination and had succeeded in finding work, then others naturally followed in their footsteps.  Small groups of young men, many of them teenagers as young as 15 (or even younger) travelled together as a pack to the port of Pireaus, where they boarded steamships for the long and dangerous trip across the Atlantic Ocean.  Their final destination was New York City, the city of hope and dreams.  First, they had to persuade their parents to allow them to embark on a trip that most likely would result in them never seeing each other again.  And many never did.  The parents, however, understood that they had to let them leave, if not to encourage them.  Their goal was to work and make their fortune in Ameriki and then return to Rihia.  Based on my research, 32% of all the Rihiotes arriving at Ellis Island were married males who came alone without their families.  I am not sure if this was a short term plan or if they had planned to come here and then, once settled and establishing a secure livelihood, to send for their families.

The first Rihiotes immigrated to New York City in the 1880’s.  Upon reaching the shore they found themselves in an unfamiliar environment.  There were no relatives or other patriotes to greet them and to help them get settled.  They did not understand the strange new language.  The situation must have looked grim, but somehow they were able to find work and a place to sleep.  Like other immigrant groups, they found work doing unskilled menial jobs as blackboots (shoe shine boys), fruit vendors or working in candy shops and factories.  The very first Rihiotes set the anchor stone for bringing their siblings, relatives and fellow Rihiotes to Ameriki since they were now established, had learned a few words of English and could communicate with the locals and, more importantly, guide them to find work and a place to stay.

The life of the immigrant was not easy.  They worked very long hours doing difficult work in a strange environment away from their loved ones.  Groups of immigrants lived in small crowded rooms to reduce the share of the rent that each person needed.  Other expenses, such as food costs were also shared communally to minimize the individual costs and to maximize the savings remaining from their hard-earned meager wages.  They saved the money they earned penny by penny, and after saving enough money sent most of it back to support their families in Rihia.  A few earned enough money to fulfill their initial goal and to return permanently to Rihia.  Some went back because they could not adjust to the new lifestyle, or had simply become homesick for their families and village.  Others returned for a temporary visit with family or to find a bride since there were very few Greek women in the United States available to marry at that time.  Some succumbed to the diseases that were common during that era, such as influenza and tuberculosis.  Many others worked all their lives, never marrying and died without ever seeing their families or homeland again.

I was always intrigued by what it must have been like during the period of the first immigration wave.  What type of work did they do when they arrived?  What hardships did they encounter?  Did they find what they were seeking?  Did they have families and what became of them?  As well as many other questions.  As an immigrant who arrived in the USA during the second wave of immigration (1966), I wanted to compare my experiences with those that had arrived here 60 or more years earlier.  There was a common bond between us that I wanted to explore.

I had relatives who came over during the first wave but did not know any of the details of their voyage, their experiences, hardships with assimilation, and the long and arduous journey to becoming members of the American melting pot.  Unfortunately, many of these relatives passed away when I was very young and I never had the chance to ask them these questions.  In addition, very few people kept a diary documenting their voyage and life experiences.  Searching and finding information on individuals that lived 100 years ago or earlier becomes very difficult.  Once that information is lost, it becomes lost forever. 

In my search for information, I reviewed the passenger manifest lists of ships that had arrived to Ellis Island to identify individuals that had come from Rihia.  I searched the records for passengers that had the same surnames as those found in Rihia (names such as, Belesis, Drivas, Frintzilas, Koulouris, Kokoris, Lagis, Miras, Petroutsas, Stavropoulos, and many, many others).  I also tried all possible spelling variations of each surname to account for how the name might have been transcribed from Greek to English based on how it was interpreted phonetically (and I found many variations). 

The period prior to 1900 proved to be more difficult in obtaining information due to the limited ship passenger manifest records available.  The manifests typically just included the passenger’s name, age, occupation, last residence and final destination.  After identifying the passenger as a possible candidate based on the surname, further verification proved difficult since the entry for the “last residence” was too general.  Instead of Rihia, the manifest listed Sparti, the capital of Laconia as the last residence.  Further complicating the verification of the passengers was that many of the surnames found in Rihia are also common to many of the surrounding villages.

The period after 1900 proved to be more productive in obtaining information because ship manifest records were more systematically catalogued and additional passenger information was provided (such as, father’s name, the name of the person to visit, the last residence was more specific, etc.) that could be cross-referenced with other sources (such as a partial listing of the Rihia Birth Registry that I had in possession) to verify the identity of the passenger as a genuine Rihioti.  I found ship manifests of many Rihiotes that I knew or heard about, and others that obviously I could not have known.  However, I also did not find ships manifests for some people that I knew had indeed immigrated.

One of the first Rihiotes to the United States was Georgios Drivas.  He arrived in New York City in 1885 at the age of 15, and in 1892 started the import company Lekas and Drivas (located at 17 Roosevelt Street) with his first cousin Georgios Petrolekas.  Lekas and Drivas became one of the largest importers of Greek products in the United States.  Drivas passed away in 1928 and Petrolekas passed away four months later.  The company was passed on to their heirs and survived until the 1980’s.  His last will and testament stated that the sum of 800,000 drachmas was to be used to construct an agricultural and technical school in Rihia.  In 1937, an elementary school was built in lieu of the agricultural and technical school that Drivas had envisioned.  

Panagiotis Douros arrived in New York City in 1892 at the age of 19.  After saving enough money he bought and operated a candy store that was located on 87 Cortland Street in New York City.  In 1924 he permanently moved back to Rihia after working 32 long years selling candy.  He fulfilled his dream to work in the United States and to earn enough money (approximately $600,000, a fortune at that time) to comfortably retire to his village.  On his return, at the age of 51, he got married and fathered two children.  He used some of his money to construct a diesel powered grist mill/olive press that was conveniently located in the center of the village.  The grist mill was welcomed by the villagers because it was closer and more reliable than the existing wind powered mills that were located on top of hills on the outskirts of the village and only operated when there was sufficient wind.

Using the Ellis Island records, I discovered that my maternal grandfather’s brother (Nikolaos Miras) had immigrated to the United States in 1904 at the age of 17.  He worked for about 8 years before returning back to Greece, remaining there several years before sailing back to New York City on July 7, 1915 on the Ship Athinai.  He owned and operated a candy store in Riverhead, Long Island, where along with his wife (Thia Marina) raised their three children.  This candy store is still operated by his son Antonis.  I remember meeting Thio Niko once in 1968 when I was about ten years old.  I also remember that he gave me a silver dollar.  He passed away in 1975 at the age of 88. 

In my search I also came upon a passenger by the name of Dimitrios Miras who had immigrated to the United States on May 1, 1910 on the Themistocles.  The ship’s manifest also noted that he was here to visit his brother Nikolaos.  Dimitrios was my maternal grandfather.  I never knew that he had been to the United States.  I asked his sons (Panagioti and Vageli) about the Ellis Island information and they verified that indeed he had been here.  When he arrived in 1910, he was persuaded by his brother Nikos to return to Greece to fulfill his military obligation.  When he returned to Greece, the war against the Ottoman Empire in Asia Minor erupted and he was not able to return.  This is something about my grandfather that I would have never known about had it not been for the information listed in the Ellis Island records.  My grandfather Dimitrios passed away on December 1958 and my grandmother Ekaterini passed away several months later.  Unfortunately, I was about one year old when they both died and therefore never had the chance to know them.

Dimitrios and Ekaterini Miras

 

I also found the ship’s manifest listing for my paternal grandfather’s brother Theodoros Kokoris (which was also spelled Cokoris or Cocores).  He arrived on September 22, 1904 on the Konigin Louise and his point of contact was his cousin, also named Theodoros Kokoris.  I do not know what type of work he did when he first arrived, but sometime later he became a professional wrestler.  A picture of him posing in his wrestling uniform hangs on the wall of Niko’s Cafenio in Rihia.  He passed away in 1968 in Freeport, New York when he was in his 80’s.  I probably met him at least once, but I do not remember.  He was married to Thia Vasiliki and they had no children.    

The immigrant Rihiotes worked very hard to build businesses and to raise their families.  The majority of them moved up the social ladder and achieved what we consider to be members of the middle class.  Most of them were initially employed in the food/confectionary establishments working for others.  They worked very long hours and were able to save enough money to start their own businesses.  They however, did not want their children to follow in their footsteps, but wanted them to get an education and become professionals.  Many of them achieved their goal of educating their children.  A few of their children, listed below, surpassed their parent’s expectations. 

Spyridon Sarbanes arrived in New York City on August 28, 1909 at the age of 19 on the Patris.  The ship’s manifest shows that he arrived with $30 in his pocket and that his point of contact was his brother Diamantis.  He later moved to Maryland and operated the Mayflower Grill.  In 1932 he married Matina Tsigounis and they had three children (Paul, Anthony and Zoe).  Their son Paul Sarbanes became a United States Senator who represented the state of Maryland from 1977 until 2007.  A Democrat, he was the longest serving senator in Maryland history.  Senator Sarbanes earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1954 and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship.  He also earned a First Class degree in 1957 from the University of Oxford (England), and graduated Harvard Law School in 1960. 

 

Paul’s son, John Sarbanes, is a United States Congressman representing the state of Maryland since 2007.  Congressman Sarbanes earned a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University in 1984 and J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1988. 

Spyridon Stavropoulos arrived in New York City on May 30, 1912 at the age of 20 on the Macedonia.  He later moved to Bridgehampton, Long Island, where he got married and raised his children.  One of his sons, William, became chairman and chief executive officer of the Dow Chemical Company (Midland, Michigan), the largest chemical company in the United States and the second largest in the world.  Dr. Stavropoulos earned a BA from Fordham University in 1961 and received a doctorate degree in medicinal chemistry from the University of Washington in 1966.  He started at Dow in 1967 as a pharmaceutical research chemist and then moved through the ranks as, director of marketing (1974), vice-president (1985), senior vice-president (1992), Chief Operating Officer (1993) and Chief Executive Officer (1995).  He remained a President and Chief Executive Officer at Dow until April 2006.

After I had conducted my research and cross referenced the information with other sources, a more accurate picture emerged.  The results of my research showed that approximately 280 Rihiotes arrived at Ellis Island between 1880 and 1924.  Overall, 96% of those arriving were males, as expected.  Based on marital status, 68% of the immigrants were single and 32% were married.  The majority of Rihiotes (69%) chose New York City and Long Island as their final destination, followed by Massachusetts (14%) and California (6%).  The remaining 11% settled in New Jersey, Florida, Illinois and other states.  Currently, the largest concentration of Rihiotes is still in New York State (primarily, Long Island), which also experienced a large influx of Rihiotes during the second wave of immigration that occurred after the end of World War II. 

Similar to other Greek immigrants that first arrived on this continent, the Rihiotes either worked side-by-side or near their fellow villagers so they could help each other out and also to maintain a social connection.  They would gather whenever they could and talk about their families and their village.  As the number of Rihiotes increased they met more regularly to interact socially and to help raise money to support the needs of their beloved village.  In 1902, a group of Rihiotes working in New York City collected the sum of $800 and used those funds to purchase a steeple clock for the Zoodohou Pigis Church in Rihia.  Around 1930, the Rihiotes funded the building of the Ayios Konstantinos and Ayia Eleni church located in the village cemetery.

In 1946 the first official organization of Rihiotes, the Society of Rihioton of America, was founded in Freeport (Long Island, New York) with Alexandros Belesis as president, Panagiotis Lagis as vice-president, Konstantinos Koulouris as treasurer, and Pantelis Lagis as secretary.  This Sylogos was formed as a social club, to help the members maintain their common roots and culture, as well as to financially support the needs of their village.  Sixty-six years have passed since it was first established and the Society of Rihioton of America (or Riheaton Society of America) is still going strong.  More than 90 families consider themselves members of the Sylogos.  The majority of the members reside in New York (Long Island) and smaller groups are scattered over five or six other states.  In 2005, the Sylogos welcomed members living in Montreal, Canada.  The Sylogos still retains their original objective to maintain their common roots and to be a philanthropic organization.  Many of its current members were born in Rihia and came over during the second wave of immigration.  Other members represent first to fourth generation American-born Rihiotes.  Many members visit the village regularly and especially enjoy spending the summer with other Rihiotes that long ago had immigrated to the United States, Canada and Australia.  During this reunion, childhood memories are remembered, friendships are renewed or created, and the latest generation is introduced for the first time to family members  living on different continents.  The Sylogos holds annual events, such as, a picnic at Saratoga Springs State Park in New York (with Rihiotes from Canada), Agiou Dimitriou and Christmas dances, to help maintain and extend our common bond.

Over 120 years have passed since the first wave of immigrants from Rihia arrived to the United States.  Approximately 280 individuals arrived at Ellis Island to fulfill their dream of working hard to support themselves and their families.  They initially found work doing menial jobs as blackboots, fruit vendors, or working in candy shops.  They worked long hours and lived frugally to save money, and in time many succeeded in owning their own businesses.  They started families and pushed their children to become educated.  Many of the first generation Rihiotes-Americans succeeded and became professionals and many others became successful businessmen.  Paul Sarbanes was a United States Senator for Maryland for 30 years, Dr. George Stavropoulos was Chairman and CEO of the DOW Chemical Corporation, Paul Couluris was a test pilot for Grumman Aerospace Corporation, to name a few.  Considerinattending g the small size of their ancestral place of birth, I believe that the offspring of the first wave immigrant Rihiotes did very well for themselves.  They succeeded in attaining, and in many cases, surpassing the American dream.  In addition, many first generation Rihiotes-Americans that are the offspring of second wave immigrants (Names) have continued the upward ladder of success with careers in medicine, law, finance and in many other fields.  We should not forget and the Richiotes immigrants who had high school diploma, while working attending College obtained advanced deegrees. (George Petroutsas Law, Theodore Kokoris Engineering, Stabroula Drivas Education……)     

It is important for all of us to know where we came from and to be aware of our roots.  We must keep the memories of those that preceded us alive and to acknowledge the sacrifices and decisions they made to attain a better life for their dependents.  In the words of the Greek poet George Seferis, “Those that do not acknowledge their heritage lose their memory and their name disappears from the book of history”.

The author, Dimitrios G. Kokoris, is an Aerospace Engineer that currently works for the Northrop Grumman Corporation.  He is also the president of the Riheaton Society of America.  He lives on Long Island with his wife Vivian who is an educator, and their daughters Eleni and Anna.