Eastern European immigrants come to work in steel mills, form tight-knit communities

Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a monthly series on the history of ethnic and religious groups in our area.

Richard Burkert said that on his first visit to his family’s ancestral Slovenian village, the bartender who greeted him just happened to have the same family name.

“It turns out that the whole town is like three families,” Burkert said,

with a laugh.

Burkert, president of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, has made several return trips since that first 1970s visit, and he said he’s been able to watch the village really modernize itself after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

The area now is gorgeous, and the amenities are just as modern as one would see here in the United States – even though just a few decades earlier, they were plowing fields with oxen. He said he frequently swaps emails with a distant cousin.

“It was far more than I ever expected,” Burkert said.

Drawn to the steel mills

People of Eastern European descent are common in Cambria County. According to Census data, 10 percent of residents identified as Polish and an additional 5.6 percent identified as Slovak. The number of Poles is on par with those claiming Irish and Italian heritage, which are only beaten by those identifying as German, 27.7 percent.

Compare that to Blair County, where only 3 percent of residents claim some kind of Polish ancestry, according to Census data.

Many of those immigrants are centered in Johnstown, though there are some fringe groups farther east, said Kathy Jones, curator for the Cambria County Historical Society, which is based in Ebensburg.

“There is very little of that up in this area,” Jones said.

Burkert said it was the steel mills that drew these immigrants farther west in the state than the railroads in Altoona, as the rail lines sought more skilled workers than the mills.

“I think one of the things that’s different between Altoona and Johnstown is that you really did have heavy Slavic immigration here, whereas in Altoona, you had more of the older, particularly German and Irish, groups,” he said.

Burkert said that there was a significant population boom in east-central Europe in the 19th century, which led to a number of men making the journey to the United States in hopes of supporting their families back home.

The intention, he said, was to return home and purchase land or needed amenities after a few years of work, but only about a third of these immigrants actually followed through with that plan.

“At least you have the opportunity to make money in the U.S.,” he said. “About two-thirds ended up bring a wife over, a family.”

According to the Library of Congress, the 1880s saw a significant land shortage throughout much of the Russian Empire, which at that time included Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians and Belarusians. Though the Russian government barred ethnic Russians from leaving the country, people from these other nations came to the United States, though in small batches due to the hazardous trip. By 1910, only 65,000 immigrants from this region had made the journey.

This changed after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, according to the Library of Congress. As the Soviet Union was born, millions of people fled from Russia, with more than 30,000 coming to our shores.

World War I also made the conditions for returning home less-than-ideal, Burkert said.

“Particularly after World War I, in many places there wasn’t a whole lot to go back to,” he said. “This became their home.”

Forming communities

Much like other immigrant groups prior to World War II, the Slavic immigrants formed tight-knit communities of their own and carved out a niche.

Connecting with other immigrants from the same regions helped form more of an ethnic identity, Burkert said.

“A lot of them had regional or village identities,” he said. “They realized, ‘Oh, I’m Ukrainian or I’m Polish or I’m Slovak,’ instead of whatever the regional identities may have been.”

The Slavic heritage is particularly well-preserved. These people were among the most recent immigrants to the region, and they have had less time for their cultural traits to be diluted by other groups, he said.

The touch of these groups can be seen most starkly in the Cambria City region of Johnstown, Burkert said.

In that part of town, towering spires of churches and beautiful architecture still hearkens back to the homelands of the people that formed it. These buildings became hubs for each of these disparate groups to help them feel more at home, he said.

“This was almost a separate city,” Burkert said. “Here and there were still Germans and Irish, but this was really from east-central Europe. All the different Slavic nationalities were here, and most built their own churches.”

As these communities grew, he said, the immigrants became more than Slovaks or Poles or Ukrainians, but were “hyphen Americans.”

Post-World War II saw more opportunities for integration between these different communities, and the second- and third-generation people were able to find jobs in larger areas as lawyers, doctors or politicians.

But they still maintained ties to the heritage that bore them, he said.

“Western Pa. hasn’t really gotten the new immigrants to the extent that these folks have retained their culture and are interested in it,” Burkert said.

Maintaining the heritage

Churches, social clubs and benefit societies all help keep people connected to their lineage, said Burkert, and these groups do exist for the Slavs outside of the confines of Cambria City.

For the eastern Europeans over the county line, there is the small, but growing, congregation at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Polish National Catholic Church in Lilly.

The church, formed about 20 years ago, hosts an annual Polish picnic in late summer to celebrate traditional entertainment and dishes like haluski and pierogies. Volunteers for the parish also travel to other events in the region to share these foods and meet people.

A similar event, Polkafest, is held each year in downtown Johnstown and promotes those familiar songs and the tasty treats.

The St. Stanislausa Kostka Brotherhood, located at 1901 16th Ave. in Altoona and which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary, also offers pierogie sales and other Polish-themed events as part of the ongoing entertainment schedule.

In Cambria City, many of the old churches no longer serve their intended function, and many of the congregations were merged in 2009 by the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.

St. Rochus Croatian Catholic Church, for instance, was closed. Its parish was first organized in the 1890s, and the building was built in 1902.

Resurrection Catholic Church has absorbed some of these other parishes, and was originally founded as a Slovak group as St. Stephen’s Slovak Catholic Church in 1891. It was renamed in 2009 and merged five different groups of people.

Holy Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church, which is still in operation, conducted services only in Slovak from its founding in 1914 until 1938, when English was also included.

Burkert said an effort to maintain the historic value of these buildings has been undertaken, and some of them are being converted into new uses. JAHA offers a “walking tour” of Cambria City on its website that encourages people to visit all of these buildings.

JAHA has also recently gotten involved in the inaugural Johnstown Simply Slavic Festival, which will be held this weekend. The event will feature traditional dancing, food and a number of speakers who will discuss the impact of these groups on the local region.

“It’s something that people won’t get a chance to see very often any more,” Burkert said. “This is the first time in a while that anybody has tried to really do something that brings together these groups that are really preserving the heritage.”

A complete list of the programming for the festival is available at its website, www.johnstownslavicfestival.org. The event, which will be held in the parking lot and courtyard of JAHA’s Heritage Discovery Center, is free to attend.

Mirror Staff Writer Paige Minemyer is at 946-7466.