Monday, January 20, 2014

How did our Yiayias and Papous end up in and around Stockton?

Our forefathers came from Greece at the turn of the 20th Century to escape economic and/or political hardship, sometimes with the proverbial clothes on their backs and all the money their families could scrape up in their pockets. We often forget that Northern Greece, for example, was still part of the Ottoman Empire until World War I. Think about it.

Greek immigrants settled in many parts of the U.S.A., usually following family members and/or people from their village. Why, you might ask, did our yiayias and papous gravitate to the Stockton area?

A 1915 advertisement placed in Sunset Magazine by the San Joaquin County Chamber of Commerce was entitled: "How Far is it from San Francisco to the Heart of San Joaquin County?" It was 2 hours and 36 minutes away by train. The ad went on to extol The Delta as "the most productive land in America"..."Here one may see the most highly developed of orchards, alfalfa farms, truck gardens, poultry farms, stock ranches, grain ranches, etc."..."This county is wide-awake, progressive, and prosperous."  Business leaders from Stockton, Tracy, Manteca, Ripon and Escalon signed off on the message.

And there you have it.  My papou George Sarris had many of those things right in his own backyard on Alpine Street: vegetable/fruit garden, grape arbor, and poultry/rabbits (then somewhat problemmatic for a little girl who often refused to eat her "pets"). There was an ingrained quality of self-sufficiency that I did not fully understand until living in Greece some years after Papou had passed away. Many of his peers were equally industrious. Mr. Hlebakos even made his own retsina, which I also came to appreciate much more while living in Greece..
Greeks may have come to the San Joaquin Valley because it seemed like home, but they did not always become farmers.  Around 1920, Bill Demakopoulos opened his Palace Candy Store and Fountain/Restaurant along with his wife Sophia (Papou Sarris' sister). It was located on Main Street near the Fox Theater. My Papou was the cook/candy maker, and my Yiayia boxed bon-bons.  I am still in search of photos to stoke dreamy memories of my grandparents, hand-made chocolates (think See's Candies, started around the same time!) and special lunches with my Mom.

By 1927, there were at least 15 food-type businesses owned by Greeks in Stockton alone (Galanos, Spanos Brothers, Sperry, Trachiotis, Bobotas, to name a few Greek pioneers) -- a fact verified by the 1927 Stockton City Directory which can be found on the second floor of the Cesar Chavez Central Public Library on El Dorado Street.  The directories are a veritable gold-mine of information, but just one piece of the Stockton Area Greek-American puzzle. The Stockton Record is there on micro-fiche -- and chronicles not only the comings and goings of our families, but also their many contributions to San Joaquin County.

About 100 years and counting -- many things have changed, but others have stayed the same. Stay tuned.

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