On August 8, 1953 my maternal grandmother, Marija Babarovich died in Anacortes, Washington at age 90. It was the year of my high school graduation at Anacortes. She was born September 21, 1863 in Splitska, Brac, Croatia. She was a woman of great courage, faith and personal sacrifice. Her husband, my grandfather, Peter, had died the year I was born in 1935 at Anacortes. He was born in 1861.
I remember her vividly. A tall, erect woman with hair piled high on her head, she looked regal. She could speak little English and none of my sisters or myself could speak our maternal grandparents in the Italian language of my immigrant father or the Yugoslavian language of my mother’s immigrant parents. That’s because our father believed we should all speak English since we were Americans. Our talk with grandparents was largely through interpreter’s – our parents – and non verbal communication. She was a religious woman who frequented the nearby Catholic church. What I do clearly remember was she had a habit of saying to me, in broken English, when we left: “Be a good boy,” advice I should have taken more to heart in my youth.
The story starts with three brothers living in Austria-Hungry on the island of Brac’ off the coast of Split in what is now Croatia, John, Peter and Spiro and their sisters Katherine, Mary, Anna and Thelma. They lived on the Island of Brac’ near the village of Spliska. Grandmother – “Nonna” – was married to Peter. The family operated a vineyard and made wine and olive oil which they sold to support themselves. It was the oldest boy, John, who led the way to America. He was anxious to travel to America after he had served Austria-Hungary Navy for four years. Finally, in 1879 John’s father gave him the money for the ticket and John left home to go to America. At first he wrote home, but then nothing was heard from him for about ten years. One day a wine buyer came to the family farm on Brac’ and asked if they had a relative living in America because he had met someone with the same name in Seattle. John’s parents got the address and Peter wrote his brother in America. A few months later John wrote back sending money for tickets for a steamer to America. Spiro’s oldest boy, Ernie, and John’s brother, Peter, my grandfather, traveled to America to where John was located in the Anacortes area. The following year their wives and children took an ocean liner in steerage to America and after clearing immigration continued by train across the United States.
The group with the children finally ended the trip in Burlington, Washington. My grandmother said she remembered that it was night time and they were cold. There was a station master on duty. They could speak no English so Nonna signaled they were cold by opening and closing the door to the pot bellied stove. The station master showed them where the kindling and coal was kept and they made a fire. The children were thirsty and their mothers got them water by going outside to a pump and well where they brought water in by bucket. They spent the night inside station house waiting to be picked up. The next day Peter’s brother, John, arrived with team of horses and a wagon. All the trunks and the people were loaded aboard the wagon and pulled by horses. The set off for Anacortes on a bumpy, rough twenty plus mile trip. When they arrived at the logging and fishing town of Anacortes with its sawmills and canneries they found a main street that was an unpaved mud hole with pigs and chickens running loose. Nonna had left a comfortable farm home and said to John, “Is this where we are going to live?” “No,” he said, “we are going to Sinclair Island.” They spent the night in Anacortes and the next morning everyone was loaded along with their trunks on the boat which delivered mail to the Islands. They finally arrived at the homestead the brothers had started on Sinclair Island.
After settling in for a few days, Nonna asked “Where’s the school?” She was told they had none. “So, where’s the church?” she asked. There is no church either. Nonna was unhappy about no school and no church. After several months, feeling the pressure, John donated two acres of land for a school house. He arranged to hire a school teacher to teach the children. The families settled in to homesteading their farm in this primitive setting. Nonna was pregnant with a son they named John who was born on the island in 1903. But, he arrived unexpectedly while people were away. My grandfather was the only one there to help with the delivery. My grandmother cut the cord. This was a place where everything was primitive and done by yourself and on your own.
In 1904 my grandparents decided to move to Anacortes. There was no boat large enough for their belongings and the family to take them, so Nonno borrowed a scow from Ernest Kasch in Anacortes. Nonna made a sail out of an old bed sheets and Nonno set up a mast for the sails. He created a rudder and then loaded all their belongings and the whole family on board. He was an excellent seaman and waited for the right tide before leaving the island on this makeshift barge. They sailed around Cypress and Guemes Islands and right to the dock at Anacortes. Once there, they rented a house and moved everything in. They found a rental house and moved in. Mother was born in Anacortes, the youngest of eight children, and attended grade school to the 6th grade until she had to quit and help with the family. Nonno was a commercial fisherman and cannery worker.
His brother Spiro was born in 1863 and died in Anacortes in 1926. He and his wife had six children. The third brother, John, stayed on Sinclair Island after his brothers left for Anacortes. Later he moved to Anacortes where he was a commercial salmon fisherman and built salmon fishing boats for others. . His boat, Uncle John, was the first powered fishing boat in the San Juans. John was a successful man and never married. He was born March 1, 1855 and died September 15, 1915. He was well known and very respected. In fact, his tombstone at the Anacortes cemetery reads “Known among men as honest John.”
An extraordinary immigrant family and a very extraordinary woman, my grandmother. May God rest her soul in peace.