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.

I remember her vividly. A tall, erect woman with hair piled high on her head, she looked regal. She could speak little English and neither of my two sisters or I could speak the Yugoslavian language or, for that matter, the Italian language of  our father’s parents – all of whom were  immigrants. That’s because our father believed we should all speak English since we were Americans now. Our talk with grandparents was largely through interpreter’s:  our parents – and by  non verbal communication of gestures. My grandmother was a religious woman who frequented the nearby Catholic church and who had a rosary handy most of the time. What I do clearly remember was she had a habit of saying to me in broken English, after we visited her and were leaving:  “Now you be a good boy,” advice I should have taken more to heart in my youth.

This immigrant  story starts with my grandfather Peter Babarovich  and his two brothers John & Spiro who were living in Austria-Hungry on the island of Brac’ off the coast of Split in what is now Croatia They lived their with their  sisters Katherine, Mary, Anna and Thelma. Their home on Brac’ was near the village of Splitska. My grandfather Peter was born April 12, 1861 on the island. My grandmother Marija Vulic also lived there. She married Peter on Brac in 1888. The family operated a vineyard and made wine and olive oil which they sold to support themselves. It was the oldest brother, 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 several years. One day a wine buyer came to the family farm on Brac’ and  while conducting business asked if they had a relative living in America because he had met someone with the same name in Seattle. He was able to give them an address and they wrote to their brother John.. A few months later a letter from John arrived and he sent money for tickets for a steamer to America. Spiro’s oldest boy Ernie, and Peter, my grandfather, decided to travel to America leaving in 1901. John had relocated to Sinclair Island where he was homesteading and they followed him there. 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 up at the train depot vin 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  showing him her  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 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. There Peter met his wife. They had eight children: Mary (my mother) , Anna, Tomassina, (Thelma) Ernest, Jacqueline (Clara), John, Nikola & Catherine

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 of complaining, John donated two acres of land to be used for a school house and 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 at the time had 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.  The lack of a church and the primitive conditions were hard with all the children they had. However, there was no boat large enough for their belongings and the family available. 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 and wind before leaving the island on this makeshift barge. They sailed around Cypress and Guemes Islands and were able to land at the dock in Anacortes. They found a rental house and moved in. 

Many of the children in the family ended up living in Anacortes as did the brothers. Nonno’s 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 Juan’s.  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.”

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.  I remember their house in Anacortes on 7th street near the old Opera House. It was a long, two story rectangular house with a large vegetable garden next to with. There were chickens too. At the street end was pallor for entertaining guests and wasn’t used otherwise. On the other end was an enormous kitchen and table for eating and socializing. Upstairs and downstairs the length of the house were bed rooms for family and they took in borders as well. 

I marvel at their courage, had work and determination. The Babarovich family endured all three in coming to America and surviving as they did. I am awed by this extraordinary woman, my grandmother.  May God rest her soul in peace.

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