SOUTHERN SLAVS IN UTAH
Miners, including Southern Slavs, at Scofield
Southern Slavs, comprising Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, formed another aspect
of the "new" immigration that arrived in Utah in the late nineteenth
and early twentieth centuries. As with other southern and eastern European
groups, South Slavs were drawn to Utah for its mining and railroading opportunities.
The first wave arrived in the late 1890s, congregating in the coal-mining
regions of southeastern Utah, particularly Carbon County. These peoples,
labeled as "Austrians," were a significant force in the Carbon
County coal mines in the 1903-04 strike. Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs came
from Austria-Hungary, from the provinces of Croatia-Slavonia, Carniola,
Dalmatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. They generally came from farming villages
that were homogenous in their particular culture, language, and religion.
Serbs were Serbian Orthodox, while Slovenes and Croats were Roman Catholic.
Slavic immigration into Utah was but one manifestation of a general Southern
Slav population movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
First attracted to the East and Midwest, many Southern Slavs left communities
there to seek greater opportunities in the American West, including Utah.
In addition to Carbon County, these immigrants traveled to Ogden, working
for the Union Pacific Railroad, and to the mines of Bingham Canyon, Alta,
and Park City, as well as to the smelters of the Salt Lake Valley. A second
wave came to Utah in the period prior to World War I. A pattern of migration
developed between the mining areas of Utah, Colorado, Montana, and Nevada.
The flow was based upon the seasonal demand for coal, causing men to migrate
to metal-mining areas when coal mines experienced a slowdown.
As families were formed, many made the decision to stay in the area. Institutions
were solidified or formed to help deal with a new environment; they included
the idea of godfatherhood and the extended family, while fraternal organizations
and boardinghouse life also created bonds. The extended family proved of
particular importance, providing a needed sense of security. The clustering
of these groups was evident in Utah, particularly among the Serbs and Croats
in Bingham Canyon and Midvale, and among the Slovenes in Carbon County.
The metal-mining community of Highland Boy attracted southern Slav miners
and became an area of settlement for various extended families. By 1908
more than half of the town's population was comprised of Serbs and Croats,
who held "old world" grudges and hatreds against each other. The
situation became especially exacerbated because they were living in close
proximity without the benefit of other immigrant groups present to lessen
the tension, which began to wane after World War I. Joe Melich, owner of
the Serb Mercantile Company, became an ardent spokesman for the Serbs in
Bingham Canyon. In 1920 he was elected president of the Serb National Federation.
The community of Highland Boy proved significant in that it contained a
large number of Southern Slavs, outnumbering other groups, and the area
remained a fertile ground for inter-group strife.
Midvale, with its American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO), attracted
numerous Slavs. Young single men came to work in the smelter and lived in
boardinghouses or with married southern Slavic couples. Women especially
bore the burden of caring for these boarders. While necessary, both landlords
and boarders viewed this as only a temporary condition. Industrial life
caused a change in old-world institutions such as the saloon. In Midvale,
the Slavic saloon often operated on a day-long basis instead of with an
emphasis on evening hours as in the old country. Also, such places functioned
as havens from the unfamiliar world. Within their confines, discussions
could take place and decisions made in a familiar environment.
One development of these encounters was the creation of social and fraternal
organizations. In 1908 the Croats of Midvale affiliated with the Croatian
Fraternal Union. The Serbs organized an independent organization called
the Serbian Benevolent Society, which eventually affiliated with the Serb
National Federation of Pittsburgh. Among other things, these associations
provided needed life insurance to immigrants. Unlike the saloon, they functioned
in a formal way and carried with them the respectability of the national
organization. Leaders grew from the ranks: John Dunoskovich in the Croatian
community, and George Lemich among the Serbs.
Religious life also adjusted to existent conditions. Croats, being Catholic,
utilized various Catholic churches throughout the valley. In 1918 Ykov J.
Odzich, a Serbian Orthodox priest, arrived in Midvale to tend to the needs
of the Serbs; but through a series of unfortunate events his tenure did
not last. However, the celebration of Christmas and Easter were important
holidays among the South Slavs in Midvale, as elsewhere. The barbecued Easter
lamb continued as an important cultural symbol.
Midvale held a central significance to southern Slavic settlement in Utah.
It served as a place for both the arrival and dispersion of many Southern
Slavs who immigrated to northern Utah. Carbon County was also important.
Helper, a division point on the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad's
main line, became a primary area of Slavic settlement. Work on the railroads
brought Serbs, Slovenes, and Croats to southeastern Utah in the late 1890s.
As the years progressed, the need for unskilled labor increased. By 1914
more than 500 Slav miners lived in the coal camps of Clear Creek, Winter
Quarters, Sunnyside, and Castle Gate. Others settled into farming.
Helper grew as a town of immigrants; thus, business opportunities there
were greater for Southern Slavs as well as for other nationalities. For
example, the Mutual Mercantile Company was a joint venture of several partners,
including J.P. Rolando, an Italian, and John Skerl, a Slovene. Fraternal
and social organizations also rose to prominence. In 1904 the Slovenska
Narodna Podporna Jednota (Slovene National Benefit Society) was created
in Cleveland, Ohio, and soon local lodges were founded in Carbon County
as well as in Bingham Canyon and Murray. This group served Slovenian workers.
In the post-World War I period a large number of Slovenes came to Carbon
County to join relatives. In addition, sizable numbers of Slovenes and Croats
immigrated to Helper from the coal regions of southeastern Colorado.
Political and labor union involvement cut across intergroup lines. Southern
Slav involvement in the strikes of 1903, 1922, and especially in 1933 proved
significant. In 1933 Slavs were the main supporters of the National Miners
Union strike that eventually led to the recognition of the United Mine Workers
of America. The strike heightened awareness of the role of unionization,
with Slavic women also taking an active part in the event.
The restrictive immigration legislation of the 1920s curtailed Southern
Slavic immigration into Utah. However, the adaptation and accommodation
of Southern Slavs to their conditions in Utah have been and continue to
be dynamic. As has been the case with other immigrants, institutions often
have been changed in form, but the values expressed continue to be basically
the same. Since the early 1950s the Croats and Slovenes of Helper have supported
the Slovenian National Home, a means to substitute a more useful and responsive
community center for the local lodge. They have also established a yearly
local folk foods festival, celebrating ethnic foods as well as dance, music,
See: Claire Noall, "Serbian-Austrian Christmas at Highland Boy,"
Utah Historical Quarterly 33 (1965); Joseph Stipanovich, The South
Slavs in Utah: A Social History (1975); Joseph Stipanovich, "South
Slav Settlements in Utah," Utah Historical Quarterly 43 (1975);
and Joseph Stipanovich, "Falcons in Flight: The Yugoslavs," in
Helen Zeese Papanikolas, ed., The People of Utah (1976).
Philip F. Notarianni