These German immigrants lived in Fort Wayne after the turn of the century. (Photo courtesy of the Allen County Historical Museum)

Immigrants' toil built city's base

By NANCY NALL of The News-Sentinel

The way former Fort Wayne Mayor Ivan Lebamoff tells the story, his proud Macedonian family didn't climb into America's merchant class. They were booted into it.

His father, John, was carrying sand in Ross Foundry, a common entry-level job for the eager and unskilled immigrants who were finding their way to Fort Wayne in the century's first decade. At 18, he'd been doing the work of a man for five years, after leaving Macedonia in 1905 in the wake of a failed insurrection against the occupying Turks. One day, he failed to understand a German boss's command.

"And the boss actually kicked him in the butt for it," Lebamoff recalls today. "He said, `That's what the Turks did to me. I didn't take it from them, and I'm not taking it from him.' "

He took his pride, instead, to Mendel Frank, who was looking to get out of the grocery business. Frank taught John Lebamoff the business and sold him the store that became the Liberty Grocery, at the corner of Clinton and Packard streets.

The store was so named, his son recalls, because his fiercely patriotic father liked Patrick Henry's thinking: "Give me liberty or give me death."

America delivered the first part, abundantly. Like millions of immigrants who came to this country in the "third wave" around the turn of the century, Lebamoff found a comfortable home and unimagined good fortune in Allen County.

Macedonians made their mark as merchants and restaurateurs, work that required long hours, a willingness to make sacrifices and a shrewdness for business. "They didn't have the skills to work 8 to 5," Lebamoff said. "But they could cook, and they could add and subtract." Staunch Democrats, they believed their children would do better than they had, and knew the way to make sure of it — education.

"You can find Macedonian names now throughout the professional community, as school principals, wherever they saw a chance to get ahead," he said. "People used to ask my father why he was sending his daughter to college, when she'd probably just marry and raise a family. He told them, `Because if she has an education, no one can take it away from her.' "

That thinking wasn't exclusive to Macedonians. By 1900, Germans who had poured into Allen County throughout the previous century were well-established at every level of society and were without question the dominant European culture here, said Clifford Scott, assistant professor of history at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

"To be a member of St. Paul's (Lutheran) Church then was to really rule the roost in Fort Wayne," Scott said.

But Germans dominated more than the Lutheran Church. Three German Catholic congregations thrived here before there was a single Irish one. Bilingual German-Americans, Scott said, "maintained a separate identity" in their adopted country by patronizing German stores, living in German neighborhoods and reading a German newspaper. Their church services, needless to say, were in the mother tongue, too.

Germans dissatisfied with the religion being taught in the public schools founded the city's Lutheran school system. Public life bent to their will, too. A debate over whether the city's parks should host Sunday softball leagues was fired by Germans' strict observance of the Sabbath.

Their rapid ascent in society accentuated a certain natural pridefulness, Scott said. "I think Germans then would have considered themselves separate but more than equal," Scott said. "Different from other Americans and — if you asked a Lutheran — better."

Assimilationist feelings didn't really emerge until World War I, when German culture retreated behind closed doors and anti-German sentiment led to a ban on the language in most places. "A lot of the Lutheran ministers had difficulty with that," Scott said. "They couldn't express certain ideas in English."

Irish immigrants poured into the United States and Allen County in the 19th century, the first wave having come in the 1830s — dirt-poor laborers recruited to dig the canals stretching through the countryside, along with more well-to-do Irish Presbyterians such as Hugh McCullough, said Tom Logan, a local attorney who has researched the subject. The next influx came because of the potato famine a decade or so later.

But the largest influx came after the Civil War, when land reforms in Ireland reinstituted the system of primogeniture, in which only the eldest son could inherit family land. That created a huge class of subsequent children who entered the priesthood, went to sea or, in far larger numbers, immigrated to the United States.

Logan's grandmother came in this wave, a teen-ager contracted to work as a domestic servant for a well-to-do Fort Wayne family.

"This last group was overwhelmingly female, by 3 to 1," he said. "Many were educated and had high aspirations. It was these women who brought sophistication to the Irish family."

By 1900, Fort Wayne was host to a large group of them who, while not as immediately successful as the Germans, still managed to struggle into the middle class in large numbers. The Presbyterians, also known as Scotch Irish, were more likely to be better off and identify themselves as Americans, Logan said. But the Catholic Irish had greater numbers and eventually "captured the American Catholic Church."

Prejudice against the sons and daughters of Erin was not as pronounced here as elsewhere in the country, he said, but noted that society was still jarred when a scion of the Berghoff brewing family "went off to medical school in Wisconsin and came home with a bride named Rita Rose O'Leary," Logan said. "Germans and Irish didn't intermarry then."

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