03 May 2010

"Ruthene Likes Life In America" -- a page from our past.

A century ago, the Chicago Daily Tribune published a series of articles on the travels of renowned anthropologist George A. Dorsey. This is one of his dispatches, published Sept. 1, 1910, from the Rusyn village of Volocz/Volovec, in Trans-Carpathia in modern-day Ukraine.

Volocz, Bereg, Hungary, Sept. 1 -- Only a country village. But as interesting as any community in the world to study what man had done and can do.

Volocz is a great deal like Tennyson’s little flower -- “if we knew it all, root and branch,” we would know much that we do not know. I have seen enough to make me willing to lay a small wager on the Ruthenes. One never knows what is in any people or in any man until opportunity knocks. Opportunity knocked here; and the man was ready.

It was all so unexpected. First, as we walked down into the village from the station we met a man I thought looked suspicious. I addressed him in English. Seemingly, he did not hear me, but walked on. I felt I must be right, so I went back and asked him to direct us to a restaurant. Without a word he led us to a little tavern kept by a genial Jew, and was about to leave us when I literally forced him to talk English. He knew little because he had not been in the United States long, bue he said he would take us to a man who could talk English.

At the lower end of the village, near a brook, stands a new house. Behind it is a barn, also new, and some small outbuildings equally new. We entered the house and got the young wife to show us her finery. She served out heaps of it, including old style fabrics of hand-woven linen, beautifully embroidered.

House Homelike and Clean.

The floor was wood and clean. A new bed was piled high with beautiful drawn work of lace ends. A broad painted bench extended around two sides of the room; in the corner thus formed was a big substantial table. Table and bench were painted with flower designs. The big oven had a metal top. The smoke is carried to a narrow middle room by a pipe, which opens into a wide, wattled flue, contractin toward the ceiling and containing cross bars, on which hams were smoking. Back of the main room is a storeroom. More big chests of clothing and many rough woolen garments on lines. Curious fur caps. Spindles, bits of looms, and much flax.

In the front room, we found some photographs of Ruthene bridal couples, taken in Passaic, N.J., and South Chicago. These people bore no resemblance to those about us. A peasant looks out of place in store clothes. Apparently, he feels out of place when he is having his photograph taken. He looks astonishingly awkward. The new clothes do not set comfortable. He looks better and probably feels much better in his white linen and big sheepskin coat.

Until now we had found no one spoke better English than the man we first met. The owner of the house entered. He looked like any other peasant until we looked him in the face. Then we saw the difference, especially between him and those who never had been out of their native village. There was nothing about his dress to indicate that he had ever been outside Volocz, for each piece of his costume was of native make and clean. He did not invite us to sit down. He did not offer us a glass of wine or an apple or a plum. I have come not to expect such marks of hospitality from Slavs. But we felt that we were welcome so we sat down on a chest, and he told us about things.

His Own House Builder.

First about his house and barn. He pointed out the spot on the mountain side where he got the timber, showed us the oxen that hauled the timbers down to the valley, the ax with which he had hewn the timbers and the saw with which he cut them. And he built the house and barn himself. The money saved abroad he used for the “fixings,” and to buy a wagon and a little more land.

We complimented him on the cleanness of his house. Apparently he was not conscious of it, for he remarked that he and his wife have little time to keep the house clean, especially at this time of the year when there is work for both of them in the fields.

“Didn’t you work hard in America?

“Yes, I worked too hard.”

“Did you work harder in America than you do here?”

“In America, I worked hard -- for money: here I work hard -- for nothing. There is no money here. Everything is dear -- eggs, chickens, bacon, meat, flour, salt, sugar, everything is dear. Taxes take too much money. Count Schoenborn owns all the land.”

We asked how it is that he knows so much more English than other men of Volocz who have been in America. He told us that he had been in the United States longer, had been thrown with Americans and had studied continually an English-Ruthene dictionary. He told us that he had a bicycle, but he sold it before coming back. Said he couldn’t afford to keep it here because it costs so much as a horse.

Inherits Acre and a Half.

Charley Hoden -- for that is the English of his unpronounceable Slav name -- worked for years in a South Chicago steel mill. You would not expect a man to learn much of the English language in that time, nor would you expect his horizon to be broadened greatly. Yet he was there long enough to learn to like it. He came home because his father died. He inherited one and one-half acres, married, built his house. He has a complete plant. I have no means of ascertaining his relative worth in the village, but he is one of the well to do men in town.

But he is not satisfied. Now, this is contrary to the books. Why should a man of this fine little mountain town, near the summit of the Carpathian mountains, with good water, pure air, and the friends of his youth about him, with a farm, for this community, of good size, with one of the best peasant houses in the village -- why should he want to go back to South Chicago? He says he is going, if only for two years.

“Would the lady like to go?”

She spoke for herself; she would.

“Take her? No, not this time. Maybe we will sell out everything and go over there for good.”

“How many hours a day to you work here?”

“O, we get up at 3 in the morning.”

“And what time do you go to bed?”

“At 9 o’clock.”

That makes eighteen hours’ work.

Misses Joy of Conquest.

There is just enough of certainty about Charley Hoden’s life as it is to deprive him of the joy of conquest, which the man has who does not know where he is going to get his next meal. Hoden misses that joy. He is not conscious of what he misses, but he is dissatisfied. He can work from 3 in the morning until 9 at night for the remainder of his mortal days and it is a thousand to one that he would not be able to transmit to his offspring a foot more land than he now owns. In South Chicago, he might get blown up, freeze to death, or meet with one of the thousand accidents likely to befall a work in the steel mills. But his work would furnish excitement.

When Hoden went to America he experienced the first crisis in his life. It upset all his habits. He wasn’t in America long enough to acquire new habits. But the crisis itself shook him from the old ones. When he got home, he hung up his American clothes in the storeroom, donned linen and moccasins, tried to take up the old life where he left off; improved it with a new house, stove, and rag carpet. But it is not enough.

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