Both my father and mother came from Macedonia, which today is Aegean Macedonia, or northern Greece. My father, Argire Vasil Lebamoff, was born in 1892 in Visheni, part of the Kostur district. According to legend, the village name was derived from "Baba Visha," a highly respected midwife for the Christian wives of the ruling Turkish lords.
My father's parents were Maria Stumboff and Vasil George Lebamoff of Visheni. Vasil was one of three children of George Dimitri Lebamoff, for whom I was named. My father told us stories about his childhood, going to school under the yoke of the Sultan of Turkey, because the Turks ruled Macedonia for centuries.
In 1903 tragedy happened to many Macedonians, especially in my father's family. On the August 2 feast day of St. Ilia, Macedonian peasant insurgents in several towns and villages began battling the Turks in what became known as the "Ilinden Insurrection." His grandfather George and mother, Maria, were at the village water fountain, located on their property. Across the street, their neighbor Tipo Tsuleff (whose granddaughter I would marry some fifty years later) was meeting with other revolutionaries in his home, their rifles placed against a window. When Turkish soldiers passing through town stopped to drink at the fountain, they noticed the glare from the rifles in Tipo's house and immediately began firing at both rebels and villagers. Several Macedonians were killed, including Tipo, as well as my great grandfather George and my grandmother, Baba Maria, who died in my father's arms. He was eleven years old at the time. The Turks also set fire to Macedonian houses and destroyed much of the village's livestock. The peasant revolt was a failure.
My father then lived with relatives and various neighbors until 1907. His brother Atanas (Thomas) was not in Visheni at the time of the Ilinden insurrection, but was with other Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) rebels near Istanbul fighting Turkish soldiers. Founded in 1893 for the political autonomy of Macedonia, IMRO was an aggressive underground movement even after Ilinden. Tom was arrested for bombing an Istanbul bank and sentenced to prison.
On his release a few years later, some of the old-timers in the village told my father, "Tomorrow your brother will probably be coming across the Vicho Planina mountain." My father, who was about twelve years old by then, waited at the bottom of the mountain and suddenly saw a figure coming toward him. He ran and ran to Uncle Tom. He was warned of bears and wolves in the mountains. "Don't go!" But my father just kept running to meet his brother.
At age fifteen, my father traveled nearly seven miles to the county seat of Kastoria, where a Jewish merchant loaned him money to buy transit to the United States. He came third class on the French liner Lorraine, with a Turkish passport and name, Sultani Argeris. The ship arrived at Ellis Island on April 28, 1907.
My father always commented that his village of Visheni was in a beautiful, magnificent area. "Do you think we came to America because the water was cleaner or the mountains more beautiful?" he would ask. "We came to America for one reason. We came for freedom."
At Ellis Island newly arrived immigrants were required to run up a flight of stairs, met at the top by a nurse and doctor. Any person showing physical weakness might be sent back to Europe. After passing the test, my father was greeted by his brother Thomas, who had immigrated in 1905 and settled in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
The city was primarily Catholic and German Lutheran, with smaller Polish, Italian, and Macedonian neighborhoods. The immigrants probably came to Fort Wayne because of its industry; they didn't need much education or to know the language well in order to do manual labor.
Some Visheni Macedonians immigrating to the United States at that time settled in Lansing, Michigan, to work at the Buick factory, or in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hired in the auto and beer industries. Even today there are many Macedonian-Americans in the Lansing and Milwaukee areas, as well as in Fort Wayne. Most of those immigrants became Democrats because they wanted to vote for democracy. Maybe they were instructed that being a Republican meant voting for a kingdom.
My father and Uncle Tom, after meeting at Ellis Island, worked for six months at an ice-cream plant in Steelton, Pennsylvania, to earn their train fare to Fort Wayne. Once there, my father found work at the Bass Foundry, a manufacturer of train wheels. Knowing only a few English words and phrases, he was befriended by his German-speaking boss.
One day the German sent my father to the other end of the plant for dirt to mix with steel for the wheels. By the time he reached that part of the plant, he forgot what he was to say in English to the worker, who angrily kicked my father in the tailbone. When the boss found out what had happened, he told the worker, "If you ever touch this boy again, I'll kill you." The kick caused a permanent welt on my father's tailbone; it never healed properly. Fortunately, a few years later, the United States Congress passed the Cox law prohibiting any employer from inflicting physical harm on an employee.
While working at Bass Foundry, my father lived with an elderly German woman. In exchange for low rent, he did household chores, kept coal in the furnace, shoveled snow, cut the grass, tended the garden, shopped at the nearby grocery and dry goods store, on the corner of Hanna and Hayden.
He and his brother became friends with the Jewish owner of the store, Mendel Frank, and my father began doing chores for him, as well. After a few years, Mr. Frank asked my father and his brother how much money they had saved, and they told him. "That's enough," he said. "I'm going to sell you my business."
He arranged the sale for a certain hour on a certain day. Every thirty days after that, Mendel Frank would come to the store, look at his watch, walk up and down the sidewalk until the minute the payment was due. Then my father and Uncle Tom would give him an envelope with the money.
Many of the store's customers had charge accounts. Mendel Frank talked about having a can of fruit or vegetables on the counter and adding it along with the customer's groceries to the account. If the person later said he was charged for an item he didn't receive, Mr. Frank would correct the bill. "I sold this can of peaches thousands of times over thirty-five years. That's how I made extra money." He did the same thing with a broom standing near the cash register. But both my father and uncle said they wouldn't continue that practice. "If we got caught, we'd end up in jail or sent back to the old country." The brothers operated V. Lebamoff Brothers grocery for thirteen years. They had such love for each other. Even though by then Tom had a wife and three children and my dad was a bachelor, they split the profits equally.
On behalf of their Macedonian homeland, the brothers helped establish a national organization of Macedonian immigrants in the United States and Canada. The Macedonian Patriotic Organization (MPO) was founded in Fort Wayne in 1922. Ten years earlier, during the Balkan Wars, the country had won independence from Turkey but in 1913 was partitioned between Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia is no longer recognized as a separate country. Through this new organization, members in the United States and Canada supported the goal of an independent, united Macedonia. They held annual MPO conventions and published a weekly newspaper, the Macedonian Tribune. Soon the organization had 7,000 members, including a number of my relatives. Eventually my father and Uncle Tom decided to separate and begin their own businesses. "In fifteen minutes," my father said, "he gave me my money, he took his money." Tom opened a grocery at Weisser Park and Pontiac Street. Even then they talked together every day about their families and often about the MPO and the political situation in Macedonia.
My father bought a piece of property at 3230 Piqua Avenue (now South Clinton) and built his store there, which he named Liberty Grocery. Then he returned to his homeland to meet and marry my mother, Elena (Helen) Kachandonov, who was from the nearby village of Blatsa. She had two sisters, Dina and Vicha, and one brother, Risto.
My mother told us that her village had no church. "What do I know about religion?" she would say. "I know there's a God; I know there's a Jesus Christ, but that's all I know. Every year during Holy Week the priest would come on a donkey to our village to hear confessions, forgive our sins, and give communion. That was the extent of our religion." I don't know how my parents' marriage was arranged, because my mother was only six or seven years old when my father left Macedonia. The Stumboff family of my grandmother Maria lived in Blatsa, so she must have known the Lebamoffs and was probably involved in the match. They were married in Bulgaria because at the age of fifteen he had left Macedonia as a subject of the Sultan. My mother was smuggled out of Blatsa to the Bulgarian border, where my father was waiting. They were married in Plovdiv, then after a short honeymoon in Bulgaria sailed for the United States.
In Fort Wayne, my parents lived upstairs in the Liberty Grocery building. Their four children were born in the apartment, Marie Ann in 1925, George Argire in 1927, Ivan Argire in 1932, and Klement Argire in 1939.
In 1931, six years after opening Liberty Grocery, my father applied at Lincoln Bank for a $1,000 loan toward his nearly $4,000 expense to modernize and enlarge the store. "Mr. Lebamoff," the banker told my father, "I've refused millionaires today who wanted loans. On your integrity and your reputation, I'll loan you the $1,000." Then he turned to the head cashier and told him to arrange the loan. With the remodeling, the grocery line was expanded to fresh fruits and vegetables, baked goods, and a refrigerated display case in the meat section.
Soon after re-opening, however, the business was seriously affected by the Depression. Times were harsh, but my father allowed some customers to do odd jobs to barter for food. Elmer Smith, the Wayne Township trustee, sent needy people to buy groceries from my father instead of the A&P or another of the big stores. That helped in the early years of the Depression, and he always appreciated Elmer's help. But even then, my father considered those individuals as customers, not charity cases. And he stayed confident that the business would become successful again.
Liberty Grocery was closed on Sundays, although he was generally willing
to help customers with special needs. Only on Christmas, New Year's, and
Easter would he refuse to open the store. He had a strong work ethic, but
he had strong religious values, too. Nearly every Sunday, I would sit in
his lap in a loung chair and listen as he taught me songs about Bulgaria.
We sang Zhi fe to zhe fe, O Miko Mila, Shuma Maritza,
and Ez gray z Ra Na Svobodata. None of the Macedonian families in
Fort Wayne accepted welfare, because they were ashamed of it. They would
volunteer to work for food, and if they couldn't afford to eat for three
or four days, they didn't eat. It was a struggle, but the would write home
once or twice a year telling relatives or neighbors to come to America,
"You can stay at our house, you can get a job here." The first Macedonians
here made it easier for those who came later.
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