TERRE HAUTE —
It may be a little hard to imagine, but — thanks largely to immigrants — Terre Haute was growing at an astonishing rate 100 years ago.
From 1900 to 1920, the population of Vigo County nearly doubled from 62,000 to 100,000.
“This was just like a western boom town,” said John Daniel, whose ancestors came from Italy and Wales in the first years of the 20th century. They were among the thousands of immigrants to settle in the Terre Haute area a century ago. A quick look at Terre Haute City Directories from the early 1900s shows plenty of ethnic diversity. The directories show listings for the Polish National Alliance, the Hungarian Workingmen’s Sick and Death Benevolent Society, the Germania Society and the Hebrew Ladies’ Aid Society to name only a few.
“Each ethnic group seemed to take care of their own,” said Marylee Hagen, executive director of the Vigo County Historical Society, which is honoring Terre Haute’s immigrants through May with a special exhibit. “The immigrants here were what made this place what it was.”
In all, 11 specific ethnic groups that have settled in Terre Haute are being recognized with displays at the Historical Society. The groups include Syrians, Romanians, Germans, Italians, Indians, Scotch, Welsh, Irish, French, African American and Jewish. The exhibits include clothing, photographs, dolls, books and other items representative of the various groups.
According to the 1910 U.S. census, the largest ethnic groups in Terre Haute were Germans and Hungarians, Hagen said.
“I heard Romanian all the time,” said Michael Buzash whose father came to Terre Haute from what would later become Romania in 1915. Many Romanians settled in the northeast section of Terre Haute and many found work at Highland Iron and Steel Co., at Fourth Avenue and 29th Street, he said. Buzash recalls hearing the Romanian language in his home, at church and at social gatherings.
There were about 400 Romanians in Terre Haute around 1920, Buzash noted.
Joe Kosarko, whose grandparents immigrated from Hungary in the early 1900s, also recalls hearing the language from the old country spoken in his home. His parents would “often speak Hungarian … when they didn’t want us [kids] to understand them,” he said with a laugh.
Doctors Anil and Dipa Sarkar came to the United States in the 1960s and settled in Terre Haute about 40 years ago. They are among the approximately 150 Indian families in the area today, Dipa said.
The Terre Haute Indian community is a close knit group, the Sarkars said. Other ethnic groups also retain social organizations today, such as the German Oberlander Club and the Hungarian Hall, which was founded in 1909.
According to 2006-2008 U.S. census figures, Terre Haute’s population of about 59,000 included about 900 people of Asian heritage, including Chinese (214), Indian (182), Vietnamese (153), Korean (111), Filipino (84) and Japanese (74).
African-Americans make up 10.5 percent of Terre Haute’s population, according to the census figures. People of Hispanic or Latino heritage number more than 1,300 and make up more than 2 percent of the population.
Immigrant groups have made and continue to make important contributions to the Terre Haute area.
“They provided good, dependable work,” Kosarko said of the large Hungarian population that mostly settled in the area in the early 1900s. Many were also skilled craftsmen, he said. “And cooking. Cooking is a big part of Hungarian culture.”
Coal mines provided many of the jobs for the east European and Italian immigrants, noted Daniel, whose family settled in western Vigo County.
“They kept the mill going,” Buzash said of the Romanians working at Highland Iron and Steel.
Churches, lodges and taverns were often the center of religious and social life for immigrant groups in Terre Haute. Sonka Irish Pub on Wabash Avenue was actually started by Romanians, Buzash noted. According to early City Directories, the business was started by George and Milania Sonca in the 1930s.
Rozgany’s restaurant at 15th Street and Maple Avenue was another meeting place for ethnic Romanians, Buzash added.
Free black people from North Carolina were among the first distinct, non-native American groups to arrive in Vigo County. Many settled in Lost Creek township about 1850, according to the Historical Society exhibit.
The goal of the Historical Society’s exhibit is to expose people to the richness of Vigo County’s ethnic heritage, Hagen said.
“We’re all immigrants unless you’re an Native American,” Daniel said. “There’s no limit to the contributions the different groups have made.”
Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org.