by Marie Bibus
During the early 1900s, hundreds of families arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota from the Banat region of Austria-Hungary. They were German-speaking, and came from several small villages, such as Zichydorf, Offzenitza, Dolatz, and Johannisfeld. They primarily settled in a St. Paul neighborhood, now known as Thomas-Dale, located just northwest of the capitol, as well as in nearby South St. Paul, along Ninth Avenue. In St. Paul, many lived near St. Agnes Catholic Church, which provided services and schooling in the German language. Many German-speaking people from Bohemia had already established businesses and cultural groups in the neighborhood.
For my ancestors, the journey to St. Paul began in Offzenitza and Detta in the Banat. My grandmother’s brother-in-law, Kaspar Ritter, arrived in 1903. He was followed by his wife and children, and several members of his wife’s family, including my grandmother and her parents, and my great-great grandfather. My family members made the arduous trip in October of 1904 on the S.S. Slavonia from Detta to the port of Fiume, to York City, and finally to St. Paul. At Ellis Island, they were briefly detained as “Aliens Held for Special Inquiry” after being categorized as “LPC” (likely to become a public charge), and because my great grandparents “were never married.”
Fortunately, the Banat immigrants found a variety of work opportunities. In South St. Paul, many worked as laborers in the Swift and Company packing plant or other jobs in the Stock Exchange Building. In St. Paul, many found employment with the Great Northern Railway Company at the Jackson Street shops as brass polishers, carpenters and helpers. Others found work at various companies such as the Louis F. Dow Company (a calendar printing firm), the Herman Buschman bakery, or hotels. Young girls often worked as domestic servants in the stately homes along Summit Avenue in St. Paul. For example, beginning at age 14, my grandmother and her cousins worked in the mansion of a German liquor distributor. They later found work as seamstresses in dress shops.
Unfortunately, in , as a result of World War I, the German-speaking community was scrutinized by the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety and they were required to register under the alien registration law. In the registration documents, many Banat immigrants said they delayed getting their quest for citizenship because they believed they would not be allowed to get it during the war. Others said they were reluctant to complete the citizenship process because they wanted to eventually return home to the Banat. After the war, many became U.S. citizens.
In South St. Paul, my great-grandmother became a self-sufficient, successful businesswoman, earning money through fixing up and renting out duplexes. She frequently used carpenters and supplies from the local hardware store owned by another family from Banat. In her later years, she also sewed and crocheted many tablecloths and doilies. She cooked traditional German foods, such as plum dumplings (Zwetschgenknoedel) and belonged to a club called the Fraulein Sisters. In this way, families retained their cultural connections and passed down traditions.