The Story of Mississippi’s Seafood Industry

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MISSISSIPPI CUISINE

Chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto innovatively combine Folse’s classic Southern approach to seafood with Tramonto’s contemporary new-world style.  While paying homage to Mississippi’s heritage, Seafood R’evolution celebrates a cultural fusion of the foods and flavors that have shaped the culinary landscape of the Gulf Coast over generations.  The vitality of Mississippi’s rich seafood traditions can only be understood through the story of its Croatian immigrants.

 

The Mississippi Croatian Story: Overcoming Adversity

By Kat Bergeron
Sun Herald, South Mississippi’s News Leader
(Reprinted with permission from the April 27, 2014 issue)

The Croatians of the Mississippi Coast love to tell the story of Nikola Skrmetta, who immigrated from the Dalmatian Coast in the late 1890s. Biloxi was growing strong seafood legs, in need of workers to harvest and can oysters and shrimp. With a legendary strength of 10 men, he went to work in the labor-intensive industry.

This one man is credited with starting an early 20th century immigrant title wave of other Slavonians coming to work on the Gulf Coast.

The story goes that Nicholas “Nick” Skrmetta – his Americanized name – jumped ship in New Orleans and soon found himself in Biloxi. As he stood at a trolley stop he struck up a conversation with Laz Lopez, owner of a factory and fleet of schooners. The story further explains he could not speak English and Lopez could not speak Croatian so they communicated in a mixed European language that included Italian.

That day Lopez offered Skrmetta a job. Lopez was so impressed with his energy and hard work that he asked, “Are there any more like you?”

There were. Hundreds of them. Their offspring number in the thousands now.

Skrmetta convinced family and friends that America was the land of opportunity. At that time, their homeland was under the thumb of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. Life was tough for non-royals, and many young men were being conscripted into the army, known for its cruel treatment of soldiers.

The Daily Herald in May 1905 declared in a headline: “Many Slavs Coming, are Driven To America by Untoward Conditions.” Wars and conquerors had historically pockmarked the peace and prosperity of their Central European homeland.

In 1903 in response to Skrmetta’s convincing, the first contingent of “Austrians,” as they were then called, arrived by way of Ellis Island. This group of five from the village of Bobovišće, included Steve M. Sekul and Peter M. Skrmetta.

They were as hard working as the first Skrmetta, and factory and schooner owners wanted even more like them. Austrians obliged. That first group sent for wives and children and more men to work, a move repeated again and again.

Freedom in America

Eventually whole extended families settled in Biloxi, forming a close-knit community on the peninsula known as Point Cadet. When Skrmetta died in 1918, the Herald reported he “will be greatly missed by Biloxians, and especially those of his people who relied on him for advice in their affairs.”

Women and older children worked in canneries, as did some of the men, although many worked on the boats and docks. At first they lived on Biloxi’s version of Cannery Row, in small camp housing, but they saved and eventually built their own fisherman cottages. Some bought their own schooners.

This early 20th century wave of immigrants has been variously called Austrians, Yugoslavians and Croatians, depending on what stage of history their homeland was in. About 250 families came in that wave, and they tended to have lots of children.

“In America it wasn’t an easy life, but they could live free and that was most important,” said Anthony “FoFo” Gilich, president of the century-old Slavonian Benevolent Association of St. Nichole headquartered in Biloxi.

“Coming to the United States was a big opportunity. The first Croatians were ambitious, and some became factory and boat owners, even factory owners themselves, or their children did. Education was important and that lead to Croatian doctors, lawyers, pharmacists and business leaders.

“They had arrived with little money, no safety net and no assurance of success. They taught us leadership and not to be afraid of anything.”

Gilich, at 66, is a computer program developer and grandson to one of the 1903 Dalmatian arrivals. Gilich’s first job was “catching cans” off the conveyer belts of Sea Coast Packing Company, owned by his grandfather and located where the Golden Nugget Casino now sits. He estimates that less than five percent of the descendants now work in the seafood industry.

Coast Waves of Slavs, French, Polish

These early 20th century immigrants supplied much of the brawn for the Coast’s seafood industry, the region’s economic engine. But the Croatians were actually the second wave of immigrants to make Mississippi seafood buzz.

In 1890 the first so-called Bohemians arrived by trainloads to work for factories to fill a local labor shortage. These seasonal workers, mostly of Polish background, came from Baltimore.

Already, a few Croatians had settled in the Gulf region to work with oysters during the post-Civil War Central European migration. Explained a November 1893 Herald: “They are Austrians or descendants of Austrian parentage, a hardy, economical and industrious class – worthy and good men…”

But the wave of Slavonian immigrants spurred by the Skrmetta-Lopez acquaintance didn’t begin until 1903. That was followed in 1914 by the first Acadians, or Louisiana Cajuns, then in the late 1970s by the Vietnamese.

Few of the Bohemians, seasonal by nature, stayed permanently so their place in seafood history is an early dot, and the Vietnamese are still writing their chapter. A century later, the French and Slavonians have proven their staying power.

“Like a lot of immigrants they went from being workers and laborers to being prominent citizens, politicians, lawyers, business owners and doctors, playing important community roles,” said Murella Hebert Powell, Biloxi’s historian emeritus. “In the beginning they were the backbone of the seafood industry.

“It’s remarkable that the Acadians and the Slavonians, who at first couldn’t talk to each other because of language barriers, were soon marrying each other. Yet, each of these groups have managed to hold on to their own identities. The French still have their Fleur De Lis Society and the Croatians have their Slavonian Benevolent Association.

“They became a melting pot but they retained that individuality as a people. The Yugoslavs were making gumbo and the Cajuns making pusaratas.”

Pusaratas are a type of European fruit doughnut ball still popular on the Coast and gumbo is a seafood stew brought from Louisiana.

Tradition! Tradition!

Croatian traditions remain strong, although like many Americanized cultures, they are fading. The native-language songs, often accompanied by an accordion, are now more of a rarity than commonplace at the Slavonian Lodge. Their South Slavic language, too, is rarely heard on the Coast.

“I didn’t grow up speaking the language,” said Capt. Pete Skrmetta, 88-year-old patriarch of the family that runs the Ship Island ferry and son of the 1903 Skrmetta immigrant of the same name.

“That was the only language my father spoke when he was young, but he married my mother from Bay St. Louis and she didn’t speak it. But he’d continue to use the language when speaking with the Croatians who worked with him catching oysters and shrimp. Some of the kids in school, like John Misko and Peter Barhanovich, was raised up with the language and they spoke it.

“We were all raised up with the Cajuns and the Polish people, we all went to school together and were friends. The Cajun people liked to fais do do, have a good time. The Croatians were very serious people, we worked hard, saved money and invested. Where we came from, only the strong survived.”

Religion also played an important role, as evidenced by St. Michael Catholic Church on Point Cadet, known as the “Fishermen’s Church.” It began as a mission in 1907 for the immigrants living in camp houses and working long hours each time factory whistles blew to announce fresh seafood arrivals. The modern version of the church, with its seashell dome, is noted for its Christian symbols of the sea.

A generation ago, St. Stephens Day was a huge Slavonian observance, with the making of a special wine called Prucke from European raisins. One tradition that continues is the spring Blessing of the Fleet, an ancient European tradition open to fishermen of all cultural backgrounds to assure a bountiful and safe harvest. Many of the seafood festival kings and queens have come from this Croatian community.

A Cultural Center Still Abuzz

The Biloxi lodge remains the center point for this immigrant community, now two, three and four generations as Americans. Parties, balls, weddings, even funerals are held there, and stone plaques list all deceased members. They first formed in 1913 as the Austrian-Slavonian Benevolent Association to fill the social needs as well as subscriptions to pay sick and disabled seafood workers.

Tragedy struck early when in 1916 the treasurer, also a founder, killed himself after admitting to misappropriating funds for personal use. Accustomed to adversity, they moved forward.

In 1921, in response to Yugoslavia now holding sway in their homeland, Biloxi Croatians got a new charter as the Slavonian Benevolent Association “St. Nicola.” The lodge they maintained became the center of their lives but was visited by others who gladly shared their traditions and entertainments, especially their dances and music. In 1956, the lodge installed an air conditioner at the behest of member Yankee Barhanovich, a promoter who planned a set of concerts that included Elvis Presley.

The current lodge, now called the Croatian American Cultural Center, replaces the one on Myrtle Street built in 1938, inundated in 1969 by Hurricane Camille and destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. They say that building back, better than before, is proof they’d learned the lesson of overcoming adversity. It is an impressive $4 million building, reflective of the Croatian community’s prosperity but especially of the importance that descendants put on their roots.

Oh So Many ‘iches’

Mississippi’s American-Croatians continue to visit the homeland, where some still have ties. Many have links to Dalmatia, an historical region of Croatia on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. Among the many islands of this region is Brač, from which hailed recognizable Coast names, Mavar, Pitalo, Sekul, Skrmetta, Radish, Marinovich, Kuljis, to name a few.

The local joke was if the names ended in “viches and iches” you could safely bet they had Slavonian roots. Among others lucky enough to leave their war-torn homeland for Mississippi shores brought the names of Stanovich, Rosetti, Barhanovich, Mladinich, Marinovich, Simonich, Trebotich, Peresich, Cvitanovich, Covacevich, Fillipich, Radich, Polovich, Popovich, Gruich, Gabrich, Cerinich, Misco, Hire, Ragusin and Halat, to name a few more.

They never forgot where they came from, nor did those they left behind. In September 1937, the Southern Slavonian Herald, an English-language newspaper that published in Belgrade, featured a Biloxi water scene and this explanation that was repeated in the Daily Herald:

“Not Dalmatia’s Romantic Riviera, but the Mississippi Gulf Coast at Biloxi, where for more than 50 years Dalmatian fisher-folk have had this colony and where hundreds of Jugoslavs are today engaged in the fishing and canning industry.”

(Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald.)

 

History plays with “Slavonian” name in Mississippi

By Kat Bergeron
Sun Herald, South Mississippi’s News Leader
(Reprinted with permission from the April 27, 2014 issue)

Are the wave of Slavonian immigrants who came to the Mississippi Coast from Central Europe’s Dalmatian Coast called Austrians, Yugoslavians or Croatians?

The answer is “all of the above.” What we call them today depends on what time frame in history.

Into the mix we should also toss “Slavonian.” That is a popular local term used for more than a century for these hard-working immigrants. They began as poor laborers in the Biloxi seafood industry, prospered, stayed and spread across the Coast, where their family names remain numerous.

Most 21st century descendants of these immigrants now proudly refer to themselves as Croatians, a name not used when the first of them arrived in the 1800s.

Nick Skrmetta, credited with starting an early 21st century wave of migration from Dalmatia to Biloxi, was officially an Austrian because his homeland was then under the rule of the Austrian- Hungarian Empire.

Those living here or who moved here after 1918 called themselves Yugoslavians. In fact, some of us may even remember them in the recent past being called Jugoslavians, or Jugo-Slavs, or just Jugos. The “J” spelling and pronunciations was used both on the Coast and in the homeland, orally and written.

The changing names reflect history. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire, formed in 1867, fell in 1918. Yugoslavia next held sway over the immigrant’s homeland until 1991, when Croatia, around as an identity since the 7th century, declared independence.

A lot happened in the 20th century, including World War I and II, when the politics of East-Central Europe made American immigrants suspect. One Daily Herald story from April 1917 reported Austrians were planning a parade to show that “Biloxi’s so-called ‘alien population’ is with the United States government heart and soul.” In both world wars, able-bodied males from this close-knit immigrant community donned American uniforms.

Generations of Coast Slavonians, as did most other immigrant groups, maintained ties to the homeland.

They watched as their beloved Croatian region came under communism in the late 1940s. They watched in 1991 as Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, followed by the four-year Croatian War of Independence. The breakup of the Soviet Union threw the entire region into chaos and American news was filled with stories of atrocities in the Bosnia-Herzegovina War, of Croats, Serbs, Slavs and others fighting.

Today, the Republic of Croatia is part of the European Union, and it has a prosperous, literate four million people. Dalmatia, where many of the Coast’s first fishing immigrants were born, is described as a historical region of Croatia.

When those Biloxi immigrants formed their first fraternal society in 1913 to help sick and disabled fishermen, they named it the Austrian-Slavonian Benevolent Association. In 1921 they got a new charter under the name Slavonian Benevolent Association “St. Nicola” The latter is for St. Nicholas, also sometimes Nicholi and Nicole, who is the patron saint of travelers and seafarers.

The association’s “lodge” has remained the center of their lives, a place to meet, be entertained, and hang on to as many Old Country traditions as possible. When Hurricane Katrina destroyed the 68-year-old lodge building, they built a $4.3 million one. As proof of changing times, the front of the lodge now declares the “Croatian American Cultural Center.”

(Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald.)