Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Greeks in Michigan: No Average Argonauts


Ann Rapanos Harris with Sam Harris (Haralambopoulos) in front of Alex Rapanos' home
on Rapanos Drive in Midland, Michigan

GREEKS IN MICHIGAN:
NO AVERAGE ARGONAUTS

Published in The National Herald, May 13, 2006 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos
Special to The National Herald

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I am excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 

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Vasilios Anagnostopoulos was born on January 11, 1888 in the small village of Steno, located near Tripoli in the Peloponnese. He was the eldest of six children, followed by Charalambos, Christiana, Andriana, Georgia and Nicoletta. Like many of his generation, he was destined to travel far. While he was still a teenager, he was to change the economic and even cultural circumstances of northeastern Michigan.

Sad to say, however, much too much of Greek American history is lost forever.

No one from the family Anagnostopoulos established in North America is now alive. The recollections of grandchildren, nephews, family friends and scattered public records are all which is left to report on this one man's life and actions.

As anyone within the Greek American community can well attest, all too many platitudes are endlessly voiced by members of our community concerning the early Greek immigrant businessmen. But collective aggrandizement is one thing, history is another.

EQUALLY SCATTERED

What few Greek Americans recall today is that, by 1910, Greek immigrants were equally scattered in small towns and major metropolitan areas all across North America. This demographic dispersal did not go unnoticed. In his book, “Greeks in America: An Account of Their Coming, Progress, Customs, Living and Aspirations (Sherman, French & Company, Boston: 1913),” the Rev. Thomas Burgess took special care to stress the following:

“Let us remind the reader of that by other large and important classes of Greek colonies - or rather, of groups of individuals - we mean those thousands of Greek men scattered everywhere throughout every state in the Union by ones, twos, tens or even a few more. Such isolated Greeks, though ever remaining devoted sons of Hellas, become - because of their very isolation from their fellow countrymen - quickly assimilated into American life, and are everywhere respected as enterprising businessmen and good fellows (pg. 175).”

By reviewing what is recalled of Vasilios Anagnostopoulos' various accomplishments, even these often-fragmented bits of information depict a man of considerable daring who was unafraid of demanding work habits. His life can well represent an entire generation of small town Greek American businessmen.

Vasilios arrived in Chicago in 1900 and was immediately put to work in a confectionary. By 1901, he moved from Chicago to Bay City, Michigan where he opened a candy store. Recollections are unclear whether or not the 12-year old Anagnostopoulos opened this business on this own (family members debate extensively on this point). Still, given the amount of time he had spent in America, it seems unlikely he would have been able to raise the necessary funds in such a (relatively) short period of time.

Given what we know about his life, however, we can note that Anagnostopoulos was never shy about having partners. At this moment it seems likely that, once he arrived in northeast Michigan, he did so with some now forgotten partners.

Between 1901 and 1915, the energetic and enterprising Anagnostopoulos opened two more confectionaries, one in Saginaw the other in Flint. Today, unfortunately, family photographs exist only for the Flint confectionary. There seem to be a number of reasons why this is the case. To begin with, it was in Flint where Vasilios met and married Ida, who is recalled not by her maiden name, but that she was of German extraction.

The store's interior, as seen in a number of photographs, reveals that, at some point between 1901 and 1915, young Anagnostopoulos had changed his name to William Poulos. While the exact date of this transformation is lost to history, we can still see it. In a 1915 photograph of the Flint store's interior, the center of the back mirror is clearly seen. “Wm. Poulos,” spelled out in leaded glass, is visible at the mirror's peak.

What many young Greek Americans fail to realize is that “old-fashioned small-town Greek candy kitchens” are as American as apple pie.

COMMANDING FORCE

Greek immigrants were a commanding force in the ice cream and soda fountain business from the early 1900's until just after World War II. The fact that nostalgic reminisces of small-town America very often feature a Greek-owned candy store is little remembered today. In Sinclair Lewis' 1920 novel, “Main Street (Harcourt & Brace, New York),” the panorama of stores along this archetypical American small-town street includes “the Greek candystore, the whine of a peanut-roaster and the oily smell of nuts (pg. 34).” Or in the WPA-produced “New York: A Guide to the Empire State (1940, reprinted 1976),” we hear this association even more clearly stated: “No town of any size would be complete without a Greek candy kitchen.”

The Poulos couple was to have four children: Louis, William Jr., George and Helen (later Mrs. A.F. Fuhlbrugge). The two oldest boys are seen as very small children in family photographs of the Flint store.

William Poulos arrived in Midland, Michigan on December 12, 1916. There, he opened a confectionary store/restaurant, which he operated with great success until 1923. Regrettably, the name of this store is lost to family memory, and strikingly, public directories of Midland no longer extend that far back in time. Family documents suggest Poulos also kept his Flint store until 1923, for it was in that year when Poulos purchased the Reardon Building on Midland's Main Street (between Rodd and Ashman Streets), renaming it the Poulos Block. Not long after this acquisition, Poulos purchased yet another confectionary store and restaurant in the town of Mt. Pleasant, which is some 28 miles north and west of Midland.

It is recalled that, when Poulos and his family arrived in Midland, other Greeks already resided in this small city. Exactly how many Greek Americans were there when Poulos arrived is unclear.

By 1929, we know that Tom Pantzopulus, who is remembered as a cook, lived in Midland with his wife Catherine and their son Pantzis. During this same period, Nick Pappas owned Coney Island Lunch at 230 East Main Street and, along with his wife Fannie, had four children: Charles, Helen, George and James. Stephen Stevenson, a Greek despite his Anglicized name, first owned the LaSalle Restaurant at 134 East Main. Stevenson was married to Esther, and they had one daughter: Katherine. Gus Sarantos and his family were also residents.

In 1929, William Poulos, aside from these rental properties in the Poulos Building, also let rooms at 246 East Main. Poulos never relinquished a piece of property in Midland during the 1920's, but rather rented out his various stores while simultaneously working in Mt. Pleasant. In 1930, Poulos sold his Mt. Pleasant business and opened the highly successful Busy Bee Restaurant on Midland's Main Street.

The history of Midland is forever tied to the Dow Chemical Company. On May 18, 1897 Dow was incorporated, based on Herbert H. Dow's plan to manufacture and sell bleach on a commercial scale. In time, Dow Chemical became the largest chemical company in the world, and for decades, Midland remained the site of its largest plant complex.

With company headquarters still located in Midland today, Dow Chemical remains a global giant, ranking among the largest corporations on the planet. Yet when the Greeks first arrived in Midland, they could not work for Dow.

At that moment in time, Dow Chemical Company did not hire Catholics, African Americans or any ethnic groups, either. But times have certainly changed. As one local Midland Greek American puts it, “It went from Dow never hiring Greeks to Greeks running Dow.” In 2000, Dow elected William S. Stavropoulos, president and chief executive officer. Andrew N. Liveris, is Dow's current president and CEO.

Alex Rapanos in his grocery store in Chicago during the early 1930's. His family has settled in Michigan.

Tom Poulos and his son, Tom Jr., are pictured left behind the counter, while Helen Poulos sits at the counter holding a menu at the Busy Bee Restaurant in Midland, Michigan in this 1930's photo

Tom Poulos stands in front of the Loreili Gardens in Bay City, Michigan in this 1940's photo.