The History of Early Greek Immigrants in Illinois Extends Beyond Chicago


Published in The National Herald, May 19, 2013


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


CHICAGO- The experiences of Greek immigrants and their families in rural Illinois have yet to see inclusion in the historical accounts of ethnic groups in the state. The history of Illinois Greeks is presented as an urban experience focusing almost exclusively upon Chicago. 
Demographically, there can be no question that the greatest concentration of Greek immigrants live (and have always lived) within Chicago and the immediately adjacent to the city. Still, largely unrecorded, except in Greek sources, are the experiences of Greek immigrants in the most rural areas of Illinois.
From the 1880s until the 1920s Greek immigrants established businesses and families in small hamlets, towns and cities throughout Illinois such as Alton, Antioch, Decatur, Freeport, Greenup, Highland, Kankakee, Kewanee, Ottawa, Springfield, and a host of others. In point of fact, by 1910 the dispersal of Greek immigrants into countryside towns of rural America with general populations of around 10,000 was not limited to the Illinois prairies. Rather as revealed in the Greek-American press, government reports, and even academic studies of this early period, Greeks were to be found throughout the nation in the most unexpected of locations. What is omitted from most general histories of Greeks in the United States are the roles and enduring influences these scattered individuals and small collectives of Greeks played in the development of American notions of Greeks and Greece in the rural countryside.
The most valuable sources for determining the presence of Greeks in rural Illinois are the Greek language business directories, histories, and guide books produced since the turn of the century. The original intention of the business directories was to provide a listing of Greek businesses and wholesaler’s state-by-state all within one reference source. The success of these directories was immediate.
The idea was simple. If provided a choice a Greek immigrant would buy from a Greek businessman who in turn would buy from a Greek wholesaler. This scenario, while imperfect in practice, worked well enough for these directories to be produced year after year. The sheer volume of the publications attests to the fact that they received wide attention among Greek immigrants.
Many Greek writers and publishers produced directories, business guides and even dictionaries that included descriptive sections on individual cities and states across the United States. Seraphim George Canoutas (1874-1944) is unquestionably the most prolific of these business directory compilers issuing such publications annually from, at least, 1907 until the late 1920s. While Canoutas did not limit himself to business directories but also wrote legal guides, an array of histories and even a book of manners, today, he is probably most remembered for his historical account, Christopher Columbus: A Greek Nobleman (New York, 1943).
From our perspective in history the present value of these directories and guides rests in the fact that they document page after page of Greek-owned businesses with exact street addresses and type of business for nearly every state in the country. In the specific case of Illinois we can chart the presence of such Greek-owned businesses beginning in 1903.{62900}{62899}
Odegos tou Laou written and compiled by C.D. Skadopoulos in 1920 is one of the variations on the business directory format. It is a book on manners in section one and in section two a business directory. What makes Odegos tou Laou such a valuable historical document is that the majority of businesses cited in its pages are accompanied by photographs of many of the owners and their families along with short biographies of varying lengths.
The Odegos tou Laou section on Illinois is especially rich. To cite one example from the city of Alton we find on page 127 the full page black and white photograph. The individuals seen in this 1919-1920 wedding photograph are from left to right: standing Andonis S. Spiliopoulo, Ioannis S. Giannakopoulos and Yiorgos Skoutsis and seated we see the newly wedded couple of Elizabeth (nee Giannakopoulos) and Ioannis Panagiotopoulos.
To be sure, not every Greek immigrant living in rural Illinois, in the early 1900s, is included in business directories. One such case of rural Greeks was the four families living in Antioch, Illinois in the mid-1920s. In 1924, three Greeks, Ted Poulos (Theodoros Liakopoulos), Sam Harris (Zafiris Harlambopoulos) and Dan Harris (Anastacios Harlambopoulos) opened the first Greek-owned restaurant in the county. As was common in this era two of the men were cousins and all three hailed from the village of Vlasia in the Kalavryta region of the northern Peloponnesus.
The new establishment, the Antioch Cafe, was an unmitigated economic disaster. One day in the dead of winter in 1925 a lone man came into the cafe at 6AM. The three Greeks were all a bustle, but the man only wanted a cup of coffee. The entire day passed without another customer. Then, just before 6PM the same man who had been there for his morning coffee came in and ordered…another cup of coffee!
Sometime in 1925, Sam Harris sold his holdings in the Antioch Cafe. Sam, and his new family, stayed in the county but moved south to yet another small town, Libertyville. Sam and another Greek, who is today only recalled by his last name, Pasinis owned a grocery store on the west side of Libertyville’s main street just north of Cook Street.
In 1931, Dan Harris was killed in an automobile accident and his widow sold her share of the cafe to the remaining partner Ted Poulos. Until sometime in the late 1930s, Poulos operated the cafe with moderate success. Poulos, then, went into a business that unlike the ill-fated cafe would bring him unexpected fame and recognition throughout the entire county. Another Greek, who is today only recalled by his Americanized last name Kost, owned a candy store next to the Antioch movie theatre. Married to a local American woman Kost had two daughters. Poulos married Kost’s daughter Phyllis and after his father-in-law’s death joined his mother-in-law in running the candy store.
In Antioch, Illinois: A Pictorial History 1892 to 1992, Ted’s Sweet Shop is commemorated in a two-page spread of pictures (Antioch: Lake Region Historical Society, 1992: 50-51). “Ted the candy man,” is how longtime residents of Antioch, and Lake County in general, affectionately refer to Poulos. For nearly 40 years, Poulos’ store on Lake Street received acclaim far and wide for his hand-made candies. Poulos was often the subject of newspaper articles where through where photographs frequently showed him with his elaborate Easter baskets made of hand-spun candy or the six foot candy canes he annually donated to the local Boy Scout troop.
Descendants of all these Greek immigrants still live in Antioch. In the 1980s and 1990s, phenomenal new growth took place throughout Lake County. In direct response to this surge in new housing (and the flood of new residents) many local people quickly made it a point (and still do) of emphasizing how long their families have lived in the region. Just the mention Ted’s Sweet Shop or the Antioch Cafe and local people smile. The memories of these Greek immigrants live on in the stories their neighbors still recall. As one person recently prefaced his recollections about Ted’s Sweet Shop, “well now you’re talking about the real Lake County!”