Reflections on my Easton Immigrant Family – The First Generation

Part of the Historical Society of Easton’s series on Immigrants in Easton. Written by Diane Rowland.

Easton became the home of many immigrants coming from what they called the “Old Country.” For many, that was the Austrian-Hungarian Empire encompassing much of Eastern Europe including today’s Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and the Ukraine.  From small impoverished rural villages, they brought their culture, heritage, work ethic, and dreams to life in America.

My great grandparents, Stephen and Anna Kochiss, were early immigrants coming from Austria-Hungary to settle in Easton in 1893. Their story is like that of so many immigrants who came through Ellis Island seeking a better life for themselves and their families.  Although many immigrants from their village ended up working as miners or factory workers, my relatives followed their rural roots and became Easton farmers. 

Stephen and Anna Kochiss were from the small Rusyn village of Gromos in the Carpathian Mountains in eastern present-day Slovakia near the Polish border. Conditions in the rural villages were primitive and the impoverished population struggled to survive on subsistence farming while tending small herds of sheep, cows, and goats. The peasants were essentially serfs working for Polish or Hungarian landlords. Illness and early death were common, especially during the hard cold winters. Many women died in childbirth and many children did not survive beyond the first birthday.  Although few ever traveled from their immediate village area, by the late 1800s young men began to seek work in America to help support their families.  When letters telling of jobs and the earnings potential in America arrived from village immigrants, many, including Stephen Kochiss, chose to follow their lead.

Anna and Stephen Kochiss at their farm on Banks Road in Easton

Stephen Kochiss (born March 7, 1858) and Anna Ninna Kocsis (born March 18, 1867) were married in the Greek Catholic Church in Gromos on November 20, 1882. A son Stephen Jr. and then daughter Annie were born in 1883 and 1886. Facing the need to support a growing family, Stephen came to the United States in April 1890 on the SS Aller from Bremen, Germany and found work at the Bridgeport Brass Company.  Anna followed with the two children arriving at Ellis Island on May 17, 1892, on the Muchen (a steamship with sails) out of Bremen, Germany. Imagine a mother with two small children who had never been outside her rural village making her way by foot and train to Bremen and then enduring a three week or longer ocean crossing in steerage class to an unknown land.

The young family joined Stephen in Bridgeport but soon relocated to Easton.  Coming from a rural agricultural village, they discovered that the nearby town of Easton offered farmland that in many cases was abandoned or sold at low cost when Easton farmers moved to jobs in Bridgeport as the industrial revolution flourished.  The Easton farmland was like the hilly and rocky farmlands they left in Europe with similar farming challenges.  In 1893, Stephen and Anna Kochiss took over a 200-acre farm on Banks Road between Morehouse and Wilson Roads. Today, High Meadows Road runs through the original farm acreage.

Stephen Kochiss Jr, and his father proudly displaying their horses at the family farm on Banks Road in Easton.

The farm and the surrounding land would become the beachhead for the growing Kochiss family as they raised nine children, including my maternal grandmother, Helen, born in 1897. My grandmother told me that she was a twin delivered by a midwife and placed in a bread pan on the corner of the kitchen stove to keep her warm (an 1800s version of an incubator!). Her twin did not survive, and she said no one was certain of her birthdate because they thought she too would die — but since she was born when they were planting corn, they picked March 25.  After giving birth, Anna immediately went to the fields to plant corn and milk the cows while caring for her three other children. The farmhouse had no indoor plumbing and relied on the outhouse in the barnyard.  Obviously great grandma was one tough lady like so many of her generation.

My grandmother described her childhood as one of farm life with little time for children to play but a strong bond developed between the sisters as they shared the tasks of farm life. Even as adults, they referred to each other as “Sister” instead of by their given name. She recounted the joy of getting a piece of fruit for a Christmas present and sewing their own clothes.  She was very proud of having attended a one room schoolhouse (most likely on Center Road) around 1905 where she learned to read and write in English.   She frequently told me that she had finished the third grade before she had to stop to help on the farm and care for the younger children.   I think she was the first in the family to receive some formal schooling.

My Grandmother, Helen Kochiss Sedlar.

At home, the family spoke Rusyn, a Carpathian Mountain dialect like Ukrainian using the Cyrillic alphabet.   The family, like other immigrants from that region, called their language “Slavish” to distinguish it from Russian.   Anna, the matriarch, never learned to speak English and communicated with her children in “Slavish” until her death.  Interestingly, all of Anna’s children were fluent in both English and “Slavish” and most were able to read using the Cyrillic alphabet, but they did not teach their children their family’s native language.  The next generation – my mother and all her cousins – were raised to read and speak only “American”.  This was a typical experience for the children of immigrant families — immigrant parents wanted to separate their children from the “Old Country” to be “real Americans”.

When I was a very young child, my great-grandmother Anna, who spoke only Slavish/Rusyn, was living with her daughter Julia Halzack of Halzack’s Country Store and cared for me while my mother was at work.  She would sing Rusyn lullabies to me, but I have no idea how we communicated otherwise…or perhaps as a toddler, I knew some Rusyn!   And I still remember if I needed to use a bathroom, Anna took me to the outhouse behind the house with the 2 holes — a large one for adults and a small one for children.  A cousin recalls that until sometime in the 1950’s, the Halzack house still had an outhouse that Anna used. While it is clear that Anna preferred the outhouse to indoor plumbing, the question remains, when did my mom and her Halzack cousins growing up in the 1930’s and 40’s get to avail themselves of that indoor toilet?  I wish I had asked my mom more questions!

Religion provided a strong bond to the “old country” for many immigrants and especially for Rusyn immigrants from the Carpathian Mountain region. Life in the “old country” was essentially organized around the Greek Catholic Church  – the Eastern Rite of the Roman Catholic Church that followed the Russian Orthodox traditions with Icon screens in the church and celebration of the mass in old Slavonic rather than Latin. Their faith and traditions were the one familiar thing they could transport to their new American lives from their homeland.  I still have the well-worn liturgical prayer book in Cyrillic that was printed in Europe in 1890 and brought on the boat by Anna as one of her few possessions.

In Europe, the church was the center of village life. All the key events of life from baptism to marriage to death centered around the church.  Every village, no matter how poor or small (100 or fewer families), had a church with an icon screen depicting the Holy days and Saints of the church. At a time when many villagers were illiterate, the icon screen provided a pictorial teaching of the life of Christ.  The priest, in both Europe and the United States, was often the educated one who would read and write the letters to and from America. In addition to the religious ceremonies, the church served as a community gathering place and social setting.

The same was true for the new immigrants to America. The church was a meeting place where other immigrants from similar villages could meet, speak in their native tongue, and enjoy common customs, traditions, and familiar foods. Many churches formed mutual aid societies to assist families in need.  The church rituals and songs brought memories of home to life in a new land. And thus, in 1894 shortly after immigrating to America, Stephen and Anna Kochiss became co-founders of the Holy Ghost Russian Orthodox Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It would be a church that shared many of the religious traditions and services in Old Slavonic like their Greek Catholic village church had in the old country.

The Holy Ghost Russian Orthodox Church became home to many of the early Eastern European settlers in Connecticut.  In 1896 a parishioner was sent on a fundraising mission to Russia and met with Tsar Nicholas II, the last emperor, and received as a donation of six enormous bells cast in honor of the Tsar’s 1896 coronation.  The largest of these bells weighed more than 4,000 pounds. However, when those bells arrived in New York, customs held them requiring payment of a substantial import duty.  It took a special bill enacted by the 55th Congress and signed by President William McKinley to allow the bells to enter the United States duty-free! 

The bells gifted by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia to the Holy Ghost Russian Orthodox Church in Bridgeport are still rung today!

 The original Holy Ghost Church was built on Hallet Street Street in Bridgeport in the area where many immigrants from Slovakia settled to work in the factories of Remington Arms, Bridgeport Brass, and General Electric.  Before the advent of autos, it was a long 8-mile ride by horse drawn carriage from the Easton farm to that church in Bridgeport.  My grandmother recalled making the trip to Christmas services celebrated on January 7th in a horse drawn sleigh during a snowstorm.

The Holy Ghost Church continues to this day. Those famous bells are still rung during services in the 1937 church on East Main Street that replaced the original.  While in my grandmother’s day, the bells were rung by hand, they are now controlled electronically.

Stephen and Anna raised all nine of their children on their Easton farm – Stephen Jr. (1884), Annie (1886), Mary (1893), Helen (1897), Julia (1898), Catherine (1903), Michael (1906), Elizabeth (1909), and Pauline (1912).  Both sons and four of the seven sisters raised their own families in Easton on properties close to the original farm. Stephen Jr., Annie Pavlick, and Pauline Belko on Banks Road; son Michael on Wilson Road; and daughters Helen Sedlar and Julia Halzack on Sport Hill Road. Catherine Bayus lived in Bridgeport, and Elizabeth Gregan (the only sister to not marry someone of Slovak descent) resided in New Haven. Only sister Mary left Connecticut with her husband Steven Kalakay in 1918 to work in the Buick division of the growing automobile industry and resettled in Flint, Michigan. She was forever known as “Aunt Mary from Michigan”.

Stephen and Anna Kochiss with their nine children at their Easton farm in 1912

Times were especially difficult for the growing Kochiss family after the death of Stephen Kochiss Sr in 1925, and shortly thereafter the death of Stephen Jr in 1928. Stephen Jr’s widow Mary and her 2 sons and daughter were forced to move to the farm next door and work for the owner Arthur L Clark (who also owned the farm that is now the new Samuel Staples Elementary School).  Without her husband or son, and facing the Great Depression in 1929, Anna struggled to keep the family farm going.  Daughter Annie’s husband John Pavlick and son along with hired caretakers maintained the property as best they could — but parcels were divided off for the children, and others sold to support the tax payments. By 1940, there were lawsuits over unpaid bills and family feuds over land and finances.  Ultimately the remainder of the 200-acre farm was parceled off and sold.

Daughter Julia and husband George Halzack married in 1920 and established their grocery store on Sport Hill Road in 1923.  They lived over the store with their two young boys, Nick and Pete, until 1925, when they bought the adjacent house at 438 Sport Hill Road.  Julia remembered as a child riding in her father’s wagon as he sold vegetables in Bridgeport and coming up Sport Hill and seeing the pretty Victorian houses of the better-off Easton residents.  Little did she know that in 1925 she would call one of those houses her home to raise her children and live for the remainder of her life.   During the Great Depression, great grandma Anna moved from the farm into the Halzack house where she lived until her death in 1962.  Together, Anna and daughter Julia tended the garden that furnished the store with fresh vegetables, while Julia’s chickens supplied eggs and poultry to complement butcher George’s meats.

In 1931 at the height of the Great Depression, Sister Helen, her husband Peter Sedlar, and my mother Helen (known in the family as Helenka or little Helen) moved back to Easton from Flint, Michigan.  Helen had been sent to Flint by her mother in 1921 to help sister Mary with her 7 children and her boarding house.  In Easton, they shared the Halzack home until 1941, when my grandfather built the home I grew up in on lower Sport Hill Road.   Julia and Helen were inseparable sisters, with Helen helping George in the store throughout her life to enable Julia to tend the vegetable gardens and chickens while raising her 3 boys (Nick, Pete, and George Jr.) and daughter Eleanor Antón with my mom Helen Rowland as part of the family.  

Life was difficult in the Depression era.  In addition to maintaining Halzack’s store and cooking for a growing family, Julia and sister Helen took in laundry they washed in a Maytag ringer washing machine to help with the family finances. There were three washing tubs in the kitchen and lines for clothes drying before being ironed with an iron kept hot on the kitchen kerosene stove.  Helen made and mended clothes for others on a peddle controlled Singer sewing machine.

Baking and cooking were family skills.  Whenever you entered the home of one of the sisters, the smell of fresh bread being made or pies in the oven was overwhelming.  The preferred vehicle for cooking and baking was the big kerosene stove that heated the house in the winter, kept the kettle warm, simmered the soups overnight, and baked the bread and pastries.  Helen was known town-wide, along with sister Annie, as a great pie-maker (using lard for the crust of course) and both often baked pies and cakes for the weekend New Yorkers who frequented Easton. And they baked up a storm each year making blueberry and strawberry-rhubarb pies for the Easton Firemen’s Carnival.   My mother was also known for her baking skills and making wedding cakes and was once commissioned to bake and deliver a birthday cake to Helen Keller.

Helen Keller and Polly Thompson cut into the cake baked by Helen Rowland in 1955 for Keller’s 75th Birthday.

Life in Easton after the turn of the century and through the Great Depression was difficult.  Families struggled and worked to support each other.  The Halzack home on Sport Hill was indeed a multi-generational example — great grandmother Anna, sisters Julia and Helen and their spouses George and Peter, the three Halzack boys – George, Pete, and Nick, daughter Ellie, and Helenka Sedlar (my mom).  My mother remembered sharing the room and double (not queen size) bed with Ellie and great grandma. The girls would warm their cold feet by putting them on Anna’s legs, and in return Anna would have them help her to the outhouse in the middle of the night in winter.

The Halzack house on Sport Hill Road was home to ten members of Julia Halzack’s extended family during the Great Depression.

Family and religious traditions were kept alive for Anna’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Every Sunday the family would gather after church for dinner of homemade chicken soup made from one of Julia’s chickens and fresh egg noodles, followed by a roasted chicken and mashed potatoes. I still remember the egg noodles drying on racks on Saturday night in preparation for Sunday’s dinner. In those days there was no going to the supermarket or carry-out — only true home cooking.  Julia went to her chicken coop behind the store each week to pick a chicken or two to kill and then pluck for the Sunday soup and meal.   It was an “old country” tradition that I have experienced when I visit my relatives in Slovakia. On Sunday…the always-same menu is served after church services.

Then there were the big holiday celebrations and festivities. The Julian calendar was established by Julius Caesar. It was replaced in in 1582 by the Gregorian calendar that is used by most of the world today.  However, the Julian calendar – 13 days later than the Gregorian – was retained by the Russian Orthodox Church for determination of liturgical holidays.  Thus for Russian Orthodox followers, Christmas is celebrated as a church holiday on January 7 instead of December 25. 

For our family, the celebration of the birth of Christ was preceded on Christmas eve by a special multi-course non-meat dinner… twelve courses consisting of such dishes as stewed prunes and potatoes, pea soup, sauerkraut mushroom soup, barley, rice, etc.  The number of pits in your serving of prunes was said to predict how many children you would have! After each serving, the plates were scrapped to give some to the “manger” animals, so they shared in the coming birth of Christ. Most of us gladly gave most of our serving to the animal bowl. Ellie’s husband Bob Anton recalled that my mom would sneak a pizza and beer into the kitchen for my dad and Bob – the non-Slovak spouses.   Adults ate in the formal dining room and celebrated each course with wine — and it is said that during Prohibition George Halzack made wine in his cellar to have the necessary “religious wine” for holiday celebrations.  Julia, Helen, and their daughters stayed in the kitchen busy serving each of the many courses.

 Dinner concluded with prayers in Church Slavonic, and at the end of the prayers the children raced outside to a pan filled with water and containing a silver dollar. The winner of the coin was said to have good luck for the coming year. My cousins will tell you that it was an unfair competition that I usually won because I had an advantage.  I knew the prayers in Church Slavonic and thus could anticipate when the end was near, and you needed to be ready to run. After dinner, we left to attend Christmas church services at midnight in Bridgeport.  And the next day we had an American Christmas dinner of turkey and fixings.  Some might remember that many of us were excused from school on January 7 so we could celebrate our heritage Christmas.  A bonus for us kids was that if you didn’t get that special gift from Santa on December 25, you had a second chance on January 7th!

Easter, however, was the center of the church celebrations and the better family feast day. During the 40 days of Lent preceding Easter, families fast and abstain from meat products, give up sweets, and avoid entertainment activities.  Ellie recalled that my grandmother removed the tubes from the radio so they couldn’t listen to music and that dinner was sometimes just a baked potato. Thus, Easter was a time of great celebration.   Each family prepared a basket to take to church to be blessed by the priest following midnight Resurrection services. A special homemade sweet bread called Paska is the center of the Easter basket along with baked ham, Kolbassi, decorated eggs, and a special cheese. The blessed foods form the core of the Easter feast along with lots of more American foods, and of course, baked goods and sweets.  When the basket of blessed food arrives home from the church, the celebration begins and continues throughout the day.

Anna Kochiss passed away on January 19, 1962, in daughter Julia’s home in Easton where she had lived for nearly 70 years.  Her funeral from Holy Ghost Orthodox Church in Bridgeport which she co-founded in 1894 was attended by her 8 surviving children and many of her 28 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren.  She was buried in Union Cemetery in Easton along with her husband Stephen and son Stephen Jr.  Through their children and grandchildren, Stephen and Anna Kochiss passed on their Rusyn/Slovak heritage and helped to make Easton the vibrant community of farms and homes it is today.

Acknowledgements:  We all have memories and sharing with my relatives has enriched this reflection on our ancestors’ story.  I am grateful to Stephen Kochiss Jr’s grandchildren Wayne Crossman and Joy Haller; Anna Kochiss Pavlick’s grandson Robert Pavlick; and Julia Kochiss Halzack’s grandchildren— Virginia Anton, Douglas Anton, Patricia Halzack Keller, and Marilyn Battey for wonderful remembrances and to Bruce Nelson, my Barlow classmate, and Easton historian for inspiring me to write my memories of our roots. 

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