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The Early Croatians of Old Tacoma in Pierce County

According to a 1984 report produced by the Washington State Historical Society and written by Mary Ann Petrich and Barbara Roje, many of the early Croatians came from the Dalmatian coastline of the Adriatic Sea.  The people who came to Old Tacoma in Pierce County emigrated predominantly the islands of Hvar, Vis, Korcula, Brac, and Solta.  They were seafaring people who had left their homeland because of economic and personal problems brought on by pressures from the Hapsburg regime.  Having heard from others many set their sights on making Washington and the Puget Sound their destination as it was known to resemble their Adriatic homeland. 

One of the early immigrants, Jelica Mullan, recalled later in life of her arrival in Old Town Tacoma on December 25, 1906, “America wasn’t the way I expected it to be… My first impression after greeting relatives and then stepping on a board that threw one of my traveling companions into the mud was wood and more wood, mud and more mud, we came to a wooden muddy America.”  When daylight arrived she was heartsick.  In her beloved hometown of Starigrad, the streets were paved with cobblestones and wood was used only on the doors and shutters of the stone houses.  America seemed to have only wooden houses, wooden buildings and wooden sidewalks.

On March 19, 1900 the immigrants formed the Slavonian American Benevolent Society (SABS).  SABS was incorporated on April 10, 1901 and has survived and thrived throughout the years.  In 1906 the members decided to build a hall to serve as a gathering place for the Croatian community  .  Without sufficient funds the members borrowed $3,000 from Andrew Beritich, which was duly repaid.  This loan together with financial and donated labor and talents of the members produced the magnificent edifice of that era, “The Slavonian Hall”.  The Hall was dedicated on January 6, 1907.

The Slavonian Hall played an important part in the lives of the community.  Besides its social significance, it paid sick and death benefits to its members.  In 1912 the women established a program to assist the widows and dependents of deceased members.  During its early history the lodge was one of the most active benevolent organizations in the City of Tacoma.  It had a band and drill team that participated in community parades and members presented plays using local talent from among the families of the area. 

SABS also conducted a ritual at the funerals of their departed members.  The American flag which flew above the hall would be lowered to half-mast at the passing of a member.  This custom continues today and the Croatian community still looks to the flag as a bellwether of such solemn tidings.  When a member died mourners visited the home of the deceased where he/she was placed in the parlor of their home.  The wake lasted all night with family, friends, neighbors and lodge members who brought food and  drink.  The next day, with solemn, dramatic demeanor the members of the lodge, led by a band resplendent in gold-braided uniforms, marched in front of the horse-drawn hearse with great dignity.

Over the years since its founding The Slavonian Hall and SABS has served as a gathering place for dances, group sing-alongs, and celebrations from Christmas to the annual Velika Gospa barbecue in August.  In 2001 lodge members commemorated 100 years and commissioned a sculpture that honors the founders and their lives as fishermen and families who kept the home fires burning.  The bonds and deep sense of pride in our Croatian heritage has held strong.   In 2008 members established cooking classes three times a year to teach younger members how to make the wonderful Croatian pastries and dishes such as sauerkraut.  The pastries are featured at the annual Daffodil Dinner, a hall fundraiser held each year in April.

In 2014 members gathered oral histories from several of its elder members (those over 80!) and collaborated with Pacific Lutheran University School of Communications to create a historical video.  It is the intention of the membership to continue to collect oral histories from families and individuals in order to preserve the history of the people and their affiliation with the Slavonian Hall.  Today the SABS is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and continues to celebrate its 114 years of traditions .

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