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Apples wagons, Lukrich Company, Watsonville, c.1910.

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Secret History

 

Croatians immigrants revolutionized regional agriculture

Their names echo throughout the region: Scurich, Marinovich, Franich, Gizdich, Miljanich…Even as a local boy growing up in Hollister, I had heard the names Matulich, Rajkovich, and Simonovich, but didn't have a clue as to who they might be or how they came to be there.

As I began working in local and regional history in search of my initial quarry, the Chinese, I began running into these names beginning in the 1880s and learned that they owned apple driers and employed many Chinese there, and finally labeled them as the "apple people" and set them aside. I knew that there was some guy named Marko Rabasa who was understood to be the first of these – Slav? – Slavonian? – folks in the Pajaro Valley's apple industry.

And then along came Donna Mekis. After I encouraged (she uses the word "pestered") her to do the history of "her people", damned if she and her sister Kathy didn't. I was honored to write the Forward for the ensuing book – Blossoms into Gold: The Croatians in the Pajaro Valley that hit the bookstores in 2009.

In a Nutshell – Most of the immigrants that we call Croatians came from the coast of the Adriatic, an area that had been part of the Dubrovnik Republic, on the Dalmatian Coast. The pervasive myth (and I must admit to helping to spread it…) was that the area they came from – the Konavle Valley – is similar to the Pajaro Valley. As Donna and Kathy patiently point out, it doesn't. It's mostly rocks and the climate is very different. They emigrated from their homeland in the 1880s when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, resulting in confusion about who they were – really? They sometimes referred to themselves as Austrians, or Slavonians. But, at base they were Croatians.

Early Croatian immigrant into California focused primarily on the restaurant and liquor businesses (Tadich Grill, for example), but some went into farming and other businesses and finally a few found their way to the Pajaro Valley and initially set up restaurants. But, it was their seeing an opportunity in the small (500 acres of apple orchards, estimated) apple business that attracted them and then more. They had a network of Croatian distributors which enabled them to market their products more widely than had been done previously.



Austrian Benevolent Association Meeting, Watsonville, 19
Risky Business

It was their moving from distribution to contracting and then ownership of the orchards that made them, indeed, "the apple people" that we all believed. But it was HOW they did it – and their revolutionizing the industry that changed the Valley forever. Once established, they brought families and built what Donna and Kathy termed "An Apple Paradise." The "how" is extremely complex, but, as its first step it involved buying the apples "in blossom." And thus shielding the apple growers from the usual seasonal fluctuation of fruit prices when they dropped during the fall. It was a risky business, but, over time it worked. And most of the region's other crops followed.

Watsonville's Croatian Community – The Croatians fit nicely into the Watsonville community of the 1880s – they were, as were most residents—Roman Catholics – and they meshed somewhat with the earlier and dominant Irish, as they would with the later Latinos. Their names are everywhere – Franich, Scurich, Marinovich, Miljanich, -- attesting to their long-term success. Hard-working and frugal and reticence to boast or brag.

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