Throughout its history, Lorain County has been recognized as one of Ohio’s most ethnically diverse regions. This is due, in large part, to the various industries that drove the local economy at different moments, such as railroads and transportation, shipbuilding and steel.
In their 2009 book, “Ethnic Communities of Lorain County: A History and Directory,” authors Nicholas J. Zentos and Wendy F. Marley, wrote, “A large influx of immigrants to Lorain County, especially to the city of Lorain, occurred between 1890 and 1924, with the majority coming from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.” According to the authors, the immigrants (many of whom were peasants with little formal education) came to Northeast Ohio to flee economic stress and political unrest in Europe, and to find work in the region’s then-thriving factories. Other groups, such as Mexicans and Puerto Ricans, were recruited directly by the steel mills.
Lorain County fostered a diverse core of residents. Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Ukrainian, Russian, Romanian, Hungarian, Transylvanian Saxon, Greek, Italian and other ethnic groups came to the region for a variety of economic, political and religious reasons.
At one time there were more than 55 nationalities living and working together in Lorain, notes Palma Stipe, president of the Lorain International Association, which organizes the annual Lorain International Festival, a weeklong celebration of the diverse ethnic, religious and cultural heritage of the city of Lorain.
Every year, the festival highlights a different nationality. The first festival, in 1967, celebrated Ukranian culture. The 46th Lorain International Festival, which is scheduled for June 22-24, will celebrate the Philippine community.
Many ethnic clubs originally grew out of religious places of worship, says Jackie Kokai, director of the Lorain County Sacred Landmarks Initiative, which provides educational outreach programs that celebrate the diversity of religious experience in Lorain County.
“Churches were very significant to the ethnic communities. They were not just places they went to worship. They were the center of social life for them. And they still are,” she says. “As ethnic groups moved to the area and grouped together, one of the first things they did was build a church.”
After churches often came ethnic clubs. Here are snapshots of several of Lorain County’s longest-running ethnic clubs.
American Slovak Club
Slovak immigrants settled in the city of Lorain in the late 1880s, residing mostly on the east side of the Black River. Many of these immigrants found work at the C.L. & W. (B&O) railroad, in shipyards, on ore docks or at the National Tube Company. A central gathering place for Lorain’s Slovak community was the now-closed Holy Trinity Parish, a Catholic church built in 1906 on Elyria Avenue.
The American Slovak Club opened its doors to individuals of Slovak descent in 1935. Primarily a bar and meeting room at 508 E. 28th St., the club was meant to be a comforting, familiar place, “where people of Slovak descent could speak the Slovak language and promote and practice the customs their families brought from Slovakia,” according to the club’s website (americanslovakclub.com). In 1956, a new, larger club building was built at 2915 Broadway in Lorain, where it remains today.
Today’s club, which houses 12 bowling lanes, two meeting rooms, a 50-foot bar, a banquet hall and a dining room that seats 200 people, still caters to Lorain’s Slovak population, but it is open to everyone, regardless of their nationality or ethnic background.
There are three types of membership available at the American Slovak Club: a regular membership is conferred upon anyone who is the owner of an insurance policy or annuity (which have historically been sold by ethnic clubs); social memberships are available to anyone for an annual fee; and a bowling center membership grants access to the bowling lanes.
The club boasts more than 2,000 lifetime members around the country (many of whom became members when their parents or grandparents purchased an insurance policy or annuity for them), and about 300 social members, says club president Margaret Thomas. It hosts traditional dinners (including a Vilija Dinner on Christmas Eve), sponsors local sports leagues, awards scholarships to high school members of the organization and, perhaps most famously, serves more than 300 pounds of Lake Erie yellow perch every Friday evening for its weekly fish fry. The fish fry is so good, Thomas boasts, that often when out-of-town guests come to Lorain to visit family, they stop by the fish fry before they even make it to their relatives’ homes.
At a recent Slovak Catholic Sokol sports activities group meeting at the club, a group of longtime Slovak Club members reminisced about their ties to the club while eating slices of pumpkin pie.
“To maintain the Slovak heritage is important,” says member Sue Naelitz. “I have six grandsons. The first thing I do when they are born is get them Slovak life insurance.”
“I met my husband, Marty, through the club. We were introduced by mutual friends,” says another member, Helen Zemanek. “We’ve been married 33 years,” she adds, with a smile.
American Slovak Club, 2915 Broadway Ave., Lorain, 440-245-5146, americanslovakclub.com
Italian American Veterans Post No. 1 (IAV)
In the late 1880s and early 1890s, a small number of Italian immigrants, primarily from Sicily and southern Italy, settled in Lorain County, where many were employed by the Cleveland, Lorain, and Wheeling Railroad Docks, loading and unloading grain and lumber from freight cars and barges, according to “Ethnic Communities of Lorain County: A History and Directory.”
They founded the Catholic parish of St. Peter in 1909, and the Church of St. Peter was built in 1914 on West 17th Street in Lorain. The church is now located at 3501 Oberlin Ave.
The Italian American Veterans Post No. 1 was born in 1946, and moved to its current location at 4567 Oberlin Ave. in 1968. It was founded with the goals of aiding and assisting veterans and their families and fostering social, civic, historical, athletic, patriotic, musical and scientific activities, and more.
The Lorain post of the IAV currently boasts more than 1,000 members, and it has become well-known in the community for monthly spaghetti dinners, weekly Friday evening Queen of Hearts games and for hosting the Festa Italiana, or Italian Festival, annually since October 2009. The festival features homemade Italian food, tribute concerts, Tarantella dancers, bocce ball and other activities that honor the community’s Italian heritage. The club also contributes aid to veterans’ charity organizations, sponsors youth groups and sends a color guard to attend military funerals.
“The [Italian] people who came [to Lorain] before us ... started their own businesses, were frugal, and they looked for family. Family helped them,” says IAV member Dina Ferrer. “A lot of people like to fellowship with people who share the same culture.”
The IAV is a members-only club — aspiring members must be sponsored by a current member and approved by the board before being admitted.
One “standing” member of the club always draws attention at events. “We have a stand-up cutout of Dean Martin [at the club] that changes with the times,” Ferrer says, with a laugh. “People come from out of town to take their picture with him.”
Italian American Veterans Post No. 1 (IAV), 4567 Oberlin Ave., Lorain, 440-282-8213, iavpost1.com
Mexican Mutual Society
Unlike other ethnic groups who came to America to escape harsh conditions in their home country, Lorain’s Mexican community boomed in 1923, when 1,300 workers were specially recruited from central Mexico and Texas by the National Tube Company to work in Lorain’s steel mills. They were housed in barracks on the property of the steel plant until they could afford to rent or purchase property elsewhere in Lorain. According to “Ethnic Communities of Lorain County: A History and Directory,” the Mexican Mutual Society was founded in Lorain in either 1927 or 1928, “to help the sick and needy, to provide a place to socialize and to help maintain the customs and traditions of the immigrants’ homeland.”
In fact, current Mexican Mutual Society president Joel Arredondo says his parents were among those who came to Lorain from Mexico in 1923, and were founding members of the society.
In the mid-1940s, the society joined forces with several other Mexican clubs in Lorain County and bought the society’s current building, which was once a Macedonian coffee shop, at 1820 E. 28th St. In 1999, the club was remodeled to build an additional meeting room.
Like many ethnic clubs, Mexican Mutual has struggled throughout the decades with flagging membership, as younger generations become less engaged and more assimilated into American culture than their parents. But Arredondo says the club still plays an important role in the community. Every year, it hosts Valentine’s Day parties, Christmas parties, dinners and dances, awards scholarships to high school students and sponsors sports leagues.
On April 30, 2011, Mexican Mutual held its 14th-annual Cinco de Mayo parade, which is the second-largest parade in the city of Lorain after the Lorain International Festival one. It included annual traditions such as a performance by the Alma de Mexico dance group, which uses the club as its main practice space, and a Cinco de Mayo Queen coronation.
The club currently has about 140 members (down from 500 several years ago), and recently rewrote its bylaws to state members do not need to be of Mexican descent. Anyone is welcome to join as an active member, Arredondo says.
“The biggest thing is the history, and the people who care about [the club],” he says. “Individually, they might not be able to make an impact, but culturally they can.”
Mexican Mutual Society, 1820 E. 28th St., Lorain, 440-277-7375
American Croatian Club
The American Croatian Club was formed by a group of 12 Croatian men in Lorain in 1923 with the goal of assisting in “Americanization of Croatians and those of Croatian descent in Lorain,” according to the group’s charter, which is posted on the club’s website americancroatianclub.com/club_history.htm.
“It was originally founded as the American Croatian Political Club,” says club president Richard Grubic. “A lot of ethnic clubs founded in Lorain had a set purpose. Some were watering holes, one was a singing group and others were sports clubs. We were founded to help Croatian immigrants coming into Lorain learn about the democratic process and to get them involved in helping to elect local officials, and also to help them settle into the local community ... It was helpful to have people who spoke the same language, who they could relate to.”
Croatian immigrants began arriving in Lorain in the early 1900s. Most of them came from villages and small farms and were seeking better economic conditions for their families.
Originally, club meetings were held in the basement of St. Vitus Church at East 32nd Street and Pearl Avenue, and then, in 1960, the club bought the Grove Theater (at East 28th Street and Grove Avenue) and remodeled it into a clubroom. In 1997, the club sold that building to Rite-Aid, and purchased the Riviera Swim Club at 4850 Oberlin Ave. in Lorain, converting it into a club and recreation center with three swimming pools, volleyball courts, a basketball court, playground equipment, a picnic pavilion, a bar and a banquet hall.
The move to the old swim club property came at just the right time, Grubic says. For years, membership to the club had been declining, and it was being run like an open bar. “The next generation was not being pulled in to become interested,” he explains.
Acquiring a popular swim spot changed all of that, and the group began inviting in families from all over Lorain, regardless of their ethnic heritage. Like other clubs, the Croatian club offers an active membership for people of Croatian heritage, and a social membership for anyone willing to pay a nominal annual fee. Today, the club has around 300 total members and is best known for its annual lamb roast and picnic. At this event, lamb is roasted over an open fire, and an orchestra of local high school students performs traditional Croatian music.
“We have an awful lot of people who just love coming for the lamb,” Grubic says. “People will travel many miles to go to a lamb roast. We sometimes sell out in a few hours.”
Throughout the year, the club also hosts clambakes, a steak fry, golf outings and holiday parties, and Grubic says he relies on a group of dedicated volunteers to help organize and staff the events.
“The club existed for all those years because of the hard work of the volunteers involved,” he says. “We do what we can to keep the place going and to celebrate our culture. It’s important to know where we came from. It’s meant a lot to me and to the people here.”
American Croatian Club, 4846 Oberlin Ave, Lorain, 440-960-5211, americancroatianclub.com