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Land of Opportunity and Freedom

July 26, 2010

“If you don’t submit to laziness, you will prosper” – old Slovak saying often embroidered on tea towels and repeatedly told to children.

Mihai walked dejectedly along the road from Soljani for days, not quite sure where he was going.   He was a strapping, 5’11” blond haired, blue eyed boy, and he managed charm his way to food and shelter along the way.  Eventually, he ended up in Krajne, in Hungary (in what is now Slovakia), near Bratislava. Or at least, this is where he says he was from at one point.

Bremen, Germany, on a 1907 postcard

He either had a revelation or met someone, for he soon left Krajne and travelled up through Germany, to the northern border of the country, to Bremen, a major port town, where most Slovaks from Slovakia left the Austro Hungarian Empire bound for the US.  He either snuck onto the ship, the Rhein, or he was smuggled onto it (there are two versions to the story); either way, he had no money and no identification papers.  Mihai worked in the engine room shoveling coal, and to earn his way he made the trip to the US and back six times.

The Rhein Ship

Shovelling coal on ship in the engine room

When the ship docked at Ellis Island, Mihai was locked in the engine room each time during the port of call. Finally, on the sixth trip over to the US, he was paid for his services and let free.  According to Ellis Island records, the date was March 4, 1907, and he had $11 to his name.  As he was checked in to the country as a newly landed immigrant, he was 17, listed his occupation as “servant” and had no papers; illegal immigration into the US was a bit different 100 years ago.

Ellis Island Skyline, 1908

He was immediately greeted by a stranger on shore who promised him a job, and off they went to Akron, Ohio, where he was put to work in a glass factory; it was common for the robber barons of the time to actively solicit young immigrants to come work as cheap labor in their factories.  Within a year at the age of 18, Mihai was married to another Slovak, Erzebet, and a year after that they had a daughter, Anne.  It is obvious that Mihai finally wrote home and let his family know where he was, as within a year of his arrival in Akron, Paul and Maria Milec, my great grandparents and his uncle and aunt, joined him there, where they soon opened their first bakery.  Over the years, Mihai and the Milecs visited one another often.

Akron, Ohio in 1908

Summit Lake Post card, from 1907, in Akron Ohio

I noticed in immigration files in 1916 that Erzebet and Mihai Mihalic crossed the border from Canada to Port Huron, and that the immigration officer wrote down their last name as Michael.  For Mihai, he wrote down “Michael Michael”. I can see that Mihai tried to correct him several times, but alas, Michael Michael stuck, and Michael Michael he was until the day he died. The report also states that they were travelling from Wallaceburg, Ontario; at this point, Paul and Maria had sold their successful bakery in Akron and moved back to Soljani, Croatia. I am not sure who Michael would have known in Wallaceburg.

Port Huron, early 1900's

The Michael family then moved to Port Huron, Michigan and bought a small house at the bottom of a hill along the shore of the St. Clair River; Michael would remain in this house for the rest of his life.  Erzebet became ill and died quite young, leaving Michael and  Anne alone. Soon after, Michael began a lucrative new career, one not quite, shall we say, legal, but one that would support the widower and his young daughter.

The next story about Michael Michael – Purple Like the Color of Bad Meat.


  1. Figures on immigration from 1899 to 1910 reveal that, though only 355,527 Slovaks were among the more than nine million immigrants who came to the United States during that period,  the percentage of  Slovaks who emigrated from the “old country” was the highest of any European group.  Some 18 out of every 1000 Slovaks emigrated during those twelve years, primarily to the United States and Canada.
  2. The states where Slovaks most commonly settled, encouraged by the offer of jobs: Pennsylvania – 500,000; Ohio – 300,000; Wisconsin – 300,000; New York – 120,000; Illinois and New Jersey – 100,000 each; and Michigan – 60,000.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 26, 2010 7:51 am

    100 years ago illegal immigration to the US was not a problem. I’ve read a book entitled Homeland, and it was the story of a German lad who migrated to the US, and what he have was only a letter on his hand wrote by his aunt and he need to give it to his uncle plus a little $. Before many immigrant considered America as a promise land but everything change. We cannot compare the US immigration policy before to the present. And that’s what other people cannot understand.

    • July 26, 2010 3:25 pm

      I agree, immigration is viewed very differently today. Immigrants like Michael took low paying jobs that either no one else would take, or where there were not enough people to fulfill the need. He was willing to work hard, and to work at anything to make ends meet.

  2. Stan permalink
    July 26, 2010 11:05 am

    What an amazing young man he must have been. I wonder if he would have stayed at home if the gypsies had not stolen his horses. N. America’s gain in the long run. Thank you for relating the next stage of his story, we were worried about his fate after the first episode.

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