Saturday, November 11, 2006

How The Cokinos Brothers Came To America One At A Time

Once upon a time in Agulnitsa, Greece, in a tiny town very close to the sea and not terribly far from Olympia, seven brothers were born in a big house. Or was it nine?  And don't forget the girls- at least two or three of them.

One thing was certain- the Cokinos family had a lot of children, and America had a lot more space. The first time I visited the village,  it just boggled my mind to think that my Papou and his brothers had ever gotten out of Dodge. I first pictured them riding donkeys or even walking the whole way- carrying their things, perhaps sleeping in a barn, slogging through the Peloponnese mountains....but my overactive imagination and horrible sense of history overlooked the fact of a railroad. In reality, they only had to walk a few blocks to catch the train.

Adam, according to my father, was the eldest and the first to set forth. He came to Washington DC sometime around 1900 and opened a candy store at 924 9th St NW near K Street where the ever growing  Greek community would one day build St Sophia's at 8th and L in the 1920s. I don't know why he picked Washington- perhaps a friend or relation had come before him, but this is where he set up shop.

My grandfather, Panos arrived in America on the steamship "Georgia" on October 7, 1905. He dropped the Panos for "Pete," but he never did learn to speak English very well.

According to my father, the brothers worked together making candy and ice cream by hand in the basement of the shop until there was enough money for Pete to open his own store at 1103 H Street NE.  In 1910,  they were doing well enough to send for their younger brother, Alekos who had just turned 21. He arrived 95 years ago on November 11, 1911 and lived with his brothers until he got married.

Greek women were a rare commodity in Washington at the time. The men mostly came alone to make their fortunes, but networking was big- even without social media. Adam ended up finding the girl of his dreams in Philadelphia. He married "Katy" in 1912 and took her back to Washington where they had three little girls- Jean, Mary and Thetis.

Meanwhile back in Greece, in another little village called St John, near Sparta, again according to my father, a man walked out into his own yard only to be mowed down by a stray bullet. It was not his lucky day. He left behind an unmarried daughter, Pota, who was soon shipped off to America to live with her brother, Tom and his wife, Christina in New Jersey.  Christina was not thrilled by the new arrival.

Fortunately the Greek- American love line kicked in, and my Papou got on another life changing train. Pete was probably in his thirties by now and a much older man than Pota, but he was handsome and successful to boot. The Greeks never put much weight on exact birth dates so as our grandmother was getting on in years, she liked to use creative math and became younger and younger as time went on.  I am guessing in real time they were only about 8 or 9 years apart, but according to her calculations, Pete would have been around 30 when they met while she was a mere 12 years old. I did notice that Pete was equally guilty about fudging his age. I have found his original birthdate ranges from 1875- 1887. In the census of 1910,  he claims he was 33 years old, and ten years later in 1920 -he's still only 36. I'll bet his wife had no idea either.

Whatever the case, neither were spring chickens in 1914. They were married at 3 p.m. on July 30,  in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and without wasting any time, they took the 6 p.m. train back to Washington.  Their new life together began in the brand new house at 919 11th Street NE that Pete bought for his bride...(I wonder which came first- house or wife?)

Their first child Catherine came along in 1915 followed by my father, George and younger brother Nick. All were born at home-right up the street from the candy shop.

The children weren't allowed to sample the wares, but my crafty father took to wearing a bulky overcoat with lots of pockets-both winter and suspiciously summer, too- which allowed him to become an intrepid shoplifter. He later claimed he lost all his baby teeth to his voracious sugar habit.

Despite my father's thievery, the store was a big success until Woolworth’s moved into the neighborhood in the 1920s. At this point Pete decided to move out to the edge of town where the street car turned down Macomb Street off Wisconsin Avenue to make its way to American University. He built a two story building in 1926 with apartments upstairs and storefronts below. You can see this building today in its newest incarnation- the restaurant Cactus Cantina.

Adam also had a retirement plan. He bought a farm near Tuckerman Lane in Bethesda, but before he had a chance to live there, it burned to the ground. (Unfortunately, his caretaker had a habit of smoking in bed.) Uncle Adam sold his candy store to the Vilanos family and sometime in the mid 1920s, moved up to Philadelphia so Katie could be near her family again. He started the Guaranty Coffee Company on South Street and lived there the rest of his life.

Pete opened another candy shop up on Macomb Street, but business was slow in this less developed part of town. When the workmen building the National Cathedral started coming by looking for lunch, Pota would run upstairs to her apartment and get them soup. Soon the Macomb Cafeteria was born, and the family was in business again.

Brother Alec had moved uptown with them. He was still a lonely bachelor, but happily for him, the Haramkapolos brothers had just brought their sister, Koula over from Greece.  According to family lore, she came here because she couldn’t find a Greek man that was good enough to marry, but once she met our man Alec especially after she shook hands with him, she decided he was the one. (Those were the days.)

Koula and Alec were married in 1926 and lived in an apartment on Macomb Street-over what would become Burka’s Liquor Store for about six years. Soon their daughter Catherine was born. Here they are right in front of Macomb Cafeteria.

Then they became the caretakers of St Sophia's church down on L Street, where they got their own digs right next door.

1 comment:

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