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(E) Old Croatian Family on Staten Island, NY
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  01/29/2004 | Community | Unrated
(E) Old Croatian Family on Staten Island, NY

 

Old Croatian Family on Staten Island, New York

The following article comes from the Staten Island Advance. For those
non-New Yorkers, Staten Island is one of the 5 boroughs which make up
New York City. There was a small Croatian community in Mariner's
Harbor, Staten Island which was also the site of a CFU lodge.

John Kraljic

A simple life in simpler times
The stories of a Croatian family that settled in Mariners Harbor around
World War I make for an interesting look backward
Wednesday, January 28, 2004
By KATHRYN CARSE
STATEN ISLAND ADVANCE

When Anne Devlin was growing up she was often told by her parents, to
listen because "everyone has a story." As it turned out, some of the
richest stories she would hear were the ones involving her own family.

Many of them were told by her maternal grandmother, Anna Stipcich Zec,
born Anna Poulec, an illiterate immigrant from Croatia who outlived two
husbands and hung on to the age of 94.

An extended illness before her death gave Ms. Devlin's mother, Anne
Stipcich Stenglein, the chance to pass on more of the family's legacy of
stories about life in Mariners Harbor during the Depression and World
War II. And photos taken by Ms. Devlin's father, John Stenglein, a
lifelong amateur photographer, provided pictorial stepping stones
through the family history.

The stories are rooted long ago, back when the shipbuilding and repair
industry industry along the northwestern coast of Staten Island kept
thousands employed.

More than anything, the "waste not, want not" life of Ms. Devlin's
grandmother and parents gave meaning to the word frugal, observed Ms.
Devlin, though she is quick to qualify a word that is often used to mean
"cheap."

"They were frugal in the best sense of the word," said the New Brighton
resident. "They managed well with very little and never lived beyond
their means."

The matriarch of the family lived most of her life in a bungalow -- a
deceptively roomy, two story house -- on Holland Avenue at the edge of
Downey's Swamp, one of the major ponds that makes up what is now known
as Mariners Marsh. It was a kind of no-man's swatch of wetlands that
roll over the western shore of Staten Island. As it is now, it was a
refuge for wildlife such as muskrat and a haven for kids in the
neighborhood who would fish and ice skate there depending on the season.


Mrs. Zec, her first husband Ignace Stipcich and a few of their children
arrived in Mariners Harbor in 1912, when she was 25. They did not stay
for long, leaving to seek work as far away as Michigan and returning to
Pennsylvania, where they had been tenant farmers, and New Jersey where
their daughter Anne was born in Rahway. They settled for good in
Mariners Harbor sometime around World War I.

The Croatia Mrs. Zec left behind was a land of a tribal people who were
part of the Austria-Hungary Empire. After World War I, the Croats were
taken over by Yugoslavia. They did not gain independence until 2000. For
her, Croatia was a chaotic place where marauding invaders plundered
villages in search of males to abduct for conscription. As a girl with
poor eyesight, her life was no less embattled as she was denied an
education in her native country and relegated to indentured servitude.
From the age of 7, she worked as a scullery maid in an aristocratic
house. She impressed her employers with her cooking skills at an early
age and moved up in status.

Fittingly enough, after arriving in Mariners harbor, her kitchen on
Holland Avenue was the center of family life. The resourcefulness and
skill that the young servant girl employed in her native land resurfaced
during the Depression years when she appropriated land from the swamp
area and farmed vegetables to distribute and barter for goods in the
community of Polish and Slavic immigrants who lived in the area.

Having raised livestock in Pennsylvania, Mrs. Zec raised pigs (one at a
time) on her "farm" on Holland Avenue. An African-American man who lived
on the block helped her slaughter each pig for which he was paid in pork
and a good meal.

The pig farm was hardly within the zoning laws, but flouting the law for
the necessities of living and smoothing the way by offering a hardy meal
came naturally to Mrs. Zec. In true European style, she produced her own
wine and whiskey. Her daughter, Anne, Ms. Devlin's mother, related that
when the authorities showed up periodically to investigate, her mother
would feed the "detectee" in the kitchen while she ran into the swamp
with the still.

At her funeral, Mrs. Devlin was touched by the number of people who told
her "your grandmother fed my family."

In another, more enlightened time, Mrs. Zec might have been a shrewd
businesswoman. In addition to bartering her produce for goods, she took
in boarders.

The will to survive and work overshadowed all other values, and the
young Anne Stipcich Stenglein and her siblings were, in turn, put to
work at an early age. In fact, her mother and father actively blocked
their education so that might work.

Despite the disruptions in her education from the many moves the family
made and the lack of parental support, Anne succeeded not only in
securing a high-school education by walking to Port Richmond High
School, but taught herself to read and write in Croatian, her first
language and to become fluent in French.

She worked at the Electric Boat Co. in Bayonne, a company that built PT
boats during World War II, a time of intense activity on the waterfront.
She also organized socials that promoted ethnic food options and folk
dancing. They were held at Bukovac's on Simonson Avenue, one of a few
establishments that the Bukovac family owned.

Several Bukovac family members were musicians, and Ms. Devlin remembers
going to family weddings where the food was plentiful and a tamburitza
band would play as the polka and kolo, a circle dance, was danced.

The establishment was the center of neighborhood social life and
continues today as a tavern and catering hall called the Eagle's Nest.
John White, the present owner, is aware of its place in the community.
One legend he has heard is that Buffalo Bill stayed upstairs when he was
in Mariners Harbor with his Wild West Show.

When the young Anne Stipcich and her sister, Mildred, were decorating
for one of these socials, a handsome police recruit, John Stenglein,
offered to hold the ladder she was on.

Stenglein, parents of German immigrants, lived first on Van Pelt Avenue
and then on Richmond Terrace in a house whose architectural details have
been muddled by alterations over the years. Still, the grand mansard
roof is visible, indicating a social status somewhere between the humble
bungalow on Holland Avenue and the mansions of oyster captains along
South Avenue, ornaments of wealth from a bygone era.

Stenglein's parents were educated in Germany. His father was an
accountant with a firm on Roosevelt Island.

An outstanding football player with the Stapleton Arrows, the young
Stenglein was offered a college scholarship in Connecticut. He had to
forgo it, however, after his father died unexpectedly from pneumonia and
he had to help support his mother.

He didn't have to go far for work. Across the street was the Great Lakes
Dredge and Dock Company where he got a job as a blacksmith. The company,
a worldwide operation based in Chicago, Ill., is still operating on the
Terrace.

According to Charles Sachs, in "Made on Staten Island," in the early
years of the 20th century, the northwest corner of the Island saw a boom
in shipbuilding and repair plants with a work force of 6,806 people by
1920. The 1940s saw a second surge, especially with the establishment of
Bethlehem Steel shipyard which employed 12,000 workers.

In comparison, Brian Goetchius, yard superintendent at Great Lakes, says
that there may have been 30 to 40 employees not long ago, though today
there are just six or seven fulltime employees, the rest transient
workers who come to do the dredge work.

Stenglein went on to be accepted in the police department. He served in
the 6th Precinct for 26 years.

When Anne Stipcich and Stenglein married, they lived in the Holland
Avenue house. On warm summer nights, Stenglein, who had bought a 16mm
projector, would put a sign up, "Movies tonight." He attached a screen
to the side of the barn, and when darkness fell, neighbors would gather
for entertainment and refreshments baked by Mrs. Stenglein.

The young family moved to Port Richmond in the 1950s, but Stenglein kept
his ties to Mariners Harbor, especially through athletics. In the days
before Little League and Babe Ruth leagues, he reinvigorated the
Mariners Harbor Democrats (not a political club), whose members cleared
the lot across from Weissglass Dairy to make Decker Field.

Among the many fellows who were given something to do and kept out of
trouble was Nick Bruno, a standout Port Richmond basketball and baseball
player who was a beloved teacher at PS 44, Mariners Harbor.

Ms. Devlin, a librarian at Egbert Intermediate School in Midland Beach,
reflects on the balanced life her parents lived with attention to manual
tasks like baking, sewing and carpentry, physical fitness and the
intellectual stimulation of reading poetry -- Kipling, Tennyson, Whitman
-- together.

What they also did, she said, was live a simple life in a way that they
believed. "You really do make a difference if you think that we are all
in this together." tail Kathryn Carse is the Flip! editor of the Staten
Island Advance. She can be reached at carse@siadvance.com .

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