The Slavonian American Benevolent Society-Tacoma, Washington


When a young man first came to Tacoma, Washington it was sometimes predetermined whether he was to call himself an Austrian or a Slavonian. Some parents wrote ahead to friends in America who operated the boarding houses and asked them to look out for their offspring. Otherwise, he was on his own to make the decision for himself. "If the young man came to Sera Kate, who was the widow of George Petrich, he was automatically a Slavonian. If he came to the boarding house of Sera Perina, who was Mrs. Nick Radonich, and, before her marriage, a David (De Vlahovich), he was automatically an Austrian.  These political leanings carried over into lodge activities.


In Tacoma, the Austrian Benevolent Society, which was formed in the late 1880's, was in conflict with the Slavonian American Benevolent Society for a long period of time.

The following article was taken from a newspaper clipping which appeared in the Daily Ledger, dated March 19, 1900: "Rival Societies Ask Coin Split Among the Austrians Is The Real Cause of Case Against Andrew Guich". A split in the Austrian society is the real cause of the injunction secured against Andrew Guich and the efforts of Peter David to secure the keys to the society's strong box. Guich is holding the keys and will not surrender them until the status of the two societies is deternined. And to determine that will bring out a knotty point of law somewhat similar to that in the Theosophical Society split of a few months ago. The money which Guich holds belonged to the Austrian Benevolent Society. Peter David was elected president of the society several weeks ago and made a demand for the keys to the strong box. Dissatisfaction among the members resulted in the formation of a new society, known as the Slavonian American Benevolent Society and the election of new officers. This society claims a membership of sixty-eight and as most of the members belonged to the old society, insist that the strong box is its property. Under the circumstances, Guich will not turn over the property to either society. 

Feelings were high, and there was great dissatisfaction on both sides, but, in time, the Slavonian-American Benevolent Society became the official lodge. The Slavonian-American Benevolent Society of Tacoma, which was incorporated on April 10, 1901, is a local organization which has survived and thrived throughout the years. Its meeting hall was built by its predominantly Dalmatian membership in the same year. The lodge played an important part in the lives of the community. Besides its social significance, it paid sick and death benefits to its members. The women's section of the lodge was organized in 1912 and helped assist the widows .and persons dependent upon deceased members. In 1976, the Slavonian American Befievolent Society celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary. The hall still served the community and now has a place on the National Register of Historic Places. During its early history, the lodge was one of the most active benevolent organizations in the city of Tacoma and the surrounding area. Its band and drill team competed with the local Eagles and Moose lodges, which were considered the leading benevolent groups of the country at that time. The members were men of many talents, some of whom built a theater in the lodge building. They presented plays using local talent from among the families of the area. These stage plays were a source of enjoyment to the community. In later years, the theater was rented to the Tacoma Little Theater.

The Slavonian-American Benevolent Society conducted an interesting ritual at the funerals of their departed members. The American flag which flew above the hall would be lowered to half-mast at the passing of a member, or of a state or local dignitary. This custom continues today, and the Slavonian community still looks to this flag as a bellwether of such solemn tidings. When a member of the lodge died, the membership was expected to attend the funeral. The night before the funeral, the body of the deceased was placed in the parlor of his home, and mourners surrounded the casket and prayed the rosary. Food and drink were brought by relatives, friends, neighbors, and lodge members who came to the wake, which lasted all night long. The next day, with solemn, dramatic demeanor, the members of the lodge, led by a band resplendent in goldbraided uniforms, marched in front of the horse-drawn hearse with great dignity, pomp, and ceremony to the church. The procession sometimes covered a great distance.

When Stephen Babare died in 1910, the members of the lodge marched from his residence at North 32nd and White Street to St. Patrick's Catholic Church (a distance of about ten long blocks, which included many very steep hills) to attend a Requiem High Mass. After the mass, the band and lodge members marched again to South 17th and Jefferson Avenue (a distance of over two miles). Here it was the custom to line up on both sides of the street. As the horsedrawn hearse and the mourners went by on their way to the cemetery, the men removed their derby hats and placed them over their hearts while the band played "Nearer My God to Thee". This ritual was abandoned in 1915. Matt Cuculich was the last member to be buried in this manner. 


Tri Kraija Bali


The Three Kings Dance, which originated in 1901 at the Slavonian Hall in Tacoma, drew Slavonians from all corners of Washington State.  It was known as the "Tri Kraija Bali", and was, and still is, a favorite holiday function. After the gaiety of the Christmas season and the beginning of the New Year, there is usually a lull in the social season. This was not so for the Slavs. The Three Kings, or the Epiphany, is a Catholic feast day celebration of the three kings who had followed the star to Bethlehem and offered the gifts to the Christ Child. The dance that celebrated this event still takes place on the first or second weekend of January. It is not limited to those of the Catholic faith but was, especially in the first half of the century, an event to renew old acquaintances and meet new friends.

Many courtships began at these dances. Mary Cuculich met Tony Kordich there in 1913. Mike Barovic met Andrea Constanti in 1921. Pete Jugovich met Darinka Boskovich in 1928, and John Martinolich met Sue Givins in 1939. These were but a few of the dozens of romances that began when Slavonians gathered for this gala party. Even the little children would await this event with great anticipation people attended from Gig Harbor, Seattle, Bellingham, Everett, Portland, Spokane, and Aberdeen. They came by boat, wagon, train, bringing their children with them, and made plans to stay with friends. Young men came to the houses of the ladies early in the afternoon to place their names on the programs. The out-of-towners were furious when they discovered that there were no dances left for them. The men also carried white linen handkerchiefs while dancing, so they would not soil the ladies' gowns with moist hands. At midnight, a Grand March was led by the president of the lodge and his wife. Later a big dinner of sauerkraut, spaghetti, barbequed lamb, wine, and homemade pastries was served. The young men always vied for the honor of walking the young ladies home, under the watchful eyes of the parents who were usually walking a short distance behind."

The watchful eyes of the elders were always on these proceedings, and they were called the "Censor Board" by the younger set. "This consisted of most of the mothers, sitting on benches which lined the walls of the dance floor of the lodge, where they would keep an eye on 'who danced with whom' and 'how many times!'This. was one of their ways of predicting a budding romance, or, in some cases, they were hoping it would." How difficult it was for the young man who had many sisters or cousins, for he had to dance with them at least once before he sought the girls of his choice. It didn't make the cousins feel any better when the young man said, "Let's dance over here so my mother can see this."

Whenever there was a dinner or dance at the lodge, during intermission a few men and women would invariably start singing softly some of the old country songs. Within a very short time, a group would form, and one could hear them singing with feeling and depth." The rafters shook from the volume of their voices, and a feeling of warmth, love, and friendship prevailed. An integral part of this lodge was- really its conviviality, stemming from love of music, both vocal and instrumental."

This Tacoma lodge and its activities, which survive today, are typical of what has taken place, and continues to take place.


Petrich, M.