A small country that would fit between Fairbanks and Tok, Montenegro
has produced many talented people. Their names are so identified with Fairbanks, they
are not thought of as Croatian or Montenegrin: Stepovich, Hajdukovich, Butrovich, Yankovich,
Laughing at the abundance of his successful countrymen, miner and inventor John Miscovich
said from his mine in Flat, "When the immigrants arrived here, they were free finally
to develop and expand their abilities."
Montenegro's greatest export, before industrialization, was its emigrants.
Marco "Wise Mike" Stepovich, known for his quips, grew up in the rocky town of Risan,
on the Adriatic Sea. In 1898, hearing about the Klondike gold rush, he left his balmy home
region to pack over Alaska's Chilkoot Trail. Meeting Croatian John Butrovich
Sr., the two later staked claims in 1903 at Fairbanks Creek.
Six years later when Butrovich was wintering Outside, Stepovich couldn't resist working
Butroavich's claim as well as several others. The offended miners figured Stepovich needed
a lesson. Butrovich took Wise Mike's guns and the indignant miners waited
for him to go to bed.
According to the 1909 Fairbanks
Daily News-Miner, Butrovich fired two shots over Wise Mike's head. But
always the one with the last word, Stepovich drew a hidden pistol from
a holster near his bed. Surprised, the bushwhackers went scurrying into
the woods. Chuckling over it still today, the Stepovich clan and the Butrovich
family have always enjoyed telling the story.
Many of the old Slavic prospectors,
though, never had families. Wise Mike's daughter-in-law, Matilda, remembered
the joy of these men when she strolled down Second Avenue with her infant
daughter, Antonia. "Dalmatinka!" people would shout at the Dalmatian-born
Matilda. Speaking to her in Serbian, some would flip silver dollars into
the baby's stroller.
"Having no family, (these
prospectors) vanished with the wind, without a trace," Matilda said last
month from her Oregon home.
But other Yugoslavs did leave
their mark in early Fairbanks. Many of the downtown bars were owned by
Yugoslavs and some of the commercial buildings belonged to Milo Hajdukovich.
However, Mike Yankovich was
a farmer, experimenting in Siberian wheat. Farming the precursor of the
Muskox Farm, known today as the University of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal
Research Station, he used to enjoy bringing milk for kajmac, the soft Montenegrin
cheese of his youth, to various Yugoslavian families.
Many of the male immigrants
were bachelors, but, if they could afford it, they preferred returning
home, either to Croatia or Montenegro for a bride. Approaching 60 years
old, Wise Mike Stepovich, Milo Hajdukovich and Nick Borovich returned to
Montenegro to find the right woman.
Divorced from his first wife,
Stepovich married 26-year-old Vuka Radovic in Risan in 1929, the start
of the Great Depression. A little later, Hajdukovich married Ellen Lesperovic
in his home village of Kolassin. Inspired by these Montenegrin beauties,
Borovich traveled to Vinicke in 1938, just before the start of World War
II, in hopes of finding a wife.
Borovich, a miner, approached
Milovan Sajicic, a leading citizen in the village of Vinicke and a friend
of the Montenegrin royal family, to inquire about his daughter Angelina.
Borovich treated the elder man to coffee, arranging to meet again the following
Strolling by the fresh food
stands, dark-eyed Angelina held her brother's arm walking in the traditional
afternoon promenade, "korzo." Discovering her escort was not her fiancee,
Borovich went to her father, asking promptly for Angelina's hand in marriage.
Sajicic agreed but took his daughter aside for a careful explanation.
Sixty years later, now known
as Angie Geraghty of Fairbanks, she retold the scene, remembering her father's
"Gina, a great war is coming
to Europe," he began, holding her hand and looking deeply into her eyes.
"You may be the only one of my nine children to survive. Nick will be good
to you," he continued. "He's taking you to America, the greatest country
in all the world. But don't mix with just your own people. Learn, Gina,
what makes that country great."
When asked how her family
left behind in Yugolavia had fared after she left for America, Geraghty
became quiet, feeling the tragedy that had broken up a family and the suffering
her brother endured. While Marshal Tito's partisans were systematically
purging Yugoslavia in 1945, her family's link to the king put them in jeopardy.
Her mother hid her brother for a year behind a cupboard, only letting him
out at night. Shaking off her sorrow, Geraghty added, "But I was able to
send money to my family through all the years."
Turning to a 1910 photograph
hanging in her vestibule of Montenegro's King Nikola I and the royal family,
she said, savoring the memory, "My father used to dance with the king's
"Montenegrins have such a
heart," she said. "You will never find anywhere else. They give after even
being hurt repeatedly. They trust without caution and treat visitors like
The poet/prince-bishop, Njegos,
who looks out from a portrait in Geraghty's home, is remembered for telling
his people, "Defend yourself from attack, but protect the vulnerable, even
"Your only nationality is
man and his dignity. Your real heritage is never to submit to evil or to
Vuka Radovic Stepovich, now
96, absorbed this gentle simplicity of Njegos. In her warm, rich conversation,
she repeated, as she sat in her Fairbanks home, a story of Montenegrin
courage and a stone armory.
Three hundred years before
Vuka was born, the Turks held her town. High on a mountain overlooking
the Gulf of Kotor sat a Turkish artillery depot. Like David against Goliath,
the Montenegrin men built a cannon from a cherry tree. Reinforced by the
neighboring Hercegovian army, Vuka's ancestor lit the cannon's gunpowder,
beginning the takeover of the armory and liberation of the town.
Spending her early summers
in the home that was converted from the armory, Vuka's life was good until
the tragic death of her mother hastened by the death of her brother. Then
the chaos of World War I followed.
When Vuka married Wise Mike
Stepovich, she left a broken country for an Alaska gold mine and inherited
his children from his previous marriage.
Her stepson Mike, a first-generation
American-Montenegrin, met Matilda Baricevic, a Croatian girl, in Portland,
Ore. After he graduated from law school, Mike and Matilda married and they
returned to Mike's original home in Alaska. Not content to just practice
law, Mike went on to become a territorial legislator.
Again, the names Butrovich
and Stepovich became linked. However, this time, they were gunning for
the same cause, not for each other. John Butrovich Jr., the longest serving
territorial/state senator, and Mike "Stepo" Stepovich, known jokingly in
the Slavic community as "two sons of viches," campaigned hard for Alaska's
statehood. Catching the attention of the secretary of the Interior and
President Eisenhower, Butrovich and Stepovich became candidates for the
federally appointed Alaska gubernatorial position.
According to Butrovich's
granddaughter, Lesley Sims of Anchorage, Sen. Butrovich, who suffered from
asthma, declined the appointment largely due to his health and wrote in
1957 a letter to the Interior secretary recommending Stepovich.
"Mike is a terrific vote
getter," Sims read from a copy of the original letter. "He is active, intelligent
but, more importantly, a man of high principles. He will make plenty of
mistakes, but he will make plenty of friends."
Ultimately chosen by Eisenhower,
Stepovich moved with his wife Maltilda, pregnant with the seventh of their
13 children, into the governor's mansion in 1957, beginning his new role
as Alaska's governor. Two years later, his dreams were realized when Alaska
became the 49th state.
Memories of a century of
Alaskan-Montenegrin pioneers are gathered in Soapy Smith's, the Second
Avenue restaurant owned by Nicholas Stepovich, one of Mike and Matilda's
sons. Some pioneers are remembered in lunch conversations, while others
are displayed in photographs on the wall.
In a picture hanging in the
restaurant corridor, Pete Miscovich's family smiles into the camera at
a Serbian Christmas party in 1945. Miscovich, the founder of the longest
family-owned gold mine still operating in the Interior, began the Golden
Horn Mine with a shovel. Later becoming efficient with a bulldozer, he
passed the business on to his son, John, who is, at age 80, still keeping
the mine running.
Needing to cut his mining
costs, John invented, in 1948, the Intelligiant, a highly pressurized,
robotic nozzle that did the work of 12 employees in removing overburden,
enabling him to continue mining. A technology used now all over the world,
"it was invented," Miscovich said, "because labor expenses were eating
me up, mining at Ruby."
However, most early miners,
like George Bojanich still used shovel and pan. His wife Mary prospected
with him up the remote Koyukuk River. After eight years of hard scrabble
mining, George and Mary left the Bush and returned to Fairbanks. There
George joined his brother Steve and Milo Hajdukovich, operating the fashionable
Model Cafe on Front Street and Second Avenue.
Many former Yugoslavs dined
at the Model Cafe, where they frequently met Joe Jackovich and talked about
the latest hydraulic draglines available at Jackovich Tractor. Sitting
at the lunch counter, famed prospector-trapper-trailbreaker John Hajdukovich,
Milo's cousin, enjoyed reading his United Serbian newspaper when he was
in from Big Delta. Interested in politics, John followed events at home
In 1945, as the communists
asserted their control over the six Yugoslav republics, John and Milo learned
that three of Milo's brothers and his nephew, all influential landowners,
had been shot by the partisans. A surviving nephew, Branko Hajdukovic,
a baby at the time, and a cousin, Dragan Hajdukovic, grew up in communist
Yugoslavia, a country quite different from the one known by Fairbanks immigrants
prior to 1939.
Dragan Hajdukovic, a physicist
and a cousin of Frontier Flying Service's John Hajdukovich listened recently
in Montenegro to stories about the impact Alaskan-Montenegrins have had
on Alaska. Then, he said gently, "If my country has contributed to your
state, then, we are glad."