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Heartland Magazine, Fairbanks, Alaska, March 21, 1999 (for fair use only !)
Interior immigrants
From a tiny country to the Great Land


A twinkly-eyed gentleman tended his roses at his home in Montenegro. Having heard the story of Alaska's Montenegrin immigrants, Rasha Maksimovic smiled, "There should be a link between my country and Alaska."

Now known in the headlines as one of the world's hot spots of war and turmoil, this part of the former Yugoslavia does have a strong link to Alaska's history.

Joe Jackovich Sr., speaking from his office at Jackovich Tractor, agreed with an old-timer's saying, "If you weren't Yugoslavian during the 1930s and '40s in Fairbanks, you didn't go far."

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, Jackovich, Miscovich.

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 market day.

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 words:

"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 daughter, Elena."

"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 royalty."

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 from yourself.

"Your only nationality is man and his dignity. Your real heritage is never to submit to evil or to betray faith."

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 Montenegro.

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."

Defining destiny

Centuries of outside aggression have not changed the sublime beauty of Montenegro. Its karst mountains are bordered by the Adriatic Sea, hemmed in by a series of tiny beaches. Home to the world's second largest grand canyon, Montenegro boasts also of the Balkans' largest inland body of water, Lake Skadar.

Its rivers flow off its mountain range into eastern Europe while the Moraca River drains to the west. Montenegrans say, "Even the water imprints a destiny on our people, a flow of east and west."

An eloquent people with a love for language, Montenegro developed the first printing press in the south Slav regions in 1494.

"No other country," according to physicist Dragan Hajdukovic, "has produced, for its size, such a large number of creative minds."

Even ruled by poets, Montenegro's unique, "prince-bishops," a blend of church and state, have imparted a servant's humility, fighting alongside their warriors, keeping their mountains free through 500 years of the Ottoman empire. Montenegro has long stood for independence and freedom of the common man.

Judy Ferguson is a free-lance writer living in Delta.