Just few months after his inauguration, President William Howard Taft embarked on a cross-country speaking tour in 1909. As he reached the West Coast, he visited Merced on Oct. 6, 1909, en route to Yosemite and gave an important speech. In his address at Courthouse Park, Taft celebrated the American melting pot by saying, "We have Englishmen, Germans, Frenchmen, Scotchmen, Irishmen, Bohemians, Hungarians, Italians and Greeks, and we have shaken them all up in a bowl and we have got a new type; and that type is the type of American" (Merced County Sun, Oct. 8, 1909).
Taft redefined the "melting pot" concept by using the "mixing bowl" image, and embraced the idea of inclusion and assimilation of new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. In Merced, Taft found an appropriate forum in which to deliver this important speech about the diversity that has and continues to define America.
Merced County was a very diverse region as miners from a wide variety of countries and cultures resettled in the valley from the foothills, and railroad workers and farmers made their homes on the plains. Among this new wave of immigrants were those who left Greece between 1890 and 1920 for better economic opportunities in America.
There were 82 Greeks in Merced County at the time of the 1910 federal census; by 1920, there were 89. In comparison to the Italians and Portuguese, the Greeks had a relatively smaller presence in the area. As a result, their settlement in Merced County has not been well documented.
I was unfamiliar with this chapter of Merced history. Thanks to a letter from Christine Kutulas Roed of Richmond, I have been encouraged to learn about the settlement of Merced by Greek immigrants.
Roed was born in Merced on July 23, 1923, to Greek immigrant parents Steve and Caliope Kutulas (or Kutulan) and moved to San Francisco in 1938. She said that when her family was in Merced, there were several businesses owned and run by Greeks.
Young Greek men were supposed to come to America to work and send their hard-earned money home; however, many of them decided to stay in the United States and invested their money here. For example, Roed's uncle, Peter Kutulan, came to San Francisco with her father Steve in 1907. Instead of returning to Greece, Peter came to Merced in March 1921 and started a shoe-shine and repair business at 519 W. 17th St.
When Steve arrived in Merced with his wife in 1923, Peter sold the business to him and brought the Highway Restaurant at 543 W. 16th St. Steve ran Kutulan Shoe Shop with an Armenian partner for a few years until he started a janitorial business in the late 1920s.
Across the street from the Kutulan Shoe Shop was the California Café and Coffee Shop at 538 W. 17th St., owned and run by three Greek brothers: Peter, Theo and William Leonis. The brothers sold the restaurant to their fellow countrymen Gus Buras (or Booras) and Peter Barbis (or Barberis) in the late 1920s and opened the Three Lions Sweet Shop at 630 W. 17th St. They took over the adjacent spaces and had a liquor store at 628 and a restaurant at 632 in the mid-1930s.
Like other immigrants, the Greeks built their businesses near each other. This shows what a close-knit community it was. Peter Catseftas (or Catsiftes), for example, opened Valley Lunch Counter at 537 W. 16th St., close to Peter Kutulan's Highway Restaurant. Next to the California Café was San Francisco Fruit Market at 534 W. 17th St., run by Peter Bryan, also a Greek immigrant.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Peter Barbis decided to renovate and expand California Café and make it a first-class restaurant with "accommodations for 125 persons at one time" (Merced Sun-Star, May 31, 1930). In so doing, Barbis created much-needed jobs by using local contractors and hiring more people to work at the new cafe.
Among these Greek entrepreneurs, Gust T. Pappas was considered the pioneer. He came to Merced in 1919 and opened the French Grocery Company at 631 L (or Canal) St. He ran the store for more than a decade and made it one of the finest stores of its kind in Merced. "It is no small achievement for a foreigner," writes historian John Outcalt, "unacquainted with our language, to come here with limited means and in a few years establish the leading business in his line in a thriving city like Merced" ("History of Merced County" by John Outcalt, 1925).
Outcalt echoed President Taft's attitude toward these so-called less-desirable immigrants who had successfully assimilated into mainstream American society and become part of the "melting pot" or "mixing bowl." Admittedly, Taft's melting pot only allowed Europeans. Only with time, determination and struggle did the diversity that defines America come to have a broader and more inclusive meaning.
For more information about Merced's immigration history, please visit the Courthouse Museum.
Currently on display is the "Young Historians at Work: Merced High School Oral History Project" exhibit.
To support the museum programs, please buy tickets to our annual tea party in the historic courtroom. "RoyalTea Party" is the theme for this year's fund-raiser. It will be held April 13.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at email@example.com.