Bellingham's Croatian Roots

  • Posted 1/25/2011
  • Essay 9696
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This reminiscence on traveling to a Croatian village to explore his roots was written by Steve Kink, who grew up in Bellingham's Slav fishing community. Steve's grandparents, Paul Kink (originally Kinkusich) and Maria (Evich) Kink, emigrated from Croatia to Bellingham. His father, Mitchell Kink (originally Kinkusich), was born here and he, his brother, and his cousins comprised the second generation. Much of the Croatian immigration to Bellingham and the Northwest came from a tiny little island called Vis located near the coast in today’s Croatia. The island of Vis, then as today, consisted of two towns called Vis and Komiza plus several small villages. Steve Kink's grandparents came from the island, Marie from Komiza and Paul from one of the small villages.  They arrived in Bellingham around the turn of the century (1900). This People's History recounts Steve's return trip to the island of Vis in 2008.

Our Croatian Roots by Steve Kink

I had always wondered about the roots of this Croatian culture and community. Would the customs, occupations, and traditions be the same in the “old country” as I experienced growing up in Bellingham? Would the environment be comparable in any way? What would it be like in Croatia a hundred years after my grand parents left?  If I went there, what would I find?   

It is with this curiosity that my wife, Joann, and I accompanied by my cousin Marianne Ott and her husband, Jim, decided to go to Komiza. We wanted to see for ourselves the actual geographic and cultural roots of our inheritance.  

After stops in Dubrovnik and Hvar, we took a ferry from Split to Vis. The part of the Croatian coast that we had seen up to this point was gorgeous. Would Komiza be the same? As Vis appeared in the distance, it looked many of the islands we had previously noted. Vis was a small rounded island. Most of the shore was rocky with few sandy beaches. It was green with vegetation consisting of small pine trees, bushes, olive and fig trees, vineyards, and some gardens spread among the rocky landscape.  

We got off the ferry in Vis town and grabbed the community bus for the several kilometer trip over the island to Komiza. As we came over a small mountain, Komiza came into view.  Looking down from the mountain road, there were many terraced gardens and vineyards along the slope between us and the town. It was a beautiful serene little town located on a small bay. The small houses had red or tan tiled roofs and white or tan sided walls.  A few trees were scattered among the buildings. St. Nicholas church stood majestically above the town surrounded by trees and vineyards. The waterfront was filled with a variety of fishing boats, some anchored and some tied to the promenade and a pier. The pier stretched about a quarter of a kilometer into the bay providing excellent protection for the small boats in the harbor. The setting and beauty was far more than we expected.

After we settled in our rooms at the Villa Nonna, we spent the next few days exploring and experiencing the lifestyle of this lovely little town. The first thing that amazed my about the place was the water. It was clearer and cleaner than anyplace I had been including Alaska, Hawaii, Mexico, the Pacific coast, and other Mediterranean destinations. The color was unique but probably best described as radiant light blue in shallow water and a darker blue in deep water.

Fish abound and as we walked along the pier and promenade we could see them dart about in the water beneath the pier.   

It became very clear that this was primarily a fishing town. There were large purse seiners, with nets and skiffs like those found in Bellingham, Anacortes, Gig Harbor etc. Although designed only slightly different than those of the Puget Sound and Alaska, they had virtually the same type of fishing gear and used the same techniques. Seeing the gear and boats brought back memories of purse seining in Puget Sound and Alaska because it was instantly familiar. These Croatian seiners were equipped to fish for several days at a time around the Adriatic Sea.

There was a variety of small boats separately outfitted to catch lobster, calamari, and octopus.  The small boats were used for day fishing, leaving in the early morning and returning in the evening with their catch. Virtually all of these boats were painted white making the harbor view synonymous with the town’s predominately white buildings.    

Children were trying to catch fish from the promenade using little handheld nets. Anyone who has been on the floats in Friday Harbor watching children trying to catch pile shrimp would instantly relate to this scene in Komiza.  

Komiza fisherman were tending their boats and fishing gear. They were talking and laughing and I suspect sharing fishing stories and the recent gossip. This again reminded me of the many hours I spent in Bellingham working on nets, doing maintenance work on purse seiners, and listening to the stories shared by the sons of the first immigrants from Komiza.  

We strolled along the narrow streets throughout the town. We found everything on a much smaller scale than at home. Groceries, hardware, and nautical supplies were sold out of little shops.  A few people sold things like vinegar, wine, and olive oil out of their homes. It seemed that everyone had their own family recipes. It reminded me of what Fairhaven was like when I was growing up. No large super markets, no big chain stores, and my grandmother making wine, Slav spaghetti, and Slav sauerkraut from family recipes she remembered as a child in Komiza.  

Each evening grandparents, parents, and children would stroll along the promenade. It was a friendly and open atmosphere as people stopped and chatted and laughed. During the day several men would sit in front of bars and talk, laugh, and then suddenly some would stand up and start singing. They were extremely good and it appeared that they got great pleasure out of singing together.  

Komiza had several small restaurants which served great food. Obviously, seafood was a main attraction. I had the best squid I have ever eaten, there was plenty of spaghetti and yes, even pizza. There was a small bakery that put out excellent pastries all of which reminded me of eating at grandmothers on 12th street in Bellingham, except for the pizza.  

We visited a war memorial and the cemetery by Saint Nicholas Church in Komiza. The names we found could have been the same as those found in the Bayview Cemetery in Bellingham with one exception.  Names with an “h” at the end found in Bellingham like Mardesich, Zorotovich, Zuanich, Ivcevich (Evich), Vitalich, Pecarich, Stanovich, and Repanich were absent the “h” in Komiza.  That can be explained by the fact that “ic” is pronounced like  “ich” or “itch.” Immigration offers were known to spell the names like they sounded as thousands of immigrants filed through customs. Other names like Zanki and Kuljis were exactly the same.    

The cemetery in Komiza was well kept and beautiful. Smooth large granite slabs covered graves containing several family members whose coffins were stacked neatly in layers. The deceased headstones were usually marked with recent pictures and the dates of birth and death. Clearly there was great respect for those who had lived and died here. Joann noticed that there were few in the number of burials between the 1940s through the 1970s. We attributed the gap to the large number of people that emigrated from Komiza. and some lost to war.  

The hill above the town was somewhat terraced half way up the mountain. It appeared that not all of it was cultivated as it once had been. However, there were several vineyards producing grapes for all those family wines made in their homes. This brought back memories of smashing grapes in large vats in my grandmother’s basement as she, my dad, uncle and aunts made the family wine for us. 

Komiza is not a tourist destination yet. However, sail boaters have it as a stop over in their travels up and down the Croatian coast as evidenced by the 35 of them tied to the pier for a couple of nights. This reminded me of Bellingham’s waterfront as commercial fishing boats slowly gave way to pleasure boats. The town is not geared for tourists but there are those that are now making an income off some tourism. It reminds me of those in the San Juan Islands who struggle between keeping a small island culture versus those who want to expand and make a living from tourism.

We found Komiza to be a wonderful place that has maintained its culture and customs for centuries. It’s somewhat sad that you now have to go to Komiza to see what the fishing culture and Slav community life was once like in Fairhaven on Bellingham’s south side.

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