The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Home Lands

May 30, 2010

Croatian Hall began as haven for immigrants

When Stephen Gojmerac took over in 1965 as secretary of St. Rochus Society Lodge No. 5 of the Croatian Fraternal Union of America, he wasn’t sure what to expect.

“I went to a meeting one day and they handed me the book and said ‘here,’ ” said Gojmerac, 78, who retired in 1998 as superintendent of the Johnstown Housing Authority.

Thumbing through a 54-page book called “Down at the Club,” published in 1994 by the Johnstown Area Heritage Association, Gojmerac marveled at the living history of the club he is proud to to serve.

“Many prominent people in the club have passed on,” Gojmerac said.

“I’ve tried to keep the membership growing.”

The hall, located at 612 Broad St. in the Cambria City section of Johnstown, has been a haven for immigrants from Croatia, one of six Federated Republics of the former Yugoslavia.

Interestingly, Gojmerac credits a Serbian named Bozo Goisovich as being the club’s founder.

Goisovich pioneered the club in 1894 with about a dozen members in the basement of St. Stephen’s Church before St. Rochus Croatian Catholic Church was built in 1900.

Although Goisovich was Serbian, he came from the same region as most of Johnstown’s early Croatian settlers and spoke a similar language. 

“We had no problems getting along with the Serbians,” Gojmerac said.

‘A meeting place’

According to documents provided by the lodge, Goisovich ran six businesses at the time and saw a need to organize Croatian immigrants who came to Johnstown after the 1889 Flood.

He and a band of Croatians traveled to Pittsburgh to form the First Croatian National Benefit Society.

Later – with the 1925 merger of the Croatian League of Illinois and the St. Joseph Society of Kansas – it became the Croatian Fraternal Union of America.

The club grew as weary coal miners and steelworkers of Slavic descent sought a place to preserve their language and customs.

“It used to be a meeting place for miners to share their stories and pass on their heritage,” Gojmerac said.

By 1897, the club moved from St. Stephen’s Church to a one-story structure it had purchased on Bradley Alley that old-timers called the “shack by the track.”

The club later moved into its current home, a two-story building on Broad Street.

Like other lodges, the Croatian Club sold insurance to help its members.

Most of Johnstown’s major employers, such as Cambria Steel and later Bethlehem Steel, offered only small death benefits.

Sports and entertainment

Today, the club continues to sell life insurance and offer other investments, Gojmerac said.

The Croatian Hall also provided entertainment.

The first Singing Society and Tamburitza Orchestra organized under the name Slavulj and the Singing Society.

The two groups merged in 1910 to form what is now the Rodoljub Croatian Educational Singing Society.

Rodoljub is the oldest Croatian singing society in America.

When Duquesne University created the “world famous” Tamburitzans in the 1930s, it relied on talent from the club, which later sponsored junior tamburitzans.

“When the Duquesne group started in the 1930s, we had a stage and would charge 50 cents to see the show,” Gojmerac said.

The club also was active on the Johnstown sports scene.

Croatians in the 1920s sponsored the CFU Athletic Club, which met in an auditorium above the hall on Broad Street. The club sponsored track, wrestling, boxing and other indoor sports.  

Baseball became a popular sport for many social clubs in the 1920s and ’30s with the CFU baseball team winning the prestigious City League Championship in 1934.

The team’s coach, Frank Sobditch, later admitted to hiring a few ringers, mostly “Serbian boys” who could swing the bat.

The Croatians “weren’t much at baseball,” Sobditch once said.

‘As long as we can’

The Croatian Hall also served as a meeting place for the Association of Iron, Steel and Tin workers, the forerunner to the United Steelworkers of America, and the United Mine Workers.

It has survived two major floods.

Extensive repairs were made after the 1936 flood.

A dam broke in 1977, and rushing water destroyed the lounge. Without objections, the members voted to rebuild, and renovation was completed in less than a year.

In the years following World War II, the club was faced with a slow decline in membership.

“It got to a point where everybody was leaving the area,” Gojmerac said.

“They got married and left. Their children left.”

The club soon opened its doors to Italians, Germans and other nationalities.

“It’s hard to find people of Croatian heritage because the older ones have passed away,” he said.

To keep the club prosperous, anyone can become an active member by buying insurance or becoming a social member for $3 a year.

Members can drink at the bar and attend events, including bingo and dances.

Gojmerac has a son and granddaughter working at the club, which has grown from fewer than 800 members in 1965 to more than 1,000 active members and 700 social members and 300 junior members now.

Gojmerac, who also is president, said the club has enough in the bank to function for another 50 years.

What happens then will depend on new leadership and new members.

“We’ll keep it going for as long as we can,” he said.

“We’ll get new members, but that’s hard to do.”

 

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