Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Frank, Part I: Growing Up

Frank L. Strukel, 1940s, Elkhart, Indiana

Frank Louis Strukel was the youngest of my atypical number of six grandparents, having been born 28 October 1922 in Wolf Park, Colorado. One would be hard-pressed to find the location of Wolf Park on a current map. What little remained of it in the latter part of the twentieth century was annexed by Cañon City in Fremont County, but even prior to that, it was only a designated flat on topographical maps. But in the early twentieth century, it was home to the Wolf Park Coal Mine owned by the Wolf Park Leasing Company of Cañon City, Colorado, and Frank Strukel was born here, the son of an immigrant Slovenian coal miner.

Janez Štrukelj and Terezija Stupica were both 1902 Slovene immigrants, and both were eighteen years old upon their arrival to this country. Both were from poor, relatively mobile Catholic families that lived about twenty-five miles south of today's capital city of Ljubljana. Many Slovenes were schooled in both their native language as well as in German, and many records of the area are found written in a mix of German, Slovene and Latin. Since the Slavic languages were so alien to English-speaking ears, Janez Štrukelj became the Germanic Johan Strukel, and finally the English John Strukel. Terezija similarly became Theresa, but she soon preferred to be called by a shortened nickname, Rose.

Both teenagers followed a chain migration to the Iron Mountain region of northern Minnesota, where Slovenes had been settling since the 1880s, arriving in response to the boom of iron ore mining in the area. When the first Slovenian Catholic church in the area was built in 1885, and the first resident Slovenian priest arrived in 1888, immigration from the homeland to this area flourished. Although John Strukel was the first of his immediate family to arrive, many more distant kinsmen were already residents of this area. Theresa Stupica had come to join her brother, Karol/Carl/Charles Stupica who had arrived in 1900, who in turn came to join their sister who had arrived in 1897.

Although the Strukel family and Stupica family lived less than ten miles from each other in the old country, it is doubtful that John and Rose had knowledge of each other before arriving in the United States. But in a thriving Slovenian community in northern Minnesota, they became aware of each other's existence through mutual social and religious circles. They were living in the same household in Chisholm, Minnesota, during the enumeration of the state census done in June, 1905, and on the 21st of September of that same year, they were married in a simple Catholic ceremony performed in nearby Eveleth, Minnesota.

For the next two decades, mining ruled the lives of John and Rose (Stupica) Strukel and their growing family. John worked in the iron ore mines of Minnesota immediately before and after his marriage, and their first son John was born in Chisholm in 1907; but he could find more work as a coal miner, and he was forever moving from mine to mine in search of better work and better wages. From 1908 to 1919, John worked in coal mines in Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Wyoming, Utah and Colorado; and his family followed. Rarely did they stay at one mine for too long, seldom more than a year, and along the way were born Rose (1908), Mary (1911), Matthew (1912), and Anthony (1914). Finally in 1919, John decided to call Colorado his home, and began work at the Coal Creek mines in Fremont County, Colorado. His son Charles was born here in 1919, and although he again moved ten miles northwest to the Wolf Park Coal Mine when Frank was born in 1922, his interstate movement had ended. A final move to Huerfano County, Colorado, about one hundred miles south, was followed by the birth of the last two children to John and Rose Strukel: Alice in 1923 and Anne in 1926.

The Strukel Family, 1926
Rear: Mary, Rose, John, Matthew and Anthony
Middle: Rose holding Anne, John, Charles and Frank
Front: Alice

John Strukel, now in his forties and supporting a wife and nine children, needed a life change. Coal mining was hard work, and it was time to find something more stable, more permanent and less physically taxing. Over the previous years, five of John's siblings had immigrated to the United States. Although his younger brother, Anton Strukel, had arrived in 1909 and had also headed for Eveleth, Minnesota, he soon found his way to the growing Slovenian population of Elkhart, Indiana, barely three years later where he found work with the railroad. His other brothers, Joseph and Charles, had also made their homes in Elkhart for short periods of time. His sister, Pauline, who was only five years old when John left their parental home in Slovenia, was the last to come to this country, arriving in 1920. Although she initially went to Cleveland, Ohio, and married there in 1921, she too had come to Elkhart with her husband shortly afterward. The New York Central Railroad was one of the major employers in Elkhart, Indiana, and available work, family ties and a strong Catholic Slovenian presence beckoned to John and his family. They left Colorado and coal mining behind them in 1927 to make the last major move of their lives. Frank wasn't even five years old yet. He never had to experience the perpetual household upheavals that the elder children experienced, and he would likely have few memories of being a toddler in Colorado. Elkhart, Indiana, would be all he would ever know.

Immediately upon arriving in Indiana, the family was beset with tragedy. They had taken up temporary residence at 1030 West Indiana Avenue when their daughter, Alice Angeline, contracted and died of rheumatic fever barely a month shy of her fourth birthday on 17 July 1927. They sought solace in their reestablished family network and in their new church, St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church, in whose parish cemetery they laid their daughter to eternal rest.

St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church,
1108 South Main Street, Elkhart, Indiana

The following year, the family moved to the home vacated by John's brother, Anton, at 617 West Cleveland Avenue, and although the Strukels would move three more times in the 1930s, they stayed in the same neighborhood and barely a mile from their parish church. The parents had failed to maintain the children's religious upbringing during their many moves, and they immediately had Mary, Matthew and Anthony confirmed on the same day in October 1928. Frank - whom the nuns called Francis since his given name was too secular - celebrated his first communion on 15 February 1932, while also attending school at St. Vincent's, and later that year was confirmed into the church with his uncle, Anton Strukel, serving as his sponsor. John Strukel was steadily employed, most often by the New York Central Railroad, or with local factories, and the family made it through the Depression without major hardship. The family had moved into their final home, 716 West Garfield Avenue, by 1938. The older children were getting married and grandchildren were joining the fold. The Strukels had settled into the comfortable routine of work, family, home and church. Frank had left school after the ninth grade and was working with his father in the railroad stock yards when he was eighteen.

St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School, Elkhart, Indiana,
 as it appeared at the time Frank attended.

But war was brewing in Europe, and when the United States entered into it, so did Frank. And that would change his life forever.


  1. Michael, I've been following your blog for about a week, and am very much enjoying your family's story. I was fortunate enough to be able to help a friend at work locate her birth mother, so many of the moments you describe have a special resonance for me. Your writing style is so engaging ... I am always anxious until the next installment hits my e-mail !!

  2. Oh my. This is the "other" Janez Štrukelj (John Strukelj) with a very similar path to my great-grandmother's brother, who shared the same name, also left a small settlement about 15 miles south of Ljubljana to become a miner in nearby Ely, MN. But he would have arrived somewhat before 1899, when my grandmother came to Ely. Fascinating story, parallels my own family's, and confirms very clearly that this was not the man you was my GGM's brother Janez. It was that other guy :-)