The relationship between the State and the Armenians is one that developed years before the majority of the Armenian people settled in the vicinity. From a sales slip preserved at the library of the Great Northern Railway builder James J. Hill’s home, it is recorded that as early as 1891, a traveling Armenian rug merchant, M. M. Yacoubian, stopped in St. Paul to sell an Oriental rug to the railway tycoon. Not long after that, the Phil-Armenic Association of the Northwest was formed in Minneapolis to aid Armenian victims of Sultan AbdulHamid’s massacres. Herant M. Kiretchijian, national secretary of the association in New York, helped organize prominent citizens of Minneapolis to create a local chapter. Around that same time, astronomer Arakel Garabed Sivaslian came to Northfield, Minnesota as an exchange professor from Marsovan College in Turkey. In 1893, he received the first of only six doctorates ever given by Carleton College. Upon graduation, he returned to Turkey to teach at Marsovan but was killed in the Armenian Genocide shortly thereafter.
It was only six years later that the story of the Armenians in Minnesota truly gained ground. As one of the earliest known Armenian residents to permanently settle in the State, Bedros Keljik arrived in St. Paul from Harpoot in 1899 to establish an Oriental rug business. Along with him, he brought his five brothers, three sisters, and extended family-thus starting the first chain migration. By 1903, the Minneapolis Journal reported that the first Armenian family had arrived in Minneapolis. The article hailed that, “Armenian bachelors, widowers and men without their families have been here by the score, but Hagop Jorjorian is the first native of Armenia to bring his wife and children to the city to make their home.”
Working as Oriental rug dealers, repairmen, or cleaners, these early Armenian immigrants began to build businesses and bridges with the Americans residing in these Midwestern towns. As early as 1903, Department stores in the Twin Cities posted advertisements in the Minneapolis Journal seeking “Expert Native Armenian Workmen” to assist them with their merchandise. Once their language skills improved, these men were then promoted to the selling floors of the stores, until many of them eventually started businesses of their own.
Railroads also brought Armenians to Minnesota, often via the Dakotas. In the early 1900s, the message spread across the nation that men were needed to help build railways. From Chicago, St. Paul and other Midwestern cities, these “unskilled” Armenian laborers came to work, eventually settling in the Twin Cities. It is estimated that up to 100 Armenian men worked as seasonal extra-gang workers and some as year-round workers between the years 1905 and 1925.
One of them was 33-year-old Minas Kalagian from Kamak, a section laborer for the Northern Pacific Railway. Just two days before a switch engine in the Staples Train Yard fatally decapitated him, Kalagian was one of 43 Armenian immigrants to register for work. He along with the 42 left living had no permanent address in the United States and had been in Staples between ten days and two weeks. With ages ranging between 19 and 59 years, the majority of the workers came from Erzerum, and then Sivas, Saragavil, Davoza, Kamak and Abarouk.
From 1918 through 1924, another wave of Armenian refugees made the Twin Cities home. One of the most prominent Armenian Minnesotans to arrive during this period was Oksent Missack Ousdigian, who was enslaved by a Turkish farmer during the Genocide and lost a leg due to an untreated injury. In Minnesota, he worked for the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) for four decades, serving as executive secretary and winning many awards for his patriotic public speeches. St. Paul’s Mayor Norm Coleman, during a recent open house visit with several Armenians, described his own involvement with the nationality arising from one of his supporters-Mike Ousdigian, who “made a big impact on the community.”
Many Armenians from overseas also found their way to Minnesota during this period through the efforts of the Near East Relief (NER). Prominent citizens like Lady Anne and her husband General Mesrop Azgapetian from NER helped raise money at two major fund drives in Minnesota, which were then used to bring Armenians to the area. From that period to 1965, strict immigration quotas made it difficult for ethnic groups to immigrate to the United States. Nevertheless, Armenians from Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon came to the area, either to join existing relatives, or to work for such Minnesota-based or satellite companies as Honeywell and AT&T. In the most recent years, refugees from Yerevan and Baku have arrived-brought over from the World Relief Organization of Minnesota.
The Armenian Community of Today
With the Armenian community in Minnesota relatively small and geographically isolated, they stick together and are proud to claim they are one of the more united groups amongst the Diasporans.
In the very early years, picnics were one source that held the community together. A favorite gathering spot for many of the Armenians was the Balian brothers’ farm in Northern St. Paul. Others, like Mesrob Sahagian and the acclaimed writer, Vahan Totovents, came together for political causes. In 1915, the two, along with several other Armenian Minnesotans joined the Russian Army to liberate Armenia from the Turks. In 1927 it is recorded that an Armenian Red Cross group had been established in the Twin Cities, and in 1934 a local chapter of the AGBU was founded.
In more recent years, there have been other things that have helped cement the relationships between the Armenians. First is the Festival of Nations-a four-day event that, since the early 1930s, has drawn together Armenians to exhibit and celebrate their heritage, along with more than 100 other races in Minnesota. Since 1989, the Armenians have won eight exhibit awards at the Festival, which is not only an unsurpassed Festival record, but a source of great pride for the community. In turn, that event has fostered an Armenian Dance Ensemble, which not only performs at the Festival, but also at different locations throughout the year. The Dance Ensemble, once comprised of just Armenian women, is now made up of both sexes, half of whom have no Armenian blood in them.
Along with the Festival, the Armenian Cultural Organization of Minnesota (ACOM), started in 1980, now includes membership in approximately 200 households. The group’s primary aim is to provide programs and events to encourage members to learn about their Armenian culture, language and history, as well as to provide an environment that fosters relationships amongst the community regardless of religious, political or social differences. It was ACOM that helped mobilize the efforts of the community after the 1988 earthquake in Armenia. Along with the State, which was the only one to make Armenian relief a government priority, ACOM helped raise money, obtain contributions from Minnesota corporations, and offer assistance anyway possible.
Family genealogy and research on the Armenian community of Minnesota are another source of collaboration among Armenians of the Twin Cities. Zarm Keljik Geisenhoff’s comprehensive efforts to put together her family tree dating back from her ancestors the Royal Pahlavuni Family of the city of Ani to the Keljiks of St. Paul, Minnesota has made her a valuable source for historical information. With that history, Lou Ann Matossian, Ph.D., ACOM’s current president, who though is not originally from the State, has dedicated more than five volunteer years researching and gathering additional newspaper articles, clippings and photos to create the most extensive archives about the community. Consequently, her efforts have encouraged others to take a deeper look at their own roots-many of the Armenians have even started their own family history stories and have large files binding old documents and photos together. It is thanks to Lou Ann that AGBU could provide a more acute look at this hidden community.
Since the beginning, the only thing that the Armenians still don’t have is the presence of an Armenian Church-which to a certain degree is an issue that has divided the community. For some, attending St. John’s Episcopal Church, where generations of Armenians have gathered to worship among family and friends is good enough. Others insist that an actual Armenian Church would be helpful. Currently, a Parish Council has been formed for the Armenian Church of St. Paul and Minneapolis whereby an Armenian priest comes throughout the year to preach. Fund-raising efforts are now underway to build an actual church structure.
Although the Armenian community of Minnesota is not yet well known to the greater Diaspora, its influence is historically and strategically important. Besides the initial wave of immigrants who helped build the Twin Cities, the Armenians have become a recognizable part of the greater community through outstanding individuals like philanthropist and business mogul, Gerard Cafesjian, and internationally renowned transplant surgeon, Dr. John Najarian. Strategically, Minnesota is important to the Armenian community at large because it is the only State to have two senators, Paul Wellstone and Rod Grams, on the Foreign Relations Committee.
In a relatively short period of time, the diverse Armenian Minnesotan community, now celebrating its centennial, has enriched the State, sustained its identity despite a large number of marriages outside of the nationality, and is now taking its place in the larger world. In recognition, Mayors Norm Coleman of St. Paul and Sharon Sayles Belton of Minneapolis proclaimed “Armenian Centennial Year” in the Twin Cities on January 23, 1999.