The early yearsEach year the Christmas holiday reminds us of the "Ho, ho, ho" of good Saint Nick and the gifts he brings. This dance is also a special occasion to remind us of the "Ho, ho, ho" of those who gave us the timeless gift of our heritage - the Lemnians who operated farms on Staten Island.
They came from many different villages in Lemnos. Steven and Basil Anagnostis, Gus Konstandelis, and George and William Paramithis came from Kountopouli; Peter and Anthony Chrampanis, from Karpasi; Emmanuel and John Criaris and Anthony Psomas from Lichna; Evangelos Dorgas, from Androni; Thomas Mermigas, from Pourpouli; and Jordan Tsourekias, from Livadochori. Other villages were the original homes of Stratis Baxavanis, Thomas Harold Polychronos, and Gus Tolombos.
Why did they come? There were no jobs in Lemnos and, to sustain themselves, they operated farms, growing such staples as beans, corn, cotton, and wheat for their own use. When they heard about America, they considered it the land of opportunity and perhaps thought they would no longer need to farm.
When they came to New York, they accepted whatever jobs were available at wages meager by today's standards. For example, Anthony Chrampanis came to New York in 1906 and worked for the American Tobacco Company rolling cigarettes by hand for $22.00 a month. Steven Anagnostis and, later, Emmanuel Criaris also worked in a cigarette factory on East 70th Street in New York City owned by Greeks, who employed about 1,000 workers at comparable wages.
Other Lemnian immigrants first worked in slaughter houses, soda bottling and biscuit manufacturing companies, in the brick works in Fishkill, New York, and as building superintendents.
But soon they realized their farming experience from Lemnos could serve them well in their new country. -Staten Island was an island of farms first owned and operated primarily by Germans. Since it enjoyed the advantage of being located near the market of New York City when the transportation of perishables from other parts of the country was not well-developed, Staten Island faced little, if any, competition from outside farmers. Growing vegetables on Staten Island was profitable.
The first Lemnian to operate a farm on Staten Island was Steven Anagnostis, in about 1903 in an area known as Bulls Head. Several years later he employed Peter and Anthony Chrampanis and then his brother, Basil. Peter Chrampanis later rented a farm in New Springville in about 1910 with Harold Polychronos, and after a year or two Anthony Chrampanis joined them. At about the same time, Anthony Psomas rented a farm neighboring the Chrampanis and Polychronos farm, and Steven Anagnostis sold his farm to his brother Basil, then bought another farm nearby.
Since Lemnians were already operating farms on Staten Island, later immigrants went directly to work for them. For example, Thomas Markos began working for Basil Anagnostis the day after he arrived in 1910, and Jordan Tsourekas, after he arrived in 1911. After his arrival in about 1918, George Paramithis began working for Anthony Psomas. These workers later began operating their own farms: Mr. Tsourekas.in 1919 or 1920 in partnership with Evangelos Dorgas and later by himself in'1929; Mr. Markos in 1920; and Mr. Paramithis in the 1920's in partnership with Thomas Mermigas.
Workers employed by Lemnian farmers were treated well. They were paid the same wages they could earn in New York City and, in addition, were given free room and board, including laundry service. Farmers' wives, with the help of their children, worked constantly to prepare meals and launder clothing for the workers as well as their own families, which were often large. Spared the expense of these necessities, the workers were able to save all their earnings and send a portion to their relatives in Lemnos.
The farmers, together with the workers, operated farms ranging in size from about seven to twenty-six acres. They grew such truck crops as beets, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chicory, corn, dandelions, escarole, leeks, lettuce, parsley, radishes, scallions, spinach and Swiss chard. They first sold all these vegetables in city markets but James Samaras, and the Chrampanis brothers with their partner Gus Tolombos, established the first Vegetable stands on Staten Island in the late 1920's and early 1930's consisting of boards laid atop barrels. Fresh vegetables can still be bought from roadside stands pioneered by Lemnians.
Lemnian farmers, together with other Greeks owning small businesses, were the founders of the first Greek Orthodox Church on Staten Island, centrally located in Bulls Head among the Lemnian farming communities of Bulls Head, Travis, and New Springville. The Church still stands on the foundation dug by James Samaras, using horses.
Lemnian- parents, having as many as ten children in a family, also founded several Greek schools. One of them was first located in the kitchen of Basil Anagnostis, but was later moved to Baursfeld's Inn nearby.
The Greek festivals sponsored by many church groups today can probably trace their origin to the gatherings held by Lemnians on Staten Island. On Sundays during summer months until the time of the Depression, Lemnian families from Staten Island, as well as other Greek families from New York City and parts of New Jersey, would gather for an open house at Basil's. They would also gather at his house to celebrate Agios Basilios, an all-night affair. Many fondly remember the house crowded with people and food and filled with laughter and music. Since no public transportation was available to return home after the celebration, visitors slept wherever they could - on floors, chairs, and beds throughout the house.
Whatever happened to those times, the people, and their farms? The Depression left many of the large families barely able to provide for themselves. Many of the Lemnian farmers have since passed away. Their farms have been sold to developers, who have built highways, housing developments, schools, and shopping centers where vegetables once grew.
'But the Lemnian character which helped to develop Staten Island and the hospitality which enriched it still live. We can listen to personal accounts of this heritage-from Anthony Chrampanis, Gus Konstandelis, Gus Tolombos and Jordan Tsourekas, and we can still buy fresh vegetables on Anthony Chrampanis's one-acre farm from his roadside stand. Most of all, we can preserve and strengthen this priceless heritage by attending this annual Lemnian dance and by conducting our daily lives in the best spirit of our forefathers.