Thursday, July 16, 2015

Elija Matkovich (Lee Makovich Sr.)

For those of us who want to know something about the early 20th century of Gig Harbor and the maritime community, we seem to always look to Lee J. Makovich, one of Lee Makovich Sr.’s children.  The junior Lee wrote articles about the maritime world for the Tacoma News Tribune, The Peninsula Gateway, the Fishermen’s News, and many other publications.

But I was reminded of the senior Makovich when I ran across a news article dated January 1942 titled “Two More Die in Collisions”.  One of the victims was an Olympia man and the other was Nick Makovich, age 22, of Gig Harbor.  Another article news article dated July 1946 was titled “Lee Makovich Killed in Auto Wreck”, age 69.  Such a tragic end to the lives of two members of the same family, father and son.

The story that follows was written by Lee Makovich Sr.’s son, Lee; unfortunately it is not dated although it was printed in The Fisherman’s News in 2003..
Lee Makovich Sr.

Mr. Makovich, The Good Godfather, by Lee Makovich. 

This is a story about a man that I have idolized and admired for my entire life.  The man named Elija Matkovich existed long before my time.  He was 57 years old when I was born and I never knew him by that name.  In the new land of America, Elija Matkovich became Lee Makovich Sr., a man destined to become universally known and respected as a leader in his community and throughout the entire fishing industry.  I have written about many other great men who made their presence known in the fishing business.  I believe not recording the life and times of the late Lee Makovich Sr. would be a great injustice to a man whose valuable contributions truly made a difference in the evolution of the industry.  He was a great guy and …he was my father.

When he died suddenly in an auto accident many years ago, Lee Makovich Sr. was the president and General Manager of the Fisherman’s Packing Corporation of Anacortes, Washington.  Makovich had helped organize the corporation in Everett in 1928.  He had written the Frazier River Sockeye Salmon Study of 1929 and helped to write and negotiate salmon treaties between the United States and Canada on several occasions.  Makovich had worked hard and was a leading fighter for the removal of the fish traps in the state of Washington.  He was a self-educated and influential man who was know and admired in both the United States and Canada.

Elija Matkovich left the old country when he was only 11 years old.  His father Nicholas had passed away at the young age of 35 and left a wife and two young boys behind.  There had been a younger sister named Angeline, but regrettably, she had become ill several years earlier and had died at just three years of age.  Eli felt that the burden on his mother to raise both him and his brother Joseph was more than she should be asked to endure.  He envisioned coming to the new world, establishing himself there and then sending for his brother as soon as he was able to do so.  Eli finished the fifth grade in Yugoslavia and having to fib a little about his age of 11, he obtained a position as cabin boy aboard an English sailing ship.  Within 4 years, at 15 years of age, he earned the rank of able seaman, a position he held aboard the ship Lydahorn out of Liverpool, England.  In January of 1893, the Lydahorn made her way into San Francisco Harbor.

Elija liked what he saw and decided to begin his new life in this new land on the West Coast of the United States.  As he was about to apply for his American citizenship, a friend told him that the name Lee in America, was somewhat equivalent to Elija in the old country.  At about the same time a court clerk inadvertently misspelled his last name dropping the “t” from the spelling.  When all was said and done, young Elija Matkovich became Lee Makovich.  A new name and a new life in a new land.

Makovich served as quartermaster aboard ships in the U. S. Revenue Service for about two years/  And then later, he held the same position aboard various Alaska steamships.  He had little formal education and knew nothing whatsoever about the fishing business, but in 1896, he began fishing the Frazier River for about a month at a time during the summer season.  As soon as he could get the money together, he purchased a ticket for ship passage and sent it to his brother Joseph, along with a letter asking him to join him in the new land.  About two months later, Makovich received a letter from his mother telling him that his younger brother Joseph had died of diphtheria a short time earlier.  Makovich was very saddened as he had looked forward to having Joseph with him again.  He wrote back to his mother and asked her if she would like to use the ticket and join him in America.  She came over on the next available ship.

In 1901, Mr. Makovich acquired an oar powered purse seiner which he fished in Puget Sound.  Ir was a hand pulled rig which was one of the first ever constructed in the district.  In about 1908, Makovich went into partnership with Martin Ancich of Gig Harbor and the purchased the 50’ Sokol, the first “real” fishing boat that either of them would own.  The Sokol had been built at the Babare Shipyard earlier that same year and she was powered by a 20 h.p. Frisch Standard gas engine.  The old boat was sold in about 1912 and she was still productive until about 1990.  She sank for the third time in her career that summer, and when she was raised, she was towed to the beach at Petersburg, Alaska where her remains were dowsed with oil and burned.

Mr. Makovich was also associated with the George and Barker Company at Point Roberts, Washington as their fishing superintendent for several years.  In 1912, he became involved in a brief partnership with three fishing vessels with the George and Barker Company.  The vessels were:  the 54’ Mermaid, which was built at the Skansie Shipyard in Gig Harbor.  The 54’ Olympic, was launched at the Babare Shipyard in Tacoma at about the same time, and the 56’ St. Martin, built by John Martinolich at his Doctor, Washington shipyard on Vashon Island.  All three vessels were powered by 40 h.p. Frisco Standard gas engines.  Makovich continued his association with George and Barker for a number of years, but he sold his interest the the three previously mentioned vessels in 1914.  The Mermaid became a Canadian registered vessel and the Olympic foundered off the Washington Coast on November 12, 1921.  The St. Martin burned in Wrangell Narrows on April 23, 1937 with the loss of two lives.

By 1913, Makovich was back in partnership with Martin Ancich again and they had the 54’ Mermaid II built at the Babare Shipyard in Tacoma.  The Mermaid II was also powered by a 40 h.p. Frisch Standard gas engine.  The vessel was later owned by John Malich of Gig Harbor for many years until she was sold to Wilhelm Leese of Everett in 1926.  She eventually headed north and as of this writing, the Mermaid II was reported to be barely clinging to life at Point Baker, Alaska.

Mr. Makovich purchased about 2 acres of property in downtown Gig Harbor from Joe Dorotich not long after the turn of the century.  My late sister Angeline mentioned she believed that he had paid a whopping $400 for the land.  He built a small house there for his mother and continued to live in both Gig Harbor and Tacoma.  He married Katie Rastovich in 1913, and built a house for her, also on the Gig Harbor property.  As if he wasn’t busy enough in his association with the cannery in Point Roberts and the operation of his fishing boats, Makovich opened a restaurant on Pacific Avenue in Tacoma called Lee’s Oyster House.  He did very well in the restaurant business but he eventually decided that it was really too much for him to handle along with all of his other activities.  He sold the establishment a few years later.

In 1915, Makovich felt it was time to build another fishing boat and he engaged Nick and George Babare to build the 54’ seiner Providence for him at their Tacoma shipyard.  The Providence was also 40 h.p. Frisch Standard powered and Makovich retained the boat until she was sold to the Constant family in 1930.  Many years later, in 1983, the Providence sank in Alaska with the loss of three men.

In 1930, Mr. Makovich had the 65’ purse seiner Advocator built at the Robert Crawford Shipyard at Gig Harbor.  The Advocator was powered by a 90 h.p. Atlas Imperial diesel, an extremely contemporary engine at that time in the industry.  Makovich soon became the president of the Fisherman’s Packing Corporation and he ceased his active participation in the production end of the industry.  Consequently, the Advocator was chartered as a packer in Alaska and Puget Sound in the later years, but he still owned the boat at the time of his death.  (1946 HHM note)

Mr. Makovich was a very civic minded individual with an abundance of ingenuity and energy.  He soon became a sort of good “godfather” to many of the new immigrants and others who came to him for advice and assistance in finding a place to live, a job, or perhaps some help in their attempts to acquire a fishing boat of their own.  As an example of the good godfather image Mr. Makovich enjoyed, I recall an incident that happened when I was just 5 or 6 years old.

A young man, who my father apparently knew, came to our house on a Sunday afternoon in the middle of winter.  My dad and I were alone in the house.  The young man apologized for disturbing my father on a Sunday and for coming to his house, but he said that he was in a desperate situation.  My dad ushered me out of the living room but I snuck back to the doorway out of curiosity.  I heard the man tell my father, “Mr. Makovich, the people I was working for went out of business and I lost my job.  I have a wife and a small baby and I need a job desperately.  I haven’t worked in over a month.  Is there any way that you could help me find some kind of work?  Is there anyone that you could suggest that I might see?  I’m an engine man by trade.  I’m a hard worker and …I wouldn’t disappoint you.”

I heard my father tell the man to sit down on the sofa and that he would be right back.  My dad came into the kitchen and telephoned his good friend Mitchell Skansie.  Mitchell owned the Skansie Shipyard at that time, but he was also the president of the Skansie Transportation Company* which operated the ferry boats between Gig Harbor and Tacoma.  In a few minutes my dad went back into the living room and I peeked around the corner of the doorway.  “You start to work tomorrow,” my dad said.  “Go see Mitchell Skansie the first thing in the morning at the shipyard.  He has a job for you running an engine on a ferry boat.  He’ll pay you well and he’s a nice man.”

My father reached into his pocket and handed some money to the young man and said. “This is just to tide you over a little.”

The young man was almost in tears.  “Mr. Makovich,” he said, “I don’t know how I can ever thank you, but I can’t take this money from you too.  You’ve done enough for me already.  I can’t take this money.”

My dad answered, “Yes, you can.”

“Well, all right,” the young man replied, “but I promised I will pay you back as soon as I get my first check.”

“No, you won’t,” my dad remarked.  “Your wife and baby come first.  I expect you to pay me back, but only when you can.  A little at a time will be just fine.  Now go home and tell your wife that you’re going back to work so she can stop worrying.”  I doubt if that young fellow ever forgot my father.

Visits of this nature occurred very frequently at our home when I was young and I don’t recall my father ever turning anyone away for any reason.  There were frequent parties and get-togethers at the house and I believe that there was an atmosphere and a way of life in those days that will never again be duplicated.

In 1928, Mr. Makovich helped to organize the Fisherman’s Packing Corporation of Everett, Washington.  The enterprise consisted of 32 original stockholders.  In the first year of the corporation’s existence, Mr. Makovich was its president.  He was named president again in 1932 and held that position until the death of the then General Manager, J. O. Morris in 1935.  After Morris’ death, Makovich was called upon to take over the duties of management and at the next stockholder’s meeting he was unanimously elected General Manager.

He guided the affairs of the corporation with a strong hand and the soundness of judgment born of his many years of experience in the fishing industry.  I believe, as do many others, that Makovich was directly responsible for many of the greatest successes that Fisherman’s Packing and its stockholders enjoyed in those early years.

Mr. Makovich was the kind of man who felt privileged to be able  to serve his country, his state and his community in any way he could.  He was a member of the chambers of commerce of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett, Gig Harbor and Anacortes.  He served as president of the Gig Harbor school board and some of my sister’s high school diplomas are signed by their father, Lee Makovich.  In his “spare time,” Mr. Makovich helped to organize the Peninsula Light Company and the St. Nicholas Catholic Church.  He was one of the founders of the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association and acted as one of its officers for 16 years.  I cannot in my wildest dreams, imagine how my father could have had the dedication, the time and the energy to be involved in all that he was a part of.

Lee Makovich left the country of his birth as a young boy at just 11 years of age, with only a fifth grade education in a foreign land.  He went on to become the guiding hand and head of a major fish processing corporation and a leader in the fishing industry.  He unselfishly served his community and his state and never asked for any reward or recognition for doing these things, because he considered it a privilege.  a 1946 communication, written and signed by many leaders in the fishing stated, “Had it not been for Lee Makovich, the survival of the industry as we know it today my well have been in question.”  I think that says it all.

Some of the dates and information for this story regarding Lee Malkovich’s early life were obtained from the book, “A History of the State of Washington, volume IV, Lancaster and Pollard, published by the American Historical Society, New York, New York, 1937.  I wish to thank my sister, Pearl Peterson and acknowledge my late sisters, Angeline Teeter and Mary Strittmatter, for their valuable contributions to this effort.  They were fortunate enough to know my father much longer than I.  And like so many others who knew him well, they remember him as …Mr. Makovich, the good godfather.

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.

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