Greeks

Their Own Stories: Stories From Middletown’s Melting Pot

greeksNicholas Xenelis died not in his native village in Greece, but in the new land of America. It was not supposed to have happened that way.

When Nicholas left the island of Lesvos in the 1890s, he thought, like many immigrants, to make his fortune in the United States and return to a life of ease in his native village of Eressos. He did return to the village several times but always went back to America.

In Middletown, Nicholas sold fruit and candy; first, from a small pushcart and later from Main Street storefronts where he operated the Greek-American Fruit and Candy Co., and later the Boston Fruit and Candy Company. Having established himself in commerce, 30-year-old Nicholas sailed back to Eressos to enter an arranged marriage with Eleni Taverniaris, who was just 17.

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Xenelis and Grabek Fruit Store, 1928

Nicholas and Eleni Xenelis had moved to Middletown by 1900. They soon had two daughters. Yet as the only Greek woman in Middletown, Eleni felt isolated and lonely. Just three years later, Nicholas took his wife and daughters back to Lesvos and returned to Middletown alone.

In the years that followed, Nicholas sailed to Lesvos five times. Although he always planned to stay, he was compelled to return to America. In the early 1920s, Nicholas opened the Lesvos Fruit Store, which later became The Middlesex Fruitery.

Back in Greece, Eleni was raising their eight children, six of whom would eventually settle in America.

In 1931 Nicholas was 61 years old, preparing to return to Greece to visit his family (including his youngest son, Strato, whom he had never seen). But Nicholas died before he returned. Eleni herself came back to Middletown in 1935, this time surrounded by six of her children who had smoothly entered the city’s small Greek community. Though the Greeks in Middletown were never numerous enough to establish their own church here, they became a tight-knit society that continued to help new immigrants.

Many of the Xenelis family and others from the Lesvos area became fruit merchants like Nicholas. (By 1914, the city had eight fruit and candy stores, all operated by immigrants from the village of Eressos). Other Greek immigrants in Middletown gravitated to the restaurant business. These eateries provided a place where Greeks could go and socialize, similar to the coffee houses back home. It was here the events of the day and especially the events of commerce would be discussed.

A steady stream of Greek nationals traveled to the United States to make their fortunes and return home. Bill Vasiliou, whose parents were both Greek immigrants, remembers many trips to the New York docks to pick up cousins and other extended family members. Most of these relatives eventually returned to Greece, providing a rich connection between Middletown’s Greek immigrants and their homeland.


Nicholas and Eleni Xenelis, with daughters / Middletown, 1902
Courtesy of Elaine Xenelis Fuller

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Nicolas and Eleni Xenelis Family, 1902

A century ago, family photographs were formal events–sometimes grimly formal. Even so, it’s hard not to spot a look of wistful sadness in the face of Eleni Taverniaris Xenelis. Married at 17 to a much older man, Nicholas Xenelis, right, she was raising two daughters, Marika, center left, and Artemis, center right, in a strange new land without the support of family or comfort of village traditions. Shortly after this photograph was taken, Eleni and her children returned to their village in Greece. Her husband always intended to stay with them but was compelled to return again and again to the United States to make a living.


Costas Xenelis and Stanley Grabek at The Lesvos Fruit Store / Middletown, 1928
Courtesy of Elaine Xenelis Fuller

Costas “Gus” Xenelis, Nicholas’ and Eleni’s oldest son, began his career as his father had, selling fruit in the streets from a pushcart in 1921. Two years later, Nicholas and Gus bought a store on Middletown’s Main Street, and opened “Lesvos,” selling produce and confectionaries. In this view, Gus and his employee Stanley Grabek pose outside the store in 1928.

In time, the store became the Middlesex Fruitery, long operated by Gus’s son, Ted Xenelis, and his wife, Mary.


Eleni Xenelis and children / Lesvos, Greece, about 1930
Courtesy of Athena Nisotis

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Eleni Xenelis and Children, 1930

Eleni Xenelis posed with four of her children in this photograph, taken in Greece when she was probably in her early forties. The youngest child, Strato, never met his father, who died before he could return to Eressos. Six of the Xenelis children eventually left their Greek village, immigrating to the Middletown area. So, too, did Eleni, in 1935. Surrounded by her children, she found life in Middletown less lonely than her first encounter over three decades earlier.

 

 

 

 


Ariadne, Peter and Athan Constantine, with Harry Lesbines, c. 1912
Courtesy of Athena Nisotis

Athan Constantine had immigrated from Greece to Middletown by 1915 and set up his tailor shop on College Street. Later he was to join his brother-in-law, Harry Lesbines, in operating Aristocrat Cleaners for many years.

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Constantine Family, 1912


United Restaurant and Cafeteria, Middletown

The United Cafeteria on Main Street opened about 1924, run by Greek immigrants George Lesbines and Arthur Constantine. Within a few years they sold the restaurant to another Greek named Charles Mitchell.

Mitchell had married Bessie Vasiliou, a native of the Greek island of Larrisa. Charles’ and Bessie’s relatives from Greece came over to Middletown in a steady stream to work at the restaurant and then return home.

The United Cafeteria gave the Greek immigrants a place to gather and socialize, much like the coffee houses of their native land. Here the men made their business connections as well.

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United Restaurant

“They were all wheeler-dealers, they all had something else going on,” recalls Bill Vasiliou, whose relatives ran the restaurant.

The United passed in turn to Greek immigrant Angelo Mitchell, who operated it until 1960. Other Greeks ran many of Middletown’s diners and restaurants, including the Paradise Restaurant (owned by the Kapetan family), the Garden Restaurant, Handi Lunch, Delux Luncheonette and Central Lunch.


Lace Square / Crocheted by Eleni Taverniaris, c. 1899
Courtesy of Elaine Xenelis Fuller

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Lace Square, Eleni Taverniaris Dowry, 1899

Needlework, including this hand-crocheted lace, comprised a portion of 17-year-old Eleni Tavernalis’ dowry when she wed Nicholas Xenelis (age 31) in 1899. Marriages between older men and much younger woman were typical arrangements in Greece. It was expected that younger wives would be able to care for their husbands in their dotage. Arranged marriages were also the norm. Fathers selected husbands for their daughters based on the ability of the husband to support a spouse and family.


Their Own Stories: Voices From Middletown’s Melting Pot – Index

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Scots Irish Germans Swedes
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