The Itoo Society: Celebrating 100 Years

by Randy Couri
Photos by Marie Souss, Mike Dwyer and from the collection of Joseph M. Couri Sr.

A century ago, 46 men had the vision to put together an organization that reaches out to us today and begs us to remember who we are, where we came from, and what we can accomplish together.

My grandparents, four of my great-grandparents and one great-great-grandmother immigrated to the United States from the village of Aytou, Lebanon. My parents, born here in Peoria, were part of the Lebanese-American first-born generation. I was also born in Peoria and have lived here all my life.

Sadly, I only knew a few of the immigrants who founded the Itoo Reform and Progress Society. Some of them died before 1920; a few more died in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s; and a majority of them died in the ‘50s. Only a few died in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the last being my grandfather, Mike Couri, in 1978. Four-fifths of these people died before I was born in 1956. The reason I am able to speak about these wonderful people is because my dad, Joseph M. Couri, left to the Itoo community a wealth of information about the immigrants and our ancestors.

Let me formally introduce myself. My name is Randolph Gathos Nakla Gathos Michoyel Khalil Antoun Sleiman.

Did you get all that? I not only told you my formal Lebanese name, I also told you my paternal lineage. My parents named me Randolph. My dad was named Gathos. My grandfather’s name was Nakla. My great-grandfather was Gathos. My great-great-grandfather was Michoyel. My great-great-great-grandfather was Khalil. My great-great-great-great-grandfather was a priest named Antoun Sleiman.

So, how did someone with the paternal family name of Sleiman become a Couri? I mentioned that Antoun Sleiman was a priest; the word for priest in Arabic is Khoury. Out of respect for their father, Antoun’s three sons dropped the Sleiman name and took Khoury as their last name. If anyone asked my grandfather his name, he would have simply said, “I am Nakla Gathos”—his first name and his dad’s first name as his last name. That is why we have so many Lebanese families with last names that are first names… Albert, Anthony, George, John, Joseph, Michael, Tony, Williams, and so on. The full family name was only used for legal matters.

Leaving Home
Aytou is a beautiful village that sits on the side of a mountain in the northern part of Lebanon. The altitude ranges from 2,900 to 4,300 feet above sea level. It is 16 miles southeast of Tripoli, and from the height of the village, the view to the west is of Tripoli and the Mediterranean Sea.

The reasons my ancestors left their families and home are not so different than many of the reasons immigrants come to the United States today. The families in Aytou were large, usually seven or eight children. There was very little opportunity for work, and very little flat land to grow crops. Once the first few men immigrated and wrote home that there was work and an income to be made, it was inevitable that the oldest sons of most families made the trip to the “New World.” Many of them left wives and children behind and sent for them later.

Khaliel Milheim was the first to leave Aytou, arriving in New Orleans in 1881. He later changed his name to Mike Williams. It took two years, but Khaliel walked all the way from New Orleans to Green Bay, Wisconsin, doing odd jobs and peddling goods along the way to support himself. A few months later, he began walking to St. Paul, Minnesota. The first Aytou man to settle in Peoria was named Tanous LaHood; he came in 1886. A number of men and a few women followed these two, but the flood of Aytou immigrants did not start until 1907.

They did not just come to the United States; some went to Australia, South America and even South Africa. The ones who came to the United States settled mainly in four places: Mankato and St. Paul, Minnesota; Buffalo, New York; and Peoria, Illinois. For many years, Mankato, St. Paul and Buffalo had larger Aytou populations than Peoria, but beginning in about 1907, most arriving immigrants settled in Peoria, and many families joined them from the other communities. Today, several of our families still call St. Paul and Buffalo home. As for Peoria, it is estimated that more than 6,000 descendants of Aytou and another 2,000 Lebanese live in the vicinity. Another 6,000 Aytou descendants are spread around the United States and the rest of the world. Today, Aytou’s population is 350 people.

Early Years in the New World
In Aytou, our families grew up in a small village of close-knit people, isolated on a mountain in northern Lebanon. When our parents and grandparents came to Peoria, most congregated along a two-block section of South Washington Street with their backs to the river in rundown immigrant housing. They had no place to go but up. When they arrived, they all spoke Arabic, some could read Arabic, and a few could write Arabic, but none could speak English.

Peoria offered many opportunities for the early immigrants. In the early 1900s, the railroads, factories, distilleries and all of the accompanying industries were booming. But just because there was work, that did not mean they had their pick of jobs. It was just the opposite—they took the low-paying, back-breaking jobs that were available to them. I am not complaining that there should have been something better waiting for them when they arrived, and I know my grandparents would agree with me. Like everyone else, they heard the streets in America were paved with gold, and they left everything behind and came to make their fortune. But they also knew nothing would be handed to them; they were going to have to earn everything on their own. It was no different with the Germans, the Scandinavians, the Irish and other immigrant groups. At that point in history, we just happened to be the last ones standing in line.

The main job for the first immigrant men from 1881 until about 1900 was to peddle goods. The women and their daughters also peddled until 1910 or 1912. My grandfather, Mike Couri, and many of his cousins worked for the Rock Island and P&PU railroads. They labored hard: 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, for 11 cents an hour. A number of the men and women worked at the Peoria Cordage, being paid by the number of items they could produce on their shifts. A few of our men died in rail yard accidents. A number of them died fairly young from cancers caused by exposure to the chemicals used in the manufacturing processes at the Cordage, then from tuberculosis and the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Some early immigrants came with the intention of staying a few years, earning enough money to go back to Aytou and live the good life. The reality was that once they were here, they were sending money home to help support their families; they were also sending money and tickets for the next sibling to come to America. Most of them married and began having children, and under those conditions, the golden egg was very elusive.

In the summer of 1912, an immigrant from Aytou named Rumia Sarkis Halhoul arrived in Peoria. Once here, he “Americanized” his name to Ray Sarkis. In August, he was working on a steamboat on the Illinois River when he fell overboard and drowned near Beardstown. Having only been in Peoria a few months, Rumia did not have enough money saved for his own burial, so his cousins joined together to help with the expenses. These cousins were also immigrants, and many had not been here much longer than Rumia, so you might imagine this was no easy task.

In memory of this tragedy, 46 men—our fathers and grandfathers—founded The Itoo Reform and Progress Society on July 4, 1914. Today, it is known as the Men’s Branch of the Itoo Society. Two years later, on July 6, 1916, the Ladies’ Branch of the Itoo Society was founded. In 1951, the groups combined as equal partners in what is now known as the Itoo Society of Peoria. Today, 100 years later, we are reaping the fruits of what our parents and grandparents dreamed for us.

Moving On Up
In the 1920s, it was our turn to move up from the river to live in better housing. At that time, the Lebanese colony made the move approximately one mile into a 12-square-block area around St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on the south side of Peoria. In that small area, you could find more than 40 Itoo households. Once again, they sought the close comfort of family and friends. By this time, a vast majority had advanced from the low-paying jobs they first found to become business owners. They opened grocery stores, dry goods stores, restaurants and after Prohibition ended in 1933, taverns. In November of 1928, a group of about 20 women decided to cook a meal to serve to their friends in the Peoria community, with the proceeds to help pay the mortgage on the original Itoo Hall. Led by Sadie George, Budwea Peters, Anna Joseph and Kemla Couri, they planned and cooked the first Itoo Supper. Last November, we served our 86th Itoo Supper at what’s now one of the oldest ethnic festivals in Illinois.

Three early immigrants—John Peters, Tony Williams and Charles Anthony—set the stage for our Itoo elected officials of today. John Peters served as Peoria’s street commissioner in the 1920s and on the Peoria County Board of Supervisors in the 1940s. In the 1930s, Tony Williams was elected to the Peoria County Board; he also served as Overseer of the Poor for Peoria County during the Great Depression. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Charles Anthony served on the East Peoria City Council and was the city’s interim mayor for a time.

By the mid-1950s, nearly all of our families had moved out of Peoria’s south side. This time, they dispersed around the cities of Peoria and East Peoria. There was no longer the need to huddle together for familiarity or for a sense of safety.

In June of 1968, the first Itoo Shish-Ka-Bob was held. It became an annual celebration to complement the Itoo Supper. The specialty of the Itoo Supper and the Itoo Shish-Ka-Bob has been the wonderful Lebanese food served, along with the legendary hospitality of the Itoo Society. These two events are highly anticipated by Peorians all year long.

A Land of Opportunity
The first-born generation, my parent’s generation, grew up during the Depression, and fought and won World War II. They married and had families of their own. A vast majority of the marriages took place within the Itoo community, following in the tradition of the Old Country. The families were large, averaging six or seven children, and most of the men, like their fathers, were self-employed business owners. Nearly all of the women stayed at home and provided a loving, safe, nurturing environment for their husbands and children. Only a handful of the first-born generation went to Brown’s Business School, but like their parents, they worked hard and succeeded. In one generation, the immigrants and the first-born generation became successful, respected members of their adopted homeland. Through their example and leadership, my generation and all succeeding generations have been given the opportunity to thrive in this wonderful country we call home.

The Itoo Society has helped us keep our heritage, culture and traditions alive, but that does not mean we kept ourselves segregated from our fellow Peorians. It was just the opposite; we integrated in every way with our neighbors, socially and professionally. Yes, I’ll admit, we are fiercely proud of our Lebanese heritage. After all, Lebanon and Aytou reminds us of who we are and where we’ve come from, all the way back to our Phoenician roots. But we are 10 times more proud to be Americans because America has given us the opportunities our immigrant ancestors dreamed for us.

Over the years, hundreds of our women and men served in the National Guard and the active-duty Armed Forces of the United States, and eight men lost their lives. From World War I and World War II to Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Panama, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan—in times of war and peace—they have been shining examples of the love, patriotism and devotion of the Itoo community to America. We are proud of every one of them!

A Bright Future
On May 27, 2014, the Peoria City Council voted unanimously to enter into a sister-city relationship with Aytou, Lebanon. This designation is appropriate, considering the level of community service sustained by Lebanese-Americans in Peoria and the continual contact maintained with those remaining in Aytou. This recognition enables the Peoria-area descendants of Aytou and all Lebanese-Americans to have their immigrant origins come full circle, in honor of our ancestral homeland.

I don’t need to dwell on the attributes of the Lebanese citizens of Peoria; most of you know who we are. We have entered into every field and profession, including teaching, nursing, construction, restaurants, accounting, medicine and law—nearly every blue- and white- collar job that exists. Among the most prominent fields in which we have been involved is politics. Peoria-area Lebanese have served as mayors, judges, sheriffs and other elected officials on city councils and on county, school and park boards. We have served in the Illinois state legislature, in the United States Congress, and in the cabinet of the President of the United States.

At its inception on the Fourth of July, 1914, the Itoo Society was envisioned as an organization dedicated to both charitable and fraternal purposes. It has lived up to that goal by helping its members and the villagers of Aytou in times of misfortune. As for our home of Peoria, the Itoo Society works closely with many local and national charities. The organization and its members have been a respected part of Peoria and its surrounding communities through helping others and by living up to the vision of our founders.

That leaves the question as to what legacy the Itoo Society has given to my generation and to all succeeding generations of her members. It has been an anchor, not just for Itoo members, but for most of the Lebanese-Americans living in the Peoria area, providing us with a strong foundation of who we are. It has been the string that binds us all together, to the lives of our immigrant ancestors and to Lebanon. Through their example, the founders of the Itoo Society instilled in us our faith and devotion to God, our love of family, how to be a contributing member of society through hard work, how to be proud of our Lebanese heritage, and a profound love of the United States of America.

Although I never knew most of the immigrants, I feel their presence with me daily. When I think about their successes and accomplishments, I am filled with awe. Each day, I use the example of their lives to help guide mine. I stress to anyone who will listen that the sacrifices the immigrants endured to bring our families here, to America, earned us the opportunities we have today.

The next time you are at the Itoo Hall, take a good look at the picture of the founders of the Itoo Reform and Progress Society. Study their faces, look into their eyes and notice the determination—the confidence as to what they would achieve. These men left everything behind them in Aytou and made their way to Peoria to establish our homes and families at the expense of great personal hardship to themselves and their wives. In 1914, these men had the vision to put together an organization that reaches out to us today and begs us to remember who we are, where we came from, and most important of all, what we can accomplish together. iBi

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