The Story of the Joe Rodish & Ray Rodich Families of Valley Junction
Between 1904 and 1911, two young men by the names of Jovo Radocaj and younger brother Rada Radocaj set their sights on immigrating to America. Over time they shed their Serbian names and came to be commonly known as Joe Rodish and Ray Rodich.
Life wasn’t easy, but they struggled to learn the language and make their way in the hardscrabble railroad town of Valley Junction.
They were hardy young men who came from the rocky mountainous region of Lika, Croatia. Their ancestors lived in Serbia as early as 700 years ago. In the 14th century, the Ottoman-Turks invaded Serbia driving many Serbs and the Radocaj family further and further from their homeland. Settling in Croatia, the family served as border guards and watchmen of sorts to stave off advancement of the Ottomans into Hungary and Austria. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire allowed the Serbs to settle in the lands they had protected. They were finally able to put away the ways of war. Centuries of upheaval and war left its’ mark on the people. They never forgot the lives lost in battle. To this day, they sing of the valor and the blood shed by so many Serbs over the centuries to secure freedom and the protection of their Serbian Orthodox faith from Islamic rule of the Ottoman-Turks.
The family set down permanent roots in the small village of Krcana located near the market town of Udbina in the region of Lika, Croatia (see map). They farmed a small plot of land. The soil was rocky, but yielded to the calloused hands of the Serb farmer. Jobs were scarce, so most young men had to labor hard in the fields to help their families raise food for the table and sheep for milk and cheese. When the sheep were sheared, the women spun the wool into yarn making clothing, rugs and other items for the home and for barter or sale. Living in the mountains, they had to be self sufficient. Their income and living conditions were meager, but their hearts were full. They shared what they had with each other and they celebrated the harvest and religious holidays with food, festivities, music and dance.
When word of growing immigration to America as a land of opportunity reached the village of Krcana, the Radocaj boys left the village. One by one, they made their way down the mountains to Germany, some likely to France where they found work to earn enough money for their passage to America. Ray departed the port of Le Havre, France to sail to America.
Joe left home first immigrating to America in 1904. He was married, but left his wife, Mary, behind to join him later in America. Ray immigrated in 1911 at the age of 17. Other brothers came for a short time, but returned to the family in Krcana.
Each of the brothers arrived through Ellis Island, New York. Joe first settled in Chicago where there were a large number of Serbian immigrants also working in the steel mills. He likely boarded with other Serbs until Mary arrived and they started their family. Census records later show them living in an immigrant neighborhood of South Chicago near the rail yards. Later they moved to the Earlham, IA area where there was work in the mines, a rock quarry and cement plant.
Ray joined brother Joe in Earlham, IA in 1911. Records show him working for a rock quarry. A few years later, Ray wished to marry and set about trying to find a Serbian bride. In 1914, he wrote to his brother, Arsa, back home and asked him to find a young Serbian woman willing to come to America to marry him. Arsa picked Duka Popovich, the prettiest girl in the area to ask. Duka remembered Ray and agreed to make the journey. Only 18 years old and speaking no English, Duka faced the hardship of sailing for 8 days alone in Steerage without privacy or any comforts. Arsa paid for Duka's passage and gave her $25.00 for her needs at sea and transportation from New York to meet Ray. Duka landed in Ellis Island, New York and was placed on a train with a note pinned to her coat, “Destination – Earlham, Iowa.” Conductors along the way must have looked out for her and other immigrants on the train.
The train arrived, but Ray was getting cold feet. He didn’t remember Duka and he was nervous about whether he would really want to marry her. So, he sent Uncle Slim Radocaj (no relation) to the train station to pick her up and check her out. Slim reported to Ray that he had just two minutes to decide, because he would marry her himself if Ray would not. That was enough for Ray. Ray and Duka were married for 52 years.
Both families left Earlham settling in the Valley Junction area where Duka came to be known as Julia. The railroad hired Julia to cook for the rail hands. As a part of the deal, the railroad provided them a converted railcar near the tracks where they could live and Julia could do her cooking. While living in the railcar, two children, Ely and Zona were born. Life wasn’t easy, but they struggled to learn the language and make their way in the hard scrabble railroad town of Valley Junction.
They set out to save enough money to buy a plot of ground and live in a proper house. They wanted to be able to raise their own food and a little livestock like in the old country. Julia scrimped and saved the money she made from cooking for the railroad workers. Ray purchased the food stores for Julia to cook, and Ray went to work for the Rock Island Railroad as a laborer. By 1920, they bought a little acreage at the end of the lane at 61st and Railroad Ave.
It appears that Ray lost his job as a result of one of the railroad strikes of the 1920’s. Ray then worked in the coal mines and later went to work for the Union Pacific Railway in Council Bluffs, IA. He lived in Council Bluffs for several years returning home as he could manage. When he retired from the Union Pacific, he returned home to live out the rest of his life. Ray and Julia died within months of each other in 1966 and are buried in Jordan Cemetery where many other Serbs from Valley Junction lie in eternal rest.
Ray and Julia had nine children:
Son Ely (unmarried, died of cancer as a young man of 21 yrs); daughter Zona (husband John Grgurich, children Sandra & Michael); daughter Luba (husband Dave Fillman, children Judith & Ronald); son Steve (wife Pat, child Sheila); son Pete (wife Lois, children Julie, Linda, Susan & Kathy); daughter Mildred (unmarried); son Dan (wife Eleanor, children Misty & Robin; son Mike (wife Joan, children Rebecca & Debra); son Stanley (wife Harriett, children Bob, Cindy, Tami & Connie). The Rodich family in America now counts six generations.
Joe and Mary moved back to Chicago sometime after 1914. Joe passed away around 1920 and is buried in the Chicago area near the burial site of a young son. Joe and Mary had seven children:
Son (child buried in Chicago, Illinois area); son Ely (died as a 12 yr old youth buried in Glendale Cemetery, Des Moines, IA); son Pete (wife Vivian, children Patricia, Joe, Helen & Mike; son Andy (wife Mary Francis, children Brenda, John, Steven, Sharon, Daniel, Linda, Dennis & Dino); son Sam (wife Anna, children Mary Ann, Judy, Sammy & Ron Smith); son John (child Joe); daughter Mildred (husband Floyd Sr., children Floyd Jr., Mary Louise, Henry & Scott).
After Joe’s death, Mary married Mike Dicklich. Mary and Mike Dicklich had three children:
Daughters Helen (died in 1967), Amy & Anna.
Like many immigrant families of that era, the families were no strangers to the sorrows of sickness, injury and childhood mortality. The times required them to remain stoic and strong for they had much to overcome making their way in America.
Mary’s and Julia’s heart stayed connected to those back home in Croatia. As late as the 1950's, they continued to send old clothes back to Yugoslavia with money concealed in the hems and coffee in the pockets.
The Ray Rodich, Pete Rodish, Andy Rodish and Mike Dicklich homes were all gathering places for the holidays, especially Serbian Christmas which is celebrated according to the ancient Julian calendar on January 7. Days leading up to Serbian Christmas meant the women and girls baking bread, preparing dish after dish of Serbian foods and desserts. The men and boys of each family braved the outdoor elements to roast a pig over an open pit. They spent hours tending the embers so as not to get too hot or too cool. The men and boys kept each other company as they spent tedious hours turning the spit, keeping the pig slathered with grease drippings to seal in the juices and flavor. The goal was always a brown crusted skin with moist succulent meat inside. Cooked just right, there was nothing like a piece of roasted pig nestled between two pieces of crusty homemade bread. Neighbors, friends and family made the rounds in Valley Junction visiting each other’s homes sharing food and drink for hours on end. Oh, for those days again!
Memories abound of Serbian blessings, music, dancing and raised glasses of homemade wine and plum brandy called Slivovitz…the revelry punctuated by cries of “U zdravlje” toasting good health and happiness, or “Zivjeli” (pronounced 'zjee-ve-lee') meaning 'Let's live long'! Though the festivities and pig roasts may be scaled back, many descendants continue to celebrate Serbian Christmas and special family occasions honoring the old traditional ways.
The Serbian families of Valley Junction all worked hard to make a life in America. They relied on their Serbian Orthodox faith and strength of character to help them learn a new language and make their way in a strange, new land. They did it all without ever again setting eyes on their homeland and loved ones left behind. Imagine the heartache of never seeing the face of a mother or father, never sharing a secret or hug with a brother or sister, never breathing the mountain air of one’s homeland ever again. To those brave souls, we owe so much…