Our History

A Brief History of Maine’s Armenian Settlement

by Anthony P. Mezoian

The Portland Armenian Settlement began in 1896 with the arrival of the Yeghoian family from Turkey. They had fled the country to escape a massacre of Armenians ordered by the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II.

The Yeghoian family in 1914.

Garabed Yeghoian, his wife Tersagel, their son Aghagan and nephew Harry were living over an Armenian coffee house in Istanbul. Garabed worked aboard a steamship while young Aghagan was studying to become a priest. Harry’s parents had recently been killed by Turks. Garabed’s ship had just returned to the Istanbul docks when he heard about the massacres. His captain advised him to stay aboard ship because of the danger, but Garabed had to find his family.

Hundreds of Armenians were slaughtered in the streets of Istanbul that day, but Tersagel Yeghoian managed to escape with her children to the safety of the Russian Embassy. So when Garabed finally arrived at his home he found it empty and in shambles — dishes smashed, floor boards torn up, curtains shredded. Dead Armenians lay in the street outside. Garabed frantically continued his search, and finally found his family at the embassy. It was a wonderful reunion but the Yeghoians knew they had to leave Turkey immediately.

Armenian refugees in Marseille, 1896.

The Yeghoians fled to Marseille, France with hundreds of other Armenian refugees. When they arrived they were paraded through the streets of the city in the hope that someone would take them in. For a time the group was housed in a barn.

Travelling in France at that time was the English temperance activist Lady Somerset. She was accompanied by Frances Elizabeth Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union in America. When the two women learned of the Armenians’ plight they immediately went to Marseille and took charge of the resettlement efforts.

The Yeghoians were given a choice of destinations: England or America. Terzegul chose America. The family boarded a ship and eventually arrived at Ellis Island in New York. From there the WCTU arranged for them to move on to Portland, where they were greeted by Mrs. LillianStevens, president of the local WCTU chapter. The Yeghoians also received generous assistace from WCTU chapters in Yarmouth, Deering, Otisfield, Casco, Bolsters Mills, Cumberland Mills, and Bridgton.

Lillian Stevens with William Yeghoian, 1898. William is believed to be Maine’s first native-born Armenian.

Stevens found the group a flat on Morning Street and soon Garabed, whom Portlanders called Charlie Baba, was working at the Winslow Pottery. The family would later move to Lancaster Street, a short walk to the Pottery which was located at Forest Avenue and Kennebec Street.

It wasn’t long before relatives and friends of the Yeghoians began arriving in Portland from the predominantly Armenian towns and cities of eastern Turkey: Keghi, Van, Kharput, Erzurum, Adana, and Sepastia among many others. With the assistance of his fellow Portland Armenians, Yeghoian erected a building at 166 Lancaster Street — an Armenian grocery store with two apartments over it. The helpful manager at Fidelity Bank (now Maine Bank and Trust) assisted with a loan. The bank was located on Monument Square, two blocks south of the Armenian settlement. The Milliken Tomlinson company priovided Yeghoian with wholesale produce, and the grocery store realized a profit of nearly $500 its first year.

The long-gone building at 159 Lancaster St., a gathering place for Portland’s original Armenian community. It once housed a coffeehouse, school, and restaurant. Unmarried men lived on the upper floors.

By 1908 there were 25 families in Portland’s Armenian community. They lived in the area bounded by Forest Avenue, Cumberland Avenue, Lancaster Street, and Washington Avenue. In 1910 an Armenian school was organized at 159 Lancaster Street. It had 22 students in 1922. In addition to Winslow Pottery, Armenian men also worked at the Portland Stove Foundry on Kennebec Street and the Portland Leather Tannery near Deering Oaks Park.

As Armenians established communities throughout America they created cultural, political, and social welfare organizations to preserve their identity, promote their causes and provide assistance. Among them were the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) established in 1904 and the Armenian Relief Society (now the Armenian Red Cross) established in 1925. Both groups had Portland affiliates. Between them, Portland’s Armenians had many social, political, and educational events over the years — picnics, dances, dinners, holiday parties, and lectures.

For the past 100 years the Armenians of Maine have been prosperous, hard working, and successful. Many small grocery stores were established (27 at their peak). Armenian men also operated barber shops in the city (24 at peak). Many of their children went into the field of education. Some served in government as city councilors, mayors, court commissioners and state legislators. Several went into medicine, law, and insurance. During World War II, many Armenian men from Portland served their adopted country.

Robert Agazarian’s barbershop on Portland’s Fore St. in 1909. Agazarian returned to Armenia to help with the defense of his people during the Genocide. He was killed in 1915.

Today there are many Armenian Mainers who are recognized leaders in their career fields. They include Apple Computer executive Avedis Tevanian, actress Andrea Martin, international cruise ship entertainer Peter Mezoian, Portland Housing Authority commisssioner John Malconian, Youth Alternatives director Michael Tarpinian, grocer George Amergian, grocer and restauranteur John Martin, South Portland Library Director Marian Agazarian Peterson, and the late Augustus “Gus” Barber of Barber Foods.

In 2003, the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine was founded. In conjunction with the City of Portland, the group erected a monument honoring the state’s original Armenian settlers as well as those lost in the Genocide. The monument is located at the Armenian Plaza at the corner of Cumberland Avenue and Franklin Street, in the heart of Maine’s original Armenian settlement.

Anthony Mezoian is a retired teacher and the author of “The Armenian Peoples of Portland, Maine”.

The Turkish Connection

For thousands of years, Armenians have lived on the land that straddles the borders of modern Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, and Turkey.

“Armenian Woman” from Turkey and the Armenian Atrocities Edmund Munsell Bliss; 1896 Courtesy ArmenianHouse.org

Until the Genocide of 1915-1922, the largest population of Armenians was centered in eastern Turkey. But twenty years earlier, ethnic violence in the region had already created waves of refugees. Some came to Maine.

By 1915, Maine’s first Armenian immigrants were sufficiently well-established to assimilate a new generation fleeing the horrors of what had evolved into state-sponsored genocide. Most of the immigrants spoke Armenian and Turkish fluently, and it was common to hear both languages on the streets of Portland.

After the Genocide, Turkish authorities erased almost all traces of Armenian life from the country, destroying civic records, confiscating property, and renaming dozens of ancient Armenian towns and villages. To this day, Armenians throughout the world still refer to these ancestral communities by their original Armenian names.