by David Zenian
A lot has changed since the first Armenians began settling in Fresno 115 years ago. It has lost some of its old country luster, but when it comes to name recognition, it remains one of the few cities around the world solidly associated with the Armenian Diaspora.
In the Middle East, the small farming communities of Anjar in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and Kessab above Syria’s Mediterranean coast are often called “Little Armenia”. In the United States, Fresno fits the same description.
But with a population of under one million and an area as large as Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, Fresno County has been more than a farming community. It is where noted author and playwright William Saroyan was born, and where many Armenian-language newspapers were first published.
With an Armenian population of under 30,000, Fresno County today has nine Armenian churches and dozens of institutions and organizations.
Among its prominent native sons were Ross Baghdassarian, the creator of “The Chipmunks”; sculptor Haig Patigian; actor Mike Connors; the late sculptor Varaz Samuelian; financier Kirk Kerkorian; the late journalist and United Press International Vice President Roger Tatarian and many others.
All moved away at some point of their lives. Some returned, but for those who stayed, Fresno became one of the best known self-contained Armenian communities in the United States.
It was why many Armenians came here decades ago, to be together, close to mother nature and the farmlands which reminded them of the homes they had left behind.
Hagi Kandarian is one of Fresno’s many typical old-time early farmers. He is 88-years-young and still busy growing grapes and producing raisins.
Kandarian’s father came to the United States in 1890 from a small village on the outskirts of Kharpert in eastern Turkey. Like many others of his generation, he tried Worcester, Massachusetts. He then moved to Chicago, where his son Hagi was born in 1908, and then came to Fresno in 1912 to start a new life in farming.
“I grew up around grape vines and raisins like all other Armenian kids of my generation and the others that followed. Even those who went to college, kept farming on the side. Every early Armenian family in Fresno has some farming in its veins,” Kandarian said.
With such deep roots in the County’s farming infrastructure, it was therefore no coincidence to see Armenians playing a key role in the establishment in the late 1960′s of the Raisin Bargaining Association – the powerful RBA which helps regulate the raisin industry and protect the rights of the Fresno County farmers.
One such farmer directly involved with the RBA is John Pakchoian, 79-year-young World War II veteran, raisin producer par excellence and the son of Fresno’s first farmer with a PhD degree in Philosophy from the University of Southern California.
“I was a few feet behind the group of American soldiers who raised the Stars and Stripes on the island of Iwo Jima in February 1945,” Pakchoian said, pointing to a ceramic plate behind his office desk commemorating the historical occasion.
The “elder” Pakchoian graduated from USC in 1904 and returned to Van, his hometown in eastern Turkey, only to escape the 1915 Genocide and make it back to the United States – stopping in Persia on his way where John was born in 1917.
His first stop in the U.S. was Boston where he was a Christian preacher for a few years before heading west to Fresno – a popular destination for the early Armenian immigrants – and a new life in farming.
But unlike his father, John Pakchoian’s sons have not followed in his footsteps – a new trend which is slowly hacking away at the agricultural base of the Armenian community.
“I am lucky because my son joined me in the business,” says Karl Chooljian, one of the partners of the family-owned Del Rey Packing Company of Fresno, whose father started the business in 1924.
Del Rey, like the Armenian-owned Lion Packing Company and many others, handles thousands of tons of raisins grown and dried by dozens of small and large Armenian farmers.
“In a way we sustain each other. Armenian farmers sell to Armenian packers who in turn export the finished product to Europe, the Far East and many other parts of the world,” said one industry insider.
A comfortable relationship which has existed for generations – a relationship that has made the Fresno Armenian community unique, just as its counterparts in the Middle East, Anjar and Kessab.
It is this unique reputation that is attracting a new generation of Armenians to Fresno – this time from Armenia.
George Koroyan was a factory manager in Nubarashen – the town constructed by AGBU founder Boghos Nubar – and now runs two successful Armenian restaurants in Fresno.
“I had only 840 dollars in my pocket when I arrived in 1977. It was impossible to get into farming like the early Armenians because it was far too expensive to purchase farmlands,” he said.
Ashod Simonyan, is a sculptor. He survived the 1988 earthquake in Gyumri and made it to Fresno a year later with 13 dollars in his pocket. Today Ashod is the proud owner of “AA” Monuments”, specializing in marble and granite products from fireplaces to headstones.
According to Armenian church and community leaders, 200 families from Armenia have recently settled in the Fresno area and “more are coming every month.”
Fresno has always been a safe haven for generations of Armenians, the traditional “Little Armenia” of the west coast – one of the reasons why many Armenian families are re-locating from Los Angeles in search of a better life.