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Under my hat: A loss for Little Lithuania

Schuylkill County is known as Little Lithuania because it has the greatest concentration of Lithuanian ancestry in the United States.

It started about 1867. Large numbers of Lithuanians arrived in Pennsylvania’s southern coal fields after a famine in the homeland, which, at that time, was part of the Russian Empire.

As a result, the towns of Mahanoy City, Shenandoah, Frackville, Mount Carmel and Tamaqua became important to Lithuanian culture.

Each town had a Lithuanian church, cemetery and club.

The local area produced what many say was the first Lithuanian-language novel in the world, “Algimantas,” published in Shenandoah in 1904.

Just a few miles away in Mahanoy City, the “Saule” newspaper, meaning The Sun, began publishing in 1888 and billed itself as the world’s first Lithuanian-language paper.

So why was all of this happening here?

A big part of the reason was discrimination in Lithuania. A press ban, from 1865 to 1904, was enacted against all Lithuanian language publications printed in the Latin alphabet within the Russian Empire. The only exceptions were publications that used the old Cyrillic alphabet.

Essentially, it became illegal to print, import, distribute or possess any publications in the Latin alphabet. Determined Lithuanians, however, quickly turned to printing venues outside of the Empire and not subject to the ban, among them the U.S.

In any case, the Saule filled some important needs for transplanted Lithuanians in Schuylkill County and far beyond.

The paper was published semiweekly, Tuesdays and Fridays, reaching what they claimed was over 500,000 Lithuanians living in the U.S.

The Saule boasted as being not only the first Lithuanian language paper, but also having the largest circulation in the U.S. and abroad. This is remarkable, considering how the operation arose in the back alleys of a coal region town.

Which brings us to the cramped location.

The newspaper’s first headquarters were in a Mahanoy City basement at the corner of B and Pine streets. Then in 1896, the operation moved to West Spruce Street, then to South, according to an early Mahanoy City business directory.

“The company built a fine, up-to-date newspaper plant at Nos. 337-339 W. South Alley at A Street, three stories in height, and thoroughly equipped with modern machinery and all the appointments necessary in a complete establishment,” it says.

The Saule, published by the family-owned W. D. Boczkowski Company (aka Bockauskas) for 71 years, printed its final edition on June 26, 1959.

The wooden clapboard 1916 building housing the print operations is original and stands at the tight location of an intersection of two very narrow alleys. But its days are numbered.

Bids are expected to be sent out to raze the structure, part of a county program to fight blight. Neighbors say the dry, rotted wood presents a fire hazard.

So it appears the end has come for a building that provided Lithuanian coal miners and their families with a precious link to their homeland, written in their native tongue and printed in the popular alphabet.

The destruction of the building will represent more than a loss for Little Lithuania and the end of an old Mahanoy City industrial site. It’ll obliterate a remnant of nascent American publishing and roots of ethnic journalism.

At its core, the Saule building stands as a monument to the courage of emboldened Lithuanians to preserve their published language from an Empire that tried to abolish it.

It’s an early symbol of freedom of the press and in a perfect world would be a point of pride, not blight.

Targeted for demolition is the home of the “Saule,” the Mahanoy City presses of “The Sun,” billed as the world's oldest Lithuanian language newspaper. It began in Schuylkill County in 1888 and published in an era when Latin-alphabet Lithuanian language publications were banned by the Russian Empire. DONALD R. SERFASS/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS
An early advertisement for Mahanoy City's once popular ethnic newspaper.