Louis C. Billick / Łukasz Bilyk

Louis was Bonnie Billick’s father-in-law and Paul Billick’s father.

Louis C. Billick / Łukasz Bilyk

Bilyk_timeline

Birth Year

It is likely that Louis was born on September 5, 1877.  There are, however, several alternate years indicated in official documents.

The 1910 Federal Census complicates the determination of Louis’s birth year. It records his age as 40 thus suggesting a birth year of 1870-ish. And it notes wife “Tillie’s” age as 25. Neither of these seem accurate nor do they reflect birth years provided in later documents. The 1920 Federal Census lists Louis as 43 years of age, also indicating a 1877/78 birth year. This is also the year on his gravestone.[1] Then in the 1930 Census, Louis’s age is noted as 51 and then as 58 in 1940; both of which suggest a birth year around 1882/83.

Additional discrepancies in Louis’s birth date come from his draft registration documents.  On Louis’s WWI Draft Registration form completed in September of 1918, his birthday is listed as July 18, 1876. On the WWII Draft Registration form,[2] Louis’s birthday is noted as April 5, 1879 which corresponds mathematically to his listed age on the form, 63 years.

Finally, Louis’s birth date in Social Security records in officially noted as 5 September 1877.

Birth Place

Nothing is known about Louis’s parents. He was surely of Polish descent, arriving in the United States around 1905-06.

The 1910 Census has Louis’s birthplace as “Austria-Slovak” and an arrival date in the United States of 1904. The 1918 WWI Draft Registration form notes that Louis was a citizen of Poland. The 1920 Census indicates Louis immigrated to the U.S. in 1906 and records Louis’s birth place as Slavonia and his native language as Russian. Neither of these seems accurate.[3]

The 1930 and 1940 Census record his birthplace as Poland.

On his 1942 WWII Draft Registration form, Louis’s birthplace is noted as “Pomeran, Gallicia, Austria.”  “Pomeran” in the Draft form probably denotes the Pomeranian region on the southern shore of the Baltic Sea between modern day Poland and Germany. The region has had Poles of Ukrainian descent living there at least into the WWII era.  “Gallicia, Austria”[4] may indicate that he was part of the beginning of a large emigration of peasants from the Galician region, heading to Germany, the United States and Brazil.[5]

Polish Migration to America

Beginning in the 1880s, a mass emigration of the Galician peasantry occurred. The emigration started as a seasonal one to Imperial Germany (newly unified and economically dynamic) and to Bosnia and then later became a Trans-Atlantic one with large-scale emigration to the United States, Brazil, Canada.

Caused by the backward economic condition of Galicia where rural poverty was widespread, the emigration began in the western, Polish populated part of Galicia and quickly shifted east to the Ukrainian inhabited parts. Poles, Ukrainians, Jews, and Germans all participated in this mass movement of country folk and villagers. Poles migrated principally to New England and the Midwestern states of the United States, but also to Brazil and elsewhere…[6]

Złoczew, Poland

It’s nearly certain that both Louis and wife Tekla were natives of the town of Złoczew.

Złoczew sits at the northeastern section of the 19th-centruy region of Galicia. Now within the borders of modern-day Poland, it’s about 260 miles south of the Baltic Sea Coast. Under Austrian rule from 1772 to 1918, the area was ethnically diverse with a mix of Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, Slovaks and Armenians. This geo-political chaos and ethnic stew helps explain references to Galicia, Austria, Russia, Poland and Slavonia in Louis’s documents.

Tekla, Louis’s wife, indicates her birthplace as Złoczew. Finally, daughter, Anna’s birth certificate records her father’s birthplace as “Złoczew Poland.”

There’s a bit more of the city’s history at the very end of this page.

Surname

Official records provide three variants of Louis’s surname: Bilik, Billik, and Billick.

In the 1910 Census, the name appears as “Billick.” In the 1920 Census, it’s “Bilik,” and in 1930 and 1940 Census, it’s “Billick.”

Again, it’s the draft registration records that serve up variations, as they did with birth dates. On WWI Draft Registration form it’s “Bilik.” On his 1942 WWII Draft Registration form, Louis’s surname is recorded as “Billik.”

The pre-Americanized form of the name might well have been “Bilyk” (or “Bylik),” a common Ukranian surname derived from the Ukrainian word bilyj, meaning “white.” It is a very common surname in the Ancestry.com database and appears frequently in immigration arrival lists, including those for Ellis Island. The surname, Billick is not common in those lists.

Louis’s given name was probably Ludwik, Łukasz, Lukas or Lukasz.

Synthesizing all these permutations, and the version on the Ellis Island arrival document, I am inclined to think Louis’s name was Łukasz Bilyk.

Leaving Poland

What forces compelled a twenty-something years old farmer, probably recently married, to abandon his homeland and start life anew in another continent? By the time of Louis’s birth, the region known as Poland today had already been the scene of constant military and political strife involving Prussia, Austria and Russia. Poland ceased to be an independent nation in 1795. Polish nobles fled leaving native behind peasants who lived in servitude and poverty.

Billick family lore has it that Louis was in effect a draft-dodger.

Another major reason some Poles immigrated was due to fears of military conscription. Military service was mandatory for all three of Poland’s foreign rulers, and the Polish conscripts were places in separate units. The Polish regiments were always the first sent into the battle and suffered the heaviest losses… In the Russian Army, seventy-five percent of the Polish conscripts were killed in fighting during the 1800s.[7]

European Departure and Early Years in America

It is fairly certain that Louis arrived in the United States via Ellis Island in 1906.[8] Among the 1906 Manifest of Alien Arrivals one finds a “Lukas Bilyk” arriving in New York on the S.S. Amerika on April 1, 1906, having departed from Hamburg on March 21. Mr. Bilyk is listed as a laborer of Polish descent from Austria with a final destination of McKeesport, PA.[9]

Lukas_Bilyk
Name “Lukas Bilyk” in Ellis Island Arrivals of April 1, 1906

There is a bit of ambiguity here, however. The 1910 Census reports Louis arriving in America in 1905 and Teckla in 1907. The 1920 Census gives 1906 as the arrival year for Louis, Tekla and the two sons, Walter and Michael.  The 1930 Census says that both Tekla and Louis arrived in 1905. Son, Michael’s, marriage license, indicates he was born overseas in January of 1906. Anna’s delayed certificate of birth indicates she was born in McKeesport, Pennsylvania and baptized in St. John the Baptist Little Russian Church in McKeesport, 13 October 1907.[10] Thus, sometime after January 1906 year seems a likely arrival date; a point that is supported by the Ellis Island Manifest of Alien Arrivals data.

Two other ships with significant number of passengers from Galicia/Austria arrived in Ellis Island in 1906. The ship Friedrich der Grosse sailed from Bremen, Germany arriving June 27, 1906. And the Georgia, departed from Trieste, Italy, arriving in New York on March 30, 1906. However, I have not been able to find any variations of these surnames paired with Louis, Tekla, Michael or Walter in the Ellis Island passenger lists.

McKeesport, PA

In the 1910 Census, the Billick family is recorded as Lukoch and Tielie Bilick residing at 204 Strawberry Street in McKeesport. The children are: Wasil [Walter] (age 7), Milka [Michael] (age 5), Anna (age 3), and John (age two months). Louis’s occupation is listed as “pipe mill,” which one assumes is some kind of pipe metal worker. Many of the neighbors on Strawberry Street have the same occupation and nearly all the families in the area appear to be natives of Austria or Hungary.

The 1914 McKeesport City Directory lists a Louis Bilik as a “laborer” residing at 204 Strawberry Street. Tantalizingly, 204 Strawberry Street is just eleven miles from St. John the Baptist church where Anna was baptized.

By 1900, the Pittsburgh area was already one of the most industrialized cities in the United States producing 50% of the nation’s steel. Polish immigrants were drawn by work opportunities in the steel mills and nearby coal mines.

From 1900 to 1914, the number of Poles immigrating to Pennsylvania was 337,000. By the year 1920, Pittsburgh was the largest Pennsylvania community of immigrant and second-generation Poles, they numbered 200,000. The official U.S. Census for 1920 listed the total population for every group living within the City of Pittsburgh at 588,343.[11]

McKeesport, particularly, was a hub for Eastern European immigrants:

The National Tube Company opened in 1872 and became part of U.S. Steel. In the years directly following the opening of the National Tube Company, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, McKeesport was the fastest growing municipality in the nation. Families arrived from other parts of the eastern United States, Italy, Germany, Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary, with most working at the National Tube Company.[12]

The 204 Strawberry Street address for Louis is less than half a mile from the entrance to National Tube Company.

Given these fact-lets, it’s clear that Louis spent some time in the McKeesport area before moving on to Ohio.

Great Flood of 1907

The whole Pittsburgh region is famous for the Great Flood of 1936 but a similar catastrophe occurred in mid-March of 1907 when the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela Rivers reached some thirteen feet over flood levels.[13] Louis and his family were living at the Strawberry Street location at that time.Central Pittsburgh and nearby suburbs like McKeesport were inundated. One report gave this description:

This disaster smashed previous flood records set in 1832 and 1884 because the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers rose to a height above 36.6 feet. After rain began falling on March 12, the rivers bulged with debris, ice floes and even small out buildings from farms

mckeesport_flood_1907
McKeesport Flood of 1907

Louis and his family were living at the Strawberry Street location at that time less than ten miles from downtown Pitts-burgh and the confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers; just a few blocks from where this photo was taken.

Other Billick Families in PA

It is interesting that other “Billicks” (and “Bilyks”) appear in McKeesport records. In the 1880 and 1900 Censuses  at least three other Billick families are residing in the borough of Elizabeth in Allegheny County within a few miles of the Louis Billick family.  They all appear to be second or third generation Pennsylvania natives, working as farmers. Alas, there is no indication they are any relation to Louis. Only one of those family trees traces back before 1800 and its patriarch is one Antonious Billig (1681-1713), a native of Bassenheim, Germany. There are countless “Billicks” and “Billigs” in Pennsylvania records throughout the 20th century, most if not all likely sharing this German (rather than Polish) ancestry.

On to Toledo

Documents indicate that their fourth and fifth children, John and Peter, were born in Pennsylvania (1910 and 1913) while the next son, Paul, was born in Toledo in 1916. The 1915 Toledo City Directory lists Walter Bilik (only 12 or 13 years old at the time) living at 1667 Oakwood Avenue. Then, Louis Bilik, “laborer,” appears in the 1917 Toledo City Directory at the same 1677 Oakwood Avenue address.[14] This location is just 2.5 miles from the Willys-Overland plant on Central Avenue. If the Ohio and Pennsylvania Louis Biliks are one and the same, it appears the family moved to the Toledo area sometime in the 1913-15 period.

Louis’s obituary states that he lived in the Toledo area for 62 years placing his arrival there around age 24, or about 1901. It seems more likely that the obituary is referring to his arrival in America rather than his residence in Toledo (and may be off by a couple of years).

The 1920 Census is somewhat garbled in its street listing but it seems the Bilik family was residing on Sibley Road. In 1930, Louis Billick and Matilda were living in Toledo with seven of their eight children (ages 10 through 24) still residing with them. By the 1940 Census, just three of the children remained at home: Paul, Helen and Donald. In April of 1942, Louis recorded his residential address as “Box 532, R.3 Sibley Road.”[15]

Why Toledo?

What drove families like the Billicks to Toledo?

Toledo and the Second Industrial Revolution

Around the turn of the century, Toledo was as much a part of the booming so-called “Second Industrial Revolution” as some of its better-known counterparts like Pittsburgh, Erie, or Cleveland. That Revolution was spurred in part by the steel, petroleum, and transportation industries each of which had a major presence in Toledo. And Toledo was already one of the 30 or so largest cities in America with world-leading manufacturing companies in glass (Libby Glass Works) and automobiles (Willys-Overland). One might also conjecture that compared to the mining and steel mill work in the east, factory jobs in Ohio were perceived as a step up in working and (given the air pollution) living conditions.

Willys-Overland

On his 1918 WWI Draft Registration form, Louis was working at the Overland Co.[16]  During its early years, Willys-Overland was infamous for its unsafe working conditions. I recall Louis had two partially amputated fingers on one hand, injuries possibly suffered during his years at Willys-Overland.

Louis apparently spent his entire working life at Willys-Overland.[17] In the 1920 Census he is listed as “laborer” in “iron works”; in 1930, as “forger” in the “auto industry”; and, in 1940 as a “grinder” at Willy-Overland. On his 1942 WWII Draft Registration form, he is working at Willys-Overland Co., on Central Ave. in Toledo.

Louis’s work years at Willys-Overland covered a tumultuous time in the history of the company and the city of Toledo.

Labor difficulties resulted in a violent strike in 1919, shutting down the plant for several months. The strife arose when management increased work-week hours from forty to forty-eight and decreased wages.

Ten years later, the Great Depression hit Toledo very hard with unemployment in the city exceeding 70 percent.  Willys-Overland, then the city’s largest employer, saw its labor force go from some 28,000 in 1928 to around 3,000 by Spring of 1932. A year later, the company declared bankruptcy emerging as the reorganized Willys-Overland Motors in 1936.

It isn’t clear when Louis retired from Willys.  Various documents suggest he began working there around 1915-17 and his obituary says he worked there for forty years, suggesting he retired around 1957.

Willys_Overland_shop_1937_b

Children

We don’t know when or where Louis and Tekla were married. The 1920 Census shows them arriving in the U.S. in 1906 along with two sons, Walter and Michael.

  • Walter C. Billick: born 1903
  • Michael Billick C. Billick: born 1906
  • Anna Mae Billick: born 1907
  • John C. Billick: born 1910
  • Peter J. Billick: born 1913
  • Paul Vincent Billick: born 1916
  • Helen Billick: born 1918
  • Donald Michael Billick: born 1920.

Personal Recollections

As late as the mid-1950s, I recall accompanying my aunts Helen and Ann in picking up Louis after work at the Willys plant. At that time, he would have been over 70 years old. I also recall his tool bench in his garage at 1026 Blackburn Road, with a bench-mounted vice, and a large assortment of antique hammers, chisels and the like. Clear in my memory, too, are photos tacked above the work bench of soldiers in those distinctive 19th-century Prussian Army style helmets, the ones with the spike shape on top.

Questions

There are numerous unresolved questions regarding Louis’s biography, among them:

  • When did he and Tekla marry? And where?
  • What was their route from Poland to the U.S. and Pennsylvania?
  • How did he lose 2-3 fingers?

Historical Notes – Złoczew

It seems that Złoczew was a tiny town at the time Louis and Tekla were born.

Beginning in 1864 the town of Złoczew ceased to be a private town and became an administrative town. In 1865, there were 1890 residents in Złoczew, and among them 718 were of Polish nationality, 1164 were Jewish, and 8 were German. Among 306 families, there were 138 Polish families, 160 Jewish families and 2 German families. In 1870, Złoczew was downgraded to a municipal settlement. In 1874, a substantial part of the settlement burned down, which severely impoverished the population. It was not until May 16, 1916, that Złoczew again became a town.[18]

In 1871, Złoczew became a stop on the Galician Railroad. The railroad linked Kraków and Lwów and had connections to major European cities like Warsaw, Vienna and Berlin. The rail line is interesting in the context of Louis and Tekla in two ways. One, Polish peasants likely had a role in constructing the rail line and may be where Louis acquired his mechanical, metal-working skills. Secondly, it became a primary route for emigrants to begin their long journey to America.[19] One wonders if lingering effects of 1874 conflagration played a role in Louis and Tekla’s ultimate trek out of Europe a couple of decades later.

Złoczew is just some 160 miles from Torun, Poland, the home town of the Ignatz Jablonski, Bonnie Billick’s grandfather.


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Notes
[1] Since several of Paul’s children and his wife were still alive at the time of his death, I assume the 1877 year is correct.
[2] Completed in April 26, 1942.
[3] Looking at the Census enumerators sheet, I wonder if fatigue accounts for some of these kinds of variants. The day before recording the Bilik household data, this worker visited some 50 homes and did 30 more on that day.
[4] “The English term “Galicia”, which can be found in various North America documents such as census records, naturalization papers and passenger ship lists, refers commonly to the northern-most province of the Austrian Empire, roughly from 1772 to 1918.” Matthew R. Bielawa, Catholic Vital Records of Galicia-Halychyn, p, 36.
Accessed April 5, 2017. https://s3.amazonaws.com/ps-services-us-east-1-914248642252/s3/research-wiki-elasticsearch-prod-s3bucket/images/b/bf/Catholic_Vital_Records_of_Galicia-Halychyna_by_Matthew_R._Bielawa.pdf (accessed April 5, 2017).
[5] I recall both my father, Paul, and Uncle, Mike, mentioning that Louis thought he was going to Brazil when he departed Europe (DJB).
[6] “History of Galicia (Eastern Europe).” Wikipedia. Accessed April 5, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Galicia_(Eastern_Europe). A detailed history of Galicia can be found at:  “Galicia.” Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine.  http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com/display.asp?linkpath=pages%5CG%5CA%5CGalicia.htm.
[7] The 1930 U.S. Census gives their arrival year as 1905. The 1920 Census says they arrived in 1906.
[8] Szabados 1916, p. 9.
[9] Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897. Year: 1906; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: T715, 1897-1957; Microfilm Roll: Roll 0684; Line: 1; Page Number: 46.
[10] St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Catholic Church has been in operation in McKeesport since 1902.
[11] Polish Genealogical Society of America, “Poles of Pittsburgh, PA.” http://pgsa.org/polish-history/polish-civil-and-military-history/poles-of-pittsburgh-pa/ (accessed April 5, 2017).
[12] Wikipedia, “McKeesport, Pennsylvania.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McKeesport,_Pennsylvania#1900s (accessed April 5, 2017).
[13] “Three Tragedies That Changed Pittsburgh,” Popular Pittsburgh. Accessed 10 April 2017. http://popularpittsburgh.com/threepittsburghtragedies/
[14] This is less than one mile from Louis’s grave site in Calvary Cemetery and only 12 miles to the 1026 Blackburn Road address.
[15] On his draft registration card.
[16] Surely, Willys-Overland Motor Company, begun in1908, when John North Willys purchased a portion of the Standard Wheel Company in Toledo. The company was renamed Willys-Overland in 1912.
[17] See his obituary, below.
[18] ” Złoczew.” Virtual Shtetl. Museum of the History of Polish Jews, n.d. Accessed Web. 3 Apr. 2017.
[19] Re the Galician Railroad, see http://www.ipgs.us/iwonad/artdirectory/galicianrailroad.html
{last update: 3-Mar-2020}