The Sarafian Family at the Idlewild Hotel (Photo Courtesy of Project Save)

Armenians Found Community in This Plymouth Neighborhood on the Beach

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By David Kindy

PLYMOUTH, Mass. (Old Colony Memorial Newspaper) — This is a story about summer, baseball and a joyful clash of cultures on the beach. It’s about food, dances, music, sleepovers and a close-knit neighborhood. It’s about kids playing outside well after dark and parents making sure no one got hurt or crossed too far over the line.

This is a story about summer, baseball and a joyful clash of cultures on the beach. It’s about food, dances, music, sleepovers and a close-knit neighborhood. It’s about kids playing outside well after dark and parents making sure no one got hurt or crossed too far over the line.

A post card with the photo of the Idlewild Hotel (courtesy of Project Save)

For a time, a four- or five-block section around the Idlewild Inn in Manomet was a glorious mixture of ethnicities and eccentricities. This quaint collection of cottages and summer homes was awash in the cultures and customs of a different land that many in other parts of Plymouth would have found unusual, to say the least.

From the 1930s through the 1970s, the sounds of curious music echoed from the Idlewild every Saturday night during the summer. Unusual aromas of ethnic food cooked by elderly women who barely spoke English wafted around and through nearby homes, tantalizingly teasing neighbors and passersby alike.

Yet, no one seemed to mind or care about the differences. In fact, they were celebrated and embraced at neighborhood parties, on sandy beaches, around backyard grills and on the local baseball field, where the community came together to celebrate the warm weather and relaxed atmosphere that was Manomet in this era.

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For Steve Kurkjian, summers here as a young boy were heaven on earth. He was part of the new culture that was absorbed into this neighborhood. As a first- generation Armenian American, he was proud of both his heritage from the old country and his citizenship in this land. Mostly, he loved baseball and going to the beach.

In Manomet home of Anna Kalajian, seated) with her son Arthur Kalajian who grew up in Belmont and is now an engineer in Michigan, and his wife Debra

“We played baseball all summer long at Briggs Field,” he says of his time coming of age in Manomet in the 1950s and ’60s. “If we weren’t on the baseball diamond, then we were on the beach chasing girls. It was a glorious time. I have so many memories.”

Now 75, Steve once worked for the Boston Globe on the Spotlight investigative team, where he won three Pulitzer Prizes. One was for his work on uncovering sexual abuse cases related to the Catholic church in Boston. He is also the author of the book Master Thieves: The Boston Gangsters Who Pulled Off the World’s Greatest Art Heist, which chronicled the $500-million theft of paintings at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

More than 70 years ago, Steve’s family lived in Dorchester and started spending summers in Manomet. At first, they stayed at the Idlewild Inn, which had been purchased by an Armenian family in the 1930s. The Sarafians welcomed all guests to their beautiful facility on Manomet Avenue, and many Armenians stayed at the inn and later bought nearby cottages and homes.

How the Sarafians found this cozy coastal community is a bit of mystery, though there is a tantalizing clue at the Second Church of Plymouth. Records show that in 1897 the church hired a young Armenian minister, Haig Adadourian, who led the parish until 1904 and again from 1916 until 1923. He sponsored numerous people from the old country and helped them emigrate to America. It is believed some of those newly landed émigrés, including the eventual owners of the Idlewild, visited the reverend in Manomet.

The inn still stands on the bluff above Manomet Beach and offers a stunning vista of the seashore and beyond. To the south lies Cape Cod. Across the bay is Provincetown, clearly visible when the humidity is low and the sun is at your back. To the north, where Manomet Beach curves toward Cape Cod Bay, are Stone Horse Rocks, a rough outcropping that is a favorite for local swimmers.

In the Manomet home of Anna Kalajian, (seated) with her son Arthur Kalajian who grew up in Belmont and is now an engineer in Michigan, and his wife Debra

“I’ve traveled around the world and to me, this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” Steve says. “It’s breathtaking. Not a bad place at all.”

The Kurkjians bought a cottage in Manomet in 1948. The father, Anooshavan, was a toddler during Armenian Genocide by Turkey in 1915, when as many as

1.5 million are believed to have died. He came to America with his mother, the only surviving members of their family. He grew up to become a respected commercial artist and portrait painter in Boston. Anooshavan and his wife Rosella wanted their children Stephen, Karolyn and Elizabeth to enjoy all the fruits this new and exciting country bore.

“We didn’t even own a car when we first started coming here,” Steve recalls. “We would get a ride from cousins and friends. We would stay for the summer and my father would come down on weekends and for his vacation. I remember there were always people at the house – 25 or so at a time. The women were constantly cooking. I don’t know where all those people slept because the cottages were tiny back then!”

Affable and athletic, young Steve made friends easily and played with other children in the neighborhood. Baseball and epic late-night games of tag ranging across the neighborhood filled their summer. One of his younger companions was Miriam “Mimi” O’Neal, who still visits the family home in Manomet during the warm-weather months.

“I always thought I was Armenian,” says Mimi, who is as Irish as the day as long. “All my friends were Armenian. I loved the language and the food. I didn’t know ethnicity as a child. Steve’s father cooked pancakes every Saturday morning for the neighborhood kids. We spent time together and all blended as one.”

Like an extended clan, everyone in the community kept an eye on the younger ones. Neighbors dutifully watched out for the children to make sure everyone was safe and would report youthful indiscretions. Once, Anooshaven caught Mimi’s older sister smoking and told her parents about her illicit activity.

“She was horrified,” she recalls. “But that’s what happened here. It was very family-oriented.”

Steve Kurkjian, right, and his extended family in Manomet

Mimi also attended the Idlewild dances with Steve’s sister Elizabeth. Well, they didn’t really go into the dance hall since children were prohibited. Rather, they sat outside in back of the inn and listened to the lively and strangely enjoyable music as it poured forth from doors and windows left open in a futile attempt to cool sweaty bodies from the summer heat.

“Elizabeth never really wanted to go, but I made her,” she says. “I think she was uncomfortable because it was the older generation of her family, but I loved it.”

Manomet’s Armenian enclave also mingled with neighbors on the beach. The community gathered together on the shore to bask in the sun and enjoy the salt water. Steve still remembers all the Armenian women holding hands and walking tentatively into cold Cape Cod Bay.

“The women were always busy cooking and running the home,” he says. “This is where they could rest and bond together. They would walk arm and arm into the water and hold hands in a circle. No one ever swam because it was too cold.”

One of those women was Ann Kalajian. She started coming to Manomet in 1947 with her husband Charles and later her three sons, Edward and twins Arthur and Peter. They also stayed at the Idlewild Inn before purchasing a cottage on Vinal Avenue. Ann, 91 and an ethnic Armenian who was born in Syria, lives year- round in the home now.

“It was a nice community,” she says. “You could hear the music from the bands at the Idlewild all over the neighborhood. The inn had good food and service.”

For Arthur, summers in Manomet were all about the beach and swimming. His family would head down the stairs in the morning to enjoy as much time as possible in the surf, sand and sun.

“We would spend a full day at the beach,” he remembers. “It was a lot fun. My mother taught me how to swim. How she learned to swim, I don’t know. She grew up in Damascus, where there is no water.”

The Asadoorian family of Worcester and Manomet have placed several benches dedicated to their deceased family members at the top of the bluffs across from the Idlewild Hotel.

Of course, all things must change. Just as the summer winds give way to the cool breezes of autumn and the carefree days of childhood drift into the endless demands of adulthood, Manomet would begin to evolve again.

The Sarafians sold the Idlewild Inn in 1968. It still welcomes all guests, but no Armenian bands play music late into the night on weekends anymore. The nearby summer cottages were replaced with expansive year-round homes.

Families moved away seeking better opportunities. New people arrived in and made those houses their own. Nothing bad about that; just different.

Today, a few Armenians live in the neighborhood, which now has a much more diverse population. People are still friendly and care about their neighbors, but the ambiance has changed. Bigger homes and the increased demands of 21st century life mean less opportunity to rub elbows and to connect as a community.

Manomet is now Steve Kurkjian’s full-time address. He loves the casual feel of the neighborhood and cheerfully greets everyone he sees while around – whether he has known them for 70 years or met them last week at the beach. For him, the place is home. He wrote about it recently in a reflection of his recollections growing up in that friendly corner of Plymouth:

A painting by Anooshavan Kurkjian of the area

“I spent my boyhood summers in Manomet and though I delighted in growing up in a vibrant Dorchester neighborhood, my favorite memories come from the weeks spent here between the last day of school and Labor Day. From making it all the way through the list of 20-plus flavors of ice cream offered at Gellars to playing hours of baseball with great friends at Briggs Field to hearing the calliope music announcing the arrival of another two-week stint of Colbert’s Fiesta on the empty lot beside St. Bonaventure’s Church, my growth from boyhood to young adult wended along that stretch of Route 3A from Rogers (now Luke’s) and Lisa Jean’s ice cream shop where now Marshland is located.

“When people asked me why I didn’t know more about the attractions of the Cape, I would answer if you knew the enjoyment I gained with friends and family from my patch of sand on Manomet Beach, swimming at high tide in the freezing cold water out to House Rock, or marveling at the Bluffs to the north knowing that the Pilgrims would have taken in the same breathtaking vista as the Mayflower sailed from Provincetown to America’s Home Town in 1620, you would understand why I was fine just where I was.

“And at some later point, I began to understand what this same expanse of sand and the neighborhood around the Idlewild Inn had meant to that generation of older Armenians who had found their way to Manomet when it was acquired in

the 1930s, and thrived during the years of my youth. And as I have grown older, so many different Armenians whom I have met realize that we’re really not strangers but that our families knew each other from the vacation weeks they had spent in Manomet. But it was the older generation, the one that had survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in Ottoman Turkey and had had lost their parents, siblings, cousins and even children to it, that Manomet meant the most .

“These mostly older women had gained safety in America, and though most never had spoken about their suffering or what they had lost, you could see them drawing comfort and strength in Manomet’s summer warmth. I can still see them, small groups of older Armenian women, all dressed in their billowing black bathing suits, walking together down the long flight of stairs onto the warm sands, then wading hand in hand into the water, conversing in soft somber tones in their native Armenian, yet shouting, almost with laughter, as another cold wave came splashing towards them.”

 

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