Lebanese Q&A

Staff Writer
Woodford Times

Randy Couri has taken on the task of preserving the legacy of the Lebanese community in Central Illinois. It is a position the Peoria man took over from his father.

“My dad did the genealogy. He died in 2002. I took over from there,” Couri said. “I got the Ellis Island manifests for about 300 of our people. I keep the stories alive.”

Couri said the work is very rewarding. He is an electrician by trade.

“It’s always amazing to give this information to the younger generation,” Couri said. “A lot of people my parent’s age didn’t know the stories either.”

Couri said the area Lebanese group in the early years of settlement in this area married into each others families. That has changed.

“Over the generations we have married outside the Lebanese and the community has truly become a melting pot,” Couri said.

Couri said he does not know how much acrimony the early Lebanese settlers may have experienced, but the Lebanese now, he said, are accepted.

“The original immigrants gave us so much. I think we’ve earned the respect we have,” Couri said. “We’re naturals at interacting with other ethnic groups.”

Couri said the Lebanese love their old country, but also America.

“I attribute that to the fact that our ancestors came here with nothing. They couldn’t even speak English,” Couri said.

“They felt so fortunate to be in a good place. They stayed here. I’m second generation. About 5 to 10 percent of them left here. With the third generation about 5 to 10 percent stayed here. The tie to this area is getting watered down.”   

That loss is going to impact the influence the Lebanese community has in the Greater Peoria Area. Couri estimated the Greater Peoria Area Lebanese population at about 6,000. He said Woodford County is home to about 100 or less.

“But, I don’t think it is a reason for concern,” Couri said. “I think we’ll see many of those leaving returning in years from now.”  

Q&A with Randy Couri

Q. What did you say your last name is?

A. The families of Khalil Williams, Anthony Joseph and John Unes are descended from the Younes family.

The families of Edward and Charlie Anthony, Sam Joseph, Joseph and Peter Rafool and John Joseph are descended from Toufic Shidiac Sous.

The families of Joe Albert and Tony John and Joe Farrah are also from the Sous family, not Toufic Shidiac Sous, but Abdullah Sous.

The families of LaHood and John Peters are descended from Mousa Slyman.

The families of Anthony, John and Khalil LaHood along with the families of Peter and Charlie Maroon are descended from the Bshara family

The families of Tom and Albert Moses and Yousef Romanus are descended from the Alwan family.

The Couri/Kouri/Khoury/Corey/Cory families are descended from (Khoury) Antoun Slyman.

You see, most of our ancestral family names were dropped and people used their father’s first name as their last names. Is all of this confusing enough for you? Well let me tell you, it goes on and on and on. This doesn’t even begin to take into account all of the inter-marriages between the families.

Another part of the confusion about our last names came about when members of the same family used different last names. Such was the case with brothers Anthony Joseph and John Unes.

Most of the immigrant women when asked their maiden name would have replied with their father’s first name as their last name. This was true for my Sithu, Kemla Couri and her three sisters who lived and died in Peoria. On the birth certificates for my dad and his siblings on the line listing mother’s maiden name, my Sithu is listed as Kemla Anthony (her father’s first name) not Kemla Farrah.

Q.Why Peoria?

A. Peoria in the early 1900’s was one of the busiest cities in the country. At that time, Peoria was the third largest rail hub in the Midwest, right behind St. Louis and Chicago. A vast majority of all of the cross-country trains had to go through one of these hubs.

The Peoria and Pekin Union Railroad and twelve other railroad companies used Union Station. At its peak, there were 128 passenger trains a day using the station. Don’t forget that the Rock Island had its own station in Peoria. The railroads offered plenty of jobs for the men. Our ancestors who worked for the railroads, worked mainly on the P&PU and the Rock Island.

Manufacturing provided a large number of jobs for the immigrants. There was Peoria Cordage, Keystone Steel & Wire, Lucas Steel, Acme Harvester, Kingman Plow Works, Avery Company, became LeTourneau, then WABCO, then Dresser and now Komatsu. The Duryea brothers built cars on the West Bluff, and The Bartholomew Co. built the “Glide” automobile in Peoria Heights.

In 1909, the Holt Company, later Caterpillar Tractor Co. opened a factory in East Peoria, by the next year they employed sixty-five workers. The ABC Washing Machine Co. employed 1200 workers. In 1926 a survey showed that more then 900 products were being produced in Peoria.

Peoria was known as the Whiskey-Making Capitol of the World. The first distillery was opened in 1837, and for 140 years, the industry was very successful (not including prohibition).

By 1896 the leading industry in Peoria was distilling alcohol. The distilleries needed barrels, so woodcutters worked all around the area. Located near the distilleries were the cooperage houses where they made the barrels. The mash left over was good to feed cattle; there was enough mash to feed 28,000 head of cattle at feedlots next to the distilleries. This also prompted the need for slaughterhouses, meat packing, and dairies. The distilleries were consuming 35,000 bushels of grain and were producing 128,000 gallons of liquor every twenty-four hours. In a year they were using 4.17 million bushels of grain and distilling 18.6 million gallons of alcohol. The amount of revenue paid to the federal government in 1892 from Peoria was more than $23 million.

By comparison, the next largest revenue districts in the country were Cincinnati and Chicago each one contributed about $10 million in taxes.

I cannot tell you with any certainty why the Aytou immigrants came to Peoria, but when Anthony LaHood, the first person from Aytou to settle in Peoria found that there was plenty of work here, he would have written letters back to Aytou to tell them the news. Work was plentiful, and you could support a family here. Before long there was a community of Aytou people in Peoria that acted like a magnet for others to follow.

In the 1890s and early 1900s, the majority of the Aytou immigrants lived in Mankato, St. Paul/Minneapolis, St. Louis and Buffalo. It was not until around 1906 or 1907 that Peoria’s Aytou population began to grow; eventually growing larger than the other cities. It has never stopped.

Q. How was the Itoo Reform And Progress Society formed?

Rumia Sarkis Hanna Halhoul was born in the village of Aytou, Lebanon in late 1886. He was the son of Sarkis Hanna Halhoul and Youseffia Yousef Corey.

Late in the spring of 1912, Rumia said goodbye to his family, his parents, brothers and sisters in Aytou and immigrated to the United States. He arrived in Peoria in late June of 1912.

Once here he Americanized his name to Ray Sarkis. In August he was working on a steamboat on the Illinois River when he fell overboard and drowned near Beardstown.

A Lebanese man named Sam Shemas (not from Aytou) who was with the Peoria Police Department went with two Aytou men to Beardstown to claim Rumia’s body, and they brought him back to Peoria.

Rumia, having been in Peoria only a few months, did not have enough money saved for his own burial. So his cousins in Peoria joined together and paid for his funeral and burial.

On August 24, 1912 Rumia was laid to rest in St. Joseph’s Cemetery. Rumia’s cousins, the people who paid for his burial expenses, were also immigrants from Aytou, and many of them had not been here much longer than Rumia.

There was a Maronite priest living in St. Louis who was also an immigrant from Aytou named Khoury Antoun Slyman. He would travel from St. Louis to Peoria, stay for a time and baptize and marry Aytou people. Then move on to St. Paul/Minneapolis and take care of the Aytou people there, and then return to St. Louis, he did this for many years. Undoubtedly word spread to the other Aytou communities in St. Louis, St. Paul/Minneapolis and Buffalo about the death of Rumia.

On his next visit to Peoria, Khoury Antoun Slyman told his immigrant cousins that they needed to be more prepared in the future. He suggested that they should form an organization that would enable them to help each other.

Because of this advice on July 4, 1914; the Itoo Reform And Progress Society was formed.

Q. Who was the first to settle here?

A. Who was the first person to emigrate from the village of Aytou, Lebanon? That is a tough question to answer and one which is bound to cause some controversy.

We in Peoria have always been told that there were three men, Anthony LaHood, Risthum Slyman, and Faddoul Kouri, who left Aytou at about the same time and that they settled in Peoria. There has always been some confusion as to which one of them came first.

I am ready to put my neck in a noose and commit myself to my own theories. An article was written in 1939 in which Anthony LaHood told the reporter that he arrived in America in 1886; this is also supported by his citizenship documents.

Risthum Slyman, according to the 1910 US Census, entered the United States in 1890, but the 1930 US Census shows that he came in 1888.

My great-grandfather Faddoul Kouri, according to our family history left Lebanon a few days after his youngest daughter Thiorah was born in March of 1889; this is also supported by the 1900 US Census.

I believe Anthony LaHood was the first man from Aytou, Lebanon, to settle in Peoria.