There is an oft-told story of an Armenian American who went on a visit to the Old Country. When he arrived, people asked him, "Where do you come from?" When he answered, "I am from Boston," he was met with blank, uncomprehending stares. Then he corrected himself. "I am from Watertown." "Ah!" was the reply. "From Watertown! Of course!"
Watertown's Armenian community is one of the oldest and largest in the United States. Today over 7,000 people in Watertown trace their ancestry to Armenia. Although fully Americanized, the people of Watertown's "Little Armenia" maintain their ethnic traditions through food, music, dance, religion, and language.
The Armenian people have an ethnic identity that stretches back over 2,500 years. In 301 A.D., Armenia was the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as its official religion. Beginning in 1375, Armenia was repeatedly invaded and conquered by forces from the Turkish, Persian, and Russian empires. In the late nineteenth century, the ruling Ottomans increased pressure on Armenians to convert to Islam. Ethnic and religious conflict intensified. What began as suppression of dissent and religious persecution soon turned into genocide.
Armenian communities around the world observe April 24, 1915, the date the massacres began, as a Day of Remembrance. Over a period of seven years, the Turks systematically forced Armenians out of their native land. More than 1.5 million Armenians died or were murdered in what the U.S. Ambassador called "a campaign of race extermination." Many of the survivors fled to Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, and the United States. Those who remained in Armenia soon found themselves living under Soviet rule. Independence did not come until after the break up of the Soviet Union.
The first Armenians came to Watertown in the 1890s. Most of them were single men or husbands who had left their wives and children at home. Their goal was to earn enough money to allow them to return home and purchase land, thus ensuring a future for their families. What they needed most was work and they found that in Watertown.
When the Hood Rubber Company opened in Watertown in 1896, it hired about 40 Armenian laborers. Twenty of those men boarded in the Watertown home of Kevork Nakashian. A neighborhood of Armenian-speaking Hood employees began to form near Nakashian's home on the corner of Crawford St. and Coolidge Hill Road, not far from where the Watertown Mall is today.
Native-born Hood employees, threatened by this influx of foreigners, demanded the immigrants be fired. The company refused. The Armenians were good workers, willing to put in long hours for relatively low wages. By 1902 there were 400 Armenian men working for the Hood Rubber Company. Some Armenians also began working at other Watertown factories as well. The men gathered socially and formed mutual aid societies to assist and support each other.
By 1906, the town of Watertown began to address the needs of its growing Armenian population. Over 90 students enrolled in the first evening classes offered in English and citizenship.
A massacre in 1909 caused increasing numbers of Armenians to emigrate. Watertown's Armenian community grew even more when the genocide displaced over half of Armenia's native population; immigration to the U.S., and to Watertown, skyrocketed. In 1916 there were approximately 800 Armenians living in the town; by 1930, there were over 3,500 almost ten percent of the town's population. Not only the number but the nature of the immigrants changed. These people came as families, not single men, and they had no expectation of returning to the old country. They came to stay.
The two-family houses being built all over Watertown in the 1920s and 1930s were ideal for extended immigrant families. A bustling shopping district known then and now as "Little Armenia" grew up in the East End of town. It was the dream of many Armenian immigrants to own their own business, and they went into catering, tailoring, shoemaking, barbering, and especially into ethnic baking and the grocery business. By 1925 Armenians owned at least 15 markets in Watertown. One immigrant, Stephen Mugar, called his grocery store the "Star Market"; it was the first of many Star Markets located across the state.
During the 1930s, despite the Depression, the Armenian community continued to grow, founding churches, schools, and mutual aid societies. After World War II, many returning vets took advantage of the G.I. bill to enter the professions and move to single family homes in surrounding towns. But Armenian immigration to Watertown did not end; it simply changed once again as immigrants from the Armenian diaspora people who had left Armenia for Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania became the newest members of Watertown's Armenian community. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 yet another wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Republic of Armenia has arrived in the Watertown area.
Although large Armenian populations can now be found in other parts of the country, chiefly southern California, Watertown continues to play an important role in Armenian-American culture. The public schools offer the nation's only Armenian bilingual program. Perhaps most important, Watertown is home to The Armenian Library and Museum of America; established in 1971, it now houses a collection of over 12,000 Armenian books and 6,000 artifacts. ALMA sponsors a broad range of community programs to "promote an awareness and appreciation of the culture and contributions of the Armenian people."
Crossroads on the Charles: A History of Watertown, Massachusetts, by Maud deLeigh Hodges (Phoenix Publishing, 1980).
Armenian Library and Museum of America
"Global Village," Boston Magazine, May 2003
"Planting Seeds of Knowledge and Life," by Dan Atkinson, Watertown Tab, December 10, 2004.
"Wellesley College Professor Speaks on Armenians of Watertown at NAASR Assembly"