Croatian American Cultural Center Logo
facebook  twitter  youtube


Tamburitza Festival - a colorful history going back to city's early days

Alan T. Saracevic, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday , Feb 17, 2005

It was a whaling ship that brought him here, although that wasn't exactly the plan. He was to sail the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California, harvesting humpbacks. But the weather rose up and the young Croatian sailor found himself high up in the rigging at the wrong time. The storm shook him free, and he fell to the ship's deck, breaking a leg, among other things. The ship limped into San Francisco Bay and left the broken sailor there. The year was 1842 and John Ivancovich was the city's first Croatian immigrant. Thousands more followed.

That's how Adam Eterovich tells it, and he would know. A hearty 74 years old, Eterovich has made it his business to publicize the role Croatians have played in San Francisco history, and that's a fairly tough job. When most people think of San Francisco's earliest immigrants, they think Chinese. Or Italian. Or simply 49ers. Few think Croatian.

But the Croats -- mostly Dalmatian Croatians, coastal fishermen and business folk who came up from Louisiana and Mississippi when they heard the getting was good in the Golden State -- were one of the city's earliest minority groups.

They opened one of the first restaurants in town, the erstwhile Tadich Grill that started on Commercial and now stands on California Street and whose sand dabs rival the famed ribice (little fish) on the Adriatic coast. The Croatians had their own newspapers established as early as 1870. They've maintained a Catholic Church-going community for more than 130 years, primarily at the Church of Nativity on Fell Street, near Franklin. And they've had their own cemeteries since 1861, starting on a plot where the University of San Francisco now stands and eventually moving south to Colma.

"We really never disappeared," says Eterovich, who's written plenty on the Croatian experience. "We're institutional builders."

Indeed, more than 160 years after Ivancovich landed on San Francisco's shores, the dwindling number of descendants of this once major minority still remain organized. Their cohesion is mostly due to San Francisco's Slavonic Mutual and Benevolent Society, the oldest Croatian society in the nation, dating back to 1857.

The society's clubhouse, the Croatian American Cultural Center, resides on Onandaga Avenue in the city's Mission Terrace neighborhood. This weekend, the hall will host the San Francisco Tamburitza Festival, an annual gathering that celebrates Croatian culture through the traditional music named after a family of string instruments, or Tamburas, favored by Croat folk performers.

John Daley, 60, a Berkeley resident whose mother was Croatian, helps Eterovich keep the center alive and takes care of the music. As Eterovich puts it: "He does the song and dance. I work the kitchen."

Both song and food will be on full display Sunday afternoon, when an all- star cast of Tamburitza bands from around the country will perform. Attendees can expect an interesting mix of recent immigrants and longtime residents, most sharing ethnicity and all sharing an appreciation for the lively music. Daley's efforts have ranged from obtaining funding for the club's cultural programs, including money from the National Endowment for the Arts, San Francisco's Grants for the Arts and the California Arts Council, among others, to booking bands and researching lost dances for revival.

Daley, whose father was Irish but whose mother, Carolina, had the maiden name Matijevich, founded the Slavonian Traveling Band, which serves as a de facto house band for the cultural center. The soft-spoken Berkeley native encourages the mixing of music, weaving in the likes of Bulgarian, Romanian and Gypsy music with standard Croatian fare.

Eterovich explains that Croatia -- best known in the United States for its bloody breakup with the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s -- and its people have always kept a low profile.

"We're not loud," he says. "Every time we spoke up, historically, we got stepped on by the Germans or the Austrians or the Italians. I think we learned to be invisible to survive."

And survive they have, with prominent Croatians still sprinkled about the Bay Area. The Buich family still runs Tadich Grill. Mike Grgich is making some of Napa Valley's best wine. And Robert "Bat" Batinovich, a third-generation Croat who made his fortune with the real estate firm Glenborough Corp., is still actively building complexes in the Redwood City area. Countless others are chronicled on the Croatian Slavonic society's Web site,, and in Eterovich's books on Croatians in California, available at

There's a long history to business success among the Bay Area's Croats, Eterovich is quick to point out. Remember Ivancovich, the first of the bunch? Here's the rest of the story.

After coming to town, his injured leg was set badly and he never returned to sea. Instead, he wrote his brother in Australia, also a sailor, telling him of a new frontier where the pay was pretty good for ship fixers. Little brother Matt eventually made it to San Francisco and started working with his brother, repairing ships for a number of captains. One was named John Sutter.

Apparently the younger Ivancovich did good work, because about a year later, Sutter sent for Matt Ivancovich to help him build a mill in the Sierra foothills.

Matt Ivancovich helped build the mill all right, staying from Christmas until Sutter's work crew discovered gold in January 1848. He had a lot to tell his older brother when he got back to San Francisco.

The two brothers soon returned to the foothills and made their fortune. Eterovich says John faded from the picture after that, but Matt stayed in California for the rest of his life, making and spending a few fortunes in the hills of the Gold Country and the saloons of San Francisco.

San Francisco Tamburitza Festival: 8 p.m. Friday, welcome dance and performances,$15. 1:30 p.m. Sunday, concert and festivities, $15. Croatian American Cultural Center, 60 Onandaga Ave. Information: (510) 649-0941; (415) 584-8859;

E-mail Alan T. Saracevic at

Home  |  About Us  |  Events  |  Store  |  Contact