Their stories began in 1885. That January, a baby boy was born in Fuzine, Croatia. His name was Anton Kombol, the same as his father. When baby Anton was born, Croatia was a provincial kingdom within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Fuzine is a village in the Primorje-Gorski-Kotar region about six miles from the coast, but 2,400 feet above sea level, and 30 miles from the largest regional city of Rijeka.
Little is known of Anton’s early life in Fuzine. Though he was Croatian by birth, the Kombol family surname derived from French immigrants who first settled in the region during the Napoleonic era. The earliest recorded birth of a Kombol in Croatia was Ivan born to Martin and Ana Kombol about 1810 in the village of Bribir, around 20 miles southeast of Fuzine and near the coast. Ivan married Matejka Grenko, while his son, Anton married Franciska Mihaljevic, baby Anton’s mother.
Through actions at the 1815 Congress of Vienna after the fall of Napoleon, this area of Croatia was absorbed into the Austrian Empire and later the combined empire jointly administered with Hungary. The primary local industries were woodworking and furniture-making. As Anton grew towards adulthood that would be his likely future if the Austrian army didn’t call first.
Over 5,000 miles west, baby Lulu’s prospects seemed bright. The Brown family was well respected and her mother, Jennie Brown at age 17, was noted as “one of our most attractive young ladies.” Walla Walla, with a population of 3,500 was the largest city in Washington Territory. Lulu’s father, William Shircliff had recently returned from expeditionary explorations in Alaska, then secured the respected paymaster position at the nearby Army fort.
The couple married on a Thursday evening in early June at the home of Jennie’s parents, Horace and Sarah Brown. The wedding announcement in the Walla Walla Journal noted that “the groom is clerk to Major D. R. Larned, paymaster, U.S.A., and is one of the finest and most promising young men in existence.” Mr. and Mrs. Shircliff began housekeeping two days later in a house at the corner of Birch and Seventh Streets. Shocking for the time, just 10 weeks later a baby girl was born and christened Lulu Mildred Shircliff.
William Shircliff left Walla Walla the following March, seven months after his daughter’s birth. He traveled to San Francisco where he was stationed at the army garrison, with promises to soon send for his wife and baby girl – a pledge he never kept. Jennie pleaded with her husband for money so she and Lulu could move south and join him. Shircliff ignored her entreaties, so she filed divorce proceedings upon which he was ordered to pay child support. There’s no record of whether Shircliff paid or not, but within two years he moved to Washington D.C. As far as we know, Lulu never again saw her father.
Three years later Lulu’s mother, Jennie remarried and moved onto Ransom Holcomb’s farm on the Cowlitz River south of Toledo, Washington. Lulu remained in Walla Walla with her grandmother until age 11, when she joined her new family and two baby brothers, Ransom and Wyman, 10 and 13 years her junior. Far from the active world of the small town she’d known in Walla Walla, on the farm Lulu experienced an old-fashioned life in a remote but exciting place – a farm filled with cows, pigs, ducks, goats, and chickens. The farm produced eggs, cream, cheese, milk, and hay, all of which were used to sustain the family and farmhands with excess sold to Portland merchants downstream.
Farm life was busy with Lulu assisting her mother in making hearty breakfasts for her stepfather, uncle, and hired men. After breakfast, animals were fed and chores began. Milk was skimmed and the thick cream churned to butter. Crocks and milk pails were meticulously washed in hot soapy water and then placed on slotted shelves to dry. The remaining hours were spent baking bread, making cheese, and doing typical chores like ironing, sewing, and cleaning.
The farm was self-sufficient except for staples such as green-bean coffee which they hand roasted. Most foodstuffs were grown on the farm: potatoes, carrots, turnips, pumpkins, oats, and wheat. The family’s orchards supplied fresh produce in season, with the majority canned to provide fruit for the rest of the year. Bee hives pollinated spring blossoms and provided honey for the family. Evening hours were short and illuminated by oil lamps. Early to bed was only occasionally delayed by card games, reading books, or singing as her mother played guitar.
During the school year, Lulu walked about a mile each way. There in a one-room schoolhouse, 15 or so students of all ages were taught. Later when attending Chehalis High School, Lulu moved away from the farm because the commuting distance was too far. She boarded with different families the first year, then rented an apartment with another farm girl her junior and senior years. The Chehalis Superintendent, Mr. Thompson encouraged her to pursue a teaching career and allowed Lulu to miss classes anytime a substitute was needed.
After graduation, Lulu’s future brightened. A vacancy in grade school landed her a series of full-time jobs, albeit with limited credentials. In 1906, her stepfather traveled to Alaska where he suddenly died. Ransom Holcomb was always interested in Lulu’s education and had left her money for that purpose. The following September, Lulu enrolled at the Teacher’s College in Bellingham where she earned a teacher’s certificate.
Meanwhile, back in Croatia, Anton was anxious about life. The following year he’d turn 18 and risked being drafted into the Austrian army. Two older brothers, John and Matt had emigrated to Roslyn and found work in coal mines with good wages. So Anton decided to leave his family and village behind to join his brothers in America.
Anton traveled to the port city of Rijeka embarking on a steamer to Le Havre, France. He crossed the English Channel to Southampton where he boarded the St. Louis on a nine-day voyage across the Atlantic that landed him on New York’s Ellis Island. The next day, this 17-year-old boy who spoke no English, boarded a train for a five-day trip across the country. On Christmas Day 1902, Anton rode that train carrying a loaf of bread and a promise of what his future might hold. Within a month, he turned 18 and was working in a coal mine.
Both Tony and Lulu move to Ravensdale
Their worlds grew closer in 1908 – a pivotal year for both. After laboring six years in Roslyn’s coal mines Tony, as he came to be known moved to greener pastures in Ravensdale. There he worked for the same company as in Roslyn, the Northwest Improvement Company (NWI). It was owned by the Northern Pacific Railway whose locomotives burned millions of tons of black diamonds every year. That year, Tony also submitted his declaration to become a U.S. citizen.
Deciding a teacher’s pay in Centralia was not sufficient to her tastes, Lulu chose a job in Ravensdale where the best wages were paid. This was probably because it was an unruly mining town, lacking middle-class families and culture, so coal companies needed to pay top wages to attract the young women who increasingly filled the ranks. There she boarded at reduced rates with families who valued the literacy a teacher brought into their homes. Convenient rail access also provided Lulu with opportunities to attend top plays and musicals in Tacoma or Seattle, where she traveled on weekend excursions and stayed with friends.
How Tony and Lulu met is lost to time. But it wouldn’t be difficult in a town of 725, according to 1913 census figures. In June 1914, Tony purchased a plot of land just north of Kent-Kangley Road and built a home for his soon-to-be bride. They exchanged wedding vows on August 4th. The newlyweds were 29 years of age, gainfully employed, and seemingly settled into a good life.
A few days before their nuptials, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Then France and Germany declared war against each other setting in motion the start of World War I. Had Tony still lived in Croatia, he would have been drafted as Austria mobilized. By the war’s end, 20 million lay dead with another 21 million wounded. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles created a new country called Yugoslavia, meaning South Slavs, formed from Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro.
Fifteen months later, on November 16, 1915, their happy home was shattered by a mine explosion that claimed 31 miners’ lives. The Ravendale tragedy was the third worst coal mine disaster in Washington state history. The mine was utterly destroyed by the deadly blast, and the company had little interest in reopening. Tony might have been lost as well if a blown fuse hadn’t crippled the hoisting machinery that brought coal to the surface, sending 100 miners home that morning.
Miners left Ravensdale in droves. With the abrupt termination of over 230 mining jobs, there was little value in the new home Tony had built for his bride. By 1920, Ravensdale’s population fell 75% to 187 residents. Most left town in search of new jobs.
To Arizona and Montana, then back to Washington
Tony left for Arizona the next month and Lulu followed a few months later, probably at the end of the school year, though enrollment had no doubt fallen precipitously. In Ray Arizona, Tony found work in the copper mines. The couple also saw the birth of their first child in June 1916, a baby boy they named Bernell. A year later Montana beckoned with yet another copper mining job and yet another baby this time a girl named Dana born in March 1918.
Looking for new opportunities Tony left for Alaska but stopped in Washington to see William Reese, the Northwest Improvement mine superintendent with whom he was friendly. NWI was the company Tony had worked for since coming to America. It was opening a new mine to be called Hiawatha, located about five miles east of Ravensdale. Tony agreed to join the effort. Since NWI had not yet moved homes to Hiawatha to house their employees, Tony took up residency in Durham. Lulu soon arrived and the following year so did their third child, Nola born in Aug. 1919.
As miners dug the tunnels and built the surface facilities to mine coal, NWI moved or built about 20 company houses in Hiawatha. Tony and Lulu’s fourth and fifth children, Jack and Nadine were born at home in July 1921 and August 1923. One of those Hiawatha dwellings became the family’s home for the next 50 years.
In a strange twist of fate, the Morris Brothers Coal Mining Company incorporated in Dec. 1921 and shortly thereafter purchased the entire town of Durham – the mines, bunkers, houses, and hotels. All of the large and extended Morris family who had lived and mined coal in the Pierce County town of Wilkeson since 1894 moved to Durham. With Durham less than a mile south of Hiawatha, it was inevitable that Morris and Kombol children would attend the same Selleck and Enumclaw schools and romp through the same neighborhoods.
The Kombol family glided along smoothly on Tony’s wages from mining coal while Lulu, who had quit teaching after the Ravensdale disaster tended to five small children. But, 1925 threw the Kombol family a nasty curve ball. An errant dynamite shot exploded in Tony’s face blinding him completely and speckling his skin with tiny bits of coal. Though an operation partially restored his sight, he could no longer work in the coal mines but only perform chores around home. Tony became Mr. Mom to five children under the age of 10, while Lulu went back to work as a school teacher.
Times were tough but the Kombols soldiered on
Their Hiawatha home was small and located on land owned by Northern Pacific Railroad under a 99-year lease. The main floor measured just over 1,000 square feet with two bedrooms and a sleeping porch upstairs accessed through the back bedroom. There was a basement underneath with a barn in a field out back.
The seven family members shared rooms as the children grew to adulthood. They even welcomed relatives, like Rose Kombol who left Roundup, Montana, a small mining community where Tony’s brothers, John and Matt had relocated. Rose moved west at age 16 and worked at the nearby Durham Hotel, managed by Jonas and Maggie Morris, whose only son, George was a year older than Bernell Kombol. Rose later married Woodrow Gauthier, a logger and sawmill operator, whose partnership with his brother, Joe Gauthier employed Jack Kombol on numerous occasions during the 1940s and early 1950s.
Times were tough as both the local coal mines and sawmills were subject to economic downturns when commodity prices fell. The 1929 stock market crash precipitated a Great Depression that persisted through most of the 1930s. Then in 1939, the Pacific States Lumber Company which owned the town of Selleck was unable to meet its financial obligations and saw all of its land, buildings, lumber, and railroad lines seized by the IRS for nonpayment of taxes.
The following year, former mill employees, Lloyd Qually Sr. and Gust Coukas bought the company out of bankruptcy for just $3,000, when no other bids were submitted. Qually and Coukas dismantled the mill buildings and salvaged the equipment. Later Lloyd Qually and his wife, Lucille, who taught school with Lulu, fixed up Selleck’s old company homes and rented them out. One of those Selleck dwellings became Jack and Pauline’s first home soon after their son, Barry was born.
Four of the five Kombol children graduated from high school, except Jack who quit during his junior year. In chronological order, Nola married Chester Fontana, Bernell married Helmie Sandberg, Dana married Frank Zapitul, Nadine married Joe Silversti, and Jack married Pauline Morris.
From which 11 grandchildren were born, all of whom were present when Tony and Lulu celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in early August 1964. Lulu, who went back to teaching after Tony’s mine accident, taught school for 44 years and didn’t retire until 1965, the year she turned 80. Tony passed away on Sept. 21, 1967, the end of a 53-year marriage. Collectively, the six Kombol couples logged 290 years of marriage.
Less than a year after Tony’s death, Jack and Pauline Kombol with Barry, Bill, Jeanmarie, and Danica in tow, traveled to Europe for six weeks, including a six-day stop in Yugoslavia. The Kombols visited Jack’s relatives in Rijeka, Fuzine, and Pula, Croatia. A few weeks later, they traveled to see Pauline’s relatives in Chepstow, Abertillary, and Nant-y-moel, Wales.
Lulu survived Tony by nearly a decade. She moved out of the family home in early 1974, living her remaining years with daughter, Nola whose husband Chester Fontana died in April 1971. Barry and Cathy Kombol moved into that Hiawatha home in May 1975 with their recently born daughter, Meaghan.
To My Family
After moving to the Lake City home where Nola had lived since 1940, Lulu began writing her autobiography. “To My Family” was published on Aug. 27, 1974, her 89th birthday. Lulu passed away on January 19, 1977, at the age of 91.
Thirty-four years later in 2011, her grandson, Bill Kombol obtained the original transcript of the memoir from Nadine. On passages written about her father, Lulu scribbled out everything she’d written after receiving an official government document that William Shircliff completed where he failed to list her as his child.
Bill’s extended version was nearly twice as long as the original. It also included 61 detailed footnotes and 26 photos of Lulu. A nearly identical version (without photos) of Lulu Kombol’s “To My Family – Extended Version” appears on the Washington state history site, HistoryLink.org.
Tony & Lulu’s Story was adapted from the eulogy I read at Aunt Nadine’s funeral in October 2019. – Bill Kombol, Sept 21, 2023