By Hasmik Khalachyan-Cañas
There is a large Armenian community thriving in Fresno, but who were these Armenians? How did they end up in Fresno and why? These questions and much more were explored by the students of the class titled, Armenians Studies 120T- Armenians in Fresno. The two-day long class (held on Sept. 17, and 18, 1999) gave the students a unique opportunity to study this unusual group of people. Professor Barlow Der Mugrdechian of the Armenian Studies Program took the students back in time to the first arrival of the Armenians in Fresno. He then guided them through the history of the Fresno Armenians until the present day. He used a variety of techniques and materials to inspire and educate his students. There were field trips, videos, lectures, literature reading, guest speakers and much more.
We watched videos of the old Armenian community in old Fresno (which was drastically different from what we see today). It is incredible to believe that the Armenians did not only survive all the discrimination directed toward them, but also rose and aspired to be more. We visited the Ararat Armenian Cemetery in Fresno and read the names and the stories of the first Armenians who arrived here. It was interesting to see the graves of many of the famous Armenians that we had heard and read about including Jonathan Sinanian, who was the first Armenian born in California in 1884. Many of the pioneer farmers and merchants of Fresno were the Armenians buried at the Ararat Armenian Cemetery. We read literature from many people including William Saroyan, the famous Armenian-American writer who was born and died in Fresno. He wrote about his life in the growing Armenian community.
I particularly enjoyed the walk we took through what used to be “Armenian Town,” but now is located in the heart of downtown Fresno. Prof. Der Mugrdechian provided each student with a map of the old city revealing where Armenian houses, businesses and churches once stood. We walked around the historical area. It was interesting to see the changes that had taken place. Many of the structures were gone because they were torn down to make way for parking lots, stores, new buildings, etc. Some old historical houses and businesses are still left.
One of the highlights was when we visited the Hye Quality Bakery, owned by Sammy and Paula Ganimian, (one of the Armenian businesses that has remained) and saw authentic Armenian bread being made. We saw the entire process of bread being produced from the mixing of the dough to final product being packaged. Although the process of making the bread has changed, it has still kept up with tradition. All the students, including myself, gladly sampled the Cracker Bread (Parag-Hatz) and the Hye Roller bread as it came out of the oven. It was warm and delicious.
After our interesting visit to the Hye Quality Bakery, we walked over to the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, which was rebuilt in 1914 after the original building built in 1900 burned down. In 301 AD Armenians were the first to accept Christianity as their official state religion and they have always remained strong Christians. The church itself is an architecturally beautiful building and includes a traditional dome that the Armenians were accustomed to in the “old country.” The interior of the church is decorated with spiritual images depicting the life of Christ.
In this historically stunning environment we were greeted by our guest speaker, Mr. Berge Bulbulian, who was very gracious in sharing his memories and research with us. Bulbulian spoke of the “olden days” when he was a young child and could not sit still in church because he wanted to go outside and play with his friends. He also gave us many statistical facts about the early Armenians in Fresno, including the Seropian brothers who were the first permanent Armenian settlers in Fresno. One could easily tell that he had done extensive research to gather the facts for his new book. I know many of the students, including myself, are looking forward to the release of his new book about the history of the Armenian community of Fresno. It will be the first book written about this extraordinary group of people and will soon be available at Fresno State.
When one talks about the history of Fresno it is impossible to exclude the fact that Armenian people played a significant role in the development of a small train stop to the big, flourishing city that we see today. Armenians Studies 120T- Armenians in Fresno had the rare opportunity to take an extensive look at the Armenians of Fresno. I know that I learned a lot especially about why certain things are the way they are in Fresno today. This class was an experience I will not soon forget.