Unforgettable Visits with Pioneers in Wheeling, West Virginia: George and Sibiria at The Last Cater Brothers' Restaurant

By Edward J. Brice
Deputy Chief of Editor of the Journal of Maronite Studies.

In this section of the Journal of Maronite Studies (JMS), a Maronite-American family presents its own history of migration to the United States of America. The Maronites in America have a rich history preserved through oral narratives. Valuable historical and cultural details such as reasons for emigrating, means of transport, adjustments in the new country, customs, music, food, etc., are worth recording. These stories represent the views of the author(s).  They may be edited for clarity and style.

In Memoriam

In March, I made a telephone call to Wheeling, West Virginia, and learned of the death that day of George Cater, our family friend for more than 75 years. This article is a loving tribute to George and his brothers Nabih and Nick who had died earlier.

In mid-August 1995, during a trip to Wheeling, West Virginia, to attend our annual church mahrajan (festival), I visited George Cater and his sister, Sibiria, at their restaurant. It was located at 1613-1/2 Market Street and was across the street from the site of the original, grand and exciting "Cater Brothers' Restaurant" of the 1930s, World War II, and the 1940s and 1950s. This last of the Cater Brothers' restaurants closed the next year, 1996.

The Caters, including the late Nabih and Nick, along with centenarian George and Sibiria, are from Rumi al-Matn and belong to one of the Lebanese pioneer families that migrated to the United States in the late nineteenth century.

In 1995, George was 100 years old. He along with Deebee Murad --beloved lady and neighbor from Hadeth al-Jibbah in North Lebanon who died in January 1998 -- were honored at our church anniversary banquet on October 11, 1997. Both George and Deebee were among the hundreds who arrived in Wheeling early in the 20th century. Two pioneering generations older than theirs had already arrived in America in the late 1800s.

In Caters' restaurant during my 1995 visit were the typically friendly Wheeling customers, drinking coffee, pop and beer, eating donuts and sandwiches, talking about sports and local matters like lay-offs from work, and the most interesting stories reported that day in the Wheeling News Register and The Intelligencer. International news was covered "short and sweet" on the inner pages. George and Sibiria treated all these adult customers like most of us treat our own younger nieces and nephews.

"Hey, George, where's the sports page?" "Sibiria, I'll fill up my coffee, don't bother; you just sit and take it easy". These and other friendly and familiar comments were heard throughout my 1995 visit with my friend of more than 60 years and his sister. 

Even after World War II, it was not unusual to hear many languages being spoken in Wheeling. After the 1950s, it was becoming rarer to hear a combination of languages and the varied accents within one language in up-town Wheeling. Fluent Arabic, Greek, German, Italian and Slavic languages were heard infrequently in public places. Only people over 50 or 60 years of age remember hearing these languages in the churches, restaurants, coffee houses, the two market houses, the movie theaters, the Island Race track, Oglebay Park at the Feast of the Assumption in August, other public places and on the streets.

That day, we carried on an excited conversation in a colorful mixture of Wheeling English, the Caters' Rumi-accented Arabic and my North Lebanese Blawza-Tourza accent with its identifiable Syro-Aramaic or Syriac vowel pronunciation.

On August 6, 1995, I began to tape-record --almost in mid-sentence because our conversation was already in progress-- the following images of an earlier time in Lebanon when George Cater was growing up there. What follows is not a chronological account for I have not attempted to rearrange or reconstruct George's story. I have not imposed personal tastes, nor have I tried to give George's words a particular color or flavor because no outside intervention in his narrative is needed. I hear George laugh, I see him in reverie during his pauses. I am moved by whatever emotion touched him even when he was silent and still, bravely continuing to reveal the profound truths of his life and the admirable Cater character. As you will see, I have adhered closely to his exact words and language because they bring to mind the distinctive speech of generations of other immigrants from Lebanon who used English beautifully and descriptively. 

I returned the next day and coaxed George to finish some of the stories that he had begun. I am most thankful that I was inspired to preserve the voices and a few gems. I hope more of the larger treasure will be found, saved for posterity and not forever lost.

Monday, August 7 1995

The Society of Friends Open a School in Brummanah

George began his story and went back in time to the 19th century.

George speaking:

"...Anyway, the Quakers --the Society of Friends-- opened up a school in Brummanah. The Ottoman Muslim was the boss over Lebanon -- Lebanon was not independent [at the time of World War I]." The Quakers "were told that there was a man [George's grandfather Yusuf] in Rumi who could speak English. So they sent a messenger up to him." The inhabitants of Rumi told the messenger "... that the Moslem Law in Lebanon was [such] that no foreign Christian could own property in Lebanon --unless a man in Lebanon [took possession and title] and then sold it back to him [the non-Lebanese Christian purchaser].

"They put the property [purchased Brummanah] in my grandfather's name for five years and told my grandfather: 'We [will] teach your children free and we will send some [George corrected "some"] --all of them to the United States where they can make more money.' At that time, my dad told me that they [had] sent all my uncles and my aunt [to America]. I had seven uncles and one aunt. My father was eighth [the eighth son]. They told my dad: 'We're going to teach you English...and we're going to teach you to be a carpenter.' They put land in the name of my grandfather Yusuf Khaatir. My father's name was George."

Migration Of Caters To The USA In 1875

"Afterwards, they sent my six uncles --seven-- to the States and they told my father --that's before I was born: 'You stay here and we'll give you a little money to teach English.' They told my dad: 'If you get married and have children, we [promise] to send them to the United States' to the uncle...As'ad Khaatir in Texas...and William, the oldest [brother]. We had (an uncle), Naqula 'Azar in Sisterville, West Virginia, who was very rich. My uncles left Lebanon [for the United States] in 1875. My dad was teaching English at Brummanah High School and was learning to be a carpenter."

A Funeral In A Mountain Village 

"In those days there was no undertaker, and they [the villagers] would ring the bell in the village. The people in the fields would know that someone is dead and they would all come to my dad and bring the wood, "lawh".... My dad had another man who helped him.... The women would put the cross inside the coffin, 'the taabuut'. The ladies would holler to bring some flowers, roses --you name it-- because they were going to keep him [the deceased] sometimes for two days. ...Full of flowers, I remember you couldn't see the hearse [for all the flowers]. The people in the village would come to the family of the dead and would tell them to stop working and they [neighbors, relatives and friends] would take over and bring meat and things [for the dinner] in the evening. There were two priests in the village, Maronite and Melkite, and they both worked together. 

[Because of its tolerance, open minded attitude and freedom of thought] "Rumi is different.... I am also a Quaker! I used to go to Sunday schoool. The priest was respected. He would ask for three or five men to bring the dead person's relations to the house...and would send a horse. When people from other villages would come [to pay their respects], the villagers would go out carrying umbrellas to meet the visitors.... They would go to Yusuf Khaatir's house --there were no hotels-- and they would sleep in [various] houses. Everybody [except the family of the deceased who were in deep mourning] would work for a week; [for instance] your mother would work for a couple days and my mother would work for a couple days."

Edward Brice:

George, how soon would they bury the person-- in one or two days?"


"Two days, because a lot of people had to come from the mountains."

Melkite And Maronite Catholics

"IIn Rumi, the Maronites and the Melkites marry one another. My mother was from B'abdaat. There were two Maronite priests and one Melkite priest in Rumi. If the Maronite priest was sick, the Melkite priest --Khuri Musi, (Father) Moses Shami-- would take up his duties. Khuri Yusuf was Maronite and he and Khuri Musi married sisters. Khuri Musi and Khuri Yusuf got one dollar every month from the Pope. They were both Catholic, you understand. There was not much money [in those day]. If the church had two priests, [the Vatican] would send them two dollars; and if it had one priest, they would send one dollar. In Rumi we got three dollars [a month]. There were no taxes, everybody owned their own home."

World War I And Starvation

"...I was supposed to come to the United States [earlier] but...war broke out in 1914 in Europe. People were starving [in Lebanon]. A lot of people died of starvation."

George stopped abruptly upon mentioning the starvation and deaths of half the Christian population of Lebanon during the Ottoman blockade of Mount Lebanon during World War I. The subject was too sensitive and heartbreaking even 80 years later. The tears in his eyes and his hoarse, choked voice compelled me to change the subject. I asked gently: "George, when did you come to the United States?"

It was as though George no longer heard me. Immersed in thought and seeming to be oceans and lifetimes away, he struggled and then willed himself to continue.

The German Officer In Charge Of The Turkish Troops 

"We could go no place. When the Turkish Army came in, they had a German officer [in charge]. They came into Rumi [which looks down on Beirut] to build trenches. We were young. We did not work. We were waterboys."

At this point, Sibiria was concerned about giving George his lunch and asked:

"Btaakul halla' [Will you eat now?]?" George did not hear her, so I told him: "Your sister wants to know if you'll eat now?"

George answered:

"In five minutes, I'll finish."

He resumed his description of the compassionate German officer:

"The German officer, a Prussian, told the Turkish Army [soldiers] not to bother the Christians --the Turks are Moslems. They gave us no money [for working] but [paid us in] bread."

George continues:

"One day it was raining and I told the German officer in English [that] he should come out from under the rain and he said: 'No, I want to get used to your mountain rain.' He stayed out in the rain. He asked me: 'Well, boy, how come you talk English?'" George did not say what he did, or did not, answer. 

He continued with his reminiscences as they came to mind, most wonderfully narrated and spoken in a voice youthfully revived and expressively inflected. George wore happiness and sadness where all could see --so very Lebanese.

Once when George was afraid in the company of all the foreign soldiers, he asked the German officer: "Please Mister Officer, send me home." After a pause, George continued with this question for the officer: "'Why do you speak English and you're German?' He smiled. I told him about my uncle and that I go to school in Rumi."

Miss Cunningham

"My dad had a tutor [for] English, a Catholic named Miss Cunningham." George explained that the name was "pronounced by her as CunningHOMM'." Here, George continued telling me what he said to Miss Cunningham: "I asked if [she was from] England and she said that she was from Scotland. [I told her that] my dad had told me that the English had killed the Queen of Scotland. She started to laugh. And [then she] said: 'You are going to have two accents in English, your native Arabic and a little [Southern] accent...[from] Texas.'"

George resumed the story of the German officer and the Turkish troops: "One time there was dissension between the people digging the trenches and the Turks. They [the Turks] were abusing and hollering [at the conscripted Christians]. He [the German officer] told them: 'You're supposed to be disciplined.' He talked [to them in their native] Turkish and he was a life-saver."

"I came to the States in 1919 after the war. I was a teen-ager." These were George's last phrases of the day. They are the beginning of a new subject which continues on my second visit to the restaurant the next day:

Tuesday 8 August 1995

I returned the next day and found a free parking place because one of the meters in front of the restaurant was broken. My good friend Saseen Anthony always took the free spot when he made his daily visit to see George and Sibiria. 

After restoring the spirit and momentum of the day before, George continued to relate unforgettable memories. In response to my asking him to put the finishing touches on the earlier stories, he returned to World War I and concluded that part of the story:

"In the village there was the one German [officer] and I don't know how many hundreds of Turks and others from [places] like Aleppo. He [the German officer] controlled the whole thing for the Ottoman Empire. Lebanon was semi-independent, and I mean by that, no Christians were [conscripted into or compelled to serve] in the Army. The Governor of Lebanon was a Turk."

The Second-Class Status Of Christians In Moslem Beirut

"I gave the priest here a book --dated 1910-- by an Orthodox priest and it tells how bad they [the Moslems] were to the Christians. When you [--a Christian-- have to] go to Beirut, you have to go to the right or the left.   You [a Christian] had to walk in the gutter.

"I saw some of this. My dad and I went to Beirut in the 'Arabiyyi' [horse-drawn carriage]. We wanted a rug made of straw." After purchasing a rug and then unrolling it at home, it was found to be unravelled on one end. George: "My mother told us to change it. The Moslem shopkeeper told us: 'La'! Btaakhiduha ghasib min 'andkom, wa aakhir btidfa'u tnayn!' [Translation: 'No. In spite of yourselves, you will take it; and you will pay double for another in exchange!']

"If you argue one word with the Moslem, you don't have any chance; he means to shoot you! I saw that. I was very young in Beirut [when this took place]. My father gave him a 'good word' [a conciliatory word of apology]: 'We were just kidding with you.'"

George quickly related the following: "My mother died very young. On November the eleventh 1918. That was Armistice Day. She was thirty or thirty-three [years old]. She had red hair. I don't know what her sickness was, but she wouldn't go the doctor. We all cried. 

"We saw the people die of starvation. And we couldn't eat meat for how many years." 

Arrival In New York City

With the following, George described his arrival in New York in 1919:

"Everyone was in uniform right after World War I in New York. Everything was beautiful. The Society of Friends gave me [the necessary] papers and one officer told me to show the papers." 

Lebanese Expatriate Arabic Newspapers

"A Lebanese owned a [news] paper in New York. [He was possibly] from Rumi and his name was Najib az-Ziyadi. Na'um Mukarzal [publisher of AL-HUDA] came many times. There were two newspapers [including] RA'S AL-GHARB."

Ellis Island

"I told them [the immigration officials] that I had a great uncle in Wheeling and others in Texas. I was young and had pimples. One doctor [on Ellis Island] told me to come inside [to be examined for Acne], and I started to cry. When I came out another officer said to him [the examining doctor]:

'What's the matter with you? You were worse than that!' They both laughed. Everybody had identity tags --'I'm from Poland', [etc.]. But I had papers [and did not need a tag.]"

Doctor Ackerman

George was coming too quickly to the conclusion of his short narrative. He asked me: "Have you heard of Doctor Ackerman here in Wheeling?" I answered that I had heard a lot about Dr. Ackerman but I had never realized he was German. 

George continued: "The Lebanese were called Syrians at that time. I would take them, all the time, to Doctor Ackerman. One time I told him about that German officer. Doctor Ackerman was very tough with everybody and he said to me: 'Don't be afraid, if you're sick. Come to me no matter how many are waiting, I'll take you right away.' He was a German doctor. I told him that if it weren't for the German officer, the Turks would have been worse [to us Christians]."

I could not slow down the narrative and George was determined to conclude it. In these few hours on two consecutive two days, he had begun to lift the veil for a glimpse into the past of an always inspiring, often tragic, martyred homeland. I hope his nieces and nephews will complete their family's chapters in the grander epic of the brave Christian nation and its far-flung progeny.

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