Traditional values coursed as deep as the nearby muddy Missouri River for those who founded the city of Sugar Creek a century ago. Some descendants of those early founders, who remain in the small city, understand what their forebears knew all too well: values such as faith, family and hard work that formed its foundation will carry the community into the future.
Stan Salva is one of several descendants of Eastern European immigrants who settled in Sugar Creek during the early 20th century. The 81-year-old, like other children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those early residents, always has been active in his city – a former alderman and mayor, he currently sits on the economic development council and chairs an area Community Development Corporation. Stan and his wife, Barbara, have three grown sons who live in Sugar Creek and most of their grown grandchildren live nearby. “It’s something I’m very proud of,” the 81-year-old said.
His mother, Helen Kluska, was born in 1913 in the then Austro-Hungarian Empire. Helen and her parents, Andrej and Mary Kluska, came to America when Stan’s mother was 3 years old. The family traveled to Sugar Creek, where Andrej, like many early area immigrants, landed a job working at the Standard Oil Refinery, Salva said, adding that his grandfather also owned and operated a jewelry store where he repaired watches and sold jewelry.
The store was located on the city’s busy main thoroughfare, Sterling Avenue. Stan’s father, John, was the son of Matus and Eva Salva Luptak. When they arrived at Ellis Island, an “absent-minded clerk” inadvertently shortened the family’s surname as they disembarked the ship, Salva said.
Like many immigrants, who could not communicate in this strange new land, his grandfather “just accepted it.” His grandparents first settled in Ilasco, near Hannibal, Missouri, where immigrants captured jobs at an area cement plant. They were living there when Stan’s father John was born in 1908. In 1910, the couple joined other immigrants who moved to Sugar Creek to work in the oil refinery and former Missouri Portland Cement plant (now Central Plains Cement) on the Missouri River bluffs. But, Matus died in the influenza pandemic that swept the area in 1918.
The Standard Oil Refinery, which later became the Amoco Oil Refinery, flourished and sustained the city for more than 70 years before it was shuttered as part of a mass closing of refineries throughout the country. At the time of the closing in 1982, company officials said they were retiring old refineries throughout the country with obsolete systems.
Sugar Creek, like many cities, never recovered from the closing of the city’s main industry. When Sugar Creek schools became part of the Kansas City School District during the early 1950s the decline of the district also caused families to leave Sugar Creek.
Margaret “Peggy” Dumsky’s family also were Eastern European immigrants who settled in Sugar Creek. Her grandfather, Michael Juricak, was married to Helen Rouloc, who married in the old country before immigrating to Sugar Creek in 1908, where they had several children, including Peggy’s Dad, Michael. After her grandfather, Michael, died in the 1918 flu epidemic, Helen remarried. Her new husband, Steve Petrechko, had moved to Sugar Creek seeking a job and the couple had more children, the 81-year-old said.
Peggy’s late husband, Charlie Dumsky, also was a Sugar Creek native. His European roots extend to Croatia. Charlie served two three-year terms as mayor. His mother, Anna, came to Sugar Creek as an 11-year-old, with her mother, Susie, in the early 1920s. They followed Susie’s husband and Anna’s father, Joe Berislavich to Sugar Creek.
Anna married Joe Dumsky and the couple both worked at the refinery. She cleaned office buildings and prepared food for refinery supervisors. Charlie was the oldest of their two children. Charlie and Peggy were neighbors while growing up but had little interaction because he was several years older.
Peggy described her youth in Sugar Creek as idyllic. As a 14-year-old, she worked at the Mike Onka Grocery Store, “where I learned all the people I knew in Sugar Creek,” she said. “Those were good years,” she said of the 1940s and ’50s. In good weather, she and her friends traversed Sugar Creek’s streets. They played softball on the asphalt behind what is now the city’s old gymnasium and frequented a miniature golf course on nearby U.S. 24. Although they frequently walked at night, “no one ever bothered us,” she said.
Dumsky, who’s 81, said she’s worried about the city’s future. “Sugar Creek was a company/Catholic town – a very ethnic community,” she said. But the old ways left with the refinery during the 1980s.
“There’s no reason to go there now,” she said. “There’s nobody to pick up the pieces anymore.”
Mary Puhr is one of the few city residents descended from Irish parents. Her grandparents David and Ellen (Dougherty) O’Connell first lived in Whiting, Indiana, before moving to Sugar Creek in 1904. David was working at Standard Oil in Indiana and was sent to Sugar Creek to open the refinery here. Her father, Concie O’Connell, was the couple’s youngest child and was born in 1910 in Sugar Creek. Puhr’s mother, Mary Ellen Gavin, was born near Wichita, Kansas.
Mary Ellen’s dad, Francis Gavin, moved to Sugar Creek in 1919 to work in the refinery as a machinist but was forced to leave the position after he lost his eyesight. Fellow refinery union members helped him open Gavin’s Grocery and Confectionery on the city’s main thoroughfare, Sterling Avenue, so he could support his family.
Puhr’s husband, Don, grew up in unincorporated Jackson County, which later was annexed into Sugar Creek. The Puhrs, both 71, met in high school and volunteer countless hours to maintain the small Catholic parish church, St. Cyril’s, founded by the city’s early immigrants. The original church building, constructed in 1920, still stands and, until the recent coronavirus pandemic, was the site of weekly mass and other events.
The Puhrs play a major role in keeping the church’s doors opened. Don does yardwork and other maintenance, while Mary and another volunteer produce the bi-weekly church bulletin. Mary also performs office work, including depositing weekly offerings and paying bills. In addition, she chairs fundraisers, such as the church’s annual Mardi Gras celebration – held at the Mike Onka Memorial Building, which had record attendance this past February. When asked why she volunteers so much, Mary said, “I think it’s something that needs to be done.”
A Sugar Creek Centennial Committee had planned a series of events to mark the anniversary, but the first, a display of memorabilia from the early 1900s to present, was scheduled for March and had to be canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Other planned events, including the opening of a time capsule, sealed 50 years ago and an event commemorating the city’s now-closed swimming pool, are, for now, on hold. More information will be released later.
In addition, the Slavic Festival, started by the church and eventually taken over as a city event for the past 35 years, also has been canceled this year due to the virus. Debbie Ray, who chairs the festival, said the city may instead host a smaller event in the fall. Attendance and vendors have fallen in the past few years.
“Hopefully we’ll get some new businesses and things will be more productive,” Ray said.
While many in the older generation worry about Sugar Creek’s future, some feel the city is well-positioned.
“There are developers around who are interested in projects,” said Salva, giving a nod to his economic development involvement, which has led to several new homes being built in the northwest corner of the city.
Salva, like other descendants of original immigrants, is determined to fight for the future. He’s also encouraged by the progress already made.
“It’s sad we’re losing the older generation … but there are plenty of younger people interested in Sugar Creek,” he said. “I think it will continue to survive.”