In 1840, Toledo was a small town. Newly incorporated and slowly growing, its population stood at 1,322 people. By 1890, it was a bustling hub of industry and transportation, boasting a population of 81,434 people — its population growing 80 fold in a mere 50 years. Beginning in the mid-19th century, immigrants made up a significant portion of Toledo’s growth, contributing to the city’s economy, infrastructure, arts and culture.
For much of its history, Toledo was an attractive destination for immigrants seeking jobs, especially during the construction of railroads and the Miami and Erie Canal. Industrialization made employment easy to find, and thousands of immigrants began to work at Toledo’s breweries and glass, furniture and carriage manufacturers.
Kefa Otiso, a geography professor at Bowling Green State University, said economic trends have influenced immigration to Ohio more than any other factors. The American industrial economy has always required large numbers of blue collar workers in regions like the Midwest. But who those workers are has changed throughout various waves of immigration to Toledo over the years.
Late 19th Century: From Swamp to City
In 1870, 75.3 percent of foreign-born Toledoans were from Germany and Ireland. Political turmoil in Central Europe — including armed conflict between Prussia and Austria and repressive feudal laws that restricted Germans’ freedom — as well as promises of cheap land and abundant work opportunities in the United States attracted German immigrants to Toledo. They primarily worked on canals and farmed nearby land, shipping products like corn, pork and whiskey across the U.S.
Upon arriving in Toledo, many German immigrants encountered the Great Black Swamp, a vast, muddy, mosquito-filled wetland that made farming (and oftentimes living) nearly impossible. In order to make the area more suitable for agriculture, Germans built drainage ditches and installed field tiles to drain the soil.
A similar search for employment also brought Irish immigrants to the area, although in a different political context; between 1845 and 1855, social and religious repression under British colonialism along with the potato famine pushed many Irish people out of their native country. At the time, Irish immigrants to the U.S. often referred to themselves as exiles.
Irish immigrants often worked on canal projects, moving throughout the region as work opportunities shifted. These were dangerous jobs, with many workers contracting malaria and other diseases from mosquitoes.
As industry grew in the late 19th century, so did the number of immigrants in the Toledo region. By 1890, 81.4 percent of Toledo’s population consisted of either first or second generation immigrants.
At the same time, large disease outbreaks inhibited the city’s growth, making the German and Irish immigrants’ arrival even more crucial. One major cholera outbreak killed 400 Toledoans in 1854, which at the time accounted for one third of the city’s entire population. Immigrants brought new life to the city, establishing businesses and founding entire neighborhoods.
One of these immigrants was Peter Lenk, a young, wealthy immigrant from the German state of Bavaria. After arriving in 1848, Lenk opened up a brewery and a winery in Toledo. With growing financial success, he invested in land and built houses which he then sold to incoming German immigrants. And thus, Lenk’s Hill became a vibrant German community in the area now known as the Onyx neighborhood.
Immigrants from Central and Southern Europe — mostly from Poland and Hungary — arrived later in the 1880s. Early Polish immigrants came to the U.S. to seek economic opportunities, as well as to escape Prussian and Austro-Hungarian occupation. They settled in two main neighborhoods — Lagrinka and Kuschwantz — and found work in Toledo’s growing metalwork and railroad industries. Polish neighborhoods also became centers of small businesses, music and grand Polish Catholic cathedrals.
Meanwhile, thousands of Hungarian immigrants settled together in the Birmingham neighborhood, a working-class enclave to the east of Lenk’s Hill, Lagrinka and Kuschwantz. Many of them worked in the nearby iron and steel manufacturing centers. In 1898, the Hungarian community established their own church, the church of St. Stephen King of Hungary.
Among the Hungarian immigrants were the parents of Tony Packo, the founder of one of Toledo’s famous restaurant chains, Packo’s Eastern European Kitchen. Packo, who lived on the east side of the city, began to advertise his “Hungarian hot dogs” in 1932. To this day, they retain their popularity — and promises of Hungarian authenticity.
20th Century: World War, the Push to “Americanize” and Religious Diversity
While a majority of Toledo’s early immigrants came from European countries, a significant Arab immigrant community brought the Mideast to the Midwest; from the late 19th century to the 1960s, immigrants from Lebanon, Syria and Palestine settled in an Old North End neighborhood called “Little Syria.”
Some of these immigrants worked in Toledo’s factories; many others started restaurants, bars and small businesses. Toledo’s long history of Middle Eastern immigration and strong Arab community has contributed to the city’s current status as a center for Syrian refugee resettlement.
Other immigrants in the late 19th century and early 20th century came from Bulgaria, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Greece, Russia, Scotland, China, Canada and Mexico.
Despite strong ties within ethnic communities and a desire to remain connected to their home cultures, many immigrants also faced some pressure to “Americanize.” The Americanization Movement of the 1910s, led by prominent business leaders, activists and philanthropists, sought to push immigrants towards American cultural norms — an idea verbalized in Superintendent William B. Guitteau’s speech at the opening ceremony of Toledo’s Birmingham School.
“Each year brings to us thousands and hundreds of thousands of Germans and Irishmen and Russians and Italians and Hungarians,” Guitteau said. “And yet we have no German-Americans, no Irish-Americans, no Hungarian-Americans. We are all Americans, whether born here or abroad.”
Some first-generation Irish, German and Polish immigrants discouraged their children from speaking their native languages at home, opting instead to raise them as monolingual English speakers. Others chose to anglicize their names in order to avoid discrimination.
Meanwhile, global tensions began making their way to Toledo. Both World Wars triggered heightened discrimination against German Toledoans. During World War I, federal agents began surveilling German churches, and some immigrants stopped speaking German in public. Many German Toledoans strongly supported the U.S. during World War I and II and served in the military, cementing their identities as “American” to the non-German public.
As heightened nationalism surrounding the World Wars waned, Toledo found various ways to celebrate its growing diverse population. Toledo highlighted its diversity in 1967 at the Toledo International Parade, where community leaders came dressed in traditional attire representative of their respective ethnic groups.
Diverse origins also brought religious diversity to Toledo. In 1866, Dutch and Polish Jews founded the historic Congregation B’nai Israel, the oldest synagogue in Toledo. The Toledo Islamic Center, which opened in 1954, was the first mosque in Ohio.
Religious centers — whether churches, synagogues, or mosques — were more than places of worship. They also offered community support and ways of preserving language and cultural traditions. In the basement of the Toledo Islamic Center, community members held traditional dances and dinners.
20th Century to Today: Discrimination, Dispersal and Depopulation
Although immigrant communities thrived during Toledo’s early history, immigration into the region decreased throughout the 20th century, due in large part to the passage of federal laws restricting immigration.
In 1921, the U.S. passed the Immigration Act, which capped annual available immigrant visas at 350,000 for the entire country. In 1924, the United States solidified restrictive immigration policy with the National Origins Act, limiting the total number of annual immigrant visas available to 164,667, a number that would decrease over the years, eventually dropping to 42,492 by 1938. The National Origins Act also established country-by-country quotas that aimed to keep “undesirables” out of the U.S.
These quotas heavily favored Western and Northern Europeans. Between 1925 and 1929, the U.S. government limited visa slots to 51,227, 28,567 and 34,007 for German, Irish and the British immigrants, respectively. In that same time period, the U.S. government limited visa slots to 3,845, 473 and 1,200 for Italian, Hungarian and African immigrants, respectively.
During the early 1900s, Congress also established an “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which came to effectively ban all immigration from Asia, with the exception of the Philippines, which was a U.S. colony at the time. The immigration system established by the National Origins Act and the Asiatic Barred Zone was eventually dismantled by the Immigration Act of 1965, which eliminated ethnic quotas. But the period of restrictive immigration laws had a lasting impact on Toledo; in 1940, the city’s foreign-born population was 8.8 percent; by 2000, that number had dropped to 3 percent.
And as the number of newcomers shrunk, first- and second-generation Americans also began moving to nearby suburbs of Toledo. With these changes, along with the ongoing pressure to assimilate, ethnic neighborhoods like Lenk’s Hill, Lagrinka, Kuschwantz and Little Syria disappeared, contributing to Toledo’s ongoing depopulation.
Now, as Toledo seeks repopulation and economic growth, some advocates, community members and economists see immigration as a path to the city’s future success. Examining how immigrants helped build Toledo in the past provides insight into how immigrants could revitalize it in the present and future. The next parts of this series will explore the past, present and future of immigration to Toledo in the context of Toledo’s contemporary immigrant communities and the roles immigration could play in Toledo’s future.