The following is a modified version of an article that was posted on the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog “Community News for all the Hill,” on Sunday, July 3, 2016. It is the story of the brothers Peter and Nicholas Kootros of Sparta, Greece, and was researched and compiled by local historian Tom Heuser. It has been reformatted here for the Greek American Historical Museum of Washington State.
The Kootros Brothers: A House Divided
The saying “a house divided against itself cannot stand” rings true for many, especially after the day Lincoln popularized it in his 1858 Illinois state senate nomination speech. At that time and especially since the end of the Civil War, the iconic phrase often, if not always, comes packaged with the assumption that the house in question is necessarily better off united rather than divided. However, this isn’t always so. Case in point was two Seattle grocers, the brothers Peter and Nicholas Kootros of Sparta, Greece whose dramatic falling out with other family members and eventually with each other, leads them each to greater success.
THE D.C. DAYS
As it appears, Peter immigrated to the U.S. in early 1900 while Nicholas followed later that year passing through Ellis Island. Their destination was Washington D.C. where many Greek immigrants had been gathering. Prominent among those was the Chaconas family who had been in D.C. since the early 1890s and had carved out a small, rough and tumble, commercial empire in the push-cart fruit business there. In a word, they were hucksters. As such, they frequently sent for younger relatives from the old country to join the business with vague promises of wealth, opportunity, and independence that often resulted in stolen wages, fines, cuts and bruises, and even jail-time. But to them it was all just the cost of doing business.
Peter didn’t take well to these conditions and was rather hot-headed and stubborn. After his first year on the job and many heated arguments, he apparently smashed a beer bottle over George Chaconas’ head ending their partnership. In contrast, it seems Nicholas may have been a little more reserved and conflict-averse. Instead of getting into fights, the court hit him with a $25 fine for using a rigged scale in 1904. He claimed ignorance and given that this wasn’t the first time a Chaconas employee was busted for the same crime, he was likely telling the truth or at worst was put up to it and didn’t want to make a stink about it like his brother.
In any case, sometime not long after Peter got into yet another fight with another member of the Chaconas family in 1905, it seems he and Nicholas decided they’d had enough and set out to Seattle for a fresh start.
KOOTROS BROTHERS GROCERY
It isn’t clear exactly when Peter and Nicholas arrived, but by late 1908 they had set up the Kootros Brothers grocery at 1833 Broadway and took up residence at 1010 E Denny Way. This time they didn’t have to deal with illegally stationed push carts, fines, and barroom brawls with sheisty employers turned competitors. Instead they had a quiet corner store like any other and their rough days with the Chaconas family were behind them. Success came easily from here on out because after only a couple years they were ready to expand.
In 1910, a mysterious traveling salesman from San Francisco by the name of Joseph E Dixon, who had decided to dabble in a bit real estate here, filed plans with the city to build a new storefront adjacent to 1833 Broadway at 1827 Broadway (currently the west entrance to the Capitol Hill light rail station). It being roughly three times the size of their initial grocery store, the brothers jumped at the opportunity and quickly became Dixon’s first tenant. Business continued to grow and so did the family. By November of 1913 they opened a second location at Broadway and Pine and Nicholas met and married a woman named Kitty Wheeler who’d recently moved to Seattle from Warsaw, Indiana. Peter was also married around this time to a woman named Rosa, but without a marriage certificate on hand, it’s hard to give a precise date.
Despite everything looking great on paper at this point, alas, conflict was just around the corner. As the family story goes, sometime between 1914 and 1915 the brothers had a falling out, but for reasons unknown. Perhaps after all their success, they couldn’t agree where to take the business next and perhaps Peter, being the more aggressive of the two, was a bit more controlling than Nicholas could bear. In any case, they parted ways, though curiously they continued to live on the same block of 12th Ave for several more years so perhaps their falling out was more business-related than anything else.
GETZS & LEWIS
Once the word was out, another grocery concern which had taken the 1833 Broadway space the Kootros brothers left back in 1911, offered to move in and hire Nicholas as their clerk while Peter took up employment elsewhere and began to regroup. The new concern was that of William Getzs, formerly a millwright and contractor who built houses and his recent son-in-law and business partner Wilbert Lewis a recent college graduate from a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, after only a few years, the concern dissolved with Getzs returning to his work as a millwright and Lewis shipping off to Alaska to work as a surveyor so he could continue to support his family. In the meantime, Peter had started his own business, the Washington Fruit and Produce Company based out of Pike Place Market and bought a house in West Seattle, so he was doing well.
ATTEMPTING TO BURY THE HATCHET
As opportunities for Nicholas to remain on the Hill seemingly dwindled, an automotive concern named Cordes & Sons Auto Repair had taken over the lease at 1827 Broadway. He gave business with his brother another chance and joined him down at Pike Place at some point in the 1920s. And with kids in tow, he even bought a house of his own near Peter’s in West Seattle, so it seems he’d been doing well for himself too. However, by 1927 Peter and Nicholas parted ways yet again. Peter’s heart was set on the wholesale business and joining the ranks of produce row on Western Ave whereas Nicholas wanted to stay put in the retail business at Pike Place. Perhaps this was the source of their tension the first time around as evidenced by Nicholas’ decision to stay on with Getzs & Lewis. Whatever the reason, they both went on to be successful in their own way and managed to remain wealthy throughout the depression. In fact, Nicholas is known to have bought a new car almost every year and when Peter died in 1954, he left an estate to his heirs estimated to be worth as much as $200,000 which is worth roughly $1.8 million today when adjusted for inflation.
Ultimately the produce businesses that Peter and Nicholas spent their whole lives building followed them to the grave as Peter never had any children and Nicholas’ children, while occasionally working with their father down at Pike Place, never took much interest and eventually moved on to other things. Perhaps they learned a lesson from their father and uncle that sometimes, when it comes to business, houses are better off divided.By Tom Heuser, July 3, 2016 PHOTOS
1 Tom Heuser, from www.linkedin.com/in/tom-heuser-364a5812
2 1917 plans depicting proposed modifications to the original 1827 Broadway building that the Kootros Brothers occupied. Image: Dept. of Planning & Development
3 George Chaconas, circa 1915 Image: Shorpy
4 A Chaconas produce cart circa 1919 Image: Shorpy.
5 First location of Kootros Brothers. Image: WA State Archives, Circa 1937.
6 Kootros Brothers Plaque, Courtesy Kootros Family.
7 Kitty and Nicholas, 1913. Courtesy Kootros Family
8 William Getzs, Image: Seattle Times
9 Peter Kootros, middle-aged, Courtesy Kootros family
10 John Kootros (left) and his father Nicholas at Pike Place, circa 1935-1940, Courtesy Kootros family SOURCES (not otherwise listed in captions)
Seattle Times Newspaper
Evening Star Newspaper (Washington D.C.)
Polk City Directories at Seattle Public Library