Jottings about Croatians in America

Josip F. Mikulec

Tireless World Hiker

Some one-hundred years ago, the American press (and, I’m sure, elsewhere as well), reported on the then young, and I must say, very brave Croatian adventurer, Joža Mikulec.  He set out to circumnavigate the globe on foot in the span of five years.  With the start of this journey, Joža, one might say, became a perpetual wanderer.  Mostly hiking, he traveled the world some 28 years and achieved a degree of fame for having collected more than 30,000 autographs of world-famous people.  From time-to-time, some of the more notable American newspapers kept track of his wanderings across this globe of ours.

I haven’t noticed that this interesting, if not especially notable Croatian was mentioned among his fellow Croatians—at least not through the past decades or so.  I haven’t investigated as to how much was written about him in the Croatian press of the time.  I’ll leave that to those in Croatia who might be interested in his story.  Let this brief glance at Mikulec serve as my contribution to a fuller biography of this American Croatian who, by all accounts, was a restless soul who was always ready to break-in a new pair of shoes.

Joža Mikulec first caught my eye as I was searching trough some microfilm images of the Chicago Hrvatska Zastava  (The Croatian Banner), dated the 24th of January, 1908. The Banner carried a translation of an article that appeared in the Star Journal from Pueblo, Colorado, dated the 23rd of November, 1908.  Joseph Mikulec came through Pueblo at the time, and the Journal carried the story of his journey from Zagreb to Pueblo.

Among other facts, the article stated that Mikulec, a “young Croatian,” had arrived in Pueblo.  He had entered into an agreement with Matica Hrvatska (Croatian Cultural and Publishing Society) in Zagreb to hike 25,000 miles in the course of five years, and, upon completion of his trek that he would set to paper his journey for them. Matica, in return, would award him 50,000 crowns (c.$10,000 at the time) and also publish his account. The Star Journal stated that Josip was to have sent his report to Matica each and every week updating his journey.

Mikulec departed Zagreb on the 5th of February, 1906 and by the time he arrived in Pueblo, he had walked 15,800 miles. He had already exceeded his plan by 800 miles. Mikulec set out on his journey without any sort of material support. He simply sold picture postcards along the way so that he could have enough cash to feed himself. One could add, he found many kind and generous people along the way who were willing to come to his aid.

The Mikulec’s path took him across Italy, France, Spain and Portugal. He set out from Portugal by way of boat to Cape Town in Africa. From Cape Town he set sail for Argentina. He intended to cross from Mendoza into Chile, but, because of intense cold and snow in the Andes, he set out for Buenos Aires instead. Mikulec encountered particular difficulties when crossing the Argentinean Pampas. Besides the unfavorable terrain for hiking, and the lack of food and water, he was beset by robbers as well. That was toward the end of 1907. While in Buenos Aires, Mikulec came into contact with the richest Croatian in Argentina, namely, the ship-owner, Nikola Mihanović. Mihanović was most welcoming to him.

From Buenos Aires, Mikulec set out for Montevideo and then on to the North through Brazil (Santos, Rio de Janeiro, Vitoria, and Bahia). Once again, he was robbed while in Brazil, however, it was the mosquitoes that gave him the biggest pain. He set out from Brazil as a deckhand on a steamer bound for the U.S. He arrived in Philadelphia and from there, he set out for Baltimore and Washington. Leaving Washington, he set out through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, part of Ohio, onto Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and into Colorado. Wherever he traveled, he sought out the autograph of important people and state and civic officials. He would ask that they affix the official seal of their jurisdiction to the signed autograph. He had a special book made just for that purpose, and he guarded it against loss faithfully.

Colorado’s Star Journal article printed his comments of praise for America and the Americans. They mentioned that he arrived in Springs, Colorado on the 22nd of November, 1908, and that he would temporarily reside with Nikola Badovinac. After leaving the company of Badovinac, Mikulec continued his journey toward the western shores and on into Portland. From Portland he planned to set out for Australia and from there to Japan, across Asia, and on through Siberia by way of train to St. Petersburg, Russia.

I have not succeeded in finding a description of Mikulec’s journey to Portland and beyond. However, I did find an article in the Chicago Daily Tribune, dated the 29th of July, 1910, wherein they report that the world traveler, Mikulec, arrived in Chicago on the 27th of July, and that the local Croatians were preparing a welcoming party for him on the 30th of July, in the National Hall on 18th Street. Mikulec would then set out for Springfield, capital city of Illinois, so as to obtain the autograph of the Governor just as he had done in all the states that he had traversed. The article also mentioned that he had an authentic autograph of President Taft. The article went on to say that Mikulec had worn out 42 pairs of shoes and that his journey was on schedule as he had planned and agreed to with Matica Hrvatska. In fact, he had said, he was 19 days ahead of his planned schedule.

From this “encounter” with Mikulec in Chicago, I was unable to thus far learn anything more about his journey until his reappearance in Chicago. The Tribune once again on the 21st of February, 1917—a full seven years later—writes that Mikulec once again arrived on foot in Chicago, and that his agreement with Matica Hrvatska was abrogated because he failed to fulfill his promise to journalize his travels as promised. They said that instead, he wrote what might be seen as a romanticized novel. This time they asserted that he had worn out 36 pairs of shoes. This would mean that Mikulec, despite his disagreement with Matica, continued his journey nonetheless and that he started anew to record how many shoes he had worn out. Meanwhile, the more important announcement in the article was the fact that Mikulec, adorned the length of his body with various medals of honor that he had received, had made a visit to the City Clerk’s Office of Marriage Registrations so that he could marry his fiancée, Mary Medrić. Mary was 36 years old at the time, and Mikulec was three years her senior. The author of the article notes that Mikulec, at the time of his registration, “is now plain Chicago ‘Joe’ instead of Croatian ‘Joža’,” and that the young couple would now reside at 1332 W. 18th Street, in Chicago. At the time, that part of Chicago had a very large Croatian community. One would think that Joe Mikulec, now married, would have settled down to a “normal” life among his fellow Croatians in Chicago. However, the newsman deceived himself: Mikulec remained the “Croatian Joža” and continued his adventurous journey across the world.

The New York Times, dated the 2nd of September, 1923, carried an article about Joseph Mikulec, the “collector of autographs.” The article goes on to relate that Mikulec had already traversed the globe twice, and had gathered autographs of important personages wherever he traveled. He found himself in New York city at the time of the article along with his leather-bound Autograph Book. The book, at the time, weighed a full 57 pounds. John F. Hylan, the mayor of New York, had signed Mikulec’s book as well as those who were well-known persons among the industrialists, artists, politicians, and others. The signatures of American Presidents, T. Roosevelt, W. H. Taft, W. Wilson, W. G. Hardy, C. Coolidge, along with other notables such as Lloyd George, Lord Curzon, the Prince of Wales, the President of China, Admiral Togo, J. Pierpont Morgan, and various senators, governors, ambassadors, etc. The article goes on to give a brief account of Mikulec’s first journey across the world, and adds that Joža’s full time residence was now (September, 1923) in Philadelphia. It goes on to say that he became a naturalized citizen in December of 1910, and that from 1910 through 1923 he journeyed through Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, India, Egypt, the Holy Land, and South Africa. Mikulec told the press that he was quite exhausted and that he wished to settle down into a “normal” life on some farm in the plains of America that has fertile soil. Along with this wish, he hoped to see his book of autographs in some appropriate museum. Meanwhile, wanderlust, and, perhaps, a new pair of shoes, won out again, and Mikulec set out from New York for the West.

Within two months time, (20th of November, 1923) the New York Times once again carried a somewhat longer article about Mikulec. The article goes on to say that Mikulec arrived once again in New York along with his 58 pound, 2,896 page book of autographs. Upon entering the city, Joža immediately set out for the Rosenbach rare book store so as to attempt to sell his book of autographs. His main reason for doing so was that he was exhausted of lugging that heavy book around. It is interesting to note that the New York Times newsman accompanied Mikulec to Rosenbach’s firm. The newsman reports that Mikulec bemoaned the fact that he had not succeeded in gathering so much as a single autograph of any monarch. He sought $10,000 for his collection. Dr. Rosenbach felt the collection was worth at least that amount, but that he did not traffic in such books. He, however, did suggest that Mikulec seek out Henry E. Huntington in California who, perhaps, might be interested in buying his collection. Hand on forehead, Mikulec bemoaned the fact that he had collected Huntington’s autograph but that it had not occurred to him to offer Huntington his collection.

We meet Mikulec once again on the pages of the New York Times, on the 30th of October, 1927. This time, the paper simply published a picture of Mikulec showing his book of autographs to admirers on the streets of Berlin. Clearly, Joža did not find a buyer for his collection of autographs as he had hoped to do in New York some four years earlier. Instead, Mikulec continued his wandering across the world.

The last article I was able to find about Mikulec was also in the New York Times, dated the 29th of April, 1928. The headline read: “Man 28 Years on Tour Collects Autographs.” The sub-head read: “Wheels 55-Pound Volume Containing 30,000 Signatures in a Special Carriage.” The article says that Mikulec was 50 years old at the time, that he was from Croatia, that he set out across the world some 28 years ago and gathered autographs of renowned people along the entire way including the autographs of several European rulers, and nine American Presidents as well as those of well-known artists, writers, actors, scientists, politicians, religious leaders, etc. He lugged his collection in a specially designed cart, but had to haul the book on his back as he visited various offices of those whose autograph he sought. Mikulec said that he had traversed hundreds of thousands of miles on foot gathering these autographs and that he would continue his journey.

Thanks to the internet (boards.ancestry.co.uk) we found the following facts: Josip Franjo Mikulec was born on the 15th of January, 1878, in the village of Krušljevo selo, Croatia, near Zagreb. His father was Josip Mikulec, and his mother was Kata Novosel from the same village. The internet also informs us that Mikulec arrived in America in 1905, that he married Anna Stiopu on the 20th of June, 1908 in Westfield Chautauqua County, NY, and that on his application for citizenship (September, 1910) he indicated that he was not married.

The New York Times article dated the 2nd of September, 1923 states that he was born in Stubice, Croatia. Krušljevo selo is near Stubičke toplice.  What is more, the article of 1928 states that Mikulec had been on his journey for the past 28 years. If that is accurate, then we must assume that he could have arrived in America even before 1905 and then returned to Croatia to enter into his agreement with Matica Hrvatska. He set out on that agreed-to journey on the 5th of February, 1906. It is reasonable to assume that Mikulec was somewhat acquainted with the world prior to his setting out on his hike across the world. As far as his marriage is concerned, if he did in fact enter into a union with the Rumanian poetess, Anna Stiopu, who also set out on foot across the world in May of 1905, it would seem that the marriage of these two world-travelers did not last long; meanwhile, we are told that Josip married in Chicago in 1917.

As I said at the start, this is no more than a small excerpt of the life of a Croatian who wandered the world endlessly. Many questions arise such as those that ask: where and how did he die; did he have any children; what all lands did he hike through; do any reports that he was to have sent to Matica Hrvatska exist, that is, if they ever existed at all; and especially pertinent, whatever happened to his book of collected autographs? Should all the details of Joža’s travels ever become know, and the whereabouts of his book of collected autographs, the name of Josip Mikulec would and should find its way into the Guinness Book of World Records.

It is my hope that this article will arouse the interest and attention of its readers about this tireless Croatian adventurer and hiker, and that this article will inspire someone to seek out, record, and publish a fuller biography of Josip Franjo Mikulec, as well as to discover where and when he ended his life and what became of his treasured book of autographs gathered over so many years.

Ante Čuvalo—Chicago

Translated by Duško Čondić from Croatian into English

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* Picture 1 – in possession of Ante Čuvalo
* Picture 2 – taken from the web: boards.ancestry.co.uk
* I am grateful to the staff of the Robert Hoag Rawlings Public Library in Pueblo for providing me with a copy of the Mikulec article from Star Journal, November 23, 1908.