Helen Kollas

Michael Collins: My name is Michael Collins, and this morning we are interviewing Miss Helen Kollas. It's the eighteenth of March, 2015. Helen is a longtime resident of Carlisle, Cumberland County, and also a docent at the Cumberland County Historical Society. Helen, could you introduce yourself? Tell us your date of birth, where you were born.

Helen Kollas: Helen Charles Kollas, 9/28/37, or September 28, [1937]. I was born in Carlisle, I believe in the house--I think it's 246, I'd have to check it, Southwest Street. Then I was taken to what was then Carlisle Hospital, and I grew up here.

MC: Okay, can you tell us a little bit about growing up here, your childhood in the Greek community here in Carlisle?

HK: We had a relatively small Greek community in terms of kids. We were very friendly with the Kokolis children, the Kokolis--oh what is that called--pool, who had the pool hall near us. We had a Greek school that met Tuesdays and Thursdays, with a teacher, Kyría [Mrs.] Tsilimigras. She was a very strict teacher. All ages, from very young, through my brother, my sister Clara's age, we sat at one table, all of us. But there's where we interacted, at least twice a week, all of us. But it was kind of fun. We were close because we also lived relatively close to each other; we weren't that far away. But we played games, and we grew up like little kids in the neighborhood. We weren't secular; we didn't divorce ourselves from other kids, but we did have a big meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school. We had to go to Greek school no matter what. So basically we all did the same things. We had little stage productions; Kyría Tsilimigras made sure that we were either an angel or what, and we recited everything in Greek. The scripts were in Greek, and our parents, of course, were very proud. We had no Greek Orthodox Church in Carlisle, and we didn't have a Greek Orthodox Church in Harrisburg while I was growing up. So I kind of grew up in St. Paul Lutheran Church. I went to Sunday school there, and Louise Heck, who was our fourth grade teacher, took my sister and me to St. Paul. My mom wanted us to have some religious training. Then we did get a church in Harrisburg, but by then I was a preteen. But that was basically it; we'd clown around a lot. We didn't do anything--we did mischievous things sometimes, but we didn't do anything bad.

MC: Right. You mentioned a brother and a sister. How many siblings are there?

HK: I did have two sisters and one brother. I have one brother; both of my sisters have died.

MC: What age did you fall in that?

HK: Baby.

MC: You're the youngest.

HK: I'm the youngest.

MC: Primary education--what school did you go to?

HK: I remember I went to Franklin Elementary School, which is now the YMCA. That used to be my elementary school. Then the Lamberton Building at that time housed junior and senior high schools, so I went to Carlisle Junior High School and Carlisle Senior High School. From there, I went to Dickinson College, and once I graduated from Dickinson, I worked for the county for a year as a social worker with Child Welfare Services, and I was offered the job of director by Judge Shughart. I did turn it down because, I have to be honest, my boss was an older lady who was very strict, and she could only deal objectively, and I still had some subjectivity within me, and I didn't want to lose that. I felt [that] if you're in that, you might just lose that sort of sensitivity, so from there I went to NYU [New York University] graduate school. So I got my degree here at Dickinson in [Psychology] and English, and at New York University, Sociology and Anthropology were one department, so at that time I got my masters in Sociology and Anthropology.

MC: That's quite interesting. [00:05:05.08] I guess your parents, Charles and Mary--

HK: Yes.

MC: Your parents were very proud of you and your accomplishments?

HK: Yes they were. They were proud of all of us.

MC: I understand they were both immigrants from Greece?

HK: They were from the same village in Greece, Neochori Nafpaktias in Greece.

MC: Did they know each other there in that village?

HK: Well Mama was three years old when Daddy came to the States; there was a twelve year difference. He knew the [family]--it's a small village, I think a total of maybe two hundred people at its peak--but he knew the family. I think he knew Mom as a little girl. But it was an arranged marriage, once Daddy came here and kind of established himself in terms of being able to send money home to Greece and help the family there because it was a very poor village. The whole country was pretty poor. Mama came to the States at the age of twenty. The quota system--at that time, you could not [immigrate] to the United States if you were more than twenty years old, so Mom just made it. Daddy was here waiting for her, and they were married. I'm trying to remember where, in New York, I know that. They settled initially in Salamanca, New York, where my oldest sister, older sister and brother were born.

MC: Now your father is primarily known for starting the Hamilton Restaurant, which is an institution here in Carlisle. He had prior restaurant experience, didn't he, or food experience?

HK: He did, he did. Now I'll be very honest, I know he worked in Salamanca; I'm not sure at what restaurant. He moved to Gettysburg; again, I'm not sure where, but somehow--my sister Kathy was born in Gettysburg--somehow they migrated to Carlisle. The owner of the Texas Lunch would bring in--he too was from the old village. So Charlie Mallios and Charlie Kollas--but Charlie Mallios a little later because he was younger than my dad--started basically at the Texas until Daddy bought the Hamilton.

MC: It's my understanding [that] the Texas Lunch got a lot of people started.

HK: He did, and he was a very strict person too. I understand that from the daughter; Katherine Costopoulos was the daughter of the man who owned the Texas Lunch, and she knew her father was very strict. But they all worked long hours; they worked throughout the day.

MC: In reading the book that Cumberland County Historical Society put out, [that] we published on the Greek community, it's my understanding that North High Street was at one time called Greek Row because of the number of Greek restaurants and businesses that were along there.

HK: West High [Street].

MC: West High Street, right, the north side of West High Street, yes ma'am.

HK: Yes, well there was Daddy on the corner of Pitt. The Kokolises [were] right down the street where our shop is, basically right next to the shop.

MC: History on High, our gift shop.

HK: There was the Palace across the street, which was owned by the Gekas family, and then to our right was--it was Mr. Terris who had the Seras Cleaners before Pete Seras had it. So yes, there [was] a little group of people of Greece just here. Then down the block was the Texas Lunch; the Costopoulos family was there. Then my uncle opened the St. Charles [Restaurant]--over a period, I'm not sure exactly the timeline. But yes, we were our own little community right in that area.

MC: Well prior to your father and mother--I understood they were co-workers and co-business owners of the Hamilton--the Sugar Bowl had been there, and I believe that was a Greek business also.

HK: Yes, I don't remember who owned it. I did, I used to know it, but I have forgotten a number of things, and I don't remember. Vovakes, I think, a Vovakes I think had it, and as a matter of fact, Harry Vovakis had a bar on Hanover Street, all within the radius of West High.

MC: Of Pitt and West High, right. [00:09:53.05] Now your father and mother opened the Hamilton in 1938?

HK: No, 1937.

MC: Thirty-seven, and originally the menu was pretty much just a sandwich and breakfast. It was kind of light fare?

HK: I vaguely remember, I do know at that time there were a lot of soldiers in Carlisle, and the soldiers were housed at what was the Carlisle Barracks, which is now the Carlisle War College. East College on Dickinson campus, that had been turned into a dormitory for the soldiers. Now these were soldiers from World War II, and I was young, but they used to come in, and they had light things. They didn't really want heavy dinners, and they were generally just the soldiers, not families [or] the wives, basically soldiers. We had Carlisle residents there also, but I just remember we had a lot of soldiers. And we didn't have booths then; we just had tables. I remember as a kid, I'd sneak under a table and sit there and listen. I don't know what I heard, but it was fun.

MC: The business--your mom and dad, and the children later on, operated this business twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week?

HK: Three hundred sixty-five days a year, as I told you, until we were able to persuade my dad to get a lock and key to lock the restaurant for Christmas, one day of the year. He reluctantly did so, so it was twenty-four seven, three hundred sixty-four days of the year. And I just wanted to tell you, I do remember also going with my father on Thanksgivings and Christmas, every Thanksgiving and sometimes other times. Dad would go to the orphanage; we had an orphanage in Carlisle. It was where the funeral home is on Hanover Street, on--I guess it's South Hanover, I kind of think of--isn't that terrible?

MC: North Hanover?

HK: No, South Hanover. I can see the name.

MC: Where the bed and breakfast is now, in the old funeral home?

HK: Who?

MC: There's a bed and breakfast in the old funeral home on South Hanover.

HK: No, I can see it, but I'll remember it as we're speaking. Daddy would take food to those children. It was evening; it was standard time, and he would take whole meals for the children in these orphanages. [He would] never say anything to anybody; I just remember because I'd go along if Daddy would go somewhere and I wanted to go with Daddy, and I remember that.

MC: Now working in the restaurant, it was a family enterprise, a family business. I understand your mother originally, or your parents originally hired a baker, and then your mother watched him and figured out how to--

HK: No, we never had a baker. Mama knew how to do that, learned how to do that on her own. If we ever hired a baker, I don't remember that. I used to bake pies, but little pies. She would do all the big business, and I'd just roll out, but Mama would bake forty pies a day.

MC: Was there an instance where something caught fire? The grill caught fire and a lot of her work was burned up?

HK: I don't remember.

MC: I also understand that she not only baked pies and breads that were served in the restaurant, plus any number of different jobs, [but] she also made the soap that was used to clean the pots and the pans?

HK: She did, she made that. I think it was lye soap; I remember because we weren't allowed to touch anything. She made soap. She was a long-order cook; she made everything in the restaurant from scratch, always. She was there in the morning, I'm going to say four or five in the morning, and then she'd leave around one or two in the afternoon.

MC: Well that pretty much is a tradition that still holds true today over there.

HK: Yes, but as I said, she just kept at it, and she had the baker's oven. Maybe it was forty pies a week. I don't remember; there [were] a lot of pies at one time, I know that.

MC: Do you remember the different types of pies that she would make?

HK: Oh cherry was the one that really--people would come in and buy whole cherry pies. Coconut cream, egg custard, those were the top, those were so good. She made all the others, the apple and what have you, but those three were top. [00:14:47.27]

MC: Now the one item that the Hamilton Restaurant is renowned for to this day is the hotchee dog.

HK: I knew you were going to say that.

MC: How did your dad come up with that?

HK: I have no idea. Daddy just--first of all, the grill used to face High Street. But somehow Daddy came up with this cheese--maybe he investigated it on his own, I don't know--with the cheese, and [he] called it a hotchee dog, said everyone should have one. And then it was born. Mama always made the chili; the chili was always made fresh. That was Daddy's idea; I don't know how Dad came up with that, but he did.

MC: Well I know it continues to be a popular item that everybody enjoys, myself included. I understand that hotchee dog means hot cheese dog--

HK: Yes.

MC: --from the research I did when we did the display on the restaurant. Now you kids [were] working in the restaurant, washing dishes, clearing tables, sweeping up?

HK: We did that, and the other thing Daddy did--I remember when I was in seventh grade [and] my sister Kathy was in eighth grade, there used to be a commercial college across the street from the restaurant. Daddy sent the two of us to the commercial college to learn to type. So we were two young little things in with all these older people, and we would see them typing away. Once we went there early, and we just started tapping away because we wanted to hear it. We looked around [and] we had an audience; the class had come, and they were just amused. But that was invaluable throughout the rest of the school years. We'd type a new menu every day. One of us typed, the other ran off the mimeograph, [and] we had our own production company. So Daddy was pretty smart; he used us for that. [He didn't have a whip??] Then when we went off to school, we just typed our essays and whatever we needed. That was a really good thing, but Dad did that. And we waitressed also; when we were older, we waitressed.

MC: In working in the restaurant, what age did you start?

HK: Little, before I went to school. But [I was] just doing little things, like Mama would say--because we wanted to be helpful--Mama would say, "Go wipe this off," or something, nothing big. I can't even remember, but when we were able [to work], we did. We would bus, we would take the dishes and the glasses, and that part of I remember. But I don't remember like heavy-duty anything.

MC: So who was in the kitchen, pretty much? Your mother?

HK: Mama, yes.

MC: Do you remember some of the menu items that were served during that time?

HK: Chicken croquettes, [because we don't have them anymore??]. She had great chicken croquettes. [We had] most of what we have today, but chicken tenders are new because that's now a trend thing at most restaurants. I do remember the chicken croquettes. There were a lot of hot sandwiches at the time, hot turkey or hot chicken. Things with gravy people loved, and Mom made, as I say, everything. Everything that went out, Mama made

MC: So it was a popular lunch spot with people along West High and in the town.

HK: It was, it was. And then, of course, Dickinson College kids would ask me, Does your dad ever sleep?, because Daddy was in the restaurant all the time. He'd take a nap in the afternoon, but they were in class, so they didn't know that, but when they'd come back early in the morning--as a matter of fact, I think Tommy does this too. Daddy could tell when someone might need a meal, one of the kids, and he would just offer [something].

MC: I've seen Tommy do that in the restaurant.

HK: Yes, and he learned from [undecipherable] my dad. They're good like that.[00:19:13.23]

[Transcript not complete]

Kollas, Helen, interviewed by Michael Collins, March 18, 2014, Elizabeth V. and George F. Gardner Digital Library, Cumberland County Historical Society, http://www.gardnerlibrary.org/stories/helen-kollas, (accessed Month Day, Year).

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