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Nick Pyevich

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Nick Pyevich of Silvis, Illinois, may not have been as well-known as other working folk heroes such as Paul Bunyan, John Henry, or Wyatt Earp, but he was their better in one respect: Nick Pyevich was every bit as large in life as he became in legend.

Nick was a member of a small Serbian settlement between 1st and 4th Streets in West Silvis which grew up between 1905 and 1915 to provide workers for the Silvis Shops, the great repair works of the Rock Island Lines.

As with other immigrant communities in America, the Silvis Serbs developed their own hybrid culture—part Old World, part American industry. And as with other groups, they looked to their own folk heroes to help define that culture.

For that, there was no better choice than Nick Pyevich. Nick had come to America in 1903 as a stowaway on the S.S. Main. He took a job as steward due to a crew shortage. In 1906, Nick was working in a tunnel deep under San Francisco when he felt the first tremors of the great earthquake, escaping just before the tunnel collapsed.

When he came to work on the Rock Island Lines in 1914, he soon became a symbol for all those qualities the Serbs prided themselves on: strength, hard work, no loafing. Stories about Nick Pyevich soon reached legendary proportions in neighborhood bars and at Serbian lodge meetings. Nick, it was said, refused to wear gloves until the temperature was below zero; he distained using jacks to move a train car he was repairing, preferring to use his shoulder; he never sat down at work once all day; once he began in the morning, he stopped work only for drinks of water. A visitor who refused to believe Nick could lift a 1,300-pound set of train wheels off the track, lost his ten-dollar bet when Nick not only lifted the wheels, but turned them 180 degrees for good measure. Nick's friends were delighted when Nick found a parked car blocking his own. They got to watch as he picked the offending car up and moved it.

Today the Silvis shops are empty; the Rock Island Lines itself is no more, but in Silvis, the stories of Nick Pyevich still remind third and fourth generation Serbian-Americans of their gifts to the New World.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.