His boots ground down as soldiers with pointed sticks jabbed at him for resting. He was forced to march 40 miles a day. So Bedros Keljik, a 15-year-old Armenian thirsting to emigrate to America, shredded his shirt and wrapped the strips around his inflamed feet.

“A terrible journey, and I shall never forget it,” Keljik told the New York Times five years later, in 1894. “The sun beat down upon us, the ground was scorching, but we had to march on. In two days our boots had been worn off, and the hot ground being unbearable we had to tear off our clothes and bandage our feet.”

A few days later, Keljik and two older brothers were tossed in a prison on the banks of the Euphrates River — “one great dark hole, no distinction being made between murderers, thieves, or so-called political prisoners.”

Fast forward a decade. After stints on the East Coast, Keljik opened a downtown St. Paul rug cleaning and repair shop in 1900. He’d soon count as customers railroad tycoon James J. Hill and the Mayo family in Rochester.

“He used whatever he could — his accent, his wit — to find an edge, and he never grew discouraged,” said Thomas Keljik, 69, who was 10 when his grandfather died in 1959.

Tom and his brother, Mark, have shared their grandfather’s inspiring immigrant story in a new 40-page article in the University of Minnesota’s Modern Greek Studies Yearbook.

“It blows my mind to learn what he did as a 15-year-old kid who spoke no English when he first arrived,” said Tom, a retired high school teacher living in St. Paul.

Nearly 120 years after Bedros launched his rug business, Mark still runs the family’s carpet business — now an Uptown fixture at 4255 S. Bryant Av. in Minneapolis.

Born in 1874 in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), Bedros Keljik was the eighth of 11 children raised in the strict Armenian Apostolic Church, an ancient Christian community dating to the end of the third century.

In the late 1800s, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II pushed a nationalist agenda, pressuring Armenians and other Christian minorities to clear out of a region bordered by the Caspian, Black and Mediterranean seas, where they’d thrived for 3,000 years.

My favorite anecdote in the Keljik brothers’ riveting story about their grandfather involves a boyhood memory Bedros often shared with sons Emerson and Woodrow.

His grandfather, Sahag, gave Bedros a coin to spend on a trip to the market. He considered the walnuts, raisins, apricot leather and other Turkish delicacies before picking pistachios.

“I held the nickel in my fist very tightly,” Bedros told his boys, but “when I opened my hand to pay, the nickel had vanished. Do you know what this means? Don’t hold onto anything too tightly.”

It would become a parable that defined him.

“There were many times when it appeared that Bedros Arakel Keljik had lost everything,” his grandsons wrote, detailing his first failed attempt to emigrate, his unemployment and homelessness in Boston and his New York business going belly-up during the Depression.

“We are certain that he felt the pain, but he shrugged it off and went back to work, full of optimism for the next challenge,” the Keljiks wrote. “He did not hold on to his nickel — his past — too tightly.”

That first try at emigrating included a 10-day, 450-mile trek on horseback to catch a boat. Bedros and his brothers had money to bribe officials to gain passports. But not enough.

“We were arrested and thrown in prison,” he said in 1894. Handcuffed and handed over to soldiers, they were escorted home to the village of Harput near the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern-day Turkey.

When his bleeding feet healed — “still determined to come to America” — Bedros headed for the mountains, bribed other officials, and sailed on a French steamer to Egypt and then New York.

His success as a rug dealer began with a display of his trademark gumption after losing his $4.80-a-week factory job in Boston during the financial panic of 1893. That’s when he noticed a Turkish prayer rug hanging upside down in a Boston rug shop and went inside to tell the owner of the mistake.

The impressed store owner not only hired him but helped him gain admission to the prestigious Boston Latin School. He dropped out but later enrolled in a Chicago law school.

Bedros moved to Minnesota in late 1899, convinced that the burgeoning Twin Cities promised an untapped market for Oriental rugs.

Renting a small shop in downtown St. Paul for $15 a month, he began cleaning and repairing rugs. He got his big break when a prominent lawyer sold him a dirty old rug for $5. A week later, the attorney walked by the shop and saw a lustrous rug in the window.

“How do you like your rug now?” Bedros asked. Stunned, the lawyer couldn’t believe it was the same rug and invested a few thousand dollars to grow Keljik’s business.

Bedros married a woman named Zabel in 1911 and they had three children. By 1920, he opened a second shop — this time in Minneapolis. His rugs would soon cover hardwood floors across the region.

Always restless, Bedros moved to Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, where the stock market crash in 1929 derailed his operations. He returned to Minneapolis in the 1930s, working nearly every day until lung cancer killed him just before his 85th birthday in 1959.

 

Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His new book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: https://tinyurl.com/MN1918.