Joniskis - From ancient times to the present day

Joniskis Travel Blog

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A beautiful wooden church next to the water

The land of Joniskis belongs to the historic land of Ziemgala which became part of Lithuania as an independent political structure as far back as the 13th century. In the New Age, the land of Joniskis, thanks to its location, agriculture and crafts, developed from a neglected frontier territory into an economically and culturally important centre of  Northern Lithuania. The character of local people is marked among Lithuanians for its temperance, modesty and sedentary lifestyle: though fights with the Livonian Order once hardened their heart, the unique flatland landscape softened their temper.

In 1289 the name of Sidabre was mentioned for the first time in sourcebooks. It was an ancient settlement which gradually developed into the present-day town of Joniskis.

The little church amongst the trees
The land of Joniskis is the country of the last surviving pagans; it is the last land converted to Christianity. In 1522 Jonas, the Bishop of Vilnius, having discovered that all people in this land were pagans, baptised them and established a parish, giving it the name of Joniskis.

In 1616 the town was granted the Magdeburg Charter. In the 17th century, Joniskis was the biggest town in the Siauliai district, surpassing in size even the district centre. In the 19th century, the town was famous for its agricultural production, fibre flax, tobacco and fairs.

It is presumed that Joniskis was founded in 1523, when Jonas, the Bishop of Vilnius, visiting the peripheries of Siauliai rural district, which he was then administering, found that its people were still pagans.

A view of the church and the lake
By the bishop’s order, parishes were established in several settlements, one of them being given the name of Joniskis. In 1536, the church was built there.

Researchers disagree on the whereabouts of this first settlement: some claim that it could have been in the territory of the present-day Kalnelis village (3 km north-west of Joniskis), still others maintain that it must have been in the same place where the present-day town of Joniskis is situated. In 1530 the parochial school was opened in Joniskis. In 1607 Joniskis was already referred to as a town; it had its market-square and four streets: Upytes, Vokieciu, Zagares and Uzmuses streets.

On 4th July 1616, the ruler of Poland and Lithuania, Sigismund III Vasa, granted the Magdeburg Charter to Joniskis, thus giving the town a new legal and economic status.

The church on the hill
According to the Charter, Joniskis was permitted to organize weekly markets, townsmen gained a right to hold rallies so as to elect executives and judges, and what is more, townsmen were permitted to build a town hall. The town was given a Seal on which St Mykolas holding a sword was depicted. The Magdeburg Charter was repeatedly granted in 1635, 1650, 1679, 1718, 1736, and 1764; self-rule was renewed for the last time in 1792.O

Owing to favourable trading conditions, Joniskis remained the most important town in the Siauliai district of that time up to the late 17th century. In 1636, 1649 and 1748 Joniskis was devastated by fires. In 1638-1640, there were 179 inns in Joniskis: 148 premises serving ale, 27 serving aqua vitae and 4 serving mead.

In the 17th - early 18th century, Joniskis was badly devastated by the Swedes; these wars were often followed by plague and starvation. In the middle of the 18th century, the first Jews settled in Joniskis. In 1769, when a peasant uprising took place in the Siauliai district, Joniskis was at its centre.

In 1795, after the last division of the Polish-Lithuanian state, Joniskis (as well as the rest of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) was incorporated into the Russian Empire; soon Empress Catherine II of Russia abolished the town’s self-rule.

In 1836-1858, the Riga-Tilze gravelled road was constructed across Joniskis. In 1865 Joniskis had a population of 2,634 citizens, a post office and a two-year official school. In 1871 a pharmacy was built, and from 1975 onwards the town had its own local government. In 1868 and 1893 big fires broke out again in Joniskis. In 1895-1905, the stone church was rebuilt.

In 1897 the population increased to 4,774, of which 2,272 were Jews; they had two synagogues - “The White Synagogue” (built 1823) and “The Red Synagogue” (built 1865), and also a school. Besides the Jews, the Latvians also settled in Joniskis (in 1836) and built their own church (1848).

In the late 19th - early 20th century, the citizens of Joniskis took an active part in the national movement. Outstanding public figures of that period were Matas Slanciauskas, Klemensas Stankaitis and the priest Liudvikas Siauciunas. In 1911 a good-sized bookshop with a library next to it was opened by K.Petrauskas. In 1901-1912, in Joniskis and Kriukai, cultural life was much enlivened by amateur theatre companies led by the noble family of Stanislovas and Teresa von Goeses. In 1909-1911, there was a school run by the Society for Girls and later by the “Saule” Society for Girls.

During World War I, western gubernatorial districts of the Russian Empire were occupied by the German army (1915-1918), thus a wide railway Siauliai - Jelgava was built in 1916 for strategic purposes and a narrow one Joniskis-Zeimelis to serve local needs (1916-1922); the latter was removed in 1960 when buses started running on this route.

In 1918, the year of the proclamation of Lithuanian independence, the district committee was formed. In 1918 the town received an electricity supply as a private undertaking; the local government took it over in 1930. In 1919 the pro-gymnasium (secondary school) was opened. The new school building, fully equipped for the gymnasium’s purposes, was erected in 1933. In 1933 Joniskis was granted the rights of a peripheral Lithuanian town: all affairs were dealt with by the local town council and elected Mayor. In 1936 the new building for the primary school was erected (now Secondary School No.2). In 1928 the monument to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Lithuania’s independence was erected.

In 1918-1940, the following enterprises were functioning in Joniskis; the Lietukis Flax Works, a dairy, a branch of the Ukis Bank, the Liaudis Bank, the Consumer Company, the Agricultural Cooperative, a branch of the Maistas Company, a sawmill, several flourmills, a library, a kindergarten a hospital, approximately 50 proprietary shops, 5 restaurants, several bakeries and many craftsmen’s shops. Markets and fairs would regularly take place.

In 1930 the first streets were covered with stone slabs. A new electric power station was built in 1938. In 1939 Joniskis had a population of 5,132 citizens.

In the interwar years, the cultural life (which then mostly took place in the gymnasium) was speeding up in Joniskis. Parties and performances would take place in the school. Cultural activities also took place in different societies, such as the Sauliai, Pavasarininkai, Scouts, Jaunalietuviai, Angelaiciai, sports societies, etc.

The Jews (around 700 persons) in the interwar years had their own community, a school and 3 synagogues in Joniskis. The Latvians had their church, a secondary school (opened in 1921) and a newspaper.

Within the first decade of the Soviet occupation (1941-1952), approximately 130 Joniskis citizens were exiled. In 1941-1944, the years of the German occupation, most people of Jewish ethnic origin living in the Joniskis district were killed (approximately 3,000 in the Zagare nobleman Naryshkinas’ park, and around 500 in the Vilkiausis forest).

In 1944, at the end of World War II, the town of Joniskis  suffered heavy losses - some of the residential quarters were demolished. In 1945 a regional paper “Tarybinis balsas” (the present-day “Sidabre”) was issued. In 1945 Joniskis was the regional centre; in 1950 it became the district centre. In 1945 the Culture Centre was opened in Joniskis. In 1971 the new Culture House was erected in Joniskis.

In 1956 the Music School was opened. In 1959 the Corn Processing Factory started operating. In 1969 Joniskis was declared a townscape monument of local significance. In 1978 Joniskis Secondary School No.3 opened its doors. In 1987 the Joniskis Agricultural School was opened. In 1989 The Joniskis Museum of History and Culture was established. In 1992 Joniskis was given back its ancient coat-of-arms featuring St Michael overcoming the dragon.

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A beautiful wooden church next to …
A beautiful wooden church next to…
The little church amongst the trees
The little church amongst the trees
A view of the church and the lake
A view of the church and the lake
The church on the hill
The church on the hill
photo by: Chokk