Volume X, Number 2, Fall 2014


Review of The Story of Árpádhon: Hungarian Settlement, Louisiana 1896-2006. By the Residents and Descendants of the Early Settlers as Told to Royanne Kropog" by Anna Szentgyörgyi

Anna Szentgyörgyi works at the Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. Her research interests include Hungarian-American migration studies, ethnography and cultural anthropology. Email: ,

The Story of Árpádhon: Hungarian Settlement, Louisiana 1896-2006
By the Residents and Descendants of the Early Settlers as Told to Royanne Kropog
Royanne Kropog
Baton Rouge: Moran Printing, Inc., 2006
ISBN: 978 1 4276 3502 0

In Memoriam Judy Balogh

On September 3, 2014, the sad news reached me that a much beloved and respected member of the Hungarian community in Toledo, Ohio, Judy Balogh (née Julia Farkas) passed away peacefully. Judy was proud of her Hungarian heritage and kept its maintenance at the center of her life. She was a past president of the Toledo-Szeged Committee and a board member of Toledo Sister Cities International. She was a devoted and active participant of the Hungarian Club of Toledo and the Calvin United Church of Christ, where she taught Sunday school and held classes for ladies to learn traditional Hungarian embroidery. Through a friendly, personal conversation with her in 2009, I learned about the largest Hungarian rural community in the U.S., her birthplace of Árpádhon. Since the primary focus of my research that time were Hungarian immigrants and their descendants in Toledo, Ohio, my revelation about the importance of Árpádhon only came upon Judy Balogh’s death.

Generally, Hungarian immigrant settlements are associated with large, industrial cities; Juliana Puskás in her extensive work entitled Ties That Bind, Ties That Divide: 100 Years of Hungarian Experience in the United States (2000), highlights the fact that less than 1 percent of Hungarian immigrants lived in small, agricultural communities within the framework of the industrial United States. A vast majority of Hungarian immigrants were attracted by heavy industries in Cleveland, New York, Toledo, Lorain, Youngstown and Dayton, the latter four in the state of Ohio. After the turn of the century, New Jersey’s iron, wire and copper industries drew Hungarian immigrant factory workers. The factories of Chicago and Detroit often lured them from competitive enterprises (110-113). As Puskás argues, the only significantly large Hungarian agricultural settlement in the United States, Árpádhon, was organized near New Orleans, Louisiana, by two Hungarian settlement agents with the collaboration of the Louisiana Bureau of Colonization and Land Company. Other attempts to establish agricultural settlements by Hungarian immigrants were made, for instance by the foundation of Buda, Nyitra and Tokaj – all short-lived small colonies that soon ceased to exist (2000, 113).

Primary and secondary sources about Árpádhon are scarce in academic literature. In his work Magyarok az Újvilágban (2000), Béla Várdy only mentions the Hungarian settlement in an endnote. In contrast, Albert Tezla in The Hazardous Quest: Hungarian Immigrants in the United States 1895-1920 (1993), devotes a chapter to the village and its people, whom he calls the "Strawberry Hungarians.” He draws on personal accounts from the early 20th century as well as on articles and advertisements from the local newspaper Árpádhoni Kertészlap: Hungarian Gardener’s Journal.

Royanne Kropog’s monograph The Story of Árpádhon (2006) meets an important need in the historic and ethnographic documentation of this unique Hungarian-American settlement. Using 40 personal interviews, over 70 original photographs and several unpublished manuscripts as primary sources, she documents and surveys the life of the Hungarian Settlement in southeast Louisiana covering a period of 110 years. Kropog gives first-hand accounts of the contemporary ways of life in Árpádhon via her personal observations and relations, having spent much of her lifetime in the Hungarian community.

The book provides a detailed account of the history of Árpádhon ― or the Hungarian Settlement as it is known today ― in 28 chapters. The reader learns how the virgin forests of southeast Louisiana were turned into sites of a prosperous family enterprise, the Brackenridge Lumber Company that employed several Hungarian immigrants. The company exhausted the land by 1906, which made them seek other tracts of land. To recover the company’s large investments in Louisiana, they advertised 20 acre plots to anyone who could afford them. Several advertisements appeared in the northern Hungarian newspapers, and the sale was also mentioned in letters to family members written by the local Hungarian immigrants. The chance to own a piece of land for about $200 meant new hope for the disillusioned factory and mine workers, coming from the large northern and eastern cities of heavy industry, whose social status in the Old Country had been based on agrarian mercantile business. Life was not easy at the beginning: clearing family plots, building homes and fighting the perils of nature (snakes and reptiles) that were previously unknown to Hungarian immigrants.

The Immigration House of Árpádhon meant an initial refuge for the newly arrivals on the settlement. The Saint Margaret Catholic Church and the Presbyterian Church significantly contributed to individual security and community cohesiveness by providing masses in Hungarian language, teaching Hungarian classes, fund raising and hosting the annual Harvest Dances and other entertainments. Early settlers established a network of families to provide help in case of emergency. Because roads were unpaved at that time, neighboring villages were hard to reach in case of need. With mutual help, hard work, ingenuity, independence and perseverance, the founders of Árpádhon were able to establish a viable settlement (35).

Cultivation of land significantly differed from the Old Country’s farming experiences. The tropical climate required the settlers to invent new methods of plantation, cultivation and harvest. Soon, news about a new kind of crop that favored the local climate reached the Hungarian farmers: strawberries. Only a few of the brave started to be involved in growing strawberries; however, it proved to be an extremely successful business in a short period of time, engaging all of the farmers in raising this new kind of crop. The success of strawberry farming united the Hungarian Settlement, turning its residents into a flourishing, viable community. Strawberry seasons were so important that daily routines and social events revolved around them; the starting and ending of the school day, weddings, church picnics and festivals were held in accordance with the essential work in the fields (34-38). The two World Wars and the Great Depression made everyday life harsh for the American population; however, these times were fairly stable in Árpádhon. A hard-working lifestyle and home-grown food secured steady living conditions. Although such ‘luxury’ items as sugar, coffee, gasoline and shoes were rationed, Hungarian immigrants were inventive swapping ration stamps around according to family needs.

In her book, Royanne Kropog emphasizes the importance of residential houses, devoting a whole chapter to detailed descriptions of the structure of these buildings and highlighting the simplicity of early homes, which strictly served the basic needs of the family. Later on, with the accumulation of capital, flower gardens and porches were added to Hungarian homes, resembling the Old Country rural traditions. In connection with family homes, the author draws attention to the role of family members and the importance of mutual meals, where family values, standards and character were passed onto the younger generations. As Kropog shows, preparation and preservation of food were inevitable for each family. Fruits and vegetables from the home garden were canned; hogs were butchered with the help of the neighbors to produce Hungarian specialties such as kolbász, hurka, and smoked ham. The practice of making Hungarian sausages is still preserved in the community by Louis Bartus, who runs a small family store. Providing the family with traditional Hungarian pastries, such as fánk, kalács and kifli was the role of the housewife. Women remembered recipes from the Old Country, which were often exchanged and later passed onto the next generations. Susan Kalcik argues in her essay “Ethnic Foodways in America: Symbol and the Performance of Identity” that traditional foods and ways of eating form a link with the past and help ease the shock of entering a new culture (1984, 37). Traditional Hungarian dishes such as stuffed cabbage, stuffed peppers, Gulyás, chicken soup, paprikás and pork pörkölt are still made in the Hungarian Settlement. This demonstrates Kalcik’s argument that observers have noted that foodways seem particularly resistant to change, because they belong to the earliest-formed layers of culture that are the last to erode (37).

Social practices, such as traditional weddings and holidays, are surveyed through four chapters in the volume. In the early life of the community, preservation of Hungarian identity and values were essential; Hungarians only married Hungarians, and sometimes spouses were picked by the parents. This practice kept the community entirely and purely Hungarian for a few decades. However, in the following generations, “the mixing took place gradually and assimilation began to occur without too much notice” (151). Religious holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, were celebrated both on family and community levels. At Christmas, traditional Hungarian dishes were prepared at home while the churches held celebrations, dinners and dancing with the purpose of maintaining strong community relations as well as for fundraising purposes for the congregation. At Easter time, the old Hungarian tradition of “sprinkling” was performed by the men of the community. After sprinkling the girls with water, they were usually treated to food and drink.

The Hungarian Harvest Dance, a traditional custom brought from the Old Country, has been a keystone in preserving Hungarian ethnic heritage in Árpádhon. It is held in October, following [grape] harvest time. Kropog points out the significance of this social practice in preserving ethnicity in the community: “Hungarians strive to keep these authentic folk dances and their accompanying music in its purest form without modification […] it is a stated fact that the traditional dance and music, here, shall be preserved “as is” without alterations or additions” (153). On the evening before the Harvest Dance the Catholic Hall or Community House is decorated with red, white and green ribbons and streamers. A gallon bottle of homemade wine with fresh fruits such as grapes, apples, oranges, and flowers is hung in the center to create the atmosphere of harvest. The same traditional decorations have been provided each year (155). The Harvest Dance opens with the performance of young dancers, which are followed by the adult group, members wearing locally made Hungarian embroidered folk costumes that have often been handed down from generation to generation.

A professional visit to Árpádhon combined with a scholarly study was made by the distinguished folklorist Prof. Linda Dégh about the Grape Harvest Dance in 1980. According to her observations, “the Harvest Dance can be considered as a Hungarian folk custom based on an error; the music is only to a minimal degree related to folk tunes, the dance steps have even less to do with Hungarian folk dancing. The costume is fabricated faraway from the folk, out of faint, nostalgic reminiscences” (128). However, Dégh highlights the fact that this error was made at least seventy years ago, a passage of time which, “according to the strictest rule of folklorists, is enough to convert an originally erroneous illusion into folklore” (ibid.). The people of Árpádhon had a strong desire to possess and continue this folk practice, thus the Harvest Dance stands as a remarkably strong tie, maintaining and symbolizing Hungarianness (116). The Harvest Dance is still performed today in the Hungarian Settlement as a key element in preserving Hungarian Ethnic heritage in the American society.

Árpádhon welcomed and supported fourteen “freedom fighters” of the 1956 Revolution. The new arrivals were met by John Kropog, the only person fluent in Hungarian in the city of Hammond, LA, who became their interpreter and first employer. Presbyterian minister Rev. Alexander Bartus organized English language classes. Several local organizations and individuals also sponsored the refugees who were 15-19 years old at the time of their arrival (213). The book lists thirteen names of the Hungarian “freedom fighters,” giving up-to-date personal data about them; the author herself was married to one of them.

Assimilation into U.S. culture occurred in Árpádhon similarly to other Hungarian-American settlements. The younger generation attended English language schools and intermarried with people of different cultures. Due to this phenomena, Hungarian language use weakened, since it was needed neither in everyday conversations at home nor at the workplace.

The revival of Hungarian language use, culture and history was supported by the 1977 ESEA federal grant, the Southeastern Louisiana University and the Tanítóképző Főiskola in Debrecen as well as by the World Federation of Hungarians in Budapest. The chief goal of the grant aimed at bilingual classroom teaching instead of Hungarian taught as a foreign language. The bilingual program existed between 1977 and 1986, employing native teachers from Hungary (221-226). Although the Hungarian language program only survived until 1986, Kropog highlights its importance and effects on the current community of the Hungarian Settlement: “There are many of the adults who have improved their language skills and enjoy a better understanding of their heritage. The younger generation, who were taught in the elementary school, still recalls their training and attends other Hungarian functions in the community today.” (225). To preserve and foster Hungarian ethnic heritage, The Árpádhon Hungarian Settlement Cultural Association was formed in 1976 and the Hungarian Settlement Historical Society was established in 2003 with the principal aim of collecting and preserving the history of the largest Hungarian rural settlement in the U.S. The society is actively participating in preserving Hungarian heritage by organizing Hungarian adult language classes, embroidery classes, a music band and a folk dancing group for children (231-233). The Kropog family is a key member of the Hungarian Settlement in Louisiana. Royanne Kropog, the author of The Story of Árpádhon, is the curator of the proposed Historical Museum; her husband, Alex Kropog is the president of the Historical Society.

Royanne Kropog’s unique book makes Hungarian immigrant and settlers’ experiences in Árpádhon, Louisiana visible by solid research, original photographs, and personal interviews. Although the author modestly defines her project a ‘story,’ this volume is more than that; it is an essential ethnographic resource as well as a collection of personal stories that build up the 110-years history of the largest rural Hungarian settlement in the U.S.

 

Works Cited

  • Dégh, Linda. Grape-Harvest Festival of Strawberry Farmers. Folklore or Fake? In Ethnologia Europea, Vol. 14. 1980.
  • Kalcik, Susan. 1984. “Ethnic Foodways in America: Symbol and the Performance of Identity” In: Keller Brown, Linda and Kay Mussel. The Performance of Group Identity. Knoxville: University of Tenesse Press.
  • Puskás, Julianna. 2000. Ties That Bind, Ties That Divide: 100 years of Hungarian Experience in the United States. New York: Holmes & Meier.
  • Tezla, Albert. 1993. The Hazardous Quest: Hungarian immigrants in the United States 1895-1920. Budapest: Corvina.
  • Várdy Béla. 2000. Magyarok az Újvilágban: Az észak-amerikai magyarság rendhagyó története. Budapest: A Magyar Nyelv és Kultúra Nemzetközi Társasága.