Roots in Birmingham

Title:Roots in Birmingham
Author:Ahern, John F. (editor); Nissen, Randy
Publication date:1997
Publisher:The Urban Affairs Center, The University of Toledo
Digitizing Sponsor:Toledo Lucas County Public Library
Contributor:Toledo Lucas County Public Library
Roots in Birmingham
Roots in Birmingham

Roots in Birmingham is a compilation of interviews with Birmingham residents, evoking the neighborhood’s history and culture. A “Birmingham Cultural Center Book” Stories collected from Judy (Farkas) Balogh, Elizabeth “Kardy”(Kordas) Boray, Anna (Potoczki) Fabos, John Gocsik, Father Martin Hernady, Margaret “Peg”(v) Horvath, Nancy (Packo) Horvath, Lillian (Kertz) Keil, William Kertesz, Mary (Christian) King, Mariska Kinsey-LaCava, Eleanor (Weizer) Mesteller, Don and Barb Nyitray, John Oravec, Paul John Slovak, William Szabo, Steven Tarczali, Barbara (Priscsak) Torok, Alberta (Taylor) Traylor, Magdalene Ujvagi, Peter Ujvagi, Pete Vas, Jr. and Martha (Boden) Young.


Birmingham is a place, but it is much more than that. This book will tell you what it is and what it has meant to those with roots in Birmingham. But place is the best way to begin for it was Birmingham’s location on the Maumee River that caused it to become a neighborhood.

Birmingham came to be because factories were built along its eastern border, the Maumee River. Factories related to the steel industry needed convenient housing for their workers. The neighborhood developers chose the name Birmingham, not only because of the steel industry, but also because Birmingham, England, symbolized jobs. It connoted work and when Birmingham was developed that symbol was far more appealing than a Fair View, a Garden Place or a Sylvan Woods. People came here to work and so Birmingham was a good name for this place. And there was never a need to change it.

Boundaries change. Today Birmingham’s southern extreme is Interstate 280. It is ironically symbolic since the growth of the interstates and the affluence that enabled families to own one and often two or more cars had much to do with the decline of ethnic neighborhoods and the popularity of suburbs. The City of Oregon, Birmingham’s eastern border, is such a suburb. A glance at the names of Oregon’s elected officials or the graduating classes of its public or parochial high school gives evidence that this suburb became a destination for many with roots in Birmingham. More than one observer has said that Oregon is a suburb of Birmingham.

To the north is the Port of Toledo. It once was a neighborhood like Birmingham, but the community of Ironville was eliminated. It was bulldozed because of misguided dreams of attracting more industry to Toledo.

Local historians may debate the birthday of Birmingham, but shortly before the turn of the century approximates its beginning. The factories came first and then, the people. It was a time when immigration was encouraged. People were needed to do hard labor in America’s expanding industries. Agents were sent to Hungary and what once was Czechoslovakia to recruit workers. The pattern of immigration varied; but it was not unusual for a man and perhaps his older sons to come here, “find work,” save money and then send for his wife and children to come to America. Later, intact families would come. Since this neighborhood had become known as a good place for jobs, others from that village in Europe would move here. They were rural people who successfully made the transition to urban America.

They lived in modest houses built by real estate speculators. Architectural preservationists would later call these houses “worker cottages.” They were small houses, one story high, that initially were without a basement or plumbing. Backyards were small and front lawns were smaller. Some backyards had a smoke house and others had chickens in residence. In time, the privies were demolished and many garages were built. Since the lots were narrow the garages faced the alley. At first, some houses were without porches but that omission changed quickly. It became a neighborhood characterized by front porches. It did not take much time before the empty lots were filled with modern bungalows and the muddy streets were paved. So many male immigrants were arriving that a number of the small houses served early on as boarding houses. With the new arrivals, and because families were large, Birmingham came to be densely populated.

Some say that there were taverns on every corner, which were outnumbered only by family grocery stores. Whether a tavern or grocery store, the proprietors lived upstairs “above the store.” There were bakeries, banks, travel agencies, even dry good stores, as well as doctors’ offices. More often than not, the owners “lived above the store.”

One never needed to leave Birmingham. Many residents were born in Birmingham as there were midwives living in the neighborhood. Since most merchants spoke Hungarian, there was not a need for women who worked at home to learn English. Many did not. When they went to church or buried their dead, the clergy could and did speak the old language. Hungarian was so pervasive that African Americans (who have lived in Birmingham for many years prior to the construction of public housing) tell of the need to learn the language as it was the language of the work place, the factory floor. Just as the children had to learn English in order to survive in the outside world, initially in Birmingham, one had to master Hungarian to survive in the world of the factory.

For those who do not have ethnic roots, it is often difficult to understand the deep attachment of people to the language and country of their forefathers’ birth. Perhaps it is even more difficult to appreciate that the love of their homeland continues in later generations. Yet, this love is well known to Toledo travel agents who have booked many excursions to central Europe for people with roots in Birmingham.

You will also see examples of pride in being American and in being Hungarian if you visit what is now Calvin United Church of Christ or St. Stephen’s Church and look at the stained glass windows. You will find two symbols: a stylized American shield and a Hungarian shield. It is not divided loyalty; it is concurrent loyalty.

This dual loyalty, this love of two lands, is best understood by those who are married. You never stop loving your parents even though you leave the home of your birth to live in another place and to love, in a different way, your spouse. Although Hungary was on the wrong side in both World Wars, the people of Birmingham took great pride in their purchase of war bonds and even greater pride in their sons who died fighting for their new homeland. Each of the churches has built (more prominently than one might find in other neighborhoods) a monument to those who died for America. At Zion Hill Baptist church, which once was St. Michael’s, the monument remains although the original congregation whose sons it honors has gone. This tribute to the dead Hungarian American soldiers remains in Birmingham. It is fitting that, when the move was made to Oregon, to an American suburb, the testimonial stayed in the neighborhood that had made those soldiers American.

In the beginning, living in America but maintaining traditions from the old country was not done out of ethnic pride. There was not an attempt to preserve a heritage. It was simply a way one lived life; it was the way one did things. The rites of passage, the acknowledgement of the changing seasons was done here as it had been done elsewhere because it was what one did. It was also fun; it made you feel good.

Summer was greeted by the Corpus Christi procession, the young girls in white dresses and boys in their best clothing marching down the street to pray at highly decorated outdoor altars set up in front of homes. Flowers were scattered on the street. Tree trunks were painted because that made them look cleaner.

Although vacant lots and back yard gardens generated much food, the harvest dance rather than any gathering of crops marked the end of summer in Birmingham. It was a celebration. Children dressed in traditional costumes marched behind a band that was on a wagon (later a truck) to inform everyone-not that they didn’t already know–that the Harvest Dance was happening that night. At the dance hall, grapes would be strung from a temporary arbor, and adults would dance the Csardas. While dancing, they would attempt to steal grapes. The young children were responsible for arresting the culprits. Everyone was caught, for that was part of the fun. The culprits would be brought to the “the judge” who would levy a fine. The proceeds were given to a good cause.

Christmas was not only a celebration of the birth of Christ but also the time for the reenactments of the Abauj Bethlehem, a medieval play. It was a street play whose final performance was at Midnight Mass. The players, shepherds and oregs-devilish men who had not yet discovered Christ-visited homes and sang of Christ and collected donations of money, food and wine. The money was given to the church; the food, to the convent; and (I was told by the players) the wine just mysteriously disappeared. The players in the white gowns and conical hats were shepherds, but the oregs were dressed in bizarre furry costumes with masks. It was an honor to be playing the oreg. When the players visited the homes the oregs would frighten the children. But children are complex; and, as in other times and places, they delighted in being frightened. The children knew that they were really safe because the parents were there and they were laughing. The parents were remembering their childhood. But, I’ve been told it was scary.

Many are surprised to learn that March 17, the birthday of St. Patrick, is celebrated in Birmingham. While the Irish of Toledo are visiting local pubs, the people of St. Stephen’s have traditionally participated in a solemn novena at this time to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. The prayers celebrate the Hungarians’ Irish Madonna. It is an interesting story. During the time of the persecution of Roman Catholics in Ireland by the British, many of the clergy escaped to Europe. Bishop Lynch was given sanctuary by the Bishop of Gyor in Hungary. Bishop Lynch was made an auxiliary Bishop of that diocese and died there. After his death, it was reported that a painting he gave to his benefactors was seen to have a bloody sweat for three hours. A copy of that painting was given by the Bishop of Toledo to St. Stephen’s Church.

Easter, the central event of Christiandom, was also a time of traditions for the people of Birmingham. On Palm Sunday, parishioners at St. Stephen’s brought pussy willows to church to be blessed as they had done in Hungary, where palms were not to be had. Baskets of Easter food wrapped in the native embroidery were brought to the church on the Saturday before Easter to be blessed. The traditional skills of decorating Easter eggs were practiced. This was the time when fasting and sacrificing were finally over. It was a time of jubilation. It climaxed at Easter services on Easter Sunday. But, the Monday following Easter brought a change in spirit. It was the day of dousing.

The dousing custom originated in Hungary. In the villages, young men would chase women and throw buckets of water at them or drop them in a horse trough. Some of that continued in Birmingham, but for many it became more dignified and stylized. Young men, and later boys, would request permission to sprinkle the young lady of the house. Sometimes it would be done with a bottle of perfume, other times with a less expensive home-made concoction. The male would enter the bedroom, where the daughter would be resting, and he would gently sprinkle her. Sometimes the sprinklers would be given coins or Easter eggs. By the 1950’s, some boys would merely fill water balloons and throw them at girls. On Tuesday the girls chased the boys and attempted to douse them. Although I don’t think it is true, I have been told that for a time the U.S. Mail was not delivered in Birmingham on Easter Tuesday!

The rites of passage, like events that marked the changing of seasons, also were centered around the church. When you entered life, you were baptized a Christian. When you reached young adulthood, you were confirmed. But when people from Birmingham tell outsiders about special events, it is the marriages that seem to be the most remembered rite of passage. Although there were divorces, they were rare. Marriages were for keeps and for bearing children. Not all marriages were large gatherings. I have been told that they were far less than one might imagine. And not all marriages were in the church, but the memories of the large church weddings seem to be the ones most cherished by the community.

As in other times and places, a Birmingham wedding was a joyous time. It celebrated optimism about the future, the pride of the successful parents and, of course, the joy of the young lovers; but it was also a celebration of continuity, for marriage implies procreation and birth. It is a public manifestation that the community will not die. Thus, weddings were a community celebration in Birmingham.

Once there was news of the marriage, people were anxious for the male members of the wedding party to approach their doors bearing a ceremonial cane tied with ribbons. That is how the invitation to the wedding was extended.

In the earliest days, the weddings would last for days. Gypsy orchestras would play. Beer and wine would flow freely. I have been told, in fact, that at one time marriages at St. Stephen’s could take place only early in the week because the pastor did not want any parishioners to attend Sunday Mass who might be suffering from the consequences of too much celebrating at a wedding. Death, the final rite of passage, has been well documented in this book. The church bells of St. Stephen’s rang when it was known that a member of the congregation had died. There was one sequence for a man, another for a woman. In the time between death and burial there was a vigil, a time when men stayed at the deceased’s home guarding the body as a tribute to a lost friend. During the night, they talked of their loss but they also played cards, told stories and drank beer. After the funeral, if the person had been somewhat affluent or important, a band would proceed the procession to the end of Birmingham.

Bands, beer, and card playing are not what we might associate with burial rites. Yet, this was a community with profound religious convictions. Birmingham believed not only that there was a life after death, but also that all of a person’s time on earth was a preparation for the hereafter. Life was cherished and enjoyed, but the community believed it was all nothingness compared to what awaited one after death. Thus, there was grief because the community had lost a member, but there was also an awareness of the joy that the departed was experiencing. Birmingham’s religious commitments not only helped the people survive hard times but also gave them a strength and an outlook that some of us can only admire.

This book is designed to introduce you to some of the people who helped to define Birmingham. You will meet people who, despite the odds, have been successful in preserving and enhancing traditions of dance, embroidery, cuisine, folk tales and festivals, as well as nourishing religious traditions. Those are not easy things to do.

I believe a hero is a person to be admired for brave deeds and noble qualities, someone who can serve as a model or ideal. In this book, you will meet some of my heroes.

Dr. John F. Ahern, Director

Birmingham Cultural Center

March, 1997


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