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‘We have a little treasure here’ | Hungarian community celebrates annual Harvest Dance, one-year anniversary of museum opening

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Hungarian Harvest Dance Celebration

Dancers hold hands while walking in different-spinning circles to conclude the traditional dance portion of the annual Hungarian Harvest Dance Celebration in the American Legion Hall in Springfield on Saturday, Sept. 29.

SPRINGFIELD -- Standing on stage were the descendants of Adam.

No, not that Adam — Adam Mocsary, one of the founders of the Hungarian Settlement in Albany.

Victoria Mocsary, Adam’s great-granddaughter, strummed her guitar and sang the familiar words to the Hungarian folk songs she’s heard all her life, more than 120 years after Adam first journeyed from his home country across the Atlantic Ocean to North America.

Joining Victoria were her nieces Megan Green and Suzie Green McMorris, more than 120 years after Adam moved from Canada to south Louisiana and found work at the booming Brackenridge Lumber Company.

More than 120 years after Adam purchased a 20-acre plot of land in present-day Albany, more than 120 years after he and two others began advertising the growing community in Hungarian-language newspapers across the country, more than 120 years after he helped establish what would become the largest rural Hungarian settlement in the country, his offspring was still standing, keeping his memory — and the community’s long-lasting traditions — alive.

Victoria finds great joy in that.

Hungarian Harvest Dance Celebration

From left, Suzie Green McMorris, Megan Green and Victoria Mocsary sing Hungarian folk songs at the start of the Hungarian Harvest Dance Celebration on Saturday, Sept. 29. All three descend from Adam Mocsary, one of three founders for the area’s Hungarian Settlement.

“I may be a little biased, but I think we have a little treasure here,” she said. “It is very unique in the south to have an ethnic community like this one.”

Many from that community came together for the annual Hungarian Harvest Dance Celebration on Saturday, Sept. 29.

The festive gathering was held in the American Legion Hall in Springfield, where a few hundred people from the Hungarian community and beyond came to celebrate the 122nd anniversary of the first Hungarian settlers — Mocsary, Julius Bruskay and Theodore Zboray — arriving in the area.

The event was sponsored by the Árpádhon Hungarian Settlement Cultural Association (AHSCA). 

It featured the Hungarian national anthem and centuries-old folk songs, the traditional Harvest Dance, a wine auction and Hungarian dishes, with all proceeds going toward the continuance of the Hungarian culture of the community.

The night also included the traditional grabbing of the fruit — a frantic race to snatch the plastic-wrapped fruit that hung from the ceiling.

Soaking in the entire frenzy was Victoria, who happily stood by and watched as people of all ages hopped up and down in a desperate attempt to grab bags filled with oranges, apples and different-colored grapes.

“It was exciting to see how quickly the people started stealing the fruit,” she said with a laugh. “In recent years, it seemed like people would hesitate, like they were a little uncertain — until last night when everyone just grabbed what they could.

“It reminded me of the dances when I was a child.”

Hungarian Harvest Dance Celebration

Bagged fruit hangs from the ceiling of the American Legion Hall in Springfield for the annual Hungarian Harvest Dance Celebration on Saturday, Sept. 29. The event included the grabbing of the fruit following the traditional dance.

For many in the community, the annual dance is truly a family affair, something Nichole King McMorris can attest to.

The mother of two has attended the dances with her family since she was 9, and this year she was charged with organizing the 11 couples that took part in the traditional dance — a 15-minute series of movements and arrangements that originated in different parts of Hungary and was passed down through generations. 

But McMorris wasn’t the only member of her family spinning in circles: Her daughter Brooklyn joined her in the dance, as well as her sister, Tonya, and her niece, Kourtney.

The four, like the other dancers, were garbed in white outfits trimmed with red, white and green, the Hungarian colors. The outfit is reminiscent of what a Hungarian peasant or cowboy would’ve worn, particularly the flared sleeves and pantaloons.

For McMorris, whose “full-blooded Hungarian” grandfather took tickets at the door, it’s important to keep up her family’s and the community’s traditions that span generations, perhaps now more than ever.

“I’ve told people over the years that as long as we’re dancing, we’re keeping the Hungarian tradition alive,” she said. “That’s the only way to keep it going.”

The Hungarian Harvest Dance dates back to at least 1921 in Albany but to the 15th century in Hungary, starting when a king told his nobles to hold a feast in honor of the peasants and to celebrate the upcoming harvest season, said Victoria, a retired instructor of history from Southeastern Louisiana University.

Back in those days, the celebration was held in anticipation of the grape harvest since “Hungary is popular for its wine,” Victoria said. During those early harvest dances, women would hide trinkets inside fruit that would later be “stolen” by young men looking for courtship.

“Young men would steal the fruit with the hopes of meeting a nice lady,” Victoria said.

Hungarian Harvest Dance Celebration

A dancing couple is introduced to the floor during the start of the Hungarian Harvest Dance Celebration on Saturday, Sept. 29.

Though she doesn’t know for sure when the tradition changed to grabbing fruit from the ceiling, Victoria said that particular practice has been carried out since she was a girl growing up in the 1960s, back when there were actually two dances a year.

In those days, dances were held in halls at the Hungarian Presbyterian Church and St. Margaret Catholic Church, which were both established in the early 1900s. Victoria remembers the church halls being “packed with people” when she was a wide-eyed child.

Though their dance now takes place only once a year in the much larger Legion Hall, it still gets packed, as it was last Saturday.

It was a fulfilling sight for Victoria, also the public relations director for the Cultural Association, who expressed concerned about how long the Hungarian traditions will continue after the current generation is gone.

“A lot of effort goes into keeping this alive,” she said. “Where we are today, in this day and time, even with everyone’s busy lives, we still see community members come together to assist in the preparation for the harvest dance.

“It warms your heart to see it happen.”

Escape on the Martha Washington

Hungarian Settlement Museum

Artifacts and display cases fill the front lobby of the Hungarian Settlement Museum in Albany.

Sitting at a table near the entrance of the American Legion Hall, passing out fliers and others bits of information while people danced, were Alex and Royanne Kropog, the official-unofficial caretakers of the Hungarian Settlement Museum.

As always, the two were trying to drum up support for the beloved museum, which recently celebrated the one-year anniversary since its grand opening last fall.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony on a humid, sweltering morning Sept. 27, 2017, marked the culmination of a 17-year project that aimed to preserve the heritage of the nation’s oldest rural Hungarian Settlement.

Plans for the museum came not long after the formation of the Hungarian Settlement Historical Society in 2000, which set out to restore the Old Hungarian School into a museum. During the same year, the society and the Livingston Parish School Board agreed to a 50-year lease renewable for successive half-century terms upon mutual consent of both parties.

The lease enabled the society to establish a site for preservation of artifacts, documents, photographs, immigration papers, newspapers, AV materials and oral histories of Hungarian settlers. It also provides a site for research, cultural events, Hungarian language classes, exhibit and educational programs for children and adults.

Hungarian Settlement Museum opening ribbon cutting

Members of the Hungarian Settlement Historical Society cut the ribbon to officially open the Hungarian Settlement Museum on Wednesday.

The society utilized a variety of state grants, donations and fundraisers to begin the project, which required a complete renovation of the gutted-out building that was first built in 1906 but left vacant for 23 years before the museum process began. More than $400,000 has been pumped into the museum since the society’s formation, Alex said.

For the Kropogs, the project was a labor of love that not even they — as deeply embedded in the Hungarian culture as anyone — believed would actually get accomplished at times.

“Between the [August 2016] flood and trying to get the funding in place, I never thought I’d see this day,” Royanne said during last year’s grand opening.

For Alex, president of the Historical Society, the 112-year-old building — which was originally built as a schoolhouse and later used as nursing home before becoming a museum — carries a deeper meaning.

The museum is located on La. Hwy. 43, less than a 5-minute drive from the property where he grew up — and still lives on — on George White Road in the Hungarian Settlement. 

Alex’s father Michael — or “Mihaly” in Hungarian — moved the family to the house to be closer to his sister and her children sometime in 1927-28, filling up the small living quarters.

This move came less than two decades after Michael — as a 16-year-old — escaped war-torn Hungary on the Martha Washington ship and arrived at the port on Ellis Island in March 1909, penniless and unable to speak English.

“The situation in Hungary and Europe was that of unrest and war,” Alex said. “To stay in Hungary meant he’d be drafted into the Hungarian army. He wanted to escape, but it took him several times before he was finally able to do it.”

Hungarian Settlement Museum

Picture frames containing Hungarian embroidery and other artifacts take up space on a wall inside the Hungarian Settlement Museum in Albany. The museum recently had its one-year anniversary after opening in September 2017.

After escaping, it took Michael about a year to connect with his family that had already settled in the U.S. before his journey across the Atlantic. They met up in Gary, Indiana, near Chicago, before seeing promotions inviting Hungarians to a settlement that was taking shape down south, one where they could “buy land and raise strawberries.”

Hoping to find a life away from the industrial cities of the north, Michael and his family made the move to south Louisiana to join the ballooning Hungarian community that had exploded from 11 families in 1900 to nearly 200 by 1920.

Alex’s family on his mother’s side had a hand in that.

His maternal grandparents Joseph and Theresa Juhasz donated 20 acres of land that would be used for the building of St. Margaret Catholic Church, now located within sight of Exit 32 in Albany.

Like the Hungarian Presbyterian Church, it not only served the religious needs of the community but also played a large role in its cultural and social needs, as well. Both churches had halls or community centers where weddings, dances, picnics and funeral wakes were held.

Alex’s parents would eventually get married inside the church Aug. 8, 1920, nearly 16 years before he was born. They’d later be laid to rest in the church’s cemetery.

“This whole area is home for me,” Alex said.

Hungarian Settlement Museum

Porcelain figures sit on a shelf in a glass display case inside the Hungarian Settlement Museum in Albany.

Though her father’s family hailed from the Canary Islands and her mother’s from France, Royanne might as well have Hungarian blood running through her veins.

Royanne’s first husband was Hungarian, and his family lived near the Austria-Hungary border, a troublesome area to be in during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. But that didn’t deter Royanne’s former husband — “he was known as a rabble-rouser,” she said — nor his family, who hid refugees in a cellar by day and snuck them out of the country by night.

“People were streaming all across [Hungary] trying to get to Austria and away from the Russian army,” she said.

After 17 years of marriage, Royanne’s first husband passed away in 1977.

She later reconnected with Alex, whom she dated when the two attended Southeastern in the 1950s, and they later married in 1982 before settling in the Hungarian community Alex had lived in his entire life.

Royanne would later compile “The Story of Árpádhon: Hungarian Settlement, Louisiana 1896-2006,” a book that chronicles the Hungarians’ arrival and settlement in Louisiana. The book has raised more than $19,000 for the museum since its release in 2006.

“I may not be Hungarian, but I’m embedded in it,” Royanne fondly said.

Now that the museum is open, the Kropogs said the next step is to fill it with visitors.

That should come soon. 

The last of the building’s renovations were completed in August thanks to a $172,000 Louisiana Capital Outlay grant, which paid to refurbish the back rooms, repaint the exterior, and pave the parking lot.

The 3,000-square-foot building is currently filled with various items, documents, artifacts and other Hungarian treasures donated by approximately 118 people from Louisiana and beyond.

Though they don’t have an exact count on the number of items in display cases and book shelves, hanging on the walls or stowed away carefully in acid-free lignin boxes, the Kropogs have a pretty good idea after cataloging it all.

“Forty-nine pages of stuff, all single-spaced,” Royanne said with a laugh.

Hungarian Settlement Museum

Bricks identifying many Hungarians are on display in the parking lot outside the Hungarian Settlement Museum in Albany.

The museum, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2001, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and the second Saturday of each month. Appointments can also be scheduled, Alex said.

Admission for the museum, located at 27455 La. Hwy. 43, is $8 for adults, $6 for senior citizens, $4 for children 17-8, and free for children younger than 7. For more information, call (225) 294-5732 or visit www.hungarianmuseum.com.

The next event slated at the museum will be a pulled pork fundraiser on the museum grounds from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 26. The $8 dinner will include smoked pulled pork coleslaw, baked beans, a roll and dessert.

The last pulled pork fundraiser brought in around $3,200 for the museum, Alex said.

“It’s some good pulled pork,” he said.

“And we fill up the plate,” Royanne added.

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