I want to share my experience of living in Masaryktown, Florida located 40 miles north of Tampa and 10 miles south of Brooksville on the western coast of Florida. Masaryktown was a small poultry- egg producing farming community, comprised of approximately 300 Slovaks and some Czechs. I say “was” because although the town is the same today, the population and structure are now totally different.
When I arrived in Masaryktown in 1948, I was eleven and almost immediately felt at one with the peaceful and friendly environment. Gradually I began to see the townspeople as one big extended family. Those of us who grew up together in the late 40’s and throughout the 50’s were blessed. Masaryktown was not only our town, but truly a village where everyone interacted, looked out for each other, and worked extremely hard on their farms.
Work always came first, and for most of our families, paid little. Except for a few, no one took vacations. Recreation included activities at the Community Hall or at one of three local bars. The bars were not ordinary; all ages congregated together on weekend nights. Adults played cards, and at the once famous Masaryk Hotel, there was dancing every Saturday night. For a few years these establishments were the only places we could watch black and white TV.
In Masaryktown, two cultures were integrated, the American culture and the Slovak/Czech culture. The major community hall event was in October, where we celebrated the creation of Czechoslovakia after the Great War, World War I. People came from all over Florida. The second event celebrated Thomas Masaryk’s birthday in March. The ladies began preparations very early in the day as chicken dinners were served beginning at noon with strudel, nut or poppy seed pastries for dessert. All the food was donated by the townsfolk.
In the afternoon, the entertainment began with the singing of the Slovak National Anthem. Highlighting the afternoon program was the Beseda Dance consisting of eight people led by Ms. Francis Ferencik. Our circle consisted of John Bartko/Janice (Mazourek) Oravec, Ivan Placko/Mildred (Seles) Howells, Emil Kasan/Sidney (Sirucka) Romine, Bob Durko/Elaine (Tokos) Hogue. Jerry Psenka provided accordion music to accompany the Beseda. We also participated in the Stephen Foster Folk Festival in White Springs FL, and performed at various other events in the area.
The dance was vigorous, the kroj (folk dress) not so comfortable, but we were young, happy and proud of our heritage. After the Beseda, everyone went home to farm chores and returned later for a dance: after a full day everyone could still polka, waltz and cardas. What fun it was!
The hall was used for all kinds of events, weddings being the major one. Wedding invitations didn’t exist; the whole Slovak community turned out for each and every wedding. The food, the drinks, and the dancing were extraordinary.
We had two churches in town, Holy Trinity Lutheran and St. Mary’s Catholic Church. As youngsters we rode the school bus to Brooksville and that was another means of socializing. Before we could drive, we rode bikes throughout the back roads and woods, to the cemetery, to the dump and the ponds where we would catch frogs and tadpoles. These were all places to hang around and experience our teenage privacy. Once we were 16 and able to get a driver’s license, we still drove around the woods on sandy roads. We could occasionally take our parents’ cars to school or to the movies, considered to be a very big deal.
Some of the “older” young people were in college or in the military service. When they came home on leave or for summer vacations, they and the younger people socialized. There was no regard for age; all that mattered was who could drive and who was available. In summer we went swimming twice a week in the Weeki Wachee River or Lake Iola, or to one of the parks by the Gulf of Mexico, Bayport and Pine Island. We always had to be at home at chore time. Evenings we went to the movies or just hung around in someone’s home. This was a very active and wonderful lifestyle in spite of the constricting work.
Those in the Beseda Circle I belonged to are still close and bonded. We have had numerous reunions, one including those pioneers who remained; we recorded them sharing memories on videotape. We are so grateful for our unique experiences. Our parents were strict so no one ever got into trouble; we didn’t dare, although by today’s standards we had many opportunities. All rose beyond humble beginnings to have successful careers.
I still find a peacefulness in going back to visit my little town, even though time and development have made drastic changes. There are few pioneer Slovaks left and fewer young Slovaks to take over. Farm work didn’t appeal to many of us and now the new residents are not of our culture, therefore, not interested.
Several of our group, including John Bartko, Ivan Placko and Mildred Seles Howells, have traveled to Slovakia to search their roots with good results. Some of us have continuously tried to capture and preserve the history of Masaryktown as we knew it. But watching our little town disappear into a wilderness of apathy is at best disturbing.
However, the golden memories will always be there.