Monday, January 22, 2018
Events

From citrus to vegetables to chickens, historic Masaryktown celebrates its 90th

MASARYKTOWN — Grand Avenue didn't achieve its dream. It remains a sand path defined by double tire tracks through ankle-high grass. Jackson Street appears carved out of a pony pasture. Stefanick, Garfield and Kollar — all unassuming lime rock. Lincoln Avenue comes as a paved surprise.

But, inviting they all are: bucolic and lined by woods, primarily live oak, perhaps the tallest cedars in Hernando County bowed over Lincoln, rustic home lots nestled unobtrusively and tended with pride along their ways.

The vision anticipated by the first Czechoslovakian settlers in 1925 still exists in many endearing ways as Masaryktown celebrates its 90th anniversary this weekend. It brought to the New World lasting pride in the first president of their newly democratic homeland, Tomas Masaryk.

Founded on Dec. 5, 1925, just north of the Hernando-Pasco county line, Masaryktown has ranged through the status of community, then town and city, and now simply a place name where many passing through on U.S. 41 might pause and think: "Ought to check out what's back there one of these days."

About 900 residents is what. While the school and library and post office are no longer there, the community center remains and boasts a membership of more than 400.

Still beckoning motorists along U.S. 41 is the Masaryktown Cafe, erected as a three-story hotel the same year Masaryktown debuted, still serving food, though now Cuban-themed instead of Slovak.

In the last 12 to 15 years, Masaryktown's population has become dominated by retirees, said Larry Dodson, 64, who likely would be mayor if such a post still existed. He married into the community in 1974. At the time, he said wryly, "I thought I walked back in 50 years of Florida history. It was 100 years."

Many of the old-timers have moved away or gone into nursing homes, Dodson said recently.

"The younger ones learned technology and moved away," he said. "The population was no more than a thousand at any one time. Less than a dozen old-timers are still around."

The latter include Irene Alexsuk, 89, and Josephine Voscinar, 96, along with the not-so-old but historically knowledgeable Lydia Kovarcik Dodson, 63, and John Kovacs, 68.

"I came here in 1928 as a 3-year-old, and I've been here ever since," said Alexsuk.

The family — her parents Czechoslovakian immigrants — moved from Pittsburgh, among early pioneers from the Northeast urged initially by the editor of an upstate New York Czech newspaper to establish a community in much warmer Florida.

Her parents bought an orange grove, sight unseen.

"He put all his money in that orange grove," Alexsuk said of her father. "Then, two years it froze out and we went to planting vegetables on the land. (Dad) went to Tampa once a week to sell produce.

"Then one man (in the neighborhood) started a chicken farm," the octogenarian continued. "That panned out. Then we all went to chickens."

Such was early Masaryktown: citrus to vegetables to chickens, the latter endeavor prominently stamping the town on Florida's map by the 1940s.

"Out of 10 eggs produced (in Florida), we'd produce seven," said Lydia Dodson, offspring of Masaryktown chicken farmers.

While Alexsuk remembers a busy childhood with her five siblings building chicken houses for a family flock ultimately reaching 75,000 laying hens, Lydia Dodson less fondly recalls moving chickens at night, when they were groggy.

"I'd take five chickens in one hand by one leg, the same in the other hand. That's how we moved them from one house to another," she said.

Baby chicks arrived as 1-day-olds from out-of-town hatcheries until Domenik Voscinar purchased the first egg-hatching incubator shortly after the end of World War II. His daughter, Josephine Voscinar, now thought to be Masaryktown's oldest native resident, remembers her entire family working at the chicken farm, as did others.

"I could gather eggs with both hands," boasted Alexsuk. "People came to the farm for fresh eggs. They loved them. You couldn't get fresher than that."

She sometimes worked at the cooperative, which the farmers eventually formed, washing and packing eggs.

"I never ran out of a job," she declared with satisfaction.

Alas, the commercial poultry business trickled to an end in the 1990s, when the cost of producing an egg outweighed its price in the marketplace.

"Even though I worked that hard, I enjoyed it all," Alexsuk maintained, but said her fondest memories in the community were from "going to dances, dancing the beseda."

Lydia Dodson also danced the folk dance of the old country in native costumes known as kroj, "elaborately embroidered, lace, puffy sleeves, everything handmade," she said. "If you had a lot of embroidery, you were wealthy."

Alexsuk will watch the beseda dancers on Sunday. One of them will be her son, Keith Alexsuk, 61, who still lives on the family farm.

That farm, early on, had no electricity, Irene Alexsuk remembers. Her mother baked strudel and nut-filled pastry rolls in the backyard brick oven.

In addition to pastries, Lydia Dodson kneaded and rolled dough for homemade noodles, her mother spreading a cloth over the dining room table, covering its entirety in rolled, egg-rich dough.

Their recipes and those of other traditional dishes are immortalized in the 1974 community cookbook, Home Cooking Secrets of Masaryktown.

The year 1974 is also remembered for the fire that burned down the original Masaryktown Community Hall, built on the site of the 1927 Kominsky School, grades 1 through 12, itself reduced to ashes in the early '40s.

Thus, Lydia Dodson went by carpool — one neighbor's van holding all of the community's school-age children — to Brooksville Elementary.

"I didn't know English till I was 5," she said. At home, her Slovak immigrant parents spoke the native language.

Public schooling, as well as an influx of U.S.-born residents, brought more American ways to the community, including governance, which established the town as a dedicated city.

Kovacs, a newcomer in 1984, served as mayor for nine years, following in the earlier steps of Alexsuk's father. During Kovacs' tenure, the City Council established the community park with playing fields and courts.

Masaryktown remains, he said, "nice and quiet and peaceful," adding, "I'd like to see many more years of it. We'd like to see more growth. But, then again," he mused, "we don't want to lose what we have."

Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]

 
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