On our last visit south, we visited Masaryktown, Florida. We had heard there was a vibrant Czech community there and a Czech hotel and restaurant. But when we arrived, all that it seems remains are the Czech street names, the hotel building and a sign that briefly touches on the history of this once vibrant community. The Czechs of Masaryktown, Florida seem to have all passed away taking their history with them…
Masaryktown, Florida is located 40 miles north of Tampa and 10 miles south of Brooksville on the western coast of Florida. Long before Interstate 75 and the Suncoast Parkway were built through the heart of Hernando and Pasco counties, Masaryktown’s Beseda dancers and the Weeki Wachee mermaids graced the cover of a brochure touting the wonders of the region.
The following is taken from A History of Hernando County 1840-1976 by Richard J. Stanaback. KEEP IN MIND that this was written almost 40 years ago.
A community that stands today as a symbol of ingenuity and hard work, Masaryktown also was begun during the boom periods. The vision of constructing a town on the Hernando-Pasco border was conceived in New York City, in 1924, by Joseph Joscak, editor of a Czechoslovakian newspaper.
It was to be named in honor of Thomas G. Masaryk (1850-1937), first President of Czechoslovakia and resistance leader during World War I. He had been a good friend of ex-president Woodrow Wilson and was married to an American girl from Brooklyn, New York. Joscak and others formed the Hernando Plantation Company, composed solely of Czechoslovaks, to purchase land and to develop the town.
“I purchased 24,000 acres, 9,500 in Hernando and 14,500 in neighboring Pasco, at $32.50 an acre on December 1, 1924. It was to be “a modern town, set in the midst of nearby 10,000 acres of rich arable land … (situated) within six miles of Brooksville on the State Highway Road Number 5 South of the City.”
The streets were to be named after Presidents of the United States. The investors had bought more land than they actually required, in hopes of selling the excess and using the income to pay off their own mortgages. No individual was to own more than five shares at $1,000 each.
The first contingent of settlers came in mid-1925 and immediately set out to work constructing homes and a large hotel to accommodate future newcomers.
Among the early arrivals were Joseph Joscak, Clement Ihrisky, Peter Ruzak, H. Getting and Mrs. Anna Cimbora. The latter became the manager of the Masaryk Hotel when it opened on January 1, 1926.
The Hernando Plantation Company purchased an o1d sawmill located in the area and supplied building materials to the settlers at cost. It also constructed a rock crusher plant to prepare limestone for roads and agricultural use.
By early 1926, 800 acres had been cleared and planted with tangerine, orange and grapefruit trees, plus grapes. And a dairy had been started by Martin Drahos who hoped to expand it to 100 cows. Masaryktown then had twenty-four dwellings in place and contained about forty-three families. The hotel was often filled beyond its capacity with some recent arrivals sleeping in tents and in an old abandoned black church. Thomas Hafner was elected as the settlement’s first mayor in 1926. Perhaps the first civic group was a citizenship club, which was organized to instruct the residents concerning their American privileges and responsibilities.
Masaryktown’s growth was rapid during the spring and summer of 1926 and by August of that year, it contained upwards of 300 inhabitants. But somehow the company had received bad advice concerning the planting of citrus trees in such low country and during the winter of 1926-27 many of its trees were killed by frosts.
The colony attempted to start over again, but the next winter was a repeat of the first, and all the remaining trees were destroyed. Most of the people then left, leaving behind only a few hardy souls, who shifted to other pursuits like truck farming and chicken raising.
Masaryktown remained small during the Depression years, and only thirty-six families lived there in 1941, with few changes taking place. It revived ruing the 1950’s and 1960’s, as chicken farming emerged as a firm economic base for expansion, and when a number of retirees settled there. In fact, so many of the latter subsequently moved into town that by 1963 they made up more than one-half of its inhabitants. Most of them were not of Czechoslovakian descent and so today only an estimated 60 per cent of the population is of that nationality.
Another View – The History of Masaryktown As Recorded in 1974
The following article appeared in Masaryktown Florida 1924-1974, which attributes the information to accounts by Hermina Getting Hrvol, Dominik Voscinar, Stephen Otruba, and minutes of early town meetings of Masaryktown.
In the spring of 1924, Joseph Joscak, editor of the New Yorsky Dennik, a daily Czechoslovak newspaper, began writing a column in which he extolled the beauty and pleasing climate of Florida, “where it is possible to produce as many as three crops a year.” He wanted to attract the attention of his readers to a better way of life, for most of them were employed in hard, unattractive jobs in coal mines, steel mills, and other factories of the industrial North.
Joscak had already secured information about the Orlando Plantation in Orange County, Florida, which was selling large tracts of land, supposedly suitable for the planting of orange groves, as he had long dreamed of starting a farming community of Czecho-Slovak immigrants.
Joscak’s writings about Florida so hypnotized his readers that many, too, began to dream about a “paradise” in Florida. His close friend, Klement Ihrisky, joined him in gathering more information and informing a corporate organization for the purpose of raising funds with which to buy land in Florida.
The first meeting of interested persons was called in New York City, on September 15, 1924, at which time it was announced that land was also available in Hernando County, 10 miles south of Brooksville, bordering both sides of U. S. Highway 41. A corporation was formed, later to become known as the Hernando Plantation Company.
Down-payment $1,000.00 shares were taken, giving 20 acres for each share purchased. A committee of 5 was elected to visit the two areas and to bring back recommendations for a purchase. On their return, they reported that they found the Orlando region to be swampy but that the land in Hernando County was suitable.
Milan Getting, Czechoslovak Consul for Pennsylvania and West Virginia, who also had become a shareholder, took it upon himself to write to the Agricultural Department of the University of Florida, inquiring about the above-mentioned tract south of Brooksville. The reply was unfavorable as the writer called it a cold pocket, and he suggested that they should look for land at least 10 miles to the north near Brooksville or 10-15 miles to the south in Pasco County.
Getting sent the report to the officers of the organization, who decided to seek one more opinion by writing to the editor of the Florida Grower in Tampa, who replied that the area was safe for orange growing and that he could show them thriving groves close by (Spring Lake) and others 4 miles to the west of the tract. After seeing the groves, they took his advice, and purchased 10,000 acres, later adding 14,500 acres in adjoining Pasco County.
On December 15, 1924, a party of about 125 shareholders assembled in Washington, D. C., coming from Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, but mostly from New York. They boarded a train for Tampa from where they chartered buses the following day to take them to what they now called “Joscak’s Paradise.” They found the tract anything but promising, for it was mostly uncleared land and uninhabited, except for black families at a sawmill.
For a duration of three days, they were graciously taken into the homes of Brooksville families because the new Tangerine hotel was only partly ready for occupancy. Each day they hiked in all directions over the newly purchased land. During their walks they came to the sawmill, near which stood two shacks and a small Negro Baptist Church. Farther on, they came to a small lake with a sinkhole close by. The group ate a lunch beside the lake and conducted a business meeting. First, they named the lake “Milan” after Gen. Milan R. Stefanik and Consul Milan Getting. The community to be they named “Masaryktown,” in honor of Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of the newly created Czechoslovakia. They also chose the names for the streets, those running north and south after American Presidents, and the east and west streets after Czechoslovak poets, writers, and national patriots and heroes.
Next, they broke bread and buried it, a symbol of good luck, a Slovak custom. They prayed for the future of the settlement, sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and several Slovak hymns, closing with the singing of “Kdo Z Pravdu Hory” (Whoever Seeketh the Truth), after which they walked to the parked buses on U. S. Highway 41 and left for Brooksville.
Joscak took them on a tour of the city, including a stop of the Agricultural Experiment Station. Since there was no one at the station office, he had secured permission to show the party the orange groves on the premises, among which they had found a banana tree and a nut tree. Some sampled the nuts, which made them ill, and they had to be taken to a doctor in town, who, upon seeing one of the nuts, told them that they had eaten poisonous Chinese Tung nuts.
On the third day they separated, some going to see other parts of Florida, and others returning home to make arrangements for moving to Florida. Some did not return until 1925 or 1926. George Kozak was the first to erect a home, and the Cimboras build the Masaryk Hotel. It served as a rooming house for the men while they were building their homes, as well as a central gathering place for all social activities for many years. Joseph Kacir opened the first grocery store, soon selling it to Michael Svihra, who later sold it to Charles Blaha. A grammar school was built on land donated by the Hernando Plantation Company.
Since the starting of the groves required much capital, the new residents formed a cooperative in order to be able to buy and sell more efficiently. Paul Ravas was elected manager of the cooperative and was later assisted by Andrew Kana and Thomas Hafner. One square mile of trees was planted, with a well between every 40 acres. Some farmers planted 10 acres of groves, and others as many as 20 acres.
They were overjoyed when the plantings were completed, but it was not long before frost occurred, one after another, necessitating severe pruning, which only weakened the damaged trees. The next winter the frosts were even more severe, killing all the trees. The disaster forced many to abandon the farms. Others borrowed money from relatives in the North in order to make a new beginning in some other way. Some fathers left for jobs in the North, from where they sent money to the wives and children whom they had left behind.
Those who stayed started raising onions, sweet potatoes, and cucumbers. But because they could not find a steady market for all their produce, this type of farming proved a failure. So more families returned to the North, never to return.
A break in fortunes occurred when Stephen Otruba moved to Masaryktown from Aripeka and started a poultry farm, soon followed by Dominik Voscinar, who had the first incubator installed to hatch chicks for himself and others who had by now turned to poultry farming. All the eggs they could produce were easily sold in Tampa and St. Petersburg. Such was the start of poultry farming in Masaryktown, a successful venture at last!
A. G. Mazourek organized the producers into an egg producers cooperative, the Hernando Egg Producers, Inc., possibly the largest egg cooperative in the southeastern United States. The small producers are all but gone, for only large-scale production is profitable today, and most of the farms have thousands of laying hens instead of a few hundred.
At this point it seems appropriate to recall a human interest incident from those early days. The writer (Hermina Getting Hrvol) and several neighbors took a day off to go to Tampa on a rare shopping trip, for in those days the road to Tampa was still unpaved. It took all day to go and return before dark. In Tampa each went her own way, meeting at an appointed spot at the end of their shopping, before returning to their auto parked in a lot off Florida Avenue. As the tired group was walking down the street, they spotted a pretty lamp in a shop window. The shade had a mountain scene painted on it. One of the women remarked that it reminded her of her native village in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains of Czechoslovakia, and that if she had the money, she’d buy it. They entered the store just to price the lamp and to count their combined cash to see if together they might have enough. The owner sensed their predicament and asked, “Ladies, where are you from?”
When they said “Masaryktown,” he said, “Lady, take the lamp and pay me on your next trip to Tampa. I know the people of Masaryktown are very honest folks.”
In 1950 Andrew Oravec, Jr., and Martin Gavora opened a poultry dressing plant which was in operation until 1965. They employed 14-16 persons steadily and the firm had a large market in central Florida.
A canning factory, owned by Mr. and Mrs. J. M. Bradac, was in operation from 1932 until 1936. They employed about 25 people during the season, canning orange juice, grapefruit sections, vegetables and meats, the last mostly for people in Masaryktown. This industry did much to keep people in Masaryktown during those lean years when their farming income was too small.
Mrs. Bradac was head of the Zivena Society for many years and worked hard to get the Supreme chapter of the society to build an old folks home in Masaryktown, for which the Bradacs were ready to donate 210 acres of land, but the society did not see fit to sponsor the project, and so it never materialized.
Masaryktown has three churches — St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and the First Baptist Church of Masaryktown, constructed in the order named.
The T. G. Masaryk Memorial Library, erected in 1964, houses over 3,000 books, in English, Czech, and Slovak languages. John Juras has served as its board president and Ludevit Krch as the librarian ever since its erection. It should be mentioned that Milan Getting headed a village library during the early years of Masaryktown.
The library today…
In 1932, a chapter of the Sokol organization was formed in Masaryktown. This is a gymnastic society dedicated to the building of a strong, healthy body, and its motto is “In a healthy body there is a healthy mind.”
The Beseda dancers were always dressed in colorful costumes…
They would often dance at dinners at the Community Hall during the winter months and at festivals at other times.
Miss Frances Valenta coached the groups for many years, and Miss Anna Feriancik made most of the beautiful Czechoslovakian costumes.
In recent years Barbara (Bobby) Buchtan has trained the boys and girls to perform this folk dance, similar to the American square dance.
Masaryktown has a most active “Little League” baseball club, with a field on the Community Hall grounds.
The Masaryktown Recreation Club, a leading civic and social organization, has for many years provided entertainment, especially for the children of the community.
It sponsors the Halloween party, the Christmas party, and the Easter Egg Hunt. It has bought much playground equipment, utensils for the Community Hall kitchen, as well as over 600 books for the library, just to mention a few of its community projects.
John Kubicek, a dedicated community leader, was instrumental in getting a post office for Masaryktown.
He formed the Improvement Association, which had the street lights installed and financed their cost for many years.
This association did much for the beautification and improvement of the community.
Masaryktown residents have always been patriotic citizens.
During World War II, its men faithfully took turns at spotting and reporting all aircraft seen flying over the area. The women collected donations for the Red Cross and participated in all its programs. But the citizens are most proud of the then young men of military age, who ALL volunteered and were accepted in the service of Uncle Sam. Joseph Lacko made the supreme sacrifice in the Philippines and Stefan Knezo was lost at sea.
The women of Masaryktown were the first to form a club in the community and for many years they have served delicious chicken dinners, not only just for social gatherings, but for fund raising for the community, the clubs, and Masaryktown churches. The dinners are held, on the average, two a month during the winter months. The tasty pastries, especially the strudel and kolacky, are a treat for those who come to the dinners.
Lastly, it must not be forgotten to record the name of those first settlers who have not been noted above, as well as the names of the many shareholder who did not come to settle in the village, but who made their contribution by investing in the community’s future.
It is hoped that no names are omitted, but, if any are, it is due, after so many years have gone by, to failure of the memory of those who took the time to record so much history. The following list should include all of them:
Michael Prachar, Martin Malecka, Peter E. Rovnianek, Andrew Yaros, John Babuska, Ignac Tabac,Andrew Korman, Paul Konik, Rudolpj Kostka, Andrew Dvoran, Julia Struhar, John Knezo, Rudolph Bublinec, Joseph Haputa, Stephen Capka, Emil Hilbert, John Kuka, Joseph Sudigala, John Ceresnik, Christine Alexsuk, Andrew Oravec, Sr., John Chiba, Peter Rusiak, John Volonik, Alois Moze, Andrew Seles, to name a few.
Here are photographs of some of the old faces of Masaryktown…
In 1974, Masaryktown had close to 1,000 inhabitants, many of whom were Czech and Slovak retirees enjoying their remaining years in a well kept and peaceful community.
As of 2015, the population is 1040.
Tragically, on September 28, 1974, Masaryktown lost its Community Hall by fire. And a search of their community website shows that it no longer even exists.
This had been the Community center ever since school centralization when the original grammar school was converted into the hall. In the early years the little Baptist church was used as a hall. This still stands and is now the home of Mrs. Agnes Fuchek and her daughter.
For other accounts, see the Tampa Tribune’s Florida Accent of January 24, 1971, and the Brooksville Sun-Journal of July 29, 1965, and February 7, 1971.
When we went, the only signs of “life” were, sadly at the cemetary where we saw many Czech and Slovak names as we wandered through, remembering the big American Dreams the people who lay there must have had and the lives they build in this new world…
We located this video on YouTube which captures some of Masaryktown, including the cemetery and numerous gravestones.
The graves of the Cimboras are shown and we located an old article from 1991 where they passionately spoke about their fond memories of life in Masaryktown. You can read that here.
We also located an article from 2009 where Mrs. Cimbora reminisces about the Czechoslovak Independence Day celebrations in Masaryktown and explains why this year (in 2009) the last Sunday in October there will be no celebration. It’s such a sad article, you can read it here.
For further reading, we also think you may enjoy this article in the Hernando Sun, and another about their 90th Year Anniversary. There is a piece entitled Growing Up In Masaryktown and finally, this is a brief piece about Czechs in Florida.
There is also a video from 1958 here and the Czechs/Slovaks come on dancing at the end for the folk festival entertainment. They are the dancers from Masaryktown.
To listen to a voice of the past, this recording of “Tece voda, tece” (vocals) was performed by Michael Prácher, and Elizabeth Prácher at Masaryktown, Florida, on August 28, 1939.
There is an entire collection from Masaryktown in 1939 located here, at the Library of Congress and you can listen to all of the clips.
For us, it was sad to see a complete town that has died to it’s Czech roots and heritage. The generation that might have carried on the local cultural traditions has followed another set of ancestral footsteps. Just as their grandparents and great-grandparents did, they have moved away from the place of their birth in search of new dreams.
Seeing the old Czech hotel turned into a Cuban restaurant did not make up for the loss of it all, even if we all have a love of Cuban sandwiches. The old archive videos from Florida State showed Masaryktown as a thriving community rich in tradition, but today we could find no evidence of Czech pride (or living people) anywhere.
Perhaps this is what drives us most to keep up this blog and continue to bring you more stories such as this one…
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(Update: You can see many more photos at our other post, Remembering the Czechs of Masaryktown, Florida.)