Slovaks in Youngstown: One Family’s Story

Mary Ellen (Kurta) Wilcox grew up on the West Side of Youngstown, in a family that was proud of its Slovak origins.  Her grandparents came to the U.S. around 1910.  Her mother’s parents both came from Kluknava, Slovakia, while her paternal grandfather came from Levocha, Spiska Zupa, in Slovakia.  He said that he left, in part, in order to avoid being conscripted into the army.

Listen to Mary Ellen tell the story of her grandfather’s departure from Slovakia.

Andrew Kollar, on the family homestead in Slovakia.

Andrew Kollar, on the family homestead in Slovakia.

In the 1910s, Mary Ellen’s great-uncle Andrew Kollar would come to Youngstown to work for a few months, but he always returned to Slovakia.

Andreo (Andrew) Kollar (right) with another soldier, 1914

Andreo (Andrew) Kollar (right) with another soldier, 1914

Mary Ellen also talks about what she admires about Slovak culture, including the courage of her grandparents.

Don Kollar, Mary (Ondrejko) Kollar, and Helen Kollar (later Kurta), early 1920s

John Kollar, Mary (Ondrejko) Kollar, and Helen Kollar (later Kurta), early 1920s

Both of her grandfathers worked in the steel industry.  Her mother’s father spent 43 years at Youngstown Sheet and Tube, while her paternal grandfather worked at the Ohio Works of U.S. Steel for 44 years.  Mary Ellen’s father worked at a variety of jobs, including at Ward Bakery and General Electric.  Her paternal grandparents also had a farm in Berlin Center, though her grandfather continued to work for U.S. Steel while managing the farm.

Both sides of the family settled in the Steelton area, on the West Side, near Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church.  The church played a central role in Slovak community life, as Mary Ellen explains.

Mary Ellen's mother, Helen Kollar, at her West Side home in 1930

Mary Ellen's mother, Helen Kollar, at her West Side home in 1930

Her family moved from Steelton to McCollum Road, closer to Mill Creek Park, when Mary Ellen was about 4.  While the Steelton area was predominantly Slovak, the area around McCollum Road was not.  In the 1950s, some Protestant neighbors were not happy to have a Catholic Slovak family move into the neighborhood.Listen to Mary Ellen’s description of the two neighborhoods.

Mary Ellen in first grade at Holy Name Elementary School.

Mary Ellen in first grade at Holy Name Elementary School.

Learn about the history of Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church
Her grandparents spoke almost no English, and Slovak was both of her parents’ first language.  Like the grandchildren of many immigrants, Mary Ellen knows a few words and phrases but notes that she wasn’t really encouraged to learn the language.

Mary Ellen's maternal grandmother, Mary Kollar, at her Oakwood Avenue home in 1930

Mary Ellen's maternal grandmother, Mary Kollar, at her Oakwood Avenue home in 1930

Mary Ellen's paternal grandmother, Zophia Kurta

Mary Ellen's paternal grandmother, Zophia Kurta

Mary Ellen remembers a number of Slovak traditions that were part of her family’s life when she was growing up.  She has fond memories of her mother’s cooking of Slovak foods, and she describes the joyful scene at a typical Slovak wedding.

18 Responses to “Slovaks in Youngstown: One Family’s Story”

  1. Bill Gonda says:

    Nice to read everybody’s history of their Slovak heritage. My grandpa William Gonda owned 1/2 of the Steelton Bakery until 1967 when it closed. My grandparents Agnes and Bill Gonda lived right next door until 2003. They went to Holy Name Church, and they taught me how to make all the Slovak pastries. During Easter and Christmas my grandpa would make Kolichy with the ladies at Holy Name Church. Some of the best memories when I was a little kid growing up!!

  2. Gloria Lerch says:

    My Mother’s maiden name was Miklas and her Mother, my grandma, was Anna Miklas and she was a midwife on the west side…she would walk all over the area to deliver babies day and night and would continue to take care of baby and Mom for a few weeks after the birth…she delivered me on her own birthday and delivered all of her grandchildren. My grandma was a fantastic person….always making sure that all eleven of her children were up and off to Sunday school and Church every week at John Hus Ev Lutheran Church on Mahoning avenue…she lived on Concord avenue off of Belle Vista. Grandpa worked at the U S Steel Ohio Works and most of my family did also. My Dad’s family lived in the Lordstown area on a farm and rode all the way into Youngstown by horse and buggy to the Church where my Mom went. That is where my parents met…anyway…endless stories and memories I cherish!’!!!!!!!

  3. jonnie sopkovich wright says:

    Wonderful story. I have family who grew up both in the Lansingville area as well as the Steelton area, and my brothers and I attended Holy Name and St. Matthias. So much of the neighborhoods have changed but my Slovak heritage has always been precious to me. My Baba taught me everything I know about baking and every year during kolachi season she is still with me.

  4. Bob Kupec says:

    Long time since I ran across your name. Am researching family history on my mothers side and came across your site. Very interesting and well done. My grandmother came from somewhere it looks like according to her funeral record,Fulice,Spiska Zupa,Slovakia but I can’t find anything with the Spelling Fulice. This info was given to me by people at Vaschak funeral home.
    Anyway nice to see your not forgetting our heritage.
    Bob

  5. Mary Jane Jones says:

    Mary Ellen,

    It was such a nice surprise to stumble across this account of your family. You may remember me. I am the daughter of your Aunt Lou’s friend Margaret Korsala, and your paternal grandmother & my maternal grandmother had been best friends in Slovakia. My grandmother came to the Youngstown area largely because your family was there, and later cared for the younger children of your dad’s family after your grandmother died. I have heard a lot about your grandmother but never knew her first name. It was nice to see her picture and to discover that she and my grandmother shared the same name–Zophia! I hope you and the rest of the Kurta clan are well.

  6. margaret bukovina zarlenga says:

    What a wonderful history of your family. I also went to HOLY Name School and grew up on the West Side.

  7. Jim Vagas says:

    So surprised to find this on line! And more surprised to see the name Vagas! My grandfather, John Vagas lived on Florida Avenue and I am his late son’s Thomas Vagas’ son. We grew up in Lansingville on Cooper Street and went to St. Matthias Church and elementary school. I recall a Michael Pernotto I believe it is who may have gone to school a year behind me, maybe. This last post is from several years back but I would be very interested to know more about the Hallahan-Vagas relations.

  8. Martha Turek says:

    My late father-inlaw Edward Turek grew-up on Steel Street.His father John worked at Republic Steel, and when he was old enough so did Edward. I think all of my husband’s uncles did.

  9. Jill( Zofchak) Redman says:

    I enjoyed reading your story. My great-grandparents came to Akron, Ohio. John was a blacksmith then lost his job as cars came to be so popular. He then mined in Tallmadge Oh on what was my mom’s grandmother’s farm!
    I so wish my great-grandparents had written down what their life was like in the “old country” – we know so little about them. I would so love to know who their ancestors were.
    Although they were Orthodox Catholics and not Roman. From what I have read, that is more unusual. I wish I could have known my Baba and learned to speak Slovak.

  10. Gary Stelter says:

    Nicely done! I’m re-creating a family recipe book put together from traditional (mostly Slovak) recipes handed down through our family over the years. I want to include a section on life in the Westside Steelton district–Steel Street/Holy Name area…any suggestions of where I could find more information? Thanks for sharing your information.

  11. Marsha Dutko says:

    It was so nice to relive memories of Holy Name and the westside Slovak people. I went to school at Holy Name with Mary Ellen, We were in the same grade. Mary Ellen you did a beautiful job. I remember all the things you talked about, the food, the language, weddings. I didn’t appreciate our heritage when I was growing up but now I want to know all I can. I have letters from the old country written in Slovak. If anyone can help me translate them I would love your help. Again, great job Mary Ellen.

    Thanks,
    Marsha Dutko

  12. Gary Zaetz says:

    I’m wondering whether Mary Ellen Kurta Wilcox might be related to United States Army Air Forces Technical Sgt. Joseph P. Kurta, who was reported missing in action on January 25, 1944 while serving in the China-Burma-India theater, during World War II. I am not a relative, but I am the nephew of another airman who died that same day in that same part of the world, and who was in the same unit, the 425th Squadron, 308th Bombardment Group, 14th Air Force. My e-mail address is garyngina@live.com.

  13. Zupa,(Hallahan and Vagas).

    We grew up in Lansingville.

    Thank you.

  14. Ken Stanislaw says:

    What a terrific story and told so well. I love the pictures. I am one of a few Slavic people that still live in Lansingville. In winter with no leafs on the trees you can see the old Pernotto Homestead form the old Stanislaw Homestead – it truly is a small world.

  15. Robert Sopko says:

    What wonderful memories,this was typical of Slovak families on the west side of Youngstown, Campbell etc.
    Thanks
    Bob Sopko

  16. Kim Gll says:

    Nicely Done! Our future generations are going to know so much about us than we knew about ours thanks to technology.

  17. We are probably related in some fashion; my Mother’s paerents were from Spiska Zupa,(Hallahan and Vagas).

    We grew up in Lansingville.

    Thank you.

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