Elk River Chronicles

Members of the Heritage Preservation Commission write articles exploring the interesting residents and stories of the early days of Elk River.  

May 3, 2019
Hungarian Immigration, Part 1

Elk River and Livonia Township became home to a large number of Hungarian immigrants in the early twentieth century. This article will be the first in a series that will explore that community, where they arrived from, and share some of their stories. These articles will draw in large part from the novel From Dairy Farms to Gravel Mines: A History of Sherburne County’s Hungarian Community by Elizabeth Bodnar Belanger. I would like to thank her for her research because without it, this series would not be possible.

The Hungarian community that settled in Elk River and Livonia Township came to the country during the height of Hungarian immigration to the United States. Beginning in the 1880s and continuing until the outbreak of World War I in 1914, over two million Hungarians came to the U.S. In many of the rural areas of Hungary, financial opportunities were limited for those who did not already own land. Although urbanization had been spurred on by the Industrial Revolution, these new and expanding industries were not growing fast enough to meet the rural population’s demand for work. The answer for many was to immigrate to the United States.  Often the hope was to stay until enough money was raised to purchase land in Hungary. However, roughly 75 percent of those who immigrated stayed in America permanently.

Frank Bodnar was one immigrant who may have fulfilled his dream of returning to Hungary. Bodnar immigrated to the U.S. in 1873, and in 1894 he and his family moved to Elk River. Frank and his wife Lizzie brought four children: Henry, Katie, Emma, and Lizzie. They had two more children while living in the United States, Louis and Ida. Both Emma and Lizzie married and moved away from the area before 1900. Sometime before the 1905 census, the Bodnar family had sold their property and left the community. It is likely the family moved back to Hungary as none of the family members were ever again recorded on a federal census, although Canada was another possible destination.

The Hungarian immigrants in the Elk River area were unique in that those who came here opened dairy farms. The vast majority of Hungarian immigrants settled in urban areas and worked in the industrial sector, in construction, and in factories. Urban areas in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Ohio were the most popular destinations for immigrants, with a large number also moving to California. The immigrants that came to settle in northern Elk River and Livonia Township did not travel to the area from Hungary. The first Hungarian family recorded to arrive at what was then the Village of Elk River, the Fazekas family, had lived in other parts of the country before moving to Minnesota. One common trend was many of those who came to Elk River had previously lived in St. Paul. This gradual arrival meant that when World War I brought an end to immigration from Hungary, many of those who would become part of this community’s fabric had yet to arrive in the area.

John and Katie Vicha had immigrated in 1907 but it was not until 1921 that they came to the area, bringing with them their son, Anthony. The Vicha family purchased 160 acres in Livonia Township and began farming the land. John split time over the years as a farmer and a barber. Tragically, Anthony died in 1928, just days before his high school graduation. The loss took a toll on the family. John gave up cutting hair for a time after the death of his son but returned to the profession in 1932, when he opened a barber shop in what is now the location of Diamond City Bread. John and Katie lived in the community until Katie passed away in 1942 and John succumbed to a heart attack 4 years later.

During the 1920’s, the community continued to see a steady trickle of new arrivals scratching out a living in the rocky soil north of town. After World War I, immigration began again but limits were placed on many countries in the early 1920’s, which severely restricted the number of Hungarians who were able to immigrate to the United States. The number of new Hungarian immigrants to Elk River slowed by the end of the 1920’s although families would continue to arrive throughout the 1930’s.

Our next article will highlight how Hungarian immigrants established their lives after arriving in Elk River.