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Birmingham Days (cover)

Birmingham Days: Life and Times of Toledo's Hungarian Neighborhood

by John F. Ahern, Thomas E. Barden, and Andrew Ludanyi


From the beginning, Birmingham's strategic location near the mouth of the Maumee River was attractive to settlers in northwest Ohio. The locale's easy access to Lake Erie, its abundant fresh fish, and its situation under a major migratory bird route made it appealing to Native American tribal groups even before the first Europeans arrived. What was to become the Birmingham neighborhood was inhabited early on by French, German, and Irish farmers who were impressed with the setting's rich, loamy soil. Streets and park names such as Collins, Valentine, and Paine commemorate these early farming settlers.

The shift from agriculture to industry as the primary activity in Birmingham can be attributed specifically to the establishment of a foundry by the National Malleable Castings Company, which transferred a number of Hungarian workers from its home plant in Cleveland to its new East Toledo site on Front Street in 1892. This was the origin of the neighborhood as it is presently known. With approximately two hundred workers moving in, Birmingham quickly became a working-class Hungarian enclave. Their arrival is documented in the registers kept at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where many of the first Hungarian settlers recorded their baptisms, marriages, and deaths before St. Stephen's Church was built in 1899. Moreover, this dating of the origin of Birmingham is confirmed in a profile of Hungarian-American communities that was published at the turn of the century by the Cleveland Hungarian daily newspaper Szabadság (Freedom).

Local records show that most of the populace had emigrated from the so-called Palóc counties of North-Central Hungary: Heves, Abauj, and Gömör (now in Slovakia). Most, though far from all, were Roman Catholic. Although assigned to Sacred Heart, a nearby Toledo parish, the newly arrived Cleveland Hungarians were visited regularly by a Hungarian priest from Cleveland, and in 1898 their own parish was established, the Church of St. Stephen King of Hungary. Its registry showed about one hundred families in 1899.

Birmingham's name, like that of the "Irontown" neighborhood just to its north, was meant to invoke a thriving iron and steel manufacturing center, and by the time of the First World War, it did resemble its English namesake, with National Malleable having been joined by United States Malleable; Maumee Malleable Castings; two coal yards; a cement-block manufactory; and the Rail Light Company (later Toledo Edison). The population of East Toledo was growing rapidly, going from 17,935 in the 1900 census to 39,836 in 1920. With this increase came civic amenities such as sidewalks, paved streets, grocery and dry goods stores, banks, bakeries, and saloons. Often, the owners of these establishments lived above the store.

The ethnicity of East Toledo and Birmingham in particular continued as the total population increased. The number of persons of Hungarian birth in East Toledo grew from 647 in 1900 to 3,041 in 1920. The main ethnic group in Birmingham was Hungarian from the beginning, but others were present as well. Immigrant Slovaks, Czechs, Germans, Poles, Bulgarians, and Italians all appear in the WWI-era census records. Like the Hungarians, they lived in modest homes built by real estate speculators. What preservationists would later call "worker cottages" were small one-story houses without basements or indoor plumbing. The backyards were small and front lawns smaller. Some sites had smoke houses, and most kept chickens in fenced-in areas. In time, the privies were torn down and indoor facilities added. At first, most homes were without front porches, but that changed quickly and front porch socializing became an important element of Birmingham life. Gardening occurred in a "green belt" commons area along the railroad tracks that marked the eastern and northern boundary of the neighborhood. Moreover, many Birmingham houses became sources of revenue as families took in boarders, usually single male workers who paid rent to live with established families until they were able to start households of their own.

Until World War I, the major challenge to the first wave of immigrants was adjusting to their new conditions of work, neighborhood, and language. In this adjustment the role of the religious institutions was crucial. Some early organizational efforts came from religious societies, which eventually became the basis for the neighborhood churches. The first important group was the King Matthias Sick and Benevolent Society (Mátyás Király Egylet), which provided the equivalent of social security and disability insurance for members through dues and fundraising. The association split when Catholic members established their own Saint Stephen (Szent István) Roman Catholic Society. This move was followed by the formation of the Saint Michael Society for the Greek Catholics and the John Calvin Society for the Hungarian Reformed Protestants. In terms of community support and fundraising, the Society of Reformed Women and the Saint Elizabeth Roman and Greek Catholic Women's Society were equally important. These groups were the foundation on which the neighborhood's three beautiful churches--Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, and Calvinist--were built before World War I.

Birmingham got its own neighborhood school early in its history. The first mention of it in the public record comes in 1894 in the annual report of the Toledo Public Schools. The report had this to say: "Near the Craig Shipyard on the east side of the river in a settlement known as Birmingham, a four-room brick building was erected which is now wholly occupied, furnishing ample school facilities for the people of this neighborhood." Early records list Miss Lillian Patterson as the school's principal in 1899 at a salary of $750 a year. The Birmingham School saw numerous additions and by 1916 it was sixteen rooms in size. A gymnasium was added in 1926, which completed the school as it stood until 1962 when it was torn down and replaced by the current structure on Paine Street. Throughout this period of Birmingham's history, the school was a social as well as an educational center, since it was used for public gatherings and adult night classes in reading and writing.

The pre-WWI era also saw the heyday of Birmingham's military marching bands, the first of which was assembled in 1903. John Lengyel and later Julius Bertok were the organizers of these musical ensembles, which served social and ethnic purposes as well as patriotic and musical ones. The most impressive was the Rákóczy Band, named after Prince Francis Rákóczy II, who led the anti-Habsburg rebellion of 1703-1712. The band, which dressed in genuine Hungarian military uniforms, performed in Courthouse Park in Toledo and in Cleveland as part of the dedication of the Louis Kossuth Monument.

Social forces outside of Birmingham were starting to exert influence during this period. The "Americanization Movement," a nativist response to the mass European immigration to Northern industrial cities, was exerting subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, pressure on ethnic communities around the country to abandon distinctive traits and conform to an "Anglo" model. Israel Zangwill's 1908 hit play The Melting Pot notwithstanding, the Americanization Movement urged immigrants to forsake their ethnic identity and abandon 'old country' loyalties. Major pressure in Birmingham came from the Birmingham (Public) School and a citizenship drive that took on a particularly aggressive tone during World War I.

These pressures can be seen in the address Superintendent William B. Guitteau gave in 1916 to mark the opening of the enlarged sixteen-room brick building of the Birmingham School. After comparing the school opening to the launching of a great ship at the Toledo shipyard, Guitteau noted that several men had taken out naturalization papers and several more had enlisted in the Army or Navy, "thereby proving their loyalty to the country of their adoption." He went on to say that "each year brings to us thousands and hundreds of thousands of Germans and Irishmen and Russians and Italians and Hungarians. And yet we have no German-Americans, no Irish-Americans, no Hungarian-Americans. We are all Americans, whether born here or abroad." For the first generation of immigrants in Birmingham (and around the country), this was the constant message: Americanize! And Americanization meant Anglo-conformity. It wasn't until the rise of the idea of multi-cultural identity in the 1960s that this meaning came into question and a more pluralistic conceptualization of society emerged, one that saw America metaphorically more as a tossed salad than a melting pot.