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John LaPatka &
Jan “John” LoPatka, born June 30, 1873, and Maria “Mary” Brinczkova, born June 26, 1882, were both born in the Hungarian portion of the dual-monarchy of Austria-Hungary. The area where John and Mary hailed from is now in the Levoca District of the Presov Region of the modern-day Slovak Republic (also known as Slovakia), just west of the city of Presov and near the border of Poland.
The region has seen a lot of change politically. The Kingdom of Hungary, founded 1000, became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867. In October 1918, at the end of the Great War (World War I), the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved and the area where John and Mary were born became part of Czechoslovakia. In January 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.
John and Mary were born and raised along the River Torysky in the high hills near the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. They lived in small neighboring villages, Mary in Nizne Repase (population 300 in 2005) and John in Olsavica. Their villages were located a few miles from each other, but John and Mary would not meet until years later.
The area is picturesque with rolling hills, green forests, and large meadows. Besides traditional agricultural, sheepherding, and woodcutting work, the men of the area were skillful makers of roof shingles and fur coats and the women were weavers of linen and cloth. Children helped on the farms and during the winter months learned to read, write, do arithmetic, and undertook religious studies.
John was the son of Michael LoPatka and Maria (Bobkova) LoPatka and had a brother named Michal “Mike” LoPatka, born November 15, 1882, in Hungary. He possibly had a sister named Anna, though the name Anna is sometimes associated as being his stepmother.
Mary was the daughter of Jan Brinczko and Maria (Burikova) Brinczkova and had at least one sibling, a half brother named Michal “Mike” Burik (born 1872). (NOTE: Slovak females traditionally add the suffix “ova” (or “a”) to form the feminine version of their surnames.) She later lists Mike as her cousin, but it seems a sure bet that he is her half-brother. They shared the same mother but Mike was born to a different father ten years earlier. It appears he may have born out of wedlock and adopted his mother’s maiden name of Burik(ova).
Mary’s father died sometime just before she was born and her mother died when she was very young. Mary was then raised by her grandmother - most likely from the maternal side of her family. An aunt (name unknown) in New York wanted Mary to come live with her but the grandmother said no. Mary once said she only went to school occasionally, as her grandmother would rarely wake her up on time.
In the late 1880’s, mostly due to rampant poverty but also other factors, many peasants from Central Europe, including from Austria-Hungary, began migrating abroad seeking better economic opportunity. Those from Austria-Hungary usually made their way via horse-drawn wagons northwest to the ports of Bremen or Hamburg in northern Germany. From there they would travel via steamship, usually via a brief stop in England, for the two-three week voyage to the United States or Canada.
John LoPatka immigrated to the United States in approximately 1892-1894 (he would have been about nineteen to twenty-one years old) with his father Michal LoPatka and possibly a sister named Anna LoPatka. I had previously thought John had came to the United States as a young child, but the 1910 and 1920 U.S. Census records list his year of immigration as 1892 and 1894 respectively.
They apparently left their home in Europe after to the death of Michal’s wife, Maria (Bobko) LoPatka. Michal may have been remarried at some point. (NOTE: I believe his new wife may have been named Anna - and possibly this Anna is confused as being the sister of John when in fact it is his step-mother. Stay tuned!) As with many Slovaks the LoPatka’s made their way to western Pennsylvania, settling in the city of Johnstown in Cambria County.
It’s unclear when or exactly where Michal died, but at some point John and Anna moved on. I believe father Michal died and is buried somewhere in Johnstown. John moved a bit south to Charleroi, Washington County, Pennsylvania, and later made his way to Pittsburgh by the end of the century. At some point Anna - who possibly married/remarried - moved to Cleveland, Ohio. She is known to have at least one son before she died in Cleveland. (NOTE: Interesting enough the 1900 U.S. Census reveals a Hungarian named Anna LoPatka - age forty-one - and son Paul LoPatka - age twenty - living in Johnstown. Could this be our Anna?)
Mary Brinczkova also made her way to Pittsburgh at about the same time as John LoPatka. In 1890, her half brother Mike Burik immigrated to the United States when he was about eighteen years of age (and Mary was eight years old) and made his way to Lawrence County in western Pennsylvania. He was most likely sponsored by an aunt living in the small village of Chewton, a few miles south of New Castle. However, Joseph and Alice Stiglitz, Austrian-born merchants in the nearby town of Wampum, may also have played a part in sponsoring him. Mike took up residence in Chewton and was married c1895 to Anna Kacki (born 1877 in Austria-Hungary). The first of their ten children was born a year later.
After the death of her grandmother, Mary, at the age of seventeen, left Austria-Hungary in early 1899 to join her half-brother Mike Burik in Pennsylvania. She departed from the port of Hamburg, Germany, aboard the steamship Pisa on March 8, 1899. The Pisa was bound for Ellis Island in New York Harbor. The ship’s manifest lists her destination as the residence of her “cousin Mihaly Burik” in Wampum, Pennsylvania. (NOTE: This is Mike but I doubt he is her cousin as I previously mentioned.) It also indicates she is in possession of only $2. Mary later said she had just recovered from a bout of typhoid fever and had lost all her hair. On the trip over she had her head covered as her hair was just starting to grow out again.
From Ellis Island she probably have made her way to the Penn Station train terminal and traveled on the various trains from New York all the way to Pittsburgh and then to Wampum. Perhaps Mike Burik met her at the train station in Wampum and they walked or rode in a horse-drawn buggy to nearby Chewton.
Mary moved in with Mike, his wife Anna, and their three young children. Almost immediately, Mary did not get along with Anna. Anna was apparently adamant the Mary pay back the money that Mike had used to pay for her passage to America. About two weeks after Mary arrived in Chewton she was sent to work in Ellwood City, possibly as a house maid. She may have worked for the Keller family, a Hungarian clan who operated a successful clothing business.
In Ellwood City she befriended another girl who soon asked Mary to go to Pittsburgh with her to find work in the big city. Mary was worried because if she left (and could not find a job in Pittsburgh) she might not be welcomed back by the Burik family. The girl said if they failed they could always move in with her mother. They both went to Pittsburgh as teenagers and Mary found work as a cook, possibly in a hotel restaurant. She must have learned well because she was known to be an excellent cook later in life.
John and Mary resided and presumably met on the southside of Pittsburgh - not far from the Pennsylvania & Lake Erie (P&LE) train station that is the modern-day Station Square complex - under unknown circumstances. Mary once said she had several boyfriends while in Pittsburgh, but John was the only one that did not drink alcohol to excess.
John paid $.50 for a marriage application on February 2, 1901, when Mary was six months pregnant with their first child. Mary was eighteen years of age but lied on the marriage application to make herself appear to be four years older (she apparently would need extra documentation to get married if under age twenty-one). On the marriage application John listed both their addresses as #521 6th Street, Southside, Pittsburgh. They lived near and may have both attended St. John the Baptist Byzantine Church, just east of the Liberty Street Bridge and Liberty Tunnel.
They completed the application, but there is no record that they were ever married in St. John’s or the Allegheny County courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh. It appears likely that they never got married at all. Their first child, George LoPatka, was born in Pittsburgh on May 3, 1901.
John apparently had a good job as a laborer in Pittsburgh and Mary thought they should stay there. To her reluctance however, Mike Burik apparently convinced John to leave the city and move his family up north to Chewton. I am not sure where they initially lived in Chewton. At some point they took up residence in a house on Plum Way (now #169 Plum Way), a block off Reserve Square and right behind Robertson’s general store (later Kubinski’s store). This house was built in about 1900 and likely that John (or possibly Mike Burick) had this house built. I know that in June 1907 John bought a vacant lot on Plum Way from Mike Burik for $80. Perhaps this was an addition to the existing LaPatka property?
John worked various jobs, mainly as coal miner, but never had as good a job as the one in Pittsburgh. Mary stayed at home as a homemaker and many more kids followed. Anna in 1902, Mike in 1903, and John in 1904-05 (but died at birth), Mary in 1907, Joe in 1909, Frank in 1910, John in 1913, Steve in 1915, Andrew in 1916, and Pete in 1917 (but died at birth).
Meanwhile, in the interim, Mike LoPatka, known as “Uncle Mike,” arrived at the port of Baltimore, Maryland, in June 1906 and made his way to Chewton. Over the years he would live in various places in Chewton and Wampum.
Sometime during the timeframe 1913-1917 John rented out their house in Chewton and moved the whole family by train to Cleveland. It must have been the winter months because Mary said it was very cold in Cleveland. That’s where Anna LoPatka (either John’s sister or stepmother) was apparently living and later died. I have even heard that she committed suicide but can’t confirm this. It is known that most of the family went to Cleveland to attend her funeral at some point. Whether the move to Cleveland was actually before or after her death is unknown, but it was most likely prior to her death.
John found work in a Cleveland-area slaughterhouse. He did not enjoy his job and was put off by it. He said they put all the disgusting leftovers and scraps together to make lunchmeat. In the ensuing years John never ate processed meat again. Mary hated Cleveland and cried all the time. After only three months they packed up and moved back to their home in Chewton. Mary always said leaving Pittsburgh to return to Chewton was a terrible mistake, but moving to Cleveland was even worse.
Beginning in 1914 the monumental “Great War” (later known as World War I) raged across Europe, but the isolationist-minded United States managed to remain officially neutral for the time being. The LoPatka’s were potentially in a bad spot as their home country of Austria-Hungary joined ranks with Imperial Germany. People deemed as “enemy aliens” later came under the scrutiny and harassment of the federal government and the American public, but those of German descent bore the brunt of this harsh discrimination.
Sometime after war broke out the Reverend Frances A. Maloney, the pastor of St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Wampum, apparently convinced John LoPatka to change the spelling of the family surname to the more Americanized form of “LaPatka.” This was probably suggested as a way to distance the family from their native Austro-Hungarian homeland, which was aligned with Imperial Germany during the Great War. All the family members accepted this change except for son Frank, who kept the LoPatka name for the rest of his life.
In April 1917, prodded on by the threat of German U-boat (submarine) attacks off the Eastern Seaboard, the U.S. government was drawn in and declared war on Germany. Later that year, on December 7, the federal government also declared war on the LaPatka’s home country of Austria-Hungary. A military draft was now in the works but so far the LaPatka family was not affected.
On June 7, 1917, John and Mary purchased a 16-acre farm on the northern outskirts of Chewton (on Tony Dytko Road) from Philip and Elizabeth McConnell. I heard that they paid about $1,200 for the entire property, but that sounds like quite a bargain. The house sat in a peaceful valley, with a meandering stream, and at the foot of a series of large coal-bearing hills.
I think they may have rented out their home on Plum Way to Justyn and Mary Bozlinki, fellow immigrants from Austria-Hungary who had two small children at the time. I found a notice in the December 4, 1920, edition of the New Castle News referencing a realty transfer from John LaPatka to Justyn Bozlinki for $1,425. Perhaps they were initially renting the house to the Bozlinki family and later sold it to them outright? I do know that by 1930 the Bozlinski family (with five small children) had moved and were residing on a farm they owned in North Beaver Township.
In September 1918, when he was forty-five years old, John had to register for the military draft. Interestingly, a note on his draft registration card reads: “This man does not know his age, but he is sure he is between 18 and 46.” John took part in the third and final draft registration (held on September 12, 1918) and included all men up to age forty-six. John, probably too old anyway, was never called to service as hostilities in Europe came to a close in November 1918. His draft card also reveals he was employed as a laborer with the Standard Engineering Company in Ellwood City.
All was probably well during the post-war period. The Roaring Twenties was the era of the golden age of radio, Jazz music, Flappers, large dance halls, Art Deco, Model T’s, Prohibition, and a time of great economic prosperity. During this time five more kids were born out on the farm - Kay in 1920, Josie in 1922, Irene in 1923, and twins Pauline and Paul (he died a few months later) in 1924. Tragedy struck in August 1923, as son Mike, at age nineteen, died after falling and hitting his head during a fight with another boy.
George, the oldest son, was very shook up by Mike’s death and grew despondent. George had a genius IQ, but he withdrew from most interests, began to fight with his father a lot, and left home for good in about 1930 or so. He traveled the rails and simply wandered around taking in the sights. He would write a letter to his mom from time to time, but was unseen for many years.
The LaPatka family turned out to be the largest family in Chewton and the farmhouse was quite crowded. They built an addition on to the existing farmhouse and added a downstairs bathroom and a larger kitchen. They also had a small out building behind the main house where they cooked as well. No matter how many kids they had the family always made do. Mary has a great cook and the girls helped out in the kitchen. During the summer they often ate outside and entertained family and friends.
The good times of the 1920’s came to an end with the catastrophic Stock Market Crash of October 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, a long and painful period of economic decline. Between the Crash and the end of 1932 the income of the average American family was reduced by over 40%, from about $2,300 to $1,500. The national unemployment rate jumped to almost 25% in 1933 and those that still worked did so at reduced wages.
John Sr. worked for Cavert Wire Company in Ellwood City, dug coal from the nearby hills, and also sold strawberries (and other fruits and vegetables) the family grew on the farm. The family also tended to several cows and a bunch of chickens. The kids went to the Public Schools in Chewton and some went to high school in Ellwood City or Wampum. During the tough times of the 1930’s many students, including some of the LaPatka children, stopped going to school after the eighth grade so they could find work to help out their struggling families.
Eventually the LaPatka kids started growing up and moving on. Joe and Mary were both married in 1933-1934, and most of the other kids were married between the years 1939-1946. The other kids all settled nearby in the towns of Koppel, Ellwood City, Ellport, Wampum, or New Castle. Frank and Pauline were the lone holdouts at home. In 1937 the family also heard that son George, who had been wandering around the country, was being held at the Willard State Hospital in upstate New York, a mental institution where we would unfortunately be forced to spend most of his remaining years.
Meanwhile, as the 1940’s approached, the United States was once again immersed in isolationism and concerned with economic recovery at home. Things changed dramatically on December 7, 1941, when Japanese forces attacked the American military fortress in and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
During the American involvement in World War II (1941-1945), which saw the economy soar to record levels, Andrew served in the U.S. Army and most of the other LaPatka boys worked in local war industry factories. At the same time many of the local women, including some of the LaPatka girls, worked for Babcock & Wilcox (B&W) in Beaver Falls making steel tubes and other materials. The LaPatka family, although Andrew operated a tank in war-torn France and Germany, did not suffer the combat tragedies like so many other large families endured. The family did suffer a loss though as daughter Anna, who had just moved to Pittsburgh, died tragically (possibly committing suicide) in June 1943.
Back at the farm, Uncle Mike, who retired from working on the railroad in the mid-1940’s, took up residence in a small out building (the former kitchen shack) near the back of the main house. A few years later, in the spring of 1949, John Sr. was injured during an accident on the farm. He slipped off a horse buggy by the barn and fell. The horse lurched forward and pulled one of the heavy wagon wheels over his chest. He went to the old Ellwood City Hospital on Lawrence Avenue for treatment. It may have been during his visit - or soon after - that John found out that he had stomach cancer. The doctors told him there was little they could do for him.
He returned home and grew increasingly ill over the next few months. A doctor began treating him at home on a daily basis beginning on June 15. Not long after, on Friday, July 11, 1949, he stopped breathing and died in bed at 6:30am. His daughter Pauline heard him groan and was the first to check on him. His service was handled by Marshall Funeral Home in Wampum and a viewing was held at home. He was interred on Monday, July 14, in the St. Nicholas Orthodox Greek Catholic Cemetery in Slippery Rock Township just off Route 422 outside New Castle.
Mother Mary was in declining health herself. In December 1951, she injured her leg (possibly bursting a blood vessel) while walking down into cellar. Her leg was soon badly bruised and terribly swollen and she had to be hospitalized in the old Ellwood City Hospital. In addition to chronic high blood pressure she was diagnosed for the first time with an advanced case of diabetes. The untreated diabetes had greatly affected her lower left leg, and it may have been amputated (or was about to be) at this time. She had an oxygen tent over her bed at times and absolutely hated it. Her children visited her to boast her spirits but her condition was too much to overcome.
Mary died in the hospital at 6:00pm on Wednesday, February 6, 1952, at the age of sixty-nine. Marshall Funeral Home in Wampum handled the arrangements and a viewing was held at the family residence. The funeral service was held on Saturday, February 9, at St. Nicholas Orthodox Greek Catholic Church in New Castle, with the Reverend Stephen Kilcun presiding. Afterwards she was interred next to her husband in the St. Nicholas Cemetery. Later, their sons George, Joe, and Frank would also be buried alongside them. The LaPatka family purchased eight adjoining plots at the cemetery and three remain unused to this day.
Daughter Pauline moved out of the family home and Uncle Mike passed away in January 1954. Son Frank was granted ownership of the farm and continued to live there for most of his life. On January 19, 1979, a fire burned down the LaPatka home and Frank soon replaced it with a mobile home. Frank also sold off about six acres of land to a mining company for about $5,000. When Frank died in June 1994, Pauline sold the property the following December for $35,000 to Joann Kosior.
Our line of the LaPatka surname is doomed to die out at the current rate of reproduction. Of the thirteen children of John and Mary that survived infancy, they produced a total of only fourteen children of their own (and two of those died at infancy). Currently, three living male descendants - and only one being a great-grandson of John and Mary LaPatka - carry on the LaPatka surname.