ALBANY — Ivan Bencsek, of Slidell, joined the Hungarian community Friday during a fundraiser to help the Hungarian Settlement Historical Society continue to raise money to complete the Hungarian Settlement Museum.
Museum organizers sold pulled-pork dinners to raise funds to combine with grant money to complete the museum’s renovations.
Bencsek, a Hungarian immigrant, came to the United States following the 1956 uprising against Russian occupation, he said.
He, like others in Russian-occupied Hungary, wanted to “become part of the free world,” he said.
“Those of us vocal about communism and enthusiastic about the uprising would have been facing imprisonment or execution,” Bencsek said.
He first went to Austria before coming to America when he was 17 years old, he said.
“I made the right move coming over here,” Bencsek said. “This is the greatest country on earth.”
As he looked at the museum, Bencsek paused before talking about the start of the Hungarian Settlement in Albany and Springfield.
“It’s got the rich history going back to 1880-something,” Bencsek said of the Albany-Springfield area where the museum is located.
Bencsek said that at the time, Hungarians received 20 acres free when they came to America. Many of them began to farm and their main crop was strawberries.
On Friday, many Hungarians who had come to the area years ago, and their families, viewed the progress on the building, which has already undergone extensive renovations.
“It’s going to mean a lot to the people in this area,” Parish Councilman Delos Blackwell said. “We want to keep the history going.”
Blackwell, whose wife Trudy is Hungarian, said he believes the museum will help draw new businesses to the district.
“This building right here means a lot to people,” Blackwell said.
The Hungarian Settlement received its first school in about 1920, Hungarian Settlement Historical Society president Alex Kropog said.
That building, however, burned during the 1927-28 school year. In April 1928, a delegation from Hungarian Settlement asked the Livingston Parish School Board for a new school.
In November 1928, the School Board moved a no-longer-used building in Springfield to Hungarian Settlement, Kropog said.
The school building could not be easily moved in its entirety, so it had to be divided into sections to allow it to move over the narrow roadway. The largest segment was moved first.
With a system of pulleys, blocks and tackles, cables and ropes attached to the building section, oxen walked in a circle around a drum, tightening the ropes and chains, to move the building.
Logs were placed under the building to act as wheels. The moving process took three weeks, Kropog said.
From 1928 to 1943, the school was the main educational facility for the children living in Hungarian Settlement, according to information provided by the Hungarian Settlement Historical Society.
The nearest other schools were in Albany and Springfield. Some children went to those “regular” schools, but the vast majority were educated in the Hungarian School, which included first through seventh grades where many Hungarian children learned English.
Upon graduation, students then went to Albany or Springfield for high school.
In 1943, the Livingston Parish School Board closed the Hungarian school. From 1944 to 1976, the building served as Our Home nursing home. For the next 24 years, the building sat abandoned.
In 2000, the Hungarian Settlement Historical Society signed a 50-year lease with the School Board so it could renovate the building into a Hungarian museum, Kropog said.
Organizers netted more than $2,600 on Friday to help keep the project moving forward.
Inside the museum, workers were completing phase one of the multiphase project and were in the process of sanding the original pine floors located in one of the largest areas of the building.
While Kropog learned he would receive a $170,000 Capital Outlay grant from the state, he must reapply for the money before Thursday.
He also submitted a LAGAP grant for $20,000 in August and expects to hear the fate of that money in the spring, he said.
Work on phase two of the project will include restrooms, a meeting room and additional exhibit space, Kropog said.
“I just hope somebody wins the lottery so they could write a big check so we can finish the damn thing,” Bencsek said laughing.
Tax-deductible donations can be made to Hungarian Settlement Historical Society and mailed to P.O. Box 1909, Albany, LA 70711. All donations will be used for the restoration project. Donations to the museum restoration fund are tax-exempt.