Walled City

 

 
 
This article appeared in the Journal Herald on March 24, 1979
 
Hired to build railway cars, the immigrants lived, shopped, played in their own little . . .
WALLED CITY
By Barbara Fraser
 
     A war was fought in Dayton in the first decade of this century.
    The battlegrounds were the city’s newspapers, and the issue was a small ethnic community just outside the city’s northern boundaries.
     The community was one of Hungarians, about 500 people in all. They were not different from other immigrants in Dayton or America, but one thing attracted attention to them: Their homes were surrounded by a 12-foot wooden wall.
     The area, which covered 12-14 acres just off Leo Street, was called the Kossuth Colony, after Hungarian liberator Louis Kossuth.  It was the brainchild of the directors of the Barney & Smith Car Co., manufacturers of railroad and trolley cars.
     THE COMPANY, located at Keowee and Monument streets, had its heyday in the mid-1800s, when ornate passenger dining and club cars were in great demand.  Eliam Barney and Preserved Smith were capable businessmen who expanded their operations to meet the demand for the products of their master craftsmen.
     But, sales dropped during the depression of the 1890s, and, although the company switched to building traction and trolley cars, its fortunes were waning.
     After 1900, more and more railroad companies replaced wooden cars with steel cars, but Barney & Smith was slow to meet the challenge.  The company declined financially during the first decade of this century, limped through the war years, went into receivership and finally was dissolved in 1926.
     IN 1905, Barney & Smith decided to build facilities for building steel railway cars.  While the change came too late for the company to be a dominant force in the field, the decision was to make a significant mark on Dayton’s social history.
     The change to steel railroad car manufacturing created a need for more unskilled laborers, but Dayton’s unemployment rate at the time was low.
     So, Barney & Smith looked to immigrants to fill the need for more workers.  And, like other manufacturers, the company hired a foreign-labor agent to recruit employees.
     The agent’s name was Jacob Doffee Moscowitz.
     MOSCOWITZ WAS born in Hungary March 12, 1867, and came to America July 1, 1884.  His family settled in Maine, moved to Pennsylvania, then returned to Maine.  Moscowitz moved to Dayton in 1899.
     By the time he was hired by Barney & Smith, Moscowitz had considerable experience in recruiting foreign laborers.  He had settled some in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining region and on Dayton’s West Side, where he worked as a foreign-labor agent for the Dayton Malleable Iron Co.
     Moscowitz went to work for Barney & Smith in 1906, using his contacts in Hungary, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to bring workers to Dayton.  Other immigrants seeking work were drawn to the area by advertisements in Hungarian-language newspapers.
     Barney & Smith formed the Dayton Realty Co., which built 40 houses just north of the Dayton city limits for the laborers whom Moscowitz recruited.
     THE SETTLEMENT included a large building at the corner of Mack and Notre Dame avenues, which contained Moscowitz’ offices, a saloon, a second-story dance floor, a grocery store, dry goods store and butcher shop and, in the basement, an ice storage room.
     All adult men in the settlement had to be employed at the car works.  If a man was fired, he usually was forced to leave the colony.  And, residents had to make all their purchases at the colony store.
     “That was one condition,” said Mrs. Ethel Dely, who lives on Mack Avenue.  Her family came to America from Budapest when she was 4 and moved to Dayton in 1908, when she was 7.    
     “You were brought here, and you got a job and you had a chance to rent a house, and you had to buy everything (at the store).  Most of the people were satisfied with that because they were new people, and most of them probably wouldn’t have known how to go to town to shop.”
     BUT THAT RULE was broken occasionally.  The first infractor was a woman who had found a hole in the fence.
     “Well, one day she went out,” Mrs. Dely said, “and she got the groceries from Troy Street.  She was coming home and pushed the fence in – and there stands Mr. Moskowitz.  And she had to move.  He (the woman’s husband) lost his job.  She was the first one that went out.  She was braver than the rest.”
     There was plenty of activity in the colony.  The second floor of the office-store building was a much-used dance hall.  “And in the evening after the dishes and everything was done,” Mrs. Dely said, “you’d go and sit out on the front porch and someone would start singing.  You should have heard them – singing all over.”
     THE WOODEN fence is gone now but the houses and part of the store building remain.  The houses, on Mack and Notre Dame avenues and Baltimore Street, were nominated last summer to the National Register of Historic Places, and Montgomery County Historical Society officials believe approval is almost certain.
     The houses cost $800 apiece to build, according to news stories of the day, while the store building cost $35,000.  The average wage in the colony was $9 a week, and the houses rented for $12 a month.
     “The wages were very low,” Mrs. Dely said.  “Of course, you could buy a lot for that money, too.”
     The settlement included 30 two-story double houses and 10 cottages.  Each side of each double house had five rooms, three downstairs and two upstairs.  At night, the dining room, the center room downstairs, became a bedroom for the head of the household, while his family slept in the front room.  Boarders lived in the upstairs rooms.
     “You had to keep boarders,” Mrs. Dely said.  Usually the boarders were single men or married men whose families were still in Europe.  “They’d come to work and then they’d send for their families, or some of them went back to Europe after they saved their money.”
     SHORTLY AFTER it was built, the colony sparked a heated public debate which was reflected in the newspapers.  The Dayton Journal and Dayton Herald saw little objectionable about the colony, but the Dayton Daily News considered it a wrong to be righted.
     In its first Sunday edition, May 19, 1907, the Journal, in a long feature story, called the colony “one of the great institutions of the city of Dayton,” and said it was the best of that kind of ethnic settlement in the United States.
     The News published a story about life in the colony on Saturday, July 21, 1906.  The reporter had visited the colony on a payday and described the Hungarian men lining up at the colony office to receive their paychecks, which were cashed in American money.
     The money then was exchanged for “Moscowitz brass,” coins which were good only in the colony store.  The use of scrip was one of Moscowitz’ ways of discouraging colonists from making purchases outside the colony.
     The writer also had visited the colony’s butcher shop, where soup meat sold for 6 cents a pound, rib roast and round steak for 10 cents a pound and Porterhouse for 12 cents.
     ON MONDAY, July 23, however, the News abandoned its passive description of the colony, claiming its initial story had sparked a public outcry.  The paper pledged to seek “reforms,” and told of a “dangerous Hungarian” who had been arrested for carrying concealed weapons – a “slingshot” and a heavy, metal ball.
     The next day, the News revealed that Moscowitz allowed slot machines --  “the worst form of gambling” – in the colony, and hinted that several local officials were reaping profits from the machines.
     The slot machines were removed the following day, according to the paper, which carried a story headlined, “Daily News Already Has Done the Hungarian Colonists a Good turn.”
     That day’s paper carried a strong attack on Moscowitz, whom it called the “Czar of Little Hungary.”  It criticized Moscowitz, who often arranged immigrants’ passage from Hungry to America, for taking a percentage for himself.
     The News said it did not want the “stockade” – which the Herald and Journal had  called a “necessary evil” – become “a stench in the nostrils of the city.”
     Paul Kelemen, a Washington Twp. resident whose family arrived in America from Hungary in 1921, saw the self-contained community as a response to language and cultural barriers.  The wall, with its guarded gate, kept intruders from taking advantage of the colonists, he said.
     Andrew Nagy, the son of Hungarian immigrants and a former chairman of the Hungarian Festival Committee which coordinates Hungarian participation in Dayton’s annual international festival, had a different interpretation.
     “If I were in a country, and I didn’t speak the language,” he said, “they would say to me, ‘You work here.  To get there, you go down two blocks and over two blocks.  To get home, retrace your steps.’
    “If I went out of that four block area, I’d be lost.  The colony did the same thing” for the Hungarian immigrants, he said.  It was a secure home in a strange land.
     TO MRS. DELY, the wall was a fact of life.
     “They had the fence and they had police protection,” she said.  “And there was a shack built there by the gate –a big gate – and they opened that up in the morning and let them out for work, and the children were allowed to go to school and come home for lunch.  But there was a curfew in the evening and the gates were locked.”
     Much of the controversy surrounding the Kossuth Colony centered on Moscowitz.  Some called him a tyrant while others considered him a benefactor.
     “We knew (Moscowitz) very well,” Mrs. Dely said.  “Some people claim he was hard.   To us, well, we knew him since the beginning.  He was always nice to us.  He used to come to collect the rent.  Mom told him --she was a good cook -- sometimes, if she had something, she’d say, ‘Sit down, Mr. Moscowitz and have a cup of coffee.’  And he liked to talk, he knew us such a long time and he never did anything against us.  He was nice to us.  I can’t say a thing against him.”
     THE KOSSUTH Colony did not have a long life.  As the fortunes of the Barney & Smith Car Works declined, more and more colonists were forced to find work elsewhere.  The 1913 flood crippled the car works.
     While the flood did not damage any houses in the colony, it did change the face of the settlement: The wall came down.
     “They took the fences off in 1913,” Mrs. Dely said.  “They used them for rafts.”  Once the barrier was gone, residents were free to come and go as they pleased and shop where they chose.  Some moved out of the colony, but as soon as the houses were empty, they were rented again.
     The Kossuth Colony as the first residents knew it is no more.  The houses remain and some still have neat gardens, but the picket fences which once lined the sidewalk are gone.
     No signs of the once-controversial fence remain. Of those who settled in the colony in 1906, some have moved away, some have died.
     But their children remember.  Some second-and third generation Hungarian-Americans are returning to the colony, Nagy said, buying houses and renovating them so they can preserve a piece of their heritage.
     In that way, the Kossuth Colony remains a link between past and present in Dayton.