LITTLE FALLS — In the late 1800s, economic conditions were dire in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where present day Slovakia was located. Production of handmade goods had significantly declined and manufacturing jobs were scarce. The only option left for many people, especially the younger generation, was to return to farming or immigrate to the new “promised land” called America.
It all started with a mistake. One of the first to leave Myjava, a small village of 10,000 people, was young Anna Mocko, who left for America in 1892 and settled on a farm near Minneapolis, Minnesota. Three years later, she decided to visit friends in Little Falls, New Jersey. The railroad agent in Minnesota mistook the “J” for a “Y” on her handwritten ticket, and sent Anna on her way to Little Falls, New York. It seems the “J” and “Y” is used interchangeably in Slovak.
Departing from the train in the right village but in the wrong state, Anna was puzzled when no one was there to meet her, and this coupled with the language barrier presented a major problem. Fortunately, Anna was befriended by the Little Falls ticket agent, George Boyle, who spoke a little German. Boyle was able to find a place for her to stay. Little Falls was about the same size as Myjava. Manufacturing jobs were plentiful and Anna quickly found employment in the mills. She also noticed that the hills and valleys surrounding her new home were delightfully similar to those around Myjava. She wrote glowing reports to her friends and relatives back home, and soon a few left for a new life in the new world and Little Falls.
First a trickle, and then a flood of people left the Myjava region. Although thousands of Slovaks left to be with relatives and friends in large cities like Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Chicago and New York City, the most important center for people from the Myjava region was the small town of Little Falls, New York! In fact, Little Falls was frequently called “Myjava in America” or the “Second Myjava.” Nearly one thousand people made the move from Myjava to Little Falls.
Stories abound about the lives of the early immigrants. In one instance, one man planted his crops in Myjava during the spring season, crossed the ocean to Little Falls and worked in the factories during the summer months, and then returned to Myjava for the fall harvest. Life was not always rosy for the Slovaks in Little Falls. The language barrier presented a major problem and the immigrants had to quickly master English. In Europe, they had lived under totalitarian regimes and they did not understand living in a democracy. This new found freedom presented its own problems. Working conditions in the many knitting mills were poor. Most of the young girls and women found employment in the mills as did some of the men. Other men worked on the railroad, in machine shops and on farms. The work was hard, the hours long (60-hour work week), and the pay low (8 to 10 cents per hour.) In spite of all of these hardships, the new settlers were eventually able to support their families, buy their own homes (mostly on Flint Avenue and Jefferson Street), and even send money back to relatives in Myjava. Old world debts were paid off, land repurchased and major improvements made to their old church in Myjava in the form of a new silver cross and altar pictures.
The Little Falls Slovaks, at first, tended to keep together, that is a community within a community. In 1911, they built their own place of worship on the South Side at a cost of $19,275 — the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. For years the services were in Slovak until 1937 when the first service in English was conducted. In 1996, the last Slovak language service was held. Three sons of the congregation have served in the ministry — Rev. John KIc, Rev. Andrew Brndjar and Rev. George Mocko, retired Bishop of Baltimore.
The Holy Trinity Cemetery sits on a hillside overlooking Little Falls and in it are buried many of the original immigrants from Myjava and their families — Babjar, Babuska, Bachorik, Brndjar, Buno, Chegren, DIhy, Dudik, Ferjanec, Gasper, Gavac, Greeny, Hmirak, Holick, Holovitz, Ivan, Juras, KIch, Klimacek, Klimek, Konenik, Krchniak, Krupa, Kuboviak, Lenarcic, Lizenbold, Majtan, Maytan, Michalec, Miko, Mizerak, Mocko, Mucica, Nemcek, Osley, Paracka, Prestopnik, Prochazka, Rohacek, Sadlon, Siegal, Sivak, Skandera, Slezak, Stefula, Stransky, Swancera, Talaba, Valach, Valo, Vanek, Vdoviak, Viskup, Vtabel, Walach, Zeman and Zemcik.
The Slovaks also formed social clubs (Slovak Protestant Union), groups for cultural and sports activities (Union of Physical Culture Sokol) and had their own newspaper and library at the Sokol Hall on Flint Avenue. The young gymnasts at the Sokol Hall were well renowned throughout the Mohawk Valley for their physical exercise skills. During this same time period, immigrants from various other eastern European countries arrived in Little Falls. They came from Italy, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Austria, but certainly not in large numbers from any one small locality. They too lived on the South Side.
In time, the various immigrant groups began to interface with each other especially in the factories, and in 1912 they banded together against management in the famous Little Falls Textile Strike.The newly opened YMCA (1916) offered a place for the youth of the community to play together and forge common bonds irrespective of national origin. As assimilation progressed and the ethnic groups intermarried, national identities began to blur. Within a generation or two, the descendants of the initial Slovak immigrants were assimilated. Many of the sons and grandsons of the first Slovak immigrants returned to Europe during World War I and World War II to fight against the countries of their parents’ birth. Some lost their lives.
Little Falls would be a much different place today if that unknown ticket agent in Minneapolis had made a “J” instead of a “Y.” The Slovaks came and made a great impact on our community.
To commemorate this seminal event in our history, the Little Falls Historical Society has arranged an exhibit at its museum concerning Myjava, Slovakia, and its relationship to Little Falls. A formal association was formed in 2014 when then Mayor Robert Peters of Little Falls and Mayor Pavel Halibran of Myjava signed proclamations joining the two communities as “sister cities.”