Hungarian immigrants were drawn to the tobacco districts of Southern Ontario during the great depression, when industrial jobs in the urban centres of the province became scarce. Because many of the immigrants were agricultural labourers in Hungary, they quickly acquired the skills needed to farm tobacco and stayed on when economic conditions improved. They began as day labourers, then became share croppers and, eventually after much saving and hard work, managed to purchase their own farms. Nearly two decades passed before these Hungarians established themselves in the area, and it was only after the Second World War that the work of building Community Centres and Churches was initiated.
The Delhi Tobacco District Hungarian House, dedicated on May, 15th, 1949 was the first community project completed. The House was the largest and most impressive Hungarian Cultural Centre, not only in the tobacco district, but in the Hungarian Diaspora. The organizational work that preceded the building of the centre was begun on January, 28th, 1947, and initiated by Paul Rapai, a local tobacco farmer and businessman who came to the tobacco district in 1931.
Paul Rapai organized both the fundraising for and building of the centre. He was its first president and served in this capacity several more times during the twenty year history of the institution. He still maintains close contact with the leadership of the Hungarian house and is generally regarded as an important advisor.
By 1933, Rapai was already well established in the community. He put an advertisement in the Kanadai Magyar Újság (Canadian Hungarian News) urging all unemployed Hungarians to come to the Tobacco District for seasonal work. One thousand Hungarians came by foot, automobile, by any means available, in response to the advertisement. There we so many workers that they had to be encamped in nearby woods. Food was provided by the townspeople with some help from the government. Numerous disruptive incidents took place as the large group was initially idle, waiting for the work to begin. Rapai was usually called in to settle the differences and act as peacemaker. When the time for the tobacco harvest arrived, however, everyone was employed by local farmers.
Rapai acted as community representative in dealing with the government, both on the Federal and Provincial levels. He was well known and trusted both by the community and Canadian Government officials. Following the Second World War, when the number of immigrants a Canadian Citizen could sponsor was limited, Rapai was allowed to sponsor an unlimited number. In all he sponsored 338 Hungarians displaced persons.
In 1946 sixteen Hungarian Canadian community leaders from across the country were invited to a special meeting in Ottawa. The participants were not told the proposed topic of the meeting, only that it was the utmost importance to Hungarians in Canada. Rapai was one of the eight who attended. The meeting was addressed by the immigration minister, who requested that each of the community leaders organize, with the help of the community, religious and social institutions for Hungarian Canadians. The minister further explained that Hungarians generally had the reputation for being “RED” agitators, and despite the fact that the majority of Hungarian immigrants were not involved in such activities, the Canadian public believed that this was in fact the case. According to Rapai, the meeting in Ottawa was one of the many incidents that led him to establish the Delhi Hungarian House.
During the 1940's, there was a very sizable Hungarian population in the tobacco district. the need for a place to meet with each other was there. No place was available for big wedding receptions, formal balls, or other shows. While looking for some solutions, they looked at the Hungarian House in Toronto and seemed to have an answer. There was a Hungarian House for social and cultural purposes. Long and exhausting discussions were the order of the day all over the tobacco district. The debates were mostly of a dream - How can we build our own house? Finally on the 17th of Febrary, 1947, the following Hungarians gathered together in the office of Mr. Rapai:
Pal Rapai, Gyorgi Putoczki, Vilmos Szenasi, Joszef Varga
Peter Erdelyi, Jozsef Rapchak, Janos Hasilo, Laszlo Borbely
Lajos Virag, Istvan Kovacs, Pal Gomori, Adam Gehring
Istvan Tiboldy, Endre Hertelendy
They elected Mr. Rapai to conduct the business of the day and Mr. Hertelendy to record the minutes. The decided to build their own House and for this purpose they called a general meeting for all Hungarians of the tobacco district
On the 24th of February, the Tobacco District Hungarian House officially was born in the Town Hall. By secret ballot, they elected the following board:
President: Pal Rapai Controllers: Jozsef Varga
Vice President: Gyorgy Putoczky Gyorgy Gyulveszi
Secretary: Vilmos Szenasi Jozsef Rapchak
Treasurer: Peter Erdelyi Janos Hasilo
Recording Secretary: Endre Hertelendy
Organizing Committee: Gyorgy Bakos
They decided to write their own bylaws and historical minutes were verified by Mr. J. Toth and Mr. J. Borda. With this resolution, the life of the Tobacco District Hungarian House began.
On the 18th of March, in the presence of Mr. J. Hanselman, the Reeve of Delhi, the new bylaw was accepted. From this day onward, everything progressed quickly. There was just a scarcity of money. But this did not hinder anything On the 24th of April, the Ladies Aid organized themselves with the following board:
President: Mrs. Erdelyi Controllers: Mrs. Rapai
Vice President: Mrs. Babanecz Mrs. Nagy
Secretary: Mrs. Hasilo Mrs. Kohajda
Treasurer: Mrs. Varga Mrs. Gehring
Recording Secretary: Mrs. Bukta
Now everything was ready, but the house itself was still a vision. They needed money, and lots of it. At the meeting on the 11th day of May, the following members volunteered to go around and solicit funds.
Gy. Bakos, B. Klein, K. Nagy, J. Hasilo, J. Cservik
A. Radocz, Gy. Gyulveszi, S. More, J. Vinnai, A. Kohajda
J. Varga, V. Szenasi, Gy. Putoczki, P. Rapai, M. Hasilo
At a meeting on the 25th of May, Mr. Bakos offered his place as a picnic site. In June, without any ceremony, the construction of the House started.
After so much volunteer work and overcoming so many obstacles, Rev. Jeno Ruzsa, Presbyterian minister from Hamilton, dedicated the Tobacco District Hungarian House during a regular worship service held in the House itself.
Social gatherings, formal balls, and other shows made life of the Hungarians in the tobacco district more meaningful.
The officers of Delhi Township officially declared the dedication and opening day of the Hungarian House on May 15, 1949 as Hungarian day.
In 1966, the whole basement was altered and a bar installed. In 1967 the building was given a completely new roof and in 1968 the great hall was renovated; the apartment became a reality on the second floor and a modern automatic bowling alley was added as a new attraction. In 1970 the entrance and basement received their present appearance.
The Delhi Hungarian House is now one of the wealthiest Hungarian Canadian institutions. Since the mortgage was amortized, three surrounding lots have been purchased for parking, and plans for renovating and expanding the house have been initiated. On the local level, the house sponsors a soccer team, a figure skating team, and a hockey team. When disaster strikes, such as the hurricane which devastated the area near Delhi in 1979, the Hungarian House is among the first community institutions to contribute to the relief efforts.
The House maintains contact with Hungarian Canadian umbrella organizations, as well as with other Hungarian community institutions in southern Ontario. When the Hungarian-Canadian Cultural Centre – Hungarian House was purchased in Toronto in 1974, the Delhi Hungarian House became a founding member. The anniversary of the institution, held each year on or around May 15th, is commemorated with elaborate festivities. Prominent Hungarian Canadian and Hungarian American community leaders are invited as guest speakers.
The women’s group, active since the establishment of the house, is largely responsible for the debt-free status of the institution. It has a separate constitution and by-laws, which state that the group is obliged to donate all its income towards furnishings and decorating the Hungarian House.
The make-up of the membership according to period of emigration is: half are Hungarians who immigrated to Canada during the post First World War years; the other half are refugees of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.
With the respect to the future of Hungarian community institutions in the tobacco district, Rapai believes that the Hungarian churches will probably outlive the Hungarian House. He explains that the churches have a religious affiliation in addition to an ethnic affiliation. Rapai believes this despite the fact that the Hungarian House presently has more members than the combined membership of all three local Hungarian religious institutions.
During the last quarter century, the House was constantly beautified and modernized. Constantly changing conditions demanded these improvements. The air conditioning was installed in 1974, and the following year new washrooms were built. In 1998, the bowling lanes were removed and the basement completely renovated with a large meeting room added. At the same time, the large hall upstairs was renovated. In 1974, the west wall had to be completely torn down and rebuilt.
Over time, the increased requirements for additional parking became evident. Two nearby houses were purchased and their yards converted to parking lots. In 1995, with more parking required, those properties were sold and the property behind the Hall was purchased, the house there sold and the yard converted to more parking. In anticipation of building a new Hungarian House, in 1977, 4 acres in a nearby industrial park was purchased for future new construction.
It was imperative that the House be properly maintained as it is still the focal point for Hungarians in the tobacco district. It is here that out national celebrations are held (March 15th, October, 6th, October, 23rd) when the three Hungarian churches and the Szekely Hungarian Association together organize programs. But even today, a male chorus led by Oscar Bartha had people moving their feet in rhythm to old military and soldier tunes.
As well, on the first Saturday in December, The Hunter's Society has its annual Hunter's Ball which completely fills the House. At this meal, guests are thoroughly satiated with a feast consisting of moose, venison, and bear meat. Proceeds from this banquet are donated to the House.
Since 1957, Hungarian connections have also been maintained by the production of the Hungarian Radio Hour transmitted weekly from Tillsonburg. Hungarian music, local news, events, and personal greetings are conveyed on this show.
Up until the 1960's, Mother's Day and Christmas programs had been presented in conjunction with the local churches. Since 1970, the annual shareholder's supper is one of the most important events in the House. From this date, the Ladies Aid has organized the annual Christmas Party. Since 1969, Santa Claus has also been making an appearance much to the children's delight. 1968 saw the formation of the bowling league with organized competitions until 1996. In 1954, the House purchased a site on the outskirts of town where they held their annual picnics in May and July. This is also where tobacco workers were hired for planting and harvesting.
Outside of these events, there have been innumerable other programs held. For example, folk and ballroom dancing was taught here; in 1970 a chess tournament; an embroidery and needlework display organized by Helen Ventin; the Katalin Ball in 1970, a formal affair where debutantes made their debut and is still considered one of the prominent events in the tobacco district. In 1966 saw the 10th Anniversary of the 1956 revolution and supported by the three churches and Szekly Association, a memorial was erected in Delhi's Hero Park. The speaker of honour at the subsequent banquet was Norfolk County Judge Brickenden. In 1971, the House has been a major organizer and participant of the Delhi Harvest Festival.
The House's leadership also maintained an annual anniversary of the building's founding. Efforts were made to ensure that this event was unique and guest speakers not only addressed the district's Hungarians, but those all through Ontario. Some notable speakers were:
- Forenc Nagy, past Prime Minister of Hungary
- Dr. Sandor Kiss, past president of Hungarian Peasant Society and past member of Hungarian Parliament
- Imre Kovacs, past member of Hungarian Parliament and past general secretary of the Hungarian Peasant Party
- Dr. Kalman Kulcsar Hungarian ambassador to Canada
- Karoly Gedai, Hungarian ambassador to Canada
- Lajos Illich, Hungarian general consul in Toronto
- Pal Simak, Toronto Consul - Commerce representative of Hungary
- Dr. Gyorgy Nagy, President of Toronto Hungarian House
- Father Istvan Bodnar, priest at St. George’s Greek Catholic church, Courtland
- Miklos Mezes, past member of Hungarian Parliament, Niagara Falls
- Ference Felkai, Q.C., lawyer from Toronto
- Tamas Wappel, MP from Scarborough
- Rev. Pal Kantor, Calvin Presbyterian Church, Delhi
- Dr. Laszlo Pandy-Szekeres retired Presbyterian minister, Delhi
- Lados Anthony, lawyer from Simcoe
- Mihaly Csaba, President of Ontario Dairy Association
The Tobacco District Hungarian House was not solely involved with Hungarian life but was and still is an active participant in municipal and other local events. Scholarships are awarded to deserving secondary school students in Delhi, Valley Heights (Langton), Simcoe Composite and Tillsonburg Glendale. Up until 1996, it sponsored a team in the local Youth Soccer League, and presently sponsors a team in the Youth Hockey League. It is a proud supporter of Norfolk General Hospital in Simcoe and the Delhi Tobacco Museum and Heritage Centre. The House also was a key fund raiser in the establishment of a Hungarian chair at the University of Toronto. As well, from 1960 to 1993, in association with Delhi District Secondary School, Hungarian school and credit courses were organized by Mrs. Alfred Laszlo Pandy, Mrs. Alfred Kaman, Mrs. Everard Austin and Mrs. Carlos Ventin.
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CANADA TOBACCO DISTRICT HUNGARIAN HOUSE
71 King St. Delhi, Ontario, Canada