The Oravetz Family (Cambria County, Pennsylvania)



Joseph and Mary (Lelak) Oravetz and daughter, Margaret Ann (Oravetz) Rebar

    The family of Joseph and Mary (Lelak) Oravetz of Barnesboro, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, just like the Andrew Rebar family in Clearfield County, had its American roots in the rich coal fields of Western Pennsylvania. The mines that brought Joseph to Barnesboro in search of work are the same mines that ultimately drew my father, John S. Rebar, to Barnesboro some 15 years later. However, John was also attracted to the town because of several relatives he had living there: Mary (Kozak) Valco, Barney Valco's wife, was John's mother's sister; and Joseph Herpak, son of Peter and Anna (Kozak) Herpak, was his first cousin, as Anna was another of John's mother's sisters. The Rebars and Oravetzes did not originate in the same village in Slovakia, and they had little in common by way of family life experience, and the events that brought them together were not at all uncommon in turn-of-the-century Hungary. Once they reached America, their experience was not unlike that of the thousands of Slovaks who preceded them. They became part of an extended immigrant family in a corner of America's industrial heartland and became model citizens. However, the Oravetz and Lelak stories are a bit more convoluted than the Rebar tale, and they require a little more background information here.

Conditions in the "Old Country"

In the latter part of the 19th century in Northern Hungary, as Slovakia was called at the time, numerous forces were slowly grinding away at the economic and political stability that the Slovaks in the mountains and valleys surrounding Kosice had enjoyed for more than two centuries. In the mid-1860s, Hungary was given jurisdiction over Slovakia in the formation of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, and the process of denationalizing and assimilating the Slovaks began at a furious pace. How much this affected the Oravec family is a matter of speculation, but there is ample evidence in the stories passed down through the family that there was considerable enmity between my ancestors and the Hungarians. However, I do not believe that the Oravec family emigration, first to Hungary, and later to the United States, was motivated by anything other than economic reasons.

South and southwest of Kosice the land is agriculturally rich; the flat plains and hot summer temperatures are ideal for growing grains and sunflowers, and the angle of the sun on the rolling hills to the north of the flat land is perfect for growing grapes. Working the fields was the only life that the Rebars had known for centuries. The valleys are wide and stretch far into Hungary, but almost none of it was owned by the Rebars, Kozaks, and Herpaks. They were at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, farmer-peasants who owned little and much of whose time was, for all practical purposes, owned by the landowners. It is probably safe to say that their reasons for migrating were almost entirely economic, for it gave them a chance to actually own land and a house, an opportunity most of them would not have had in Slovakia.

The First Migration

The rail line from Kosice to Miskolc, Hungary, had been laid in the 1840s, and was followed a few years later by the line that ran north from Miskolc deep into present-day Slovakia. North of Miskolc in Slovakia are the grapevines, and north of the vineyards are the Rudohorie, the Iron Mountains, that had produced the precious metals that had made this a major trade route for centuries. When the gold and silver ran out, there was still plenty of iron ore and copper here to keep the work booming for several more centuries in the foundaries in the Rudohorie region itself and in the towns and cities supplied by the rail lines. But the ore eventually ran out, too, and the people in towns like Smolnik, Zakarovce, and Opatka, who had mined the ores and worked in the foundaries for generations, suddenly found themselves without jobs in the 1870s and 1880s, so they moved south, to places with strange-sounding names like Diosgyor and Pereces, where the factories and mines were still producing, and where there were plenty of jobs.

In Diosgyor and Pereces, the other half of my family history unfolds. When the ore ran out in the mines around Smolnik, Slovakia, the able-bodied men one-by-one began to move south to industrial Pereces, near Miskolc, Hungary, where there was plenty of work for a strong back. In looking at the Roman Catholic parish records of births, marriages and deaths for the main parish at Diosgyor, it seems as though entire villages went south, beginning with a recession in the 1870s, the exodus lasting well into the first decade of the 19th century. It was under these circumstances that Gaspar Mathias and Theresia (Majdik) Mihalik moved with the youngest of their eight children in the late 1870s from Smolnik to Pereces.

In about 1881, Gaspar's and Theresia's daughter, Josepha, met and married Matyas Lelak, a young man two years her junior who had himself emigrated to Pereces from Zakarovce, a town barely 18 miles up the main highway from Smolnik, in search of work. Life for Matyas and Josepha was not easy; their first child, Maria Josefina, died of scarlet fever when she was only three and a half years old. Their next child, Maria, my maternal grandmother, was christened with one of the names of her dead sister, while the other name was eventually given to another sister, Josephine "Pepi" (Lelak) Herpak, my great aunt. In all, four of the Lelak children survived the many diseases that thrived in the crowded work camps of late 19th century Hungary. According to family lore, Josepha herself died from an injury she sustained while lifting heavy, wet carpets that she had just washed at the stream in Pereces. I do not know the year that she died, but it was before my grandmother emigrated to America in 1908.

In the same village of Pereces there lived a man named Janos Oravecz. Both he and his wife, Etel (Soltesz) Oravecz, had been born in Opatka, Slovakia. Janos had gone to Pereces sometime around 1890 to work, and he returned briefly in 1894 to marry Etel, whom he took back to Pereces. Sometime probably late in the 1890s, Janos' brother, Jozsef, came to work in Pereces as well, probably staying with Janos and his family.

To the New World

It was in Pereces that Jozsef met Maria Lelak, probably in about 1905 or 1906. They decided to marry, but not until Jozsef was financially capable of supporting a family. Jozsef's brother, Sandor, had emigrated to the United States a few years earlier, and Jozsef and Maria gambled that the New World would give them the financial stability they probably would never know if they remained in Hungary. And so, on an early Winter day in 1906, Jozsef boarded a train in Miskolc and made the journey through Budapest and then southwest to Fiume on the Adriatic (now Rijeka, Croatia), where the S.S. Ultonia of the Cunard Line was waiting to take him to the New World.

Jozsef Oravetz arrived in New York City on January 5th, 1907, just two days shy of his 26th birthday. After clearing the immigration hurdles at Ellis Island, he took a ferry to the city and boarded probably the first available train for Graceton, Pennsylvania, where his brother, Sandor, was living with his wife, Elizabeth (Javorszky). Sandor worked in the coal mine and got Jozsef a job there; workers were always in short supply, and it did not matter that Jozsef spoke no English, as nearly all the miners were foreigners, and the Slovaks worked together.

The pay at the Graceton mine was good, and Joseph (as he now preferred to spell his name) was quickly able to pay back the money he owed his brother for his passage. By carefully watching what he spent, he managed also to save enough money to send for Maria a mere 15 months or so after his own arrival. Barely 20 years old, she took a train in late September or early October 1908 and travelled to Bremen, where she boarded the S.S.

Friedrich der Grosse, leaving behind her father and three sisters; two of her sisters, Josephine and Margaret, would follow her several years later, but it was the last time she ever saw her father. It is not known if her sister, Gizela, was still alive at that time, but her memory was preserved later by Josephine (Lelak) Herpak, who named her only daughter, Gizela (Herpak) Prusak, in her sister's memory.

There is a somewhat painful story associated with the arrival of Maria Lelak in the United States. Maria arrived in New York on October 14, 1909, and she lived with Joseph for several months at Sandor's and Elizabeth's house. During the months that he worked in the mines he managed to save enough for Maria's passage to America, and he also accumulated enough money to get married and set up house as soon as she arrived. Under mysterious circumstances, all the money was stolen from its hiding place, thus forcing them to postpone their marriage and prolonging their stay at Sandor's and Elizabeth's house. Joseph and Maria moved to Barnesboro in the early months of 1909 where they were married on March 31, 1909. Maria was already five months pregnant with my mother, Margaret Ann (Oravetz) Rebar, on her wedding day.

Last Updated: April 28, 2010