The Mártons: From Transylvania to West Virginia

Posted by | January 6, 2015

Lou MartinPlease welcome guest author Lou Martin.  Dr. Martin is Chair and Assistant Professor of History at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and his research focuses on rural-industrial workers in Appalachia.  In 2006, his aunt, Elizabeth Brown, invited him and his wife on a journey to Lövéte, Romania, his grandfather’s birthplace.  He says, “I’m really fortunate that my Aunt Liz took an interest in our family’s history and preserved so many documents and stories.  She also helped me a lot with this essay.”


Lajos Márton and Istvan György left their village in Transylvania and arrived in America on January 28, 1907 with plans to go to Portsmouth, Ohio. They were 17 years old. They got jobs mining coal and, in 1912, returned one last time to Transylvania, to Lövéte, a small peasant village in the Harghita province. When they left the village in 1914, they brought their wives Anna Márton and Julia György with them.

Anna held a one-year-old boy, Lajos Jakab Jr., in her arms. Her three-year-old daughter Anna—born in 1911 when her husband was in America—they left behind to live with the little girl’s grandmother. The two families made their way back to Beech Bottom in northern West Virginia where they would work for the Windsor Mining Company and live in company houses that faced the Ohio River.

Lajos and Anna Márton were my great-grandparents, and they were among thousands of ethnic Hungarians who left Transylvania in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and found work in the coal mines of northern and central Appalachia. In the early 1900s, Transylvania was the eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the 1920 Treaty of Trianon led to what Hungarian nationalists sometimes refer to as the “dismemberment of Hungary.”

Modern day Lövéte seen in 2006. Photo courtesy the author.

Modern day Lövéte (Lueta) seen in 2006. Photo courtesy the author.


After the Treaty, Transylvania became a district of Romania. In fact, “Transylvania” is an English derivative of the Romanian name for the region. Hungarians call it Erdély. The Carpathian Mountain Range that encircles the region reaches an altitude of 8,000 feet, while the central plateau is around 1,200 feet. Several ethnic groups lived there. In 1919, the largest groups were Romanians at 1.5 million, Magyars or Hungarians at 920 thousand, and Germans or Saxons with 234 thousand people. Some parts of Transylvania were (and still are) ethnically and linguistically mixed, but villages tended to be almost entirely one ethnic group or another.

Most Transylvanians lived in villages with populations of 1,000 or fewer, and the largest city was Kolozsvár with a population of about sixty thousand.[1] The Hungarians of Harghita are actually an ethnic subgroup known as the Székely who are clustered in central Transylvania and often considered separate from the Magyars, but many modern scholars as well as U.S. Census takers made no such distinction often referring to all Hungarians as Magyars.[2]

Economic changes in the late 1800s and early 1900s spurred a massive outmigration from Transylvania. Like most of central Europe, Transylvania’s economy depended on the production of grains, but because of its mountainous terrain, only 30 percent of the land was “under cultivation” and famers’ yields of corn and wheat were far lower per acre than the rest of Hungary.[3] Industrialists saw an opportunity in the region and, in 1870, built the first rail line to the district of Hunyad, an area known for its coal reserves.[4]

By 1912, more than 2,300 kilometers of railroads crisscrossed through the region, connecting the hinterland with Kolozsvár and Kolozsvár with major cities outside the region. While Transylvania remained largely agricultural, economic changes in the rest of the Austro-Hungarian Empire created new opportunities. Across the empire, the mechanization of farming, the concentration of land ownership, and the incorporation of peasants into the industrial workforce loosened their ties to their home villages and set them on a journey to find better wages and working conditions.[5]

A funeral in Wellsburg, just north of Beech Bottom, c. 1920s.  Anna and Lajos Marton are fifth and sixth from the left. Photo courtesy the author.

A funeral in Wellsburg, just north of Beech Bottom, c. 1920s. Anna and Lajos Marton are fifth and sixth from the left. Photo courtesy the author.


Those migrants hoping to maximize their wages did not settle permanently in Hungarian cities. A 1919 British report observed: “Hungary is a country of low wages and generally unsatisfactory conditions of labour, and Transylvania is among the worst districts in these respects.” Miners and metal workers were the “best paid,” but owners ignored regulations of industrial work resulting in dreadful working conditions.[6]

About 2.3 million migrants left the Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1899 and 1913, and 1.8 million of them entered the United States; obviously, not all from Transylvania. One study found that in 1905 and 1906, only one percent of the migrants were miners compared to 52 percent who were agricultural laborers, but mining had already become a way for peasants to earn money to buy land in their home village. Undoubtedly, many Hungarian migrants had the same goal when they entered the United States.[7]

Hungarians came to dominate the workforces of some mines. That was the case at the Y&O Mine—which was owned by the Youngstown & Ohio Railroad Company and located in Rayland, Ohio—across the river from Beech Bottom, West Virginia. The father of NFL great Lou Groza worked at that mine as did, I believe, my great-great uncle by marriage.[8]

Once they arrived in the coalfields, they were subject to many of the same working and living conditions that native coal miners faced, but some immigrant miners in the early 1900s also ended up in debt peonage. The most infamous case involved Italian miners on Cabin Creek in 1903, but a decade earlier, the Austro-Hungarian Consul investigated a case of debt peonage in McDowell County where some of his countrymen reported being held against their will.[9]

Lajos Márton's WWI registration card. Image courtesy the author.

Lajos Márton’s WWI registration card. Image courtesy the author.


In West Virginia, Hungarian miners face harsh living and working conditions. Conditions were extremely rugged in the town of Holden in the southern part of the state. Hungarian miners arrived shortly after the company had set up shop and spent the first six months building a road to the coal camp while their families lived in the wild. Local farmers brought their produce to camp to sell to miners after the road was completed, and living standards improved.

Good wages made these experiences tolerable for a time.[10] This was an era of especially dangerous conditions underground with headline-grabbing explosions at Monongah, Eccles, Layland, and Benwood that each claimed more than 100 lives. But accidents that claimed one or two lives or maimed a person for life were far more common. When Lou Groza was a child, his uncle Peter was injured when the Y&O mine caved in on him. Peter suffered brain damage and could not recognize Lou when he came to visit him in the hospital. This convinced Lou’s father to leave mining and get a job at the Laughlin steel mill in Martins Ferry, Ohio, located across the Ohio River from Wheeling.[11]

For coal industry officials, European immigrants, including Hungarians, played an important role in their labor strategy. Many sought what coal operator Justus Collins called a “judicious mixture” of nationalities and races. Hoping to create a Tower of Babel, operators recruited new immigrants whose languages and customs contrasted strongly with those of native white and African American miners. Divided by custom, language, race, and segregated housing, the workers would not—operators hoped—cooperate and form unions.[12]

Historian Mildred Beik found that by 1922, immigrant and native miners had overcome ethnic divisions to present a unified front to the operators. The UMWA called a national strike that year as coal operators attempted to roll back gains the union had made during World War I, and immigrant miners—including a sizable population of Magyars in Windber, Pennsylvania—joined the strike.

Anna, second from the right, back in Lövéte. Photo courtesy the author.

Anna, second from the right, back in Lövéte. Photo courtesy the author.


One investigation found that Magyars and Slovaks were among the most active participants of the strike.[13] This defied the “judicious mixture” strategy of operators as well as top union officials’ long-held belief that new immigrants did not make good “union men.”[14] In the end, the UMWA signed a contract nationally, but it did not include tens of thousands of miners who had not been covered by the 1919 contract, which included the miners of Windber.

Mary Illyes, whose husband was a Hungarian steelworker, remembered that in the 1930s, they would have dances where the band would play traditional czardas songs along with popular American songs. When the band took a break, she said, four or five men—who were drunk by this time—would ask the fiddler to play some special song. The men would sing along and by the end of it, with tears running down their faces, they would be transported from the tiny dance hall on the banks of the Ohio River back to their homeland.[15] Regardless of their original plans, many of the Hungarians who stayed in the US through the 1930s were here to stay.

Lajos Márton changed his name to Louis Martin. He and Anna had six children and moved across the river to Martins Ferry, Ohio, but their marriage was falling apart. The 1930 census shows that the so-called “illegitimate” daughter Anna had been reunited with the family and lists Louis’s occupation as “coal miner” and Anna’s as “restaurant proprietor.” According family memories, Louis had already left the mines and had become a bootlegger…and an alcoholic. Anna’s restaurant supported the family, but she divorced Louis in 1935 and left the country and her children in 1939 to return to Lovete. Louis spent his last years butchering chickens for the Feher Company, a Hungarian meatpacking company, and living in an apartment above the store.

Anna was stranded by the outbreak of World War II. Government records in Székelyudvarhely reveal that she married an ethnically Romanian man named Ioan Gidro in 1940. She remained in Transylvania after the Communist takeover of Romania. Her American citizenship lapsed but she returned to the United States in 1957 with the help of U.S. Congressperson Wayne L. Hayes who got her a visa. She divorced one year before she left and kept her second marriage a secret from all her relatives in America except her son Louis who had the marriage and divorce papers.[16] My father mainly remembers her smoking, muttering occasionally in Hungarian, and sitting in a stony silence as the family laughed at “Hogan’s Heroes” on TV.[17]

Hungarian-Americans in the Ohio Valley have an association and still gather a few times a year to celebrate Hungarian food, dancing, and traditional culture.



[1] Constantin Ardeleanu, Transylvania and the Banat at the End of World War I: The Handbook of the Historical Department of the Foreign Office (orig. 1919; reissued in The Annals of Dunarea de Jos University of Galati, issue 10/2011): 59-60.

[2] For a more complete discussion of Hungarians in Romania, see Cathy O’Grady, Zoltán Kántor and Daniela Tarnovschi, Minorities in Southeast Europe: Hungarians of Romania (Center for Documentation and Information on Minorities in Europe – Southeast Europe (CEDIME-SE), n.d.). Accessed online at:

[3] Ardeleanu, Transylvania and the Banat, 81-82.

[4] On coal in the district, see Ardeleanu, Transylvania and the Banat, 83. For reference to rail construction, see Ferenc Ajus, “What Caused Fertility Variations in Transylvania,” The History of the Family 15 (2010), 455.

[5] John Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Indiana Press, 1987), 19-25.

[6] Ardeleanu, Transylvania and the Banat, 81.

[7] Julianna Puskás, The Ties That Bind, The Ties That Divide: 100 Years of Hungarian Experience in the United States (New York: Holmes and Meier, 2000), 20-21, 27.

[8] Lou Groza with Mark Hodermarsky, The Toe: The Lou Groza Story (Dubuque, IO: Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1996), 3-4. Also see Helen Magyari Murray with Aubrey P. Murray, Magyar Lace (Millsboro, DE, 1998), 42.

[9] Kenneth Bailey, “A Temptation to Lawlessness: Debt Peonage in West Virginia, 1903-1908,” West Virginia History 50 (1991): 25-45.

[10] Puskás, The Ties That Bind, chapter 3.

[11] Groza, 4.

[12] Kenneth R. Bailey, “A Judicious Mixture: Negroes and Immigrants in the West Virginia Mines, 1880-1917,” West Virginia History 32 (January 1973): 141-161.

[13] Mildred Beik, The Miners of Windber (Penn State University Press), 209.

[14] See for example, John H. M. Laslett, “Samuel Gompers and the Rise of American Business Unionism,” in Labor Leaders in America, edited by Melvyn Dubofsky and Warren R. Van Tine (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), esp. pp. 76-77.

[15] Murray, Magyar Lace, 55-56.

[16] Phone conversation with Elizabeth Brown, December 22, 2014.

[17] Phone conversation with Louis Martin III, December 23, 2014.

2 Responses

  • Keith Stokes says:

    My father was born and raised in Short Creek and Beech Bottom, West Virginia in early 20th century. He and his extended family of Stokes, Dalton and Marshall would mostly work in the coal mines and power plants in the area. He would tell me stories of Russian and Hungarian immigrants working side by side with them in the coal mines.

  • Fred says:

    Found this article to be interesting.My great-grandparents also came for Transylvania but were Saxon-Germans. Thye settled in Martins Ferry,OH. I do remember the Martins Ferry Mayor in the 80’s was John Lazslo who was of Hungarian descent. Jacob’s Meats in Martins Ferry is family run and they are also of Hungarian descent.

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