Hungarian family to celebrate one century in America today

by Britt Aamodt
Contributing writer

The story of a family reunion in 2012 begins with an inheritance in 1911.

In that year, Elizabeth Rotz inherited a small sum of money and a house. She posted a letter from her village in Hungary to her husband, then living in America, in some out-of-the-way place called Elk River, Minnesota, giving him the welcome news.

Betty Belanger 13 July 2012

The husband’s reply was quick and to the point: Come to America and bring the kids.

And the money, his granddaughter Betty Belanger would have added.

Her grandfather, John Rotz, had only just arrived in Elk River. He was living in the house of Steve Bagocki, a friend from Hungary with whom he’d immigrated to Canada in 1907 for work.

“My grandfather had only the clothes on his back and the shoes on his feet,” says Belanger, who published a history of Elk River’s Hungarian community,  “From Dairy Farms to Gravel Mines,” in 2010.

Bagocki was lured to Elk River by the promise of cheap land. He bought several acres in the Meadowvale area, which was quickly growing into a thriving Hungarian émigré community. He started a farm.

Then Bagocki got into a heap of trouble. He was implicated as an accessory to murder. Bagocki sent for Rotz, had him move onto the farm and tend it in the event he went to jail.

But Bagocki never did go to jail. Instead, the two men were living like two bachelor farmers when Elizabeth Rotz’s letter arrived.

“It was Bagocki who told my grandfather to have her come to America right away before she spent the inheritance,” says Belanger.

Belanger has no qualms about telling people her grandfather was a scoundrel. He earned wages in Canada, but never sent a penny to his wife and six children.

Still, Elizabeth dutifully booked passage on a ship for herself and her children. Their transatlantic voyage happened to coincide with the sinking of the Titanic. Not without cause, John Rotz jumped to conclusions.

“He thought his family had been on the Titanic,” says Belanger. He was in a panic. “He wasn’t worried about his family. I think he was more worried about the money.”

Elizabeth Rotz and Children
The old family portrait: Back row, left to right: Mary Bodnar (Betty’s mother), Andy Rotz, Rose Leider, Mike Rotz and Katie Barsody.
Front row: Louis Rotz, Anna Bagocki Nemeth, Elizabeth Rotz (the grandmother), John Rotz and Elizabeth Hipsag.

But the family was fine and arrived shortly. John Rotz took the inheritance and purchased his own farm in the Meadowvale neighborhood, which today is still in the family. Elizabeth bore three more children in Elk River, bringing the total to nine.

Today, those nine children have given rise to hundreds of descendants. Some 640 of those descendants will be converging on Elk River’s Meadowvale Elementary School for a Rotz family reunion today (Saturday, July 21).

Belanger is one of the reunion’s organizers. She and a cousin spent months calling relatives and tracking down relatives they hadn’t seen for years or had never met at all.

This is only the second Rotz family reunion. The first was in 1985. But 2012 is the important one, says Belanger, because it marks the centenary of Elizabeth’s arrival in 1912.

Belanger’s mother was Mary, the second oldest daughter of Elizabeth and John. The eldest, Anna, had a rude awakening in America.

“She had been engaged to a man in Hungary. He told Anna that if America didn’t work out, he’d pay for her whole family to come home,” says Belanger.

But the father “sold” 18-year-old Anna to Bagocki in exchange for a place to live. Arranged marriages were not uncommon.

Belanger says the reunion is doubly important because, like the immigrants of old, today’s generation is moving far away. In 1985, 102 family members lived in the area. Now only half that number remains.

Belanger has a son in Florida. Still, three of her children live nearby. All will be at the reunion “because they know they don’t have a choice,” Belanger jokes.

But they’d come anyway, if for nothing more than to stuff themselves with Hungarian pastries. Kifli, a crescent-shaped filled cookie, is a favorite.

“In 2012, we’re remembering the Titanic. We’re remembering the 150th anniversary of the Dakota War,” says Belanger. “But for 600 descendants of an immigrant couple that planted roots in Elk River, 2012 is also a big deal. For us, it’s historic.”

(Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from ‘From Dairy Farms to Gravel Mines:  A history of Sherburne County’s Hungarian Community’)

Chapter 42
John Rotz Jr. Family, 1931
Born in Adony, Feher County, Hungary on Aug. 14, 1902, John emigrated with his mother, four sisters, and a brother in the spring of 1912. They joined their father John, who had emigrated in 1907 and had settled in Elk River in the fall of 1911.

As the family grew with the birth of more children and “there were too many mouths to feed,” John’s father sent him away to fend for himself. He was only 12 years old at the time. Life was filled with ups and downs for John until he met and married Adeline Cain in Rolla, N.D. on Nov. 9,1925.

When John was 17 years old, the Probate Court of Sherburne County appointed a guardian over him and his estate. Apparently while John was working for the Houltons on one of their ranches, word got around that John’s father was making his son turn over his wages.

Whether before or after the guardianship is not known, but John lived in East Chicago, Ind., for a time with the Alex Bodnar family. Mrs. Bodnar was John’s older sister and Alex had found a job for John. He was not there long, and when he had saved enough money for train fare back home, John left Indiana.

At this point John went to North Dakota to start a new life and he made no contact with his family. As a matter of fact, he changed his name from Rotz to Ross. According to interviews with those who remember the story, he had two reasons for changing his name. First, he wanted to sever ties with his father, and second, he did not want to be drafted into the military.

Louis Rotz (standing back right) and two unidentified men threshing.

Louis Rotz, John’s younger brother, heard that John was in Dakota and he went out there to find him. It was the first time Adeline learned that John had parents living and that he had a lot of siblings. Adeline talked John into going home and reconciling with the family. There was a large family reunion at the Rotz farm in Elk River, but the Ross family continued living in Dakota until sometime after the birth of their second child, Nellie. Their oldest, Henry, had come with them when they visited the home of John Rotz, Sr. earlier.

Their third child, Beryl Marie, was born in Elk River in November 1931. The family had moved to Elk River because John’s brother-in-law had found work for John with the building of Highway 169. The family lived in various places around the Rotz homestead while John was working on the highway construction. At one point they were living on the old Zoldy homestead, which had been abandoned by the Zoldys when they moved to Canada. This was close to the Rotz homestead and John and his father had a moonshining venture going there.

The Zoldys had planted quite a large orchard of plum and apple trees that continued producing fruit. The Hungarians were adept at making good plum liquor. John and his father made use of the free fruit to supplement their income. On one of the trips to deliver moonshine to the St. Paul Hungarians, John had a close call with death. The following article on the front page of the Dec. 3, 1931, issue of the Star News (reprinted from the Anoka Herald) describes this close call.

John Rotz in Accident
Saturday evening about 5:30 as John Ratz, of Elk River, was returning to his home after taking a load of wood to Minneapolis in a trailer, he suddenly spied a pile of hay in the road which he tried to avoid. In doing so, he ran into a hayrack of hay moving slowly up the highway between Coon Rapids and WCCO radio tower. The pile of hay on the highway had fallen from the load.

The radiator of the car exploded and the alcohol burst into flames. Mr. Ratz and a friend from Wisconsin were trapped in the car by the weight of the hay against the car door. They succeeded in fighting their way out of the car without serious injuries or burns. The car, trailer and the load of hay were completely burned. The Anoka fire department was called but as it was outside the city limit and no one guaranteed to pay the expenses of the run, the run was not made.

It is stated by authorities that there was no taillight on the load of hay.

John and his family were home to attend the wedding of his youngest sister, Rose, to Otto Leider in July of 1932. They were still in Elk River when their oldest son, Henry, started first grade the school year of 1932–33 …

Chapter 43
Louis Rotz, 1932
Louis Rotz emigrated with his mother, four sisters and an older brother from Adony, Hungary, in 1912 when he was only 5 years old. They left from the port of Fiume aboard the liner Ivernia. As soon as they reached the Atlantic, everyone in the family became seasick except Louis. He became the caregiver for the rest of the family, quite a responsibility for a 5-year-old.

Upon joining his father, John Rotz Sr., whom he had never seen, Louis began experiencing sadness that no child of that age should go through. Because Louis had been born a few months after John emigrated, John frequently told Louis “you’re not really my son.” John played a cruel trick on Louis while he was still a child, telling him that if he climbed a tree and waved his arms as he jumped out, he would be able to fly like a bird. Louis broke his collarbone.

It was Louis’ job to oil the gears on the top of the windmill because his brother Mike would not climb the windmill. After Louis got to the top, Mike would turn on the blades to scare Louis. When his brothers Mike and Andy were old enough to do the farm work, Louis moved in with the Steve Barsody family as their hired man. The 1930 census lists Louis as “brother-in-law” in the Barsody household. Steve’s wife, Katherine, and Louis were siblings. Louis’ occupation on the census was “laborer.” He was 23.

Wedding of Louis Rotz and Helen Bakos in November 1932. Left to right: Johnny Horvath, Kate Bagocki, Louis Rotz, Helen Rotz, Mary Bakos and Mike Rotz.

On Nov. 8, 1932, Louis married Anna Helen Bakos. She was the daughter of Gabor and Mary Barsody Bakos. Louis and Helen’s children were double cousins with Steve and Katherine Rotz Barsody’s children: They were first cousins on the Rotz side and first cousins one generation removed on the Barsody side, Steve being Helen’s uncle. The families were always close for that reason.

Since Louis didn’t buy any land until 1939, we can guess that he and Helen rented the farm they lived on for the first five years of their marriage. The 120 acres he bought in 1939 had been the Alex Nemeth and George Szelencei land in Section 15 of Elk River Township. In 1944, they sold the farm to Louis’ brother Mike. They then bought an 80-acre parcel in Section 35 and 79 acres in Section 34 of Livonia Township.

The June 20, 1957, issue of the Sherburne County Star News carried the following short article: “Louis Rotz is at St. Barnabas hosp. recovering from an operation for stomach ulcer.” While recuperating and unable to carry on the farm work, Louis hired Alex Bodnar, Jr., to help out. When Louis regained his strength and resumed all the farm work, he also took on another job working for the state highway department mowing the grass and weeds along the shoulders of the roadway.

Louis and Helen had a total of 15 children, 14 of whom they raised to adulthood. The second child, Mary Louise, died when she was only 13 days old. There were a total of eight boys born before they had another girl. The children are James, Louis, Jr., Gabriel, Richard (now deceased), Timothy, John, Anthony, Thomas, Karen, Janice, George, Margaret, Kathryn, and Lori. The last three were born after Louis and Helen were grandparents, their son Jim having married and had three daughters by then.

Louis Rotz had a large truck that he used to haul milk cans from neighboring farmers to the creamery in town. On weekends this truck became a bus to haul family and friends to picnics at Elk Lake in Zimmerman or Crooked Lake in Anoka. His wife and mother got to ride in front with Louis. Usually Helen had an infant on her lap. Everyone else rode in the back of the truck sitting on the floor. Kids thought it was great fun.

Tragedy befell the family when Louis was killed in an auto accident on April 26, 1968, on his way home from a job in the Twin Cities. He was 61 years old (obituary appeared in the Star News on May 2, 1968).

Louis left quite a legacy. With so many sons, the Rotz name will not die out for many decades, if ever.