Hellen Koncovy Meston remembers the stories her parents told her about when they first settled in Alvinston.
She would talk with them about those days for hours speaking in Slovak. When they passed away, Meston had no one to speak to in Slovak even though the names in her community reflected the same heritage she held dear.
She remembered that, at one time, members of the Slovak community had talked about writing a history of the time they fled their European homes just before the outbreak of the Second World and moved into the unknown – Canada. But the book never materialized.
Meston started writing her family history, she says, and then thought to include some of the stories of the families her parents knew. “My parents were outgoing,” she told The Independent Saturday as she unveiled the book which had become her passion – Pamatajte Nas! or Remember Us in English.
“I just started calling people and started doing it,” she said. “A lot of people had stories.” Some were already written down others came out in conversations or by digging through the Lambton County Archives.
Meston found that after the Irish settlers started moving out of the area, the Slovak immigrants moved in. In many cases, she says, the men came alone to earn money and reunite their families one person at a time. “They were brave to leave their families and come here with basically nothing,” she says. “Most came with a couple of dollars in their pockets.”
For some Meston says, it would take a full decade to reunite their families on the rich soil in and around Alvinston.
That caused problems of its own as husbands and wives had to get to know each other all over again.
Meston says it was tough for the Slovaks in Canada. Many first went to Quebec but didn’t find success there. Paul Hulaj’s family was one of those. He remembers coming to Canada and trying to make a go of farming in Quebec. But his parents, like many others, heard Slovaks were living near each other in southern Ontario and made their way here.
Hulaj remembers Alvinston as a lively place when his family first arrived. “It was a busy little town especially on a Saturday night. All the famers came to town on Saturday night,” he said while he waited for his copy of the book to be signed.
And he recalls how the community would put on shows and plays and music to entertain themselves.
Meston says the Slovak community was well-known for making music. She was surprised with so many at the book launch at the Alvinston Library, that singing and dancing didn’t break out.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Meston says they “would have bush parties. They’d build a wooden floor and take it out into the bush. There would be homemade brew and someone would be on the lookout for the police,” she says with a grin.
“A lot knew how to play an instrument and they had their own bands. They loved to sing and dance.”
Meston says it was good to relive the memories of her parents and their neighbours. And she says while each story was different, there was a common thread through all of them.
“They all came for the same reason. There wasn’t enough work, there wasn’t enough to support their families and the families were large.”
Meston printed 300 copies of Remember Me. About 250 were pre-sold to people as far away as Ottawa, North Carolina and California. The 50 that were left all sold during the book signing event Saturday attended by about 200 people.