There’s a place in Florida that once could crow about its title of ‘Chicken Capital’ of the state. But not any more, because long ago its chickens came home to roost.
Not that this place in Florida did anything bad to deserve its fate. It’s just that the good people who founded Masaryktown ran into a combination of bad information, bad luck, bad times and a world that passed them by.
This town on U.S. Highway 41 about 40 miles north of downtown Tampa was founded in 1926 by Czechoslovak immigrants who were told they could thrive by growing citrus in this place in Florida. They named the town after the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomas G. Masaryk, a friend of President Woodrow Wilson and husband of ‘an American girl from Brooklyn’.
The immigrants had swallowed the advice of Joseph Joscak, a Czechoslovakian newspaper editor in New York City, about moving to ‘a paradise in Florida’ during one of the state’s real estate booms – ‘where it is possible to produce as many as three crops a year’. This had great appeal to the immigrants, most of whom were tired of working in Northern factories.
The immigrants did their homework, but little good it did them. First, they consulted University of Florida agriculture experts, who warned of ‘cold pockets’ around Masaryktown. Next, they asked the editor of the Florida Grower magazine, who pointed out thriving citrus groves in nearby Spring Lake. So they bought into the New York editor’s promise of a ‘paradise’ in this place in Florida.
From Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, but mainly New York they came on buses and trains, only to find the land they had bought was ‘anything but promising’. That didn’t deter them – they were used to hard work – and they set about establishing their new town, naming north-south streets after American presidents and east-west streets after Czechoslovak poets, writers and national heroes.
And they planted citrus groves – some as large as 20 acres.
It didn’t take long for them to realize their mistake. The first winter, frost started killing the trees – first one frost, then another. Pruning only made it worse. The next winter, a disastrous frost killed the rest of the trees. The immigrants were left with a new town but no way to make it economically viable.
Some moved back north. Others borrowed money from relatives to keep going. Some fathers went north to work, leaving their families behind. Those who stayed decided to grow vegetables to survive – cucumbers, sweet potatoes, onions. But they couldn’t find a market for their crops, and most went back north, never to return.
Then, almost miraculously, the answer appeared: Chickens. They could raise chickens, and they could sell them in the growing cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg. The break came when a chicken farmer from Aripeka, a few miles southwest, came to Masaryktown and started a chicken farm. And, of course, then came eggs, and people in Tampa and St. Petersburg ate eggs, too.
It didn’t take long for the industrious immigrants to form the Hernando County Egg Producers, Inc., and it became possibly the largest egg cooperative in the southeastern U.S. This was the thick. The thin was yet to come. The small egg producers that were the life blood of the co-op could not keep up with the changing times, which saw eggs produced by farms with thousands of hens laying eggs.
Once again, Masaryktown faced hard times. And, while many descendants of the immigrants moved away, newcomers and descendants who were left were forced to find work in larger cities close by. Even so, the town today has nearly a thousand residents – some who still raise a few chickens.
Visit what you’d call this ‘sleepy’ town today and you’ll still find those who say they wish more chickens would come home to roost. Those, they say, were the good old days.