In 1915, Louis Kukenberger hid himself in the coal bin of a ship to get to America from Slovenia.
“In those days they didn’t fool around,” Frank Kukenberger Jr. explained. “If you got caught stealing over in a ship you got immediately thrown overboard.”
Kukenberger spoke about his grandfather Sunday, seated at the end of one of the long tables inside Cornfield Hall in Fly Creek. All around him were people of Slovenian descent, chatting to one another as they enjoyed a chicken dinner.
Most of the 80 or so people that were in attendance are local members of the Farmers’ Independent Benevolent Society. The idea for the society came from a similar benevolent society for coal miners who lived in West Virginia.
“(The miner’s society) was for the purpose of assisting in several ways,” Maryann Stucin-Hartman stated. “If a miner was injured then the families (of the society) went to help the family of the injured, there was hospitalization and there was a death benefit. That concept was what was brought here.”
Immigrants from Slovenia often ended up becoming miners when they reached the United States because that’s where the jobs were, Stucin-Hartman said, but they really were farmers at heart.
“Most of the land in Otsego County was at that point fallow because it had been hops farms, so land was very, very cheap,” Stucin-Hartman said. “A very enterprising real estate agent, who could not speak Slovenian, came to realize that the terrain around here is very much like Slovenia. He put an ad in the national paper. It was printed in Cleveland, I believe. It was called the Proseveta. It was written in Slovenian. He had an ad put in that paper advertising inexpensive land/farms in Otsego County.”
The newspaper was mailed to families of Slovenian descent across the United States. After seeing the realtor’s ad many of families decided to come to Otsego County, and once they were here, they constructed Cornfield Hall.
“They got the property from Frank Trinkaus,” Kukenberger said. “The main structure came from Beaver Meadow Road.”
The hall was erected in 1927 and immediately became a place the local farmers used to hold dances in order to raise funds for the Farmers Independent Benevolent Society. The dances were held once a month starting in May and ending in September.
“You go downtown and talk to anyone of the local people and ask them if they’ve been to the Cornfield. They’ll give you some kind of story, (like) ‘Oh, my mother didn’t ever let me go there,’” Kukenberger said with a laugh.
“When I was a teenager, after a heavy day of working in the field ... you got cleaned up, you came down here and you danced like a bloody fool and then six o’clock rolled around pretty early. It was just a grand time. It was a great place to come and enjoy one another’s company and dance.”
Those of Slovenina descent, or are married to someone of Slovenian descent, who are between the ages of 15 and 55, are welcome to join the Farmers Independent Benevolent Society.