BLOOMINGTON — Terry Woith knows holding on to tradition can be tough for busy families, but he also understands the importance of families coming together to honor their heritage.
Woith is a third-generation member and treasurer of the American Hungarian Family Society in Bloomington, also known as the Hungarian Club. His mother is the oldest living member at 99 years old. His son is a club officer. Despite keeping Hungarian traditions strong for almost 100 years, members of the club know times are changing.
“This is our heritage. It’s where we all came from. Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were a part of the club and they left it for us to take care of,” he said. “I would hate to see our heritage and traditions slip away.”
The social-family organization began in 1919 when families migrated to Bloomington and settled on the northwest side of town, known as the Forty Acres. Most residents in this neighborhood were migrants from Ireland, Czech Republic, Poland, Austria and Hungary working for the Alton Railroad.
“The Hungarian families would get together every Saturday at someone’s house, roll back the rug, play some music and dance,” said Woith.
After the crowd got too big to meet at houses, a two-acre lot at 1520 N. Calhoun Street was purchased and the “club house” was built. After the club began seeing declining membership in recent years, they decided to make some changes.
Originally, membership could only be given to those who were related by blood or marriage to the original founding families. Last year, the Hungarian Club was opened to friends of family to join. In August, the doors were officially opened to the public and anyone could become a member.
"We used to have anywhere from 100 to 120 members, and now we're closer to 50 or 60. The numbers are shrinking because older generations are dying off and younger generations aren't as interested," said Woith. "We used to be one big family, all related. Now, we’re doing all we can to pull in new members and raise funds.”
Five new poker machines were purchased for the lower-level bar area of the club. The hours were changed: the building is now open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 10 p.m. on Sundays. Employees have been hired for the first time, including bartenders. Woith said the new hours, poker machines and bar specials are drawing more visitors.
Despite the changes, most of the club traditions have stayed the same for nearly 100 years.
“As members, we have always had responsibilities and duties to help run the club. I remember when I was young, seeing my parents help run the bar and do repairs to the building, just like I do now," said Woith. "Other traditions are the annual anniversary party with a traditional polka band from Chicago. Our sausage supper is what we’re most known for, and it’s what really supports the club and keeps us alive.”
The biannual sausage suppers are in February and November. The next supper is from 4:30 to 8 p.m. Nov. 7 at the club. The group sells Hungarian sausage made from scratch by club members.
“The recipe has never changed,” said Woith. "It’s just pork and a blend of seasonings.”
Woith said people ask about pre-ordering sausage weeks in advance. This year, the club plans to make 2,200 pounds of sausage for the supper and pre-orders. It's less than the group has made in previous years, but they still expect a big turnout for the traditional food and fellowship.
"The biggest thing we've done in the past 40 years is opening up to the public," said Woith. "We've adjusted some procedures here and there, but we haven't changed what the club is about. We're continuing to go on as we always have."