The Spirit of Christmas Past

Christmas has changed a lot in Our Town since the area was first settled in the early 1870s.  The Czech and German people arriving in the area had many rich Christmas traditions, but they often had to be put aside for a time as the immigrants struggled to adapt to the New World.  For example, the European carp had long been the centerpiece of the traditional Czech Christmas dinner (and still is in the modern Czech Republic).  However, the carp was not native to America; it was first brought to the U.S. from Germany in 1872, and was not introduced to Nebraska streams and rivers until the 1880s.  So the first Central European immigrants had to content themselves with wild game, preserved fish (barrel-packed salted cod and pickled herring), and, of course, Christmas breads (hoska/vanocka) and kolaches.

Many of the early settlers around the Maple Creek south of Clarkson were Roman Catholics, and their first years were difficult.  In her memoirs, my Mother, Blanche Cada, told an early story that was passed down from her ancestors:

“… several pioneer families had settled on Maple Creek.  They conducted their own religious services until missionary priests arrived [initially by walking from West Point].  On the first Christmas along the Maple Creek, the first settlers of the area gathered in the home of Joseph F. Sindelar for services.  Joseph Krajicek, one of the settlers, had a book of Epistles and Gospels, and a Bohemian Mass book.  Joseph Sindelar read the prayers and sermons from the books and the people sang the songs they knew.  When Mr. Sindelar came to the prayers for the Consecration in the Mass, his son rang a bell, and all the people who were gathered in the sod house broke into uncontrolled tears.”

It is interesting that the first Christmas service that the Catholics observed in their new home was an occasion for sadness and tears.  For Catholics, the Consecration is the central, most sacred part of the Mass, and it is an action that can only be carried out by an ordained priest.  Hence, the ringing of the bell at this part of the service reminded the first settlers of what they had given up when they left Europe – lovely churches, beautiful old traditions, and the comfort of a priest to minister to their needs and to administer the sacraments.

It didn’t take long for these determined pioneers to set spiritual matters right.  A series of circuit-riding priests began stopping in the area every month or so to celebrate Mass in homes and schools.  By 1871 the Bohemian and German settlers had acquired land in the so-called Heun Community for a cemetery, so that they could bury their beloved dead in consecrated ground rather than in private burial plots on the individual farms.  Although they were frustrated initially by droughts and plagues of locusts, and many were still living in sod houses or crude shacks, by 1878 they had managed to construct a 30 ft. X 60 ft. wooden framed church.  Rather than naming it after a Bohemian saint as many might have wished, they named the new church and parish Holy Trinity Church, so that their German and Moravian neighbors would not feel excluded.  The first Christmas Mass at Holy Trinity Church was celebrated in 1878.

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The new church started out as a simple structure, virtually empty except for a few pews and a plain wooden table for an altar (much like the earliest Christian churches, I suppose).  Over the years, the original Holy Trinity Church at Heun was embellished on the inside, filled with statues and paintings of God and his saints.

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The parish grew and prospered, and in 1928 a new, brick church was completed to replace the well-used, 50-year-old wooden structure.

Two Heun Churches

Some of my happiest childhood memories of Christmas center around Midnight Mass at that little, brick country church.  It was always beautifully decorated with a cluster of evergreen trees and a large manger scene on the right side altar.

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Midnight Mass was always well attended in those days; often folding chairs had to be set up in the back and in the aisles.  In addition to the usual parishioners, relatives living away would come home for the holidays and join their families for the services.  Young people who were in a serious love relationship often brought their boyfriend/girlfriend to this Mass to introduce them to the Heun community.

In my memory, it was always bitterly cold outside (and of course dark), so we all filed in wearing heavy wool clothing and overshoes.  The church was warm, we were packed into the pews, and because there was no place to put our heavy coats we just kept them on.  It was a struggle for a little boy to stay awake in those close, cozy quarters.

Midnight Mass was preceded by 30 minutes of Christmas carol singing, so we would often arrive soon after 11 PM to be guaranteed a seat near our accustomed pew (about 1/3 of the way back on the left side).  The organist (Eleanor Sobota in my lifetime) would fire up the pipe organ, and the whole congregation would sing those beautiful old religious carols.

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We didn’t need books – everyone knew the words to those classic songs that celebrated the Birth of Jesus.  The congregation sang loudly and with enthusiasm, and when we got to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” even the plaster angels seemed to join in.

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After Mass, and hurried greetings to our fellow Christians in the frigid parking lot, we’d jump back into our cold cars and head home over crunchy, snow-packed gravel roads.  My Mother would scramble up some farm fresh eggs, accompanied by home-made butter and fresh-baked rolls for a late night snack.  Then we’d head for bed, because on Christmas Day we looked forward to visiting our extended families at Grandma’s house in Clarkson.

These days, Christmas is more of a cultural holiday than a religious holiday for many; we compete for the most outdoor lights, the largest inflatable Santa, the prettiest cookies.  It is my wish that you will be visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past – that all the rush and fun of holiday parties and gift-giving will not overshadow for you the true meaning of Christmas, a celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior.  Our immigrant ancestors may not have been eloquent or well-educated, but they understood this well.

I hope that you too have good memories of the old days, and are making more good memories every year.  Phyllis and I wish you all the Blessings of this Holy Season, and health, happiness, and peace in the New Year.  Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Heun Nativity

Posted in 1890s, 1920s, 1950s, 1960s | 1 Comment

Christmas Carols on the Prairies

In the weeks before Christmas, I often think of a popular, long-gone form of entertainment in the area around Clarkson – the country school Christmas Programs.  Up until the 1960s, the landscape was dotted with one-room country school houses, and it seemed like every one put on a program of Christmas songs, recitations, and short skits.  Perhaps it was a part of the curriculum.  In any case, it was a major effort for the teacher and students and parents to prepare for and stage the event.  Teachers would devote some of their limited teaching time to rehearsals and decorating the school, students would memorize their parts at home, fathers would set up the stage and curtains a few days before the show and add wooden folding chairs to the already crowded rows of wooden desks in the room.  Mothers would make costumes and prepare food for the meal that was served after the show.

The programs were always well-attended at my school; the audience was packed with parents, siblings, cousins, friends, and neighbors.  People made the effort to attend these little Christmas programs not only to show support, but also because they were still an important form of entertainment.  Social gatherings (card parties, dances, dramatic performances, and such) were much more common then.  For most of the 1950s, there were only two Omaha television stations to watch on your black and white sets – WOW-TV (NBC) on Channel 6 and KMTV (CBS) on Channel 3.  Late in 1957, KETV (an affiliate of ABC; Channel 7) added a third station to the dizzying lineup.  So there were plenty of reasons to go out for entertainment, even on cold, dark December nights.

A date would be set for the program, usually in mid-December, and a month or two before “showtime” we would begin practicing songs and memorizing our assigned parts.  The older kids may have had individual recitations or songs, but younger children usually performed as part of a small group of classmates.  It may have been the first time a cute little Kindergartner appeared before a smiling audience to recite a few lines about Santa Claus.

Theresa's First Program 12-1954

Christmas Program 1

Musical skits were often designed around popular songs.  For example, here’s a snappy little number that was done to the tune of Frosty the Snowman (or was it Return of the Mummy?)

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The picture below shows how the school room was altered for the Christmas program. Heavy wires would be strung across the room to support the black fabric curtain in front, and a white curtain to cover the blackboard in the background.  (You can still see under the flag the examples of good penmanship that we were urged to imitate.  Remember Penmanship?  For that matter, remember cursive writing?).  The rows of wooden desks would be crowded to one side, and rickety wooden folding chairs would be packed as closely together as possible.  Sometimes you had to be a bit of a ballet dancer to reach an empty seat in the middle, crawling over and stepping on audience members bundled in heavy, hot, woolen coats.  Streamers decorated the ceiling, and a foot-tall wooden stage was placed in the front where the teacher’s desk and tables had stood.  Pupils waited in the wings behind the curtain for makeup and for their time to go on stage.

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The skits were short and humorous and secular – I don’t remember any manger scenes or kids fighting over who would play Mary and Joseph.  And they often featured the boys wearing dresses.  Men in drag was always a source of great amusement; their appearances on stage wearing fluffy, girly dresses or bathing suits were invariably greeted with howls of laughter from the audience and catcalls and jeers from their buddies in the front rows.  And it was doubtless a chance for the teacher to get some payback for the boys’ misbehavior during the rest of the year.

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This last picture depicts the finalists in the District 21 Cedar Hill Bees Style Show of 1957.  It was a real crowd pleaser.

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As the program came to an end, the children would gather on the stage in their suits and pretty Christmas dresses to sing the songs they had memorized, always a mixture of well-known religious and secular songs.

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It seems like the final songs were always sung by the entire school, which put them all on stage to receive the audience’s applause and await the appearance of….  Santa Claus!  At the appointed time, bells could be hear jingling in the parking lot outside, the door would be thrown open, and in would stride Dear Old Santa.  His bag was full of candy – cellophane bags with hard candy or red mesh bags with mixed nuts in the shell and an orange.  Every pupil would get a bag of candy from Santa, and then he would proceed to distribute gifts that were under the Christmas tree.  We had done a secret exchange of names earlier in the year, and each child brought his wrapped present and put it under the tree that night.

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His work done, Santa would laugh a few “Ho Ho’s”, wave, and shout “Merry Christmas, Everyone!”  Then he would stride back outside, climb into his Studebaker, and be gone in the night.

The lights would go on, and everyone would file downstairs to enjoy a delicious meal prepared by the ladies.  Topped off with an ice cream cone.  (Before the introduction of styrofoam to consumer products [in 1954], cold food was insulated with padded canvas, newspapers, whatever.  In the photo below, taken in the basement of Heun Hall, vanilla ice cream was packed in large cardboard cylinders, then each can was stacked in the insulated canvas tube.)

Dad and Jerome Spulak at Heun

I wish I had a picture of the long, decorated tables covered with food that the mothers had made for the After Party.  Beautiful, frosted cakes, bars coated with crushed peanuts, Rice Krispie treats, plates of festive cookies, big bags of Kitty Clover potato chips, and Tupperware containers brim full of egg-salad and ham-salad sandwiches made with snow-white Wonder Bread.  Boiled coffee for the adults and hot cocoa and pop for the kids.  It was a feast for a King.  To celebrate the Birthday of a King.

The rural Christmas Programs are gone, but no doubt they are alive and well in the town schools.  I hope you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy one this season.  Or, better yet, sit down and read a Christmas story to someone.  And sing a few of the dear old Christmas carols together.

Posted in 1950s, 1960s | 6 Comments

Our Village as Cold War Sentinel

These days our lives are often affected by preparations for and reactions to acts of terrorism – the threat of terrorists hijacking airplanes, the bombing of the Boston Marathon, armed gunmen walking into schools, businesses, and movie theaters.  We are all vulnerable to these acts of violence – deadly and horrifying, but also localized in their effects.  A recent, random comment from an e-mail correspondent reminded me of a much greater, more pervasive terror under which we Clarksonians have all lived, every day, for decades.  Since the early 1950s, we have been vulnerable to attack by an enemy armed with nuclear weapons, and in the beginning the Village of Clarkson had a role in protecting the U.S. from this threat.

Hiroshima

Imagine looking up into the 1950s skies and seeing a flight of Russian bombers, carrying atomic bombs, each capable of obliterating a city.  Jetting in over the Arctic Circle, these enemy airplanes might drop their nuclear bombs on northern cities, potentially including Omaha, the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, before they could be detected and stopped.  In the 1950s that scenario was a real possibility, and the United States helped protect itself from a Pearl Harbor-style sneak attack by expanding a program of civilian volunteers called the Ground Observer Corps (GOC).

The use of civilian observers to sound the alert about enemy aircraft goes back to WWI, when the British watched for German Zeppelins.  Civilian ground observers really got cranked up during WWII, in England during the Blitz, and in coastal cities of the United States as an inexpensive and effective means of avoiding another Pearl Harbor.  As the war wound down, so did the GOC ; it was dis-established in 1944. But it started up again in 1950, when Russia demonstrated that it possessed both a workable nuclear bomb and long-distance bombers to deliver it.  One radio spot darkly announced  “It may not be a very cheerful thought but the Reds right now have about a thousand bombers that are quite capable of destroying at least 89 American cities in one raid…. Won’t you help protect your country, your town, your children? Call your local Civil Defense office and join the Ground Observer Corps today.”  The Cold War GOC brought local Civil Defense agencies together with the military services.  During the decade of the 1950s, more than 800,000 volunteers stood alternating shifts at 16,000 observation posts.

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Clarkson was a proud participant in the GOC in the mid-1950s.  Many citizens in town and countryside were involved, but it is so long ago that the memories of its organization and activities have faded.  Synthesizing the bits and pieces of the observers’ recollections, our GOC program went something like this:

The Clarkson GOC was organized by the Clarkson Fire Department, and Lumir Prazak was the Fire Chief at that time.  The adults who were involved took turns observing aircraft flying over the area only at night.  They would gather at the new high school on the south end of Clarkson and lie on the lawn looking up at the night sky.  Whenever a plane was observed, they would report the observation by telephone in the high school.  A surprising number of aircraft were observed late at night, and the men reported the time and the direction of flights.  Initially, the GOC was comprised of adult men –  Al Dusatko, Lumir Prazak, Vince Prazak, Ron Vavrina, Slavy Vodehnal, Louis Pavel, Dick Moore, maybe Doc Odvarka were mentioned.  There doesn’t seem to have been any adult women involved in watching the night skies.

Later, high school kids and even grade schoolers took their turns watching for enemy airplanes during daylight hours.  Eleanor Sousek Loseke, Edie Kudrna Welch, Avis Studnicka Heithoff, Edith Novotny Nepper, Arlys Dolesh Wehrer, Robert Prazak, and Gene Cinfel were among the high school students who participated.  Grade school observers included Bernice Studnicka Cada, Rich Neuhaus, Dennis Houfek, Tony Dusatko, and Bill Sixta.  There were meetings at the school to give the students guidance and information.  There was usually, but apparently not always, adult supervision of the juvenile GOC members.

Even the Girl Scouts got in on the action.  Evelyn Zrust, troop leader of the Senior Girls Scouts, combined enemy plane identification (taught by Mike Hammond and Bob Jonas) with a first aid class. The girl scouts were given books for instruction and plane recognition; they met twice a month, and after passing a test they began observing, as a troop, on Sundays.  At other times, the Girl Scouts were paired up and did 3 or 4-hour shifts on weekends.

In the beginning there was no building available; volunteers lay in the grassy area on the south side of the new high school (before it became a parking lot), and if they saw anything notable would go into the high school to phone it in.  Later, a building was dragged or erected near the high school to house the observers.  Initially, an old, windowless, cob-shed type of building was used that was perhaps 6’ X 8’ in size. It was propped up on the front to level it out, with a handrail across the front; there may have been a porch.  Later a deer stand sort of building on stilts was constructed, elevated one story above the ground.  Steps went up from the west side and there were lots of windows.  The building was unheated, but it had a light bulb hanging from the ceiling and it protected observers from the elements.  The buildings had their own dedicated telephone for dialing up (what they believed was) Offutt Air Force Base/Strategic Air Command Headquarters, or perhaps the Civil Defense Office in Omaha.  In fact, the calls went to one of 73 “filter centers,” where yet more civilian volunteers collected the data, plotted trajectories of aircraft that had been called in, and made judgments about the significance of the observations (Clymer 2013).

The dedication of Clarkson’s youth to fighting the Cold War was not absolute.  By one  account, most of the time the kids did not stay in the building, but could be found goofing around outside waiting for a plane to fly over.  For example, Bernice Cada wrote: “My most vivid memory from this world-saving practice included Bill Sixta. Several of us started collecting ears of corn from the neighboring field. We had a corn kernel fight. I placed one throw perfectly into Bill’s ear canal. As we tried to remove it, it just wedged tighter! He had to go visit Dr. O’Neil to get the kernel removed. I was scared and embarrassed. Thought I would lose my volunteer job!  But those Russians never made it past our watchful eyes.”

In fact, Clarkson’s young were not the only ones to occasionally let their “eternal vigilance” slip.  Public participation in the GOC never reached the levels hoped for, owing to skepticism about government’s warnings of the imminence of a Russian attack and optimism about the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force to detect and intercept enemy planes before they got to the continental U.S.  “By all indications, even the Soviet Union’s possession of an H-bomb [in August 1953] did not stir much desire to volunteer for the GOC.  Recruitment remained a chronic problem.  An Air Force report noted that, absent an emergency, the vast majority of Americans would rather play bridge [or taroks?], watch television, or go to bed.  By mid-1954, … a major problem had developed with attrition of volunteers who faced disparagement of friends or acquaintances.” (Clymer 2013).

There were posters on the walls of the observation building to provide information about friendly and unfriendly airplanes, and a book of silhouettes of planes was used to help in identifying what they were seeing.  Binoculars, pen and paper were used to make note of types of planes and estimates of speed, direction of travel, altitude, and identifying markings, which were entered in a log book.  A sign-in sheet logged the names and hours of the participants.

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One of the purposes of logging in the hours spent watching the sky was to amass enough volunteer hours to be awarded a cool blue and silver lapel pin – the winged GOC pin.  Lumir Prazak would turn in the names and hours of the observers.  Obviously this lapel pin was a desirable prize – many of the participants still have theirs.

GOC wings

GOCpin

As the Cold War wound on, offensive weapons and defensive systems were improved.  In the late 1950s the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a radar-based early warning system in Canada, became operational, and eventually the slow-flying bombers were replaced by intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The value of civilian airplane observers was diminished, and on January 31, 1959 the Ground Observer Corps Program was shut down.

In retrospect, it seems pretty unlikely that Russian bombers could have flown all the way to Nebraska without being detected somewhere in Canada or the Dakotas, but you never know, eh?   Let the record reflect that there was not a single bombing of the U.S. mainland during the existence of GOC.

Thanks to Dennis Houfek (who first told me about the GOC in Clarkson), Rich Neuhaus, Bernice Cada, Tony Dusatko, Ele Loseke, Edie Welch, Ron Vavrina, Edith Nepper, Arlys Wehrer, and Robert Prazak  for their memories of (and membership in) Clarkson’s Ground Observer Corps.

An excellent history of the U.S. GOC is provided by:  Clymer, K. 2013.  The Ground Observer Corps – Public Relations and the Cold War in the 1950s.  Journal of Cold War Studies. 15(1):34-52.

Ground Observer Corps, Hurray!

Protects our Nation every day.

Protects our flag, Red, White, and Blue,

They Protect everyone, even you.

Always on guard with Watchful eyes,

Never tiring they search the skies.

From now to eternity we shall be free,

America’s guarded by the G.O.C.

SkywatchSticker

Posted in 1950s | 4 Comments

Answers and More Questions

You may recall that when I was delving into the history of the Clarkson Czech/Beseda Dancers, I was given a marvelous photo of the first Children’s Beseda Group, who made their appearance in 1964.  My question was “Who are these kids?”  Eldora Gentzler, Patti Polodna Berryhill, and Bob Stonacek (all of whom are in the picture) responded to the call with their excellent memories.

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Top Row – Sandy Hockamier, Bobby Nebola, Jackie Toman, Scott Odvarka, Kathy Nykodym, Billy Novotny, Cindy Nelson, David Vavrina, Eldora Gentzler (Instructor)

Row 3 – Theresa Nosal, Keith Vrbicky, Kathy Bukacek, Johnny O’Neal, Debbie Belohrad, Kenny Podany, Christine Gentzler, Bobby Odvarka, Marj Stonacek (Assistant)

Row 2 — Sheila Toman, Patti Polodna, Danny Nosal, Mary Kay Tomka, Tony Pekny, Shelley Hockamier, Tommy Hamernik

Front Row — Patricia Gentzler, Joey Toman, Kathy O’Neal, Timmy Nosal, Nancy Toman, Bobby Stonacek, Cynthia Bukacek, Kenny Stonacek.  Not shown: Roger Haist

This week’s contest involves 3 more pictures that need identifying:

1965 Firemen

Question 1.  Name the men in the 1965 snapshot above.  As the sign suggests, I think these guys were volunteer firemen.

FRONT ROW: (L-R) 1.unidentified, 2.unidentified, 3. Joe Svik 4.unidentified, 5. Curtis Koehn, 6. Dick Urbanek, 7. Pee Wee Wasko, 8. Spitz Belohrad, 9. Joe Toman.

SECOND ROW: 1.unidentified, 2.unidentified, 3. Clarence Moore (partially hidden) , 4. Alden Manak, 5.Joe Sedlacek, 6. Marcel Brabec, 7. Jim Kratochvil, 8. Dick Moore, 9. Ed Svik.

STANDING: 1. unidentified, 2. unidentified, 3. Reuben Uecker, 4. unidentified.

 

Question 2.  What do the next two pictures have in common?  (And can anyone identify the two men in the second picture?)

1935

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Is the fellow on the right a young Slavy Vodehnal?

The first person to correctly answer this week’s quiz will win a Tupperware container filled with pancakes left over from Clarkson’s first Pancake Day in 1949!  The flapjacks were recently unearthed behind the Clarkson Museum (don’t worry, the Tupperware was properly “burped” and sealed).  Perhaps your prize will be delivered by the majorettes:  Inez Kudrna, Doris Cernin, and Doris Sousek

Inez Kudrna Doris Cernin Doris Sousek

Posted in 1930s, 1940s, 1960s | 6 Comments

Autumn in The Land of Corn

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When our ancestors arrived in eastern Nebraska, they were met with a trackless, seemingly endless expanse of tall grass prairie.  Mile after mile after mile of a landscape that looked something like this, broken only by an occasional tree along the banks of a stream.

As soon as they were able, the immigrant farmers plowed up that prairie, parceled it into neat one-mile square sections, and began to grow bountiful crops of cereal grains.

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By the time I came on the scene, a mixture of field crops and livestock supported a lot of families around Clarkson, and by extension a lot of businesses in Clarkson.  To my Big City friends I would describe my parents’ farm like this:  Dad planted and harvested wheat, corn, oats, barley, alfalfa, sweet clover, sorghum and soybeans.  On the 11-acre home place, my parents raised beef cattle, milk cows, pigs, chickens, and ducks, and maintained a sizable fruit orchard and vegetable garden.  A typical family farm, I said.

By the mid-1980s, my description  brought grins from people who knew how agriculture had evolved.  The kind of farm I remembered now exists mainly in the storybooks. Many farmers around Clarkson have become specialists, planting hundreds of acres of nothing but corn or maintaining huge cattle feedlots.

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Acre after acre of corn, and in October and November the harvest is full swing.  To say that the landscape is totally dominated by corn would be an exaggeration.  The monoculture is occasionally interrupted by bales of hay…

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or cattle grazing in the fields (of corn stubble)…

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But some things have not changed since the time of our immigrant ancestors.  You can still listen to the crisp, cold autumn winds moving through the cottonwood trees,

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and over the pasture grasses,

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The maples are still blindingly yellow on a bright sunny day,

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the milkweed pods still split open to release their fluffy seeds,

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the trees and fences cast long shadows,

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and all around, things are being tucked away for the winter.

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It’s a good time to be home.

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Posted in The 21st Century | 4 Comments

Projít Brambory, Prosím

Or, as you Anglos say it,  pass the potatoes, please.

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I was in one of the darker parts of The Vault this week, looking for a room in which to store this year’s potato harvest, when I came across this picture of my Dad and brothers sorting through potatoes at the entrance to the cellar.  It got me to thinking about what a big part of our diet on the farm was made up of potatoes.  It seems like we had boiled or fried potatoes for nearly every meal; only occasionally was the “starch” course of the 1950s Meat and Potatoes diet satisfied by noodles or rice.

This was entirely consistent with the Czech cuisine and traditions (and frugality).  Czech cookbooks feature all manner of recipes for potatoes – variations on the theme of boiled potatoes, mashed potatoes, potato and dill soup, roast beef hash, potato dumplings (knedliky), and potato pancakes (bramboraks).  Czechs have figured out how to incorporate potatoes into most of their most popular dishes, except for kolaches.  Unless you substitute boiled potato water for milk in the kolache dough recipe…

The popularity of potatoes in the Czech diet is a bit surprising since they are a relatively new discovery.  The potato is a New World plant, believed to have arisen in the South American Andes and been eaten there for thousands of years.  But the potato was unknown in Europe until the Spanish rolled over the Inca Empire in Peru and brought the potato to Europe in about 1570. The spread of the spud was slow, but by the mid-18th century the governments of France and Germany encouraged planting potatoes in garden plots as a hedge against famine (the Czech word for potato, bramburk, means “Brandenburg/Prussian,” which tells you something about how this vegetable came to Bohemia). This strategy worked well and was quickly adopted – potatoes thrived in the cold, damp climates of Northern Europe when other crops failed.  Potatoes yielded 2 to 4 times more calories per acre than grain did, did not require a gristmill for grinding, and were cheaper and more nutritious than rye bread.  Potatoes became a dietary staple that provided food surpluses and supported population growth all over Europe in the 19th century.  The infamous potato blight that struck Ireland in the 1840s and led to over one million starvation-related deaths also killed the potatoes in continental Europe.  But the famine was more severe in Ireland because potatoes accounted for much more of the Irish diet; 32% of the arable land of Ireland was planted in potatoes, compared to about 10% in Prussia.

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I don’t recall our potato crop ever failing because of disease, but we always had to contend with a serious pest, the Colorado potato beetle.  A voracious feeder, they could turn a vigorous, waist-high potato plant into a skeleton in a couple of days.  I suppose there were insecticide dusts available, DDT and a host of the other now-banned chemicals, but mostly we controlled these pests the old fashioned way – by picking them off, one by one, and dropping the larvae or adult beetles into a 1-gallon paint can with a couple of inches of kerosene at the bottom.  It worked.

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Pests and blight aside, the potato was an easy plant to grow.  Sometime in the early spring Dad would buy “seed” potatoes, or scavenge potatoes from last year’s crop that had started to grow “eyes.”  A good potato might have several eyes, so that it could be cut into 3-4 pieces.  Each piece was buried a few inches deep in the rich Nebraska soil, covered up, and over the course of summer would grow into a full-sized potato plant.  By September or October the tops of the potatoes would die back, which meant that the buried tubers were ready for harvest.  We’d dig them up with a three-tined potato fork, turning over the dirt to reveal (hopefully) two or three large spuds and a number of smaller ones.  It was always a great disappointment when one of the tines in the potato fork pierced the middle of a nice, picture-perfect baking potato.

The method I described works fine for the backyard garden, but planting and harvesting large numbers of potatoes called for mechanization.  Rusting in the shelter belt behind our house was a horse- or tractor-drawn potato planter that looked something like this:

Potato Planter 2Potato Planter

I never saw it in operation, but from its simple design I can guess how it worked.  The planter had a box on top to hold the seed potatoes. It had a small plow blade that opened up a furrow, and right behind the blade a cast iron tube allowed you to drop the seed potatoes into the furrow one by one as the implement slowly moved forward.  I’m not sure how the furrow got closed up again behind the planter; maybe there were some other blades that did that, or maybe that was the job of the farm wife walking behind with a hoe.  Perhaps the same plow was used at harvest time, or was another implement used to unearth the rows and rows of tubers?  A friend told me his parents had something called a lister for preparing the vegetable garden and harvesting spuds.  His family had the only one in the neighborhood so they were pretty popular at harvest time.  Some years they would coordinate a Saturday in late September or early October and go to 3 or 4 farms for the potato harvest, sort of a bee.   Spuds were most often dug up, gathered into 5-gallon buckets, sometimes sacked or just dumped onto a cart or shallow wagon and stored in an underground storm cellar.  All shared in the work and then a big neighborhood party would follow.

Potato sorters 9-64

The potatoes could stay in the ground for a time before harvest, but they needed to be harvested and put in the cellar before the ground froze for the winter.  Potato cellars (or caves, as some called them) were versatile structures.  They stored not only potatoes, but apples, cabbage, beer, milk and cream, canned fruits and vegetables, lard, crocks with meats preserved in lard – anything that needed to be kept cool in the days before refrigeration.  And they doubled as a storm cellar when tornados came through the neighborhood (remember the Wizard of Oz?).  Every one that I was ever in had the same design – basically a rectangular vault whose floor was about 15 feet underground, with an arched ceiling that created an above-ground mound.  A wooden door led down a flight of steps (often rickety, half-rotted wood steps) to the dirt floor of the cellar.  I assume that most cellars must have had an arched brick ceiling to support the weight of the soil above without collapsing.  Our cellar had a brick ceiling and dirt walls and floor; some of the nicer ones had brick walls as well.  And they all had a nice, diverse collection of spiders.

I suppose every farm had a potato/storm cellar, and they were common in Clarkson as well.  From my recollections of the 1950s and 1960s, I had guessed that 10% of the homes had a cellar in their backyards.  But others, with longer memories, estimate that 75% of the homes had caves in the first half of the 20th century.  That’s probably correct, because cellars were the only way to keep food cool before electricity.  When the town was electrified, and refrigerators and freezers became common, cellars fell into disuse and most were filled in.  By the beginning of the current century it was hard to find a potato cellar in Our Town.

Posted in 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s | 5 Comments

All Hail the Return of Nonat!

Friends, do you suffer from boils?  carbuncles?  furuncles?  ingrown toenails?  embedded shards of glass?  chapped lips?  Then I have good news for you!

A recent issue of our Colfax County Press contained a startling advertisement – the return, after 60 long years, of the once-popular Czech healing salve called Nonat.

How many of you remember this miracle potion?  It was comprised of those well known medicinal ingredients – camphor, zine sulfate, and pure gum turpentine.  The active ingredients were combined with wax into a hard stick (cylindrical, I think), wrapped in a paper tube, and packaged in a little rectangular cardboard box:

Old_Nonat_box_main

(I remember our box being a dark green color, but that may have been because it was so old and discolored.)  Nonat was manufactured between 1914 and the early 1950s, when the Czech grandmother who made it passed away.

I suspect that few farmers’ medicine cabinets were without it.  Nonat was a type of drawing salve – a drawing salve is an ointment that can be used to treat a variety of skin inflammations. The ointment “draws out” problems such as infections, ingrown toenails, wood splinters, glass shards, and insect poison.   Anyone who worked outside a lot was likely to experience any and all of these insults.

We used Nonat sparingly, mainly to remove deeply embedded splinters, ones that were resistant to Mom’s probing with a needle.  A wooden match would be struck, and the flame used to melt a bit of the hard, waxy ointment.  The molten wax was dripped on the site of the wound, and covered with a Band-Aid.  A day or two or three later, the skin around the area would soften, swell a bit, and the splinter (and any associated infection) would miraculously emerge.  The pungent smell of camphor and turpentine assured you that the healing process was in full gear!

In our house, the name of this miraculous salve was pronounced “NO-nahth” – as if it was a Czech word.  I always assumed that it was because many English words we spoke had a Czech spin to the pronunciation.  But it turns out that Nonat is a Czech word, after a fashion.  Quoting from the Nonat website ( http://www.nonatsalve.com ):

“Nonat has its beginning in what is now the Czech Republic.  The formula was brought to this county in 1899, by a lady who  obtained it from a Doctor over there. She settled in Ohio and then in California where it was last produced and marketed in the 1950’s.  It had a definite market amongst East Europeans. 

The name Nonat was an intriguing name as the lady was of Catholic faith, and had a devotion to St. Anthony and is a jumble of the word Anton.

Father Leiblinger fondly remembers watching his grandmother make the salve many times over the years. She had many distributors throughout the United States, especially among Czech settlements. Father believes that the last time the salve was actually made was in the early ‘50s, just before Rose Miller passed away.”

I always wondered what happened to the little, half-used stick of Nonat that my parents kept on the shelf, and have often looked for it in country stores over the years, to no avail. Now comes the announcement that a new, improved Nonat is available once again, by mail or wherever fine products are sold.  It is made into a softer composition (no more dripping hot wax onto an injury) and now includes antiseptic and antibacterial ingredients as well.

Nonat is dead.  Long live the new, improved Nonat!

nonat_pic

Posted in 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | 4 Comments