Clarkson Czech Dancers – The Early Years

An important part of the planning for the first Clarkson Czech Festival in 1963 was the need to express the Czech culture in forms familiar to the Czech settlers of this area of Nebraska.  Given the popularity of music and dancing among the Czech people, the original chairmen of the Clarkson Czech Festival, Dale Gentzler and Slavy Vodehnal, foresaw the value of performances of traditional, Czech folk dancing.  And so, the Clarkson Beseda Dancers were organized in anticipation of the first Czech Festival.

The original 1963 dancers were Eldon and Darlene Hockameier, Frank and Alice Svik, Dave and Ruby Reininger (Linda Bukacek also danced in Ruby’s place), Oliver Johnson and Marge Hobza, Dale and Eldora Gentzler, Harlan and Shirley Hamernik, Bud and Marge Stonacek, and Ron and Jeanette Vavrina.  Their dance instructor was Mrs. Alma (Hobza) Jelinek from Loma, Nebraska, who had been a Beseda dancer many years before when she lived in Clarkson. She provided the recorded music to the Česka Beseda (which is still used today for the Childrens Beseda Dancers).  The Česka Beseda was the first dance learned, and the group practiced in the City Hall.

Because there were many regional variations in folk/Beseda dancing in the Old Country, the Clarkson dancers felt some leeway to develop new dance steps for their own group.  In the following years, the group expanded their repertoire, learning a livelier version of the Beseda that they called the Wilber Beseda or the Moravian Beseda, which was a more athletic dance.  After performing the two Beseda dances for a couple of years, the dancers decided they would like to develop new, livelier dances to polka and waltz tunes.  They traveled to Norfolk and Shelby, Nebraska to take dance lessons from Mrs. King at the King’s Ballroom.  She taught them more intricate steps of the polka and waltz.  They then created and taught themselves the beautiful and lively routines performed to this day by combining polka and waltz steps and adding square and round dancing techniques to finish out the dances.  Dale Gentzler choreographed the polka and waltz routines in his upstairs bedroom, using tapes and a tape recorder from Slavy Vodehnal.  He jotted down the basic routines on paper, then took them to practice where the entire group (especially Ron and Jeanette Vavrina) had a part in perfecting them.  Because of the expanded dance repertoire, the name Clarkson Beseda Dancers was changed to the Clarkson Czech Dancers.

In the beginning the dancers performed to recorded music and then the Clarkson Polka Band.  Later, Mary Ann Psotta played the accordion for them; she was succeeded by Frankie Charipar on his button accordion accompanied by his wife Darlene on the bass drum.

Following on the success of the adult Czech Dancers (at Clarkson’s Czech Days and numerous other venues in 1963), two members of the Women’s Club organized a Junior Czech Dancer group to perform alongside the adults.  Eldora Gentzler and Marge Stonacek organized and taught Beseda to 32 Clarkson-area youngsters, who ranged in age from 5 to 11 years.  The children’s group first appeared at the second Clarkson Czech Festival in 1964.  They performed their intricate dance, dressed in brightly colored Czech costumes, before large crowds on all three days of the festival.  By 1973, eight children of the Clarkson Czech Dancers joined their parents in performing their own polka routines as well as dancing the routines of their parents.

In 1989 the original dancers recruited a new group of couples to take over for them.  The two groups performed together for several years, and the second generation Czech Dancers are still dancing the same polka and waltz routines, with many of their children joining in to perform with the group.

The Clarkson Czech Dancers have always been happy to share the joy of Czech music and dancing.  They have traveled across the Midwest wherever they are invited, performing at state fairs, ethnic festivals, and even two Nebraska Governor’s Inaugural Balls.

And now, more photos from the past….

Photo 10.  Pictures from the January 1965 issue of Nebraskaland Magazine, showing the adult Czech Dancers in their second year.   In the upper right picture, the couples, clockwise from the top, are Dave and Kay Reininger, Eldon and Darlene Hockameier, Frank and Alice Svik, and Harlen and Shirley Hamernik.  (The children are not from Clarkson – perhaps this was a file photo of Wilber dancers)


Photo 11. Adult Clarkson Czech Dancers – 1986.  L to R: Dick and Dorothy Urbanek, Bud and Lorraine Heitzman, Dave and Kay Reininger, Oliver and Marjorie Johnson, and Ron and Jeanette Vavrina.

Beseda 2

Photo 12.  Alumni of the Junior Maypole Dancers who returned to dance again for Clarkson’s Centennial Celebration in 1986.  Holding the pole is Joe Toman.  To the immediate left is Nancy Musil, and the two dancers to the immediate right of the maypole are Toni Konicek and Kaye Vrbicky.

Beseda 1986 1

Photo 13.  More alumni maypole dancers from 1986 Centennial Celebration.  From L to R: Joyce Chleboun, Toni Konicek, Joe Toman, and Kathy O’Neil.

Beseda 1986 2

Photo 14.  Junior Czech Dancers  - 1986 Clarkson Centennial celebration.  From L to R:  Casey Vavrina, Heather Uher, Danielle Nadrchal, Erin Schulze, and Eric Vavrina.

Beseda 1986 8

Photo 15.  Junior Czech Dancers  - 1986 Clarkson Centennial Celebration.  From L to R: Danielle Nadrchal, Erin Schulze, Brent Novotny, and Kristi Vavrina.

Beseda 1986 7

Photo 16.  Junior Czech Dancers  - 1986.  Matt Vavrina and unidentified girl.

Beseda 1986 6

Photo 17.  Junior Czech Dancers  - 1986 Clarkson Centennial celebration.  In front: Danielle Nadrchal, Erin Schulze, Brent Novotny, and Kristin Vavrina.

Beseda 1986 5

Photo 18.  Junior Czech Dancers  - 1986.  L to R: Erin Schulze, Eric Vavrina, Danielle Nadrchal, Heather Uher, and Brent Novotny.

Beseda 1986 4

Photo 19.  Junior Czech Dancers  - 1986.  Woman on far right is Joyce Chleboun.

Beseda 1986 3

Photo 20.  Adult Clarkson Czech Dancers – 1987.  L to R: Frank and Darlene Charipar, Ron and Jeanette Vavrina, Oliver and Marjorie Johnson, Dave and Kay Reininger, Jean and Calvin Staeve, Dick and Dorothy Urbanek, and Lorraine and Bud Heitzman.

Beseda 1987

Photo 21.  Adult Clarkson Czech Dancers – after 1990.  Front row: Frank and Darlene Charipar, Kay Reininger, Jeanette Vavrina, and Ron Vavrina.  2nd row:  Tom and Paula Hamernik, Dave Reininger, Dorothy and Dick Urbanek.  3rd row:  Tammy Stonacek, Kathy Baumert, Marjorie Johnson, Mary Novak, Sue Brabec, and Lorraine Heitzman.  Back row: Ken Stonacek, Dave Baumert, Oliver Johnson, Dale Novak, Rob Brabec, and Bud Heitzman.

Beseda after 1990 2

Photo 22.  Adult Clarkson Czech Dancers – after 1990.  Front row:  Sue Brabec, Lorraine Heitzman, Melissa Baumert, Mary Novak, Kay Reininger, Dorothy Urbanek, Darlene Charipar, Frank Charipar, Julie Fritch, Cathy Gall, Marjorie Johnson, and Paula Hamernik. Back row:  Rob Brabec, Bud Heitzman, Steve Baumert, Dale Novak, Dave Reininger, Dick Urbanek, Allan Fritch, Darren Gall, Oliver Johnson, and Tom Hamernik.

Beseda Dancers_20130514_08

Posted in 1960s, 1980s, Celebrations | 2 Comments

The Definitive History of Clarkson’s Beseda Dancers

has apparently not been written.

The last time I was in town, Sue Brabec, who has been amassing information about the Clarkson Beseda Dancers, dumped her folder of photos, newspapers clippings, and assorted memos on me.  I think the idea was that I should try to put them into some kind of order that would tell the interesting story about these folk dances and the people who perform them.  Since this year marks 150 years since the “invention” of Beseda dancing in Bohemia and 50 years since its revival in Clarkson, it seems like an opportune time.

But…  because what I know about Beseda can easily fit into your feathered cap, I need your help.  Over the coming weeks I will be uploading photos from the 50 years of Beseda performances to this blog site.  You can help me by identifying the adults and children in the pictures, and providing whatever memories you have.  The reward will be your name in the Acknowledgements of the Final Report, and free drinks all around courtesy of Sue Brabec.  Just kidding about that last part.

For ease of identification, I’m going to number the photos.  If you know who any or all of the subjects are, send me the information and I’ll revise the captions as the id’s come in.

Photo 1.  Clarkson’s Beseda Dancers, ca 1964.  L to R:  Marjorie and Oliver Johnson, Jeanette and Ron Vavrina, Marge and Bud Stonacek, Alice and Frank Svik, Darlene and Eldon Hockameier, Irene and Art Nosal, and Eldora and Dale Gentzler.

IMG_0002a 1963

Photo 2.  Clarkson’s first Beseda Dancers in 1963.  From L to R: Marjie and Bud Stonacek,  Jeanette and Ron Vavrina, Marjorie and Oliver Johnson, Eldora and Dale Genztler.


Photo 3.  Clarkson’s first Beseda Dancers in 1963.

IMG_0004a 9-4-63

Photo 4.  Clarkson’s first Beseda Dancers in 1963.  L to R: Ruby and Dave Reininger, Darlene and Eldon Hockameier, Alice and Frank Svik, Bud and Marge Stonacek, Ron and Jeanette Vavrina, Marjorie and Oliver Johnson, and Eldora and Dale Gentzler.


Photo 5.  Beseda Reunion in 2012.  Front row, L to R: Ron and Jeanette Vavrina, Dale and Eldora Gentzler.  Back row, L to R: Bud Stonacek, Shirley Hamernik, Dave and Kay Reininger, Marjorie and Oliver Johnson.

58 for 8x10a

Photo 6.  Is this the first Children’s Beseda in 1964?  Who are they?


Photo 7.  The first Children’s Beseda performance in 1964.  Girl on the left is Pat Gentzler and girl in the middle is Kathy O’Neal.


Photo 8.  Large group photo from 2012 Beseda Reunion.  Front row L to R: Hannah Baumert, Sidney Novak, Katie Pfeifer, Marissa Pfeifer, Rachel Novak, Annie Brabec, Cindy (Charipar) Settje, Cathy Gall, Lucas Gurnsey, Frankie Charipar, Lorie Pfeifer, and Melissa Baumert.

Middle row, L to R: Toni Konicek, Bud Stonacek, David Reininger, Shirley Hamernik, Ronnie and Jeanette Vavrina, Dale and Eldora Gentzler, Irene Nosal, Darlene Charipar, Kathy Musil, Julie (Reininger) McMullin, Julie Fritch, Wanda Bond, and Steve Baumert.

Back row, L to R: Joe Konicek, Alan Fritch, Tom Hamernik, Kay Reininger, Marjorie Johnson, Oliver Johnson, Dorothy Urbanek, Dick Urbanek, Linda Bukacek, Bernadette Nosal, Jeff Pfeifer, Kathy Baumert, Dave Baumert, Amy and Justin Gurnsey, Mary Novak, Dale Novak, Rob Brabec, and Sue Brabec.

50 for 8x10a

And, just when you thought this was going to be easy…

Photo 9.  An early Clarkson Beseda group from 1929.  Can you identify anyone?  Could one of them be Mrs. Alma Jelinek, who later moved to Brainard for the warm winters but helped teach Clarkson’s 1963 dancers a few steps?  Is that Slavy Vodehnal’s mother in the center?

1929 Besada-001

I have a LOT more pictures and will be putting together the narrative, so please keep czeching back.  Thanks for your help!


Posted in 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Celebrations, The 21st Century | 2 Comments

Wash Your Face and Clean Your Fingernails

When you left the house this morning, were your face, neck, and ears clean?  Was your hair combed?  Were your clothes neat, straight, and buttoned?

If so, you might give some credit to having once been a member of the Ivory Inspection Patrol in grade school.

Ivory Soap 1

Sponsored by the Ivory Soap Company, this campaign was aimed at teaching healthy and hygienic habits to grade-school age children.  Beyond this picture, I have not been able to find out much of anything about the Ivory Inspection Patrol, and my memory is more than a little misty about it.  But I can clearly remember a poster similar to the one above taped to the wall inside our schoolhouse.  The poster was set up as a matrix, with rows and columns, just like a grade book.  Each row had a student’s name (oldest down to youngest), and each column represented a day of the week, Monday through Friday.

Each morning, even before reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, I think, we would line up and present ourselves in front of the teacher for visual inspection.  The teacher would examine each student in turn according to the following criteria:  Check points: These are the points that are checked at inspection time. To get a winning score and deserve an Ivory Merit badge to take home, face, neck, and ears must be clean, hands and nails must be clean, hair must be combed, teeth must be brushed, clothes must be neat and straight, buttons and fasteners fastened, shoes laced and tied.

Ivory Soap 2

Ivory Soap 3

The teacher’s inspection would result in an adhesive sticker being placed in the square for each student for that day.  There were three possible outcomes/stickers:

  1.  Ivory sticker – An Ivory sticker (which looked like a wrapper on a bar of Ivory Soap) mean that you have “Passed Inspection” like a soldier or nurse and really earned it.  You will be proud when one of these is put next to your name.  It tells everyone in the class that you are a leader in neatness and cleanliness.
  2. Yellow sticker – The yellow circle indicates HALF-DONE.  More care is needed in washing or dressing.  Maybe your fingernails were neglected, your hair was not combed, or shoes not laced.  Maybe the wash-up job was half done.  Spend a little more time and change the yellow circle for an Ivory sticker.
  3. Red sticker – This red circle means STOP!  You aren’t very clean at all.  You forgot your ears or neck.  Or maybe you forgot to wash at all.  Better work on it tomorrow and try for an Ivory sticker to make up for today’s red sticker.

At the end of the week (or when the chart was filled with stickers?), those with lots of Ivory stickers were given a red and blue Ivory Merit Badge to proudly affix to the poster by their names.  Thereby earning the undying respect and honor of their classmates….

Ivory Soap 5

At least, that’s the way we did it in District 21 south of Clarkson.  The Ivory Inspection Patrol kit depicted in these pictures contains more than the poster and stickers.  There appears to be a set of one-page cards (Individual Inspection Patrol Sheets) that were given to the students.  The cards display the Inspection Check Points on one side, and on the back, the recommended hand- and face-washing techniques. (It doesn’t say anything about our mother’s scrubbing our faces with saliva-moistened hankies). Also, the card has blanks in which the teacher or parent can glue the Ivory Merit Badge each week.

Ivory Soap 7

Ivory Soap 8

How long did this campaign last?  The color poster shown above is dated 1949, and we used similar ones in the 1950s. I don’t know when these activities ended.  I have no recollection of the daily inspections after about 1960, although it is possible that our school simply discontinued participation in the program while it soldiered on in other schools.

Here are a few more bits and pieces from the Ivory Inspection Patrol effort.  The poster below, from the early 1940s, holds up members of the U.S. Marine Corps and other armed services as paragons of cleanliness and good hygiene:

Ivory Soap 14

It includes a memorable little jingle about nurses:

A Nurse is quite tidyIvory Soap 13

For every nurse knows,

How vital to health

Are clean bodies and clothes, 

She washes her hands

Many times through the day

To get rid of germs

That soap carries away!

Ivory Soap 12

And finally, from 1945, what appears to be an advertisement that teachers and school nurses can submit in order to obtain their (presumably free) kits.

Ivory Soap 9 1945

A laudable campaign, I suppose. As one of the “inspectees,” I remember it as being an irritation and yet another source of childhood angst.  Some of my more rough-and-tumble schoolmates had a tough time earning the Ivory Merit Badges (or even the daily Ivory stickers).  And some of the “girlie-girls” easily sailed through the daily inspections with vocal praise from the teacher (and a chorus of grumbling in the background).  But the fact is, it made us learn and think about cleanliness every day, which ain’t bad. 

Posted in 1940s, 1950s | 2 Comments

The Great Flood – June 10-11, 1944

A popular subject of conversation and humor back home is the vagaries of Nebraska’s weather.  Nebraska has all the “blessings” of a continental climate – hot summers, cold winters, strong winds, and large variations in precipitation from year to year.  My father-in-law used to tell a joke about a guy from Back East who visited a Clarkson farmer during one of its periodic droughts.  The conversation went something like this:

Easterner:  You don’t seem to get much rain around here.

Farmer:  Nope.

Easterner:  How much rain DO you get? 

Farmer: Do you know that time it rained 40 days and 40 nights?

Easterner:  Yes….

Farmer:  We got a quarter of an inch.

In recent memory, Nebraska has experienced both extended droughts (1930-42, 1952-57, 1963-77, 1988-89, and 2011-2012?) and flash floods.  We are coming up on the anniversary of a flash flood in the Maple Creek (pronounced “crick,” by the way) that hit the village of Clarkson particularly hard.

Early June of 1944 must have been a time of growing hope for Americans.  The U.S. Army had marched into Rome and was fighting its way off the Normandy beaches.  Many of Clarkson’s young men were in the service in Europe and the Pacific, and these successes brought renewed expectations that the war would soon be over and they could come back to their farms and businesses where they belonged.  Prices for farm commodities were high, and the terrible drought of the Dust Bowl years finally seemed to have ended.

In fact, the Spring of 1944 was a wet one.  April saw the beginning of a 30-day rainy spell that saturated soils throughout the Elkhorn River Basin (of which Clarkson’s Maple Creek is a part).  The skies darkened over the west-central Elkhorn Basin on the afternoon of Wednesday, May 10, and a large storm poured rain on the area for 2 ½ hours.  Rains came again on May 11, drenching the same areas.  Ten inches of rain fell in some spots.  Because of the saturated soil, there was no place for the rain to go except overland into the streams and rivers.  The North Fork of the Elkhorn River flooded, causing considerable damage in Norfolk to homes and businesses in the downtown area.

Maple Creek Watershed

Source of diagram: U.S Geological Survey 2006.

Then, exactly one month later, rain began to fall again over a large portion of eastern Nebraska and parts of South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Kansas.  On the night of June 10-11, 1944, a heavy storm stalled over the headwaters of the Maple and Pebble Creeks (that is, the Clarkson area) and dumped as much as 15 inches of rain.  In one of the most intense rainstorms ever recorded in the region, an average of 12 inches of rain fell over an area of 250 square miles near the storm’s center in a 6-hour period.  (In nearby Howell, nearly 16 inches of rain fell in 5 hours.)

The effects of all this rain and runoff were pretty dramatic. Flows in the West Fork of the Maple Creek at Clarkson peaked at an estimated 27,000 cubic feet per second.  The river stages rose rapidly, and in the wee hours of June 11 the Maple Creek flooded out of its banks on the north and east sides of town (remember, this was prior to the construction of the protective dike system in the early 1960s).  The railroad tracks, lumber and cattle yards, and the foundations of the grain elevators were quickly inundated.

6-11-44 Flood Joyce Lumber Co

6-11-44 Flood a

Clarkson Museum P_20080628_13b  Clarkson Museum P_20080628_14b

This is what the Clarkson Diamond Jubilee book had to say about it:

1944 Flood DJ 11944 Flood DJ 2

Clarkson Museum P_20080628_13dClarkson Museum P_20080628_12b

1944 Flood DJ 3

1944 Flood DJ 41944 Flood DJ 5 Clarkson Museum P_20080628_10a=b1944 Flood DJ 6 Clarkson Museum P_20080628_15b Clarkson Museum P_20080628_14e

Houses in the low-lying areas were flooded and, in some cases, literally lifted off their foundations and swept downstream.  This was made all the more terrifying because it happened in the dead of night.  People awoke to feel their house moving, and when it finally settled down again it had been dropped a block or more away.  Allan Roether was awakened by a crash, as the A.V. Hejtmanek house struck Roether’s house, spun off, and continued downstream.  This is a picture of the Hejtmanek house after it came to rest:

6-11-44 Flood AV Hejtmanek house a

Photos taken in the days after the flood show cars and trucks swept around like toys and empty lots where houses had once stood.  The railroad tracks and timbers had been wiped out; it took months before the tracks were rebuilt and train service restored.

Clarkson Museum P_20080628_12c

Clarkson Museum P_20080628_14d

Miraculously, there was no loss of human life, perhaps because of the quick action of Eric Powolny in alerting the town to the flood waters.  No doubt a lot of family pets were lost, and farmers in the area reported chickens and other livestock had drowned.

Clarkson Museum P_20080628_13e       Clarkson Museum P_20080628_11b


Clarkson Museum P_20080628_14c

Clarkson Museum P_20080628_12d

Clarkson Museum P_20080628_11c

Most of the surviving stories and pictures relate to the effects of the flood on the Village of Clarkson, although the nearby farmers also suffered serious losses and temporary hardships. The Diamond Jubilee story notes the narrow escape of the Tom Bos family, who lost livestock, farm machinery, and nearly their lives when the flood waters reached their farm to the southeast of Clarkson.  My own family’s flood story was less dramatic, but you couldn’t convince my Mother of that.  June 10, 1944 was the day that my brother Ron chose to be born.  Dad took Mom to the Columbus hospital that day and, after Ron was delivered, he hurried back home to tend to the chores.  The storm arrived that night, washing out roads and bridges and telephone lines, and it was several days before Dad could find a way back to Columbus to bring mother and baby home.  During that time, Mom spent many anxious hours alone in the hospital, not knowing whether Dad had made it safely back to the farm over the flooded roads, or what damage had been done to their property by the storm. (Apparently we suffered little damage, as we lived some distance away from the aptly named Dry Creek)

Clarkson Museum P_20080628_13c

There are no stream gages on the Maple Creek near Clarkson, so it is hard to estimate how frequently a flood of 27,000 cubic feet per second might occur in a creek that can practically be jumped across in the summer.  Certainly it was greater than a 100-year flood; I have seen an estimate that such a flood might be expected to occur on the order of once every 500 years.  The combination of saturated soils, heavy rains in the months preceding the flood, and REALLY intense rains on the night of the flood resulted in a unique combination of factors that led to the north and east ends of town getting drowned; these days we would call it The Perfect Storm.

In the aftermath, the situation was studied, reports were issued, and recommendations were made, but for more than 15 years after the flood no mitigation measures were taken to prevent a recurrence.  After a lesser, snowmelt-caused flood of the Maple Creek in the Spring of 1960, construction began on a dike that confines the creek as it wends its way around town.

Posted in 1940s | 1 Comment

Mysteries of the Vault – Part 1

I came across this old photo in the Vault and thought it would make a nice subject for long-overdue pop quiz on Clarkson history.

Mysteries of the Vault Part 1

Although it is obviously very old, it is relevant to current events.  The question is… what is the subject of this photo?

I seriously doubt that anyone will guess this, which is why I can say with confidence that I will personally buy the first person to submit the correct answer a glass of Coors Light next time we’re both in the Bass Rail.  Second place gets TWO Coors Lights.

June 3, 2013 –   We have a WINNER!!!  Ele Sousek Loseke correctly guessed that the photo above depicts a Citizenship Class for immigrants to the Clarkson area.  I couldn’t imagine that anyone would know that, but I suppose it didn’t hurt that her grandfather was one of the students in the picture.  Ha.

The need for such a class made me wonder about the process by which our ancestors became naturalized citizens of the U.S.  The history of our immigration and citizenship laws is pretty convoluted, and our attitudes have cycling periodically between open arms for needed farmers and workers (“Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) to slamming the door on “enemy aliens” and “seditionists.”  In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when many of our ancestors came over, immigration of Europeans was encouraged and the naturalization requirements were relatively simple.  In fact, the basic requirements have been the same since 1802 – a waiting period of residency (typically 5 years), a declaration of intent to become a citizen, an oath of allegiance to the United States and the Constitution, and the testimony of witnesses attesting to the good character of the petitioner.  As now, babies born in the U.S. automatically became U.S. citizens. 

Applicants for citizenship needed to have knowledge of the Constitution, and be able to speak and understand English unless they are elderly or disabled.  Applicants also had to pass a simple citizenship test.  For more than 100 years, the citizenship tests were administered in local courts, with the judges as ultimate arbiters and virtually no Federal oversight.  Consequently, there were few standards for either the content of the citizenship tests or the preparations for taking the tests; judges might ask anything (or nothing).  In an attempt to standardize and improve citizenship testing, in 1921 the U.S. Bureau of Naturalization published a 3-volume Federal Citizenship Textbook – A Course of Instruction for Use in the Public Schools by the Candidate for Citizenship. These books became the standard study guide for hopeful citizens and were used in countless night classes across the country.  It is a good bet that books seen in the hands of some of the Clarkson students are well-thumbed copies of the Federal Citizenship Textbook.  (It can still be read today, online in electronic format)  The textbook and citizenship tests have been revised many times over the years, evolving from “primitive memory tests” to formats that better test the applicant’s understanding of what it means to be an American.  You might want to take this quick test to see whether you are a good candidate for U.S. citizenship:

Congratulations to the Citizens in this photo!  I’m very glad they chose this country in which to build their lives.

Posted in 1890s, 1910s, 1920s | 24 Comments

Anyone for a Round of Golf in Clarkson?

This week’s post comes from Robert Prazak, who was instrumental in Clarkson’s brief experiment with the development and maintenance of a golf course in the mid-1960s. Since I don’t know a duffer from a divot, I appreciate him enlightening us on the subject.

It is now the 50th anniversary of the short-lived golf course located one mile west of town along the new Highway 91 (I say new as the old highway was located on the north edge of town–another story for another day). It was a sporty course consisting of nine sand greens holes.

I had been teaching in West Point for about 3 years and had been bitten by the golf bug quite heavy by then. I had the pleasure of knowing and golfing with some of the local Clarkson boys, namely Dr. Odvarka, Dr. O’Neal, Joe Toman, and Dale Gentzler. One day after a round of golf at a neighboring town, and while sitting in a local tavern, they told of their plans to build a golf course in Clarkson. As I had some knowledge about golf layouts, they asked if I would help lay out the course and help with the cleanup. They had been making preliminary plans with Lawrence Indra for leasing his acreage.  I was only too happy to help on this exciting new project.

That fall the work began by cleaning up the property and planting grass on the east side of the driveway; the west side had native grass that was going to be used without disturbing it. Somehow a tractor and planter appeared for use by the course. At the time I didn’t know where it came from, but just the other day Jim Severa told me that its use was donated by them. By spring there was a nice stand of grass and it was time to put in greens and tee boxes. I had them my layout, but the powers in charge made a few changes. In fact they reversed everything, changing where I had placed tee boxes into greens, and greens into tee boxes, all the way around. After looking at the layout, their ideas made more sense than mine so it didn’t bother me.

Sand greens were a cheaper method of building a green compared to a grass green. The process consisted of scraping out a round area, filling it with sand and pouring oil over it and smoothing it out. Each green had a rake with one smooth side and one with teeth; it was each foursome’s responsibility to rake the green when finished with the hole. The smooth side of the rake was used for making a path to the hole for putting purposes. If it sounds like a lot of work, it was, but for many of the smaller towns without a large budget it was the only way. Most sand greens courses died out or were converted to grass. A few courses in western Nebraska may still have sand greens.

In its heyday, which consisted of about 3 or 4 years, Clarkson hosted the Clarkson open golf tournament which drew golfers from neighboring towns and some from places like West Point, David City, and Wahoo. The tournament consisted of 18 holes in flights and an extra 9 for those in championship flight. There were no riding carts and everyone would have to walk those hills; some for 3 rounds, but no one seemed to mind. (would hate to try that now). I don’t think there was ever a riding cart on the course. A good time was always had by all.  I don’t know if there was ever a hole-in-one made there or not.  I believe the first year Tom Allen of the World Herald did a full page story on the Clarkson course. The headline was “The Course Built with Sweat, Tears, and Beer” I don’t know about tears, but the other two were real factors. I had saved the copy and about 10 years ago donated it to the Clarkson Museum who inserted it in their sports scrapbook.

There was never a hired greens keeper, or any hired help that I knew of.  A yearly membership didn’t amount to more than you would pay to play for one day on courses nowadays. Greens fees for guests were one dollar with money to be placed in a mail box; the club house consisted of a converted large dog house type building. I remember a young Dean Petricek, doing lots of the mowing (probably for a golfing membership) Other than that, all the work was volunteer. It became a standing joke that if you wanted to play the course you had to mow it yourself; probably some truth to that.

The demise of the course resulted from a number of factors; neighboring towns were building courses with government grants consisting of grass greens and irrigated fairways (Indian Trails, Schuyler, Humphrey, Stanton, and later Leigh).  Sand greens were becoming a thing of the past, because of the amount of work you had to do when playing sand greens. And I am sure, financial problems all added up.

When you drive by the old course site, you can still see the outlines of a few of the greens, especially on the west half. My favorite hole was a par 3 where you hit from a hill near the highway down to a green placed just over a dry creek some 100 yards away next to the driveway. When we come back for Czech Days we usually make two stops other than the obvious – one to the cemetery, and one to the golf course site; both bringing back good old memories of times and people from the past.

Posted in 1960s, Businesses, Celebrations | 3 Comments

Secrets of the Dead – The Richtig Knife

On a nice spring day in 1960, our country school teacher, Mrs. Edith Novotny Nepper, led the whole school on an all-day field trip – to Clarkson, Nebraska.  All smirking aside, it turned out to be one of the most interesting and memorable field trips that I experienced in all my school days. We toured a variety of interesting businesses, and learned about the inner workings of places that we knew only as customers or store fronts. In the morning we toured Elmer Makousky’s dairy on the east side of town and learned how milk was collected, processed, packaged, and distributed (milk was still delivered to the customers’ doorsteps in glass bottles in those days). At the Clarkson Hatchery and Farm Supply, we were told about commercial feeds and the business of chicken and egg production. At the offices of the Colfax County Press, we were greeted with the sights, sounds, and smells of the newspaper publishing business; at that time, they were still setting type with individual lead type letters, and we left that tour stop with a lead stamp of our name in the Press’ typefont. And sometime during that day, we drove up the hill on the west side of main street, walked over to a wooden garage/outbuilding, and were greeted by an old man who was arguably Clarkson’s most famous personage – Frank J. Richtig. Frank J. Richtig, a blacksmith turned car dealer turned knife maker, has the distinction of being the only person in Clarkson, and likely the only in Colfax County, to have been featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

Richtig 4
I remember very little of the tour of Richtig’s workshop; it didn’t look much different from the workshops in most farmer’s machine sheds. It was dark inside, the walls and shelves were covered with hammers, knives, saws, and other tools, and on the floor were piles of scrap metal. He probably told us about the process of forging steel, showed us how to heat it red hot in order to pound it into the desired shape. But what really caught our attention was when he performed his well-known feat – he held up one of his knives and, with a hammer, pounded the blade through a three-quarter-inch-thick strap of steel and cut it in two. He did this several times, then held up a piece of paper and sliced it like a razor with the knife that had just cut through steel. It seemed so impossible to us that we wondered whether it was some kind of trick. But it was no trick. Richtig was able to do this because many years earlier he had discovered a process for hardening steel that was truly revolutionary. A secret process that he took with him to his grave.

Richtig Knife Factory

Frank J. Richtig was born on December 28, 1887. In 1906 he apprenticed to a blacksmith in Clarkson, Frank Koci. By 1908 he had gone into partnership with Joseph Walla (their first blacksmith shop was located on the site of the Dr. O’Neal’s medical office). Between 1910 and 1920, in addition to smithing, Richtig sold cars in partnership with V.L. Prazak; over the years they sold Dodge and Dort cars, and something called a Guaranty truck (“any make of car can be converted into a durable and guaranteed truck”).

Rychtig and Walla

Notice from the sign the original spelling of his name – Rychtig.  This spelling was used around Clarkson into the 1920s.

Richtig 2

Richtig 1  Richtig 3

During this time, Richtig began experimenting with the process of tempering steel, with the goal of creating knives that were so hard that they would rarely need sharpening. By the mid-1920s or early 1930s (the exact date is uncertain), he perfected the tempering process that resulted in knife blades so strong that they could “cut horse shoes into small pieces, as well as three-fourths inch crowbars, automobile axles, and even industrial steel locks, and yet undulled and without sharpening, still have blade enough left to cut paper into bits.”  By 1935, production of the marvelous knives was in full swing.  The October 17, 1935 issue of the Colfax County Press reported:

10-17-1935 CC Press

Richtig made a variety of kitchen and butcher knives, often with poured aluminum handles. He made a circular display rack to show the different types of knives he had for sale, and with a two-wheel trailer he took his products to county and state fairs, giving demonstrations of the unbelievable strength of his knife blades.


The Colfax County Press of September 16, 1937 reported that “Frank J. Richtig, Clarkson blacksmith, was on the fairground today demonstrating his steel knives that cut through three quarter inch cold steel. After driving a knife through a crow bar, chisel, or steel bit, Richtig will shave a piece of paper with its fine edge. Clarkson is a Bohemian district, and although Richtig is American born, he speaks with a heavy accent. But making knives, not talking, is his business in life, and he lets his traveling companion Julius Wacha, retired Clarkson general store owner, do part of the explaining. For 29 years he has made knives during odd moments when other blacksmithing was not pressing. Through long practice he developed his own technique for tempering the steel. Many offers have come from large steel concerns for him to join their companies and teach his secret to their men. But in Clarkson he has his home, his family, and there he prefers to stay. Through Colfax, Stanton, and Cuming counties Richtig is famous for sharpening plow shares, Wacha says, and in his time there he has worked on at least 60,000. Two years ago Richtig decided to extend the sales of his knives, so he began making the fairs, giving demonstrations. Most of the actual sales are mail order. The knives are not hard, Wacha explained. But they are so tempered that they will hold a razor edge.” (In addition to Julius Wacha, others who toured with Richtig to help with his demonstrations included W.J. Moore, Frank J. Svik, A.C. Fajman, George Bohacek, James Stransky, Marvin Teply, and Louis Faltys.)

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After he used one of his knives to cut off the hardened lock on a jail cell in Cedar Bluffs, Richtig drew the attention of the editors of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, who asked for information. A Clarkson artist, William Powolny, drew up a sketch and provided the text for the Ripley column, which appeared on November 18, 1936.

After the Ripley story, he became something of a celebrity, and the orders for his knives came pouring in. He received thank you letters for gift knives sent to such notables as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, Gen. George Patton, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. During World War II, he received many requests for combat knives. Unlike the kitchen knives, which featured smooth aluminum handles, the handles of the combat knives were comprised of discs of leather and red and yellow plastic. Richtig often gave free combat knives to local men who left for the service. Good examples of these combat knives easily bring over $4,000 among collectors.


Although Frank Richtig made large numbers of knives between 1935 and 1950 and continued to give demonstrations and make knives until his death, he always kept the tempering process that he had discovered a closely guarded secret. It is known that he did not forge his blades (like the legendary Japanese Samurai swords and the Arabs’ Damascus steel swords); rather, the hardness was achieved by grinding the blades from stock and relying on the subsequent heat treatment to develop their unique properties. Frank J. Richtig died on January 1, 1977, having told no one how to recreate the process. “A man is entitled to some secrets,” he once said, “and that’s mine.”

But scientific curiosity is not to be denied. Twenty three years after Frank Richtig’s death, two metallurgists from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California published the results of their analysis of two of Richtig’s knife blades (Jeffrey Wadsworth and Donald Lesuer. 2000. The knives of Frank J. Richtig as featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Materials Characterization: An International Journal on Materials Structure and Behavior. Volume 45, pages 315-326¬). The scientists subjected the Richtig blades to a battery of tests: measurements of hardness, chemical composition, tensile stress, and high magnification analyses of the steel’s microstructure. And for good measure, they used one of the Richtig knives to hammer through a 6-mm-diameter steel bar without damage to the blade (a test that caused a contemporary high-carbon steel kitchen knife to chip).

So, for those of you who have waited all your lives to learn the secret of the unbelievable hardness and enduring sharpness of Frank Richtig’s knives, here are Wadsworth and Lesuer’s conclusions: “Our best estimate of the Richtig secret recipe is as follows:
1. AISI 1090 or 1095 steel was used.
2. The steel was austenitized at a temperature just slightly above (e.g., 30 degrees C) the A1 temperature.
3. The steel was austempered at 300-400 degrees C.

Or, in layman’s terms, Wadsworth and Lesuer deduced that the knives were made with ordinary carbon (1%) steel that was heated to nearly 1400 degrees F, rapidly cooled (in a second or less) to around 600 degrees F, and then held at that temperature for “tens of seconds.” Outside of the laboratory, they noted that such rapid cooling could be accomplished by quenching the thin blades into an isothermal salt or molten lead bath held at the appropriate temperature.

The scientists observed that “the use of an austempering process by Richtig is quite remarkable, since the process is generally recognized to have been introduced by Bain and Davenport in the 1930s. Since the Richtig knives, made with the secret heat-treating recipe, were famous by the 1930s, it is possible that Richtig discovered the austempering process before the two well-known metallurgists were generally recognized for discovering the process.

Not a carnival trick, Frank Richtig’s knives were the real deal. And it appears that our Village Smithy was the first to discover the austempering process that made them so hard – before the later development and promotion of the process by professional metallurgists.

American Ironsmith

Posted in 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Businesses | 9 Comments