Clarkson’s Benevolent Societies – ČSPS, ZČBJ, ČSDPJ et al.

“In union there is strength. Humankind has discovered this fact long ago and since the days when guilds of medieval times came into being, societies, clubs and lodges have multiplied and prospered. This proves that organization meets a real social and economic need and Czechs are no exception to the rule. Indeed, organizations are more numerous among them than probably most nationalities.“ – Rose Rosicky (1929)

A journey through the history of Clarkson turns up a long list of clubs, lodges, and societies that were known by a bewildering “alphabet soup” of acronyms and initialisms.  For example, who can recite the full names of the following organizations – ČSPS, ZČBJ, KD, JČD, AOUW, WOW, MWA, AL, and VFW?  All were popular social, benevolent, or semi-secret organizations in our Village, and most have disappeared over the years.  Dust off your Czech accent – for those who are keeping score, here’s my partial list of early fraternal societies in Clarkson:

ČSPS – Česko-Slovenský Podporující Spolek (Czech-Slovak Protective Society)

ZČBJ – Západní Česko-Bratrská Jednota (Western Bohemian Fraternal Association; now called Western Fraternal Life), Západní Svornost Lodge No. 28

ČSDPJ – Česko Slovanska Dělníka Podporující Jednota (Czech-Slavonian Workman Benevolent Association), Lodge No. 32 (established in South Omaha in 1898 and merged with ZČBJ in 1929)

KD – Katolický Dělník (Catholic Workman), Svata Josefa (Saint Joseph) Lodge No. 40/80

KJS – Katolická Jednota Sokol (Catholic Sokol Union), Club No. 54

JČD – Jednota Českých Dám (Union of Czech Women), Eliška Přemyslovna (Elizabeth of Bohemia) Lodge No. 58

ČŘKJŽ – Česká Římsko Katolická Jednota Žen (Czech Roman Catholic Union of Women), Lodge No. 68

AOUW – Ancient Order of United Workmen, Jan Zizka Lodge No. 295

WOW – Woodmen of the World

MWA – Modern Woodmen of America, Camp No. 1574

AL – American Legion

VFW – Veterans of Foreign Wars

From its earliest days, Clarkson was the site of many clubs, České lóžem (Czech men’s lodges) and dámska lóžem (ladies’ lodges).  Many of our village’s organizations were primarily social groups, like card-playing clubs and gun clubs.  The files of the Colfax County Press reveal stories about area social clubs that have come and gone – to name a few: the Platte Valley Corn Club, Mozart Club, Willing Workers Clothing Club, Kensington Ladies Club (possibly a quilting/sewing club), the Sunshine Club, and my personal favorite, Canadian Club…

Other organizations had both a social and societal benefit, for example, the Lions Club and a great many home extension clubs.  The American Legion and the VFW helped veterans of the many wars of the 20th century by providing a place for comrades to talk about their experiences, smoke, drink, and play cards while serving their community and addressing veterans’ needs on the larger, national stage.  The popular home extension clubs (e.g., the Busy Bees Extension Club) taught women valuable home economics lessons – techniques for safe home canning and other food preservation, sewing, flower gardening, etc.   The Clarkson Women’s Club, a member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), is “dedicated to community improvement by enhancing the lives of others through volunteer service.” Children were taught a variety of skills in the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Brownies, Cub Scouts, and Electric Clubs.

In this chapter we’ll take a look at the histories of what have been termed benevolent, mutual benefit, or fraternal benefit societies – organizations that provided affordable insurance, education, cultural events, and other benefits to the newly arrived immigrants.  These benevolent societies were popular in the first 50 years or so of Clarkson’s history, and then slowly faded as the need for them was supplanted by acculturation into American society and the growth of government social welfare programs.

Often the early immigrants arrived in this strange New World with very little money.  They had no government safety nets and initially few nearby friends or relatives to help them get their start.  In the cities they took dangerous jobs in factories and slaughterhouses.  In the fields, isolated immigrant homesteaders battled droughts, floods, prairie fires, epidemic diseases, and hazardous farm equipment and livestock.  It was all too common for a young man to be killed in an accident, leaving behind a large, impoverished family.  There was a great need for organizations to pay for the victim’s funeral expenses and ensure the welfare of his widow and children.  Starting in the mid-19th Century, as the tide of immigration increased, a number of benevolent societies were formed to address their needs.

ČSPS – Česko-Slovenský Podporující Spolek (Czech-Slovak Protective Society)

The first of the mutual/fraternal benefit societies to be formed in the United States (and the first one to arrive in Clarkson) was the ČSPS – Česko-Slovenský Podporující Spolek (Czech-Slovak Protective Society).  The ČSPS was organized in St. Louis, Missouri on March 4, 1854, when 29 Czech immigrant men met in the back room of Jacob Motl’s tavern. They felt a need for mutual support in times of sickness and for a way to provide for widows and children. They also wanted some suitable social activity and a gathering place to discuss their problems. These men formed a mutual benefit society to gain security and to make sure that if one of them died, the funeral would be paid for by the society, and the immediate needs of the widow and children would be addressed.  The ČSPS, organized by and for Czech immigrants, became a model for many other fraternal benefit societies in America organized in later years.  By 1861, the Society had 96 members, 23 of whom volunteered to defend the Union in the Civil War.  Although not a “secret society” per se, the ČSPS had elaborate rituals involving an altar, secret door knocks, and passwords.  For example, beginning in 1857, members had to take the following oath (based on a Freemason’s model):

“I swear to God that I will love everyone, as my brother, in our Czech society; I swear that I shall observe our constitution as the most sacred commandment; I swear that, not even a word, would slip off my tongue about the deliberations of our brotherhood; I swear, that I have taken this oath, freely, without being forced, and with a healthy mind, and that I would ask for the most severe punishment from God, if I would violate my oath. Amen.”

A ČSPS lodge was organized in Clarkson on May 21, 1888 (Clarkson Diamond Jubilee Book, 1961).  At its inception there were 19 members and 9 officers.  The Board of Trustees was composed of Josef Filipi, Karel Svoboda, and John Mastny.  The lodge decided to hold meetings on the first Sunday of the month in the afternoon.  Since the ČSPS lodge did not own a hall, meetings were held in business establishments owned by various members.  The ČSPS lodge was instrumental in the organization of the Bohemian Slovanic Cemetery (Česko-Slovensko Hřbitov, now called the Clarkson National Cemetery), established on October 7, 1888.

CSPS Hall in Clarkson built 1891

In 1891 construction began on a ČSPS hall measuring 24’ X 30’.  The building was used for meetings of the ČSPS and other organizations until 1914, and stood near Pine Street for many years thereafter.  The first meeting in the new hall was held on January 3, 1892.

CSPS Lodge 1891-1897

ČSPS Hall in Clarkson, Nebraska, built in 1891

Among the fraternal benefits instituted by the ČSPS in Clarkson was the establishment of a Bohemian School.  For centuries the Austrian overlords in Vienna had tried to extinguish the Czech language and culture, and the new immigrants were determined to preserve it in America.  The Bohemian School was financed by the ČSPS and by parents of children who attended; it was taught in the hall on Sundays.  (At that time the law allowed one hour of foreign language to be taught at the public schools in towns which were predominantly of one language, such as the Czech language in Clarkson.)   Anton Odvarka was the first teacher.  Beginning in 1898 Miss Nettie Aksamit taught in the Clarkson grade school and Bohemian School, after receiving her degree from Peru State Normal and Doane College.  Stella Folda and Fred Jelinek also taught at the Bohemian School.

Czech School - Anton Odvarka

Later on the Bohemian Lodges in Clarkson, namely the ZČBJ, Jednota Českých Dám (JČD),  Ancient Order of United Workmen (AOUW), and Woodmen of the World (WOW), recognized the demand for the Bohemian School and hired Anton Odvarka as the teacher, with the assistance of Miss Louise Dušatko, until the year 1916.  During the year 1917 Josef A. Kučera taught during his vacation from school in Dubuque, Iowa.  The Bohemian School was discontinued in 1918 with the entrance of the U.S. into World War I.  At the end of the war, the Bohemian School was again reopened and Rev. B.A. Filipi became a teacher, with sessions during school vacation.  This continued until the year 1926, at which time Mrs. Anna Koza took over.  Later teachers were Mrs. Blanche Pospichal and Mrs. Louise Zelenda.

Czech School - Koza

Czech School - Louis Zelenda

The ČSPS prospered in the United States until the beginning of the 1890s, when the growth stopped and in some lodges the numbers of members began to decline. This was because large, competing English-language fraternal orders were springing up that featured necessary improvements to the business model such as varying payments based on age.  For example, from its inception, members of the ČSPS paid dues which varied depending solely on the number of deaths claimed per month.  All members paid the same dues – neither age nor health was a factor, and there was no reserve. Although this was standard practice for fraternal benefit societies in the beginning, some members believed that changes needed to be made to ensure the financial soundness of the ČSPS.  Also, the ČSPS did not admit women to full membership; rather, they came in as associate members, as wives of their husbands, and their insurance was limited to $250.00, with no sick benefits. Finally, the ČSPS at first was distinctly anticlerical (anti-Catholic) and consequently popular among Freethinkers, and for many years it did not entirely renounce that position.

In 1897, Jan Rosicky, the renowned Omaha publisher who was a great champion of Czech culture in America, drafted four resolutions for modernization and presented them to the ČSPS Convention. The resolutions were for (1) premiums/dues to be determined by age, (2) admission of women as fully-insured members, (3) establishment of a reserve fund, and (4) a medical examination of all applicants.  The hard-headed ČSPS delegates to the 1897 convention rejected all of these resolutions.

In response, another fraternal benefit society, the Západní Česko-Bratrská Jednota (ZČBJ) was formed and by the end of 1897, boasted 49 charter lodges and 1,269 charter members.  In Clarkson, the entire ČSPS lodge transferred their membership to the ZČBJ and became charter members on November 11, 1897.  Clarkson’s Západní Svornost Lodge No. 28 was a strong one; the Diamond Jubilee book names the 40 male members and 16 wives in 1897.

Although the ČSPS disappeared from Clarkson in 1897, the organization continued to grow elsewhere and exists today as CSA Fraternal Life.  On January 1, 1933, it merged with a number of other Czech fraternal societies: the Society of Taborites, Bohemian-Slavonic Fraternal Benefit Union, the Bohemian-Slavonic Union, and the Bohemian American Foresters, and changed its name to the Czechoslovak Society of America while maintaining the original 1854 charter.  In 1977 the Unity of Czech Ladies and Men was absorbed into the CSA.  According to its current constitution, membership is open to “Any person of good character and who subscribes to the purpose for which the Society is organized and meets all requirements for membership established by the Society.” The CSA had 52,000 members in the late 1960s, 50,000 in 1979 and 30,000 in 1990. Consistent with its original intent, CSA Fraternal Life engages in charitable activities, including aid for the Bohemian Home for the Aged; a school for retarded children, the Chicago Lung Association, American Red Cross, Heart Research Foundation, Cancer Research Foundation, Muscular Dystrophy Association, firemen’s and police benevolent associations, and other humanitarian projects.

 

ZČBJ – Západní Česko-Bratrská Jednota (Western Bohemian Fraternal Association)

As we have seen, the Západní Česko-Bratrská Jednota (ZČBJ) spun off from the ČSPS when the original organization rejected all four of Rosicky’s resolutions for a more inclusive society with stronger financial footings.  (In fact, the ČSPS later had second thoughts and accepted the conditions at its next convention).

The ZČBJ was founded in Omaha, at a convention called for that purpose and held February 9-11, 1897. Fifteen Nebraska lodges belonging to the Bohemian Slavonian Benevolent Society participated, seven from Minnesota, one from North Dakota, six from Iowa and two from Wisconsin, while five sent letters agreeing with the object of the convention. At this convention the ZČBJ was founded on a basis similar to the large English-language fraternal orders.  The ZČBJ quickly became the largest Czech fraternal union in Nebraska, mainly because it admitted women on equal terms with men and was entirely impartial in the matter of religion.

The popularity of the ZČBJ led to the establishment of numerous lodges in the area:

Butler County: Havliček Borovsky No. 66, Abie; Čecho-Moravan No. 68, Brainard; Brno No. 43, Bruno; Dobroslav No. 12, David City; Dwight No. 158, Dwight; Ratolest Mladočechu No. 31, Linwood.

Colfax County: Zapadni Svornost No. 28, Clarkson; Svoboda No. 60, Howells; Blanik No. 93, Schuyler.

Saunders County: Plzen No. 9, Morse Bluff; Moravska Orlice No. 21, Morse Bluff; Vladislav I No. 29, Prague; Prazske Vlastenky No. 137, Prague; Lidumil No. 87, Weston.

Clarkson’s ZČBJ initially occupied the former ČSPS hall, but began to outgrow it with the increase in membership.  Further, there was a need for a bigger building for social activities – dances, concerts, talent shows, dramatic plays, etc., so it was decided that an Opera House would be built. With the cooperation of the Clarkson Commercial Club and other civic organizations, the ZČBJ proceeded to buy two lots for the construction of the opera house.  On Memorial Day of 1914 a public auction was held for the sale of the old ČSPS hall; the building was sold to Julius Wacha at a price of $3,350.  Construction of the Opera House commenced in 1915, and in September 1915 the cornerstone was laid.

Opera House Cornerstone

Opera House 1915a

 

On January 9, 1916 the ZČBJ held their first meeting in their new home.  Now more than a century old, the Opera House has been restored and continues to be the site of countless social, cultural, and even sporting events. https://clarksonoperahouse.org/

Clarkson_20101030_9_3

Clarkson Opera House Interior

Czech Days_20120616_11

opera-house-1917

The ZČBJ may have reached its high water mark at about the time of the construction of its Opera House. Nationally, membership declined in the years following WWI, owing to wartime deaths and the influenza pandemic of 1918-19.   In 1921 the U.S. government passed the Emergency Quota Act, a restrictive immigration law that brought immigration from Eastern and Central Europe to a near stand-still.  To shore up membership in the ZČBJ, beginning in 1919, juveniles were allowed to become insured members.  At the sixth National Convention in Omaha, NE in 1922, membership requirements were further loosened. Originally, only persons of Czech or Slovak birth, or the children of those were eligible. They broadened the membership to include spouses (regardless of national origin) of those eligible to be members, as well as children.  Also in 1922 the first English-speaking ZČBJ lodges were authorized in anticipation of the future when the English language would predominate among the descendants of Czech immigrants.  At the 1947 National Convention, the delegates eliminated the requirement of a Czech background and any American could apply for insurance.  In 1971, recognizing that new members were joining for the insurance and fraternalism rather than cultural identity, the organization’s name was changed to Western Fraternal Life Association.

KD – Katolický Dělník (Catholic Workman)

The Katolický Dělník (KD, Catholic Workman) was organized in New Prague, MN in 1891. (This was at a time with the ČSPS did not admit Roman Catholics, and the more inclusive ZČBJ had not yet been founded). Like the ČSPS and ZČBJ, the purpose of the KD was to protect families when death took the head of the household. It later expanded to extend insurance benefits to all family members. In addition, activities of the society were intended to promote service to the Catholic Church, the United States, and the local community.  The first KD lodge in Nebraska was formed at Holy Trinity Catholic Church – Heun, Ssv. Petra a Pavla No. 6, on June 1, 1894.

The Catholic Workman (KD) Lodge Sv. Josefa No. 40/80 was formed in Clarkson in June 1903.  Charter members were John Stonaček, Vaclav Jirovec, Karel Dupsky, Fred Dohnalek, Frank Červ, Adolph Mrsny, James M. Podany, John Červ, Frank Abraham, and Frank Podany.  By the mid-1980s the local lodge boasted 375 members.  Clarkson’s St. Joseph Lodge had a beautiful banner that was carried at religious events, e.g., church festivals, processions, and the funerals of KD members.  The figure of St. Joseph was embroidered in the fabric, except for his face, hands, and feet which were a paper picture (later it was replaced by a picture photcopied on cloth).

Czech Days_20190628_085

Czech Days_20190628_089

Czech Days_20190628_090 Czech Days_20190628_092

Like the other benevolent societies, the national KD began losing membership over the years.  The society merged with the Western Bohemian Catholic Union (Západní Česko Katolický Jednota) in 1930 and with the Catholic Union of Daughters of Columbus (Katolický Jednoty Dcer Kolumbovy) in 1937. In 2004, the First Catholic Slovak Ladies Association (Prva Katolicka Slovenska Zenska Jednota) acquired the assets of the Catholic Workman.

The Sokols – the Telocvicna Jednota Sokol Society and the Katolická Jednota Sokol (Catholic Sokol Union, KJS Club No. 54)

The Sokols were a major organization in both the Czech lands and the United States.  Founded in Bohemia in 1862, the Sokols aimed to improve themselves through physical fitness and moral and intellectual training – A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.  I’ve written about our local Sokol clubs before:

https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2014/08/27/a-sound-mind-in-a-sound-body/

The secular Telocvicna Jednota Sokol Society was organized at the Opera House in 1891 and operated out of the Clarkson Sokol Hall (later the Lions Club building) on main street.  The club had as many as 140 adult and juvenile members, and they hosted a large regional gymnastic tournament in 1931. The Roman Catholic version, the Catholic Sokol Union (KJS) had 427 members in Nebraska in 1929.

The Sokols are gone from Clarkson, but active clubs remain in other Nebraska communities (Omaha, Crete, and Wilber) and elsewhere in the United States.  https://www.mzv.cz/consulate.newyork/en/useful_links/czechs_in_america/index.html

 

Jednota Českých Dám (JČD)

The Union (or Unity) of Czech Women (Jednota Českych Dam or JČD) was a fraternal insurance organization originally directed toward women. The JČD was founded in Cleveland, Ohio in 1870 to meet the insurance and social needs of Czech women, who were usually excluded from membership in other male-dominated fraternal organizations.  Although initially centered in Cleveland, the JČD developed lodges throughout the United States.  The structure of the lodges was patterned after the Č.S.P.S., and like the Č.S.P.S., the JČD was philosophically supportive of Freethinkers.  By 1918, the organization had 144 lodges and 23,000 members nationwide.

Clarkson’s Elizabeth of Bohemia Lodge No. 58 was organized on December 15, 1892, and 21 exuberant charter members were initiated on January 21, 1893.  The JČD Lodge No. 58 grew to 240 members and at one time was the second largest in the State of Nebraska.  Beginning in the year 1932 men and children were accepted as members, and the name Unity of Czech Ladies and Men was adopted in the year 1946.  The membership in 1961 was 48 men, women, and children.

Unity of Czech Ladies

 

JCD 2  JCD 3  JCD 1

(The words at the top of the badges –  “Průvodkyné” means Guide and “Předsedka” means Chairwoman)

Clarkson’s JČD sponsored the annual Gypsy Dances in the Clarkson Opera House, which attracted many people and many famous orchestras.   A Gypsy King was crowned at these affairs.

Česká Římsko Katolická Jednota Žen (ČŘKJŽ)

The Czech Roman Catholic Union of Women was established in Cleveland in 1879, and its first convention was held in 1880. From the recordings of the earliest convention, it was agreed that a death benefit of $100 be established, and the members would pay 25 cents upon the death of a member. It was later decided to raise the benefit from $100 to $150, and gradually raising it at each convention. From the beginning the financial arrangements of the Union, as of hundreds of similar organizations, were totally inadequate. Any change toward a full solvency of the organization was difficult since the Bohemian members always opposed increasing the rates. In 1934, a distinct improvement of the Union’s finances was made, with rates being adjusted by competent actuaries.  During the first year of the Union’s existence, lodges were organized for girls and young women, and these lodges were called “Panensky Spolky”. This group flourished until 1928 when a majority of these members were absorbed into the newly organized juvenile division, or into the regular women’s lodges where they purchased the regular adult insurance.  In 1938 the name was changed to the Czech Catholic Union (CCU).  The CCU still exists, still strongly based in Cleveland.  It continues to issue insurance plans and annuities and publish its newsletter “Posel.”  Clarkson’s ČŘKJŽ Lodge No. 67/128 was in existence in 1929.

AOUW – Ancient Order of United Workmen, Jan Žižka Lodge No. 295

The Ancient Order of United Workmen considered itself the oldest of the great fraternal, beneficiary orders in the United States (but see the history of the ČSPS above).  AOUW was founded at Meadville, Pennsylvania on October 27, 1868 by John Jordon Upchurch, a Freemason.  Its constitution provided that (1) only white male persons should be eligible to membership; (2) that this provision should never be altered, amended, or expunged; and (3) that when the total membership should amount to one thousand, an insurance office should be established and policies issued securing at the death of a member not less than $500 to be paid to his lawful heirs.

The AOUW grew quickly – by 1895 its total membership was in excess of 318,000 in the United States and nearly 32,000 in Canada, distributed among 6,000 lodges.

The AOUW used rituals and emblems that were influenced by Freemasonry. Its objects, covered by its watchwords, ”Charity, Hope, and Protection,” were illustrated in its ceremonies of initiation. As in Masonic and other secret societies, it had three degrees.  The All-Seeing Eye, the Holy Bible, anchor, and the square and compasses were among its more frequently displayed emblems.  Membership was originally restricted to whites, but this was rescinded at some point. Also, the religious aspects of the Order’s ritual were removed in 1932.

I have found very little about the workings of the AOUW In Clarkson, except that it had its own Lodge No. 275 that was subordinate to the Grand Lodge of the AOUW of Nebraska.  Clarkson’s Lodge had issued a certificate of insurance to John Barteš on August 14, 1894, signed by Master Workman John Koza and Recorder J.B. Mathauser.  After Barteš’ death, his widow, Frantiska Barteš, was forced to sue the AOUW in Colfax County Court for the $2,000 she felt was owed to her by her husband’s insurance certificate.  Two of the ribbons sported by member of the Jan Žižka Lodge No. 295 survive in the Clarkson Museum.

AOUW 1    AOUW 2

 

Modern Woodmen of America (MWA)/Woodmen of the World, Camp No. 1574

The mutual benefit society that left the most artifacts in Clarkson was the Modern Woodmen of America (later known as Woodmen of the World).  Modern Woodmen of America was founded in Iowa in 1883 by Joseph Cullen Root, after hearing a sermon about “pioneer woodsmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families.”  Root made fitness a requirement to join his order, recruiting rural young men from the “healthiest states” (which meant those outside industrial New England).  In the MWA, he fused Christian philosophy and pioneer values with ancient agricultural rites (Hix 2016).  After a dispute with other MWA leaders, Root moved to Omaha in 1890 and founded a nearly identical society – Woodmen of the World.  Today, both organizations still exist as insurance programs, but they have lost most of the “fraternal antics” (elaborate initiation rituals, secret oaths, drill teams with axes) that characterized their early years.

In the early 1920s the Woodmen of the World insurance executives began investigating the new invention of “radio” as a means of augmenting their conventional print advertising.  A license for radio station WAOW (later WOW) was issued to the Society on November 27, 1922.  Broadcasting equipment and a studio were installed in the 19-story Woodmen of the World Building, located at 14th & Farnum, which at the time was the tallest building between Chicago and the West Coast.  By 1940, WOW radio was operating at 5,000 watts of power, had a staff of 65, and its own orchestra.  In 1949, Woodmen of the World began television broadcasts; WOW-TV Channel 6 was the first television station in Nebraska.  It provided a showcase for a young Johnny Carson and his daily TV show, Squirrel’s Nest.  The radio and TV stations are no longer associated with the Woodmen of the World.

Camp No. 1574 of the Modern Woodmen of America was organized in Clarkson on January 16, 1892.  Membership grew from 25 in that year to 82 members in 1961.  The following men served as secretaries for the MWA Camp:  V.J. Chleboun 1900; J.D. Wolf 1901; David Hefti 1902; Joseph Mlnarik 1902-1909; J.D. Wolf 1909-1912; Joseph Mlnarik 1912-1915; William H. Roether 1915-1917; John P. Roether 1917-1928; R.R. Rosicky 1928.  John P. Roether was appointed secretary by the head office, and served as secretary and banker for the local camp from 1928 until his death in 1965.

Lisa Hix (2016) provided an excellent description of the MWA/WOW and the shenanigans that accompanied the initiation rituals and meetings of this “secret society.”  She wrote “…the Woodmen of the World order and its progenitor and competitor, the Modern Woodmen of America, made life insurance approachable and fun by packaging it in the familiar fraternal-order culture of the day. The two Woodmen societies succeeded in selling fraternal insurance where others failed, thanks to their innovations, which included offering distinct tombstones, flaunting ax-twirling pageantry, and holding clandestine rituals that involved slapstick pranks and mechanical goat rides.

“Before the days of TV, radio, or fantasy football, fraternal lodges offered plays, rituals, and camaraderie and allowed men to let loose, which kept members coming back for more. The clout of being an insider and the endless pursuit of mystical, esoteric knowledge ensured that men would make their insurance payments for decades to come. The payouts were between $1,000 and $2,000, a lot of money at the time.”

Opera House_20190630_07-001

The secret rituals of Clarkson’s MWA/WOW Camp are forgotten. All that remains are  a collection of decorative ribbons, a box containing white and black marbles (for “blackballing” candidates for membership), and a door to the meeting room on the upper floor of the Opera House with a peephole through which visitors may be inspected and passwords uttered.

“Wielding aluminum-headed axes, members of Modern Woodmen lodges formed marching units known as the Foresters that performed precision drill routines in military-like uniforms. Eventually, there were roughly 10,000 drill teams nationwide… The fraternal beneficiary societies made signing up for insurance seem glamorous.” (Hix 2016)

There are a number of photographs of Foresters drill teams from Clarkson.

MWA 1

Clarkson Museum_20190629_17

WOW Lodge 234 1

One of the wooden axes used by the drill teams is on display in the Clarkson Museum, along with other MWA/WOW memorabilia.

WOW Lodge 234 3

Clarkson Museum_20190629_19  Clarkson Museum_20190629_23a

Clarkson Museum_20190629_18-001

“[After the MWA/WOW split, one of Root’s] innovations was to provide free tombstones—Root believed passionately that no member of his order should be buried in an unmarked grave. So for 10 years, the Woodmen gave its members grave markers in the shape of tree stumps, inspired by the Victorian Rustic movement.  (For another two decades, the members put down $100 apiece to reserve theirs.)  At a Woodman’s funeral, his personalized tombstone would be revealed in an elaborate ritual. The 4- or 5-foot-tall tree stump would be marked with the motto “Dum Tacet Clamet” (“Though Silent, He Speaks”) and rest on a stack of logs, each log symbolizing one of the deceased’s children. The local stone carver, who might alter the pattern, would add embellishments reflecting the Woodman’s personality, such as axes and doves.” (Hix 2016)  The costly program was abandoned in the late 1920s.

Two WOW tombstones can be seen in the Clarkson National Cemetery.  The graves of Vincenc Kučera (1869-1906) and Josef Polansky (1860-1915) are at the crest of the hill, close to the war memorial/speakers stand.

Clarkson Cemete_20190629_1  Clarkson Cemete_20190629_5

Clarkson Cemete_20190629_3

There is also a WOW marker in the Schuyler Cemetery for the grave of Frank Čech (1842-1907).

WoW Gravestone in Schuyler 2

This has been a long story, but it teaches an important lesson.  From the beginning the citizens of our Village took care of each other and had more than their share of social life.  The first settlers to the area were isolated and doubtless were lonely and homesick.  But they quickly overcame it.  The fraternal benefit organizations that thrived in Clarkson were only part of our ancestors’ rich social fabric that also included many clubs, religious congregations, music ensembles, drama groups, amateur sports teams, and other entertainments.  Gregarious Czechs didn’t have to “bowl alone” (Putnam 2000).

To return to the thoughts of Rose Rosicky (1929): “The benevolent or rather fraternal insurance orders do not pay high sick benefits or insurance, but they are directed by people who draw moderate salaries (compared to large English-language orders) and have been a great boon to many who could not otherwise afford life insurance. They serve a twofold purpose–material help in time of need and a means for social gatherings, so dear to Czechs. Indeed, the social part of it is very important to people from a foreign country, for they naturally have a sentiment for their native land and like to meet with others of their kind. The gymnastic, dramatic and singing societies supply needs of a social character and no community of any size is without at least one.”

References

Ancient Order of United Workmen – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Order_of_United_Workmen#Buildings

Capek, Thomas. 1920.  The Cechs (Bohemians) in America: A Study of Their National, Cultural, Political, Social, Economic, and Religious Life. Cornell University Library. 448 p.

Clarkson Centennial Book – 1886-1986.  Book printed in 1987.  Walsworth Publishing Company, Marcelline, MO.

Clarkson Diamond Jubilee – 1886-1961.  Book published in 1961 by Ludi Printing Company, Wahoo, NE.

History of the Česká Římsko Katolická Jednota Žen (ČŘKJŽ)   – http://www.czechccu.org/wp-CCUlife/

History of the National ČSPS/CSA Fraternal Life  –  https://csalife.com/Default.asp?loc=his

History of the ZCBJ/Western Fraternal Life – http://www.wflains.org/about-western/recent-news/2019/03/look-back-national-conventions/

History of WOW radio/TV – http://www.wowradioonline.net/history/

Hix, Lisa. 2016. When Secret Societies Sold Insurance.  Zocalo Public Square.  https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2016/03/22/secret-societies-sold-life-insurance/chronicles/who-we-were/

Obituary of Nettie Aksamit, one of the teachers in Clarkson’s Bohemian School – https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/109562140/nettie-anna-aksamit

Putnam, Robert D. 2000.  Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  Simon and Schuster, New York.  (Putnam draws on evidence including nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter century to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. We’re even bowling alone. More Americans are bowling than ever before, but they are not bowling in leagues.)

Rechcigl, Miloslav.  2017.  Beyond the Sea of Beer:  History of Immigration of Bohemians and Czechs to the New World and their Contributions.  AuthorHouse. 918 p.

Rosicky, Rose. 1929.  A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska.  Czech Historical Society of Nebraska, National Printing Co., Omaha, NE.   https://www.unl.edu/czechheritage/czechs-nebraska

Stevens, Albert C. 1899.  The Cyclopedia of Fraternities.  A Compilation of Existing Authentic Information and the Results of Original Investigation as to the Origin, Derivation, Founders, Development, Aims, Emblems, Character, and Personnel of More Than Six Hundred Secret Societies in the United States. 486 p. https://eb1870.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Stevens-A-C-The-cyclop%C3%A6dia-of-fraternities-1899.pdf

Posted in 1890s | 14 Comments

Tradition

Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire. – Gustav Mahler

I’ve recently returned from the 57th Annual Clarkson Czech Festival.  Fifty seven times, on the last full weekend of June, our village has showcased its Czech heritage and Czech traditions to the world.  When “Czech Days” began in 1963, celebrating our traditions was as easy as falling off a log.  A great majority of the people in town and the surrounding area were of Czech (and especially Bohemian) ancestry.  Many of the Old Timers still spoke Czech fluently, and for a few it was their preferred language.  Per the old saying “Whoever is Czech is a musician,” there were still a lot of amateur and semi-professional musicians around who played accordions, drums, brass and reed instruments, and sang the old Bohemian songs from memory.  There were so many musicians, in fact, that the festival organizers risked hurting their feelings if they didn’t manage to schedule all the local bands. In 1963 most local women were accustomed to making Czech food, and many people knew how to play our signature card game, taroks.  In a town of fewer than 1,000 people, five taverns, several with beer gardens and music, were open to slake the thirst of our guests.  In short, to stage an authentic, three-day ethnic festival, all we had to do was… act naturally.

Time marches on.  And this rich cultural heritage, embodied in our local traditions, is fading.  Outsiders (“strangers”) have moved into town, are employed in larger, nearby cities, and only come back in the evening to sleep.  Almost no one speaks the Czech language, and most people don’t have a taste for, let alone know how to prepare, Czech dishes.  There are fewer amateur musicians, and few of these have any interest in playing the old songs that our grandparents loved.  We have joined the 21st Century, and for better or worse are leaving behind the 19th Century traditions of our immigrant ancestors.

Of course, this trend of assimilation/homogenization is no worse than among any other traditional ethnic cultures that embrace American materialism, TV, Facebook, and Twitter, but Clarkson still likes to promote itself as a proud lump in the “Melting Pot” we call the United States.  “…the process of assimilation cannot be stopped. There is no point saying if it is a positive or negative process. Definitely it is a natural process which is difficult to fight against.  New generations of Czechs who had more opportunities in education, choice of occupation and in mobility had to leave their communities to meet these opportunities and eventually acquired the American value system.” Bíróczi (2003).

Should we declare victory and go home?  Or would the great Czech-born composer Gustav Mahler still find some fire amidst the ashes?  What does it even mean to be one of our hyphenated ethnic groups, a Czech-American?

In 2003, David Bíróczi, a student at the University of West Bohemia in Plzen, wrote a thesis titled “Czechs in America – The Maintenance of Czech Identity in Contemporary America.”  He sought to determine the extent to which Czech-Americans maintain a Czech identity in contemporary America by surveying 290 Czech Americans across the U.S.  The majority of respondents, young and old, felt that there are shared characteristics among Americans of Czech origin.  In order of frequency, they listed these characteristics as:

1)     Love for Czech traditional food

2)     Love for music and dance

3)     Good work ethic

4)     Close family ties

5)     Frugality

6)     Pride in their heritage

7)     Physical characteristics

8)     Love for beer

9)     Honesty

10)   Sense of humor

11)   Awareness of the importance of good education

12)   Czech language.

Accordingly, a typical American of Czech descent is someone who works hard, loves his family, is not foolish about spending money, is honest, is proud of his heritage, wants to be well-educated, likes good food with good beer, loves music and dancing, and is happy.  Unsurprisingly, these self-descriptions are all positive characteristics.  (We can leave the small number of negative attributes for another time.)  The question is, how many of these 12 characteristics were still in evidence at the 2019 Clarkson Czech Festival?

1) Love for Czech traditional food and  3) Good work ethic

As always, the Czech dinners served by the New Zion Presbyterian Church on Saturday and the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church on Sunday were delicious and well-attended.  Members of these congregations worked very hard to prepare and serve traditional foods: roast pork, dumplings, sauerkraut, corn/beans, horn rolls, and apple strudel.  Any cook can tell you that the assembling, baking, and serving of the strudels alone is a significant effort that often involves several generations of women  working together (4 – Close family ties).  https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2015/07/31/field-manual-cd15-assembly-of-the-mark-iv-apple-strudel/

The generous slices of strudel top off big meals, served at great prices (5 – Frugality).

Czech Days_20190629_006

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The Clarkson Bakery sold untold dozens of koláče all weekend from their stand in front of the Opera House.  A great many visitors drove or flew home from the festival with packages of these sweet treats.

Czech Days_20190630_048-001

2) Love for music and dance

Although there are far fewer Czech musicians in town than in the past, you didn’t have to go far to hear talented accordionists in 2019.  They serenaded the crowd at the Czech dinner on Sunday….

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They played for the revelers at the Pine Street Pub….

Czech Days_20190630_035

And they entertained music lovers and polka dancers from the stage of the beautifully restored Opera House…

Czech Days_20190629_011Czech Days_20190629_012

2) Love for dance and 6) Pride in their heritage

I’ve written before about Czech dancing, especially the complicated routines of the beseda, which hearken back to 19th Century Bohemia.

https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/the-definitive-history-of-clarksons-beseda-dancers/

https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/clarkson-czech-dancers-the-early-years/

https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2014/02/11/the-birth-of-the-beseda/

Invented around 1863, the beseda form of dancing quickly became very popular in Bohemia and Moravia, and it crossed over to America with the first immigrants. But by the mid-20th century it seems to have been forgotten, at least in the Clarkson area.  The organizers of Clarkson’s first Czech Festival in 1963 realized its importance, and they went to considerable effort to learn the dance and then to teach it to the children.  Their efforts were not in vain – in 2019 the Children’s Beseda Dancers performed three times during the Festival, and the adult Czech Dancers twice.  Perhaps more than anything, the transmission of the Czechs’ love of dancing to the next generation has come to symbolize the preservation of our traditions.

Czech Days_20190629_009

8) Love for beer – what can I say?  In the early days there were five taverns operating during the festival, several with outdoor beer gardens, and there were so many beer-drinking partiers that it was hard to get into them.  Now there is one bar left in town, and it was pretty quiet.  But the beer garden that encloses a large section of main street was doing a good business.

10) Sense of humor – Spend 10 minutes around the Clarkson High School Class of 1957 and you’ll hear enough laughter to last you for a week.  Like many of the “mature” graduates of CHS, they have their class reunions every year during the Czech Festival, during which time they cruise around town like teenagers.

Czech Days_20190629_033-001

All over town you see people greeting old friends, recounting old stories and laughing.  It’s this last element that holds the appeal of the Clarkson Czech Festival for me – seeing old friends and neighbors, making new friends.  I was thrilled to see three of my teachers – Mrs. Alice Teply (4th and 5th grade), Mrs. Edith Nepper (6th and 7th grade), and Dr. Don Reznicek (9th grade).  They were as fine a trio of teachers as anyone could ask for, and they encouraged a lifelong love of learning in me.  (11 – Awareness of the importance of good education)

Bíróczi (2003) pointed out that the many Czech festivals in the U.S. help people of Czech origin to realize and be proud of their heritage. The festivals help to preserve the Czech culture for the future and introduce it to other Americans, who can this way learn about our habits and traditions. He believed that this understanding of different cultures makes people more tolerant of each other.  And that ain’t bad.

The 58th annual Clarkson Czech Festival will be on June 26, 27, and 28, 2020.  Uvítáme vás!

Bíróczi, David 2003.   Czechs in America.  The Maintenance of Czech Identity in Contemporary America.  Diploma Work, English Department, University of West Bohemia in Plzeň.

Posted in 1890s | 7 Comments

Sova (The Owl)

Tengmalm's_owl_(Aegolius_funereus) A few years ago I acquired an interesting recording of Czech songs on a CD titled “Czech Stylings – The Mark Vyhlidal Trio with Alfred Novacek on Vocals” (2003).   It’s a very nice collection of songs performed by fine musicians – Mark Vyhlidal (accordion, drums, piano, and trombone), Joe Havlovic (drums and button accordion), Kevin Koopman (bass), and the smooth baritone voice of Alfred Novaček (formerly of Dwight, Nebraska).

The CD features many of the well-known classics – the I Love to Dance Polka, the Blacksmith Waltz, and the reliably laxative Prune Song Waltz (which you will recognize as the theme song of radio commercials for the late, lamented Bohemian Café – “Dumplings and kraut today, At the Bohemian Cafe, Cold beer that’s sparkling, Plenty of parking, See you at lunch today.  OKAY!” ).  But the last, and in my mind the best, song on the CD is the Owl Polka.  It a typically bouncy polka whose lyrics about young romance in the Bohemian woods are periodically punctuated by the singer hooting like an owl.  And in live performance, the audience is often encouraged to hoot along -here’s a good example of that, recorded during an accordion jam at Czech Days in Wilber, Nebaska:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQmCbHZkg18

Alfred Novacek and Brad Husak

Brad Husak and Alfred Novaček  

How many of you know this song?  Despite a long lifetime of listening to, singing, and playing Bohemian music, this was a new one for me.  How could I have missed such a fun song?  It turns out that it hasn’t been around Nebraska for all that long.  Recently Alfred Novaček explained his connection to the Owl Polka in the David City newspaper.     

How the Owl Polka (Hu Hu) got to America

ALFRED NOVAČEK for The David City Banner-Press – March 28, 2018

In Nebraska I had been asked a few times how the Owl Polka got to the United States, so here goes the story.

In 1966, I accompanied my mother Mary Hamsa Novaček, to Czechoslovakia to visit our relatives. There on a Saturday evening, my second cousin invited me to accompany him to a dance in a country hall. It reminded me of the Loma Dance Hall, only a little larger. The dance was an annual benefit fund raiser for the village fire department.

The hall was jam packed, the band was playing, and the people were dancing and mingling. The band struck up the Owl Polka and the people really got into the singing and at the end of the song, everyone sounded off with a “Hu a Hu.” They must have played it three or four times.

When I got to Prague, Czech Republic, I went to a music store looking for the sheet music for the song. Although I didn’t read music, I told the clerk what I wanted and he gave me about four versions.

When I returned to Nebraska, I gave the music to my cousin, Don Hamsa, who was a master musician and composer. He sent his version to Amy Poličky in Dwight, who used it in her band, The Poličky Orchestra. She asked me to do the vocal and it “took off” from there.

Then the late Dr. Vladimir Kučera, Professor of Czech language at UNL, had me sing it on his Czech Spectacular Programs at the Czech Festival in Nebraska.

Later, John Lavičky, vice commander of the Dwight American Legion Post 110, christened it as the Nebraska Czech National anthem.

Tengmalm's Owl 1

So, if The Owl Polka is the Nebraska Czech National Anthem, we’d better get around to learning it, no?  It might take some time because the song is always sung in Czech.  For background, here is the way Novaček translated the song in the newspaper story:

The owl lives in the tree in the forest, in his nest.

Although the wind blows, he stays there.

Many visitors and lovers come to the forest.

He watches and listens to the lovers, but does not say a thing,

only Hu-a-Hu-a-Hu.

I’m guessing that Alfred was translating the verse at the beginning of the song that sets the stage for the refrain.  The Czech words for the refrain, which is repeated several times in the song, are shown below, along with my own fractured translation:

Owl Polka – Czech Refrain:

Proč ta sová tolík houkála

hu – a – hu – a – hu

Na mné se tak dívne koukála

hu – a – hu – a – hu

Ta ná tebe ma las

Ko néco vy až né povím

Přoto včera tolík houkála

hu – a – hu – a – hu

 

Owl Polka Refrain – English Translation:

Why did the owl hoot?

hoo – a – hoo – a – hoo

She looked at me so gently

hoo – a – hoo – a – hoo

You are the one

I say to you

Yet yesterday, so many hooted

hoo – a – hoo – a – hoo

(I’d appreciate anyone with a working knowledge of Czech to improve my translation)

Long-Eared Owl

Not surprisingly, this merry song is popular even outside of the Dwight/Abie/Bruno Corridor.  In 1998, The Owl Polka was issued on a Smithsonian Folkways Recordings album called “Deep Polka: Dance Music from the Midwest.”  In the liner notes, the musicologist Richard March noted that “This tune is a good example of the way Czech polka traditions in America have tended to emphasize fairly elaborate arrangements. The widespread availability of sheet music for band arrangements of Czech folk music from the Vitak-Elsnic publishing company of Chicago helped to establish a tradition of using introductory passages before the main melody and bridges between the parts of the tune. The onomatopoetic singing of the owl’s hoot is appealing. Performed by Clete Bellin (piano, vocals), John Widow (trumpet), Joe Jerabek (tuba), Mike Hager (trumpet), Diana Schroeder (accordion), Bill Jerabek (drums, vocal, harmony).“

Of course! Therein lies the appeal – the onomatopoetic singing of the owl’s hoot!  (You English majors know that an onomatopoeia is a word that actually looks like the sound it makes, and we can almost hear those sounds as we read. For example: slam, splash, bam, babble, warble, gurgle, mumble, belch… and HOO.)

The Clete Bellin Orchestra’s version that the Smithsonian chose to anthologize can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eEuDNyjKDPc   There are many fun renditions of this polka on YouTube; another good one was recorded by the Czech Melody Masters from Austin, Texas on their album “Czech, Please!” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUx-o80H8_A  – it has a distinctive “Tex-Mex” style to the harmonies.

But for my money, the best recordings feature Alfred Novaček himself singing the song that he brought to us from the Old County.

Alfred Novacek and Czech Ambassador

Alfred Novaček and the Czech Ambassador, Petr Gondalovic. Photo courtesy of the Lincoln Journal Star.

Maybe if we’re lucky, and we say our prayers at night, the Jacob Vyhlidal Trio will play The Owl Polka at Clarkson’s Czech Days this year.  It would be a hoot.

Czech tawny owl

Posted in 1890s | 9 Comments

More Country Schools

There has been recent interest in a story that I posted several years ago called “The Memoirs of a Country School Teacher.”

https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2016/05/07/the-memoirs-of-a-country-school-teacher/

The story was a homage to the fine teachers that I had from Grade K-8 in a sturdy, brick schoolhouse in the middle of Colfax County, Nebraska – District 21, the home of the Cedar Hill Bees!  Many of you had similar experiences and fond (and not so fond) memories.  A handful of you were teachers at these schools.

cedarhill1956

The  “one-room country schools” that were so important to many of us are essentially gone forever.  In order to capture the memories that we students and teachers have of this lost world, I set up another blog site that focuses on this educational institution:

https://cedarhillbees.wordpress.com/

District 21 Classroom

As I noted in the introductory section, there are a lot of us out there with all sorts of memories about school days – academic subjects, recess, schoolhouses and outhouses, sports and games, Christmas plays and school picnics.  Because my country school experience is limited to a single building, I am hoping that others who attended or taught in these schools will broaden the perspective by contributing stories and photos.  So get out your Red Chief tablet and a well-sharpened No. 2 lead pencil and write a story that I can post.  Or, if your tablets are now iPads or personal computers, e-mail your stories to me.  There are a number of sections, each devoted to a particular topic (academics, music and dramatic activities, recess/games, utilities, etc.).  There is a page for posting photographs.  If you were a teacher in one of these schools, there is a page for you to add your memories. Finally, if you have writer’s block, turn to the page with Test Questions. There you will find some questions about country school life that may jog your memory.

gradesch

cedarhill50001

SUN OLD TIME001

 

You don’t have to write an essay – there is a section called “Short Memories” for your contributions.  Just a paragraph or two on some topic might jog someone else’s memories.  If you have anything to share, please send your materials to me and I will find a way to work them into this “collective memory.”

Happy reading!

Glenn Čada gfpmc49@tds.net

 

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | 3 Comments

The Stop Inn Café – Where the Elite Meet to Eat

Every town needs a restaurant or two, a place that serves warm, prepared food – where “the elite meet to eat.”  In Clarkson, that function has often been assumed by the taverns, which provided hamburgers, pizzas, and other pub grub to their hungry patrons.  But for nearly a century, a building in the middle of main street served off and on as our café.  Most of us knew it as the Stop Inn Café (aka the Stop Inn Market and Café or just plain Stop Inn).  It was a great place for a mid-afternoon coffee break and to meet your fellows for lunch over a bowl of chicken noodle soup or goulash, cheeseburger and fries, or the day’s roast pork, dumplings, and kraut special.  On the way out, we could pick up a milk shake (paper straws only, please), a cold Popsicle, candy from the well-stocked glass case, or a package of Toman’s wieners or sliced bologna to take home for supper.

I’ve combed through the deep files of The Vault, and have been able to put together some names, dates, photographs, and recipes to remind us of what a good place it was.  There have been a lot of owners and a lot of details, and as always, I welcome any corrections.

The site occupied by the now-shuttered Stop Inn Café was originally the location of a wooden building that housed one of Clarkson’s first restaurants, established in 1889.  (It wasn’t THE first  restaurant – that honor goes to Gross & Menn, proprietors of a bakery and restaurant that in 1887 advertised “pies, cakes, hot coffee, lunch, oysters, sardines, fancy groceries, fruits, candies, nuts, fine cigars and tobaccos.”)  On October 31, 1889 Frank Bašta purchased land from the Pioneer Townsite Company and put up a wooden frame building that was used as a restaurant.  On July 7, 1903, R.P. Bašta purchased the building and leased it to Rudolph Mundil for a restaurant.  Operation of the restaurant was transferred to R.P. Bašta between June 1, 1905 and May 29, 1906, and by August 16, 1907 Frank Bašta was running the business again.  In July 1907 the restaurant was acquired by Joseph Jírovec, who later sold out to Adolph Tomeš.

The present structure that still stands in Downtown Clarkson came into existence in October 1912, when Dr. Silas G. Allen, the village physician, arranged for the construction of a 25’ X 60’ brick building.  (The original wooden building was moved into the unpaved, grassy street where it continued to function, and later was moved across from the Opera House and eventually dismantled).  The new building was occupied by the Saunders and Kubik Restaurant (Frank Kubik and Hiram W. Saunders) from 1912-1918 or 1920.

Kubik Confectionary Store 1916-1918 2

From the looks of the place, it was a pretty fashionable dining establishment.   Electric lighting and ceiling fans, glass-topped metal tables and metal café chairs served to make the customers comfortable.  Potted palms gave it an exotic, upscale look.  Along the back wall was a lunch counter with individual stools, and on the counter can be seen salt and pepper shakers, bottles of ketchup, and a large stainless coffee tureen.  The shelves on the left of the photo hold canned food products, boxes of cigars, tins of Prince Albert tobacco, and, on the top shelf next to the mirror, what look like bottles of whiskey.

The front of the café featured more metal stools in front of a white marble soda fountain countertop.  Sparkling clean glassware and a white-shirted, bow-tied soda jerk, all brightly lit by the windows facing out onto main street.  Behind the counter, a rich, dark wood frame surrounded a large mirror – just the thing to watch yourself enjoying a strawberry soda or a chocolate phosphate.  Glass cases filled with exotic candies, and atop the counter a polished metal scale to weigh your purchases.  Warmed by hot water radiators in the winter and cooled by gentle fans in the summer, the Saunders and Kubik Restaurant was an inviting oasis for dusty farmers, hurried businessmen, and kids with dimes burning holes in their pockets.

Kubik Confectionary Store 1916-1918

Kubik Restuarant

Clarkson prides itself on its overwhelmingly Czech heritage.  Since Day One a very high percentage of its residents have had Czech and/or German ancestors (90% +?).  So it is interesting to note that for a brief period in 1920 the café was operated by 4 Japanese restaurateurs/hoteliers.  On March 18, 1920 the Clarkson Hotel and Café opened its doors for business.  Roy Osaka was the proprietor and was assisted by head chef Eddi Tshuchuja, with R. Saiki and Jim Haya as his assistant cooks.  Roy Osaka (born about 1888 in Japan) had made his way to Colorado and married a local woman, Lea; they had one son Stanley Osaka (born about 1916 in Colorado).  In the 1920 Census the family was living in Gordon Township of Sheridan County, Nebraska.

The May 20, 1920 edition of the CCP reported that “The Clarkson Hotel and Cafe in the former Kubik Restaurant Building is announcing that they are now serving meals and lunches, hot or cold, served at all hours of the day, from 6:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Dance nights until 12 p.m.  Furnished rooms for lodging at popular prices. Clean and comfy beds. Hot and cold water.  Meals are first class and prepared by an experienced chef.  Farmers are especially asked to stop in for dinner or lunch when they are in town. We also serve Sunday dinners.”  It was also noted that Mrs. Roy Osaka and son had arrived in Clarkson from their former home in Merriman, Nebr., to join her husband, who is conducting the Clarkson Hotel and Cafe.

Osaka’s joint must have been pretty spiffy.  The Press reported glowingly on the venue as a location for the annual Junior-Senior banquet:

“On Saturday, May 8, at the Clarkson Cafe, the juniors tendered a delightful reception to the class of 1920. The Junior-Senior banquet announcements came Thursday in the form of dainty invitations in the juniors’ colors of green and white.

Seven-thirty found the seniors escorted by the juniors leaving the high school building for the Clarkson cafe. The Clarkson Cafe had been converted into a beautiful banquet hall. The seniors’ colors of brown and gold were beautifully festooned above the tables, which looked fit for a king. Beautiful bouquets of golden daisies graced the tables. The place cards were hand printed in the seniors’ colors. Dainty nut cups in the shape of daffodils rested beside each cover. Delightful Victrola selections were furnished.
The Menu consisted of fruit cocktail, veal birds, mashed potatoes, creamed peas, vegetable salad, wafers ice cream, cake and coffee.

 Jerry Polansky, president of the junior class acted as toastmaster and was most happy to introduce the speakers who appeared on the program. Each speaker responded to a toast from a word of the senior class motto: “Tonight We Launch, Where Shall We Anchor.” Speakers were Libbie Houfek, Bertha Hudec, Rudolph Rosicky, Henry Rosicky, Olga Lodl, Rudolf Tomes and Prof. Prokop.

During the Junior-Senior class banquet at the Clarkson Cafe, we forgot to make mention that the center of the room was graced with Victrola, and here Miss Novotny and Olga Indra rendered several musical selections on the violin and piano in a very pleasing manner.  Elizabeth Polansky read some of the news of the day which would have to be settled by the Peace Congress.”

Sadly, sukiyaki and kolaches were not a winning combination in Clarkson, because Osaka’s tenure in Clarkson lasted less than a year.  In September of 1920 Mr. Osaka and his assistants sold out to Etta Richardson and left town.

Hang on – here is where things start happening quickly.  Around May 5, 1921 Mr. and Mrs. J.W. Richardson turned the business over to a Mr. Kroeger of Wayne.  Early in 1922 the Clarkson Café and Hotel was taken over by James Krofta and Frank Hubaček.  Soon after, Krofta sold his share to his partner Hubaček.   After two weeks Frank Hubaček sold half his interest in the business to Adolph Nebola .  At that point, the CCP reported that “the boys are enjoying good business and intend to establish themselves permanently.  Not long after, Adolph Nebola sold his interest to Andrew Necas.  The CCP reported that “Mr. Nebola disliked the business after trying it out for a month” and “Mrs. Necas will look after the kitchen while her husband will keep on at his painting trade, helping out after working hours.”  In July 1922 Andrew Necas and Frank Hubaček closed up shop.   Then, in September, 1922 a Mrs. R.B. Brewer began managing the Clarkson Café, only to sell out to a William M. Green on October 5, 1922. As reported in the Press, “Mrs. R.B. Brewer, the lady who undertook the task of managing the Clarkson cafe several weeks ago, decided to quit and returned to her home at Plattsmouth. The place is now looking again for a new proprietor. Mrs. Brewer’s early departure is due to the fact that her daughter who assisted her in the management of the enterprise joined the ranks of benedicts. The young lady’s marriage occurred at Stanton on Monday of this week, her companion being a young man from Plattsmouth. This prompted Mrs. Brewer on account of her age to close the cafe and return to her former home at Plattsmouth.

That flurry of activity (the business changed hands six times in 1922) may have been the end of a café in that building for a good while.  Barta and Barta operated a meat market in the building between May 14, 1925 and November 22, 1928.  On that date Bohumil Beran, who was a butcher in Clarkson for 36 years, bought out their interest and with the help of Joe Kutin went into the butcher business.

I’ve seen two undated photos of the Beran Meat Market.  The first one below was clearly shot in what became the Stop Inn Café – the layout and metal ceiling are the same, and on the right side you can see the stairway that led to the rooms on the second floor.

Beran Stop Inn 1

Bohumil Beran in Beran’s Meat Market

It may not be clear from this online image, but the original is a very high resolution photo that I’ve been able to blow up to make out considerable details.  From left to right, I can see an electric motor (probably to operate a meat slicer for bologna, hams, and summer sausages).  Moving to the right on the counter is a cellophane tape dispenser, a large white food scale, empty 1-qt. milk bottles, and in front of Mr. Beran, a couple of big, round lidded glass jars, one of which holds dill pickles.  In the left background is a wooden refrigerated meat case with glass windows, another meat scale, and two big rolls of brown, waxed freezer paper for wrapping fresh meat and sausage.  On the floor in front of Bohumil Beran is a wire display holding loaves of bread.

It took me a while to figure out what the two white rectangular items are on the counter between the milk bottles and the dill pickles.  They are displayed for a powdered drink called Julep-Aid.  Julep-Aid was a “hot weather” drink sold at least into the 1940s.  Available in a variety of flavors, it appears to have been a Kool-Aid type of drink.  In this photo, a package of Julep-Aid sold for 5 cents, “A Cent a Glass.”  (Another soft drink, Jiffy Julep, was sold in concentrated liquid form in the 1920s-1940s.  Jiffy Julep came in five flavors – Lime, Mint, Orange, Loganberry, and Fruit Punch and, you will recall, was manufactured by the makers of Jiffy-Jell, a short-lived competitor of Jell-O.)

On the right side of the picture are shelves of canned goods to supplement your meat and bread sandwiches.  In an enlarged photo I can easily make out boxes of Everyday Soda Crackers (made by the Johnson Biscuit Co. of Sioux City, Iowa), Kellogg’s Cornflakes (11 cents), Kellogg’s Rice Krispies (12 cents), Kellogg’s All Bran (23 cents), and cans of Campbell’s Soup (10 cents), sweet peas (15 cents), sweet corn (10 and 15 cents), Frank’s Sauerkraut (10 cents), bottles of vinegar, honey, ketchup, mustard, and molasses, and cans of lard, salmon, and sardines.  There are many more small items on the back shelves that I cannot discern, but in all it was a very neat and complete grocery.

Below is another photograph of the Beran Meat Market, published in the 2014 photo book “Colfax County” (M.L. Mass, J. Krzycki, J. Brezina, and R. Waters; Arcadia Publishing).  I can’t tell if this was in the same building as the previous photo – things are arranged a lot differently, and the back wall looks different.  Perhaps Mr. Beran was conducting his business in another building.

Beran Meat Market 2

Bohumil Beran operated his meat market in this building for many years, and on July 23, 1942 he expanded it to include the Victory Bar.  Then, on May 1, 1946, Joe and Edward Švik purchased Beran’s business, remodeled it extensively, and changed the name to the Stop Inn Market and Café.  Taking over the Victory Bar was a natural, as the three Švik brothers (Joe, Edward, and Frank) were all returning from victories of their own – in World War II.  Joe had entered the U.S. Navy on July 14, 1942 and served in the Pacific Theater (Guam and the Philippines) for 41 months before being discharged on November 29, 1945.  Edward was drafted into the U.S. Army before the war, on February 17, 1941, and served 53 months in Europe (Normandy, Northern France, the Battle of the Bulge and the Ardennes, and the Rhineland).  Frank entered the U.S. Army on March 11, 1943 and also served in the European Theater of Operations (Ardennes, Battle of the Bulge, Rhineland) before being discharged on December 7, 1945.

Joe C Svik       Edward J Svik    Frank E Svik

          Joe C. Švik                                        Edward J. Švik                        Frank E. Švik

The Švik Bros. operated the Stop Inn for 10 years, Frank coming back to Clarkson and joining his two brothers in 1948. They served complete meals, beer, soft drinks, a small line of groceries, and a full line of fresh and luncheon meats.  Their wives were full time employees, and as the business grew additional help was hired.

Clarkson Museum_20160906_114

I was too young to remember the Stop Inn when the Švik Brothers ran it, so all I can offer is this blurred photograph from the Clarkson Museum and Ed’s recipe for goulash that was likely served to hungry customers.

Ed Švik’s Goulash

¼  lb lean pork [bite size]

1 ¼  lbs stewing beef  [bite size]

Add:

  7 cups water

  1 tsp chili powder

  1 tsp parsley flakes

  1 ½ tsp salt

  ¼ tsp paprika

  1 tsp celery salt

  1 Tbl chopped celery

  ¼ cup chopped onion

  1/8 tsp black pepper

Boil meat with seasonings and vegetables until tender.   While the above is cooking, place two tablespoons grease in skillet on medium heat.  Blend 6 tablespoons flour, brown and add 1 ½ cups of water gradually.  Add to meat mixture.  Dissolve 8 gingersnaps in ½ cup of water and add to the meat mixture.

Then add:

2 cups catsup

1 Tbl brown sugar

2 Tbl vinegar

½ cup water

½ can red kidney beans [optional]

Best when allowed to set 3 to 4 hours.  If too thick add a little water.

After 10 years the Šviks moved on to other occupations and sold the Stop Inn to Albin “Beanie” Petriček and his wife Lillian on May 1, 1956.  Beanie and Lillian and their two children farmed near Howells until they moved to Clarkson in 1956 to operate the café.   Many of us can remember Petriček’s Stop Inn – a friendly place, cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and a great to stop for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie, a bowl of soup with oyster crackers, or an ice cream cone.

Petricek's Cafe

Those of us who were teenagers during this era may remember the celebrations that took place at the café after high school football and basketball games.  The fans, pep club, and cheerleaders would assemble inside the Stop Inn, filling the place to the brim.  After getting cleaned up in the CHS shower room or returning to town on the bus, the team came downtown for the celebration.  The crowd inside the café would part to create a narrow corridor for the players to pass through individually, and as they walked to the back they were greeted with clapping, cheering, and the loud singing of “When the Devils Come Marching In.”  After their triumphal entry the young men collected at the back of the café where they enjoyed Cokes, snacks, and generally acting like teenage boys.  (I’m told that Clarkson’s athletic supporters actually began this fun tradition when the Sviks ran the café; grilled cheese sandwiches were served after Friday games…  remember meatless Fridays?).

A couple of people I questioned about this story remembered the pies that Vlasta Čada used to bake.  Apparently she was famous for her “Mile-High” meringue toppings, and among the most popular variations was her Sour Cream Raisin pie.  The flavor sounds a bit odd these days, but I imagine that it was a common, popular pie among Old Timers going way back.  Among the earliest pioneers, at least, fresh fruits were a rarity.  Fresh peaches appeared for a brief time each year, oranges and other tropical fruits were special treats enjoyed at Christmas time, and other orchard fruits were seasonal.  But, as in the Old Country, you could always find barrels of raisins in grocery stores in Clarkson, and every farmer had plenty of sour cream on demand.  It would be an easy pie for pioneer women to whip up.  I suspect that many of the fans of Vlasta’s sour cream raisin pie enjoyed it for nostalgic reasons – recalling their grandmother’s and mother’s pies.

The recipe for Rozinka Koláč se Zakysanou Smetanou (Raisin Pie with Sour Cream) seems to have been dropped from the more recent Clarkson cookbooks, but here is one from an older edition that you can try:

Raisin - Sour Cream Pie

Notice that the pie recipe ends with “cover with meringue.”  This is a critically important step, not to be taken lightly.  For you hapless bachelors who don’t know how to make a respectable meringue, here is a proven recipe.

Phyllis' Meringue Recipe

Don’t try to make a “Mile-High Meringue” on your first try.  Set your sights lower – half a mile high is enough until you’ve gone through dozens of pies.  If you happen to live in an arid climate, this will make a creditable pie topping that will last long enough to show off to your neighbors for a day or two.  If you live in a humid climate like Tennessee, you can practically watch the light, fluffy meringue absorb moisture from the air and sink into a pancake before your very eyes.  In that case, you may want to confine your dessert choice to coffee and “sinkers” – fresh, homemade fried doughnuts (which Beanie made in the café every day).

Lillian and Beanie operated the Stop Inn Café from 1956 until Beanie died in May, 1965.  Lillian continued to run the café until May 1, 1967, at which time she sold the business to Mr. and Mrs. Lumir Nadrchal.  In November 1968 they sold the café to Mr. and Mrs. Leonard Nadrchal, Sr., who conducted the business until they sold it to Paul and Betty Doležal on November 15, 1972.

As with previous incarnations of the business, goulash must have been a favored dish at the café because I have found not one, but TWO recipes for Stop Inn goulash in the Dolezal era.  The first comes from Bernadine Gall Humliček, who worked there as a cook in the 1980s.  The second recipe is named after the owner, Paul Doležal, and submitted by his wife Betty (who also knows a thing or two about making štrudl).  The recipes are pretty similar, in that they both feature a healthy dose of ginger snaps – a goulash additive (adulterant?) that seems to be favored by Clarkson Czechs.  I’ll leave it up to some venturesome soul with a strong stomach and a good supply of antacids to make both recipes and tell me which is more representative.  Better yet, make Ed Švik’s recipe for goulash as well and let us know which one of the three takes the crown.  As there are as many goulashes in Clarkson as there are cooks, we may never be able to name a winner.

https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2016/01/10/goulashes-i-have-known/

Taste of Clarkson_0002

Paul and Betty Doležal operated the Stop Inn Café for nearly two decades. They were always crazy busy preparing and serving food during the annual Czech Days celebration, and their relatives often pitched in to bus tables and wash the dishes.  I had left town by the time the Doležals took over, and I only remember one visit to their establishment.  I had dropped into the Gambles store to visit with my father-in-law, Marcel Brabec, and he suggested that we walk over to the café for a cup of coffee.  It was as I remembered it from years earlier – quiet, comfortable, cool, with friendly owners and customers.  Good coffee.  The Doležals closed their café in 1993.

Pam Worley Stop Inn

I was under the impression that the Dolezals were the last operators of the cafe, but since posting this story I’ve been informed that it was kept going at least until the early part of the 21st Century by Pam Worley and David and Mary Kucera.  And one of my correspondents even provided visual evidence in the form of a hot pink Koozie.  Pam Worley Stamer writes “I purchased the cafe from Paul and Betty in 1993, and shortly after, experienced my first year of Czech Days food preparation! A few family friends and employees gathered together on a Sunday and we baked cookie sheet after cookie sheet of kolache and strudel! We would continue the tradition of pork and dumplings with kraut, 3 days a week, including homemade pies and cinnamon rolls! Yes, even the goulash was a staple! We had no idea how fast these would sell out! Prior to opening the doors after the purchase, we remained closed for a week to give the place a new coat of paint and some revamping and freshening up! It was a great 5 years, simple times that are few and far between now!

David  and Marnie Burgess were the last ones to run the Stop Inn Café,  until around 2007.  If anyone has particular dates and stories for the post-1993 establishments, I’ll be happy to revise the post.

It is good to hear that the Stop Inn Café lasted for well over a hundred years in its various incarnations.  But unless something has changed in recent months this fine dining establishment is no longer serving hungry patrons.   The Orange Crush sign that still fronts the century-old building on Clarkson’s main street is in good shape, awaiting another entrepreneur with culinary talents and a greasy spoon.

Stop Inn 2014

Acknowledgements

This story was assembled from the online files of the Colfax County Press (CCP), the invaluable Diamond Jubilee history (1961) and Clarkson Centennial (1986) books, and photographs in the Clarkson Museum.  To Duane and Brenda Novotny, Darrell Podany, Theresa Flynn, Bernice Čada, Leon Sobeslavsky, Denise Hockamier, Donna Adams, Adam Cerv, and Dick Moore – Thanks for the Memories!

 

Posted in Businesses | 25 Comments

Our Friend the Stinging Nettle

Recently I spent some time picking my way through the homestead of one of my ancestors who immigrated to Eastern Nebraska in the 1870s.  Happily, the present owners, also descendants of the original settlers, have chosen to preserve from cultivation the few acres that once held the original buildings.  The house and farm buildings were demolished long ago, and as a result the property has returned to a state something like what our immigrant ancestors encountered – a mixture of tall prairie grasses dotted with occasional wildflowers.  I high-stepped my way through thick stands of big bluestem, little bluestem, common milkweed, Virginia wildrye, meadow brome grass, and western wheatgrass.  The tough, interwoven roots of wheatgrass and bluestem grass formed the sod from which our ancestors’ first homes were made.  It must have been back-breaking work to cut that sod with a spade or turn it with a crude plow.

novotny homeste_20180622_04

Ringing the small preserved area were trees and shrubs common to Eastern Nebraska – sumac, box elder maple, silver maple, and cottonwood.  An unnamed little tributary creek runs along the south side of the homestead, and as I made my way toward it I nearly stumbled into a large, waist-high patch of what I recognized (in the nick of time) as stinging nettles.  Those of you of the Czech persuasion know it as kopřivy.

nettle patch

The stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) can commonly be found along streams and wet areas in North America.  It prefers wet soil, especially if the soil is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus, as from animal waste.  Thus, the presence of nettles is often an indicator of sites that once had barns and other buildings.  The stinging nettle gets its name because its leaves and stems sport many hollow stinging hairs, which act like hypodermic needles, injecting histamines and other chemicals that produce a stinging sensation upon contact (“contact urticaria”).

nettle 1

nettle 2

My most memorable encounter with stinging nettles happened when I was a young lad.  I and my friends Joseph and Mary had gone exploring the meadows and creeks at their farm.  It was a hot summer day, and Joseph and I stripped off our shirts as we forayed through the grass and climbed down to the creek, unknowingly crashing our way through a patch of tall nettles.  (Mary modestly kept her shirt on, and thus escaped the all-torso exposure that we boys received.)  It didn’t take long before we were seized by stinging, burning, and itching.  Worse than chiggers, not as bad as poison ivy.  We were miserable – scratching furiously, we headed for the house, where Joseph’s mother put us in the bathtub and daubed the red spots with a baking soda paste.  It helped a little.  We probably got a coating of calamine lotion after that.  In a few hours the misery was over, and since then I have learned to recognize nettles and give them a wide berth.

Oddly enough, this fearsome plant has a lot of beneficial uses.  It is the exclusive food of several species of butterflies and moths, was used as a textile fiber and a traditional medicine.  Some years ago I learned that the Czechs in the Old Country fed raw nettle leaves to ducks and geese without ill effect, and (sacrebleu!) it is even cooked and eaten by the Czechs themselves!  It turns out that cooking or steaming the plant even briefly destroys the noxious chemicals.  And, if you are adventurous, it is said that young leaves can be eaten raw before they develop their defensive chemicals.

A quick search of the internet reveals that Nettle Soup is the most common culinary creation using this poisonous plant.  The Czechs (who will eat almost anything) have eaten nettle soup for generations, but it is also enjoyed by the French (who also will eat almost anything).  Czechs also use nettles with other herbs for savory pies and Easter stuffing.  But wait!  You can also relish stinging nettles as an ingredient in pesto, lasagna, gnocchi, ravioli, nettle-mushroom pie, sautéed, stir-fried, tea, chips, and as a pizza topping.  As I see it, the variety of meals you could create from that patch of stinging nettles is limited only by your imagination… and pain tolerance.

You can enjoy nettles mixed with spinach, and served with eggs and boiled potatoes:

nettles and potatoes

Or a plateful of savory millet-nettle fritters:

nettle-millet fritters

 

Hungry yet?  Next Easter, you might want to try a traditional Czech dish, popular in South Bohemia – baked Easter stuffing made with semolina, eggs, boiled lamb lungs, tongue, heart, and liver, and, of course, a handful of fresh spring nettles.

 

Vegan, you say?  In that case, you may want to have a little fun, and test your nettle mettle, by entering the World Nettle Eating Championship held annually at the Bottle Inn in Dorset, England.  Competitors from all over the world have one hour to eat as many raw nettles as they can, and the winners are determined by the number of 2-foot-long leafless stems sitting in front of them at the end of the Happy Hour.  Like Clarkson’s Kolache Eating Contest, you have to keep them down or face disqualification; the parking lots are monitored.   Just so you know what you’re up against, the 2018 Champion (with the appropriate name of Phil Thorne) broke his own previous record by consuming 104 feet of raw stinging nettles.

https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/5gk9p3/english-idiots-hold-annual-stinging-nettle-eating-contest

https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/world-nettle-eating-championships-held-8246974

world nettle eating championship

Let me know if you want to practice – I can point you to a good supply.  Bon appetit!

Posted in 1890s, The 21st Century | 1 Comment

The Days of the Locust

One summer in the late 1950s our farm became home to an unusually large number of grasshoppers.  Every year had its grasshoppers, of course, happily chirping in the grass grasshopper on postand doing a tolerable amount of damage to the vegetation.  But this particular summer was far worse than others I had remembered before or since.  Every blade of tall grass along the fence line seems to be coated with them.  Every walk through the pastures would produce a spray of grasshoppers fleeing from us boys trespassing in their territory, often landing on our bare skin with their chitinous claws, then quickly jumping or flying away, just as startled as we were.  They damaged the vegetables in Mother’s garden, eating corn silks, ruining tomatoes, and spoiling the leaves of black-seeded Simpson lettuce and cabbage heads.  Over the weeks, as their size and numbers increased, their endless feasting began to do real damage to my Dad’s field crops (alfalfa, wheat, oats, field corn) in what was otherwise a promising year.  Only the chickens were happy.

At some point my Dad, who was reluctant to spend money on chemicals, had had enough and decided to spray the grasshoppers.  He mixed up an insecticide (likely a chlorinated organic like DDT or dieldrin), loaded it into tractor-pulled and hand-carried sprayers, and went to work.  In my mind’s eye I can still see the carnage that followed in the days after.  There were dead grasshoppers scattered about everywhere – in the fields, in the ditches, on the roads, in the lawn.  A 6-inch-deep wheel rut that had been cut into our dirt farmyard on a muddy spring day was filled to the brim with dead hoppers.  In a few days the Plague was over.  We had won.

The reminiscences of Nebraska pioneers and their descendants are filled with such stories, and many of them don’t end as well as this one.  In the 19th Century many of the grasshopper plagues were caused by migratory swarms of the Rocky Mountain locust (Melanoplus spretus), a species that thrived mainly in the western plains and eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountain.  Occasionally these insects would attain such large numbers that they would swarm, taking flight as a group and being carried east by low-level jet stream winds.  One mass migration that swept through Nebraska from June 15 to 25, 1874 covered an estimated area of 198,000 square miles, twice the size of the state of Colorado. That swarm may have contained 12.5 trillion locusts with a total weight of 27.5 million tons, a phenomenon that is considered “the greatest concentration of animals.” 1,3  As recounted by Wagner5, the locusts devoured entire fields of wheat, corn, potatoes, turnips and fruit.  They gnawed curtains and clothing hung up to dry or still being worn by farmers.  Attracted to the salt from perspiration, they chewed on the wooden handles of rakes, hoes, and pitchforks and the leather of saddles and harnesses.  The locusts blackened the sky, and as they approached some described the sounds of their wings and jaws “crackling like a fire;” others likened it to a roaring sound like a rushing storm.  When they landed, they covered the ground like a crawling carpet and were so thick that their oily bodies coated a railroad track and halted a train near Kearney, Nebraska.

 

locustswarm

In addition to destroying food crops, the migratory Rocky Mountain locust often rendered poultry inedible.  Chickens and turkeys feasted on the insects, which tainted their meat and eggs with a reddish-brown oil.5 The millions of dead locusts polluted water supplies.  Farmers in the affected areas constantly had to remove locust carcasses from their wells to prevent contamination of their drinking water, and cattle and horses refused to drink from streams stained brown by the locusts’ excrement and putrefied bodies.

Locust

The Rocky Mountain locust was the scourge of Nebraska farmers in the second half of the 19th Century.  Since the dawn of the 20th Century, other periodic outbreaks have been caused by more or less resident grasshoppers whose populations may achieve epidemic proportions (irruptions) under the right conditions.  Nebraska is proud to claim over 100 species of grasshoppers, all of which take their share of prairie vegetation.  But 90 percent of the cultivated crop damage has been caused by only four species, all of the same genus: the migratory grasshopper (Melanoplus sanguinipes), the differential grasshopper (M. differentialis), the two-striped grasshopper (M. bivitattus) and the red-legged grasshopper (M. femurrubrum). 2

Outbreaks of grasshoppers and locusts doubtless occurred long before man found his way to North America.  It was only when Europeans began settling in the prairies and converting them to agricultural crops that these insects began appear in the written records.  Large swarms of locusts are first mentioned in Nebraska in 1857, when the Brownville Advertiser reported that locusts “mowed the prairies.”  Swarms of locusts damaged crops in the Grand Island area in 1862, 1864 (when they destroyed all the buckwheat in Hall County), 1866, 1868, and 1869 (when they decimated the corn crop).7

The locust swarms of the 1850s and 1860s didn’t raise as much alarm as later ones simply because there were fewer inhabitants in Nebraska, and fewer people trying to make a living in agriculture.  For example, although there were homesteaders scattered throughout Colfax County, the Village of Clarkson was not founded until 1886.The settlement of Schuyler had only 200 residents in 1869, but it grew rapidly thereafter as railroads land was made available to immigrants from the Eastern U.S. and Europe.   As more and more pioneers settled in Nebraska and began cultivating the virgin prairies, the war between farmers and grasshoppers was joined.  The most serious conflicts were in the decades of the 1870s, 1930s, and 1950s.  Historical records suggest that major outbreaks of locusts or grasshoppers in Nebraska often coincided with drought conditions and occurred in the years 1870, 1872, 1874-1877, 1931, 1932, 1934, 1936, 1937, 1939, and 1955-56.  Of these, 1874 and 1936 were the worst years in the Midwest in terms of crop damage and human suffering.

The Locust Plague - Plate II 1874

The serious locust swarms of 1874 and the grasshopper irruption of 1936 were examples of adding insult to injury.  Both events occurred in the middle of a series of drought years, which had already greatly reduced crop yields.  And, in both years economic conditions were bad; there was a major international financial panic from 1874-1879 as a result of a series of bank failures, and 1936 was in the middle of the Great Depression.  Whatever grain the Nebraska farmers were able to squeeze out of drought and grasshoppers brought little money in the markets.  In 1936 the federal government offered some financial relief, but many of the immigrants and pioneers of 1874 faced total loss and starvation, with help coming mainly from their equally oppressed neighbors.  In addition to aid from private charities, the State of Nebraska appropriated $50,000 in 1874 and the federal government $180,000 in 1875 for relief.5

In 1874 the hordes of locusts invading from the West had reached the North Loup Valley by mid-July and Hall County on about July 24th.  A description of their impacts is provided A History of Hall County7 –  “Corn was “laid by” and in tassel ; the small grain was heading and full of promise. Then dawned the fatal day. By noon a strange haziness overspread the clear, blue sky, and the bright sunlight took on a sickly, yellowish tint. Had anyone taken the trouble to look at the sun through the proper medium he would have discovered the cause of this gradual transformation in the day. Myriads of insects were flitting by the disk of the sun. But people were not looking for trouble and so allowed the phenomenon to go unnoticed. In a short time, however, everyone had cause to become wide enough awake. The clouds of locusts suddenly began to settle over the earth. With a strange whistling sound of wings and myriad bodies they came on, pelting the appalled earth; hustling and tumbling they came, clinging to whatever they happened to strike, devouring every planted thing from Indian corn to garden truck.

At first some of the settlers made vain attempts to scare the pests from their fields, but this was usually rewarded by having the clothes literally eaten from off their limbs. As time advanced the number of insects grew. In places branches of trees are said to have been bent almost to the ground under their living burden. The corn fields were speedily stripped of their leaves, and soon all but the toughest portions of the stalk were devoured.

We hear of thrifty housewives attempting to save flowerbeds by spreading over them bed quilts and carpets for protection, who to their chagrin found the locusts as eager to devour the spreads as they were the flowers.

Ah, those were sad days in the settlement!  Gone were the hopes and day dreams of many a sturdy pathfinder! The last dollar had with many been spent in the hope of speedy returns from good crops. What would now be the future? How to span over the coming winter and eke out an existence till another crop could be gotten became serious questions. Had it not been for the abundance of game in the adjacent hills and the logging industries, many would perforce have left their farms and returned to older settlements.”

Harrison Johnson wrote “During the growing seasons of 1874 and ’75 the Rocky Mountain locust, or grasshopper, visited Nebraska and did incalculable damage by devouring the crops in a large portion of the state.  In many sections, more particularly in the western and middle counties, the destruction of crops by these insects was almost complete, not a vestige of anything green being left untouched by them; and as many of the farmers living in the sections so affected were new settlers, the total loss of the crops upon which they were dependent for the support of their families was a great calamity and caused much distress and suffering.  The destitution was so widespread and so great in some localities that public aid was asked for the relief of the sufferers.  The prompt and generous responses to the call by the people of the east and other localities not so afflicted, in forwarding provisions, clothing, and money, saved many a poor family from actual want if not starvation….  By an act of the legislature of Nebraska, fifty thousand dollars were donated as a relief to the grasshopper sufferers…” 4

Bohemian pioneers who had settled in Saunders County offered their own stories of the locust swarms of the 1870s.  From the area around Prague, Nebraska – “The family reaped good crops for a few years but another prairie fire devastated the area and destroyed much of what they owned. A plowed fireguard saved them from a complete loss because their house and out-buildings did not burn. In other years hordes of grasshoppers destroyed much of their crops. The worst grasshopper plague occurred in 1874. Hailstorms and periods of drought sharply reduced the yield of crops that escaped fire and grasshoppers.” (Mrs. Albie Tesar Rasmussen “A Pioneer Family” in 6)

Matej and Anna Vrana (6) settled in the Bohemia Precinct of Saunders County, near the Platte River.  They wrote “The years of the great grasshopper infestation meant a total loss for that year. They flew so thick that they blotted out the sun. Clouds of them would descend and eat everything in sight. When they arose and flew away there was only devastation left behind. One day mother washed and hung out a work jacket to dry. Before they could come home from the field the grasshoppers had done away with it leaving only the metal buttons on the ground.”

The Locust Plague - Plate III 1876

The Rocky Mountain locusts returned to Nebraska in force in 1876.  An example of the misery that locusts inflicted on pioneers can be seen in the following letter written by Josef Kastl, a resident of Newton, Nebraska (a post office near the Saunders/Butler County line that closed in 1894) and reprinted by Fr. Anthony Pluhacek:

Newton, Saunders Co., Nebraska – 23 August 1876

I promised you that I would bring you a report of the misfortune which has befallen us and so terrified us by the plague of locusts.  I mentioned in my former letter (of 10 August) that these uninvited guests were not devouring much and that we had reason to hope that they would not cause much damage.  The first five days they came they did not do much harm, but on the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th of August there came other swarms to help them.  These indeed were frightfully active in laying waste to our fields, so that it seems that they will leave little of our thriving cornfields.  In places the corn is completely wiped out!

On the 18th and 19th our fearful premonitions were realized, for there came such clouds of locusts that even the sun was eclipsed.  No one who did not see this with his own eyes can believe or even imagine this!  Not even the head of a needle could have penetrated where they settled.  The young trees in the groves were bent over by their weight.  Luckily we already had our wheat put away.

This is already the third year in which the locusts have run riot here and the wound for our countrymen is all the more hurtful because most of the immigrants have come with very little or even no means at all.  If this keeps up, it will be very hard to farm.  God know what and why this is happening.  I clasped my hands in frustration and the tears poured out when in two days I saw my beautiful corn which promised so abundant a harvest (at least 60 bushels per acre) completely ruined.  Indeed, man proposes, God disposes.  I beg God only for this, that my mouth does not open with cursing and grumbling against this dispensation of God, because it does not even lie within me to write how it was in my heart when I saw all of my fatiguing work laid waste.

The story of a certain rich God-fearing man came to my mind – who, when he returned home after a lengthy absence, was greeted with the grieving tears and bitterness of his wife.  “What has happened?” asked the husband.  “Ach, such misfortune!” replied his wife, “our best sixty cows have died!  How can we go on?”  “How you uselessly frightened me,” spoke her pious husband, “when you spoke of such a great misfortune.  In such a manner speak only fools who have no faith in God and whose whole hearts are concerned with the goods of the world.  Dear wife, that we have lost our cattle is a shame, but it is a transitory misfortune which can be made up for.  He who loses the love of God, who has committed mortal sin and lost his soul – only such a person is truly unfortunate, and this all the more because he can never again repair his ruin.”

Such was the advice which the wailing wife received.  But the people of our times pay little attention to such wisdom.  When we suffer even small injury, many of us fall into such evil and spiteful speech that it is terrible to hear.  For what can be repaired by swearing?  Or how can harm done be made up for by cursing?  Indeed on the contrary does not a discouraged person hurt himself all the more when he loses hope for the future?  And when he works in anger and with passion, does not this spoil every work from his hand?  Certainly cursing and evil talk should never come from the mouth of a Christian, for this is the speech of the enemy of God and from the soul shut off from God, and such speech is never fitting from the children of God.

I would never finish if I wanted to write all that is happening, perhaps I might scandalize the readers.  Rather, I say from a full heart, “God gave, God took away. Praised be the name of God!”

Kindly accept my heartfelt greetings, I who remain your true friend,

Josef Kastl

Kastl’s letter emphasizes the religious faith that many poor immigrants relied on to get through these trials.  It also reflects a common pattern – the migrating locusts commonly reached Eastern Nebraska in July and August, when the cereal grains (wheat, oats, and barley) had already been harvested.  The main victims of the first sweep of locusts were corn and vegetables; with luck, the locusts did their damage to these crops and moved on.  However, sometimes the locusts lingered and laid their eggs.  The following spring countless millions of small grasshoppers emerged from the ground to devour the cereal GrasshopperPlague in MNcrops.  Farmers collected the juvenile locusts with nets and other crude devices.  They destroyed the eggs by repeatedly harrowing the ground to expose them to rain, cold, and birds, or by plowing under the egg pods deeply enough to prevent their emergence.

The migratory Rocky Mountain locust did its worst in the 1860s and 1870s, and then began to lose the War Between Farmers and Locusts.  The last major swarm was in 1877, and the last living Rocky Mountain locust was seen in 1902.  The species was driven to extinction by its erstwhile victim… cultivated agriculture.  The farmers’ continuing encroachment on locusts’ breeding habitat and their persistence in cultivating the soil where the insects laid their eggs spelled extinction for the species.  Scientists who wish to study Melanoplus spretus must now look for their preserved bodies in melting glaciers.

There are plenty of species of non-migratory grasshoppers left in Nebraska to bedevil the farmers.  As with the Rocky Mountain locust, our resident grasshoppers are favored by dry conditions.  The Plains States had grasshopper irruptions from 1908-1912, in every dry year of the 1930s (i.e., every year except 1933 and 1938), and again in the dry years of the mid- to late-1950s.  Farmers will continue to battle grasshoppers with increasingly effective pesticides in a never ending war.  But the days of the Rocky Mountain locust are over forever.

References

  1. Melanoplus spretus – Rocky Mountain Locust.  Animal Diversity Web, University of Michigan. https://animaldiversity.org/site/accounts/information/Melanoplus_spretus.html
  2. Ogg, B. and D. Janssen. Grasshoppers in the Field and Garden. University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension.  https://lancaster.unl.edu/enviro/pest/factsheets/268-95.htm
  3. Lockwood, Jeffrey A.   Locusts – The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier.  Basic Books, New York, NY.  294 p.
  4. Alden Publishing Co. 1912. Compendium of history, reminiscence, and biography of Nebraska : containing a history of the state of Nebraska embracing an account of early explorations, early settlement, Indian occupancy, Indian History and traditions, territorial and state organizations; a review of the political history; and a concise history of the growth and development of the state…. also a compendium of reminiscence and biography containing biographical sketches of hundreds of prominent old settlers and representative citizens of Nebraska.  Alden Publishing Company, Chicago, IL. http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ne/topic/resources/OLLibrary/Comp_NE/
  5. Wagner, Alexandra. 2008. Grasshoppered: America’s Response to the 1874 Rocky Mountain Locust Invasion.  Nebraska History 89:154-167.
  6. Kucera, Vladimir and Alfred Novacek (eds.).   Czech Contributions to the State of Nebraska.  https://www.unl.edu/czechheritage/contributions.pdf
  7. Buechler, A. F. and R. J. Barr (eds.) 1920. History of Hall County Nebraska. A Narrative of the Past, with Special Emphasis Upon the Pioneer Period of the County’s History and Chronological Presentation of  its Social, Commercial, Educational, Religious, and Civic Development from the Early Days to the Present Time, with Special Analysis of Its Military and Civil Participation in the Late World War. Western Publishing and Engraving Company, Lincoln, NE.  https://archive.org/stream/historyofhallcou00buec/historyofhallcou00buec_djvu.txt
  8. S. Department of the Interior. 1878.  First Annual Report of the United States Entomological Commission for the Year 1877 Relating to the Rocky Mountain Locust and the Best Methods of Preventing Its Injuries and of Guarding Against Its Invasions, in Pursuance of an Appropriation Made by Congress for this Purpose.  Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
Posted in 1890s, 1930s, 1950s | 3 Comments