I told myself that I would quit writing war stories for a while in favor of more elevating subjects, but I recently came across an interesting tale that I wanted to get down on paper before I forgot it.
Have you ever heard the story of the Five Sullivan Brothers? It is a well-known, tragic event from the early days of World War II that brought about important changes in military policy and inspired at least two movies.
The story, in brief, is this: In a burst of patriotism following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, five young men from Waterloo, Iowa enlisted in the Navy with the stipulation that they would be allowed to serve together. Although the Navy had a policy of separating siblings, it was not strictly enforced. The five brothers were assigned to a new, light cruiser, the U.S.S. Juneau, and in late 1942 sailed to the Solomon Islands to support the invasion of Guadalcanal. Following a fierce, nighttime naval battle their ship was sunk and all five Sullivan brothers were lost. Because of wartime secrecy, their parents were not informed of the sinking of the Juneau and the deaths of their sons for more than 2 months. The parents were greatly distressed because their sons’ letters stopped coming and rumors started circulating through the grapevine about the loss. When uniformed men arrived in Waterloo to inform the parents, their father asked “Which one?” “I’m sorry,” the officer replied. “All five.”
The tragedy inspired a wartime Hollywood movie “The Fighting Sullivans.”
The shock of a family losing all of their sons in a single incident prompted the U.S. War Department to issue Directive 1315.15 “Special Separation Policies for Survivorship” (Sole Survivor Policy) that is designed to protect members of a family from the draft or from combat duty if they have already lost family members in military service. This War Department policy, designed to avoid a repeat of the Sullivan Brothers losses, was the inspiration for the more recent movie “Saving Private Ryan.”
What does all this have to do with Clarkson, Nebraska you ask? One of the Sullivan brothers’ shipmates on the doomed U.S.S. Juneau was a young sailor from the Clarkson community – Frank A. Novotný.
The U.S. Navy had been decimated by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and in 1942 it was still learning how to fight the mightiest navy in the world, the Imperial Japanese Navy. As part of the campaign to take the island of Guadalcanal, they had already suffered what is considered the worst defeat in the history of the U.S. Navy – the Battle of Savo Island. Between August and December 1942 there were seven large naval engagements in the effort to re-supply American troops on Guadalcanal and prevent the Japanese from re-taking the island. One of the later sea battles was called the First Battle of Guadalcanal (aka Third Battle of Savo Island, Battle of the Solomons, or Battle of Friday the 13th} which took place on November 13, 1942. It was the decisive battle because afterwards the Japanese abandoned their attempts to re-take Guadalcanal. But the victory came at a great price.
Early in the morning of November 13, 1942 the U.S. and Japanese fleets encountered each other and began battling in darkness. While trading fire with one Japanese destroyer, the Juneau was struck by a torpedo from another destroyer, the Amatsukaze. The explosion broke the Juneau’s keel and knocked out most of the ship’s fire control systems and one of its two propellers. The Juneau managed to limp away from the battle, but later that day it was torpedoed again, by the Japanese submarine I-26. The submarine’s torpedo hit close to the spot of the original damage and exploded in an ammunition storage magazine. The already crippled ship broke in two, and both pieces sank quickly.
I saw the spot where the Juneau had been. The only thing visible was tremendous clouds of grey and black smoke. … The men told me that the Juneau appeared to explode instantaneously and appeared to break in two, both segments of which sunk in 20 seconds … The signalman on the bridge of the Helena was in the process of taking a message from the Juneau and had his glass trained on the signalman of that ship and reports that the signalman was blown at least 30 feet in the air.
— Declassified report from Lt. Roger O’Neil, a medical officer of the USS Juneau, from the deck of the USS San Francisco, November 1942
There was little time for the crew to abandon the ship that they had been desperately trying to keep afloat. Of the U.S.S. Juneau’s full complement of 697 officers and enlisted men only about 110 sailors initially survived the sinking. That over 100 men survived the catastrophic explosion and sinking is surprising; observers on other nearby ships concluded that all hands had been lost. Efforts to search for and rescue the survivors were delayed for fear of more attacks from the Japanese, the need to maintain radio silence, and subsequent errors in reporting the ship’s last position. As a consequence, the survivors were left to fend for themselves in open seas for 8 days before the first rescue planes spotted them.
After 8 days in the water all but 10 of the crew succumbed to injuries, exposure, dehydration, and shark attacks. Of the five Sullivan brothers, three (Frank, Joe, and Matt) went down with the ship when it sank. George and Al Sullivan managed to make it to a life raft, but Al died the next day. George suffered from delirium as a result of hypernatremia and grief. Four or five days following the attack on the USS Juneau, George quietly eased himself over the side of the raft, never to be seen again.
The fate of their shipmate Frank Novotný is not known, but the Navy records him as being killed in action on the day of the battle, November 13, 1942. As a Fireman 1st Class, there is a good chance that he was below deck, attempting to put out fires, patch holes in the hull, and get the power and electrical systems back on line. If so, Frank would have had less chance to escape the rapidly sinking vessel than the gunners and others on deck; he would likely have gone down with his ship.
I wish I could tell you more about Frank Novotný than the circumstances of his untimely and violent death. Alas, I can find little information about him outside of some scant information in The Service Record Book of Men and Women of Clarkson, Nebraska and Community. My best guess is that he was the son of Josef B. Novotný (February 8, 1874 – August 27, 1955) and Mary Toman Novotný (September 8, 1882 – February 2, 1956). They emigrated from Staatz, Austria in 1908 with their three oldest children – Josef, Marie, and Anna. The family left Bremen on the S.S. Lützow, bound for New York City; their passenger manifest indicated that their final destination was Leigh, Nebraska. More children, probably including Frank, were born after the family arrived in Nebraska. The parents and at least one of their children, Stanley, are buried in the Clarkson Catholic Cemetery. Some sources give Fireman First Class Frank A. Novotný’s address as Clarkson, others as Leigh; he may have grown up on a farm between the two villages. In any event, Clarkson claimed this Gold Star Boy, who gave his life for his Country.
Frank A. Novotný was among the first to join the fight. He joined the Navy one month after Pearl Harbor, traveled from the cornfields of Nebraska to the tropical South Pacific, and died in a violent sea battle that some historians say began to turn the tide of the war in the Pacific. His name, the names of the five Sullivan brothers, and the rest of their shipmates who died in naval Battle of Guadalcanal are memorialized at the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines. May they rest in peace in their watery grave.
As we celebrate this Independence Day with friends, food, and fireworks, it is our duty to remember those who paid for our freedom with their service and, in some cases, their lives. Clarkson proudly counts 10 young men from the area as Gold Star Boys – service men who were killed in World War II. One of these men was an Army Air Force pilot, Emil Edward Šindelář.
Emil Šindelář was born on July 28, 1918 in Stanton County, Nebraska. He grew up on a farm 3 miles northwest of Clarkson that his parents, Emil and Sylvia Rayman Šindelář, had purchased earlier that year from Sylvia’s father. The 1940 Census found the elder Šindelářs living in Clarkson, and Emil was working for the Railway Express Company and living in a boarding house at 2224 Howard Street in Omaha.
The U.S. entered WWII on December 7, 1941, and almost immediately the 23-year-old Emil Šindelář Jr. enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force. He entered the service on January 19, 1942, aviation cadet training on January 21, 1942 at Minter Field, Bakersfield, California and received his wings with the first class of pilots at Roswell Flying School, Roswell, New Mexico on July 26, 1942. On July 30, 1942 he married Miss Ruby Teply, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Anton Teply of Clarkson. After the wedding, the happy couple moved to an air station at Greensboro, South Carolina for their brief married life together.
In September 1942 Emil Šindelář kissed his wife goodbye for the last time and embarked for England and the European Theater of Operations. On January 15, 1943 he flew from England to North Africa as part of the 381st Bomber Squadron, 310th Bomber Group, which was made up of B-25 “Mitchell” medium bombers. Their role was to support Allied sea and land operations in North Africa by bombing German and Italian troops, bridges, airfields and other military targets, and Axis supply ships crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Italy to Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
From his airfield in Berteaux (Ouled Hamla), Algeria, 2nd Lieutenant Emil Šindelář participated in 9 missions as the co-pilot of the B-25 bomber No. 41-13090. Between January 24 and February 23, 1943 his sorties dropped 20-lb. fragmentation bombs on enemy troop concentrations as well as large 500- and 1000-lb. bombs on bridges, airfields, and shipping. A number of his missions, including his final, fatal battle, were sea sweeps/sea searches, in which bombers flew over the Mediterranean with no specific targets, looking for targets of opportunity. These sea searches were hazardous missions. Upon sighting an enemy ship, the planes made their bombing runs at a low altitude, often only 50-150 feet above the water. This flat, low-level approach made the large planes easy targets for anti-aircraft gunners on the ships.
On February 23, 1943 a flight of 6 B-25 bombers and 18 P-38 escort planes took off from Berteaux air field on a 3-hour, 45-minute sea sweep. North of the Cape Bon Peninsula (Tunisia), in the Strait of Sicily, the flight spotted 13 Siebel ferries loaded with trucks, boxes, and barrels that were attempting to resupply Axis troops in North Africa. The barges were well armed with machine guns and anti-aircraft cannon, and were escorted by 2 German ME-109 and 2 Macchi C.200 Italian fighter planes.
The first wave of the attack was made up of three B-25’s, including the plane piloted by 1st Lt. R.W. Martin and 2nd Lt. Emil E. Šindelář. The anti-aircraft fire (flak) from all 13 barges was concentrated on the 3 planes – all 3 bombers were severely damaged and crash landed into the sea. Two of the bomber crews survived the crash landings (one of which was seen climbing out onto the wind of their plane) and were captured and taken as POWs. Sadly, there was no report on Šindelář’s plane, and the crew was listed as Killed in Action. Ultimately 26 500-lb bombs were dropped on the German barges; 5 were sunk and several others damaged. But the entire crew of B-25 No. 41-13090 was lost: 1st Lt. R.W. Martin (Pilot), 2nd Lt. E.E. Šindelář (Co-Pilot), 1st Lt. R.E. Schick (Bombardier), Sgt. D.W. Bush (Rear Gunner), and Sgt. J.P. Thomas (Forward Gunner).
Second Lieutenant Emil Edward Šindelář was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart medal, the Air Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, and Presidential Citation, the European Theater of Operations Medal, the American Theater of Operations Medal, and the World War Two Victory Medal. The sea is his grave, but he is memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at the North Africa American Cemetery, Carthage, Tunisia, an American Battle Monuments Commission location. A brave man, who died before his time.
So on this day, which celebrates our Declaration of Independence, let’s tip our hats to all who work for “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Happily, that standard draws together a pretty large crowd – not only servicewomen and men, but also First Responders, medical personnel, civil servants, teachers, social workers, volunteers of every kind… the list goes on. Happy 4th of July to you members of this patriotic group!
The 2021 College World Series has just wrapped up in Omaha, and before we forget that Mississippi State University’s team smashed Vanderbilt to win the school’s FIRST NATIONAL TITLE IN ANY SPORT, let’s spend a few minutes remembering another real baseball pro – Lambert Barták. Mr. Barták, a product of Our Town, was the resident organist at Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium for over 50 years!
In addition to playing the organ for the Omaha Royals from 1973 to 2002, he was the organist for the College World Series from 1955 until 2010. In 1988 he achieved notoriety by being ejected from a Royals game for playing the theme song from The Mickey Mouse Club while the umpire’s decision was being argued – a lofty distinction that few ball park organists have achieved.
Lambert Barták was born on April 8, 1919 on a farm near Clarkson. His parents, Václav and Emilie Šindelář Barták, were Czech immigrants. The Barták family came to America from Kutná Hora in 1894 and initially settled in the area of St. Henry’s Church. By 1910 they moved to a farm closer to Clarkson. Lambert’s father, Václav, was a skilled amateur accordionist, and he sold 20 hogs to buy his son an accordion of his own. Largely self-taught, Lambert learned to play many instruments and to write music. He also had a keen memory; he was able to play his extensive repertory without written music.
Bartak served in the U.S. Army during WWII, and on his return from the service he married Geraldine Hejtmánek in Chicago in 1946. He had a long entertainment career in the Omaha area, during which he played for Presidents and radio and television shows. In 2010 he said goodbye to Rosenblatt Stadium and retired to California, where he died on November 3, 2013 at age 94. His obituary sketched out his long career:
LAMBERT BARTAK OBITUARY
4/8/1919 – 11/3/2013
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The organist who entertained baseball fans for more than half a century during the College World Series — and who was once ejected from a game for his choice of song during a dispute over a call — has died.
Lambert Bartak died early Sunday at an assisted living facility in San Diego following a brief illness, according to his son. He was 94. Starting in 1955, Bartak was invited to play such standards as “Hello Dolly,” ”You Are My Sunshine” and, of course, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” on his 1947 Hammond organ stationed at the far end of the press box at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha during the annual College World Series. By 1980, he had become the series’ full-time organist, but he still had to be wooed every year, said Kathryn Morrissey, executive director of CWS Inc. “I really think he just enjoyed the banter,” Morrissey said. “I just told him the event would never be the same without him, and that was true. We really didn’t have a backup plan.” He retired in 2010, the last year the series was played at Rosenblatt. Bartak also played the organ for minor league baseball’s Omaha Royals from 1973 to 2002. In 1988, he was ejected from a game when he played the theme song from “The Mickey Mouse Club” during an on-field argument between the Royals’ manager and an umpire over a call. “The truth is, Dad didn’t know why he was being ejected,” his son, Jim Bartak of San Diego, said Tuesday. “He was not a sports fan, and he had no idea what a Mickey Mouse call was. He said at the time, ‘I was just playing Mickey Mouse for the kids.'” Bartak was born April 8, 1919, on a farm outside of Clarkson, about 85 miles northwest of Omaha. Lambert Bartak’s father, a Czech immigrant, played the accordion for parties. The father sold 20 pigs one year to buy his son an accordion of his own. “He showed Dad some of the basics,” Jim Bartak said. “But Dad was otherwise self-taught. He could read music and write music for any instrument.” When the U.S. entered World War II, Bartak joined the Army and was allowed to take his accordion overseas with him, his son said. He became a member of a group that entertained troops in London. After returning, he became known as an accomplished musician who had his own radio and TV shows in the ’40s and ’50s. “He played for several presidents — Reagan, Kennedy, Carter, Clinton,” Jim Bartak recalled. “He spent his life doing what he loved. He was a music man.” Bartak was preceded in death last year by his wife of 66 years, Geraldine. He is survived by his son and two daughters, Linda Fontenot, of Omaha, and Laura Kleinkauf, of Dallas, and numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren. A funeral service will be held Saturday at Church of Joy in Chula Vista, Calif. MARGERY A. BECK, Associated Press
In addition to garnering an entry in Wikipedia and an obituary distributed by the Associated Press, Lambert Barták drew the attention of the New York Times in 2008:
Ensuring It Still Feels Like the Old Ball Game
Lambert Bartak, the College World Series organist for more than 50 years, playing a 1935 Hammond organ at Rosenblatt Stadium. Credit…Chris Machian for The New York Times
OMAHA People always ask Lambert Bartak about the time an umpire tossed him from a baseball game, a dubious distinction for an organist.
But that was just one song, a perfectly timed rendition of the Mickey Mouse Club theme (“M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E”) after a controversial call 20 years ago, among the countless ditties he has played in more than 50 years at Rosenblatt Stadium. Bartak, a vibrant 89, knows hundreds of songs by memory, or at least his fingers do. He remembers only a handful of the precise moments when a particular song was played.
There was the time when the Kansas City Royals’ Class AAA affiliate, as part of some promotion, asked Bartak to play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” backward.
“Buh, buh, buh,” Bartak said on Friday, trying to sound out the final three notes of the chorus in reverse order. Everyone, now: Game, ball, old …
“Oh, it’s a horrible-sounding thing backwards,” Bartak said.
He sat, shoeless, in an enclosed booth, just a man and his weathered 1935 Hammond organ, alone and anonymous in their timeless endeavor. A ballpark organist is part of the unobtrusive background of baseball, or used to be, until most were quietly silenced by time and outsourced by recorded music.
But after decades of playing largely behind the scenes – as an accordion accompaniment to Johnny Carson’s early magic shows (both spent childhoods in Norfolk, Neb.), as a studio musician for a radio station and as a ballpark organist here during the College World Series. Bartak can finally be seen as something more than a lithe-fingered provider of space-filling background music.
He is a reminder of how ballparks used to sound, and feel, and how they increasingly do not.
According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, organs gained a place at ballparks after the Chicago Cubs brought one to Wrigley Field for a game in 1941. It was instantly popular. In 1942, the Brooklyn Dodgers added a full-time organist at Ebbets Field.
Other teams followed, and the trend peaked in the 1960s and 1970s. Their numbers have dwindled since. The Hall’s director of research, Tim Wiles, traced at least part of the beginning of the end to a change in ownership for the Mets after the 1979 season. The longtime organist Jane Jarvis was nudged out at Shea Stadium in favor of canned music. Teams wanted their music to rock, not reverberate.
Most major league teams do not employ organists anymore. Even the Omaha Royals, Rosenblatt’s primary tenants, stopped using Bartak a few seasons ago. It is possible that none of the players on the eight teams that made this year’s College World Series have played in another stadium with an organist.
The slow death of organ music may soon hit this event, where the organ still thrives as if there were no tomorrow, only yesterdays. A new stadium is planned for downtown Omaha in 2011, and Bartak doubts that there will be a spot reserved for an organist.
Until then, he punctuates every third out with a three-chord coda, and fills part of the still air between innings with a three-song medley. He does not plan the song lists, relying simply on some indescribable intuition and the hundreds of song titles he has scrawled before him.
Some are written on a yellow sheet from a legal pad. Some are on a manila folder. Some are on random scraps of paper. Some are on a Newsweek subscription card, the kind that spills from magazines.
Inexplicably, Bartak has homemade sheet music for a few songs, including the national anthem and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The sheets are withered and yellowed, and the ink has run. Bartak does not glance at them.
“I know them all,” he said. “It’s really just a crutch.”
At one break between innings, his medley included “You Are My Sunshine,” “You Don’t Know Me” and something else vaguely familiar, which is the way most organ music sounds.
“What else did I play?” Bartak said, repeating the question, trying to jog his short-term memory. “I don’t remember. I probably just made it up.”
The organ at the stadium, the same one that has been there all along, is in need of a makeover. Its pale paint is cracked in spots, worn away in others. For years, it sat above the stands along the third-base line in a booth with a leaky roof and unmannered pigeons.
Now it is well protected, almost like a museum piece, in a cramped glass-walled booth inside one end of Rosenblatt’s press box above the first-base side. The organ blocks Bartak’s view of home plate, and he waits for a raised arm from a man nearby who runs the stadium’s sound system to start playing.
Bartak plays in his stocking feet, because it is easier to move about the pedals. A bowl of peanuts sits on the piano. A pillow is taped to the wall as a backrest, and another pillow makes the bench softer to sit on. Inside the bench is more music, some newspaper clippings, crossword puzzles, pretzels and M&Ms.
For most of the game, Bartak’s playing causes no ruckus and barely garners attention in the stands. That is both the organ’s charm and its curse, depending on your appetite for distraction. But he is well known here, and receives warm applause when he is introduced before games.
When the seventh-inning stretch arrives, the first few notes of “Ball Game,” as Bartak’s handwritten sheet music calls it, lifts more than 20,000 people to their feet and gets them singing. For a moment, the organ is not just part of the ambient sound, but is plugged into the fans.
The video scoreboard shows Bartak playing, and he gives a wave and returns the applause when the song ends. The game continues and Bartak disappears into the background, waiting for the signal to play again.
But we have also produced many more fine musicians. So here’s a salute to one of them, who made the game of baseball more fun for fans on both sides of the plate (excepting, perhaps, the umpires). The next time you are sitting at a ball park on a lazy summer evening and you stand up for the 7th Inning Stretch to the tunes of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” tip your cap to one of our favorite sons – Lambert Barták.
These stories from the New York Times and the AP remind us of yet another crack in the foundation of Western Civilization – replacing the live ballpark organist with canned music. As the Times noted, “He is a reminder of how ballparks used to sound, and feel, and how they increasingly do not.”
Here he is in action:
Acknowledgements – Thanks to Mark Molaček and Sandra Novotný for making me aware of the man and his story.
The Eastern farmers, Civil War veterans, and European peasants who settled in Colfax County beginning in the late 1860s must have had the possibilities of wheat production foremost in their minds. The vast tracts of native prairie grasses that stretched before them could easily be replaced by more economically valuable grass species – the cereal grains such as wheat, oats, barley, and corn. Of these, wheat was initially the most important as a cash crop; whereas oats, barley, and corn were primarily used as animal feeds, wheat supplied the daily bread of settlers, the expanding populations in the United States, and eventually people throughout the world. It wouldn’t take long before wheat farmers on the Great Plains began to outcompete their former neighbors in Europe by flooding international markets with high volumes of low-priced wheat.
Montgomery (1953) gave 5 reasons for the rapid expansion of wheat farming west of the Mississippi River after the Civil War: (1) the availability of large areas of fertile land; (2) the perfection of the binder and improved tillage and harvest equipment; (3) construction of railroads which provided access to world markets through terminals in Omaha, Kansas City, Chicago, and Minneapolis, (4) the development of futures trading and warehousing which provided a continuous market; and (5) the introduction of hard winter wheat and improved milling practices. I have already written about the availability of cheap land made available by the railroads and the U.S. Government (via the Homestead Act of 1862); in Eastern Nebraska these lands were especially attractive to Civil War veterans and European immigrants. It is worth discussing how some of the other elements – improved strains of wheat, improved farming equipment and techniques, and a developing infrastructure of grain mills, storage silos, and railroad shipping terminals, were expressed in the Clarkson area.
Introduction of Improved Wheat Varieties – Spring (2021) summarized the early history of wheat production in the Central Plains. He noted that the first recorded wheat harvest in Nebraska was around 1870. The settlers, mainly from Central Europe and the Eastern U.S., brought wheat varieties that had done well for them at home. However, their winter wheat varieties didn’t thrive in the Great Plains, often succumbing to winterkill or drought, and were abandoned. Soft red spring wheat fared better, and the vast majority of acres were planted to spring wheat until around 1900 in Nebraska and Colorado. Yields of spring wheat were low; a 20 bushel per acre crop was good, and complete crop failures were still common.
In the Clarkson area in 1880, wheat and oats yielded 6-13 bushels per acre and corn yielded 30-40 bushels per acre (Pluhaček 1970). That year wheat sold for 65-75 cents per bushel ($17.02-$19.64 in today’s dollars), oats for 25-30 cents per bushel, and corn for 20-22 cents per bushel ($5.24-$5.76 today). So a 10-acre wheat field that yielded 10 bushels of grain per acre would fetch an 1880 farmer the modern equivalent of $1,700-$1,964. Good growing conditions and the increasing numbers of settlers led to steep increases in crop acreage in Nebraska during the 1880s.
Our Colfax County wheat farmers were resigned to growing the low-yielding, soft, spring wheat varieties until the Mennonites arrived to save the day. Mennonite farmers from Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula (aka the Germans from Russia) settled in Kansas in the early 1870s and brought with them their famous Turkey hard red winter wheat. It did as well in the dryland prairie environments of Western Kansas, and ultimately in Nebraska and Colorado, as it had in Crimea. Knowledge of this winter wheat variety and how to grow it was slow to spread; Turkey red wheat seed was imported for sale to the public beginning in 1885 (Spring 2021). The superintendent of the Kansas State Agricultural College received some of this seed in 1890. Variety trials clearly showed its superior performance, to the extent that the new college soon declared it a “heavy yielder,” “perhaps the hardiest wheat of any we have tested” and the “standard wheat” for the state. Another large seed import in 1900 cemented the success of the Turkey variety of winter wheat in Kansas and adjacent areas. By the turn of the 20th Century, hard red winter wheat had replaced the soft spring wheat varieties that had been grown in our area by the first generation of immigrants (it accounts for 95 percent of the wheat now grown in Kansas). It was then up to the millers to modify their equipment in order to grind this new, hard wheat into flour.
Development of tillage and grain harvesting equipment – The very first settlers arrived with a horse or team of oxen and a few hand tools (some families in the Heun area were so impoverished that they had to share a shovel with neighbors in order to cut sod for a house). As a consequence, planting and harvesting wheat was a time-consuming and back-breaking activity. Early in the spring the ground would be broken with a plow, and grains of spring wheat sewn by hand. About four months later the wheat had seeded out and was drying, ready to be harvested. When the wheat stalks and kernels were sufficiently dry, the harvester (reaper) moved through the field with a scythe, cutting the wheat stalks with broad sweeping motions. A man using a scythe could cut about 0.3 acres of wheat per day (https://historylink101.com/lessons/farm-city/reaping.htm ). My dad had a rusty, well-worn scythe in the shed that he had used as a young man. I never saw him use it, but my attempts to cut some brome grass with it failed miserably – I was a grim reaper. I suppose the secret to reaping wheat with a hand scythe was in proper technique, and a blade kept razor sharp by frequent application of a whetstone.
The fallen wheat was gathered into small bundles (sheaves), and tied with twine. Six to eight bundles were collected together and stood upright with the grain heads on top to dry further in the sun for several days. The group of bundles was called a shock. Making sheaves and shocks was a good job for women and children, following behind the reaper. After the shocks of wheat had dried, they were taken back to the barn so that they could be threshed (to dislodge the wheat kernels from the straw) and then winnowed (to remove the chaff from the kernels). The wheat kernels were put into gunny sacks and taken to a nearby mill to be sold or ground into flour for the family’s use. The 1857 French painting “The Gleaners” depicts peasant women moving through the wheat fields in the evening, collecting one-by-one the grains of wheat that had fallen to the ground during harvest. I don’t know whether such scenes were acted out on the Nebraska prairies, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Initial plots of land were small (often only 80 acres), and every grain of wheat would have been precious to thrifty Czech and German immigrants.
No doubt one of the first pieces of equipment that the immigrant wheat farmer acquired was a mechanical reaper. The first reapers were pulled by horses and simply cut the standing wheat and left it lying on the ground – essentially doing the same job as a scythe, only much quicker. Later innovations added a board behind the blades to catch the cut stalks so that a person walking alongside could pull them to the ground in clumps. The invention of the sail reaper in 1862 did the clumping as well. And in 1877, the McCormack Reaper was introduced which cut the wheat stems, clumped them together into sheaves, and tied the sheaves with twine, all in a single pass through the field. Et voila! Now the operator could ride on the reaper (aka binder), directing the movements of the horses through the wheat field, and his family could walk behind, picking up the bound bundles and grouping 6-8 of them vertically into shocks. With a McCormick Reaper this part of the wheat harvest could proceed at the blistering pace of 10 acres per day.
Once harvested, removing the wheat kernels from the stalk (threshing) was slow and simple. As did the Romans, the first immigrants laid the sheaves of wheat on a blanket or tarpaulin and beat them with flails. Again, it would have been a pretty good job for a boy with excess energy. Given enough time and repetition, the kernels would fall to the bottom to be collected and winnowed. The dried wheat straw was then used for bedding (both human and animal), and was especially popular among chickens who spent their days searching for insects and wheat berries still attached to the straw. As with reaping, threshing was greatly speeded by the employment of threshing machines. Mechanical threshing machines were around since the late 18th Century, but they were big and expensive, and for many years Colfax County farmers shared a thresher or hired a custom threshing crew that moved from farm to farm. https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2015/06/19/threshing/
The Novotny brothers who farmed southeast of Clarkson bought a J.I. Case threshing machine as early as 1873 and hired themselves out to thresh grain for farmers in the areas (CHBC 1961). Their threshing season began when the grain was in shock (usually June) and lasted until late fall from stacked grain. Their yearly earnings from threshing jobs ranged from $700 to $1,000.
Ultimately, combines were invented that both reaped and threshed the cereal grains. In 1929 the International Harvester Co. introduced the first tractor-pulled combine, and in 1939 Massey Harris brought out a self-propelled combine. The combine harvester was a great innovation, displacing the binder, hand shocking, pitching and threshing. In one operation, the grain was cut and threshed, the cleaned grain elevated into a storage tank on the combine, and the straw scattered on the field to be plowed under or baled up later, all at a rate of around 40 acres per day. The first combines were small and affordable enough to be purchased by individual farmers. At this point, in the 1940s for many Colfax County farmers, the horse-drawn binders and stationary threshers were replaced by tractor-drawn combines.
The most recent versions of the combine harvester are self-propelled, with enclosed, heated and air conditioned cabs, radios and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology (MDA 2021). They have cushioned seats and adjustable steering wheel heights for leg comfort. The modern wheat harvester can singlehandedly turn a standing field of wheat into a binful of wheat kernels at a rate of 200 acres per day, all the while listening to the opera in complete comfort. In 2020, wheat yielded an average of 51 bushels per acre. At $6.75 per bushel, that 10-acre wheat field would offer a gross receipt of $3,443. Subtracting the cost of equipment, interest on loans, and operating expenses might bring the wheat farmer’s net profit per acre down to the levels that his great-great grandfather achieved in 1880.
Milling, Storage, and Shipping of Harvested Wheat – In the early days of Colfax County local grain (grist) mills were common. As with other small mills built at this time, running water was needed to turn a water wheel to operate the stone grist mills. The deep channel and steep banks of Shell Creek in some areas would have made the construction of a small dam and mill pond feasible. For example, in 1868 the first mill to be built in the central part of the state was constructed on Shell Creek by John Peter Becker and Jonas Welch (Morton 1911). John Peter Becker was a German immigrant who became a successful grocer and grain and livestock dealer in Columbus, NE. Becker and Welch built their mill on the east side of the Platte-Colfax County line. It was a profitable enterprise, serving settlers within a 50-mile radius until 1886. Becker and Welch also traded in cattle, hogs, and sheep in association with their mill.
A similar mill was built by W. Dworak five miles northwest of Schuyler in 1874, and Hansel and Novak built another mill two miles northeast of Schuyler (Krzycki 2012). This mill had to be closed due to flooding in the Shell Creek. A fourth water-powered grist mill was built in 1870 by N.W. Wells on Shell Creek two miles north of Schuyler that continued until the winter of 1882; the so-called Wellsville Mill was also closed due to high waters. In 1882, Wells and Nieman built a steam-powered mill in Schuyler in connection with their existing elevator on the Union Pacific tracks. This facility had the capacity to produce 300 barrels of flour per day, and the elevator had a storage capacity of 20,000 bushels of grain (Krzycki 2012). These mills supplied the local settlers with stone-ground wheat, barley, and rye flour.
As grain production ramped up and exceeded the needs of the local population, railroads began to ship the excess grain to markets in the East. The Union Pacific railroad transported grain and the Schuyler mill’s Puritan brand of flour to worldwide markets. Commencing in 1865, the Union Pacific Railroad had pushed from Omaha through Fremont, Schuyler, and Columbus, and had reached the Nebraska-Colorado state line by 1867. Also, the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad (later a part of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad) started in Fremont and headed northwest, reaching Hooper in 1869. The railroad forked at Scribner, one fork continuing northwest, reaching West Point in 1870, Wisner in 1871, and Neligh in 1880. The Chicago & Northwestern Railroad built the other fork, which headed due west from Scribner to Lindsay, NE; it was opened on December 6, 1886 (Morton and Watkins 1918). Along this meandering line the villages in the northern parts of Dodge, Colfax, and Platte counties were established: Snyder (1890), Dodge (1887), Howells (1887), Clarkson (1886), Leigh (1887), and Creston (1890). These villages, and the expanding town of Schuyler, gave farmers access to retail goods and distant markets via the railroad stations.
The Village of Clarkson was founded in 1886 as a stop along the railroad line, but for its first decade it had no flour mill (CHBC 1961). Clarkson’s Board of Trustees realized that they were losing revenue to surrounding towns that had mills, so at their May 3, 1892 meeting they offered a bonus to the Dodge Mill to build a grain mill in Clarkson. However, it wasn’t until 6 years later, in 1898, that the first Clarkson grain mill was completed. Built alongside the Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad tracks, it was operated by several owners and millers until it was destroyed by fire in September, 1912.
Clarkson Milling and Grain Co. was initially just a mill, with no significant storage facilities. In 1907 a decision was made to build a grain elevator with a capacity of 25,000 bushels (CHBC 1961). In 1910 the railroad shipped out 215 cars of corn (at 29 cents/bushel), 36 cars of oats (22 cents/ bushel), 13 cars of wheat (69 cents/bushel), 154 cars of cattle, 231 cars of hogs ($6.40 per hundred pounds), 9 cars of horses, and 10 cars of sheep. [In return, that year the railroad delivered to Clarkson 86 cars of lumber, 68 cars of coal, 15 cars of lime and cement, 12 cars of implements, 2 cars of wire, 6 cars of salt, 2 cars of sugar, 10 cars of bricks, and 110 cars of merchandise.]
Shortly after Midnight on September 19, 1912 the Village Marshal discovered a fire in the flour house of the Clarkson Mill. He immediately gave the alarm and the fire department responded promptly, but the fire quickly burned out of control. The firemen devoted their energies to saving other buildings nearby. The mill had recently been repaired and much new machinery had been installed. Between 8,000 and 10,000 bushels of grain were in storage, and 3 carloads of flour and feed were on hand. The loss was estimated at $18,000.
Plans for a new mill were quickly made, construction of the 28 ft X 54 ft structure began in April 1913, and grinding in the new mill commenced on July 29, 1913. The mill was steam powered and designed to turn hard winter wheat kernels into white flour at a rate of one hundred 196-pound barrels of flour per day. The white flour capacity of the mill was 400 sacks every 24 hours, marketed under the “White Swan” name. In addition, Clarkson’s mill was one of only 5 mills in Nebraska that was equipped to mill rye flour, at a capacity of 125 sacks every 24 hours. The mill was also able to manufacture Graham flour, farina, whole wheat flour, corn meal, and to grind livestock feeds of all kinds.
On May 30, 1918 some 250 local farmers held a mass meeting at the Clarkson Opera House and elected a Board of Directors for the Farmers Union Co-Op Supply Co. It was decided to erect a new 40,000-bushel grain storage elevator. Plans were made on January 25, 1919 and construction of the elevator began in March. The new Farmers Union Co-Op elevator received its first load of oats from Frank J. Houfek on September 18, 1919.
As both the local population and nearby wheat production ramped up during the 1910s, the Clarkson Mill thrived, grinding increasing amounts of grain in its wooden and stone machinery. The need to feed armies and civilians during World War I provided a lucrative market for both farmers and millers.
But with the end of the Great War and the onset of the Great Depression, business declined, and the Clarkson Mill closed its doors in 1951. The building is gone, but the milling equipment lives on, now residing inside a re-created flour mill at the Stuhr Museum’s Railroad Town in Grand Island, NE.
A final note – Years of fighting during WWI had seriously disrupted European agricultural production. Realizing that famine would add to the numbers of victims of the Great War, the U.S. Government responded to the problem by supplying food during the war through the Commission for Relief in Belgium. After the war, the U.S. Food Administration (USFA), also under the direction of Herbert Hoover, pledged to provide 20 million tons of food to starving Europeans.
An illustration of the contrast between the bounty of the New World and the limitations of the Old can be found in the memories of Charles J. Novotny (CHBC 1961): “…when I was still a little boy.. one of my father’s cousins came to America to visit with his relatives. This was after people were starving in Bohemia due to several dry years. This gentleman of course wanted to work so he was given a job to chop some fire wood. While doing this I brought him a piece of buttered bread and while eating it, one little crumb fell to the ground. He got down on his knees and kept looking for it for a long time. I said “you need not look for it. I will bring you another slice.” He replied “No, do not bring me any more, we must not waste even one crumb of this God given bread,” and he kept looking for the crumb until it was recovered. ‘’
Probably as part of the USFA program or its successor American Relief Administration (ARA), the U.S. government purchased 140,000 lbs. of flour from the Clarkson Mill soon after the end of WWI. Nearly 3,000 50-lb sacks of flour were shipped out by rail. The ARA food shipments continued until 1922, by which time European farmers were able to get back on their feet again and famine was averted. It’s nice to think that in those desperate, hungry years our immigrant ancestors were able to provide their Old World compatriots with their daily bread.
Acknowledgements – Thanks to Mark Molaček and my brothers Larry and Ron Čada for their memories.
Clarkson Centennial Book Committee. 1987. Clarkson Centennial Book – 1886-1986. Walsworth Publishing Company, Marceline, MO. 407 p.
CHBC (Clarkson Historical Book Committee). 1961. Clarkson Diamond Jubilee – 1886-1961. Ludi Printing Company, Wahoo, NE. 104 p.
It’s a little more than a century ago that the United States embarked on “The Great Experiment” – the complete Prohibition of intoxicating liquors. Although some individual states began their experiments sooner, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors nationwide, was ratified on January 16, 1919. Enforcement of the 18th Amendment was provided by the Volstead Act (formally the National Prohibition Act) which took effect on January 17, 1920. On that date, tavern lights went out all over the country.
Much humor has been directed toward the Temperance Movement, whose virtuous members wished to tear the cocktail glasses from our hands. But in their defense, Prohibition was instituted in reaction to the undeniable miseries and loss of human resources caused by drunkenness and alcoholism. Yet, a great many Americans who enjoyed drinking in moderation disagreed with it, and the liquor laws were widely ignored. Prohibition was especially unpopular among European immigrants, for whom a mug of beer or a jelly glass of wine or brandy was a part of their heritage – as natural as rain. For example, in 1915, when the Righteous Fires of Temperance were burning hottest, Clarkson’s 825 Czech and German citizens kept five saloons busy.
[An interesting loophole in the 18th Amendment is that it prohibited only the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors, NOT the consumption of such beverages. So anyone with the foresight and resources to stock up on alcohol before Prohibition began could legally drink his way through the decade known as the Roaring 20s.]
With the advent of Prohibition in Nebraska in 1917 (we jumped the gun), Clarkson’s saloon owners had to adjust as best they could by selling soft drinks, cigars, and “near-beer” (beer with an alcohol content of less than 0.5%).
The consumption of fruit juices and other non-alcoholic beverages increased. Budweiser’s loss was A&W Root Beer’s gain.
Many of those who could not purchase the Real McCoy simply made their own – homebrewed beers and wines were easy to concoct. Clarkson’s Bohemians and Germans took up home brewing of beer with gusto, using their root cellars to keep the beverage cool. A few more enterprising citizens made money by distilling hard liquors for sale; it is said that on Saturday nights at least one residence on the east edge of Clarkson resembled a drive-through package liquor store.
As long as people behaved themselves, the local community and local law enforcement looked the other way. The consumption and sharing of home-brewed beer and wine, and even distilled spirits, was considered by many to be a (mostly) harmless activity. It provided refreshment for the tired laborer, and it was a sign of hospitality to guests and a reminder of good times in the Biergartens and hospodas of the Old Country. For most, a neighbor who made good moonshine was a blessing. But when the moonshiner was the Reverend Anthony Folta, a Catholic priest and the pastor of Colfax County’s most important Catholic Church, it was a scandal.
Fr. Anthony Folta was born in Bohemia in 1884. Leaving his parents behind, he immigrated to the U.S. as a young priest in order to serve Bohemian and Moravian immigrants in the Midwest. He was only one of many well-educated young priests who were recruited by American bishops to serve the needs of the Czech immigrants. In 1919-20 he served as assistant pastor at St. Wenceslaus Church in Omaha when it was located at 14th and Pine, in the middle of Little Bohemia.
In 1920 Rev. Folta was assigned to the Holy Trinity Catholic Church at Heun, and he became a naturalized citizen in October 1923. While in residence at Heun, he also served the nearby Dry Creek and Tabor Catholic mission churches. He worked hard to forge strong Catholic communities, preaching to his parishioners in their native Czech language and creating Christian fellowship by supporting social activities such as drama clubs, card parties, and the annual pout celebrations. In the 1920s he oversaw the construction of a new parish house ($13,000) and a new brick church ($35,000). The new Heun church was dedicated on September 25, 1929, just a month before the Wall Street Crash of 1929 ushered in the decade of the Great Depression. In an unhappy conjunction of stars, Fr. Folta was tasked with guiding his flock that (1) was suffering through an economic depression, (2) was at the beginning of one of the most serious periods of drought in recorded history (the “Dirty Thirties”), (3) had spent much of the parish’s savings and pledges for two grand buildings, and (4) was comprised mainly of Bohemians, notorious for their tight-fisted attitudes toward spending money. Despite these hurdles, Fr. Folta managed to build one of the finest rural churches in Nebraska. He eliminated the construction debt on the new church prior to its consecration, and he remained a popular pastor.
One of the ways he helped get the church out of debt was by operating a small “convenience store” in the basement of the church, from which he sold candy bars and other food items. Otto Koliha recalled trucking supplies of dried apricots, dried peaches and sugar to the basement store every few months – “I’ll wager that all of this wasn’t used for kolaches.”
It was this last activity that was the undoing of the Reverend Folta. It turned out that he was a serious vintner and distiller – an uncomfortable avocation for a Man of the Cloth during Prohibition. And he was caught at it not once, but twice.
1st Offense – Rev. Folta was arrested on June 11, 1930 for operating a 15-gallon still that he was using to make fruit brandy. The details of its discovery have been lost to history. But family legend has it that state revenuers suspected that he was illegally distilling liquor for some time, but could never catch him in the act because of the protection of the local Colfax County Sheriff, Phil Roether. Sheriff Roether, who had more sympathy for Priest than Prohibition, would learn of upcoming raids and tip off Fr. Folta in time for him to hide his stock. Eventually, the revenuers guessed the situation and pulled off a raid of the Heun parsonage without first informing Sheriff Roether. They discovered a working still in a shed near the parish house, and in the basement an electric aging plant and a keg of 1-year-old brandy.
In his defense, Fr. Folta said “I never ran the still for commercial purposes but if some member of my congregation came along I would give him some brandy. The people in the parish were Bohemians and I knew they were not opposed to liquor or to the running of a still, as long as it was not for commercial purposes. I am a Bohemian, I was born in Bohemia. It was always our custom to give spirits to our friends, to have some in the house when they visited. It always seemed natural to me to do that. As far as breaking the law is concerned, I didn’t think of that. I acted purely as an individual, not as a churchman. I am opposed to the prohibition law. I saw no moral harm in making brandy.”
On June 16, 1930, Rev. Folta pleaded guilty to violation of the Volstead Act, and was handed the minimum penalty – a fine of $500 plus costs and 30 days in jail. Fr. Folta agreed to pay the fines and serve the jail time if the judge so ordered. He said he was a poor person but would sell some of his property, which consisted of a few chickens and some personal belongings. His 30-day jail sentence was suspended and he was paroled to Geo. W. Wertz for a period of one year.
Rev. Folta said he believed that one of his parishioners turned him in to the authorities because they were opposed to the large expenditures for the church and parsonage. “There was a faction that thought we were spending too much,“ he said. “They did not want me as priest. We were unable to raise our quota for the bishop’s fund because of this faction. But I cannot have any hard feelings. Whoever told the officials probably did his duty.”
Fr. Folta expected to be suspended from the Diocese of Omaha. He said “I know that I am through in the Omaha diocese. As soon as I receive official notice I will be a freelance. I don’t know if I will be permitted to continue in the priesthood. I hope I will. I’ll never make a mistake like this again.”
Properly chastened, Fr. Folta was allowed to continue serving the Heun Catholic community as its pastor, and later that same month was deeply gratified to host priests from other parishes for the annual Pout celebration on the Feast of the Holy Trinity.
Although he was penitent, he was not reformed…
2nd Offense – Fr. Folta’s second bust for violating the Volstead Act came less than a year later. According to information reported in the Colfax County Press, on April 6, 1931 Rev. Folta was stopped for speeding while passing through Fairmont, Nebraska. He was en route to Oklahoma to inspect an oil field, where he was said to have potential interest as a stockholder. The arresting officers searched Rev. Folta’s car and found two gallons of whiskey. After placing Rev. Folta in jail in Geneva, the two officers immediately drove the 105 miles to Heun Church to search the parsonage. They found all the doors to the parish house locked, but gained entrance through a broken basement window and performed an apparently warrantless search of the entire house. They found a quantity of beer, whiskey, brandy and mash, which was seized to be used as evidence against him.
Rev. Folta was charged with possession of a quantity of intoxicating liquor, fruit and sugar mash, and beer mash. This was his second violation of the Volstead Act. He was also charged with breaking parole of the earlier offense. His case went to trial on July 8, 1931.
The case of the State of Nebraska vs. the Rev. Anthony Folta was tried in Colfax County court with a jury of six men, County Judge William H. Roether presiding. The case was prosecuted by Clifford L. Rein of the State Department and then-County Attorney Lumir F. Otradovsky. Folta’s attorneys were Eugene O’Sullivan of Omaha and Frank C. Charvat. The jury was composed of Peter Svatora, Alfred Taylor, Dan Bauman, Anton Pimpara, Edward Michaels and Frank Shoultz. After hearing the testimonies and the arguments of counsel, the jury retired at 4:10 in the afternoon. By 8 PM that evening they had returned a verdict of not guilty.
Rev. Folta was cleared by the court, but he still had to face the ecclesiastical music from his boss, Bishop Joseph Rummel of the Diocese of Omaha. Again, he was treated with compassion. After two strikes he was out of the Heun parish, but he was not thrown out of the diocese. Instead, he was banished to St. Wenceslaus Church in Dodge, where he served the Bohemian and German parishioners for the rest of his short life. Rev. Anthony Folta was pastor of St. Wenceslaus from October 1, 1931 until his death 6 years later. He died unexpectedly in Omaha on September 18, 1937 from complications following surgery. He was only 53 years old. His mortal remains were buried in the Heun Cemetery on September 22, 1937.
By today’s standards, Rev. Folta’s lawbreaking was small potatoes. Where I live in East Tennessee, there are plenty of whisky distillers who make and sell their product without the formality of a tax stamp on the bottle. Good moonshiners (not the kind who poison you) are celebrated as folk heroes, and their products are widely and more-or-less openly sold, especially in dry counties. The Thunder Road, subject of the famous song and movie from the 1950s about a daring bootlegger, snakes its way through the Tennessee hills only 2 blocks from my house.
Less than two years after Fr. Folta’s second bust, the newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt kept his campaign promise of restoring liquor to thirsty Americans. On March 22, 1933 FDR signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, which legalized the manufacture and sale of certain alcoholic products. Passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933 repealed the hopeful, idealistic, but unrealistic 18th Amendment. Even so, Nebraska wasn’t yet on board and liquor continued to be outlawed. Although ratification of the 21st Amendment repealed prohibition federally, Nebraska remained dry. Beer became legal in the state in August, 1933, but it wasn’t until November 1934 that Nebraskans would vote to repeal the prohibition law they had put into place in 1916.
Heun History Book Committee. 2003. Holy Trinity Catholic Church. 125 Years of Worship and Service 1878-2003. Written by Allen and Marvine Koliha and Gene and Irene Sobota.
Krzycki, Jim. The Rev. Folta Bootlegger Case. Columbus Telegram. August 15, 2012.
Stephen, Kamie. 2020. LOOKING BACK: The history of prohibition in the Panhandle. Scottsbluff Star-Herald. January 5, 2020.
“Man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.”
Much is written and many photographs taken of men’s activities on the farm. Early snapshots show the men picking corn, plowing fields, cutting wood, standing proudly next to their work horses and livestock, and demonstrating the latest mechanical innovations that made their lives easier and more productive. Only rarely do you find photographs of women at work, and then they are usually standing amidst a flock of chickens, ducks, and geese, or next to a flower bed. All the other routine daily activities that women engaged in – making daily meals from scratch, washing dishes, baking bread, laundering and repairing clothes, gardening and preserving fruits and vegetables, milking cows, separating cream from milk, making butter, raising and butchering poultry, picking and cleaning eggs, washing and waxing floors, etc. etc. were almost never photographed. But they were crucial to the survival of a healthy and happy family, and they required an impressive set of skills that were learned from their mothers and grandmothers.
What follows is a description of the kinds of homemaking activities that kept our mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers busy, seven days a week. They were chores done by pioneer women, but I can recall them in some detail because they continued well into the mid-20th Century on our and our neighbors’ farms. Even the Ladies of Leisure who lived in our town carried out many of these tasks on a smaller scale.
Cooking – In the time before electricity reached the isolated farms, homes were heated and meals were cooked on wood or kerosene stoves. In the wintertime this dual use was ideal. On the other hand, the heat of summer and the absence of air conditioning and fans often drove cooking outside, to a back porch or a nearby outbuilding (cook/wash house). In these small buildings, women could spend their time over hot stoves, cooking or heating laundry water, without having to discomfort anyone else.
Wherever the stove was located, it was fired up first thing in the morning to make boiled coffee/tea and to cook a hearty breakfast. The old wood stoves had chambers for the active fire, ashes, an oven and a reservoir that held warm water. It’s harder than you might think to find a photograph of a wood stove, but the old stove that had been relegated to our basement looked something like this.
On the left side of the stove, right below the cooking surface, was a chamber called the firebox. A fire was kindled in that chamber starting with crumpled paper or dried grass and leaves, then building up to corn cobs, then pieces of split wood or coal. The smoke from the fire went up the chimney and the ashes dropped down into the ash box. Air heated by the steel walls of the firebox circulated under the round steel plates of the cooking surface, and around the oven. Also, the hot circulating air warmed water in a reservoir at the back or opposite side of the stove top. Sometimes a warming oven was located at the top of the stove; hot smoke traveling up the stovepipe kept the contents of that box warm.
The wood cook stove provided hot plates for cooking stovetop food, an oven for baking, a box to keep cooked foods warm until they were served, a source of warm water for tea or washing, and source of heat to the kitchen, indispensable on a cold winter day. Old timers remembered how good it felt to come out of the bitter cold after chores or field work, take off their shoes, and thaw out their cold feet in the oven. (In the days before low viscosity, multi-weight motor oils, my Dad would drain the oil from his car in the evening and keep it warm in a pan under the stove in order to get the car started on very cold mornings.)
All the food for all the meals was made “from scratch.” Fresh eggs, bacon, steaks, sausages, chicken, and pork chops were fried on the stovetop. Dried grains (cornmeal, oatmeal, farina) were hydrated and cooked on the stovetop. Bread, cakes, and pastries were baked in the oven. Three times a day the housewife and her daughters interrupted their other activities to ensure that meals were ready to be eaten as soon as the menfolk, themselves pressed for time, came out of the fields. Breakfast was a hearty meal, and often the biggest meal of the day on a farm was the noon meal – dinner. A large amount of food was put on the mid-day table, both to give the farmers a chance to rest and to fortify them for the afternoon and evening’s strenuous activities. On the other hand, many families report that the evening meal – supper – was often quite modest. Anna Čech Sindelar recalled that when she was growing up in the 1910s and 1920s their big meals were at noon. Their suppers were very simple and easy to make for a large family. They often ate homemade bread with homemade jelly and lots of milk. Everybody drank sweet milk except her father; he was the one who always wanted sour milk (Čech et al. 1986). Similarly, Robert Brichaček (2014) wrote that a common supper on his farm in the 1940s was milk soup – basically hot milk with some salt and crackers. After every meal, all the cooking and eating utensils were washed and dried by hand.
Gardening – Until the second half of the 20th century, many of the fruits and vegetables that farm families ate came directly from their own gardens and orchards. The homemaker and her children spent considerable time maintaining the vegetable gardens – planting, hoeing, weeding, spraying or hand-picking insect pests, and harvesting. The production of fruits and vegetables was large, even if the variety was narrow and leaned toward traditional Central Europe cuisine and simple Midwestern recipes. Many of the varieties of vegetables that are popular in today’s seed catalogs were unheard of or considered with suspicion – broccoli, cauliflower, shallots, sweet potatoes, peppers, eggplant, okra, parsnips, kale, arugula, turnips, rutabagas, even zucchini. Potatoes were on the table for most meals, accompanied by corn or beans or peas. Our farm garden held row after row of green peas, string beans, beets, radishes, leaf lettuce, onions, cabbages, kohlrabi, cucumbers, sweet corn, tomatoes, melons, rhubarb, and, of course, potatoes. Many families grew several rows of poppies for poppy seed and had beds of horseradish roots. The orchard featured rows of cooking apples, crab apples, apples for fresh eating, grape vines, cherries, apricots, and, of course, plums.
Besides food, most women beautified their homes with flowers. Flowerbeds were planted with seeds saved from year to year, or traded with neighboring women. Geranium stems were pulled out of the ground before a killing frost and planted in jars or cans. Placed in windows, the geraniums continued to bloom over the long winter and were ready to be replanted outdoors in the Spring.
Food Preservation – Before the advent of electricity and refrigeration, lots of foods were kept cool year-round in a nearby potato cellar.
In addition to potatoes, the cellar held supplies of orchard fruits, bottles of beer, cabbages, butter, eggs, milk, cream, and crocks of cooked pork preserved in lard. And usually an impressive collection of spiders and spider webs. Abundant seasonal produce from the gardens and orchards was served fresh at daily meals and preserved for long term storage. As the harvest season progressed, cabbages was packed with salt into crocks to make sauerkraut; plums, grapes, cherries, pears, and apricots were dried, canned, or made into jellies, jams, and juices; peas, beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes were canned; and apples were turned into applesauce. Crab apples were canned with cloves and cinnamon.
Sauerkraut, a staple of Czech and German cuisine, was easy to make. Anna Čech Sindelar remembered making sauerkraut in the early 1900s (Čech 1986): “We always grew a big garden. A small one close to the house and a big one in the field. We always had a lot of cabbage, which was made into sauerkraut in the fall. The heads grew big, and were hauled home in boxes with a wagon. Most of the outer leaves were cleaned off in the field. Cabbage heads were cut in half, the core cut out, and then shredded on a kraut cutter which was laid on top of a big tub and braced against the table. When the tub was half full we would add caraway seed and salt. Mix it up good, carry it into the cellar into a 25 gallon stone jar. Dad made a sauerkraut stomper which we used to stomp the cabbage down till juice oozed out. Then bring the next half tub and do the same till the jar was full. Then we tucked a white dish towel over the chopped kraut and down the sides. Next came a round board that fit on top. Topped that with a big stone specially saved from year to year. Now a big towel was tied tight over the jar. The door was left open until the kraut stopped fermenting. At least a couple of 25 gallon jars full were made. Every few days the towel that was tucked in was taken off, washed clean, and put back. If not enough salt was added, the kraut would turn pinkish and get soft. In the Spring when we had fruit jars emptied we would put the kraut that was left into them and carry the stone jars out of the cellar to be cleaned out, dried in the sun, and stored for next year.”
In the autumn, the men would butcher a hog and with their wives’ assistance convert the animal to a year’s supply of hams, sausages, bacon, pork chops, cooking fats, and soap. For those with strong stomachs, a blow-by-blow description of the fine points of hog butchering is given at:
In our house, variety meats retrieved from the carcass were invariably made into the classic Czech sausage, jaternice, or an aspic (meat jelly) called sulc. The sausages were made with a borrowed sausage stuffer of the type shown in the post. But it didn’t need to be that complicated – a skillful practitioner could quickly stuff the sausage casings with nothing more than his fingers. Leroy Čech recalled that “Grandpa always cleaned his own casings. He filled them just by using his hands and fingers to stuff them. It took three of us to tie them and lay them into pans. He could do it really fast and easy. Then Grandma would slowly cook them in a boiler filled partly with water, and laid them out on the table to cool. After helping Grandpa I never did learn to like the stuff after seeing what went into it and what it was stuffed into (Čech 1986).”
The hams, bacon, and sausages were preserved in a smokehouse, and other cuts of pork could be kept from spoiling in a crock under an air-tight layer of lard. The abundant lard rendered from a fattened hog was poured into glass fruit jars and used throughout the year as a cooking oil. Some remember that a delicious mid-day snack was hog lard spread over homemade bread and sprinkled with granulated sugar. Pieces of fat cut from the hog carcass were slowly heated in a large pot to melt the lard. When the liquid oil was drained away from rendered lard, the remaining matrix of warm, greasy connective tissue (called cracklings, škvarky, or in the South, pork rinds) spread over fresh bread, was a memorable, once-a-year treat. When the drained liquid lard was treated with a strong solution of caustic lye, it became homemade soap. While the initial steps of slaughtering the hog and cutting it into manageable pieces required a man’s strength, much of the rest of the process was taken on by women. Frequently the women also butchered, cleaned, and cooked individual chickens and ducks as needed for each day’s meals. Rural electrification and refrigeration made it possible to butcher and freeze a large supply of poultry at one time for later use.
Suffice it to say, keeping hundreds of chickens safe and well fed, picking their eggs (which at peak may have been laid at a rate of nearly one each day), and cleaning and packaging the eggs for sale took some time out of a farm wife’s daily routine.
As as with hogs, turning a live chicken into Sunday dinner was not a job for children or the squeamish. The “Guest of Honor” for dinner was selected and caught with the assistance of a long, heavy wire hook that snared its leg. The chicken was decapitated with a butcher knife and hung upside down from a tree branch until it had bled out and stopped flapping its wings, usually several long minutes later. The chicken was then plunged into a very hot water bath to soak its feathers and make them easier to pluck. (Many consider this the most unpleasant part of the butchery because the smell of wet feathers was awful). After all the wet feathers pulled out, the carcass was briefly held over a fire to burn off any remaining pinfeathers. Now came the interesting part – the chicken was laid on its back, cut open with a butcher knife, and the internal organs were pulled out with bare hands. It was a colorful display, not much different than the colorful pictures in an anatomy text. A few pieces were saved for eating (gizzard and liver), but most of the offal was thrown to the waiting dogs and cats. Once cleaned up, the empty carcass was soaked in cold water for a time to cool it off and remove the last traces of blood, and it was ready for the frying pan or the freezer.
Many families also raised ducks and geese. Because geese were ill-tempered and dangerous to small children, we limited our annual consumption of waterfowl to 20-25 well-behaved Long Island ducks. Fertilized duck eggs were purchased in the early Spring and the services of a hen were acquired to hatch them (later, an electric, table-top egg incubator simplified the job for all involved). The ducks were butchered in the same way as chickens. They provided delicious Sunday dinners in the winter and the main attraction in many churches’ duck suppers. Their downy feathers were saved, stuffed into gunny sacks, and sold to companies that made luxury pillows and down-filled jackets.
Also, the longest wing feathers of ducks or geese were threaded together (sometimes very artistically) to make feather brushes (peřoutky) that were unrivaled for oiling cake pans and brushing pastries.
Laundry – Back to homemade soap, the chemists teach us that a strong caustic chemical (e.g., sodium hydroxide aka caustic soda/lye) will saponify an oil, i.e., turn the oil into soap. In practical terms, a 10-cent can of Lewis’ or Red Seal lye added to a pot of hot liquid lard will yield a very useful soap. The resulting hot, pudding-like mixture was cooled and poured into cardboard boxes. After several days, during which saponification was completed and the soap slowly hardened, the 3 or 4- inch-thick block of soap was cut into smaller cakes with a butcher knife. The proportions of lye to oil were important. If excess lye was added to the lard, the resulting homemade soap was mildly alkaline and best for washing very dirty work clothes – muddy, stained overalls and socks. If an excess of oil was used in the mixture, a fine hand and face soap could be produced.
In our house, Monday was wash day. Our laundry was done in the basement, others used the same outbuilding that was used for cooking. Dirty clothes were sorted and put in batches into the washing machine with an agitator and filled with hot, soapy water. The most delicate clothes (dresses and dress shirts, handkerchiefs, underwear) were washed first, run through a wringer to squeeze out much of the dirty water, and put into another tub filled with clean rinse water. Then dirtier clothes were put into the washing machine – everyday clothes and socks. Finally, the dirtiest overalls, jeans, and other work clothing took their place in the soapy wash tub. (Overalls and work socks that had deeply set stains first had homemade soap slathered over the stained area; then the stained garment was squeezed and rubbed by hand on a washboard to work the stains loose).
My mother used two rinse tubs in series; most of the soapy water came out in the first rinse tub, and the clothes that came out of the second rinse tub had no trace of soap left on them. White dress shirts, which came out of the rinse water first, where given an additional bath in a solution of Mrs. Stewart’s Bluing. White cotton fabrics tended to develop a yellow tinge over time, and the bluing was nothing more than a blue dye that coated the yellow fibers and gave them a blue-white hue.
Once the clothes had been washed, rinsed and the moisture wrung out, they were hung on clotheslines to dry in the sun and wind. This didn’t take long on a warm, breezy day, but in the winter clothes often had to be hung on lines in the basement. The dried cotton and wool clothes were brought inside, ironed if needed, folded, and put away. Doing laundry was a time consuming, tedious job that had to be carried out while doing other tasks like meal preparation. But the volume of dirty laundry was much less than now because people wore that same clothes for several days before changing them.
Besides laundry, women need the skills to sew and patch clothing. Most homes had a well-oiled foot treadle sewing machines that at a minimum were used to sew knee patches on well-worn overalls or repair shirts torn by barbed wire fences. Many children went to school wearing shirts and dresses made on their Mother’s sewing machine from bolts of colorful cotton fabric purchased at the general merchandise store or, in earlier days, from sturdy cotton flour sacks.
All in all, women had to learn an impressive set of homemaking skills from their mothers, the practice of which pretty well filled up their waking hours. And it was not unusual for them to help out in the barn and fields as well – milking cows, hoeing weeds in corn and bean fields, helping move livestock, carrying buckets of well water to the house and animal pens.
Oh, and let’s not forget bearing and raising children….
Brichacek, Robert J. 2014. Memories of Days Gone By. Family History Information. Goodtimes Publishing Co., Columbus, NE. 265 p.
Čech, Tom, Grace Čech, Julia Sobota, Agnes Čech, and Theofil Čech. 1986. Čech Family History 1800-1986.
The year 1871 was the beginning of what can be described as a Czech Invasion of Colfax County, Nebraska. A friendly invasion, to be sure, of hopeful Bohemian and Moravian immigrants eager to acquire the rich farmland that was being made available by the railroads and the Homestead Act. With their modest belongings they disembarked from the new Union Pacific train station in Schuyler and headed north to their land claims. Or they traveled southwest on foot, horseback, or wagons from the direction of West Point. They were not the first Czech immigrants to Colfax County. Frank Folda, who would become an important businessman, promoter, and banker in the area, brought his wife to the cattle town of Schuyler in 1868, when there were only two houses and a railroad siding. In 1869-70 the first farmers began arriving. But 1871 saw the beginnings of a wave of Czech and German immigrants, encouraged by railroad agents traveling through Central Europe, touting the “Garden of Eden” known as the new State of Nebraska. They brought with them a strange language, strangely accented surnames, and deeply held customs that they clung to for generations, and they were as anxious as any immigrant to make a new life in America.
Many of the Czech immigrants were Roman Catholics, and they deeply missed the comforts of Sunday worship services and celebrations of religious feast days that were such an important part of their lives in Europe. Almost immediately they began gathering for prayer services in their own humble dugouts and sod houses. As time went on, they were blessed to receive occasional visits from mission priests who traveled southwest from West Point and Oleyen (Olean) and Jesuit and Franciscan priests who journeyed north east from Columbus and Schuyler.
The Bohemians, Moravians, and Germans who settled in the Wilson Precinct in west-central Colfax County worshipped in this way for a decade. From individual homes they moved to a newly built school house for their worship services. The distances and poor roads precluded traveling to established churches for Sunday Mass; Schuyler was 15 miles away, and the nearest Catholic church, Holy Trinity at Heun, was still at least 10 miles distant. But by the early 1880s they had settled firmly enough to think about building their own church, thereby ensuring the regular visits of a pastor. The founders were principally Moravians, and for a time they considered building a church together with the Dry Creek Moravians, some 6 miles to the east. But because of some unknown disagreement with the Dry Creek immigrants, and the distance involved, the two groups decided to build their own small churches. (Construction of the Dry Creek church – the Parish of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – was begun in 1881).
In 1882, 20 Czech and 13 German families held several meetings and finally decided to build the church in section 35 of the Wilson Precinct about a mile south of the Fulton Post Office. Josef Mrázek donated 5 acres of land there for the church and cemetery, for which reason the Wilson parish was often called “u Mrázku” (at Mrázek’s).
The founding members each donated 10 dollar offerings. Some of them were Jakub and Tomáš Dvořák, from Hrotov, County Třebíč, district of Jihlava; Martin Bartejs, from Mastník near Stařeč, County Třebíč (he lost his land here and died in Wisconsin); Josef Mrázek from Bystřice near Lanňškroun; Josef Nechvátal, st.; Tomáš Novotný and Frank Chalupa, Moravians; František Oborný from Studenec, county Námĕst, district of Znojmo, his wife, born Chyba, was from Čikov (the Obornýs had nine children, five sons and four daughters); František Votava, Jakub Jůra, František Poulas, Matĕj Sedlák, from Otřísky near Třebíč, district of Jihlava; Anton Švehla; František Charvát, from Markvartice, district of Jihlava; and Jan Jonáš, from Petrovic, district of Jihlava (Jan Jonáš was the first person buried in the Wilson Cemetery).
Construction of a small wood frame church proceeded, and in 1883 the church was blessed by Father Hovorka from Abie. It was given the daunting name of Marie Pomocnice Kresťanů (Mary, Help of Christians) and later also Panna Maria Ustavičné Pomoci (Our Lady of Perpetual Help). As with many church communities, establishment of the cemetery (in 1881) preceded construction of the church. From its consecration on July 3, 1883 until 1914 “St. Mary’s” was a mission of Holy Trinity Catholic Church at Heun. After 1914 it was made a mission of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Schuyler.
The community of immigrants prospered, particularly in the first two decades of the 20th Century, and by 1917 the overcrowded worshippers decided to build a larger, grander building. The new church was erected for $11,000 by the Rudy Bašta Construction Co. of Schuyler and consecrated on August 27, 1918. For the architects in the crowd, the papers that supported the building’s 1982 inclusion in the National Register of Historic Properties noted that the rectangular, gable-roofed, wood-framed church was built in the “Midwest vernacular Gothic Revival” style. The new building measured 34’ by 70’. Five pairs of stained glass lancet windows alternated with frame buttresses on the longitudinal facades. The corner buttressed and pilastered, battlement-topped steeple tower also served as an entrance vestibule. The steeple itself was capped by a Celtic cross. The main or east façade is symmetrical with a single lancet and circular windows, completed by an elbow parapet. The structure rests on a stuccoed concrete foundation. The cornerstone is written in Czech, as are the words on the cast iron, silver-painted cemetery gate.
In 1911 a Katolicky Délník (Catholic Workman) social hall was built 200 feet north of the church, along the long driveway that leads from the county road to the church and cemetery. For 50 years this social hall served as the religious, social, and cultural center for the community, supporting the activities of the Catholic Workman Lodge, Branch No. 40 (organized in 1898) and the Ladies Guild (organized in 1911). It was the scene of many dances, funeral dinners, wedding receptions, and annual parish Pout festivals. The simple parish hall had a large rectangular wooden floor with a stage at the opposite end from the entrance door. A row of trees along the west side of the hall provided welcome shade on hot, sunny days. Under the main floor was a dirt-floored basement, or perhaps more properly a cellar, where food and beer could be kept cool (and sampled). In 1961 the building as sold and removed from the grounds; proceeds of the sale were used to purchase an eight-foot marble crucifix carved in Italy for the cemetery.
In 1933 the parish celebrated its 50th anniversary with a grand celebration. A newspaper article described the event:
The 50th anniversary celebration at St. Mary’s Catholic Church at Wilson Sunday attracted a large crowd. Solemn high mass was celebrated in the forenoon at 10:30 by Father C.Z. Petlach of Clarkson with Father Victor E. Herman of Schuyler assisting. Father Francis J. Oborny of Heun served as deacon, Rev. Br. Protus, O.S.B. of Schuyler, as sub-deacon and Father Joseph Drbal of Howells as Master of Ceremonies. The Clarkson band headed the procession of lodges from the parish hall to the church and from the church to the hall. The sermon was delivered by Fr. Francis J. Oborny of Heun. Father Herman gave a historical sketch of the parish.
The Catholic Workmen lodges from Schuyler, Wilson, Dodge, Howells, Tabor, Heun, Clarkson, Linwood and Brainard attended mass in bodies. The Omaha lodge sent a representation to the celebration. The ladies of the church served dinner at the noon hour in the parish hall. There was dancing in the parish hall both in the afternoon and in the evening. The beautifully decorated cake that centered the dinner table of the visiting clergy was a replica of the church and was made by Mrs. Edward Smrz.
Jacob Dvorak and Joseph Mrazek were the first two organizers of the parish. Mr. Mrazek donated a five-acre tract of land that has been the church site for 50 years. His son, J.F.C. Mrazek, now janitor at the church, was the first person baptized in the church. He was born on May 6, 1883 and was baptized June 8, 1883. Mr. Dvorak’s great grandson, George Dvorak, is now a member of the church committee. Frank J. Oborny and Charles J. Oborny, members of the parish, are sons of Frank Oborny, one of the first communicants at the church and the grandfather of Father Charles Oborny of Verdigre and Father Francis J. Oborny of Heun.
The first church in the parish was built in 1882. The first mass was celebrated in the church by Father Francis Turek of Oleyen, June 8, 1883. Before the church was built, from 1871 to 1883, mass was celebrated in different farm homes at various intervals by Father Ewing of West Point, Father Francis Bobal of Omaha (now of Chicago), Father Sulak, an Omaha Jesuit priest, Father John A. Blaschke of Oleyen and Father Cyril Augustinsky of Columbus.
In the early history of the parish, Bohemian priests were few and services were held as often as the services of a priest could be secured. Father Philip Maly, Father Joseph Hovorka of Abie, Father John Vlcek, Father Charles Zak, all of Heun and Father Joseph Drbal, formerly of Heun but now of Howells, served the parish which was a mission of the Heun church from 1887 to 1914 when the parish was transferred to the jurisdiction of St. Mary’s parish in Schuyler.
Father Victor E. Herman of the Schuyler parish is also a priest at the Wilson parish in which there are today between 60 and 70 families.
The original church building became too small to accommodate the increased number of parishioners, so the present structure was built in 1918 when Father John Broz was the priest. The parish cemetery was enlarged in 1929. In 1925, when Father Joseph Vitko was the priest, the church was repainted and redecorated.
In the parish cemetery rest the remains of Father Wenceslaus Charles Havlicek who was the priest at the Schuyler and Wilson churches.
Over the years the rural population declined, and with it the size of the St. Mary’s congregation. After August, 1977 Fr. Jerome Dickes, the pastor from Schuyler, no longer came out for weekly Sunday services. But for a time an annual evening Mass was still celebrated on Memorial Day. Our Lady of Perpetual Help church was listed on the National Register of Historic Properties in 1982.
In 1999 a tornado severely damaged the church and it could no longer be used for services. The April 9, 1999 edition of the Columbus Telegram reported that “A historic church that withstood the rigors of Mother Nature for more than 100 years was gone in a matter of minutes as storms swept through the area Thursday afternoon. One-winged angels, slivers of imported stained glass, thousands of cracked pieces of plaster and sagging walls and tin ceilings greeted visitors to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, located about nine miles north and five and one-half miles west of Schuyler on a county road.”
The news item went on to mention that the church appeared in the 1992 movie “O Pioneers,” based on the novel by Willa Cather.
Since then, the building has fallen into disrepair, in need of paint and preservation, and subject to vandalism. In 2017 the beautiful silver metal gate to the cemetery was vandalized.
Alas, nothing in this world lasts forever – in recent days we have received word that the aging church building, still vulnerable to malicious destruction, is being demolished.
Although the wood frame building will be gone, mementos of it can still be seen. The stained glass windows that were undamaged after the 1999 tornado were incorporated into a side chapel of the St. Patrick Catholic Church in Fremont. (The beautiful church was being constructed at the time under the direction of their pastor, the Rev. Owen Korte, a graduate of Clarkson’s Catholic grade school). Also, the altar from St. Mary’s at Wilson found its way to the Monastery of Our Mother of Mercy and St. Joseph in Alexandria, SD. The monastery is the home of the Discalced Carmelites, an order of cloistered, contemplative nuns. In the future, the beautiful cross which is being removed from the spire in the video below will be incorporated into a memorial structure that will be placed in the Wilson Cemetery.
Former members of that parish who have enduring memories of faith and fellowship within those walls will certainly mourn its passing. Just as the original European immigrants likely regretted the loss of their first, simple structure.
The Our Lady of Perpetual Catholic Church building has stood in silent witness to the faith community that began on the Nebraska prairies in 1871. Babies christened, marriage vows blessed, feasts celebrated, the dead mourned. One hundred and fifty years later, only the cemetery that holds their mortal remains will be left. But it has been a good run.
References and Acknowledgements
My thanks to Theresa Dvořák Flynn, David Jedlička, Mary Alice Johnson, Chris Nelson, and Curtis Riganti for information and photographs. Many of the old photographs and historical information about the Wilson parish came from the files of Rev. Anthony Pluhaček, longtime pastor at Heun.
Media stories about the Wilson Church:
Dvorak, Marcella. 1982. Wilson Church, cemetery listed on register of historic places. The Schuyler Sun, December 16, 1982.
Based on the rare surviving memoirs of the first settlers to Colfax County, it seems likely that the first agricultural crops they planted were wheat and oats, and perhaps a few acres of corn and rye. Oats were needed to feed their horses, the sole source of motive power and transportation. Wheat fed the farmer’s family and was bagged and sold to local flour mills for cash. After the settlers’ first years of agricultural trial and error, as farmers began to build up their herds of livestock, corn became King. When enough acres of oats and hay were planted to feed the horses, farmers quickly realized the advantage of planting the rest of their fields in corn. Corn produced high yields, and offered a high-energy feedstock for cattle, hogs, and poultry. The dried ears were shelled to remove the kernels from the cob, and the kernels were then ground to make cornmeal for cooking or to feed chickens, ducks, and geese.
The plentiful corncobs were stored in a cob house, and over the course of the year were burned in woodstoves or spread on livestock bedding areas, farmyards, and driveways to make a firm base (so-called “poor man’s gravel”). Feeding corn to cattle was simpler; being ruminants, they could extract nutrition even from husks and the woody cob, so the entire ear – cob and husk and kernels – could be coarsely ground for cattle feed. By one estimate, an acre of cornfield that yielded 40 bushels of ear corn (a very high yield in the 1800s) also provided over 500 lbs. of dried stalks, leaves, and husks, all of which were readily consumed by cattle. Hence, a common practice was to herd cattle into the harvested corn fields for a month or two in late autumn so that they could glean missed ears of corn as well as forage on the dry matter from the rest of the corn plant.
Before the advent of tractors and mechanized corn pickers, each and every ear of corn was picked and husked by hand, by men walking around and around the fields, harvesting row after row. Beginning in October or November, after the first frost, work horses pulled empty wooden wagons into the fields of dried corn. As the horses slowly pulled the wagon through the field, the farmer walked alongside, stripping the husk from the each ear with a husking hook or peg, snapping the ear from the stalk, and throwing it into the wagon. The husks were removed to ensure that the ears of corn would finish drying in the cribs. This was the procedure used to harvest corn from the earliest days of settlement in the 1870s until tractors and mechanical corn pickers came into use in the 1940s.
The husking hook used by my dad, Jerome Čada, looked something like this – a metal hook attached to his hand with leather straps:
The cornhusker held the ear in one hand, positioned the steel hook at the top of the ear, and slid it downward to strip the husk. It was a good idea to wear a sturdy leather glove on the other hand holding the ear. It’s not easy to strip the dried husk from field corn, and in a 40-acre field with a yield of 30 bushels per acre and 50 medium-sized ears of corn per bushel, this action might be repeated 60,000 times before the harvest was brought in. Ideally, the ears of corn were at convenient chest level, but before the development of hybrid corn with sturdy stalks, the cornstalks had often been knocked down by wind, snow, or the weight of the ears, so that the farmer had to bend over to pick the ear off the ground or pull it out of the snow.
If there was someone to drive the wagon, the cornhusker might walk the length of the field, harvesting a row at a time while the driver guided the horses. If he was working alone, he might do a small rectangular area before moving the wagon. More often, the horses were trained to move forward and stop at a command from the cornhusker. The wooden wagons were always fitted with bang boards on one side, much like the backboard on a basketball goal, so that the harvester could toss the shucked ear in the general direction of the wagon and didn’t have to worry about a wild throw carrying the ear all the way across to the ground on the other side. An experienced harvester never looked at the wagon, but focused on the next ear of corn to be shucked.
A well-trained team of horses only needed to be guided at the end of each row, at which point the farmer would take the bridle in his hand and walk ahead to position the whole thing for the return trip through the field. Less well-trained horses, or exuberant stallions, might fail to heed the stop-command; the corn picker then had to jog forward to catch them by the bridle, and stand there, repeatedly yelling the stop command, trying to get them to understand better the next time. And there were times when the horses just got fed up with the routine, and sped up their pace so the picker had hard time staying with them. When that happened, harvest required either a long-distance throw to the back-board, or simply leaving behind a segment of unpicked row to be picked on the return trip.
Harvesting corn by hand was a tedious and exhausting job, often carried out from dawn until dusk, usually in cold, and sometimes rainy/snowy autumn weather. Harvest was delayed as long as possible to allow the corn to dry in the fields. In late fall, it was often bitter, bitter cold, and the picking hands, having to be kept nimble (without heavy, insulated gloves), often got frost-bitten. It was always a balancing act between letting the corn dry in the fields as much as possible and staying ahead of the first snows. Because the snowfalls were much bigger and earlier than today, a sizeable fraction of the corn harvest was often from snow-covered fields; an ordeal for the farmer and a tough pull for the horses.
With winter coming on there was a need for speed, and fields of corn were often picked by crews of hired men. Those corn picking crews could be competitive. An experienced harvester would be reaching for a second ear before the first husked ear he had tossed hit the wagon. One “record holder” claimed to have picked 200 bushels of corn in a single day, at a pay of 4 cents per bushel.
When the wagon was filled, it would be pulled back to the farmstead and the corn was shoveled into a crib or on the ground within snow fences. If the ears of corn were stored in a crib, the horses were unhitched from the wagon and one or both were then hitched to a turnstile whose gears transferred power to a portable elevator. The farmer shoveled the ears of corn into the hopper of the elevator, and as the horses walked in a circle, the belts/flights of the elevator lifted the corn into the crib. Also, a hoist might be used to lift up the front end of the wagon so that the ears would gradually slide out of the wagon into the elevator hopper. If only a single team of horses was available, the workhorses were hitched to the wagon again and driven back to the field to repeat the whole process. Many farmers had two or more pairs of workhorses, which sped up the process – one team for the field and one for the farmyard.
The corn harvest would go on for days, and often involve all the members of the family or a large picking crew. For weeks countless thousands of ears of corn were tossed into the wagons, in farm fields scattered across the countryside. My brother recalls walking to school on cold mornings – hearing the dried ears of corn hitting the bang boards in multiple fields made it sound like hunting season.
In the end, when that final ear of corn hit the bang board, some joker would call out, “That’s the one we’ve been looking for boys!”
Until the 1950s, corn fields commonly yielded 20-30 bushels per acre; 40 bushels of corn/acre was considered a good crop in dry land (rainfed) fields. When hybrid seed corn was introduced my Dad got 80 bushels/acre on rich bottomland in good years. Since then, the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, irrigation, and genetically modified strains have caused corn yields to skyrocket. In 2016/2017, Iowa farmers grew an average of 203 bushels of corn per acre; nationally, the average was 175 bushels per acre. Happily, the advent of high-yield corn coincided with the mechanization of the corn harvest. Tractor-pulled corn pickers and picker-shellers, and later dedicated multi-row corn picking machines, gave both cornhuskers and horses a well-deserved rest.
Acknowledgements – Thanks to Don Novotný and Larry Čada who shared a few of their memories about picking corn by hand in the 1940s and helped round out my understanding of the process. I arrived on the scene in the Age of Tractors, when work horses had been replaced by mechanization. As a consequence, the corn harvest became far faster and more efficient. I only saw field corn being picked by hand once, when late autumn rains had made an acre or two of bottom land too muddy to harvest with a heavy corn picker. I watched as my Dad dug out his old, worn out husking hook, softened the leather with a bit of neatsfoot oil, cinched it tightly to his hand, and proceeded to finish the corn harvest for that year. It was cold, tedious, miserable work – like a lot of the things our fathers had to do not so many years ago.
Friends, are you getting tired of hearing about COVID-19, our latest coronavirus mutation that is spreading terror and despair around the world? Are you wondering if, having personally survived previous pandemics [e.g., the Asian flu in 1957-58 (2 million dead globally), the Hong Kong flu in 1968-69 (1 million dead), SARS in 2002-2004 (762 dead), the 2009 H1N1 flu (575,400), HIV/AIDS (32 million and counting), Ebola (>>11,000), MERS (862 and counting)], this might be… The One? Are you thinking that you should flee your glamorous, fast-paced life in the Big City and wait out the storm in a quiet, isolated rural town – where not even a virus can find you? Are you worried that this pandemic might cut into attendance at Clarkson’s Czech Days 2020?
To take your mind off the current unpleasantness, you might be interested in reading about how Our Town fared during the legendary Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which killed an estimated 685,000 people in the U.S. and as many as 100 million people worldwide. A few years ago I posted a story about how the Spanish Flu affected the citizens of Clarkson and surrounding areas. You can read it here: https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2016/11/11/pandemic/
The story features many of the things we are hearing about today – the immediate need for clinical testing and reporting, quarantines, school closings, and the banning of public gatherings at dances, movie theaters, and churches. Good practices now as then.
Until this thing blows over, mind how you go. Behave yourselves (or at least, wash your hands well afterwards), catch up on your reading, and stay healthy. I’ll see you on the other side.
Dear Czech Mates, are you ready for Christmas? In keeping with the old traditions, do you put up a Christmas tree and wait for Santa Claus to bring presents to good little girls and boys? On Christmas Eve, do you sing a few verses of Good King Wenceslas (to honor our sainted Bohemian king) and turn in early for a good night’s sleep, with visions of sugarplums dancing in your heads? Do you wake up early on Christmas morning to open your presents, and then settle down for a sumptuous Christmas dinner, one of the year’s Great Feasts?
If so, then you are doing it all wrong! You may be justifiably proud of your Czech heritage and trying to carry on some of the old traditions, but your ancestors would hardly recognize the odd rituals that you practice to celebrate the Feast of Christmas.
Let’s start with the Christmas tree. We all know that decorating Christmas trees is an old tradition handed down from our German neighbors. One historian believes that the first Christmas tree in Bohemia was displayed in Prague in 1812. The fashion spread through the cities and more slowly into the countryside by the late 1800s.
The problem was that for some this new fashion was one more example of German hegemony over our suppressed and disappearing Czech culture. “National revivalists fought hard to keep the Christmas tree from spreading among the native population, because they correctly pointed to the fact that it was a German custom and that it has no connection to Czech traditions.”
Czech nationalists (the same people who brought you the Sokols and Beseda dancing) promoted a similar, truly Czech alternative – the “Vrkoč“ – a flower pot filled with earth into which various twigs and sticks were hung with dried fruit and pastries, placed on a table.
I, for one, am happy that the Christmas tree won out.
Waiting for Santa Claus to bring you presents while you sleep? You’d wait a long time in 19th century Bohemia. In the Czech lands, presents are exchanged and opened on Christmas Eve rather than on the Christmas Day. And children are told that the gifts are brought not by Santa, but by the Baby Jesus – Ježíšek.
The closest our ancestors came to Santa Claus was on December 5, the Eve of the Feast Day of St. Nicholas, when a fellow dressed up as St. Nick passes through town accompanied by an angel and a devil. On that day Svatý Mikuláš (St. Nicholas) calls the children to account, determining whether they’ve been naughty or nice. If nice, the angel gives them candy. If naughty, the devil rewards his “comrades” with potatoes or coal or threats with a willow switch.
Planning to enjoy a traditional Christmas meal of roast beef, roast turkey, or roast goose? Nice try. As I pointed out a couple of years ago, a bona fide Bohemian will fast all day on Christmas Eve, then make a nice meal out of the carp that has been swimming around in his bathtub for a week.
The fried carp delicacy will be accompanied by a hearty dollop of potato salad. It is hoped that the whole experience will be so ecstatic that the diner will see a vision of a Golden Pig (Zlaté Prasátko) on the wall. This is considered to be a very good omen, although I haven’t been able to figure out why.
And lastly, let’s not forget about Christmas music. The Czechs are a musical people; as the old proverb says “Every Czech is born, not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but with a violin under his pillow.” And Christmas is a beautifully musical time of the year. We all know the song Good King Wenceslas that honors the saintly generosity of a 10th century Bohemian king who braved the snow and cold to give alms to needy peasants. Of course our ancestors sang that one, right? Sorry – the first lyrics were written in 1853 by an Englishman, who set them to an old Finnish melody. Our ancestors in Bohemia probably never heard it.
Don’t despair – there are two beautiful musical works that were especially dear to our ancestors and are still hugely popular in Czechia today – Jan Jakub Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass (Česká Mše Vánoční) and the simple carol Narodil se Kristus Pán (Christ the Lord was Born). And many of us know the latter song, learned when we were children in Clarkson.
J J Ryba was a Czech teacher and a prolific composer of classical music. He wrote music for 6 Roman Catholic Masses in Latin but only one in the Czech language, in 1796 – Česká Mše Vánoční.
Ryba’s Česká Mše Vánoční is often called Hej, mistře! (Hey, Master!) because in the opening Kyrie a young shepherd wakes up his master with the words “Hey Master, get up quickly!” and they both wonder at the unusual events in nature surrounding the Nativity of Jesus.
Here is a charming version of the Kyrie performed at an art gallery in Prague, in which the shepherd and his annoyed master marvel at the strange heavenly light and wondrous music coming from afar:
Because Ryba’s Christmas Mass was written in the vernacular rather than in Latin, it was not commonly included as part of the Church liturgy. However, its pastoral, folk character has made it popular with the Czech people since the beginning. These days, singers get together during the Christmas Season to perform the work in an event known as “Rybovka.” Amateur singers who have learned the music are invited to join the performances, and professional soloists and instrumentalists lead the way. According to Radio Prague, “Live concerts of Ryba’s Mass are immensely popular at Christmas time and are sold out weeks in advance. A 2014 performance at the Rudolfinum concert hall by the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra was broadcast to 30 cinemas around the Czech Republic. According to the organizers the idea was that nobody should have to travel more than 30 km to see the concert live. Moreover, in a gesture of goodwill some of the seats were offered free of charge to orphanages and old peoples’ homes.”
Narodil is a very old song – it is certain that Bohemians were singing it in the late 15th century, and some music historians place its origins in the 13th century. It is still commonly sung after Catholic Masses during the Christmas season, but a melody this old and lovely has been reworked and sung by other Christian faiths and nationalities over the centuries. In Latin it goes under the title En Virgo Parit Filium, and the Germans have appropriated the melody in their hymn Freu dich Erd und Sternenzelt: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zbHlasKg06U
There are many versions of Narodil online, but I especially like one that was sung by a choir of young people and their audience after their school’s 23rd performance of Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass. Students from the VOŠP (College of Education), SOŠP (Polytechnic High School), and Gymnázium (https://www.pedevropska.cz/) performed a Rybovka at the Church U Salvátora in the Old Town of Prague on December 21, 2018, and afterwards all joined in to sing Narodil.
Everyone knew the words – even those hanging from the cheap seats in the balcony – and they sang with enthusiasm and joy. If you don’t listen to any other music in this post, listen to this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e6snGrpAIsU
(Incidentally, this school will be performing Ryba’s Czech Christmas Mass again on December 20, 2019 at the same church. There is still time to get over there.)
There are a number of performances of “Rybovky” in Czechia every year, and it seems to be a tradition that everyone is invited to close the concert by singing Narodil se Kristus Pán.
Here is another beautiful video of Ryba’s Mass and Narodil that were performed at the Church of the Most Sacred Heart of Our Lord in Vinohrady (Prague) in 2016. Narodil begins at about the 53-minute mark:
Give it a try – it couldn’t hurt you, and it will connect you to centuries of your ancestors.
We will be singing this song at our St. John Neumann Church in Knoxville, Tennessee this Advent. For all our fellow choir members, it is just another pretty Christmas carol. But for my wife and me, both of Bohemian descent, it will be a special moment.
Whatever you choose to sing, whatever your Christmas traditions, we wish you and yours a very Happy and Blessed Christmas!