Thanksgiving Day is upon us – our national holiday that has been celebrated in one way or another in the United States since 1619. In 2022 many are probably wondering if there is anything left to be thankful for. We are slowly emerging from a deadly, persistent pandemic, much of the world is hungry, in flight, or at war, we live in a deeply divided society, our global climate is going down the tubes, and your boss wants you back in the office. The price of gas and eggs is high, and hope is low.
Lest we feel too sorry for ourselves I thought it would useful on this important holiday to reflect on some experiences of our Czech ancestors. I’ve pieced together three stories that remind us about the challenges our Forefathers faced in America, the Land of Liberty and Freedom. The Land of Opportunity.
1. Tenement-House Cigarmaking
Jacob Riis was a Danish-American journalist, muckraker, and social reformer in Turn-of-the-20th-Century New York. Through his writing and photography he exposed the terrible living and working conditions of slum dwellers in New York City. In 1890 Jacob Riis published his book How the Other Half Lives, which included Chapter XII. The Bohemians – Tenement-House Cigarmaking (https://www.bartleby.com/208/12.html ) . The entire book is worth reading as an fine example of reform literature in the Progressive Era; here are excerpts from his chapter on exploited Bohemian cigarmakers living in the slums of New York City:
“… Probably more than half of all the Bohemians in this city are cigarmakers, and it is the herding of these in great numbers in the so-called tenement factories, where the cheapest grade of work is done at the lowest wages, that constitutes at once their greatest hardship and the chief grudge of other workmen against them. The manufacturer who owns, say, from three or four to a dozen or more tenements contiguous to his shop, fills them up with these people, charging them outrageous rents, and demanding often even a preliminary deposit of five dollars “key money;” deals them out tobacco by the week, and devotes the rest of his energies to the paring down of wages to within a peg or two of the point where the tenant rebels in desperation. When he does rebel, he is given the alternative of submission, or eviction with entire loss of employment. His needs determine the issue. Usually he is not in a position to hesitate long. The shop triumphs, and fetters more galling than ever are forged for the tenant. In the opposite case, the newspapers have to record the throwing upon the street of a small army of people, with pitiful cases of destitution and family misery.
Men, women and children work together seven days in the week in these cheerless tenements to make a living for the family, from the break of day till far into the night. Often the wife is the original cigarmaker from the old home, the husband having adopted her trade here as a matter of necessity, because, knowing no word of English, he could get no other work.
…Doubtless the people are poor, in many cases very poor; but they are not uncleanly, rather the reverse; they live much better than the clothing-makers in the Tenth Ward, and in spite of their sallow look, that may be due to the all-pervading smell of tobacco, they do not appear to be less healthy than other in-door workers. I found on my tours of investigation several cases of consumption [tuberculosis], of which one at least was said by the doctor to be due to the constant inhalation of tobacco fumes. But an examination of the death records in the Health Department does not support the claim that the Bohemian cigarmakers are peculiarly prone to that disease. On the contrary, the Bohemian percentage of deaths from consumption appears quite low… The sore grievances I found were the miserable wages and the enormous rents exacted for the minimum of accommodation. And surely these stand for enough of suffering.
Take a row of houses in East Tenth Street as an instance. They contained thirty-five families of cigarmakers, with probably not half a dozen persons in the whole lot of them, outside of the children, who could speak a word of English, though many had been in the country half a lifetime. This room with two windows giving on the street, and a rear attachment without windows, called a bedroom by courtesy, is rented at $12.25 a month. In the front room man and wife work at the bench from six in the morning till nine at night. They make a team, stripping the tobacco leaves together; then he makes the filler, and she rolls the wrapper on and finishes the cigar. For a thousand they receive $3.75, and can turn out together three thousand cigars a week. The point has been reached where the rebellion comes in, and the workers in these tenements are just now on a strike, demanding $5.00 and $5.50 for their work. The manufacturer having refused, they are expecting hourly to be served with notice to quit their homes, and the going of a stranger among them excites their resentment, until his errand is explained. While we are in the house, the ultimatum of the “boss” is received. He will give $3.75 a thousand, not another cent. Our host is a man of seeming intelligence, yet he has been nine years in New York and knows neither English nor German. Three bright little children play about the floor.
“Bohemian Cigarmakers at work in their Tenement.” From Riis (2006)
His neighbor on the same floor has been here fifteen years, but shakes his head when asked if he can speak English. He answers in a few broken syllables when addressed in German. With $11.75 rent to pay for like accommodation, he has the advantage of his oldest boy’s work besides his wife’s at the bench. Three properly make a team, and these three can turn out four thousand cigars a week, at $3.75. This Bohemian has a large family; there are four children, too small to work, to be cared for. A comparison of the domestic bills of fare in Tenth and in Ludlow Streets results in the discovery that this Bohemian’s butcher’s bill for the week, with meat at twelve cents a pound as in Ludlow Street, is from two dollars and a half to three dollars. Here is a suite of three rooms, two dark, three flights up. The ceiling is partly down in one of the rooms. “It is three months since we asked the landlord to fix it,” says the oldest son, a very intelligent lad who has learned English in the evening school. His father has not had that advantage, and has sat at his bench, deaf and dumb to the world about him except his own, for six years. He has improved his time and become an expert at his trade. Father, mother and son together, a full team, make from fifteen to sixteen dollars a week.
A man with venerable beard and keen eyes answers our questions through an interpreter, in the next house. Very few brighter faces would be met in a day’s walk among American mechanics, yet he has in nine years learned no syllable of English. German he probably does not want to learn. His story supplies the explanation, as did the stories of the others. In all that time he has been at work grubbing to earn bread. Wife and he by constant labor make three thousand cigars a week, earning $11.25 when there is no lack of material; when in winter they receive from the manufacturer tobacco for only two thousand, the rent of $10 for two rooms, practically one with a dark alcove, has nevertheless to be paid in full, and six mouths to be fed. He was a blacksmith in the old country, but cannot work at his trade here because he does not understand “Engliska.” If he could, he says, with a bright look, he could do better work than he sees done here. It would seem happiness to him to knock off at 6 o’clock instead of working, as he now often has to do, till midnight. But how? He knows of no Bohemian blacksmith who can understand him; he should starve. Here, with his wife, he can make a living at least. “Aye,” says she, turning, from listening, to her household duties, “it would be nice for sure to have father work at his trade.” Then what a home she could make for them, and how happy they would be. Here is an unattainable ideal, indeed, of a workman in the most prosperous city in the world! There is genuine, if unspoken, pathos in the soft tap she gives her husband’s hand as she goes about her work with a half-suppressed little sigh.
… The mother of three bare-footed little children we met on the stairs was taken to the hospital the other day when she could no longer work. She will never come out alive. There is no waste in these tenements. Lives, like clothes, are worn through and out before put aside. Her place at the bench is taken already by another who divides with the head of the household his earnings of $15.50 a week. He has just come out successful of a strike that brought the pay of these tenements up to $4.50 per thousand cigars. Notice to quit had already been served on them, when the employer decided to give in, frightened by the prospective loss of rent. Asked how long he works, the man says: “from they can see till bed-time.” Bed-time proves to be eleven o’clock. Seventeen hours a day, seven days in the week, at thirteen cents an hour for the two, six cents and a half for each! Good average earnings for a tenement-house cigarmaker in summer. In winter it is at least one-fourth less. In spite of it all, the rooms are cleanly kept. From the bedroom farthest back the woman brings out a pile of moist tobacco-leaves to be stripped. They are kept there, under cover lest they dry and crack, from Friday to Friday, when an accounting is made and fresh supplies given out. The people sleep there too, but the smell, offensive to the unfamiliar nose, does not bother them. They are used to it.
In a house around the corner that is not a factory-tenement, lives now the cigarmaker I spoke of as suffering from consumption which the doctor said was due to the tobacco-fumes. Perhaps the lack of healthy exercise had as much to do with it. His case is interesting from its own stand-point. He too is one with a—for a Bohemian—large family. Six children sit at his table. By trade a shoemaker, for thirteen years he helped his wife make cigars in the manufacturer’s tenement. She was a very good hand, and until his health gave out two years ago they were able to make from $17 to $25 a week, by lengthening the day at both ends. Now that he can work no more, and the family under the doctor’s orders has moved away from the smell of tobacco, the burden of its support has fallen upon her alone, for none of the children is old enough to help. She has work in the shop at eight dollars a week, and this must go round; it is all there is. Happily, this being a tenement for revenue only, unmixed with cigars, the rent is cheaper: seven dollars for two bright rooms on the top floor. No housekeeping is attempted. A woman in Seventy-second Street supplies their meals, which the wife and mother fetches in a basket, her husband being too weak. Breakfast of coffee and hard-tack, or black bread, at twenty cents for the whole eight; a good many, the little woman says with a brave, patient smile, and there is seldom anything to spare, but—. The invalid is listening, and the sentence remains unfinished. What of dinner? One of the children brings it from the cook. Oh! it is a good dinner, meat, soup, greens and bread, all for thirty cents. It is the principal family meal. Does she come home for dinner? No; she cannot leave the shop, but gets a bite at her bench. The question: A bite of what? seems as merciless as the surgeon’s knife, and she winces under it as one shrinks from physical pain. Bread, then. But at night they all have supper together—sausage and bread. For ten cents they can eat all they want. Can they not? she says, stroking the hair of the little boy at her knee; his eyes glisten hungrily at the thought, as he nods stoutly in support of his mother. Only, she adds, the week the rent is due, they have to shorten rations to pay the landlord.
Thus the whole matter resolves itself once more into a question of education, all the more urgent because these people are poor, miserably poor almost to a man. “There is not,” said one of them, who knew thoroughly what he was speaking of, “there is not one of them all, who, if he were to sell all he was worth to-morrow, would have money enough to buy a house and lot in the country.”
To see how the Other Half lived, here is a collection of photographs from Jacob Riis’ book on tenement life: https://www.americanyawp.com/text/how-the-other-half-lived-photographs-of-jacob-riis/
A comparable exposé / social reform novel is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906). This one concerns the unsanitary and dangerous conditions in beef packing plants in Chicago. It depicts working-class poverty, lack of social supports, harsh living and working conditions, and hopelessness among many workers. As with Riis’ documentary, it is worth reading. Many of our ancestors who stopped off in Chicago on the way to Clarkson (my own included) may have labored in these factories.
2. Memoirs of František Břicháček Sr.
František Břicháček Sr. (1841 – 1920) led an event-filled life. Born in South Bohemia, his father died when he was 13 years old. He was conscripted into the Austrian army for a 10-year term, but was allowed to go home after 7 years, having contracted malaria while fighting a war in Italy. In 1871 he and his wife and their young son immigrated to America, settling in the Heun area. We pick up his story at Schuyler’s Union Pacific train depot:
“When we arrived in Schuyler a new care awaited us, because there were few buildings there and even fewer Czechs. By inquiry we found Frank Folda; he sent us to Anton Langr, who took us into his home, but only for a short time. He had a very small “shanty;” when we all moved in it was really full. I immediately looked for some work because I had very little money for a start.
Just at that time the first bridge over the Platte River was being built. I was there many times but I couldn’t get work. Then I went to the [railroad] Depot; there I found work, but only as long as they couldn’t find a person who spoke English. Then they fired me. But right on the next day they sent for me, if I would be willing to go west to shovel snow. I would get two dollars a day and the trip there and back for free. I would be able to come back any time I wanted to. I said that I couldn’t be there for more than two months. And I went. They took us 750 miles, way into Colorado, when I was led to think that we were going only a few miles. And the worst was that after two months, when I wanted to go home, they didn’t want to let me go until all the snow was cleared away. I asked them the price of a ticket, that I would pay my own way back. They said it was 58 dollars, and I had earned only about 75 dollars. So I had to work on.
I suffered many things there, because they had a bunch of riff-raff picked up from all the bigger towns. I had to take all kinds of things from them, because I didn’t understand the language. I had to “make myself a teetotaler” if I was to save some money. And that was rough. One time they came at Midnight from town and brought several bottles of whiskey with them. They wanted me to drink with them. I replied that I am not allowed; it is forbidden by my doctor. They insisted that I must. I put the bottle to my mouth, but didn’t drink. They insisted that I had to drink half a bottle. One grabbed my hands behind me, another held my head, a third put the bottle to my mouth, and the fourth held a knife against my neck. I wouldn’t drink. They said “Drink, or I’ll slash you!” Blood was already running down my shirt. I tore my hands loose, knocked down the bottle, and gave myself to screaming. The boss slept next door; he came running to see what was going on. I had to show him like a dumb man. He was angry with the men, and in the morning fired about four of them. With that the matter was settled. It is truly the hardest thing for a person when he comes to a land and does not understand the language. I would liked to have learned English, but they only tell me something stupid, so I couldn’t learn very much. I finally got home for nothing, but I suffered many abuses.
“Our Home.” The dugout of an early homestead family, cut into a hillside and covered with a pole roof, was far more primitive than even the more “modern” sod house. Nebraska State Historical Society photograph C689-45.
I found my family “under the sod” at Pokornýs. Then there awaited me another care: to buy a wagon, a cow, a plow, a stove, and the most necessary needs for a new residence. Then I was finished with my money. There came to us the destitution which almost everybody had. But despite this we were healthy and happy when we saw that we had a piece of our own land. We put up a sod house, a chicken coop, and a stable all from one material, that is, from sod. As long as it didn’t rain, everything was fine, but when it rained and there was a great downpour – oh, that was misery! In those days a person couldn’t borrow anything. Nobody would wait even for the price of a bushel of wheat, nor would they wait for payment for a piece of rope for the cattle. It was necessary for me to make rope for them from reed grass (sedge).
It was the year 1872 when we took possession of our land. Everything would have been pleasant for us except that we began to yearn for a church. And then there was that eternal loneliness! We came together and consulted on how we could get a Czech priest. We eventually got a priest; he came to us from West Point, but he was a German. We nevertheless had joy. He offered Mass in a little house and later in the school. Then Father Ṥulák visited us, then Fr. Bobak, then Fr. Jan A. Blaška, Fr. Augustinský, Fr. Pold, Father Hovorka and others. In the year 1873 we had established a cemetery and planned for the building of a church. But everything was spoiled for us because in that year the first locusts flew in. There weren’t too many and they flew off after three days, but they left us so much harm that the corn was destroyed. They tormented us for six years. Sometimes they destroyed half the crop, sometimes all. So we had many misfortunes in building the church. There was very little money. Twice storms blew down the framework while the church was abuilding. Then lightning struck the main tower. But the church was finally built in 1878. So, with the help of God, we had a church. We built a parish house (this was in 1884) and received a resident priest. Then we were happier. From that time much has changed, many older people have died, many people moved to the towns, many farms were sold, and so slowly the parish is prospering.
We had seven children, five sons and two daughters. The first son, František, was born in Bohemia. The rest of the sons, Vaclav, Matej, Anton, and Joseph, were born in America, as well as our daughters Anna and Maria. They are all living and have their own farms. Now, praise God, we are satisfied and have joy in our children.”
3. Memories of Adella Kučera Belina
Adella Kučera Belina (1912 – 2007) lived on farms between Clarkson and Howells, in Cuming and Stanton counties. Her daughter, Marvine Koliha, asked her to write down her memories of the 1930s and 1940s, the years of Midwestern droughts, the Great Depression, and World War II.
THE DRY DEPRESSION AND 7 YEARS OF RATIONING
“We did not have a telephone. The people that had a telephone on batteries could not afford to pay their yearly bill. There was no corn, only in a draw or ditch where there was moisture. We took a spring buggy and 2 horses and picked corn along the ditch. There was no oats. The few hens did not lay eggs because of the cold. Many times the hens froze in the henhouse due to the cold. Once a week, Millard Belina would walk to Louis Sokol’s for the mail. There was only 1 snowplow to open the roads. There was no gravel on the highways. People took horses, wagons, and scoop shovels to open the roads. Uncle and Aunt Krejci scooped snow from their place to our old driveway. We went to Howells once a month. I hauled eggs from Grandma Mary Belina in town. She cooked oats and scraps from the table and fed her hens. She put tar paper inside her shed so her hens were warm and used warm water for her hens to drink.
We dug a well by the old dam (near Krejci’s place) by hand. We would chase the cows and horses there to drink water. We had to pump it by hand. In the other well, the water level dropped because there weren’t any rains.
Sugar was rationed, so only people who had a baby got syrup to put in milk. So Wilma Krejci and Mrs. Marvin Daniels made a cake from honey or syrup before rationing. During rationing 50 lbs or 100 lbs. sack of sugar was $50.00, and people bought it secretly. We got it through Harry Hendrick’s brother in Omaha. You could not buy minced ham, which came in a can, unless you had the rationing stamps. When buying gas for the car, you had to use the rationing stamps and money besides.
At Christmas, we did not give presents to each other as there was no money. We gave Frankie (my brother) a small bottle of perfume (cost 10 cents). We gave my dad an everyday shirt, my mother fabric for an apron, Grandpa (August) Belina a 1 lb. can of tobacco and Grandma 3 yards of fabric. Cotton was rationed. You could buy only silk and rayon material. Delaine Kander had such torn coveralls, but had to wait till Charlie sold salves and had money to buy clothes.
Prices were so low. Corn was 4 cents a bushel, oats was 3 cents a bushel, eggs were 9 cents a dozen, and cream 14 cents. We milked 5 cows. Corn grew only 3-4 feet tall. There were no ears, so with an oats binder and horses, we cut it like oats and shocked it. Then [the shocks] froze to the ground, and in the winter we had to take axes and chop it , throw it on hay racks and haul it home to the barn and fed it to the cows and horses. Uncle Joe Kucera and Raymond and my dad drove a borrowed truck to Krejcis and chopped those frozen shocks of sorghum or sugar cane and hauled it for his stock.
Ladies Sunday hats cost 50 cents, and men’s everyday shirts were 75 cents. Rudy Bazata stood up in our wedding and bought a suit in West Point for $1.00 a week. Frankie also bought a suit for a $1.00 a week payment. My wedding dress cost $17.00. Blanche Poledna was my bridesmaid and couldn’t afford to pay the $10.00 for her dress. So my dad lent the money to him, which he later repaid. Marie Pavel baked an angel food cake and borrowed 2 doves on a wedding ring ornament from Blanche Bazata’s wedding for the top of my cake. We had cottonwood trees on Dad’s farm. So my dad cut them for wood to sell in town for $4.00 a wagon load. My mother bought herself a dress for my wedding for a load of wood. Some lady in Howells had new church-like dresses for sale. My dad had a lot of business because he was cheaper. Uncle Jim sold wood for $5.00 a load. We also used the money to buy grease to fry meat in.”
Hard times, no? If you haven’t had enough, my Clarkson history essays are filled with stories of our pioneer ancestors struggling against the odds – and usually winning. Here are a few:
Many of us have stories like these, passed down from our own ancestors. I heard similar tales of struggles and hardships from my parents. Their stories were never told with bitterness, resentment, or a sense of entitlement; rather, they were passed down to us in a spirit of gratitude for how far they had come and the good lives they were able to build for themselves and their children.
I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. – William Faulkner, excerpt from his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in Literature on December 10, 1950. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1949/faulkner/speech/
Our ancestors prevailed. This Thanksgiving Day I will spend a few moments giving thanks for their perseverance. Happy Thanksgiving Day!