Moon Shining on the Prairie

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.

A&W Root Beer stand in 1931

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.

Reverend Anthony F. Folta

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. 

Original St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church on 14th and Pine Streets, Omaha Nebraska

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.

New and old Holy Trinity Catholic Churches at Heun, ca. 1928
Rev. Anthony Folta and the Heun Players drama group.  Front row: Marie Faltys, Marie Waško Engel, Mary Lodl Brodecký, Emily Jonáš Viergutz.  Back row: Vaclav Janeček, Fr. Anthony Folta, unknown, Charles Jonáš, Jerry Brodecký, Emily Brodecký Janeček, Vlasta Karel Čada, Jerry Břicháček, Stanley Lodl, Benes?
L to R: Lillian Břicháček Vítek, Emily Jonáš Viergutz, Mary Lodl Brodecký, Emily Brodecký Janeček, Charles V. Jonáš, Fr. Anthony Folta, and Jerry Brodecký

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. 

Reverend Anthony F. Folta

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.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt
32nd President of the United States

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.

Na zdraví!


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.

Posted in 1920s, 1930s | 11 Comments

Women’s Work

“Man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.”

Emilie Čada picking eggs

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.

Picking grapes at the Oborny farm in the 1920s
Oborny women in the family vegetable garden, 1926

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.

Jerome, Larry, and Ron Čada at the entrance to the 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.

Two-bladed cabbage shredder for making sauerkraut  

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.

Poultry – Raising chickens and picking eggs was a major activity for women, and a significant source of income for farm families.  I have written about them before:

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. 

Electric egg incubator

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. 

peřoutky – feather pastry brushes

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.

Lye used to make soap

Cakes of homemade soap

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….

Sylvia Čada and her pupils at Colfax County Rural School District #47 circa 1919
Frank Brichaček family gathering, 1916


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.

Posted in 1890s | 19 Comments

St. Mary’s at Wilson – Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church

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.

Central Colfax County Nebraska, 1885.  The Catholic church can be seen in Section 35 of Wilson Precinct.

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).

Landowners in Wilson Precinct, Colfax County, Nebraska in 1899

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).

Josef Mrázek (1835-1916) and family in Colfax County, NE

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, 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).

The first St. Mary’s church at Wilson, built in 1882

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.

Annual pout celebration at original Wilson church, May 9, 1915
Annual pout celebration at the original Wilson church, May 9, 1915

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.

Consecration of the new St. Mary’s Church at Wilson, August 27, 1918
Consecration of the new St. Mary’s Church at Wilson, August 27, 1918
The Most Reverend Jeremiah Harty, Bishop of the Diocese of Omaha, presided over the consecration of the new St. Mary’s Church at Wilson, August 27, 1918. 
Consecration of new St. Mary’s Church at Wilson, August 27, 1918
Consecration of new St. Mary’s Church at Wilson, August 27, 1918
Entrance gate to the cemetery of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, Wilson
St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Catholic Workman parish hall at Wilson
St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Catholic Workman parish hall at Wilson

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.

Catholic Workman parish hall at Wilson

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.

Main and side altars of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church at Wilson
Interior of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church at Wilson

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.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church at Wilson, 2021. Courtesy of Curtis Riganti

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.

Destruction of the cemetery gate at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in 2017

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.

Celtic Cross is removed from the steeple for preservation
Beginning of the demolition of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic church at Wilson, January 2021
Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church at Wilson, 2021. Courtesy of Curtis Riganti

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.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church at Wilson, 2021. Courtesy of Curtis Riganti

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.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church at Wilson, 2021. Courtesy of Curtis Riganti

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.

National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church and Cemetery:

Posted in 1890s | 28 Comments

Giving Thanks for the Cornhuskers

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. 

Picking and husking field corn by hand

A good illustration of the Joy of Corn Picking by Hand can be seen at:

Marvin and Marilyn Sindelar on wagon filled with harvested corn

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.

Corn picking crew at the Emil J. Sobota farmyard in 1933

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.

“Little Giant” steel elevator along with power outfit and wagon lifting jack (hoist)
Portable Elevator Manufacturing Co. 1927


Richard and Jack Ruprecht stand in front of a pile of hand-picked corn in 1946

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. 

Mechanical corn picker at the farm of James P. Svec in 1954

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.

Posted in 1890s | 20 Comments

Pandemic 2020

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:

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.


Posted in 1910s, The 21st Century | 15 Comments

Christmas Traditions in Bohemia

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.

1 Emil_Czech_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.

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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.

3 St Nicholas

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.

Golden Pig aside, if you really want to go whole hog in recreating an authentic Bohemian Christmas, here is a long list of Czech Christmas traditions and superstitions:

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.

4 Biscuit_tins_VA_2486-001

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.

5 Ceska Mse

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.

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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:

A better recording of the Kyrie can be heard here:

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.”

Also up there at the top of the Hit Parade is an even older, folk tune, the beautiful carol Narodil se Kristus Pán (Christ the Lord Was Born):

7 Christmas tree

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:

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  ( 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.

8 Rybovka

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:

9 Rybovka

(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.)

10 Poster

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.

11 Rybovka

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:

Perhaps you’d like to sing along with this enthusiastic crowd?  Print out this crib sheet with the Czech words along with an English translation:

Alternatively, if your Czech isn’t as good as it could be, you can sing the Narodil melody at home with English lyrics – a carol called Let Our Gladness Have No End:

Give it a try – it couldn’t hurt you, and it will connect you to centuries of your ancestors.

12 Nativity


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!

Glenn and Phyllis Čada

Posted in 1890s, Celebrations, The 21st Century | 16 Comments

Make Clarkson Great Again

I was feeling patriotic the other day, so I went rummaging through the piano bench looking for some patriotic songs to sing around the house.  I came across an old, yellowed book that once belonged to a young Allan Roether – The Flag & How to Respect It & Patriotic Songs.

Patriotic Songbook

It was printed in Fremont, and presented to the teachers and students of the Clarkson area public schools by a number of Clarkson merchants.  There is no publication date, but based on the names of the businesses the book was distributed between 1925 and 1932 (probably closer to the earlier date).

Clarkson Merchants

It’s an interesting little booklet.  In addition to the customary lineup of patriotic songs – America, The Star-Spangled Banner, Hail Columbia, Battle Hymn of the Republic, The Battle Cry of Freedom, Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean – it has a page devoted to being “Loyal to Your Home Town as well as Loyal to Your Flag.”  Illustrated with a cartoon about the advantages of keeping money in the local economy and out of the hands of big businesses (with their catalogs), the booklet notes in large, bold font that “loyalty to your business friends and neighbors will directly add to the value of your own personal interests.”

Booster Cartoon 1

Tucked in with the book was a marvelous photo of a booster parade that took place on Clarkson’s main street on July 4, 1912.

Clarkson Booster Parade 1912

In 1912 our town was not yet 30 years old, but large trees already lining the street provided blessed shade on a hot summer’s day.  It would be more than 20 years before the streets were paved, but it appears that concrete sidewalks fronted the stores to keep shoppers’ feet out of the mud and manure.  This was a transition period between horse-drawn wagons and buggies and the horseless carriage, both of which can be seen in abundance on main street that day.  The line of flag-draped motorcars was led by the Jirovec Band, perhaps the best collection of musicians in a town that had many fine players and bands.  Among the marching musicians were Jim Budin (baritone horn) and Bill Karel (trombone), and A.J. Karel is standing in the lead car. The location of the Clarkson Opera House was still an empty lot in the upper left corner (it would be built in 1913), and in the background the bell tower of the original wood-framed New Zion Presbyterian Church can be made out (it would be replaced by the present brick structure in 1922).

Clarkson was on its way up in 1912.  True, we didn’t yet have paved streets (1938) or a sewer system (1927), but we had electricity (1908), running water (1905) and telephones (1905).  The masons were busy replacing wooden buildings; that year, brick buildings were constructed to house the businesses of A.J. Karel, the Odvarka Brothers, Dr. Allen, V.L. Prazak, A.C. Fajman, and Joseph Filipi. A railroad on the north side of town connected us easily to the outside world, allowing all manner of goods to be shipped in and our agricultural and manufacturing products to be shipped out.

We were connected to the outside world, but to a significant degree our village was self-sufficient, in the manner described in the cartoon above.  We had an operating flour mill with a “service-while-you-wait” component.  When farmers needed flour for their homemade bread and kolaches, they would bring a gunny sack of their wheat to the mill and it would be ground for them while they waited. They took the pure white flour home to their wives in one flour sack and the undesirable wheat bran home for their livestock in another.  A century ago a visitor to the small village of Clarkson could buy hats in a milliner’s store, shoes from a shoemaker or a shoe store, have custom suits made by skilled tailors, bring his cattle to a slaughterhouse on the east side of town, and buy meats from meat market and fresh and canned food from a number of grocery and general merchandise stores.  He could walk into a single business (J.V. Janeček) and buy a harness for his horse or have his automobile painted. We boasted of multiple banks, barbers, and car dealerships, manufacturing (e.g., Buko Oilers and the Never Break Pole Co. as two examples), hotels, restaurants, and plenty of taverns.  A century ago, plans were being made to construct a modern brick high school, a skilled portrait photographer from Vienna was taking up residence in town, and Joseph Gloser had opened his restaurant and bakery in the building that would later become Tillie Gloser’s ice cream parlor and confectionary.  And as the Old Timers say, we made our own entertainment – theatrical productions in both Czech and English, church festivals, harvest festivals, card parties, book and sewing clubs, band concerts, and countless wedding and barn dances.  All this in a village of 750 souls – smaller than it is today.

It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it?  By 1912, the immigrants to the Clarkson area had learned to “reap the bountiful harvest” of the Great Plains. Grain prices were high, and there was a global market for our food that would grow throughout the decade.  Between 1910 and 1918 the price of corn tripled and wheat more than doubled.  With huge domestic and overseas markets and rising prices, the wealth of many Clarkson-area farmers was limited only by how much wheat they could thresh and how much corn they could pick by hand. But those good times were sorely tested in the 1920s, when nationalism, trade barriers, and tariffs would close off many of Clarkson’s markets, contributing to a depression that caused a lot of misery and belt-tightening.  We’ve learned from that.  That couldn’t happen again, could it?

Main Street is much quieter in Clarkson these days, as is most of rural America.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service states the issue succinctly: “American agriculture and rural life underwent a tremendous transformation in the 20th century. Early 20th century agriculture was labor intensive, and it took place on many small, diversified farms in rural areas where more than half the U.S. population lived. Agricultural production in the 21st century, on the other hand, is concentrated on a smaller number of large, specialized farms in rural areas where less than a fourth of the U.S. population lives.


Jason Lusk, Distinguished Professor and Head of the Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University, points out that “In 1900, just under 40 percent of the total US population lived on farms, and 60 percent lived in rural areas. Today, the respective figures are only about 1 percent and 20 percent.  The United States had between six and seven million farms from 1910 to 1940.  A sharp decline in the number of farms occurred from the 1940s to the 1980s. At the same time, the average farm size more than doubled, from about 150 acres to around 450 acres.”

Real Prices from Lusk

Lusk notes that farm productivity increased greatly in the course of the 20th Century, but the real (indexed) prices that farmers receive for their crops have dropped substantially since the First World War.  Further, the percentage of farm household income that actually comes from farming has declined from 40-50% between 1960-1975 to less than 20% in most years since 2000.  (It calls to mind the old joke about the farmer who won a $1,000,000 lottery.  When asked what he was going to do now, he replied “Well, I guess I’ll keep farming until the money runs out.”)  These days, many members of the community work elsewhere, shop elsewhere, and get their entertainment elsewhere.

Times change, and Clarkson can’t go back to the way it was in the early 20th Century.  In an era of Amazon Prime, Walmart and Costco, a return to the vibrant, diverse, local commercial activity of a century ago is too much to hope for.   Those of us who grew up there then and remember a bustling main street that was open for business every day except Sunday (and on Saturday nights) will bemoan the loss.  As Montaigne put it, “… whoever saw old age that did not applaud the past and condemn the present?”

Of course, change brings opportunity in 2019, just as it did 100 years ago.  More years ago than I care to count we studied Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Mr. Weibye’s English Class at Clarkson High School.  We learned from Cassius that “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”  It will be up to younger people with energy and imagination to find the best way forward.

Posted in 1910s, 1920s, Businesses, The 21st Century | 9 Comments

Happy Labor Day

In observance of Labor Day, I went down into The Vault and collected some old photographs of working men and women from the Clarkson and Heun areas.  Many of the pictures come from the earliest days of mechanized agriculture, when physical labor, sweat and muscle, were still at a premium.  The photos are a reminder of how hard our ancestors worked to make a good life for themselves and their families.  Their labors offered us the chance of an easier life.

Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet and Nobel Laureate, reflected on this theme in his well-known poem, Digging.  Heaney was raised on a small farm, and in the poem he expresses his admiration for his father’s and grandfather’s physical labors and skills and, perhaps with a little regret, the realization that his own work lies elsewhere.


Between my finger and my thumb 
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun. 

Under my window, a clean rasping sound 
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground: 
My father, digging. I look down 

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds 
Bends low, comes up twenty years away 
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills 
Where he was digging. 

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft 
Against the inside knee was levered firmly. 
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep 
To scatter new potatoes that we picked, 
Loving their cool hardness in our hands. 

By God, the old man could handle a spade. 
Just like his old man. 

My grandfather cut more turf in a day 
Than any other man on Toner’s bog. 
Once I carried him milk in a bottle 
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up 
To drink it, then fell to right away 
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods 
Over his shoulder, going down and down 
For the good turf. Digging. 

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap 
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge 
Through living roots awaken in my head. 
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them. 

Between my finger and my thumb 
The squat pen rests. 
I’ll dig with it.

–    Seamus Heaney

Enjoy the photos.  I wish you a happy and relaxing Labor Day.  I will be saying a prayer of gratitude for the opportunities that my ancestors’ labors gave me.  And a prayer for the workers and families left behind: those looking for work, those sidelined by illness or disability, and all those suffering the hardship of unemployment or underemployment. May they all have the opportunity to live fully and to experience the satisfaction of contributing to a just world.

64-19 Emil, Joseph J and Stanley Sobota on hay sweep

Emil Sobota on a hay sweep, Joseph J. and Stanley Sobota on the haystack

F9-12 Wood Cutting Crew 1

Wood cutting crew

Charles and Bobby

Charles Polodna and his youngest child Bobby taking down a cottonwood tree

District 21 1957

Colfax County School District No. 21 (Midland Precinct) ca. 1957 – Richard Vlach, teacher

Front row: Ron Novotny, Linda Vondra, Jon Dvorak, Sharon Figgner, Duane Stoklasa, Linda Stoklasa, Glenn Čada

Back row: Rolland Dvorak, Bob Herling, Doris Dvorak, Ron Čada, Theresa Dvorak, Norman Dvorak, Betty Herling, Ron Lapour, Janet Novotny, and Kenneth Čada

Threshing at Anton E Brichacek's 1916 46B

Threshing at Anton E. Brichacek’s farm, August 1916

134-16 Lunch time for silage choppers

Lunch time in the “Dry Years” for men chopping cornstalks for silage.  If rainfall was too low or came at the wrong time, few filled ears of corn would be produced.  Farmers could still salvage a crop by using the green stalks and leaves as forage or silage for their livestock.

Clarkson Museum_20160906_096

Ladies hat shop in Clarkson

Clarkson Museum_20150628_09

A sewer system was constructed in Clarkson in 1927 to replace individual cesspools.  The job of laying 26,000 feet of  pipes was awarded to the Charles Robeck Co. of Omaha at a cost of $26,788.19.

Clarkson Museum_20150628_08

Construction of Clarkson’s sewer system took place between June and November 1927.  The work suffered one fatality – a cave-in near the Emil Folda residence caused the death of one of the workers,  L. Lopez.  As no relatives could be found, Mr. Lopez was buried in the Czech National Cemetery.

harvesting sorghum 2 oct 71 big

Jerome Čada harvesting grain sorghum, October 2, 1971.  Dad didn’t like combining sorghum – ideally, the sorghum grains would be very dry when harvesting, which meant that the stalks shattered into a fine dust that rivaled itching powder.

Emilie Cada

Emilie Čada picking eggs

11D Emil and Joseph B Sobota steam rig

Emil Sobota, Sr. in front of wheel and Joseph B. Sobota on steam engine

#10 Jim Janecek, George Shafer, and Anton Radhaus - threshing time 1915

Threshing time, 1915 – Jim Janecek, George Shafer, and Anton Radhaus

Mrs Teply 1958

Colfax County School District No. 21 ca. 1958 – Alice Teply, teacher

A-31 Emil J Sobota farmyard 1933

Crews preparing to pick corn by hand at the Emil J Sobota farm in 1933.  Corn huskers walked alongside the short side of the wagon, husking the dry ear of corn using a corn hook attached to their hand with a leather strap, and snapping the ear off the stalk.  Then they would toss the ear of corn in the direction of the tall side of the wagon (bang board) where it would bounce off and fall into the wagon.

61-25 Richard and Jack Rupprecht 1946

Richard and Jack Rupprecht in front of a pile of hand-picked corn – 1946

56-13 Picking corn James Svec 1954

Modern corn picker at the James P. Svec farm – 1954

The Nebraska Boy - 1315-lb hog at Fremont 41a

The Nebraska Boy, a 1315-pound hog shown at Fremont inside his chicken wire pen

159-28 Veterans Conservation Corps planting trees at Heun 1942

Veteran Conservation Corps (VCC) crew that planted the windbreak on the north side of Heun Church in 1942.  The VCC was a part of the Civilian Conservation Corps that was focused on finding work for older men – e.g., veterans of WWI.  1942 was the last year of these two New Deal Programs, after which men found employment in Africa, Europe, and the Pacific.


Threshing 1b

Men threshing grain, one of whom is Edwin Čada

117-4 Josefa Kmoch, Josef Kmoch, Katerina Strudl, and Bertha Figgner

Josefa Strudl Kmoch (1857-1937) holding Josef (1911-1954), Katerina Fiala Strudl (1838-1918), and Bertha Strudl Figgner (Mrs. Joseph Figgner)

73-28 School District 37 in Colfax County

Colfax County School District No. 37 ca. 1912 – Mildred Lhotak, teacher.  This school, which should have been nicknamed Kaspar School, was situated in Section 28, Lincoln Precinct, 4 miles south and 2 miles east of Howells.

Front row:  Randolph Sebek, Adolph Pavel (or Lambert Kaspar?), Magdalene Kaspar, Klara Dvorak, Bertha Strudl, Ella Kaspar, Lula Kaspar, Bohumila Kaspar, Mary Pavel.

Mildred row: Jim Dostal, Rudy Kaspar, William Hajek, Louis (or Frank) Strudl, Ed Pavel, Tillie Dvorak Hronek, Helen Kaspar Fichtl, Anna Uhlik, Mary Kaspar, Anna Pavel, Mildred Lhotak.

Back Row: Rudolph Prusa, Ed Dostal, Marie Strudl, Lille Kaspar, Rose Pavel,  _?_ Simanek (or Novotny).


Dad and Horses

Jerome Čada with work horses

73-10 Sindelar Koza Zoubek

Bohumil F. Sindelar with ax, standing on woodpile.  Also in the photo, Mrs. F.K Sindelar, Rose Sindelar Koza, Christine Sindelar Zoubek, Charles Sindelar, and F.K. Sindelar (9th from left)

46B Emil Sobota moving Pollard house 1917

Emil Sobota Sr. moving a house for Pollards – September 1917

#9 George Shafer and Henry Janda

George Shafer and Henry Janda

Farm 1 12-24-74

Posted in 1890s | 24 Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WOW – Woodmen of the World

MWA – Modern Woodmen of America, Camp No. 1574

AL – American Legion

VFW – Veterans of Foreign Wars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CSPS Hall in Clarkson built 1891

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

CSPS Lodge 1891-1897

ČSPS Hall in Clarkson, Nebraska, built in 1891

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

Czech School - Anton Odvarka

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

Czech School - Koza

Czech School - Louis Zelenda

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opera House Cornerstone

Opera House 1915a


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


Clarkson Opera House Interior

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

KD – Katolický Dělník (Catholic Workman)

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sokols are gone from Clarkson, but active clubs remain in other Nebraska communities (Omaha, Crete, and Wilber) and elsewhere in the United States.


Jednota Českých Dám (JČD)

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

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

Unity of Czech Ladies


JCD 2  JCD 3  JCD 1

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

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

Česká Římsko Katolická Jednota Žen (ČŘKJŽ)

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

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

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

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

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

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

AOUW 1    AOUW 2


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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WOW Lodge 234 1

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

WOW Lodge 234 3

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

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

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

WoW Gravestone in Schuyler 2

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

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


Ancient Order of United Workmen –

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

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

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

History of the Česká Římsko Katolická Jednota Žen (ČŘKJŽ)   –

History of the National ČSPS/CSA Fraternal Life  –

History of the ZCBJ/Western Fraternal Life –

History of WOW radio/TV –

Hix, Lisa. 2016. When Secret Societies Sold Insurance.  Zocalo Public Square.

Obituary of Nettie Aksamit, one of the teachers in Clarkson’s Bohemian School –

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

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

Rosicky, Rose. 1929.  A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska.  Czech Historical Society of Nebraska, National Printing Co., Omaha, NE.

Stevens, Albert C. 1899.  The Cyclopedia of Fraternities.  A Compilation of Existing Authentic Information and the Results of Original Investigation as to the Origin, Derivation, Founders, Development, Aims, Emblems, Character, and Personnel of More Than Six Hundred Secret Societies in the United States. 486 p.

Posted in 1890s | 19 Comments


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

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

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

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

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

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

1)     Love for Czech traditional food

2)     Love for music and dance

3)     Good work ethic

4)     Close family ties

5)     Frugality

6)     Pride in their heritage

7)     Physical characteristics

8)     Love for beer

9)     Honesty

10)   Sense of humor

11)   Awareness of the importance of good education

12)   Czech language.

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

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

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

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

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

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2) Love for music and dance

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in 1890s | 7 Comments