Don’t Let the Heat Get You Down

Think cool thoughts.  It will cool off soon enough.

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1936 Blizzard_0006

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Posted in 1930s | 4 Comments

The Wreck of the Reeves (Revisited)

A year ago I posted an unidentified photograph in the Clarkson Museum of a spectacular accident in which a bridge apparently collapsed under the weight of a threshing machine:

Clarkson Museum_20140602_081

I asked readers to identify the location and circumstances of the accident (and indeed, to confirm whether it occurred anywhere near our Village).  But since the photograph was taken over 100 years ago, memories were understandably dim and the picture remained a mystery.

Well, lose no more sleep over this photo – the mystery has been solved!  Don Kelly in faraway Olympia, Washington found a postcard in a box of old photos from his great aunt that shows the same wreckage, but with different set of spectators:

Peitzmeier Thresher 1

The handwritten note on the back of his postcard photo provided enough information to track down the story:

Peitzmeier Thresher 2

Nov 13 1910
North                                                                                                                                                    South
The bridge south of old Mr hills
This is the grate thrashing macheine wreck on Maple Creek Bridge Aug 1st 1910 in the fore noon. I saw the wreck myself & it show it pretty well how do you think 3 men could go down with it & be got out alive the engineer crawled out under boiler & fire box down in the watter of the creek to keep from (unreadable)


On August 10, 1910 the Columbus Journal published the following account of the accident:

Last Monday forenoon a threshing outfit belonging to Henry Peitzmeier of Dodge broke through a bridge twelve miles northeast of town and was completely demolished. The facts of just exactly how the accident occurred cannot be stated positively as so many stories at variance are being told. But it seems that they had finished threshing north of Maple Creek and were on their way to the Killian farm south of the creek. Approaching the bridge from the north the road curves slightly, as the bridge is built squarely across the creek. In order to get the whole outfit, which consisted of an engine, tender and the threshing machine, on the bridge they had to drive the engine close to one side. They took the precaution of planking the bridge and proceeded to pull over. All went well until the front wheels of the machine struck the bridge where they contemplated uncoupling from it and running the engine across and then drawing the machine across with a cable which is a usual thing for threshers to do. After viewing the situation they concluded it was better to go ahead far enough to get the front wheels of the machine on the bridge. The start was made and at the same instant almost the bridge gave way and slued to one side throwing the whole outfit into the creek twenty-five feet below, carrying with it three men who operate it. Henry Peitzmeier the owner, was standing on the bridge in front of the engine and was dashed into the water and caught between the smoke-stack and the boiler breaking his right leg just above the ankle. John Marek and another man were on the engine. Marek suffered a broken nose, badly cut on the side of the jaw and head, and was badly injured in the back and probably internally injured. The other man was cut on the scalp and chin and injured in the chest. Latest reports from Dodge where they were taken is that they are getting along as well as could be expected.


A check of the 1925 Atlas of Colfax County showed that a James Killian had a farm in the Colfax Precinct of Colfax County, Nebraska:  Killian, James. Ch. James F. P.O. Rogers, R. 1. O. 160 ac., sec. 13; O. 40 ac., sec. 12. (33.)

The Colfax Precinct is shown in red in the Colfax County map, a few miles north of Rogers, Nebraska.

Colfax County _20160307_02

Turning to my brother’s copy of Standard Atlas of Colfax County, Nebraska, including a Plat Book (1917), I found the James Killian farm, just on the other side of the Maple Creek from the James Hill farm (mentioned in the postcard).  As the Columbus Telegram reported, a road crosses the Maple Creek north of the Killian farm, 12 miles northeast of Schuyler, NE.

Hill and Killian Farms

To summarize, on the morning of Monday, August 1, 1910, three men (including Henry Peitzmeier of Dodge and an employee named John Marek) attempted to cross the Maple Creek with a threshing rig that was a bit too long for the width of the bridge.  The Reeves steam engine slipped off the bridge, and the entire rig (engine, tender, and thresher) went plummeting down 25 feet into the creek, taking the 3 terrified men with it.  Peitzmeier, the owner of the rig, was swept off the bridge and fell down into the muddy water, trapped between the red-hot smoke stack and the pressurized boiler.  Miraculously, the men all survived to tell the tale.

A heck of a way to start the work week, no?  But the accident provided the opportunity for some great photographs.  The postcard photo from Olympia, WA shows a wider scene than the one in the Clarkson Museum.  You can clearly see from the twisted steel beams and steel cylindrical pilings that the Peitzmeier crew wrecked a pretty substantial bridge.  The Reeves steam engine is lying upside down in the Maple Creek (you can make out the brand name Reeves on a cylinder attached to the engine – water reservoir?), and the thresher had come to rest on top of it.  The photographer was standing in the creek bed, looking west (upstream). As usual for August, the water level in the creek was low; probably a good thing.  If the men would have spent much time in the Maple Creek waters they likely would have been poisoned or succumbed to a variety of waterborne diseases…

Mystery solved, and now I can go back to my nap.

Posted in 1910s | 8 Comments

The Slama Saloon


One of the sturdiest buildings on Our Village’s main street is situated on the northeast corner of 3rd and Pine Streets (the gray, concrete block structure on the right side of the above photo).  The building, which has stood on that spot for over 100 years, has housed a number of businesses.  Many of us know it as The Country Floral Shop, and a select few still remember the building as Rezniček’s Self-Service Grocery Store.  But almost no one living was inside the building when, for 35 years before that, it was home to the Slama Saloon, which supplied local men with Storz beer and home-made cigars.  This week we’ll take a look at the interesting history of what I’ll call the Slama-Rezniček building, and a topic that is dear the hearts of many Czechs…  beer.

The first structure on that site was actually a two-story wooden building that can be seen in one of the first photographs of the new village of Clarkson.  The Boston One Price Cash Store was a general merchandise store built by Joseph Tomeš in 1890.  It is the building on the right in the photo below of our town’s 1893 Independence Day Celebration.


In 1899 the general merchandise store was sold to Joseph Slama (9/30/1865-8/30/1934), who converted it into a saloon on the first floor and a pool hall on the second floor.  Slama had immigrated to the U.S. from Bohemia as a teenager, and worked on the Bilby (aka Wisherd) Ranch north of Clarkson before moving to Omaha to learn the bartending trade. The picture below is a photo of the interior of the Slama Saloon in the original wooden building.

First Slama Saloon - Colfax County Picture Book

[Note: Although the photograph above has been identified as the original, wooden Slama Saloon, I am beginning to think that this is a later photo of the newer, concrete building.  The Village of Clarkson got electricity from its own power plant at the end of 1908, and this picture seems to show electric lights hanging from the ceiling, i.e., 1909 or later.  Further, Franz “Hoagie” Meeske, the grandson of Leo Zelenda, is convinced that his grandpa is standing at the bar, wearing a black hat.  Leo was born in 1889, and is more likely to have been seen in the saloon after 1909.]

The March 6, 1908 edition of The Improvement Bulletin (a national publication that provided advance news of projected work for architects, engineers and contractors) noted that “Joseph Slama will erect a brick or cement block building” for his prospering saloon business. The building was financed by Gottlieb Storz, owner of the Storz Brewing Company of Omaha, NE.  On May 4, 1909 local contractors Wolf and Vitek were hired to build the new building, and on June 22, 1909 a contract was signed to move the old existing wooden structure off of the site and into the street so the new structure could be built.  While the wooden structure was out on the street Slama still conducted his saloon business in it.  [After Joseph Slama moved his business into the new building, the old wooden structure was moved again, across the street to the west and a short ways to the south, where it became the VFW (Vets Club) Building.]

On July 26, 1909 excavation of the basement and foundation began, and by October 5, 1909 the mason work had been completed.  The pre-cast solid concrete blocks, that have a rough-hewn appearance, were made locally by Ed Kutin, who owned and operated a masonry and quarry business in Clarkson.  On November 16, 1909 Joseph Slama moved in as the first occupant of the new building.  As before, the first floor was a saloon and the second floor of the building, which was one big room, was a pool and billiards hall.

Clarkson_20160406_55   Clarkson_20160406_56


East of the building (i.e., behind it), a wooden barn was constructed to house the Slama family’s horses and buggy.  (In my memory, it was painted red).  On the other side of the alley to the east of this barn was a small building that covered the entrance to the ice house.  The ice house was underground and was used for storing not only ice but also the beer for the saloon.  Both of these building had been constructed in the 1890s.  I’ve never seen the underground ice house, but I imagine that it looked like the cellars (aka “caves”) that many people had in their back yards for storing potatoes and keeping milk, potted meat, and other foods cool.  It was probably lined with bricks and featured sturdy concrete steps.  I assumed that it had a ramp for moving heavy beer kegs and ice into and out of the underground cellar, but Ron Vavrina (Joe Slama’s grandson) remembers that it had a manual rope lift that was used to lower the ice and bring up the beer. The subterranean ice house was still in use in the 1940’s. The ice was gotten from the lake at the Clarkson Ballroom. Ice blocks would be cut out, transported to the cellar, and stacked with straw between the layers for insulation and to keep the blocks from freezing together.

I can’t seem to find a picture of the ice house (which was demolished in the 1980s), but if you have sharp eyes you can see the horse-and-buggy barn behind the Slama-Rezniček building in this aerial photo of Clarkson taken around 1961.

Clarkson aerial looking South 1

Joe Slama was also known for the hand-rolled cigars that he made in Clarkson.  They were called “Old Pepik” (Old Joe).  They were sold to the public only in his saloon. The picture below is the lid from a cigar box that features a photograph of Joe “Old Pepik” Slama himself:

Old Pepik cigar box

In the glass case on the left side of the picture below are a large number of cigar boxes.  No doubt some of them were loaded with Old Pepiks.

Slama Interior 1909 1

Also in the bar, directly above the mirror, is a sign advertising Sizz.  Sizz was not a beer, but a soft drink that was also manufactured in Omaha.  The Sizz soft drink was made by the Leo Grotte Mfg. Co. at 1212 Farnam Street in Omaha.  He filed for a patent with the U.S. Patent Office on July 16, 1909 for making “non-alcoholic tonic beverages and tablets and powders for making same.”  The following advertisement for Sizz appeared in the Omaha Daily Bee on July 16, 1911:

Cooling, Refreshing, Delightful to Taste.  Easily made.  Just stir two teaspoonsful of Sizz into a glass of ice cold water and the drink is prepared.  Make it at home.  Everybody will like it.  25-cent bottle makes 12 drinks. 60-cent bottle makes 30 drinks.  $1 bottle makes 70 drinks.  The Greatest Drink on the Market – The One Best Drink.  Leo Grotte Mfg. Co., Omaha, Nebraska.

Sizz - Omaha Sunday Bee July 3 1910    Sizz corkscrew
Does the name Leo Grotte sound familiar?  Careful readers of this Clarkson History blog may remember him as the miscreant who hired a team of horses in Clarkson and brutally whipped them to death in a race to catch a train in Stanton; he drove the horses 27 miles in 2 ½ hours before they collapsed.

Perhaps that is why you don’t see his product advertised in a later photo of the bar.

Slama Interior 1915

Slama beer mugs

Original beer mugs from the Slama Saloon

Not long after Joe Slama moved into his new, concrete saloon, the storm clouds of Prohibition began building in the southeast.  Public sentiment in favor of prohibiting the sale and consumption of intoxicating beverages was growing across the Nation, and on this issue the state of Nebraska was a leader.  The Temperance Movement was especially strong in Lincoln, where an excise tax on saloons (1902) led to a resolution in favor of prohibition on the local ballot (1909).  The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) fired up their followers with songs like these (sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle):


The Saloons’ “Waterloo”
Tune: Yankee Doodle

Saloons have been by Lincoln tried . . .
And drinking has been easy.
And many of our men and boys
Occasionally are boozy.

Lincoln now is going dry
Yankee doodle dandy,
Saloons have met their “Waterloo”
Strong drink no more is handy.

We will no longer give consent
Our sons are far too precious,
We now unite saloons to rout
And ask the Lord to help us.


Let all now join the Civic League
And help to clean up Lincoln
And if we turn these leeches out
Some poor folks will have plenty.


Our buildings would soon fill again
And business go a humming,
When people spend their money right
And quit their foolish bumming.


— By T. J. Merryman, from Nebraska’s Favorite Temperance Rallying Songs
(1908), compiled by Mrs. Frances B. Heald, Nebraska WCTU president.

Heads I Win

The anti-Prohibition forces fought back hard, and were well-financed by the Omaha brewers (Storz, Metz, and Krug).  But there was no resisting the Tide of Temperance.  A “Daylight Saloon Bill” was passed by Nebraska legislature and signed into law by the Governor in 1909. Saloons could only be open during daylight hours, i.e., 7 AM to 7 PM.  In addition to restricting hours, in Clarkson an ordinance was passed on November 21, 1911 that prohibited minors from entering a saloon. Finally, in 1916 Nebraska voters approved a statewide prohibition amendment.  There would be no more booze when the law formally went intoTails Dry effect in 1917 (two years before Prohibition was instituted nationally by the Volstead Act).  Home brewing continued to be legal, but commercial and home-brewed beer could not be sold.

In 1917, when Prohibition was taking effect in Nebraska, Joseph Slama realized that he needed another type of income to make up for the loss of liquor sales.  He once again hired Wolf and Vitek to remodel the second floor, dividing it into five rooms, a long hallway, and a bathroom.  Slama rented the rooms out as a hotel for overnight passengers coming in on the train.

Joseph Slama was able to hold out through the dry years of The Noble Experiment; Nebraska was among the first states to institute Prohibition (in 1917) and among the last to repeal it (in 1934).  By selling near-beer, soft drinks, and cigars, and renting out rooms upstairs, Slama continued to operate the saloon and hotel until the time of his death in 1934, and the building stayed in the family.  Joe’s wife, Marie Slama (9/15/1867-5/14/1943), turned the saloon business over to Anton Slama (no relation), who operated it from 1934 to 1939.  It was closed from 1939 to 1940.  In 1941 Ed Sedlacek opened the saloon up again and ran it until he left for service in WWII in 1943.  (Pfc. Edward Sedlacek was killed in action during the Battle of the Bulge on December 19, 1944, leaving behind his wife Viola and son Dennis).  In 1944 Lucille and Ed Indra re-opened the saloon until 1945, when the Slama family sold the building to the Joseph Rezniček family.

Rezniček’s Self Service Grocery Store

Joe and Catherine Reznicek

Joe and Catherine Rezniček purchased the building from the Joseph Slama family in 1945, and Rezniček’s Self Service Grocery Store opened its doors in June, 1946.  The store offered a new approach to grocery shopping, with a modern, mirror-lined fruit and vegetable case which Joe Rez had built along with a large refrigerator which could house milk and other dairy products that were shipped in.  Also, there was an area for “boughten bread” and commercial baked products.  The self-service shelves and checkout counter were all designed and built by Joe and Catherine Rezniček.  Metal push carts to put the groceries in were also utilized for the first time in Clarkson.  The store was associated with the Blackbird chain of stores.

Reznicek Storefront

Joe and Catherine Rezniček had moved from Omaha to Clarkson with their four children (Dale, Doris, Don, and JoAnn, but their experience in the grocery business had started long before that.  Joe had helped his father in a family-owned general store in Dodge, NE, and married Catherine Lodes, who had worked in the dry goods and ready-to-wear departments of the Dodge store.

The rooms in the second floor of the Slama-Rezniček building had been used as a hotel.  When the Rezničeks purchased the building they converted the rooms into their home.  They also filled the underground ice house east of the building with dirt, which had started to cave in.  All four children worked in the store alongside their parents.  In 1955 Joe and Catherine sold their business but continued to live in the second floor until to building was sold to John and Lorraine Smith in 1980.  Joseph Rezniček died in 1979 and his wife Catherine in 1981.

The Country Floral Shop:

Before they moved their Country Floral Shop business into the Slama-Rezniček building, John and Lorraine (Tuma) Smith hired Steve Navrkal Construction to restore the first floor to its original 1909 appearance.  They restored the original yellow pine woodwork and wainscoting and the original 15-ft.-high sculptured tin ceiling.  (Presumably, they didn’t bring the spittoons back).  The building’s exterior has changed very little.  The awning and stained glass window that were above the big window fronting main street were removed, and the old ice house was dismantled.  The smaller windows have been replaced with modern aluminum-framed windows.


And so the Slama Building has hardly changed on the outside since it was first built, and has been restored to something closer to its original state in the inside.  It isn’t hard to picture this building in 1909, sitting on a dusty, unpaved street, welcoming thirsty patrons into its cool, dark, smoky interior. And with a little imagination, you can still see the patrons of the saloon in early part of the last century.  They would have been an interesting mixture of men – European immigrants, farmers, businessmen, railroad workers, traveling salesmen, and cowboys, laughing, cursing, and playing cards.  In your mind’s eye you can peer into the smoky atmosphere of that saloon, loud with the sound of billiard balls, rough boots on wooden floors, and liquor-fueled conversations carried out in Czech, German, and accented English.  Light from sun setting in the west would have streamed through the large glass windows facing main street and been diffused by the clouds of smoke from pipe and Old Pepik cigars.

Let me end Part 1 of the Clarkson beer story with a question.  For a village, Clarkson has usually had a plentiful supply of taverns and beer joints.  The 1887 Business Directory already lists 3 saloons/billiard halls, for a village of fewer than 150 souls.  By the middle of the Twentieth Century, when our population peaked at around 800 people, there were even more taverns.  What is the highest number of taverns in Clarkson at any one time, and what were their names?

Next time – Beer Joints, Breweries, and a Recipe


Clarkson Diamond Jubilee Book – 1886-1961. Ludi Printing Co., Wahoo, Nebraska. 104 p.

Clarkson Centennial Book – 1886-1986.

Maas, Mary L., Jim Krzycki, Judy Brezina, and Ruth Waters. 2014.  Images of America – Colfax County. Arcadia Publishing, Charleston, South Carolina. 127 p.

Story about Pfc. Edward Sedlacek:

History of Prohibition in Nebraska:

Posted in 1890s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Businesses | 13 Comments

Is it HOT enough for you?

A year ago I published a story about the frigid winter of 1935-36, one of the worst in Nebraska’s history –

The first two months of 1936 were characterized by a virtually unbroken string of bad weather –   frequent, almost daily, small snowfalls, record low temperatures, and strong, icy cold winds that blew the snow around and drifted the roads shut for days.  I’m sure the villagers were looking forward to nice, warm, sunny days. What they got was the Great North American Heat Wave of 1936. The most severe heat wave in the history of the continent.  80 years ago this month.

How hot was it?

It was so hot… the hens were laying hard boiled eggs.

It was so hot… the birds had to use potholders to pull the worms out of the ground.

It was so hot… the trees were whistling for the dogs.

It was so hot… the Clarkson Red Devil bought a summer home in Alaska.

The 1936 heat wave started in late June, when temperatures across the US began rising above 100 °F. The Midwest experienced some of the highest June temperatures on record, and drought conditions worsened.  July was the peak month, in which temperatures reached all-time record levels—many of which stood until the next serious heat wave in 2012. And it didn’t cool off at night –  adding to the high daytime maximum temperatures, some stations in the Midwest reported minimum temperatures at or above 90 °F, such as 91 °F at Lincoln, Nebraska on the night of July 24-25, 1936.

A summary of the 1936 heat wave can be seen in this chart:


Summer (June–August) 1936 Temperature, in degrees Fahrenheit. Record warmest and coldest is based on a 112 yr period of records, 1895–2006.  Source: Wikipedia.

Nebraska had an AVERAGE summer temperature of 77.8 degrees, which put us hotter than New Mexico and in a league with Arizona and Florida (but without the beaches).  77.8 degrees doesn’t sound too bad, you say?  Remember that this represents the average temperature over a 3-month period, and includes night-time temperatures which would normally cool down into the 50s.

Add to the heat a record drought (4.18 inches for the whole summer) that was burning up the corn crop before the grasshoppers could eat it, and you can imagine that the farmers were dreaming of snow drifts.

A more striking picture of the 1936 heat wave can be seen from a graph of the average maximum July temperatures in Nebraska; July 1936 was over 11 degrees hotter than the overall average for the entire 20th century:

Max July temps Nebraska

Source: NOAA/National Centers for Environmental Information.

Think about this for a moment – the average high temperature for all the 31 days of July in 1936 was 99.3 °F.  August brought no relief – Nebraska’s 62-day, July and August period in 1936 had an average maximum temperature of 96.5 °F.

Max July and August temps Nebraska

Source: NOAA/National Centers for Environmental Information.

The hottest 24-hr period ever recorded in Lincoln, Nebraska was on July 24-25, 1936, when the low temperature for the day only dropped to 91 °F and the high temperature the next day reached 115 °F, resulting in an average temperature for the day of 103 °F.



Residents of Lincoln, Nebraska spend the night on the lawn of the state capital on July 25, 1936. Photo from the Nebraska State Historical Society.

How hot was it in Clarkson?  The Diamond Jubilee book reports that during this time severe drought conditions prevailed in the area.  Cornfields were completely ruined by drought and grasshoppers, and little rough feed was realized.  The severe drought necessitated moving livestock to areas where greener pastures existed.   The use of silos was encouraged.  The drought was so severe that some of the old trees were suffering from lack of moisture.  On July 24, 1936 the temperature rose to 112 degrees.

Once more, I turn to my Mother’s diary for a day-to-day glimpse of the heat and how the people coped with it.   Her first mention of what is to come was on June 12, 1936 (“clear and much warmer”) and again on June 13 (“clear and a hot south wind”).  She mentions hot days again later in June, but it is early July when the drumbeat of observations about the heat began…

July 4 – Is it ever hot, such a burning wind.  Sleep most of the day.

July 8 – Windy and hot again.

July 9 – Windy and hot again.

July 13 – Still scorching hot.

July 14 – Hot and temperature at 110 °F .

July 15 – Continued hot.

July 16 – Hottest day on record.

July 18 – Another scorching day.  Make ice cream and have a root beer float.

July 19 – Plenty warm.  Bring ice and make ice cream.  In the evening a terrible dust storm and rain.

July 23 – Is it hot! Sleep til noon and nap after dinner.

July 24 – Hot, scorching day.  Terrible dust storm comes up.  Sleep on the sleeping porch.

July 25 – Very hot.  Can’t sleep, wake up at 6.

It cooled off until early August, but beginning August 8, she mentions the hot weather in her diary each day, culminating on August 13 – Clear and so hot.  Clean up and press clothes in the morning.  In the afternoon we go to the Harvest Festival in Howells. In eve we go again.  Too hot dancing, and is it mobbed.

In 1936, rural electrification had not yet reached most of the farms; buildings were still lighted with kerosene lamps after nightfall.  Without electricity, fans, let alone air conditioning, were not an option.  Manual laborers were forced to slow down, knocking off work during the hottest part of the day and resuming it again between supper and sundown. (My Dad said that his father had a rule that they had to stop working when the temperatures reached 100 °F, out of concern for the wellbeing of the horses.)  During work breaks in the heat of the day, the men would stretch out in the shade and nap.  Women tried to get their cooking, baking, washing and ironing done first thing in the morning before it got hot.  On hot nights, when spending time inside the house was unbearable, people would sleep on the porch, on the lawn, or drag their mattresses down to the basement.  They refreshed themselves with cool well water, beer, tea, and lemonade from the cellar.  Lacking swimming pools (and sometimes running water), men and children could beat the heat by taking a quick dip in the stock tank used to provide water to the cattle and horses.


Mother’s diary also describes an active social calendar throughout this summer, even on the hottest days. Visitors to the house came and went on a daily basis. There were wedding dances, barn dances, baseball and pug ball games, harvest festivals, and other celebrations, seemingly every night, and Mom often described them as mobbed.  Rather than sweltering at home in the dark, people jumped in their cars and sought out the bright lights and happy crowds in town.  (I’ve always thought that one of the sad things about our modern day prosperity is that air conditioning and other creature comforts encourage us to stay cooped up in our houses, and reduce our interactions with our neighbors).

5812099248_b56bf4cac3_o1-700x442 - Only in Your StateSource:

There you have it – 1936. One of the coldest winters in memory, followed by a record-breaking heat wave that has not yet been surpassed, all in the middle of The Great Depression and a decade-long drought – the Dust Bowl Years.  Did I mention the plague of grasshoppers?  That’s a story for another time.

5-Heatwave-1936 - USA Today

Sounds almost Biblical, doesn’t it?  If there was ever a time to question the Meaning of Life (or more narrowly, what the heck you were doing in Nebraska), the summer of 1936 was it.  I’m sure that our forefathers put some thought into leaving, but instead they wiped their brows, took another sip of cold tea, and soldiered on.   I, for one, am glad that they did.


Posted in 1930s | 4 Comments

The Memoirs of a Country School Teacher

The rural state of Nebraska was once dotted with small, “one-room” country schoolhouses. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much of Nebraska’s population lived on farms and ranches; 76% of the population was rural in 1900 (compared to 30% in 2000).  For much of its early history, the education of Nebraska’s children was best served by numerous small schools located close to the family farms.  Like the rest of the United States, the numbers of rural grade schools increased with the population, peaked in the early 20th century, and then declined as improved roads, busing, and consolidation resulted in fewer, larger, centralized facilities.

In 1918, there were 196,037 one-room schools in the U.S., 6,638 of which were in Nebraska.1  Similarly, in 1924, Nebraska’s 93 counties contained 7,120 school districts, of which 6,492 housed rural schools, taught by 7,255 teachers and serving 133,896 students.  On average, that’s 77 school districts per county and 21 students per school/teacher.  Out of a total of 7,434 school houses in Nebraska in 1924, 6,492 (87%) were rural schools.  But with improved roads and declining rural populations, the country schools began to close.  By 1959 there were fewer than 24,000 one-room schools left in the U.S. (2,812 in Nebraska), but even then they constituted 1/4 of all public elementary schools in the nation.  By the end of the 20th Century, one-room schools had nearly vanished; there were only 840 left in the entire country in 1984, of which Nebraska claimed 45 percent (385 schools).  This form of elementary school education, which was the only formal educational experience for most of our grandparents’ generation and was so important to many of us, has essentially become extinct.

District 38 Stanton County 1970s 1a

District 38 Stanton County 1970s 2a

District 38 (Pride Hill School), Stanton County, Nebraska – 1970s

Country school teachers single-handedly taught and disciplined a rowdy collection of children spread over 9 grades (Kindergarten through 8th).   It was a task that called for considerable tact, tenderness, authority, and imagination.  My Mother, Blanche Poledna Cada, was a country school teacher for 2 years before giving it up to marry my father and assume the role of a farm wife.  Mom always spoke fondly of her students and teaching experiences.  She maintained that despite the limited material resources that were available in the little schoolhouses, the students were provided with as good an education as they could have gotten anywhere.  I share her opinion.


District 21, Colfax County, Nebraska – mid-1950s

I was privileged to receive my elementary school education entirely in one such school – District 21 (also known as Sousek School), in the middle of Colfax County, Nebraska.  It was a brick and frame school, built in 1921 and fitted out with electricity, a basement, an oil furnace, and eventually a telephone. It was certainly more splendid than the literally one-room schoolhouses that my parents attended.  And for those 9 years I was blessed with only fine teachers: Mildred Spulak, Richard Vlach, Alice Zrust Teply, Fred Wacha, Edith Novotny Nepper, and Betty Jedlicka.  It isn’t just the mists of time and forgetfulness that make me say that – they really were excellent teachers.

In the coming months, I plan to wax nostalgic about country school education with occasional posts about life as I remember it at District 21.  There are so many topics to write about: academics, music and school plays, recess and games, pumping water from the well, outdoor toilets, Red Chief writing tablets, modeling clay, Crayola crayons, practicing your penmanship on the black board and pounding the chalk dust out of the erasers, school picnics, and… the miracle of the hectograph (anyone remember those?)

District 57 1963 ed

District 57: Helen Belohrad, teacher (1962 or 1963)

1st row: Joan Imholt, Billy Indra, Debbie Gross, Patti Thalken, Kathy Imholt, Marvin Indra   2nd row: Kenny Molacek, Jean Hockamier, Janet Imholt, Denise Hockamier, Bonnie Matthies   3rd row: Jimmy Imholt, Gerald Indra, Don Gross   4th row: Mrs. Belohrad, Patti Molacek, Bonnie Hegr, Donna Hockamier, Larry Gross


District 21 1958

District 21, Colfax County, Nebraska – 1958.  Mrs. Alice Teply, teacher

Let’s start with a story from my 3rd Grade teacher, Mrs. Alice Zrust Teply, written in her own highly legible hand.

District 14 – A Teacher’s Memories


District 14 (Konicek School), Colfax County, Nebraska ca. 1902


District 14 (Konicek School), Colfax County, Nebraska ca. 1970

Alice Teply taught in Colfax County country schools for 8 years, beginning as a 17-year-old at District 14 (Konicek School) in 1949 and finishing at District 21 (Sousek School) in 1958. Her memories of District 14 reflect the hard work, long hours, and continuing satisfaction of teaching in these schools.








Are you having trouble believing that she did all this for the princely  sum of $165/month? Here is her first teaching contract:



And so it goes.  In case we didn’t say it at the time, the two boys sitting on the porch of District 21 pictured at the top of this post want to say it now… “Thank you, Mrs. Teply!  You made us the scholarly gentlemen that we are today!”

All Class Reunion_20110618_12



Barker, B. and I. Muse. 1986.  One-Room Schools of Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota, California, and Wyoming.  Research in Rural Education 3(3):127-130.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s | 7 Comments

From the Odvarka Files

I have received another batch of old photographs from Sharon Odvarka Steinberger, who was kind enough to let me look them over before passing them on to the Clarkson Museum.  Most of them came from the collection of the Odvarka Bros. (Otto and Anton Jr.), who published the Colfax County Press between 1916 and 1961.  One of these days I will write a story about the Odvarka Bros. and their various publishing enterprises, but for now I’ll just post some of their interesting photos.  Do us a favor and take a good, hard look at them; if you can identify anyone or shed some light on the subjects, let me know.

1910-11  CHS Girls Basketball Team

1910-1911 CHS Girls Basketball Team  

L to R: Miss Lena Platz (coach; Mrs. Anton Odvarka), Emma Zak (Mrs. Emma Makousky), Josie Zrust (Mrs. Browning), Mary Konicek (Mrs. Mary Jonas), Elsie Roether (Mrs. Ed Zelenda), Lillian Vanderbeek (Mrs. Adolph Jonas), Ida Swoboda (Mrs. Gus Gross), and Ida Dusatko (Mrs. Boise Turk).  [Lena was a member of the Platz Family who made beer on Brewery Hill, north of Schuyler, between 1888 and 1904.  Lena taught grade 6 and coached girls basketball in the 1910-1911 season for $55.  On January 17, 1911 the girls played Howells and won 21-11.]

Morris Odvarka w birthday cake Lena Platz Odvarka in back

Here is a later picture of Lena Platz Odvarka, behind a group of children celebrating the birthday of her son, Morris Odvarka.

1936 CHS Basketball Team

1936 CHS Mens Basketball Team.  In both 1936 and 1937 they competed in the state tournament in Lincoln.  In 1937, they competed in Class B, beating Ogallala and Wakefield before losing to Bethany 21-19 in overtime.

Front, L to R: Edward Svoboda, Jerome Prazak, and Frank Vidlak

Back, L to R: Boudy Pospisil, Stanley Schaffer, Coach Arnold Prokop, Frank Blecha, and Norman Holoubek


Who are these people by the old Clarkson High School building?


Who are these men? Is it a fraternal organization, like Modern Woodmen?

Platte River Bridge in Schuyler


Elkhorn River Bridge in Stanton ca 1914

I blew up this picture of the bridge near Stanton, but still couldn’t quite read what the sign says above the wagon.

Clarkson Flood Aug 11 1927



Does anyone recognize these fancy dudes?

Jackrabbits Anton Odvarka Jr on left

Hunting for rabbits was good.  I think that is Anton Odvarka Jr. on the left.

Little Johnnie Hruska March 1910

Little Johnnie Hruska

BJ Novotny Sylvia Brdicko 1914

What is the subject of this picture?  On the back of the photo are two names: B.J. Novotny and Sylvia Brdicko, and the year 1914

Clarkson Main Street looking north

Clarkson’s Main Street, looking north.

Bridge over Maple Creek in Clarkson

Is this the Old Hwy 91 bridge across Maple Creek on the northeast side of Clarkson?  Perhaps this is a picture of the spectacular 1921 accident involving Ed Zelenda, Joe Vacin, and Rudolph Nagengast.

Road Sign on Old Hwy 91 in Clarkson

Road sign on Old Hwy 91 as it passed through Clarkson.  And if you followed it out of town, you were treated to some beautiful scenery and colorful sunsets.


Posted in 1910s, 1920s, 1930s | 10 Comments

Law and Order – Colfax County

I guess I can be accused of writing only about happy, amusing, and progressive events in Clarkson and the surrounding area. Singing and dancing, inventiveness and industriousness. But of course, Our Town’s history hasn’t been all sweetness and light. Sometimes trouble gets stirred up (usually from outsiders), and the Law must be brought to bear.

This week, ripped from the pages of Dick Tracy’s Crimestoppers’ Textbook, I give you 3 thrilling stories of Crime and Punishment north of the Platte…

  1. Necktie Party for Colfax County Cop Killer!

Q:  Was a Colfax County law enforcement officer ever killed in the line of duty?

A:  Once – 130 years ago.  On January 12, 1886, Sheriff John S. Degman was killed as he delivered breakfast to an inmate in the county jail in Schuyler. Sheriff Degman put the inmate’s meal on the window and turned to leave. As he did so, the inmate (Wenzel Lapour), who had a long history of criminal behavior and who had recently been arrested on charges that he had abused his family and raped his own daughter, hit him on the back of the head with a piece of firewood that Sheriff Degman had allowed him to keep in his cell. The inmate then struck Sheriff Degman at least twice more, fracturing his skull.

The inmate escaped from the jail, but was caught in the yard by the former Colfax County sheriff. The former sheriff called for Sheriff Degman to come and get his prisoner and became alarmed when he got no response. He ran to the jail and discovered Sheriff Degman unconscious on the floor. Sheriff Degman succumbed to his injuries soon after, at the age of 35.

Sheriff Degman’s killer was returned to the jail, but a mob of two hundred men arrived that night and overpowered the officers guarding him. The mob seized the prisoner and hung him at the north side of the courthouse.

Colfax County Courthouse 1871-1921b

Colfax County Courthouse, Schuyler, Nebraska 1871-1922

Sheriff Degman had served with the Colfax County Sheriff’s Department for two years, but had only acted as Sheriff for 10 days at the time of his death. He was survived by his mother, a sister, and three brothers, one of whom served as a city marshal before being appointed to the position of Colfax County Sheriff following his brother’s death.

A lurid description of the crime and its aftermath is provided by the Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) dated January 14, 1886:


 A Nebraska Murderer of a Sheriff Lynched by a Masked Mob—A Brutal Deed.

 SCHUYLER, Neb., Jan. 13.—[Special.]—Two black crimes were placed to the credit of Schuyler yesterday. The first was the murder of the Sheriff of Colfax County and the second was the lynching of the murderer last night. The murderer who received such swift justice was named Wenzel Lapour, and the murdered man was John S. Degman. Sheriff Degman went into Lapour’s cell at 7 o’clock yesterday morning with Lapour’s breakfast. He carried with the breakfast a billet of wood about four feet long to be used as kindling in making a fire in the cell. Lapour was asleep or pretending to sleep when the Sheriff entered. Degman roused him and ordered him to carry his slop-bucket from the cell and also to build a fire. Lapour replied with a curse, but crawled out of his cot as though to obey. Degman placed the wood on the floor and turned to leave the cell, expecting Lapour to follow him with the bucket. Quicker than a cat and without uttering a word Lapour leaped from his crouching position. He seized the club of firewood and dealt Degman two terrific blows on the head. The Sheriff fell like a slaughtered ox across the threshold of the cell.Lapour leaped across the body, dashed through the jail corridors and out the front door. As he reached the gate of the jail-yard he was seen and recognized by ex-Sheriff McCurdy. McCurdy seized the fugitive and, after a desperate tussle, brought him to the ground. At this instant one of the assistants in the jail rushed out, crying:  “Hold him, hold him, he has killed Degman.” Lapour was taken back to the jail and again locked up. Investigation showed that Degman’s skull had been crushed in two places. He was dead when picked up.

Degman was a universally popular man, and the news fairly turned the town upside down with excitement. This increased as the day wore on, and business was practically suspended. A Coroner’s jury, hastily called, returned a verdict declaring Lapour guilty of murder in the first degree almost without deliberation. The excitement was increased two-fold by this. Merchants began to gather at prominent places in groups. The news spread into the country, and by dark several delegations had arrived from the neighboring towns. At 10:45 the purport of these signs was manifested. A crowd of 200 men, wearing masks, suddenly gathered at the jail. Ten minutes later the door of the jail was forced and the two Deputy Sheriffs in charge easily overpowered. Six of the masked men walked quickly to Lapour’s cell, battered in the door with bludgeons and axes, and dragged out the prisoner. He was in his night clothes, and howled for mercy. Without heeding his cries the crowd dragged him outdoors into the snow and half-way across the yard. A rope was placed around his neck and the other end thrown across a high limb. Someone in the crowd said:  “Pull.” Lapour was jerked fifteen feet into the air. He uttered a horrible shriek, which was cut short into a ghastly gurgle by the sudden jerk of the rope. The end of the rope in the hands of the vigilantes was fastened to the ground and the murdered murderer was left hanging. This morning at daylight he was cut down by the authorities. His body was nearly frozen through. Hardly a word was spoken by the mob during their work of vengeance, and so quiet was the whole operation that nothing was known of it two blocks from the jail. The identity of none of the lynchers is known. There are said, however, to have been men from Benton and North Bend in the party. Lapour was a low and vicious Bohemian, aged 50. He had been confined in the asylum for the insane, but was believed to be brutally malicious rather than of unsound mind. He was in jail on a charge of a unnatural crime, and his wife had applied for divorce.

John Degman grave Sheriff John S. Degman, the murdered man, was 35 and a native of Kentucky. He was elected Sheriff last fall after serving as deputy two years. He was sworn in only Thursday last. The Masonic society, of which he was a member, will bury him. His brother has been appointed to fill the vacancy.

The body of John Degman was returned to Kentucky for burial.  He is interred at Bethany Church Cemetery, Springdale, Kentucky.


After the dust had settled a bit, The Columbus Democrat (January 15, 1886 issue) noted:

Although the case was an aggravated one, and Lapour undoubtedly deserved his fate, it is to be regretted that in a community where there are no causes to prevent the sure and speedy working of the law, the people should allow themselves to so far forget their civilization as to resort to mob law. Colfax County will long feel the effects of this precipitate conduct. The dignity and efficiency of the law should be sustained at all times and at all hazards. 

From The McCook Tribune (McCook, Nebraska) dated February 4, 1886:

The body of Wenzel Lapour, lynched at Schuler [sic], according to Coroner Miles and Mr. Cannon, was interred in the Schuyler cemetery, and not shipped to the Omaha medical institute as reported. The Herald of that place says it was strange that some medical man did not claim the body for dissecting purposes, as no trouble would have been experienced in getting it.


  1. Hanging’s Too Good for Them!

Closer to home, the Colfax County Press issue of August 3, 1909 told a story of senseless cruelty that scandalized the Village of Clarkson:

Cruel, wanton brutality, inexcusable and indefensible, is a fitting way to speak of the acts of two men who on Friday last drove a noble team of horses to death. The finger of public scorn, public content and general condemnation points to them as disgraces to modern manhood.
Even the savage displays more love for the brutes that serve him than was manifested by the two men referred to. We lack words to express our contempt for their fiendish cruelty.
Here are the facts; read them and then wonder with us that two such brutes in human form are permitted to associate with men of heart and feeling:
Last Friday afternoon Leo Grotte of Omaha, a traveling salesman for a wholesale liquor house, went to the Clover Leaf livery barn at this place and engaged a team to take him to Stanton. George Murray, one of the young men left in charge of the barn during the absence of the owner, was to drive him over and we understand agreed to get him there in two hours and a half if possible. He took the best team in the barn, a splendid pair of blacks, leaving here at about 4:10 or 4:15 for a 22-mile drive over rough roads, on the hottest day of the season. It was a few minutes after 6 o’clock, less than two hours after they started, that one of the animals dropped dead in the outskirts of Stanton and the other died an hour or two later.
Sheriff Stucker, on hearing the facts, placed the men under arrest, having to take Grotte off an out-going train. Threats on the part of the fellow did not deter Jim Stucker for doing his duty in this case, as he has always done in every case as other law defiers can testify. The men are to have their hearing before Judge Cowan on Sept. 13. It is stated that on the latter end of the journey the team was kept on the run, one of the men driving and the other lashing them with the whip. It is a pity that we do not have a whipping post in Nebraska for the punishment of such offenders. There are many lovers of the horse who enjoy the opportunity of applying the lash to these two heartless wretches who murdered a defenseless team of horses. We hope the most severe penalty the law provides will be meted out to them.

[We will hear more about Leo Grotte in an upcoming story about the Slama Saloon]


  1.  Ma Barker’s Gang Meets Their Match in Schuyler Lawman!

For high drama, look no further than the running gun battle between a Schuyler lawman (Sheriff Edward J. Patach) and some bad guys on Hwy. 30 in the 1950s.  That was a story that could have been shown on Broderick Crawford’s Highway Patrol.

Schuyler’s Sheriff Ed Patach Shoots It Out with the Barker Gang!!

The dramatic gunfight happened on June 17, 1949, at a country crossroads 12 miles southeast of Howells.  Two gangsters had just stolen $75,000 in diamonds from a Lincoln jeweler, and were making their getaway when they were spotted near North Bend.  They high-tailed it north on country roads, and the Colfax County Sheriff and a highway patrolman gave chase.  Patach arrived at an intersection just in time to intercept the speeding getaway car.

Sheriff Ed J. Patach knew instinctively how to deal with a case of resisting arrest….

“There wasn’t time to throw up a roadblock – the Sheriff just jumped out and started blasting with his shotgun.”

Final score:  Lawmen 2, Jewel Thieves 0.

But you probably read about it – it was in all the papers:

Howells, Neb. June 18, 1949 (AP) – A gun battle at a country crossroads ended the flight of two bandits with a loot of $75,000 in jewels.

The two were shot and killed yesterday by state patrolmen and a county sheriff.  The sheriff was wounded in both hands.

State Safety Patrolman John Meistrell was the first to spot the bandits.  He saw their car in North Bend, Neb., radioed for help, and sped off in pursuit.  Meistrell was still behind the bandit car when it approached an intersection of country roads 12 miles southeast of here.

Another patrolman had reached the crossroads, parked his car, and got out.  A third patrolman (Robert Kline) and Sheriff Edward J. Patach were just pulling into the intersection.

“There wasn’t time to throw up a road block,” Meistrell related.  “The sheriff just jumped out and started blasting with his shotgun.  The bandits fired back and got him in both hands.”

Two patrolmen were also firing.

Out of control, the bandit car crashed into one of the patrol cars.  The officers found the driver slumped over the wheel with a shot through the heart.  A shotgun blast had killed the second man.

Officers said later that all the jewelry had been recovered from the car.

Lincoln, Neb., June 20, 1949 (AP) – Two members of the notorious Barker Gang of more than a decade ago have been identified as the men shot to death in a gun  duel with Nebraska officers following a $75,000 jewel robbery last Friday.

Albert C. Gladson, 48, and Alton Crapo, 47, were identified through fingerprints last night as the men killed a little more than two hours after they had robbed a Lincoln salesman of a small fortune in diamonds.  Both had long criminal records, Crapo having spent terms in Leavenworth and Alcatraz.  Gladson served time for robbery, grand larceny, possessing a firearm, and killing a Kansas police officer.

The pair had apparently been tipped that Elton L. Goldberg, Lincoln jewelry salesman, was carrying a large stock of diamonds.  They forced Goldberg and a companion to the side of a highway detour near Lyons, Neb., robbed them of the jewels, and fled.  A farmer who stopped during the holdup was warned by the gunmen to “keep going or we’ll blow your hear off.”  The farmer drove to Lyons and gave the alarm.

Some two hours later the gunmen’s car was spotted by Nebraska officers.  They closed in and shot it out with Gladson and Crapo.  The gunmen were killed, and Sheriff Edward J. Patach was shot in the hands.

Edward J. Patach served as Sheriff of Colfax County for 22 years.  He retired to McPherson, KS and on New Year’s Eve, 1964 was stricken with a heart attack at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Stanley Konicek.  He died a few days later at age 65.

Posted in 1890s, 1910s, 1940s | 10 Comments