The Life Lesson of Štrůdl-Making

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A couple of months ago I posted a story about the painstaking and delicious art of making apple štrůdl, as practiced by the ladies who prepare this dessert for the annual Clarkson Czech Days festival.  I tried my best to describe the process, through pictures and text.  Since then, a better tutorial has appeared, in the form of two YouTube videos by one of our own citizen-cooks.

My old pal Darrell Podany alerted me to the fact that his aunt, Betty Dolezal, had demonstrated štrůdl-making at the annual Dolezal Family Reunion this year in Stanton.  Many of you recall that Betty and her late husband Paul Dolezal ran the Stop Inn Café in Clarkson from 1972-1993.  Betty made the štrůdls that were served at the Stop Inn during Czech Days in those years, and a lot of other delicious food as well.  Here’s how she does štrůdls:

Because of the length of the demonstration, it has been split into two parts.  Both parts have Betty’s recipe under the “Show More” tab.

Not only is this a charming, well-made, and informative video, it illustrates an important responsibility that those of us “of a certain age” have – the duty to teach, to pass on life lessons to the younger generation.  Whether they want to hear them or not.

I was blessed to have a number of uncles who were masters of tale-telling.  They sat around during family picnics and reunions, discussing crops, ballgames, work, weather, neighbors, world events, etc., generally related with humor and with their own unique story-telling styles.  Listening to them talk among themselves rewarded me with both funny stories and useful life lessons; I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  Similarly, you could walk into most stores along Main Street and be treated to the philosophies of the proprietors and their customers, all told with individual styles that were finely honed over years of practice.  (I’m thinking especially of Fayman Hardware, Roether and Brabec Hardware, and the feed stores.)  Maybe they didn’t even know that they were telling Our Story.

Few have expressed the value of tale-telling better than Sr. Joan Chittister in her remarkable book The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully (2010; BlueBridge Books).   I have reproduced her brief meditation below.





Posted in The 21st Century | 3 Comments

Save the Nebraska Prairies!

When our immigrant ancestors arrived on the scene beginning in the 1870s they were greeted by a very different landscape than we see today.  One imagines rolling hills covered by unbroken expanses of mixed grasses, in places taller than a man, dotted with occasional broadleaf plants and prairie flowers.  No roads and few trails, treeless except for the borders of creeks.  Undulating in the wind, the grasses gave the appearance of a “sea of grass,” a metaphor that was used often by early visitors.


“Cumulus Clouds over Yellow Prairie2” by Wing-Chi Poon. 

Native prairies are beautiful ecosystems, filled with an amazing variety of grasses, flowering plants, and animals that change with the seasons.  Hardly dull and uniform, one small parcel of tall grass prairie near Lincoln has been found to support 291 species of native plants. Native prairies once covered vast areas of the central U.S., but to a great extent we now know the prairies of Eastern Nebraska only through black and white photographs.  They have disappeared, victims of our agricultural ambitions that fed the world and made good lives for so many of our ancestors.  Of the estimated 221,375 square miles of tallgrass prairie that the settlers found in the Great Plains, over 95 percent is now gone (Johnsgard 2007).


Do you ever wish that you could see what the original prairies looked like, and experience them with all your senses?  See the wind blowing through the tall grass, dotted with colorful native flowers?  Smell the aroma of the prairie after a spring rain?  Hear the sounds of birds and insects?  In short, to hear, see, smell, and touch the world that our ancestors experienced?

There are a few places where you can still do that, thanks to the efforts of some energetic and far-sighted Nebraskans; people who have devoted their time to recreating/restoring our native prairies.  There may be many such efforts; I will mention two that are close to home.

The Prairie Plains Resources Institute (PPRI; was established in Aurora, Nebraska in 1980.  Bill and Jan Whitney got the effort started, and over the years they have been supported by an army of volunteers, employees, and donors.  By recent count, the good people at PPRI have helped restore and maintain over 10,000 acres of prairie at 189 sites across the state.  “Prairie restoration is the process of recreating a prairie where one once existed but is now gone. Taking the word restore literally, it would result in completely rebuilding the prairie plant and animal community with all the species that a particular site used to have. Definitions can vary, but PPRI defines prairie restoration broadly, including everything from planting a new prairie where the former prairie had been broken and farmed, to improving a degraded prairie, that is, one that was never plowed but lost many plant species due to prior land management practices.”


Equally important, PPRI plays a critical role in education –  They conduct day camps in the summer and naturalist programs year-round to acquaint our young people with the beauty and complexity of the prairie communities. Some 36 of their restoration sites in 20 Nebraska counties are publically accessible, for anyone interested in getting a “close-up, hands-on experience of the Nebraska landscape… As an educational land trust, their goal is to relate all aspects of their program to education and service to people – teaching about place, land stewardship, restoration and sustainable development.”

One of the publically accessible prairies that PPRI manages is only 7 miles straight south of Clarkson, the Frank L and Lillian Pokorny Memorial Preserve.  Acquired in 2003, the Frank L. and Lillian Pokorny Memorial Preserve offers access to the beautiful prairie landscape of northeast Nebraska. The property includes a 20-acre virgin prairie and a 20-acre high-diversity prairie restoration.


Yes, you read it right – the Pokorny Preserve includes that rarest of rare animals – virgin prairie, whose soil was never broken by the plow.  Take a look at it next time you’re out for a Sunday drive; it is 7 miles south of Hwy 91 and 2.5 miles west of Hwy 15.

Closer to home, another Pokorny has been a major force in re-connecting us with our prairie roots, and you don’t even have to drive out of town to see the fruits of his efforts.  Wes Pokorny is a Kindergarten teacher at the Clarkson Public Schools.  Wes was looking for an opportunity to create an outdoor classroom for his students, a place where he could teach them about the environment and just let them run around, explore, and be kids. Happily, he found that place in a 4-acre parcel of land immediately southwest of the school.  Wes put together funds from government grants and local families (Hamerniks and Viteks) and worked with local horticultural legend Harlan Hamernik to develop the site and plant grasses and flowers.  They began by planting an acre of wildflowers in the spring of 2014, and followed up in 2015 with tree plantings (he would like each of his Kindergarten classes to plant trees on the site).  Wooden structures at the entrance to the site were made by the high school shop class.   They have named the site Harlan’s Hill, in honor of the late Harlan Hamernik, who was concerned that children should have recreational opportunities beyond a “plastic playground.”

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A video of the initial appearance of Harlan’s Hill (Phase I development) can be seen here:

I first heard about Harlan’s Hill from a video segment that someone sent to me from Nebraska Educational Television’s long-running television show, the Backyard Farmer –

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Wes Pokorny and his volunteers have already seen results of their labors; plants are growing and flowers are blooming.  Here is what Harlan’s Hill looked like in the summer of 2015:

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Are you wondering if the 21st Century techno-kids are able to connect with Mother Nature?  Take a look at Kindergarten Recess on Harlan’s Hill –

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It’s not all wildflowers and bees; the prairies have a unique beauty and, for Kindergarteners, allure in the winter season as well –

Harlan’s Hill is not a true native prairie restoration, as PPRI does it; the brome grass is harvested for hay every year, and the wildflowers that bloom in such profusion at the entrance to the property are probably unusually dense.  Nonetheless, Harlan’s Hill is a beautiful prairie preserve, no matter the season, and a great place to learn about and re-connect with nature.  So get out of your recliner and go up there for a stroll.

For his efforts, Wes Pokorny was recently given the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum Educator Award:


The award was presented for outstanding contributions toward advancing the knowledge and appreciation of plants among their students. 

“This may be the first time this award has gone to a kindergarten teacher,” said NSA Executive Director in giving the award, “but with the enthusiasm Pokorny brings to his indoor and outdoor classrooms, we think his teaching and legacy will extend far into the future.” 

Pokorny’s kindergarteners know how to germinate seeds, climb trees and identify birds. Though they learn a lot about nature and plants, the learning extends into math and reading as well. Wes has created multiple outdoor classrooms—a vegetable and cut flower space adjacent to his classroom and Harlan’s Hill, a natural outdoor classroom which he improved through NSA’s Sustainable Schoolyard Program.  He tweets his student’s outdoor interactions to get parents and the whole community involved. 

“Pokorny’s use of outdoor learning can serve as a wonderful model for other schools and teachers wanting to get their students excited and knowledgeable about the natural world,” Hoyt said. 

For more information about the award winners, reception or the statewide network of public landscapes modeling and promoting “sustainable landscapes for healthy homes and communities,” call 402-472-2971 or visit

My hat is off to Bill and Jan Whitney and Wes Pokorny and all their supporters who work so hard to make our prairie heritage available to us and our children.  They offer us a priceless reminder of both our past and our future.


Johnsgard, P.A.  2007.  A Guide to the Tallgrass Prairies of Eastern Nebraska and Adjacent States. Papers in Ornithology, Paper 39.

Posted in The 21st Century | 4 Comments

Field Manual CD15: Assembly of the Mark IV Apple Strudel

One of the most popular desserts in Central Europe has to be strudel, or, as the Czechs spell it, štrůdl.  It first appeared in Vienna at the beginning of the 18th Century, and quickly became popular throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany.  Hence, its German name (which means “eddy” or “whirlpool”) and its popularity among the dessert-loving Czechs.

Štrůdl has one form (a pastry consisting of a filling rolled in several concentric layers of very thin phyllo dough) and many flavors – the fillings may be cheese, cream, sour cherries, sweet cherries, nuts, apricots, plums, poppy seeds, and raisins.  Some štrůdls are filled with meat, spinach, cabbage, pumpkin, sauerkraut, even turnips.  But the most beloved flavor worldwide, and the one featured in the Czech dinners each year during Clarkson’s Czech Days, is the venerable Apple Štrůdl.

The ingredients in an apple štrůdl are commonplace and easy to prepare – chopped apples, cinnamon, raisins, sometimes chopped nuts or coconut, plenty of butter and sugar.  But assembling one is a daunting task, not for the faint-hearted.  Turning the fist-sized lump of pastry dough into a paper-thin, translucent sheet, and then rolling it up around the crisp apple chunks without tearing a hole in it, requires real skill.  It takes a brave cook to make a štrůdl alone; commonly štrůdls are made as a team effort, ideally with one’s mother.

I was fortunate to watch one of these team efforts at Czech Days this year, when women and girls assembled at St. John Neumann Catholic School to make some 120 štrůdls for the Sunday dinners.  It was an efficient, assembly line process that would have made Henry Ford proud.  In one room, crisp apples were peeled, cored, and sliced into chunks.  In another room, large batches of egg and butter-rich pastry dough were mixed and kneaded.  And in the final, assembly room, the whole thing came together – the apple pieces were mixed with raisins, shredded coconut, and spices and rolled up into štrůdls, ready for the oven.  Here is how it works…

Baskets of crisp apples are washed, peeled, cored, and sliced.

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The egg dough is mixed up in large batches in the school kitchen

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and cut into fist-sized pieces.

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Here comes the hard part – rolling the dough out on a floured tea towel, spreading it into a sheet so uniform and thin that you can read your palm through it.

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The perfect, rectangular sheet is slathered with melted butter in preparation for the filling.

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Meanwhile, novices measure and mix the spices and sugar.

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Spices and sugar are sprinkled on the phyllo dough.

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Next the apples are added and spread out evenly.

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More sugar, cinnamon and bread crumbs are added…

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The corners are turned in…

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And, with the aid of the tea towel for support, the štrůdl is rolled up.

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Every step of the process is a team effort.

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These raw štrůdls are refrigerated and later baked to golden perfection in convection ovens at the high school.

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And of course, no great culinary creation would be complete without a man to serve it (and take credit for it).  These two gentlemen were cutting whole štrůdls into individual servings for this year’s Sunday Czech Dinner at St. John Neumann Grade School.  Each of the 120 štrůdls is sliced into 10-12 individual pieces. These stalwart gents are to be admired for their willpower; I sampled the štrůdls both at the Sunday dinner at the school and (to be fair) at the Presbyterian Church on Saturday – they were delicious!

Štrůdl-making looks easy, no?  For those of you who are ready to try it at home, here is the official recipe:

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In closing, I leave you with the old Czech proverb (which should be self-evident from the photos above):

Bez práce nejsou štrůdl.
Without work, there is no strudel.


After I posted this story, my old pal Darrell Podany alerted me to the fact that his aunt, Betty Dolezal, had demonstrated štrůdl-making at the annual Dolezal Family Reunion in August this year in Stanton.  Many of you recall that Betty and her late husband Paul Dolezal ran the Stop Inn Café in Clarkson from 1972-1993.  Betty made the štrůdls that were served at the Stop Inn during Czech Days in those years, and a lot of other delicious food as well.  Here’s how she does štrůdls:

Because of the length of the demonstration, it has been split into two parts.  Both parts have Betty’s recipe under the “Show More” tab.  Thanks to the Dolezal Clan!

Posted in Celebrations, The 21st Century | 11 Comments


One of my earliest memories of my Grandmother Antonia Polodna was a time when she set me on Grandma Toniher lap and told me a story about my grandfather, the Steam Engineer. He was a lifelong farmer, but when he was younger, she said, he was the man in charge of firing up and running a steam engine.  Grandma described the large iron and steel engine, on great steel wheels, and with a huge smokestack.  She told how he would get up early in the morning, long before dawn, build a coal fire in the firebox, and check the water in the boiler.  After some time, the heated water and steam in the boiler would build up enough pressure to run the engine, and he would climb into the cab and commence the engine’s slow and loud movement.  The smokestack belched clouds of black smoke, the steam whistle screeched, and the terrible clanking noise and hissing from the slow-moving monster frightened the livestock and caused the chickens to take wing.  She told a marvelous story, and I thought about western movies and TV shows, with Grandpa Charles leaning out of the locomotive cab as his train slowly pulled out of the station!

It was only after her story continued on that I realized that Grandma Toni wasn’t describing a train locomotive at all, but rather a smaller steam engine that moved from farm to farm for the purpose of providing power to grain threshing machines.  I remember being disappointed that Grandpa wasn’t a “real engineer.” But in retrospect I can see that his job of maintaining a red-hot, highly pressurized “Iron Horse” under variable terrain and circumstances was not very different from, and likely more difficult and dangerous than, that associated with the railroad steam engines in the movies.

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For those of you who don’t know anything about threshing (I was one of them), a thresher (or thrasher) is a machine whose sole purpose is to separate grain (wheat, oats, rye, barley) from its stems, leaves and other light materials (straw and chaff).  It was a complicated process ( – Bundles of grain and straw (shocks) were pitched into the feeder. A rapidly rotating set of blades broke the twine binding the bundles, tore the bundles of grain apart, and snapped the seed heads from the straw.  The straw and seed heads were beaten on a grooved plate which removed the kernels.  The straw was separated out on a straw rack, and the remaining, smaller material was passed through a series of progressively smaller shaking screens that separated the grain kernels from the other material.   Finally, in the “cleaner,” grain kernels that passed through the last screen were blasted with a stream of air that blew the remaining straw and chaff away.  The cleaned kernels were elevated into a hopper from which they were piped into sacks or other storage containers, and the straw and chaff were blown out with a stronger fan onto the straw stack.

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Threshing_Machine_In_ActionEmil Sobota Reeves threshing rigThis Reeves threshing rig was owned by Emil Sobota Sr. in the early 1900s. The rig is crossing a small stream on the J.M. Watts farm.  John Svec Jr. was maintenance man. 

A pretty good idea of the whole noisy process can be watched at:


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Threshing grain was a noisy, dusty job, especially when the thresher was powered by a steam engine.  But it was a huge advance over the way grain was harvested before.  In the millennia before the invention of the threshing machine, grain was separated from straw by hand, commonly by beating it with flails (two sticks connected by a chain).

Horse powered binder

To back up for a minute, threshing was actually the last step in the harvest of cereal grains.  It began with another machine called a binder, which passed through the field drawn by horses (and later tractors), cut the standing grain, bunched the grain stalks into bundles, and tied the bundles with twine before dropping them on the ground.  Several of these bundles were collected into “shocks” and stood upright in “tipi fashion,” so that the grain could dry for several days before being processed in the thresher.  Making shocks from the bundles of grain was done by hand, often by the farm children walking through the fields.

Jerome Cada and Mildred Hamsa

Jerome Čada and Mildred Čada Hamsa with shocks of grain

1893 Novotny binder

Oats and wheat were threshed from bundles.  A grain binder pulled by horses would cut the oats and wheat and automatically tie it into large bundles of ripe grain and straw.  The bundles then were stood up into shocks, six or eight bundles to a shock, with the grain to the top of the shock.  Before they were threshed, they were left a few days to dry.  – Blanche Čada

Barley shocks

As he drove the horses through the field, the binder cut the grain, gathered many stalks together, tied them with sisal twine, and at intervals dropped off bundles of sheaves.  Men on foot, usually the farmer’s sons, followed the binder to collect many clumps of bundles to stand them, grain-end up, in near shocks, broad at the base, small at the top, so they could dry.  It was hot, dusty, physical labor, but a crew working hard with a good team of horses and binder – the first ones cut six-foot swaths, later ones eight-foot swaths – could bind and shock seven to ten acres a day. – Dorothy Creigh


John Krula binderLad H. Krula operating a binder in one of John J. Krula’s wheat fields northeast of Schuyler, 1920.

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If you got the bundles out of the row, the shocker would let you know about it, for it made his job just about impossible.  He’d be running back and forth collecting bundles all day. – Grant Heilman

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Svatora Case steam engineSteam engine used to thresh grain in 1910.  Anton J. Svatora (second from left) sold Case implements on 11th St. in Schuyler, NE. 

Sobota threshing at BrichacekEarly threshing scene on the Frank Brichacek farm, north of Schuyler, NE.                   Emil Sobota Sr. is standing near the drive wheel.

A big threshing machine called for a big power source.  At first, horses were used for power, and later steam engines and then tractors.  The steam engine and thresher rig was a large investment, and its operation needed many hands.  Commercial crews would rent out their services, moving the steam engine and thresher from farm to farm over the country roads.  Or more commonly, neighbors got together and moved from field to field with a single rig, helping each other with the harvest.  And the hard-working men needed to be fed, by an army of hardworking farm wives and children.  To me, this community activity is the most interesting part of the hot, dusty, back-breaking effort of grain harvesting at the turn of the 20th Century, and it is best to let the participants describe it…

 One great help and surely a step towards progress was when the Novotny brothers purchased a J.I. Case threshing machine in 1873.  Threshing jobs were much in demand by settlers and the seasons of operating the rig were long.  Threshing season began when grain was in shock and lasted till late fall from stacked grain.  At first only John Jr. and my father Frank operated the outfit, but later Joseph, Anton, and Charles went along, too.  My father Frank was the only one staying with the machine thru all the years of its operation.  Their yearly earnings amounted to anywhere from $700 to $1,000.  The machine was operated by a horsepower to which were hitched five teams of horses they walking in a circle generating power which was transmitted to the threshing machine proper by shafts.  It is estimated that in the 43 years of continual operation of the machine it threshed about 700,000 bushels of grain.  No record was kept but the owners themselves made the conservative estimate.  The grain was spouted by the machine into bushel sized containers, which were counted and emptied either directly into a wagon box or into sacks.  Sometimes grain had to be put into sacks in cases where the grain had to be stored in a second story bin.  The sacks were carried up by hand, emptied, and returned to the machine for another filling.   – Charles J. Novotny

Novotny Case thresherThis Case apron threshing machine was owned by the Novotny brothers.  It was the oldest machine of its kind still in operation, and is now in a museum in Neligh.

Nothing was quite so romantic as grain harvesting – nor such hot work.  It began with a binder which cut the grain in the field, tied it in bundles, and left the bundles lying on the ground.  Then the shockers carried the bundles into groups, carefully arranged so that the air could dry the grain heads.  Next, the pitchers forked the bundles from the shocks onto the rack wagons, which moved them to the threshing machines.  The machines themselves were not so monstrous, but the power sources which operated them were the stuff from which myths arise: coal-fired, they belched black smoke, hissed steam, thumped and roared as the grain was separated and the chaff and straw were blown onto huge piles – the delight of farm kids as a playground.  Finally the grain was collected in wagons and carted off for storage. – Grant Heilman

John Krula thresherStraw stack on the John J. Krula farm in the 1930s.  The hayrack on the left holds the wheat bundles that are placed on a conveyor belt and transported to the threshing machine. 

Stacking Bundles

Threshing rig family

A threshing machine greatly eased the burden of harvest for the farmers.  The machine would separate the grain from the straw.  In the early years the machine was run by horse-power and later by a giant engine that was powered by steam.  In 1916 my father (Charles Polodna Sr.) joined a neighborhood threshing crew.  There were about 15 or 20 men in a crew.  My father, being interested in engines, took care of the Reeves steam engine.  He would leave early in the morning to fire up the engine to produce steam for power.  Two other men helped, one had to haul water to the engine and the other took care of the threshing machine.  The trick was to keep everything in running order, because a lot of things came to a halt when something broke down.  – Blanche Čada

Reeves steam engine

Reeves threshing rig

Threshing was a time for co-operation.  Many of the machines were community-owned, for they were expensive and a threshing operation took at least a dozen men.  It was a time to show off expertise, brawn – and pulling together.  – Grant Heilman 

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Diamond Jubilee threshing_0001The Novotny brothers’ Case threshing machine in operation southeast of Clarkson

Lunch break

Threshing started at sunrise and stopped at sunset.  The crew took three breaks each day, morning lunch, 1 ½ hour break for noon, and an afternoon lunch.  There were times for rest for both men and horses.  The women did the cooking and baking.  They would get up at 4 A.M. to start the bakery dough in order to have sandwich buns ready for the first lunch at 9 A.M.  Ladies went with the crew to cook and help each other. There was no plumbing or running water in the house.  We had to carry water from a well close by.  Homemade lemonade, coffee, and beer were served.  A cave/cellar was used to keep milk and butter cold.  The ladies butchered and cleaned chickens early in the morning for that day’s dinner. – Blanche Čada

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Mid-morning and mid- afternoon, the girls in the house were dispatched to run out to the field and carry “eats,” thick sandwiches of bread, butter, and meat, and stoneware jugs filled with freshly-pumped water, corked and wrapped with wet burlap to preserve the coolness. In the shade of the threshing machine the men stopped their work to eat the sandwiches and to gulp the water, passing the jug from one man to the next.  In the meantime, the women in the house were as busy as the menfolk in the field, cooking for threshers; noontime was dinnertime.  In the steamy kitchen they cut up and fried dozens of chickens, peeled and boiled and mashed pound of fluffy white potatoes, stirred gallons of good rich gravy.  They piled onto platters loaves of thick-sliced homemade bread still aromatic from the oven, cut pieces from a staggering selection of homemade pies – green apple, gooseberry, raisin.  From the windmill cooler they brought bowls of yellow homemade butter with their own distinctive design molded on the top; from the cellar they carried jars of homemade jellies and jams.  When the long table, the dining-table with all of its extensions in it, was filled with food, they rang the dinner gong.

One peal of the dinner gong was enough; the men rushed from the field, washed their hands and faces at the pump in the yard, and stomped into the house to the dining table.  In the same workmanlike manner with which they performed in the field, the men addressed the steaming mounds of food, piling plates high and filling them again and again.  The hard physical labor of the field created huge appetites, burned many calories.  While the women replenished the serving dishes from the kettles on the cob-fired cookstoves, the children watched hungrily, hoping there would be something left for them.  Finally the men pushed back their chairs and started back to the field.  The women cleaned up the table, washed the dishes, and prepared for the second sitting, when the women and children would eat. – Dorothy Creigh

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It was a busy day for the children. After seeing the machine well started, the boys stayed around to either watch or help.  The girls left to go home to help mother prepare the dinner which was no small task for the women, for it was just as big a job preparing the meal as it was for the men threshing.  Childrens’ mouths would water at the sight of all the good food which consisted of all types of pies and cakes and that luscious fresh baking (buns, kolaches, gooey cinnamon rolls, filled doughnuts, etc.), vegetables, and meat (which was generally roast and chicken).  Usually by eight o’clock in the morning the meat was cooking so it would be ready for the mid-morning lunch.

Coffee or cold tea was always served, and it was always a treat when someone would bring a cake of natural ice from the ice house in town.  Carefully wrapped in blankets in the cellar, it was a welcome treat to have cold ice in the cold tea.

Usually the small children helped by clumsily scraping the thin peel from new potatoes until the milk pail was nearly full, and helped silk the corn, if the farmwife was lucky enough to have some mature at the right time.  Sliced tomatoes were a treat and cole slaw or sliced cucumbers fresh from the garden offered variety.

The men washed their sweaty faces and hands in cold water at the well.  Only the machine men dared to ask for a little hot water from the tea kettle to wash their greasy hands.  If the farmer had any beer on hand, the threshing crew would sit down and relax with a cold beer for a few minutes before going in to eat.  Seldom were there fewer than twelve to feed. – Clarkson Centennial Book

[At the end of the day,] as each man left for home or tied his team waiting for supper, some of the younger children would hover near the fascinating steam engine, hoping that the engineer would reward them for their “help”  by letting them blow the final whistle for the day. – Clarkson Centennial Book

These clinking, clanking, clattering collections of caliginous junk (apologies to The Wizard of Oz) were slow-moving and heavy; often too heavy for the bridges that crossed the creeks on rural roads.  There was more than one spectacular accident, when a bridge collapsed and dumped the steaming, pressurized boiler, its engineer, and the rest of the threshing rig into the drink.  The remains of a steam engine that collapsed a small bridge can still be seen in a creek a mile northwest of Clarkson.

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Bridge Collapse 1

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Remains of a steam engine in a creek one mile northwest of Clarkson

American ingenuity ended [the era of the thresher].  The combine came on the market, meaning less capital investment, far less labor, more independence.  The steam engines shut down, the straw stacks disappeared, and farm wives no longer had to cook mountains of food for dozens of neighbors. – Grant Heilman

I’m glad that Grandma Toni told me the story of Grandpa Charles’ career as a Steam Engineer, because I never got to see a threshing crew in operation.  By the time that I came along, the multi-step harvest using reaper/binders, shocking crews, and threshers had been replaced by combines.  In a single pass through the field, a combine cut the stalk off near the ground, separated the grain from the stalk, winnowed out the chaff,  dropped the clean kernels into a hopper, and ejected the straw onto the ground (to be made into straw bales later).  I used to think that “combine” was a strange name for a machine whose purpose is to “separate” kernels of grain from the rest of the plant.  But, of course, the advantage of the combine harvester is that it combined several functions into one.

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Combining Oats July 57

Jerome Cada combining oats July 1957

Most farmers could afford their own combines and could harvest their grain quickly, without assistance from the neighbors.  It was a welcome, labor-saving advancement in the speed and efficiency of harvest.  But in other ways it was a loss, a step back from the cooperative community spirit that enabled the pioneers in our town to survive and thrive. The era of the thresher was short, lasting from about the 1870s through the 1930s, but it was an essential part of the incredible yields of grain produced in America’s Heartland during this time.

The Old Timers spoke about threshing with mixed feelings.  No one wanted to repeat the hard work, but they all looked back on the team efforts in field and kitchen with a good measure of nostalgia.

Threshing Grain


Blanche Čada. 1987.  Grandmother Remembers.  Memories of a Farm Wife.  Schuyler, Nebraska.

Centennial Book Committee. 1987.  The Excitement of Threshing Time.  pages 178-180 In: Centennial – Clarkson Nebraska.

Dorothy Weyer Creigh. 1981.  Threshing.  pages 97-99 In: Nebraska, Where Dreams Grow.  Miller & Paine, Inc., Lincoln, Nebraska.

Grant Heilman. 1974.  Farm Town – A Memoir  of the 1930s.  Photographs by J.W. McManigal and Grant Heilman.  The Stephen Green Press, Brattleboro, Vermont.

Charles J. Novotny. 1961.  Among the Earliest Settlers.  Clarkson Diamond Jubilee Book, Clarkson, Nebraska.

The Schuyler Sun. 1995.  A Pictorial History of Schuyler in Observance of the 125th Anniversary.  The Schuyler Sun, Schuyler, Nebraska.

Photographs courtesy of:  Jerome Čada, The Clarkson Centennial Book (1987), Grant Heilman (1974), Charles J. Novotny (1961), The Schuyler Sun (1995), and the Clarkson Museum.

Posted in 1890s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s | 18 Comments

Clarkson Czech Days – June 26-28, 2015 – Mark Your Calendar!

As many of you are already aware, the 53rd Annual Clarkson Czech Days festival is almost here.  It will be another in a long line of  great celebrations of our Czech heritage!


The Apotheosis of the Slavs by Alphons Mucha (1926)

Okay, it’s unlikely that this year’s festival will be as dramatic and exuberant as Mucha’s vision of the future of our Slavic people.  Nonetheless. it promises to be a lot of good, clean fun.

Take a look at the schedule:

There will be ethnic music….

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Ethnic dancing….

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A lovely and talented Nebraska State Czech Queen will be crowned…

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Former royalty (Cesky Krajans and Krajankas) will be recognized…

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The Good Christians in our village will serve traditional Czech meals (roast pork, dumplings and sauerkraut, corn/green beans, horn roll, strudel, and a soft drink) beginning at 11 AM on Saturday and Sunday…

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Sunday diners will be treated to light dinner music…

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And to work off that delicious lunch, you can retreat to the air-conditioned Opera House to kick up your heels and socialize with other music lovers…

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Don’t miss the spectacular Street Parade at 4 PM on Sunday, which features… more accordions.

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And need I say it – we are Czechs, so there will be beer (with and without tomato juice).  A variety of tasty beers.  Here’s one…

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Take another look at the schedule – there is so much more.  I’m talking about quilts, funnel cakes, country western dancing, kolaches, gymnastics, Nebraska wine tasting, tractor pulls, taroks tournament, home-brewed beer tasting, harmonicas, Ceska buchty, and guided tours of Our Town.

So gas up the car; you will kick yourself if you miss it.  We are easy to find.  Clarkson is close to all the major cities – Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Billings.  We’re only 25 miles from Cornlea.


Vitame Vas!  (We Welcome You!)

Posted in Celebrations, The 21st Century | 1 Comment

Happy Trinity Sunday! Please Pass the Horn Rolls

In the liturgical calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, today is the Holy Trinity Sunday.  It is the day set aside to celebrate one of the most profound and mysterious Christian beliefs – that God is three persons in one nature, distinct but inseparable.  And this year, like every year, my mind wanders from the sermon to a much less mysterious celebration from my childhood – the annual Pout festivities at Holy Trinity Catholic Church at Heun.

I’ve written about this celebration at Heun before –

so I won’t repeat the details of Heun Pout.  Except to say that people still remember coming from miles around for the good food and the chance to see old friends.  And the normally cool church basement, where the meals were served, became a steamy jungle-like atmosphere after many hours of crowds filing in to be served hot meals – chicken/ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, canned corn, jello salad with fruit cocktail, and boiled coffee.  On the tables were plates of horn rolls, sprinkled with poppy seeds and ready to be slathered with liberal amounts of home-churned butter (help yourself!).

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Pout was great fun for us kids – good food, lots of friends to run around with, games to play.  But our mothers, the dear church ladies, members of the Altar Society and Guild, worked for many days beforehand preparing the food and for long hours that day serving it.  Brother Ron remembers that Trinity Sunday was the only day that our Mother didn’t go to Mass with the rest of us, because she was downstairs from the early hours preparing for the dinner.

Heun ladies

Do you remember going to Heun Pout?  A lot of other churches had them as well, up until the 1960s or so.  St. Mary’s Church at Wilson and St. John Nepomucene in Howells had their pout celebrations.  Ss. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Clarkson had a pout in the basement of the Opera House, but it was later replaced by duck suppers and then soup suppers at Bishop Neumann school.

Probably no church celebrates pout anymore; these days, it would be hard to muster enough manpower (or more properly, womanpower) to carry it out.  But the fond memories linger on.  And if the terrible day comes when our cable TVs all go out, it is an idea worth re-considering.

Happy Trinity Sunday!

Posted in 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | 2 Comments

Clarkson and the Great War: Part 5 – Our Honored Dead

Memorial Day has always been a special holiday in our town. The last Monday in May had been set aside to honor the soldiers who had died in the service of our country.  Formal services at the Clarkson Cemetery were marked by prayers, speeches, 3-volley rifle salutes by members of veterans organizations, and the sounding of Taps.  Families used the opportunity to make sure that the graves of their beloved dead were well-groomed and adorned with flowers – peonies, irises, lilacs.  Hence, the original name for the holiday – Decoration Day.  The practice continues to this day.

I will not have the privilege of attending the Memorial Day services in Clarkson, but from far away I will wrap up my series on the First World War by calling the roll of our Honored Dead.  The War Memorial in Clarkson lists the names of seven young men from the Clarkson area who gave their lives in World War I.

Emil Bartos  (May 9, 1891 – October 24, 1918)  He served in the American Expeditionary Force as a member of Medical Department Ambulance No. 25.  In the closing days of the war, Emil died from disease (probably the Spanish influenza that was sweeping through military camps and hospitals at that time).  He is buried alongside his parents in the Clarkson Cemetery.

Emil Bartos

WWI Ambulance

Alois (Louis) Cerv  (August 21, 1892 – February 1, 1919)

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Alois Cerv was the youngest of seven children born to Alois and Rozarie Nouzavsky Cerv.  He entered the U.S. Army on July 1, 1918 as a private, earning $33.00 a month.  In France, he served in Company C of the 4th Infantry Regiment, which fought in a number of battles, including the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives.  While on the front lines, Alois was exposed to poison gas (possibly mustard gas) which seriously weakened his lungs.  Although he was alive at the Armistice, he spent 2 months in a hospital suffering from bronchial pneumonia, from which he died on February 1, 1919.  (Of 116,708 American servicemen who died in WWI, 46% were battle deaths, and the remaining 54% died from other causes, mainly diseases including Spanish influenza, pneumonia, and tuberculosis).

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Imagine the grief of his family, as their boy slowly drifted away, far from them in a foreign land.  What follows is a series of letters written by Red Cross nurses and workers who helped care for him in his last days.  We don’t have the letters written (in Czech) by his mother, but the nurses’ words of comfort tell of the difficulty that Rozarie Cerv had in accepting the loss of her youngest.

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Louis Cerv is buried in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in France.

Alois Cerv grave register

Albin Folda (December 19, 1894 – October 21, 1918)

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Corporal Albin Folda, of Clarkson, Nebraska, entered military service on April 27, 1918. He trained at Camp Funston (Fort Riley), Kansas and was assigned to Co. M, 355th Infantry Regiment, 89th Division. On June 4, 1918, he sailed for France, and reached the trenches by the middle of August.

While going over the top on October 21st, he was struck in the head by a shell fragment, and was killed almost instantly. [We often think of WWI as a struggle between men and machine guns – infantrymen climbing out of trenches and battling their way through barbed wire, only to be mowed down by enemy machine guns.  In fact, unbelievable amounts of high explosive shells were expended throughout the war, and artillery bombardments accounted for two-thirds of the battlefield casualties in the First World War.]



Albin was the only son of Emil Folda, a prominent banker in Clarkson.  In those days, news traveled slowly, and Albin’s father and stepmother were not aware of his death for over a month.  Here are some excerpts from Emil Folda’s memoirs that tell of the tragic events that unfolded:

Nov. 11th (1918).  Armistice Day the greatest celebration ever held in the U.S.A. and the whole world – as the World War ended that day – I cabled to Albin but it never reached him as he was not among the living then.

Nov. 25th.  Rec’d two letters from Albin – one dated Oct. 11th & one 16th saying that he will be relieved Oct. 18th, so we were sure he was among the living – but next morning Nov. 26th came a telegram from the War Dept. at Washington that he was killed Oct. 21st.  Hear that Tobiska of Wilber wrote to his folks that Albin was killed.

Dec. 1st. by this time we had 50 letters from friends expressing condolence and later about 100 more came – the news went like wild fire.

Jan. 30th (1919) went to Schuyler to see Chris Haberman of Friend, Nebraska who was the first one we have seen that was with Albin when he was killed, and Mr. Haberman was wounded by the same shell.

… The year was a hard one on me on account of the loss of Albin and at times I felt very discouraged with everything, and had the blues real often.

Corporal Albin Folda is buried in Plot D, Row 45, Grave 5 in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne, France.  Some years after his death, his parents visited his grave in France.

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And they unfurled the American flag that was used at his funeral for the dedication of Clarkson’s War Memorial in 1926.

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Louis (Alois) Franek (January 27, 1891- August 1, 1918)  was assigned to Company C, 128th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division.  The 32nd Division had been involved in many battles in France during much of 1918.  On August 1, 1918 the 127th Regiment and Franek’s 128th Regiment were ordered to take the German defensive position at Bellevue Farms and Hill 230, near the French village of Ourcq (Joint Commission 1920).  These objectives were important enemy defensive positions, and the Germans held on tenaciously with a “cunningly arranged machine gun defense.”  Sometime during that day, Louis Franek was killed in action.

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Private Alois Franek is buried in the Clarkson Cemetery alongside his parents.

Miloslav (Milo) Horak (? – October 14, 1918)  36th Company, 163 Dep. Brig. The eldest son of Joseph and Anna Horak, died of disease (probably Spanish influenza) in a southern camp.

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Joseph Kacin  (June 30, 1892 – October 10, 1918)

Josef (Joseph) Kacin was born in Hryzely, Bohemia and traveled to American with his parents Frantisek (Frank) Kacin and Aloisia (Louisa) Mocha Kacin and 5 siblings. They departed Bremen on May 14th, 1901 on the ship Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse and arrived in New York on May 2st, 1901.

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Joseph Kacin draft registration card 1

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Joseph Kacin registered for the draft on June 5, 1917.  He was inducted into the U.S. Army and assigned to the 38th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division of the American Expeditionary Force.  Beginning in October 1918, they participated in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, one of the major battles carried out by the AEF to end the war.

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On October 9 and 10th, the 3rd Division slammed into the Hindenburg Line in an area just south of Cunel, in northeastern, France. The Hindenburg Line was a new German defensive system, characterized by massed steel and concrete, camouflaged blockhouses manned by multiple machine gun crews. Wherever possible, the blockhouses were positioned on the slopes of hills from which they could look down on attacking troops.  They were shielded by razor wire, and backed up by reserve defenders in trenches, mortars and artillery (Meyer 2006).  Plainly stated, Kacin’s advancing 3rd Division encountered a miles-deep killing zone.  Imagine how much courage it would take to leave your protective cover and begin that long, unprotected run toward the enemy defenders, into the sights of German machine guns.  All the training, physical strength, and brains in the world wouldn’t help you if you happened to be in the way of one of the many guns waiting for you.  In the battle to break through the Hindenburg Line, Joseph Kacin was gravely wounded, and died on October 10.


Joseph’s death on the Western Front sparked a second tragedy for the Kacin family.  When word was received in Clarkson that Pvt. Kacin had been killed in action, his brother Frank Jr. set out for his parents’ farm to inform them.  Because of snow, the roads were closed and he was forced to go on foot to the farm, 5 miles north of town.  As a result of his trek, Frank Jr. contracted pneumonia and died one month later, on November 19, 1918.  Years later, a relative wrote that the “double tragedy took much out of the lives of the families and nothing ever was the same.”

Joseph Kacin’s remains were repatriated to his adopted land in 1921, and he is buried alongside his parents and brother Frank in the Clarkson Cemetery.  Here are two subsequent stories from the Colfax County Press:

September 22, 1921 – Frank Kacin, father of Pvt. Jos. Kacin, whose body is now enroute to Clarkson from Hoboken, informs us this noon that the mortal remains are expected to reach here tomorrow afternoon, according to a telegram from the government. As stated by The Press numerous times, the young man lost his life while serving under the American colors in France. He first was interred in the Argonne-American cemetery in France besides his fallen comrades from where he is now being transferred to Clarkson on request of the parents. Joe took active part in warfare on the western battlefront, having participated in several fierce engagements in the Argonne region where he was inflicted with serious gun wounds in the abdomen and died in a base hospital several days after the fatal conflict, on October 10, 1918.
He proved a gallant soldier and did his duty as a hero. His military career was of a high standing but of short duration. In the early months of war he was drafted with thousands of other young men from Bonesteel, South Dakota, where he had been employed at the time of conscription. He was hurried off to camp and after a few weeks of training found himself in the thick of the fighting on the western battlefield. At the time of his death he was twenty-eight years of age, having been born in Bohemia. Besides the bereaved parents he is survived by three brothers, James, Anton and Alois, and four sisters-Mrs. Frank Kafka, Anna, Tillie and Helen. Burial will be made in the Clarkson cemetery on Sunday afternoon, the services to be conducted in military style by the American Legion.

September 28, 1921 – Word was received from the war department at Washington by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Kacin of this city that the body of their son, Private Jos. Kacin, who made his last heroic stand on the western battlefield, was on its way here for burial. The message in addition mentioned that the remains of the young man were to arrive in New York by the end of the week, upon arrival here they will be turned over to the American Legion who will have charge of the services. Private Jos. Kacin was one of the six Clarkson boys to have lost his life in actual fighting in France, having died a hero for the cause of his country.

While coming to Clarkson Sunday afternoon to attend the funeral of his brother-in-law, Pvt. Jos. Kacin, Frank Kafka and his family of near Leigh, narrowly escaped fatal injury when their automobile ran off the embankment on the cross road three miles west of Clarkson and came to an abrupt stop by striking a large tree at the foot of the bank.

The circumstances surrounding the accident are to the effect that the road was obstructed by two automobiles, one turning into the road from the north, and the other coming from the east down the decline next to the C.O. Brown farm. Traveling at a fair rate of speed, Mr. Kafka in trying to avert a collision with either one of the cars, turning his machine to the extreme left side of the road and as he could not gain control of his auto in time, the vehicle landed directly on a large tree. The occupants of the car escaped with only minor injury, Mrs. Kafka having sustained several contusions in the face from the broken windshield. The car, however, was quite badly damaged.

One of the very largest attendances ever witnessed at a funeral in Clarkson was seen here Sunday at the burial of Pvt. Jos. Kacin, whose remains were brought here from France. The body was escorted to the resting place by several hundred people including members of the American Legion from Clarkson, Schuyler, Howells, and Leigh, the last two posts being represented only by a small number. The procession was led by the Clarkson band.

Joseph Toman (February 11, 1889 – May 12, 1918). Private,  1st Infantry Regiment. 13th Division.  From the May 23, 1918 issue of the Colfax County Press: The first Clarkson boy to die while in the service of his country was Joseph Toman, who was drowned on the 12th of this month. His mother, Mrs. Mary Toman received word of his death from the War Department in Washington. The cablegram stated that Joseph Toman, private, Company 1, 1st Infantry, was drowned on the 12th instant at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. The body was recovered. The deceased is survived by two brothers, one serving in the U.S. army, three sisters and the mother.

Joseph Toman

Private Joseph Toman is buried in the Clarkson Cemetery.

Emil Vitek (May 19, 1895 – July 23, 1918)  Like Albin Folda, he trained at Camp Funston, Kansas before being shipped overseas as a Private in Company C, 4th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division.

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One of his letters to the folks back home (A.J. Karel) has been preserved in the Clarkson Museum.

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Emil Vitek’s outfit endured terrific fighting in the last few months of the war.  The regiment disembarked at Brest, France and was immediately sent to various French training centers to receive combat training from veteran French instructors. German offensive operations cut short this training and the entire 3rd division was transported by rail to the front.  The 4th Infantry was bloodied in the following battles: Aisne, Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, Champagne 1918, Ainse/Marne Defensive, Marne Offensive. When the war ended the 4th Infantry had lost 398 Officers and men.

Emil Vitek is buried in Plot A Row 18 Grave 37, Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, Fere-en-Tardenois, France.

Vitek Cemetery

There are two men are not listed on the rolls of Clarkson men who died in the Great War, but whose lives were shortened by their service.

Fred Houfek (Febuary 17, 1898 – June 1920).  From the June 19, 1920 issue of the Colfax County Press:  Fred Houfek, veteran of the late war and a young farmer of near Schuyler, took his life Friday by shooting himself. The motive which led to the ending of his life is said to have been failing health since the time of his return from France. He had been gassed while going over the top in the Argonne sector.  He was born in Colfax County, February 17, 1898 and was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Houfek. Besides his parents, he is survived by five brothers and three sisters.

(I cannot find any service records or draft registration for Fred Houfek, but family lore suggests that he had poor eyesight or was blind in one eye.  My guess is that he was rejected for service in the U.S. Army and, like Jaroslav Holas, volunteered to serve in the French Foreign Legion. )

Suicides among returned veterans were not uncommon after the Great War.  Many came back maimed or chronically ill and had difficulty picking up their lives again.  Some of the men who came back from the war had no physical injuries, but they couldn’t forget the things they saw and had to do, and they despaired of ever having a happy life again.  Now we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  In those days, sympathetic coroners often marked the cause of death as “Died of Wounds.”

Frank ZelendaFrom March 5, 1931 Colfax County Press – After suffering for a period of several years, Frank Zelenda, an ex-service man and a former Clarkson boy, made his supreme sacrifice at the Veterans Hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he had been a patient for a long time. Word of his demise reached Clarkson relatives. He died at the age of 39 years, 8 months and 8 days.
The deceased was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on the 19th day of June, 1891, and when a small boy he came to this community with his parents. The family located on a farm in Stanton County and after losing both of his parents, Frank came to Clarkson and made his home here for many years.
Shortly after America declared war on Germany, Frank joined a group of Clarkson volunteers and entered Uncle Sam’s fighting forces. He left Clarkson on May 3, 1917, with the first contingent of volunteers and remained in service for almost three years.
He returned to Clarkson in the fall of 1919, after having served in the Philippine and Hawaiian Islands. His health had been greatly impaired and he was unable to find relief for his illness.
In 1925, he was admitted to a Veterans hospital in Little Rock, Arkansas, where death ended his suffering.
The remains were brought to Clarkson and interment was made in the local cemetery. The rites were conducted from the home of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Zelenda, with services at the New Zion Church conducted by Rev. Filipi.
The deceased is survived by three brothers, Joseph Zelenda of Schuyler, Edward and Leo Zelenda of Clarkson; two sisters, Mrs. Anton Makovsky of Buhl, Idaho, and Mrs. W.H. Roether of Schuyler.

The Great War, The War to End All Wars, was fought a century ago.  Since then, Clarkson has sent many more young men to battlegrounds all over the globe, and many of them didn’t return.  On this Memorial Day, it is good to ponder the words on a war monument in Portland, Maine:

Honor and Grateful Remembrance to the Dead

Equal Honor to Those Who, Daring to Die, Survived

Acknowledgements – Many thanks to Marlene Cerv Sellers for information about Alois Cerv, to Adam Cerv for information about Albin Folda, to Tracy Clark Brown and Anita Kacin for information about Joseph Kacin, and to the Clarkson Museum for their excellent display of memorabilia from our veterans.

References – 

Meyer, G.J.  2006.  A World Undone. The Story of the Great War 1914 to 1918.  Bantam Dell, Random House, Inc.  New York, NY.  777 p.

Joint War History Commission of Michigan and Wisconsin.  1920.  The 32nd Division in the World War 1917-1919.

Posted in 1910s, 1920s | 8 Comments