It’s a cold winter Sunday, and I’ve been thinking about how we spent such days back in the middle of the 20th Century. Sunday being a day of rest, we were seriously admonished to spend time with our families and to avoid servile labor (save for feeding the livestock, milking cows, and picking eggs). Every Sunday began with Mass at our country church, Holy Trinity Catholic Church at Heun. We would get home late morning and walk into the house, greeted by the aroma of the roasting duck that Mother had put into the oven before we left for church. There was time for a quick glance at the funny papers and Magazine of the Midlands in the Omaha World Herald before diving into a great meal of duck, dumplings and sauerkraut, rice cooked with gizzards, jello salad, and homemade horn rolls slathered with homemade butter (or duck lard from the bottom of the roaster). A really cold and snowy afternoon might be spent sleeping off the meal and watching a little football. If the weather was better, we might venture out to hunt pheasants and rabbits or do a little clay pigeon shooting with friends. Perhaps we would go for a Sunday drive in the country and, seeing evidence that someone was home, might drop in unannounced for a visit. In the evening, we would watch Ed Sullivan and Bonanza on our Sylvania b&w TV or jump in the car to see a morally worthy movie at the Sky Theater in Schuyler or at the Clarkson Opera House. Some Sunday nights, especially in the winter, were spent at card parties in the basement of the Heun church.
Card parties were a popular social activity, especially in the days before everyone had a television in their parlor. They helped people stay in touch and build community. Card parties were fading by my time (I only remember a couple of them), but I get the impression that there were several during the winter, perhaps once a month. Large numbers of people would assemble at the designated location (Heun Hall or, later, the Heun Church basement), bringing their card tables, and split up into groups of four to play various card games. The long dining tables were folded up and removed, and the card tables and folding chairs were set up around the room.
Men and women played separately – I don’t remember coed tables. Usually the men played traditional Czech and German card games – taroks, solo, and darda. Everyone spoke English as their primary language by then, but while playing taroks the men commonly spoke Czech (with colorful phrases and exclamations). Women played bunco, canasta, taroks, and pinocle (for those who never learned the intricacies of taroks).
Taroks (or more properly, Taroky) was a widely played card game in Central Europe, and it is part of the larger family of tarot card games that have been played all over Europe since at least the 15th Century. Variations of taroks are played in Austria (tarocks), Hungary, Slovenia, Silesia/Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and in the United States wherever at least four Czechs live in the same town. The game requires 4 players and a deck of 54 colorful cards. You cannot overstate the popularity of taroks among the Czechs – when I was young, it was played at most family gatherings, and in every tavern you would find a booth occupied by tarok players.
You say you don’t know how to play taroks? Don’t ask me to teach you – it is far too complicated for my poor brain. But don’t despair – you can find generic rules online http://www.pagat.com/tarot/taroky.html
Better yet, many years ago, one of the Heun parishioners, Robert Brichaček, decided to codify “The Heun Tarok Rules” for posterity. He wrote them up, and his friend Ken Čada proofed, revised, and distributed them. As a public service, I make them available to you. Click on this link and educate yourself: Heun Taroky
So the next time you find yourself at a Heun card party, you’d better brush up on the best, nay, the ONLY way to play the game… Our Way. Of course, you can buy tarok cards wherever fine products are sold. You might still be able to get yourself a deck for $1.49 at the Ben Franklin Store in Schuyler. (Seriously, the Ben Franklin Store is gone, but you can still buy a tarok deck from the Colfax County Press in Clarkson for $2.50.)
Children were not allowed to play with adults unless a spot needed to be filled in the women’s bunco table. We kids played Crazy 8’s, Old Maid, Fish, Slap Jack, and that most Catholic of games – Bingo. In one of the closets in the church basement was a shoebox with well-worn bingo cards and a coffee can full of hard corn kernels that we used to mark the letter-number combinations that had been called. But mostly we were bored, trapped in the basement on a winter’s night without television until the adults were done playing cards and chatting.
During the course of the evening the foursomes split up and recombined at different tables, so that everyone had a chance to socialize with all the attendees. At the end of the evening 4 winners were announced; men’s high scorer, men’s low scorer, women’s high scorer, and women’s low scorer. I don’t think there was a cash prize – the winners probably got a cake or a jar of pickles. The whole thing was over by 9:30 or 10 PM so that the children could get to bed at a decent hour.
Before everyone went home, however, the evening was capped by a light lunch. The ladies served chicken salad or spam/minced ham salad sandwiches made with carefully trimmed white bread, deviled eggs, cakes, pies, plates of kolaches, and peanut bars (small cakes rolled in crushed peanuts). The delicious food was washed down by scalding hot Butternut coffee, served up with plenty of sugar and fresh cream (it seems like few people drank black coffee in those days). The “church basement” coffee that the Heun ladies made was not like anything I’ve had since. Rather than being made in a large percolator, the coffee grounds were mixed with a raw egg, and the slurry was added directly to a pot of boiling water and boiled for a few minutes. The resulting coffee was cloudy, but very smooth and mild in flavor – no bitterness or acidity. I guess the coffee grounds settled out gradually after the pot was removed from the stove; I don’t think that the coffee was filtered but it’s possible that they ran it through a paper filter from a cream separator before serving it.
[We must credit the Swedes for this smooth coffee – in the Northern U.S. it is called Swedish Egg Coffee or Swedish Lutheran Coffee, and can still be found at church stands at the Minnesota State Fair.] Here is a recipe for Church Basement Coffee: Church Basement Coffee
You should try it – it is delicious.
I’m not sure how common card parties were elsewhere. In Clarkson, they may have been sponsored by the VFW. Here are the few references to card parties that I was able to glean from the online files of the Colfax County Press:
December 14, 1922 – The M.C.W.A. social club, an auxiliary of the SS. Peter and Paul church (Howells) gave another card party at the Royal theatre. A fair crowd was present and the evening was merrily spent by all. Dr. and Mrs. A.J. Hebenstriet must have trained themselves especially for the occasion as they succeeded in carrying off both first prizes in card playing. Miss Soenberg, one of our teachers, and Jos. Stangel favored with the boobies.
Also December 14, 1922 – The Kensington ladies entertained their husbands and a number of lady friends at a card party in the room over the Kratochvil restaurant last evening. Five-hundred was the favorite diversion. The men’s prizes were won by Wm. A. Svoboda, first, and W.A. Karel, second. The ladies prizes went to Mrs. Frank Vidlak, first and Mrs. Frank G. Wolf, second. Those present were Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Hahn, Mr. and Mrs. W.F. Hahn, Mr. and Mrs. Jos. F. Jirovec, Mr. and Mrs. F.J. Vidlak, Mr. and Mrs. Ad. Dudek, Mr. and Mrs. Ed Cekal, Mr. and Mrs. J.B. Kocum, Mr. and Mrs. Wm. A. Karel, Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Karel, Mr. and Mrs. A.C. Fajman, Mr. and Mrs. F.C. Kratochvil, Mr. and Mrs. Wm. A. Svoboda, Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Wolf, Misses Mary Bartak and Emma Storek.
January 25, 1923 – Mrs. Frank J. Vidlak entertained the Kensington ladies and their husbands at a card party. Those present were: Mr. and Mrs. A.J. Fajman, Mr. and Mrs. F.J. Miller, Mr. and Mrs. J.F. Jirovec, Mr. and Mrs. A.C. Fajman, Mr. and Mrs. E.J. Cekal, Mr. and Mrs. Wm. A. Svoboda, Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Karel, Mr. and Mrs. Wm A. Karel, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Hahn, Mr. and Mrs. John P. Schaffer, Mr. and Mrs. William Schultz, Mr. and Mrs. F.C. Kratochvil, Mr. and Mrs. J.B. Kocum, Mr. and Mrs. A.J. O’Brien. Mrs. Jos. J. Karnik was present as a guest. Wm. Svoboda won first men’s prize, while the booby went to John F. Schaffer. Ladies’ prize was won by Mrs. Walter Hahn and the booby by Mrs. W. A. Karel. An intermission in card playing was allowed for a feast.
Also January 25, 1923 – A card party given by the Ladies’ Altar society at the St. John’s Catholic Church in Howells was attended by a large number of people. After a couple of hours of card playing a dainty lunch was served by the ladies. Following this there was a dance which lasted until midnight, the music being supplied by the Sindelar orchestra.
January 8, 1931 – Clarkson friends of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Trojan tendered them a surprise party at their home. Three tables of “tarok” were played, prizes going to Mrs. Trojan and Joe Cakl and low prizes to Mrs. Wesley Moore and Anton Kremlacek. A lunch was provided by the visitors.
In the party were Mr. and Mrs. Frank Hobza, Mr. and Mrs. Moore, Mr. and Mrs. Cakl, Mr. and Mrs. Joe Maliha, Misses Emma Maliha and Katie Kopietz, Mrs. Mary Callely of Atkinson, and Mrs. Archie Dillion and daughter, Mary Ann of Stanton.
April 12, 1931 – A delegation of Clarkson club women consisting of Mrs. F.W. Noh, Mrs. Frank Vnuk, Mrs. L.J. Evert, Mrs. Adolph Kudrna, Mrs. J.R. Vitek, and Mrs. W.F. Hahn were at Leigh attending a public card party given by the Woman’s Club of that city. The guests speak of a royal entertainment which also included a fine lunch.
Many thanks to Robert Brichaček, Ken Čada, Ron Čada, Larry Čada, and Don Novotny, card players par excellence, for their knowledge of taroks and memories of the Heun card parties.
Stay warm, pick a good partner, and remember that A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed…