Goulash I Have Known

Our Village endured a wintry blast this weekend; temperatures dropped down to the single digits and the wind chill index was below zero, all over 5 inches of fresh, crunchy snow.  The kind of weather that gets you thinking about piping hot soup and heartwarming stews.  Like goulash.

Gulyas Photo

Goulash is a savory, meaty stew that used to be popular back home (and still is in the Czech Republic).  Its origins can be traced back to 9th century Hungary, where shepherds made a stew from beef, onions, and paprika.  (The Hungarian word gulyás means cow herder, and it came to refer to the stew that they ate on their trail drives from the steppes of Eastern Hungary to the markets in Europe).  The Hungarian cowboys spread their dish throughout Central and Southern Europe, where other ingredients began to be added – garlic, caraway seed, bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, parsley root, celery, cabbage, bay leaf, thyme, marjoram, vinegar, etc.  Sometimes boiled potatoes were added as a thickener.  And when the dish spread to Clarkson, ketchup and crushed ginger snap cookies were added for flavoring and thickening.

Goulash is very popular in the Czech Republic – nearly every Czech restaurant and pub we visited had it on their menu.  Their versions are more savory and less sweet than ours – often they added chopped pickles or vinegar to the pork/beef/onion/paprika mixture.  Here’s what Wikipedia says about the Czech take on goulash:  In the Czech and Slovak Republic, goulash (guláš) is usually made with beef, although pork varieties exist, and served with bread dumplings (in Czech hovězí guláš s knedlíkem, in Slovak hovädzí guláš s knedľou), in Slovakia more typically with bread. In pubs it is often garnished with slices of fresh onion, and is typically accompanied by beer.  Beer can be also added to the stew in the process of cooking. Seasonal varieties of goulash include venison or wild boar goulashes.  Another popular variant of guláš is segedínský guláš (Szeged goulash), with sauerkraut. In Czech and Slovak slang, the word guláš means “mishmash.”


Szeged (Székely) Goulash served in a Prague pub with Czech knedliky.

I don’t think goulash is eaten in Clarkson as frequently as it used to be.  The Stop Inn Café used to serve gallons of it, but many of the people I questioned haven’t eaten it in years.  Similarly, many women remember their mothers and grandmothers making it, but no longer had their recipes.  (Often, their mothers didn’t use recipes, but cooked from memory, preparing the dish according to their family’s tastes or based on what they found in the refrigerator that day).

It’s probably just as well.  In some ways, goulash is the antithesis of what is considered to be a healthy diet these days – a dish comprised mainly of red meat, seasoned with plenty of salt, sugar, and ginger snaps.  Vegetables (onions and peppers) are used only sparingly in many recipes, thrown in for flavoring rather than as the basis for the dish.  And if there is an accompaniment to the dish, it is commonly white bread, boiled white potatoes, noodles, or bread dumplings – loads of simple carbohydrates that make doctors and dieticians nervous.

Nonetheless, goulash is a delicious treat, and one that I heartily recommend when the cold winds blow.  I have collected a handful of recipes from Clarkson and the wider world beyond our village and have posted them below.  The compilation includes recipes from excellent cooks I have known, three examples of the “Lost Recipe” from Clarkson’s Stop Inn Market and Cafe,  some variations made by our neighbors in nearby towns, and the version made by the Bohemian Cafe in Omaha.  Just click on the link below to read and print the recipes.

Goulash Recipes from Clarkson and the World

If you can afford to buy beef or pork these days, I invite you to give one of the recipes a try and let me know what you think.  More important, if you have a favorite recipe for goulash that you don’t see here, from your mother or grandmother perhaps, send it to me before the end of January and I’ll add it to the collection.

Jó étvágyat!   Dobrou chuť!  Bon appétit!

Glenn Čada

Posted in 1890s, 1950s, 1960s | 18 Comments

Every Czech a Musician

Every Czech is born, not with a silver spoon in his mouth, but with a violin under his pillow. – Czech proverb

Bohemians (Czechs) as a whole are extremely fond of dramatic performances…  A very large percentage are good musicians, so that wherever even a small group lives, they are sure to have a very good band. – Ruzena Rosicka

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As I enjoyed Clarkson’s Czech Days festivities this year, I was again reminded of the importance of music to us.  Whether you were in a bar, a church dinner, the Opera House, or walking around Main Street, there was a background soundtrack of old Bohemian waltzes and polkas.

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Angie Kriz and her sidemen entertain the residents of Colonial Manor, 2015

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Ron Schulzkumpf (tuba), Eddie Fisher (drums), and Angie Kriz (accordion and vocals)

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Ron and Eddie accompany Sue and Rob Brabec at Harry’s Brass Rail, 2015

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Clarkson Czech Days Parade, 2015

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Clarkson Opera House during the Czech Days Festival

It all got me to thinking about the many Clarkson area bands and orchestras that have entertained us over the last century or more.  Winding back the clock, images and sounds come to mind…   memories of The Solid 8:

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Duffy Belohrad and Al Grebnick:

Duffy Belohrad 1944Al Grebnick 1959

My Uncle’s Chuck’s Harmony Polka Band (1961):

Chuck's Band Aug 61

Chuck’s Band Aug 61

Math Sladky’s KLMS Polka Band out of Lincoln:

Prague National Hall

Prague National Hall

The Clarkson Czech Band:

Clarkson Czech Band

The Jirovec Orchestra:

Jirovec Orchestra

Jirovec Orchestra caption

The Krofta Orchestra:

Krofta Orchestra 1917

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And various manifestations over the decades of The Clarkson Band:

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My beautiful picture

Clarkson Dance Band ca 1898

Our Town’s 4th of July Celebration in 1893 had a lot of brass…

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Perhaps the oldest photo of an organized band in Clarkson was taken in the early 1890’s.  A fun-loving band that was associated with the Roether and Becker saloon/dance hall was the subject of an earlier posting of mine –


Roether and Becker Band caption 2

Roether and Becker Band caption

Many of the musicians in this proto-polka band have since been identified, but the name of the band, if it had one, has been lost in time.

I have given short shrift to Czech music and Bohemian/German musicians in this Clarkson history blog, only because it is such a big subject.  There have been many organized bands over the 125+ years of Clarkson’s existence, and many more talented individual musicians who were not associated with a particular band, but just showed up at weddings, barn dances, bars, and festivals for the joy of making music.

Chuck on Drums

Chuck on Drums

In the coming months I plan to profile as many bands as I can find information about.  I hope to post stories about the Jirovec Orchestra, Duffy Belohrad, the Frank Studnicka Band, the Solid 8, the Little Swing Band, and the Clarkson Czech Bands, at least.  Time will tell whether there is enough information to document the Bohemian Ladies Brass Band, the Cech Orchestra, Joe Fiala’s Blue Coats, the Pla-Mor Band, Emil Brdicko, Frank Kucera, Dr. Srb’s Orchestra, and the Stastny Orchestra, for example.

This is where you come in.  Look through your scrapbooks, search your memory banks – if you have pictures and anecdotes about any of these bands (or other local bands I may be missing), please pass them on to me and I will work them into our stories.  Thanks!


Posted in Celebrations, The 21st Century | 6 Comments

The Life Lesson of Štrůdl-Making

apple strudel with ice cream_large

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; http://prairieplains.org/) 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 –  http://prairieplains.org/soar.htm  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.  http://prairieplains.org/pokorny_memorial_prairie.htm


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:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S98PRWYrRXg

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 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kfyjgbGssng

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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 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LG_im4lLkno

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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 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xI8B0iKtQR4

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 http://www.arboretum.unl.edu

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.   http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1038&context=biosciornithology

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 (http://www.farmcollector.com/equipment/how-a-threshing-machine-works.aspx) – 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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DZfESGwXqw


Diamond Jubilee threshing_0002a

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

Bridge Collapse 2


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: http://www.clarksonczechdays.com/2015-schedule.html

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