Houby Redux and the Democrats

A couple of autumns ago, I waxed nostalgic on the subject of mushrooms (houby).


Hunting wild mushrooms was a common pastime that was brought to this country by our Czech and German ancestors and was still being pursued in the Clarkson area until recent times.  Wild food, free for the picking, mushrooms are delicious fried in butter and are an important ingredient in many Central European soups and sauces.  Although there are several edible mushrooms in Nebraska, the most reliable variety was the elm oyster (aka box elder) mushroom that grew on box elder trees that lined the banks of the streams and rivers.

It’s another October, and another opportunity to talk about this noble fungus.  On a recent visit to Clarkson, I asked a few of the residents whether they still hunt for mushrooms.  Mostly I got shrugs – not really, probably because there are fewer box elder trees these days and/or the hobby has dwindled.

A few days later Phyllis and I were exploring the Pipestone National Monument in southwestern Minnesota.  You should go see it – it’s a beautiful preserved prairie, complete with tall grasses, wildflowers, meandering prairie streams, and dramatic outcroppings of quartzite and blood-red shale (pipestone).  Along one of the streams we identified a box elder tree and I joked that, given the time of year, we might find some houby on it for supper.  No sooner had the words left my mouth than we spied a nice specimen right at eye level.  Later, on another tree, we found a few more only a foot off the ground.  They looked just as I remembered them, creamy white with a thick stem and cap.

Pipestone NM_20140925_14

Pipestone NM_20140925_48

Pipestone NM_20140925_43

On one of the mushrooms, the top of the cap was starting to take on the characteristic “toasted marshmallow” appearance.

Pipestone NM_20140925_17

No, we didn’t pick any.  It’s a National Monument, for Pete’s sake!  (And we had to walk past some park rangers on the way back to the car).

Mushrooms aside, you can’t have a box elder tree without a box elder bug, a fact that I was reminded of when one of them landed on my arm.  This mostly harmless bug (Boisea trivittata) doesn’t bite, sting, stink, or attack flowers or important commercial crops.  Because they may release a noxious chemical if squashed, they seem to have few predators.  The box elder bug feeds mainly by sucking the juices from seeds of trees of the maple family.  So they become more noticeable in the autumn when box elder seeds (and mushrooms) begin to appear.


We had lots of box elders and box elder bugs on the farm when I was growing up.  All summer and autumn we’d see them on the trees, sidewalks, and the outside walls of the house, and, for much of the winter, inside the house.  My Dad was forever swatting these nuisance bugs and throwing them outside; the invention of the hand-held vacuum cleaner made his life much easier.  The limestone foundation on a portion of our farmhouse had a few decent sized-cracks in it, and I recall one winter peering into one of them to spy a large mass of hibernating box elder bugs, ready to go on the march when the sun warmed up the rocks in the Spring.


So my idyllic boyhood in the shade of mushroom-bearing box elder trees usually included a nuisance –  box elder bugs.  Except that isn’t what we called them.  Everyone I knew called these little bugs “democrats.”

The term “democrats” was so universal around Clarkson that I was probably in high school before I learned the preferred common name of Boisea trivittata, and got to wondering about the odd, possibly pejorative nickname.  The nickname “democrat” or “democrat bug” is heard in the Central Plains – Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, northwestern Missouri, and southwestern Iowa, at least.  Over the years I have consulted both etymologists and entomologists on the question of how the box elder bug came to be nicknamed the democrat.  But no one could tell me, and there is little definitive information about it on the Internet.

One Kansan suggested that they were called democrats because they come out of the woodwork in the fall, right before an election.  Another suggested that they are called democrats because they hang around in groups and raise a stink (technically incorrect, because box elder bugs belong to a family of scentless plant bugs).  Ted Kooser, in his remarkable book Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps, suggests that the name first appeared during the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, when Democrats were everywhere and into everything.  But the term may be even older than that.  Gene Ulses of Papillion wrote in the May/June 2010 issue of Nebraska Life that “the term Democrat bug came about in the late 1800s in the upper Mississippi region and spread as a subtle insult to the Democratic Party faction…  Around 1900, southwest Iowans began calling them “McKinley bugs” in retaliation for the growing use of the term Democrat bugs.”

[Incidentally, I’m not saying there’s a connection, but the geographical distribution of the nickname “democrat” seems to overlap with the distribution of red beer consumption.  (If you have to ask what a červené pivo is, you won’t want to drink it.)  Red beers are a common cocktail in much of the Central Midwest, especially Nebraska and Kansas.  But I’ve also heard of them being imbibed in upstate New York and other enlightened pockets of the U.S.]

Perhaps the term “democrat” is meant in its general sense – as part of a Democracy, we are all democrats.  Some suggest that the swarms of box elder bugs remind people of crowds who gather during political seasons, and don’t refer specifically to our honorable “Democratic Party.”  Perhaps.  But looking at that last picture of a swarm of box elder bugs scrambling around, I’m reminded of the well-known quote from Will Rogers – “I am not a member of any organized party – I am a Democrat.


The Box Elder Bug’s Prayer

I want so little
For so little time
A south window,
A wall to climb,
The smell of coffee,
A radio knob,
Nothing to eat,
Nothing to rob,
Not love, not power,
Not even a penny,
Forgive me only
For being so many.

   –  Bill Holm

http://wildaboututah.org/box elder-bug-poetry-2/

Posted in The 21st Century | 10 Comments

A Most Unforgettable Character — Uncle Elden

This week we have another guest posting from Robert Prazak, who offers a tribute to his Uncle Elden (Al) Prazak.  Elden was a local boy who moved to the faraway land of California and did good.

If you happen to be wondering around Clarkson during most any of the last 40 or 50 Czech Days celebrations you may have run across this older sailor who now resides in San Diego, but was originally from Clarkson. He could probably be found in either the Czech Bakery, the museum, the high school reunion or the parade. So what do you say is so unusual about someone coming back to his roots, as probably many people do it?

Elden and Doris Prazak 1

Uncle Elden, as he was called (he got his nickname because when my sister and I were born, he would run around town telling everyone he was an Uncle) spent his first 16 years in Clarkson as a loyal Red Devil, and as the war broke out he somehow convinced his dad to fudge on his age so he could enter the service in the merchant marines.  Somehow after a year he entered the United States Navy where he served not only in the Second World War, but also the Korean War and the Viet Nam conflict.  He retired after many years of service, having his share of battle scars and horror stories to tell, but thankfully lived through it.

Elden Prazak Navy 2

Old timers who knew him had many stories to tell about all the hijinks they pulled when they were on leave and got together back in Clarkson.  I would listen to their stories as they had a few beers after a round of golf.  Joe Toman and Bob Odvarka always had good stories to tell about the fisticuffs they took part in when they and others were on leave with Elden.  One of the favorite stories I remember was when they were at one of Duffy’s dances and a fight ensued over them wearing their military outfits at the dance with some non-military from another town.  As the story went, Bob jumped on the back of one of the ruffians as Joe and Unk were taking part in some fisticuffs with the enemy. Duffy Belohrad’s band smuggled Unk out in a tuba case to evade either the police or some of the other gang.  Some of these stories may have been embellished over the years, but I do know for fact that more than once my mom would be bandaging up Uncle’s fists after a dance at a neighboring town.

Patriotism and the flag were and are first and foremost in his life.  I remember going with him and my folks on the old gravel road to Schuyler for Labor Day Parades.  As “Old Glory” and the honor guard would be making their way down the block he would always be the first one standing, and he made sure that anyone around him was also standing and respecting the flag.  I don’t know if there was a girl in every port.  But he did find a true gem back in Clarkson between wars and married Doris Wain whose mother had a farm just south of town. Doris worked at the Clarkson bank and I assume they met during that time.

After retiring from the military their family settled in San Diego to begin a new life – Elden to work as a trainer at a high school and Doris to work at a United States training center for Olympic athletes.  After Elden retired from the school he continued on as a volunteer trainer and continued to impact the entire school system.  So much, in fact, that they made sure he had a plaque placed in his honor at the Mt. Soledad Veterans War Memorial.

Elden and Doris Prazak 2

Within the last two years we were privileged to attend the dedication of the school’s new athletic field which was named the “Al Prazak Field.”  You just don’t get an honor like this unless you deserve it.

Elden Prazak Program

Al Prazak 3a

So if in the future years you see a sun-tanned old sailor walking around the streets of Clarkson during Czech Days with a walker with a spry lady at his side named Doris, go up and introduce yourself to one of Clarkson’s true war heroes –there aren’t many left.


You can see a video of the dedication of the Al Prazak Field at Montgomery High School at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYH9bsQhX0w  Better yet, you can see a brief interview of the honoree at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGv30IzPkO4  (It’s nice to see that he hasn’t lost his Clarkson accent after all these years).  Thanks for the story, Robert, and keep them coming!  I look forward to meeting Uncle Elden and Doris at Czech Days next year.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, The 21st Century | 4 Comments

A Sound Mind in a Sound Body


I’ve written many times about Bohemian traditions that were brought to the New World by our immigrant ancestors and became part of The Clarkson Experience.  Our families brought over their language, recipes, music, dances, and folk traditions, all of which promoted fun and fraternity.  And several of the social activities and organizations had political or cultural statements to make as well, many arising during Bohemia’s period of “National Revival” in the 1800s.  For example, on a quiet country corner south of town is a cemetery that is peopled mainly by Freethinkers, who in the Old Country wanted to distance themselves from state-imposed, institutional religion and found tolerance in the Land of the Free.  The complicated Beseda dance form was not only fun to watch and perform, but it also served the purpose of demonstrating to the world that the Czechs had a vibrant culture that was being smothered by the Habsburg Monarchy. And another institution with political undertones that began during this time of national longing for independence was a gymnastic organization known as the Sokol.



Much has been written about the history of the Sokols both in the Czech lands and the U.S.  Briefly, the Sokols were founded on February 16, 1862 by a philosophy student from the University of Prague, Miroslav Tyrš.  Bankrolled by a sympathetic, liberal German, Jindřich Fügner, they developed a program for elevating their Czech brethren through physical fitness and moral and intellectual training – A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.  The name of their new organization, Sokol, is the Czech word for Falcon – a swift, powerful bird that was regarded as courageous and heroic. Mass gatherings of Sokols were called Slety (a Slet is the Czech word for an “flying-in” of birds).  Slety, held once every 4 or 6 years, featured mass calisthenics displays and individual competitions in track and field and gymnastics events.  Members of the Sokol clubs referred to each other as “brothers” and “sisters,” and greeted each other with “Nazdar” (To Health!).  Their inspiring credo was Tužme se! (Let’s aspire to be strong, proficient, and vigorous!).  Their ideas were influenced by the Turnverein (aka the Turners), a German gymnastic society that had been established around 1811 and also emphasized the combination of physical fitness, nationalist unity, and politically liberal lectures. (The catchy motto of the Turners was “Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, Frei” – “Fresh, Pious, Cheerful, Free”)

Sokol Letna Plain


Sokol uniformSounds good so far, no?  Physical, moral, and intellectual fitness, strength and unity – who could complain about progressive thinking like this?  The arch-conservative Austro-Hungarian Empire that controlled the Czech lands, for one.  The founders of the Sokols, who dreamed that ultimately the Czechs might break free of the Habsburgs and German influence, couldn’t help but rub it in.  They designed a military-style uniform for their members that combined Slavic and revolutionary elements: brown Russian pants, a Polish revolutionary jacket, a Montenegrin cap with a falcon feather, and a red Garibaldi shirt (Garibaldi’s Italian army volunteers had embarrassed the Austrian army in 1859).  Sokol meetings often featured lectures on freedom, nationalism, and independence.  The well-trained Sokols, parading in their military style uniforms, came to be known as the “Czech National Army.” All this made the Habsburg monarchs suspicious that a revolutionary army was forming under their noses.  They kept tight control on Sokol activities, occasionally arrested their leaders, and in 1915, at the start of WWI, disbanded the Sokols entirely.

The Bohemian immigrants to the United States brought the ideas and organization of the Sokols with them.  (For an excellent description of the growth of American Sokol clubs and a comparison to their counterparts in the Old County , see Nolte 2009 [1]).  The first American Sokol Club was formed in St. Louis in 1865, just 3 years after the organization was founded in Prague.  Sokol clubs were formed in Chicago (1866), New York City (1867), and other cities with large numbers of Czech immigrants [1].  A club was formed in Omaha in 1877.  By 1908 there were 15 clubs in Nebraska, more than in any other state [1].  It’s likely that one of these was in Clarkson.

Although the Sokol did not appear to be expressly secular/anti-Catholic at the time of its founding in Prague, several separate, Catholic Sokol Clubs arose in the U.S.  The likely reason is that the Sokol clubs in the U.S. attracted large numbers of Freethinkers [1].  Radical Freethinkers felt that the Sokols had an obligation to “free and completely deliver its members from the influence of otherworldly, religious so-called education.”  This anticlerical attitude alienated the American Czech Catholics, who formed their own organization (Katolicka Jednota Sokol) and whose symbol incorporated the cross within the “S.”  Rosicky (1929) listed 9 Catholic Sokol Unions with a total membership of 427. The first club of this Union was that of sv. Vaclav in Omaha, organized in July, 1893, and was followed by more Catholic Sokol clubs:   Omaha, South Side, No. 1; Verdigre, No. 12; Howell, No. 17; Weston, No. 26; Dodge, No. 85; Omaha, No. 43; Abie No. 49; Prague, No. 50; Clarkson, No. 54 [2].

Omaha Catholic Sokol

The other, larger Sokol Gymnastic Society, the Telocvicna Jednota Sokol, counted 1,111 members in Nebraska in 1929 [1].  Rosicky observed that “the members of these Sokol clubs meet regularly for practice, give public exhibitions and compete in tournaments. With the German Turners they have been the pioneers in gymnastic sports, today so popular with American youth. However, they do not confine themselves to athletics alone, but are ever in the foreground and ready to assist with all patriotic and cultural projects.”

Omaha Sokol old

In 1926 the Omaha Club built a grand gym and auditorium that still stands at the corner of 13th and Martha Streets.  The structure is little changed, but these days it is used as much for rock and hip hop concerts as it is for gymnastic events and meetings of Czech social societies.

Omaha Sokol new


Clarkson’s Diamond Jubilee book notes that a Sokol club existed in town during the early years, but was disbanded during World War I.  The photos below show young men posing in front of the high school, and a larger group of Sokols circa 1915.

Clarkson Sokols

Clarkson Sokols ca 1915

After the War, there was a resurgence of interest in the Sokols.  The July 21, 1921 issue of the Colfax County Press informs us that during “the forepart of the week, several Howells Catholic school Sokol girls were in Dodge attending a drill with the Dodge girls. Those going to Dodge were the Misses Sophie Prusa, Bessie Herout, Frances Stanek, Barbara Pinker, Adella Dvorak, Alma Poledna, Mary Drahota, Anna Pekarek, Eleanor Rysavy and Antonia Poledna.”

Clarkson soon followed suit.  On January 27, 1929, the Telocvicna Jednota Sokol Society was organized at the Opera House largely through the efforts of J.M Mundil.  Mundil served as the first president, assisted by Mrs. Anna Koza (secretary) and Joseph Alois Kucera (treasurer).  The first gymnastics trainer was Richard J. Kalal, who was succeeded by Edwin Dudycha and later Helen Kacin.  Membership quickly rose to 140 adults and juveniles.

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Clarkson Sokol Girls ca 1930


A building that began life as a dance hall attached to the Roether Saloon (https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2012/03/25/from-clarkson-to-prague-and-then-back-again/)  was purchased and remodeled into the Clarkson Sokol Hall (it later belonged to the Lions Club and was the site of a bowling alley, as well as community events such as Pancake Day celebrations).

Clarkson Sokol Hall - Lions Club

Clarkson Sokol Boys ca 1930

The Clarkson Sokols trained in this hall and outdoors, and sported uniforms in the red, white, blue colors of both their ancestral Czech lands and their new home in the United States.

Helen Dvorak Hawkins Sokol uniformClarkson Museum_20140602_092


At this same time, Clarkson had a Catholic Sokol club as well, the Katolicke Jednoty Sokol (Catholic Sokol Union).  One of our local men, Frank Houfek, went up to Tabor, South Dakota to compete in a regional slet on August 23-25, 1929.  He was 24 years old at the time.

Frank HoufekFrank Houfek Sokol Medal

Frank competed in the “Bohemian Pentathlon” (pommel horse, long jump, shot put, foot races, and floor events) and did very well – he won First Place with 118.45 points.  In addition to the gold medal, he won a trip to the 8th National Sokol tournament (Osmy Slet Jednoty Sokol) in Washington, DC in 1930.  (Frank Houfek’s sons, Dave and Denny, continued the family athletic tradition.  They played on the 1961 Clarkson High School basketball team that posted a 22-2 record and reached the state tournament (see That Championship Season at https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/that-championship-season/).


Frank Houfek Sokol Diplom


Interest in the Clarkson Sokol Club was such that the members hosted a regional gymnastic tournament on June 19-21, 1931.  Most of the activity associated with the 1931 Sokol Exhibition took place at the Jonas Park Grounds.  (This area became the Clarkson Pavilion, and later the Clarkson Ballroom, in late 1932 or early 1933).

Clarkson Sokol Poster

If your Czech is a little rusty like mine, Google Translate tells me that Friday evening was devoted to registering competitors and judges, and at 8:30 PM the judges met in the gymnasium (presumably the Sokol Hall/Lions Club building).  Saturday was devoted to races at the Jonas Park, and at 6 PM dinner was served to the competitors and judges in the Opera House.  Following that, the “dinner theater” evening was completed with a 3-act play at the Opera House “Zavadilka’s Married Daughter,” followed by a Sokol jamboree.  On Sunday, everyone gathered at the Opera House and processed to the new Memorial Park to honor the fallen soldiers of the Great War.  The evening featured a dance at the Jonas Pavilion.

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Schuyler Sokol

And let’s not forget our neighbors to the south.  The undated photo above shows the Schuyler Sokol Club, the Telocvicna Jednota Sokol of Schuyler, founded in 1891. The man in top row with X on his shirt is Otto Otradovsky (1874-1951), a veteran of the Spanish American War.  Otto Otradovsky was sent in 1899 to Chicago to take two-month athletic instructor course. In about 1900, he served as judge at the National tournament in Cleveland and continued in that capacity for several years at various meets. Otto was a Gold Medal winner in first division in 1901 and 1902. One medal can be seen in the Schuyler Museum. Forty years later he was still teaching.

Czech-Slovak Mu_20140531_10


Czech-Slovak Mu_20140531_09



The Sokol clubs in the U.S. peaked early in the 20th Century and declined thereafger, but some still remain in large cities, particularly New York, Washington DC, and Chicago.  After a decade of activity in the 1930s, the Clarkson Sokols appear to have disbanded again by the early 1940s – no one I’ve asked can remember any Sokol activities after WWII.

Similarly, the reemergence of the Sokols in the newly created Czechoslovakia would not last.  Although by 1930 they claimed 630,000 members, they held their last slet (350,000 Sokols attending) on the eve of the Nazi takeover in 1938.  The Nazis brutally suppressed the Sokols, arrested and executed their leaders, and banned the organization.  After the war, the Sokols re-formed and held one last slet in 1948.  Now it was the Communists’ turn to get nervous about the Sokol ideas.  They suppressed Sokol activities and tried to replace the tradition of slets with mass exercises employed for Communist Party propaganda: Spartakiade.

Sokol Slet 1938 1

Czech-Slovak Mu_20140531_07

Czech-Slovak Mu_20140531_08Spartakiade 1955

The Czechs didn’t seem interested in Spartakiády, and after the fall of Communism in 1990 they re-instituted the Sokols and the slets.  Although it has never regained its pre-War popularity, the games continue – the last Slet was held in July 2012.  If they stick to their 6-year schedule, you should start training and book your flights for 2018.

It’s a long story, but an important one for those of us of the Czech persuasion.  In conclusion, I’ll let no less a personage than President John F. Kennedy have the last word…

“Ask not what you can get from your country, but what you can do for it. I appreciate the part the American Sokol Movement has played in establishing physical fitness and good sportsmanship as major objectives of recreation, education and our way of life. In years to come, I hope American Sokol’s example will inspire millions more to join in this pursuit of excellence.”

         –  President John F. Kennedy



[1] Nolte, Clair. 2009.  Our Brothers Across the Ocean: The Czech Sokol in America to 1914.  The International Journal of the History of Sport 26 (13): 1963-1982.

[2] Rosicky, Rose. 1929.  A History of the Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska.  Czech Historical Society of Nebraska.  The NEGenWeb Project.  Electronic copy presented by special permission of Margie Sobotka. Edited and proofed by Sandy Benak and Connie Snyder. Web design by Connie Snyder.  http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ne/topic/ethnic/czechs/czechs.html

Posted in 1890s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s, 1940s | 9 Comments

What are these people doing?

What were these people doing at the Jonas Park Grounds in Clarkson on June 20, 1931?

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And why would self-respecting Czechs act like that?

And what is their connection to these Czechs?

Sokol Letna Plain

Stay tuned for the startling, overdue (and overlong) answers to these questions….

Posted in 1930s | 6 Comments

Clarkson and the Great War: Part 1 – War Memorial

Around Clarkson_20140604_58

We will soon be marking the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. Between July 28, 1914 and November 11, 1918, some 45 nations engaged in a protracted struggle that cost the lives of more than 9 million combatants. It was the first modern war – the opposing armies pioneered the use of machine guns, tanks, poison gas, airplanes, and the aerial bombing of civilians. Military actions, accompanied by famine, disease, and genocide, caused over 37 million military and civilian casualties.

During the war and in the years immediately after the Armistice, it was simply called the World War or the Great War or the War to End All Wars (because the suffering had been so terrible that another war was unthinkable). These names lasted scarcely more than 20 years, when they were superseded by the even greater, more terrible World War II.

The United States was able to stay out of the First World War for a long time, but on April 6, 1917 was forced to declare war on the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire). In the remaining 17 months until the Armistice, the U.S. committed over 4.7 million men to the fight and suffered 204,000 wounded and nearly 117,000 dead. By one, incomplete count, 751 Nebraskans were killed in WWI.

Our Town was fully involved in the Great War. Many young men volunteered to fight (some apparently even before the U.S. joined the battle) and many more were drafted into the armed forces. On the home front, Clarkson stores closed early to conserve fuel, letters were written and Christmas packages were sent to the troops, fund drives raised money for the Red Cross, and a Home Guard was formed to protect us from internal enemies. In a community that extends beyond the city limits to include the surrounding farms and farm families, it is difficult to get the exact number of local boys who served. But something like 58 young men from the Clarkson area served in the U.S. military during WWI, of whom 8 lost their lives. As in all wars, our fatalities came from a variety of causes – killed in action, died from wounds months or even years after a battle, accidents in military areas far from the battlefields of France, and disease (the Spanish flu epidemic claimed between 20 and 40 million lives around the world in 1918-19, many of whom were soldiers living in crowded camps).  I plan to address all of these in a series of stories about Clarkson’s part in World War I. But for now, I will begin at the end – the dedication in 1926 of a war memorial to honor those who served and to remember those who died.

Most of us can easily picture the war memorial monument and park near the center of town, between the Opera House and the Presbyterian Church. Memorial Park is a small grassy lot ringed with large trees (American elms, in my youth) that provides a cool and quiet respite in the summer. On the southwest corner is a large artillery piece that symbolizes America’s military strength (the WWII-era 105 mm Howitzer was replaced in 1994 with a larger, 155 mm cannon). Along the south side is an old flagpole that has symbolized our patriotism since 1918. And in the center of the park is a brown granite pyramid with plaques to honor those who served and died in the War to End All Wars (and the many wars since).

Around Clarkson_20140604_56

Although the idea of a war memorial had been considered almost immediately after the Armistice, serious planning for the park and memorial began five years later. The July 10, 1924 issue of the Colfax County Press reported “Providing the plans turn out the way they are being promulgated, Clarkson will have a public park within the period of a very short time. City authorities have entered into a bargain for the two lots until lately belonging to the Frances Suchy estate, adjoining the opera house building on the rear, which were bid on for the city at the administrator’s sale by J.M. Mundil at a price of $1925.

We understand that the property is also to serve as a site for the proposed soldiers’ memorial. Although there is a much better site in town available for the purpose than the one decided on, we are led to believe that the action of those at the head of the movement will be favored by the public as the town is in serious need of an institution of this kind.

Lambert Perina of Clarkson did some research into the history of the Clarkson’s war memorial. The following text is taken from Perina’s article in the Colfax County Press on July 8, 1998:

On May 22, 1919, the Clarkson Red Cross donated $500 toward the building of a meaningful memorial to honor those community soldiers who fought and died in World War I. No site for the memorial was originally designated, but monetary donations were solicited. On August 13, 1924, J.M. Mundil and his wife Frantiska sold Lots 23 and 24 of Block 9 to the City of Clarkson to establish the park. The deed was recorded with the Colfax County Clerk in Schuyler on December 9, 1924. This became the site of the pyramid memorial.

Around Clarkson_20140604_59

The pyramid is 18 feet high and sits on a concrete base that is 11 feet on each side and 4.5 feet thick. The pyramid has a concrete core which is covered with brown Oklahoma granite. The memorial required 135 tons of materials. Frank Polacek and Albert Svoboda were put in charge of the construction.

Clarkson Museum_20140602_026

The formal unveiling and dedication of the monument took place on July 11, 1926. Lambert Perina paraphrased the story published by the Clarkson Herald. [The Clarkson Herald was published between 1907 and May 30, 1916, at which point it was consolidated into the Colfax County Press and the Clarkson Herald]:

“The unveiling and dedication of a soldiers Memorial will be held in the City Park on Sunday, July 11, 1926 at which time the Monument will be turned over to serve its cause. State Commander of the American Legion J.R. Kinder, Madison, will deliver the main address commencing at 1:30 p.m.

War Memorial Dedication Program

A part of the Program included the laying of wreaths at the base of the Pyramid by the Ladies Auxiliary of the American Legion. This was done as each name of the honored dead was called. A bronze plaque on the west face of the Pyramid carries the inscription “In Honor of the Brave Defenders of our Liberties in World War I – 1917/1918 and in memory of: Emil Bartos, Alois Cerv, Albin Folda, Louis Franek, Milo Horak, Joseph Kacin, Joseph Toman, and Emil Vitek. “As the Color Guard withdrew, the Memorial stood in eloquent silence in witness to the devotion of a patriotic community.”

Around Clarkson_20140602_09

Bert Perina also found a photograph of the event that was published by the Omaha Daily News with the following caption: A monument in memory of eight boys who lost their lives in the world war has been unveiled and dedicated in Clarkson, Neb. Sunday, July 11, 1926. The monument, which stands twenty feet high, is dedicated to Alois Cerv, Albin Folda, Louis Franek, Joseph Kacin, Emil Vitek, Emil Bartos, Miroslav Horak, and Joseph Toman. Speakers at the ceremony were Mrs. Emil Folda, chairman of the Clarkson branch, American Red Cross, J.R. Kinder, state commander of the American Legion, and the Rev. B.A. Filipi. A.J. Vlach was originator of the monument idea.

War Memorial Dedication July 11 1926


Posted in 1910s, 1920s | 1 Comment

The Watermelon Men


What is more refreshing on a blistering hot summer day than a big slice of cold watermelon?  Mankind has been enjoying this sweet, juicy fruit for millennia – the ancient Egyptians and their Israelite slaves ate it (it says so in the Bible).  It was introduced to Europe by Moorish invaders by the 13th Century and to North America by the 16th Century. And it was a popular food among the Nebraska pioneers.


“Watermelons were a delicacy for Nebraska settlers. When the watermelons were in season and ripe, they were a summer treat and a standard for the ten o’clock and three o’clock lunch. Some pioneer families even claimed to keep melons through the winter by stuffing them in haystacks.



In photographs of sod house families, watermelons are often seen as symbols of the bounty of the land. The Kem family posed for this photograph with their watermelons in the 1880s. Many years of good crops brought confidence to the settlers, and although many hard years followed, the settlers remembered the “remarkable crop of watermelons they raised that first Nebraska summer” for the rest of their lives. When Mrs. W. L. Downing wrote to the Nebraska Farmer in the 1970s, she reminisced about her first year living with her new husband in a sod house north of Stapleton, Nebraska. While her husband planted corn, Mrs. Downing “planted watermelons with a hand planter…Oh, those melons!” She remembered, “we had melons for everyone in the neighborhood.”  (photos and text courtesy of the Nebraskastudies.org website)

More than a treat, on at least one occasion watermelons were the only thing standing between the pioneers and the Pearly Gates.  Frank Čejda, who homesteaded in Colfax County in 1872, related this story:

“When we went to town with products or for provisions, it required a day and a half, that is half the night, and our food supply, while on the way, was a piece of bread and some hay for the horses. If we were obliged to stay in town overnight, we looked up some acquaintance or friend for lodging, for we did not have the means to stop in the hotel. During the first two years there was so little food that we could not supply our needs. I recall an incident in connection with our neighbor, Mrs. Kopac. Her husband, like other homesteaders, was away working in town, to buy supplies for his family. It was in the fall of the year, her provisions were gone, nothing was available but the melon patch. The poor woman lived on it during the whole melon season. She had a small baby to take care of, and grew so weak she could scarcely walk. She knew that all her neighbors were short of rations, so she did not even let them know of her condition, hoping for the arrival of her husband.”  [from Rosicky (1929) – A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska]

As time went by and transportation improved, a market developed for large watermelon and muskmelon farms.  The most productive of these farms were in sandy soils near river bottoms or in the Sandhills region of the state (my grandfather always grew better melons in his sandy backyard in Schuyler than we were able to grow on the farm).  For Clarksonites, the nearest melon farm was between Madison and Norfolk on Highway 81.  It was an impressive sight.  Here’s an item from the September 6, 1923 issue of the Colfax County Press:

Last evening we had the occa­sion to visit Anton DeGroot’s big melon farm north of Madison and were certainly amazed to see the enormous crop.  Melons of all varieties were seen all over the yard – a regular market place – with autos coming and going in numberless quanti­ties.  That day Mr. DeGroot disposed of about 1000 melons and since the opening of the season has been selling from 600 to 1000 mel­ons every week.  He also sold a big truck load of fine juicy melons which were taken to the Lincoln fair.
On September 23, Mr. DeGroot will hold his annual Free Melon Feast. This event will mark the opening of his “Irish Gray” melon patch.   He promises to have ready for the feast the largest pile of mel­ons ever seen by any one. In the meantime if you want to lay in a supply of real good melons, visit DeGroot, the melon man, four miles north of Madison.

A few years later, the Lincoln Star discovered Anton DeGroot.  Here are some excerpts from their September 4, 1927 story:

Madison County Man Sells Tons of Watermelons Every Year From Land Once Considered Worthless

“Plum busted and in deep,” are the words which Anton DeGroot uses to describe his condition when he returned from South Dakota fourteen years ago… [He rented a bit of land in a large holding called Duncanmeade. Since then he has purchased] three fine eighties of choice land in the heart of Nebraska’s corn belt with the profits from a 40-acre watermelon patch located on the Meridian highway in Madison county and has acquired the title of “DeGroot, the Melon Man of Nebraska.” Making a success of the melon business on sandy loam soil, pronounced by residents of section as the poorest piece of land in Madison county, [DeGroot] has demonstrated what can be done with land which was regarded as worthless sandhills fifty years ago…

Anton DeGroot was the first “renter” in Madison County to buy an automobile. His neighbors thought he was plunging headlong into debt when he borrowed money to buy a Ford. But the Ford was not purchased for pleasure. Loading the car and trailer with melons Anton drove to neighboring towns in the late summer evenings and returned home in the quiet hours of night happy in the knowledge that his load was sold. Peddling melons in this manner for two seasons paid for the Ford. Wishing to discourage the De Groots in the first years of their venture on Duncanmeade some friends said once to Mrs. DeGroot, “If you are picking out a place on which to starve to death, you have surely picked a good one.” Years later when success seemed assured the Titian-haired wife of the melon man graciously came back at these same friends with, “Well, we’ve had a right jolly time starving to death at Duncanmeade.”

The first melon patch planted by Anton DeGroot years ago, was for the enjoyment of his family, friends and neighbors. But Anton was born and reared in the vicinity and, unknown to others, had been making a study of the possibilities of the soil. His first patch of melons planted for profit covered an acre and netted him $100 during the season. The next year he put in two acres and realized $400. He added experiment to experience and the luscious fruit produced at Duncanmeade today rivals that grown in the famous melon fields of Georgia and Texas. DeGroot’s melon patch in recent years covers from 35 to 40 acres. An average of 100 pounds of melon seed is planted by the melon man each spring. Despite the fact that the Nebraska melon season is only five months long at the best, compared with a season eight months long in the South, DeGroot’s melons average from 22 to 24 tons per acre, while Georgia and Texas melons run from 25 to 30 tons per acre. Cool weather and insect pests play havoc with a melon crop and only the closest attention at critical stages will bring the crop through to maturity. Strong winds sometimes shift the sand about and at such times, Mr. DeGroot says the ground must be worked over or the melons are lost.

The [40-acre] patch must be hoed twice and the vines laid carefully in rows before the cultivator is used. Three times over with the cultivator means that the melon patch requires more care than the same acreage of corn, but it yields infinitely more in returns. Favorite varieties of watermelons grown by Anton DeGroot are “DeGroot’s Special,” “DeGroot’s Wonder,” and “Red Heart Shipper.” “Irish Grey” Is another melon of super quality. Melon Day has become an established custom in Madison county and on that day Mr. DeGroot sells all melons for 10 cents each. Each fall he offers a prize of 50 melons to the person who shall guess nearest the number of melons sold at 10 cents each on “Melon Day.” The cash receipts determine the exact number disposed of.  And the handling of the cash on “Melon Day” is no small problem… Toward the end of each season DeGroot’s second finger on his right hand becomes so sore and inflamed from thumping melons to determine their ripeness that he can hardly touch it. Making melons pay on impoverished soil by establishing a market in his own dooryard and thus eliminating transportation costs to scattered markets has brought success to Anton DeGroot and led to his being called “Nebraska’s Melon Man.”

Today, the 4th generation of DeGroots still runs DeGroot Orchards, growing watermelons (and over 22 varieties of apples) in the “once worthless”sandy soil north of Madison.

The 1927 Lincoln Star story noted that Anton DeGroot loaded up his melons into the back of a Ford and marketed them to nearby towns, paying off the loan on his car in 2 years.  Likely he came to Clarkson on his sales trips. In my time, the “Melon Man” was Weldon “Butch” Rakowsky.  Butch also had a melon farm in the area between Madison and Norfolk, and he came to Clarkson once or twice a week with a pickup truck full of watermelons and muskmelons.  He would hang around by the pickup, chatting it up with the townsfolk, until he had emptied the truck or the stores closed with the 6 o’clock siren.  This continued for many years (73, to be exact) – I remember my father-in-law coming home from the Gambles store with an armful or two of watermelons and muskmelons for a week’s worth of desserts.

Here’s an interesting story about Weldon Rakowsky that appeared in the Norfolk Daily News at the time of his retirement in 2006:

Weldon and Marian Rakowsky 2008

After 73 years of selling melons, it’s time to retire

By Tom Behmer | Posted September 16, 2006 

Madison – Call it the end of an era.

For the past 73 years, Weldon “Butch” Rakowsky of rural Madison has been selling watermelons in the Norfolk area.

When the current season comes to an end, Rakowsky will hang up his hat.

“My neighbor said, ‘Butch, you’ll never quit selling melons. It’s in your blood. They’ll have to drag you out of the watermelon patch,’ ” Rakowsky said.  Turns out, his neighbor was wrong.

Growing up about nine miles southeast of Norfolk, Rakowsky began raising melons with his father. Although his father never sold the melons, Rakowsky decided to begin raising and selling his own when he was 17 years old.

“I started here with a Model T Ford Coupe,” said Rakowsky, who now sells the melons out of the back of his Chevrolet pickup.

What began as a way to help support his family turned into a habit that Rakowsky couldn’t kick.

Weldon and Marian Rakowsky 1938

“A lot of years ago I had a family of five children, and I needed extra income,” he said after selling three $4 melons to a woman in front of True Value Hardware in Clarkson.

“It kind of grew on me,” he added, noting that the same melons he sold once would have gone for 20-25 cents each.

It grew on him to the point that he couldn’t miss a season of selling melons.

Although he can’t recall the exact year – perhaps 73 years of selling melons forge themselves into one bank of memories – there was a year when his son had to fill in because Rakowsky had fallen ill.

Even then, though, the elder Rakowsky spent a couple of days of his summer doing what he loved.

Although his son has begun helping him a little more with that manual labor, Rakowsky still claims to do most of the work. And, while insect and weed control have evolved over the years, one thing about maintaining melons has remained constant.

“You just have to continuously hoe, hoe, hoe,” Rakowsky said. “If you get rain, you have to hoe again.”

Over the years, he’s traveled throughout Northeast Nebraska – from Decatur to St. Edward – selling his melons.

“Wherever somebody wasn’t selling,” he said.

At one point in the early 1950s, Rakowsky even took out an ad in the newspaper to advertise watermelons for a dime with one condition – customers had to pick the melons themselves. That ad prompted customers to purchase 900 melons, netting Rakosky $90.

“Wow,” he said retrospectively.

As time has gone on, Rakowsky has cut back on how much he sells and how far he travels for a variety of reasons.

“The melons are getting heavier every year,” he said with a smile.

Aside from his physical limitations, Rakowsky says that another reason he has cut back is that the small farmer isn’t as abundant as he used to be, meaning that most people go to the store to purchase their melons.

But bigger grocery stores, he said, haven’t changed his selling methods at all – mainly for one reason.

“I haven’t seen any Norfolk melons in the stores,” he said. “They’re Texas melons now.”

Currently, Rakowsky only sells his melons one day a week in three area communities – Albion, Clarkson and Humphrey.

Considering his age, though, he hasn’t slowed down much.

Despite the years Rakowsky has spent in the fields – he also farms 160 acres of soybeans and corn – he says he doesn’t feel 90 years old. Judging by the reaction that some of his customers give him, he doesn’t look his age, either.

“I had one lady tell me, ‘You haven’t sold watermelons for 73 years. You’re not even that old,” he said.

In the late 1940s, shortly after Rakowsky started selling melons, he’d often bring Garold Lichtenberg, then a neighbor, with him. Lichtenberg, who is seven years younger than Rakowsky, looked up to his melon mentor at the time.

Today, Lichtenberg still has nothing but respect for Rakowsky, who will turn 91 on Halloween.

“He is really dedicated to his work,” Lichtenberg said. “He’s just a good, honest, old fella.”

As the years have gone by, Rakowsky has gotten to know many of his customers. Those customers have come to know Rakowsky as well.

In fact, the comment, “Bet you’ve sold melons longer than anyone in the world,” has become quite common from Rakowsky’s customers.

“I could have raised and sold melons longer than anyone in the world,” he said.

Next summer, aside from growing a few melons for his children and grandchildren, Rakowsky is not sure what he’ll do when watermelon season rolls around.

Weldon Rakowsky 2012

“I told my doctor that I was going to quit farming. He said, ‘What are you going to do, look at four walls?” said Rakowsky, who has been married for “only” 68 years.  After 73 years selling melons, he’s earned it.


Weldon “Butch” Rakowsky celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary with his wife Marian in 2008.  The Melon Man died on November 29, 2012 at the age of 97.


A final memory.  One autumn evening in the 1960s the Clarkson Commercial Club threw a Watermelon Feed for the community.  They parked in a huge truckload of watermelons on Main Street about where the library is located, and served free slices of watermelon to all comers.  When it was all over they turned off the lights for the night but left the truck on the street, still with plenty of uneaten melons.  Not satisfied with our free slices, my cousin and I sneaked back and each grabbed a melon, darted into the narrow space between two buildings, sat down, and finished them off.  It was a mixed blessing to be sure – the joy of eating an entire watermelon was tempered later that night by the uncounted times I had to wake up out of a sound sleep and trudge to the bathroom to get rid of it.



Posted in 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s | 1 Comment

The Answers to “Test Your Knowledge of Clarkson and Our Czech Heritage”

The last time we spoke I had posted some close-up photos of longstanding items in Our Town.  Things that even the oldest of us have walked or driven by many times over the years, seeing them but not seeing them. These sorts of contests are always annoying – the items look somehow familiar, but are hard to identify when they are taken out of context.

So here they are again, this time in context:

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These two pictures were taken in Memorial Park.  The first is the brown granite pyramid that was dedicated in 1926 to honor those who served and died in the First World War – The War to End All Wars, as it was called.  Sadly, more plaques have since been added to honor those who served and died in all the subsequent wars.  The second picture is one of the globes that light the flagpole at the entrance to the park.

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Next is a picture of the decorative molding on the facade of a building on the west side of Main Street that once housed the Clarkson Bank.  Now it is the Clarkson Dental Office.

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On the east side of Main Street is the remnants of a gear that was used to raise and lower the awning on the Slama Saloon/Reznicek’s Self Service Grocery Store.  The building was constructed by Jos. Slama, Randy Vavrina’s great grandfather.  Most recently, it was the   Country Floral Shop.


Moving to the north end of town, we come to the City Hall, erected in 1903.  This building hosted many, many functions over the years – blood drives, class reunions, Mother-Daughter and Father-Son Banquets.  I think it was used as a basketball court and library. My most enduring memory of City Hall was one beautiful Sunday morning in the early 1960s when our family joined a long line of people stretching out into the street to receive the Sabin oral polio vaccine.  Few people turned down the chance to be immunized against that dread, mysterious disease, so the wait that morning was long.  And at the front of the line, we were handed a little paper nut cup with a sugar cube inside that had been treated with a drop or two of the vaccine.  It was a much more pleasant way to take our medicine than the injections associated with the earlier Salk vaccine.

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Finally, moving northwest out of town, we come to the old gate for the Clarkson Cemetery. It is good shape, nicely painted in silver with black letters that say Česko-Slov hřbitov. (Czechoslovak Cemetery).  At some point, this ornate gate was replaced by the brick structures at the entrance.

Around Clarkson_20140603_42Around Clarkson_20140603_44Congratulations to this week’s winner, Randy Vavrina!  I must say that you are as knowledgeable about the fine points of our town as someone who has lived there all his life.

Nobody took a shot at identifying the faces of famous Czechs that are painted on the walls of the Sykora Bakery in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  So I will.

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From Left to Right:  Jan Žižka (the one-eyed general who became famous during the Hussite Wars in the early 15th Century.  He is considered one of seven military commanders in history who never lost a battle – the list includes Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan)

Božena Němcová, a 19th Century writer who was an active Czech Nationalist.  Her best known novel, Babička (Grandmother; 1855), is a beautiful story about childhood in the Bohemian countryside.  I can’t recommend it highly enough – long out of print in English, you may be able to find it in your library.

The fellow in the middle might be St. John Nepomucene (Jan Nepomuk), the martyr (and patron saint of the Catholic Church in nearby Howells). To the right of him is Antonín Dvořák, perhaps the greatest Czech composer and certainly among the greatest classical music composers of all time (he and his family lived in Spillville, Iowa in the summer of 1893).  And the bearded gentleman on the far right is….?

In the picture below are portraits of two men.  I think the one on the left is Jan Hus, the Czech priest and scholar who was burned at the stake in 1415 for his religious reforms. And the larger picture is the actor (Rudolf Hrusínský) who played the title role in the movie The Good Soldier Švejk.  Based on a world-famous satirical novel by Jaroslav Hašek, the character Josef Švejk is a Czech conscript in the Austrian Army who is called up to fight in WWI.  He appears to be a mixture of Sgt. Bilko and Gomer Pyle – you can never quite figure out if he is sly or an idiot.  But in any event he is a constant source of frustration to the authorities and does little to promote the war effort. Like Babička, this book should be required reading for anyone interested in our Czech heritage.

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Posted in The 21st Century | 5 Comments