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 a flock 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” (Cheers!). 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”)
Sounds 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 ). 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 . A club was formed in Omaha in 1877. By 1908 there were 15 clubs in Nebraska, more than in any other state . 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 . 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 .
The other, larger Sokol Gymnastic Society, the Telocvicna Jednota Sokol, counted 1,111 members in Nebraska in 1929 . 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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/).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
 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.
 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