A Tale of Two Villages

In the far western part of Germany, west of the Rhine River and not far from the border with Belgium and Luxembourg, lies the little village of Gimmigen, Germany.  Although it is a very old village (it traces its history back to the year 853), it was never very large – its present population numbers around 750.

Gimm environs_20131003_08
Gimmigen is nestled in a beautiful valley, surrounded by low, tree-covered mountains and vine-covered hills.  It is near the Moselle River valley, which is world famous for its white wines, and nearer still to Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, a spa town famous for its mineral springs.  In the lowlands are cultivated pastures and field crops – most of the inhabitants in times past were involved in agriculture or viniculture.

Old Gimmigen 1

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Old Gimmigen 2

In 1870, a family that had lived for many generations in the village left Germany for America, never to return.  Peter Josef Becker emigrated from Gimmigen to the United States with his wife Anna Maria Witsch Becker and their 5 children.  They lived for a short time in the state of Wisconsin, and then moved to a farm near Clarkson, Nebraska.  It appears that the two branches of the family, in Germany and in Nebraska, lost track of each other until one of their members, Valdene Brabec, began her genealogical investigations a century later.

The family had deep roots in Gimmigen; Peter Becker’s family can be traced back to 1675, and his wife Anna Maria Witsch’s family back to an ancestor who died in 1685.   Why did they pack up and leave in 1870, having both been part of this tight-knit community for at least 200 years?  The most likely reason is the one usually given by immigrants to the U.S. – economic opportunity.  As elsewhere in Europe, there was too little farmland in Germany after being subdivided among large families, and the promise of hundreds of acres of cheap, fertile land in the American Midwest was a powerful lure.  But it is worth noting that this was an unsettling time politically in this part of the world.  The numerous small German states were being united into an Empire under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and he was beating the war drums, preparing to go to war with France.  (The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 didn’t last very long – France was defeated in less than a year – but Peter and Anna Becker might have dreaded the thought of their four young sons being conscripted into a Prussian army that had fought one war after another for nearly a decade).  Also in 1870, Bismarck launched the Kulturkampf, an effort to strengthen the new German state by breaking the power of the Roman Catholic Church.  Bishops and priests were imprisoned, and Catholics were persecuted and their activities restricted.  The promise of Freedom of Religion in the United States might have appealed to the pious Beckers.

In Nebraska, the Becker immigrants encountered a very different environment from the lush, green Moselle Valley.  The terrain was very different from Gimmigen – the hills are low and there were few trees – only endless miles of tall prairie grasses.  The climate was harsh – precipitation was lower and more variable in Nebraska, often coming in the form of winter blizzards.  The summers were hotter and the winters colder than in Western Europe.  But the Nebraska soil was very rich and the agricultural crops were good.


Upon arriving in Nebraska, the Beckers established a farm within a mile of the small Holy Trinity Catholic Church, south of Clarkson.  This picture shows the original wooden church that was built in 1878, and behind it the brick church that replaced it in 1928.

Heun Churches

This church is also called Heun Church, because the area is named after a German, William Heun.  William Heun was the Burgermeister of Lahr in the early 1860s, and immigrated to this area in 1866 with his wife and 11 children.  Heun’s wife and 6 of their children died during the voyage.  William Heun and his 5 surviving sons lived in West Point, Wisconsin and later moved to Nebraska.  He was a postmaster, a farmer, and operated a general store near the church.  William Heun donated 5 acres of land for construction of the Holy Trinity Church.

The pioneer farmers also bought land for a cemetery at the Heun Church in 1871, well before the church was constructed.  Burying their dead in consecrated ground was a high priority for the early settlers, who previously used private plots on their own farmsteads.

Heun Cemetery_20131103_18


Heun Cemetery_20131103_02

This is the gate to the Holy Trinity (Heun) Church Cemetery:

Heun Cemetery_20131103_04Heun Cemetery_20131103_05

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Both Peter Josef Becker and Anna Maria Becker died in 1875; they were among the first people to be buried in the Heun Cemetery.  Here are some pictures of their gravestone.

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Standing by the gravestone are Valdene Marie Roether Brabec and her daughter Phyllis Marie Brabec Čada, descendants of the pioneering Becker family.

Heun Cemetery_20131103_11

Heun Cemetery_20131103_26

Peter and Anna Becker’s oldest child was Christina Mary Becker.  She was born in 1849 and was 21 years old when she came with her family to the New World.  She married another German, John Roether in 1876.  (John Roether helped haul lumber for the construction of the first, wooden church at Heun).  John and Christina Roether also farmed near the Heun Church until they moved to Clarkson in 1886.  John Roether was the first mayor of Clarkson, and he operated the Roether & Becker saloon/billiard hall/ dance hall.  John Roether died in 1907.   Christina Becker Roether lived in Clarkson until 1930.  At age 81, she slipped and fell down the steps of a potato cellar, and died from her injuries a few days later.


CMBR obit


John and Christina Becker Roether are also buried at the Heun Cemetery.  Here are some pictures of their gravestones.

Heun Cemetery_20131103_19

Heun Cemetery_20131103_30

To continue the family tree – one of the sons of John and Christina Roether, also named John Roether, married Mary Mastny.  They had two children – Allan Roether and Valdene Roether Brabec.  Valdene and her husband Marcel Brabec are the parents of my wife Phyllis.  Which is how I got interested in the family…

Fast forward a century or so to the Year of Our Lord 2013.  Phyllis and I were vacationing in Europe, following the course of the Rhine River from Switzerland down to Amsterdam.  I knew that we would be driving near the village of Gimmigen, so I had brought along photocopies of some of the family records that Valdene Brabec had compiled over many years, as wells as an old photo from the 1970s of the Becker home in Gimmigen.  We decided to spend the day looking around town and inquiring about the family, perhaps even find out if the Becker house was still standing.

We drove into the little village of Gimmigen and up and down its narrow, winding streets.  It seemed unusually quiet even for a small town – we later learned that it was the Day of German Unity, a national holiday that celebrates the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990.  So people were sleeping late or had already left town to spend their holiday elsewhere.

Gimm environs_20131003_12

Not seeing anyone, we drove around town and the surrounding countryside, a pastoral setting with farms in the valley and tree-covered hills.  Eventually we parked the car and began to walk toward the main street that runs through town.  At that point, a family van began backing out of its driveway, and as we waited for it to back out onto the street, one of the family asked if they could help us.  Phyllis produced Valdene’s genealogical material and explained to them (in English) why we were in town – to see where her ancestors, the Becker and Witsch families, had lived.  The head of the family (Robert Fell) looked at the papers and exclaimed that he also was a descendent of the Witsch family!  (Happily, Robert speaks English pretty well, and his daughter Caroline speaks very well, which made up for our inability to speak German).

Robt Feller Fam_20131003_01

The Fell Family had been headed out of town to spend the holiday in Cologne, and it was serendipity that put them in the path of two confused American tourists.  They graciously delayed their vacation in order to show us some of the sights – the little city park that was named after one of Robert’s relatives (and had been submerged in a flash flood that swept through town earlier in the year), the little village chapel where our common ancestors worshipped, and… both the original Becker and Witsch family houses, still standing across the street from each other!  The Becker house had been substantially remodeled, but the Witsch House (still in the family, but presently unoccupied) still had the look of a 19th Century German home.

Becker Haus_20131003_13 Witsch Haus_20131003_17

Becker House                                                                    Witsch House

Less than 100 feet up the hill from the two ancestral houses is a little Catholic chapel, dedicated to St. Cosmas, St. Damian, and St. Katharina.  It has been in that spot since the middle of the 14th Century, and was restored in 1820.  There is no doubt Phyllis’ ancestors prayed there.  But it is little used now, and the doors were locked on the day we visited Gimmigen.

Kapelle Gimm_20131003_01

A more substantial church was just a few miles up the road, in the village of Kirchdaun.  This church, dedicated to St. Lambertus, dates back to at least the year 1131.  It is the parish church for Catholics in the area, the church where most of the Beckers and Witschs were baptized, married, and buried.  The beautiful sanctuary was constructed in 1908, so the Becker emigrants would not have seen it.

St Lambertus_20131003_27

However, Phyllis was drawn to a small side chapel/baptistry off the back of the church.  It was a very peaceful, prayerful room with beautiful statues and paintings that were clearly older than the rest of the church.  We found out later, when I translated a plaque, that this side chapel was the only part of the original church that remains, dating back many hundreds of years.  So it is likely that many of her ancestors worshiped and received the sacraments in this space.

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St Lambertus_20131003_09St Lambertus_20131003_10

The last bit of amazing luck occurred when we took a stroll through the lovely graveyard next to St. Lambertus.  We had been reminded that in many parts of Europe people only “rent” graves for a time – after several decades the bodies are exhumed in order to make room for the newcomers.  So we knew we would not find the graves of Phyllis’ ancestors in this small cemetery.  However, we noticed two young women tending to the grave of their father, who had passed away in recent years.  The name on the gravestone was Witsch, so once again we waved Valdene’s family records in front of them, and once again found two distant cousins for Phyllis.

St Lambertus_20131003_21

Since our journey we have added to information about our ancestors through the miracle of the Internet.  Through our e-mail exchanges with the Fell family we’ve learned about life in their little village of Gimmigen, and have gotten more genealogical information (for example, Robert Fell has traced one branch of Phyllis’ family back to a Johann Witsch, who died in 1685).   There are a lot of parallels between our two villages, separated by an ocean.  For example, they suffered a serious flood in the Spring of 2013 when a little creek that runs through town swelled out of its banks, flooding the main street and damaging a lot of homes (I was reminded of Clarkson’s Maple Creek Flood of 1944).  Excellent roads and fast cars and trains have enabled them to travel to large cities for their jobs, purchases, and entertainment, and as a result the local businesses have suffered.  Gimmigen struggles to keep a variety of traditions and annual festivities alive in the face of satellite television and the bright lights of nearby cities.  Like Clarkson, they have endured the losses of their young men in 20th Century wars – the war memorial outside the chapel in Gimmigen lists the names of several Witschs and Beckers who were killed in WWI, and Robert Fell’s grandfather, newly married and with a baby on the way, was sent to fight in Russia in 1943 and was never heard from again.  Like the Village of Clarkson, the Village of Gimmigen has had its ups and downs.  But those who stayed are happy with its tranquility and sense of community.

Gimm environs_20131003_38

Posted in 1890s, The 21st Century | 7 Comments

The Sport of Kings

No, I’m not talking about horse racing.  I’m referring, of course, to ALL STAR WRESTLING!

I was down in The Vault the other day, and I came across this news item:

“On July 3, 1956, the Clarkson Lions Club sponsored Big Time Wrestling in the Clarkson Opera House.  Five hundred people saw such famous wrestlers as Hans Schmidt, Bill Melby, Emil Dusek, Ed Huisman, Jack Pesek, and Joe Dusek put on a full evening of fine entertainment.”

Indeed, these were big names in the local Omaha/Upper Midwest wrestling scene, and some had international reputations.  It was a chance to see in the flesh the wrestlers that we watched on KMTV Channel 3 (on Sundays?) and later on KETV Channel 7 every Monday night.

Hans Schmidt

Hans Schmidt (The Teuton Terror) was an early example of a “heel,” the professional wrestling term for a villainous character.  Although he was actually a French-Canadian from Quebec (real name Guy Larose), he looked like a stereotypic German and agreed to play that role, bogus accent and all.  Schmidt effectively tapped into anti-German sentiment in the U.S. soon after WWII with interviews like this:


Bill Melby

Before he became a wrestler, Bill Melby (Mr. America) was a weight lifter and body builder. He was named Mr. Pacific Coast in 1948 and finished third in a Mr. America contest.  The internet is full of cheesecake photos of him in his body-building poses.

Ernie and Emil DusekJoe Dusek

At the other end of the “Adonis” scale from Bill Melby were the Dusek brothers. Tough Bohunks, mean and ugly.  Joe and Emil Dusek were part of a notorious Omaha professional wrestling family, which also included brothers Ernie and Rudy.  The family preferred to go by the nickname The Dusek Riot Squad, but others dubbed them The Dirty Duseks.  Both Joe and Emil wrestled in the New York area from 1934-1940, and throughout the East afterwards. Joe was a Central States Heavyweight Champion, and Emil and Ernie were a very successful tag team.  They all eventually came back to their hometown of Omaha.

Jack Pesek

Jack Pesek was born in 1924 in Ravenna, NE.  His wrestling career extended from 1952 to 1976, although it was on and off; he seems to have had only 77 matches total (and 26 wins) in his career.  He was perhaps more successful as a starting end and punter for the University of Nebraska football team (1946-47) who then signed with the Los Angeles Rams. In 1967, Jack used his UNL degree in education to land a job teaching social science at Bennett High School.  [Jack was the son of John Pesek (The Nebraska Tiger), a famous local wrestler who fought at the highest levels of the sport for 20 years without a loss.  John’s matches with Dodge’s legendary Joe Stecher have become ring classics.]

I wonder how the wrestling matches were conducted in the Opera House.  Presumably, they moved the rows of wooden folding chairs upstairs and set up a ring in the middle of the floor.   Did the fight promoters bring the ring and all the other equipment?  Where did the wrestlers get dressed for their matches and clean up afterward?

It was great fun to watch these fellows on the television, or their occasional appearances at county fairs and other special events.  I remember my father-in-law chuckling over the theatrics these wrestlers would engage in to promote their matches.  On the Monday night television show, the star wrestler would give an interview about how he was going to wrestle his mortal enemy “So and So” at the Colfax County Fair in Leigh, Nebraska this coming Friday night.  He would work himself into a froth, going on and on and on about how much he hated his opponent’s guts, how he was going to kill him… “KILL HIM!!!”  Come the night of the match, the two wrestlers would drive over together from Omaha in the same car and get dressed in the same trailer.  To the delight of the ticket-holding fairgoers, they would pummel each other in the ring for a few rounds.  Then, famished from their labors, they would go out for a steak together in a local café and drive back to Omaha.

Jack Pesek was the only one of these wrestlers that I’ve seen live, and that was nearly 20 years after the exhibition in Clarkson.  His father, John Pesek, was Grand Marshall in the parade at a celebration in Dwight, Nebraska on July 20, 1975.  In the picture below, Jack Pesek is standing next to his father, in the shade of a building, trying to beat the heat of a July afternoon.

Dwight 7-20-75 John and Jack Pesek a

I can’t leave the topic of Omaha-area wrestling without mentioned the great Verne Gagne.  Although Verne Gagne didn’t appear on the card mentioned at the beginning of this post, he was no stranger to Clarkson.  Here is a picture of Verne in the Opera House, taken by a fan in 1954.

Verne Gagne 1954a

And on September 23, 1956 (among many other dates) he appeared on KMTV Channel 3’s Wrestling Show.  In this interesting snapshot, Verne Gagne is applying his well-known Sleeper Hold to his unfortunate opponent.

Verne Gagne sleeper hold KMTV 9-23-56

What is interesting about the photo is that the audience has shifted their attention from Verne to the left side of the arena, where a dark-haired, dark-clothed figure is stealthily entering the ring.  Who is it?  Could it be Mitsu Arakawa, the inscrutable Japanese bad guy who was one of the most hated foreign heels of all time?  Who was known for such illegal ring tactics as (a) the dreaded “stomach claw” hold, (b) judo chops to the throat, or (c) rubbing ceremonial salt in the eyes of his opponents?  But Verne doesn’t see him coming!  Look behind you, Verne!!!!  He doesn’t hear you!  Everyone yell louder!!!  Grab your bottle of Gera-Speed!!!

ADDENDUM:  Dale Gentzler writes:

I was involved with some of the wrestling matches in Clarkson, Glenn, and you were right in assuming that the ring was set up on the main floor of the Opera House. Some chairs were set up there, and also in the balcony. My memory is fuzzy but I do remember a particular match, featuring “Paul Bunyan”, probably Hans Schmidt, a really, really tall guy who arrived, already in costume (tight shorts). He rode in the back seat of a car with the front passenger seat removed, to make room for his knees..The action in the ring was literally non-existent at first, and was colorfully described, blow-by-blow, by Bob Odvarka, the announcer. That is, until Paul Bunyan climbed out of the ring and threatened Bob’s life. Of course, the (anonymous) well-known rural Clarkson lady who had gained notoriety for her antics on the TV matches in Omaha, was there, too.

That’s what I call entertainment, Dale!  I remember watching several of pro wrestling’s giants – Haystacks Calhoun, King Kong Bundy, and Andre the Giant.  But until you mentioned it, I had never heard of Paul Bunyan.  The wrestler you saw in Clarkson was likely Max “Paul Bunyan” Palmer, who played professional basketball, appeared in a few B movies and 1950’s television shows, and wrestled for a few years in the mid-1950s.  Billed at heights ranging from 7′ 6″to 8′ 2″ tall, he was perhaps the tallest professional wrestler in history.  After his brief career was over, he became an evangelical preacher, calling himself “Goliath for Christ.”  Thanks for the memories!

From Robert Prazak:

Hello again, the highlight of my Saturday night was getting to go in the tavern and watch all star wrestling from Marigold Gardens in Chicago. Evidently the taverns were one of the first ones to have television in Clarkson. Omaha also had live wrestling a little later, and as Dale Gentzler alluded, the (anonymous) Clarkson lady was a great part of the show. I had never decided if the wrestling promoters paid her to add a little excitement to the show or if she was a simply just a super zealous wrestling fan.

Speaking of Verne Gagne as you did, one of my friends from Minnesota who winters down here in Bella Vista had some interesting stories about him. Verne was a close friend of their family and enjoyed going to various school wrestling meets. My friend’s grandson was becoming a very good grade school wrestler, and he and the family invited Verne to come and watch his next match, which Verne did. As luck would have it he lost the match and being about 10 he was heartbroken, and the tears were flowing. Verne called him to the stands and put his arm around him and asked him “did you try as hard as you could and do the best job you could”, the lad acknowledged positively and Verne said, “than you have nothing to be ashamed of and that’s all anyone can ask.”

Verne was at the time in early stages of Alzheimers disease, and within a year it had completely overcome him and he was in the nursing home. One day, not knowing what he was doing, he got in a fight with another patient and the other patient died as a result. A sad ending to an illustrious career.

Posted in 1950s, 1960s, 1970s | 4 Comments

The Birth of the Beseda

Detroit Beseda 6-10-1939

It’s been a while since I last wrote about Clarkson’s Czech Dancers, and in particular the Beseda dances that were performed by both adults and children.  In my final (?) posting on this topic, I thought it would be interesting to say a few words about the origin of the Beseda dance form because it is much more than a complicated collection of dance steps.

The 19th Century has been called the Century of Nationalism.  During the 1800s, enlightened by The Enlightenment, and encouraged by the American and French Revolutions, the peoples of Europe began to think seriously about throwing out their kings and emperors in favor of democratically elected parliaments with real power.  In many parts of Europe these democratic movements were accompanied by efforts to break up and rearrange old empires into new nations whose boundaries were based on ethnic and cultural similarities, rather than on political wheeling and dealing.

For the Czechs, nationalism (or the National Revival as they called it) meant asserting their Slavic identity and culture. For hundreds of years the Czechs and Slovaks had been unwilling members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and their art, music, and even language had been suppressed by the Imperial Government in Vienna.  German was the only language taught in the schools and spoken in government offices and polite society; there was a real danger of the Czech language disappearing entirely. Many Czechs dreamed of an independent state based on their Slavic language and cultural affinities, so when the spirit of nationalism took off in Europe, the Czechs (Bohemians and Moravians) responded in a variety of ways.  For example, the Sokol movement (Sokol is the Czech word for “falcon”) was founded by a Czech nationalist in 1862.  On the surface the Sokols were a youth sports and gymnastics organization, but there was considerable emphasis on moral and intellectual development and Slavic pride as well.  For many years the Hapsburgs in Vienna kept a close watch on the Sokols because of the very real concern that the Czechs were using it to build a strong, well-trained and motivated national army.

In the arts, the Czechs sought to promote the richness and value of their folk culture in order to demonstrate that, rather than being ignorant serfs and peasants, the Czechs had as rich a culture as anyone in Europe and deserved their own place among the Family of Nations.  For example, in 1855 Božena Němcová wrote her marvelous and still widely read novel Babicka (Grandmother), which celebrated the wisdom and goodness of a simple rural peasant woman.  In music, the two best-known Czech composers of the era, Bedřich Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, incorporated folk melodies into many of their classical compositions.  The essayist, newspaper columnist, and poet Jan Neruda tirelessly promoted Czech patriotism and statehood.  Not only was he a prolific writer and an influential intellectual – he was a pretty good dancer.

As the story goes, Jan Neruda disliked watching only German dances, while Czech folk dances seemed too rough to him.  So he, his dance teacher Karel Link and a musician Ferdinand Heller created the Česká beseda; Link choreographed the steps to Heller’s music arrangements.  The first performance in Prague featured 24 pairs of dancers.  The precise birthday of the Česká beseda is in dispute, but November 11, 1863 is the most commonly accepted date.  What is known is for certain is that the dance caught on like wildfire – within a few weeks, the Česká beseda was danced by as many as 140 couples at the Žofín Palace in Prague, and after a few months the whole of Bohemia knew it.

The Česká beseda has the form of a quadrille – 4 pairs of dancers facing each other in a rectangular formation.  The quadrille was an intricate dance routine that was very popular in High Society of France and England at the time.  The Česká beseda has 4 parts, each part featuring 4 dances:

I. Sousedská, Furiant, Polka, Řezanka

II. Kominík, Furiant, Obkročák, Polka

III. Rejdovák, Furiant, Hulán, Kalamajka

IV. Sousedská, Furiant, Kuželka, Strašák

The original Česká beseda was not danced to the music of a brass band, in folk costumes, as we know it today.  Rather, the dancers were dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns, and whirled around the ballroom to the tunes of an orchestra.  This was in keeping with the notion that Czech culture, while firmly rooted in rich folk traditions, was as high-brow as anything you might see in the fashionable salons of Paris.

After its first performance, the Česká beseda spread throughout the Old Country and was regionally modified (there is a well-known Moravian beseda, for example).  Czech immigrants to the U.S. further modified it to fit their liking and circumstances, so that the dance is performed differently in Texas, Cedar Rapids, and Clarkson.  The common element to all the besedas are these: they are all composed of a series of short dances, done to songs with varying meters (2/4 and 3/4 time) and tempos (moderate to very lively), all woven into one uninterrupted dance.

In summary, the Česká beseda was born in 1863 and used not only as a form of popular entertainment but also as an expression of Czech national pride.  Jump forward 100 years, to 1963, and we see the Beseda reappear in Clarkson for the first Czech Days Festival, once more as an instrument of cultural revival and Czech pride.


Enough with the lecture.  Here are more pictures of the Clarkson Beseda Dancers and Clarkson Czech Dancers over the years.

Cooperative Consumer 1966 1 IMG_0001 IMG_0004a IMG_0005b IMG_0007 IMG_0008 IMG_0009 IMG_0011 Oakland NE 6-3-1991 1b Oakland NE 6-3-1991 2a Wilber Festival 1964

Posted in 1890s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, Celebrations | 4 Comments

Sing to me, Grandma

Clarkson has always been blessed with a surplus of grandmothers.  In addition to the women who lived all their lives in town and grew old there, there was a reliable influx of retired farmers and farm wives.  In many cases these retirees turned their farms over to their son(s) and left the hard physical labor behind for the relative ease of town life.  In retirement, the men drove back to the farm to help their children or walked down to the tavern to smoke and nurse a beer or two while they played cards with their cronies.  And the women would continue to do the things that they had done on the farm – cooking, cleaning, laundry, tending to large flower beds and vegetable gardens, and, in many cases, raising laying hens in a backyard chicken coop.  They continued to can fruits and vegetables and bake the breads and sweet pastries that the Czechs love.

50s60s057As a little boy, I remember legions of grandmothers (Babičky) in town, church, weddings and funerals, on weekdays dressed in simple cotton dresses (“wash dresses,” my Mother called them).  These dear women were old school – they would not have been caught dead in track suits or gym shoes, just back from a Tai Chi or cardio class.  More likely, they were slow moving and arthritic, getting around with orthopedic leather shoes and canes or walkers.  And they were the kindest, sweetest people you could meet.  In a 1950s World in which adults, not children, were boss, the grandmothers always had time for a kind word and a cookie for a visiting grandchild. The babičky in town would walk over to pay each other visits, or pick up the telephone to dial up their distant friends and relatives.  And a few times every summer, they could look forward to seeing each other at family reunions held at city parks. 


The Babičky would help busy mothers care for their children and were reliable, economical babysitters for parents who wanted to slip away to a dance.  Such times were a golden opportunity for the grandmas to pass on old stories of days gone by, funny or instructive stories about our parents and aunts and uncles, and Czech songs and poems.  I can still clearly remember many of the stories that my Grandma told me when she was rocking me to sleep, and even have some vague recollections of the Czech songs that she sang, even though then, as now, I had no idea what the words meant.

Phyllis and I were discussing old Czech nursery songs and rhymes that our grandmothers used to sing to us when we were little.  I remember my Grandma Antonia setting me on her lap and singing a little song that started out “Houpy, Houpy…”  She would sing it and rock me to sleep.  It turns out my brother Ron had gotten the same “special” treatment from Grandma, and he also vaguely remembered a song that began “Hou, hou, kravy do.”  Phyllis remembers those songs, and also others which involved her grandma counting Phyllis’ little fingers, drawing circles on the palm of her hand, and having imaginary mice running up her little arm.  None of us remembered the words beyond the first lines.

If three people remember something, it MUST be true, no?  So I did a little digging and found the words for the two Czech nursery rhymes.

Houpy, Houpy

Houpy, houpy,

kočka snědla kroupy,

kocour hrách na kamnách,

koťata se hněvala, že jim taky nedala.

Houpy, houpy, houpy, byly všecky hloupý.

Houpy, Houpy (English translation)

Rocking, rocking,

the cat ate the barley

the tomcat ate the peas on the stove

kittens were angry that they didn’t get any

rocking, rocking,

they were all silly.

For the musically inclined, here is the simple tune:01houpy

Then there’s Hou, hou, krávy dou.  I assume that the Czech words below are accurate, but I was not able to find an authoritative translation to English online, and the Google Translate software yields a translation that is a bit surrealistic.  (But not necessarily wrong, I suppose).

Hou, Hou, Krávy Dou

Hou, hou, krávy dou,
nesou mlíko pod vodou,
nesou mlíka půl žejdlíka.

A ta naše jalovička
U božího kostelíčka.
Kostelíček boří, stodola se boří.
Skoč, panenko, do vody,
pro ty černé jahody.

Nač bych já tam skákala,
sukýnky si máchala,
kde bych si je sušila?

U pastýře v koutku,
na zeleném proutku.
Ten proutek se otočí,
korbel piva natočí.

Pijte, pijte, páni,
nerozbijte džbány.
Pijte, pijte, paničky,
nerozbijte skleničky.

Hou, Hou, Krávy Dou (English translation)

Ho, ho, the cows go
carrying milk to the water below
carrying a half-pint of milk.

And that heifer of ours
is at our lord’s church.
The church is aflame, the barn is crumbling.
Leap into the water, my lassie,
for those black strawberries

Why should I jump there
and soak my skirts?
Where would I dry them?

By the herdsman in the corner
upon a green sprig.
This sprig will turn around
and will draw a tankard of beer.

Drink, drink up, gentlemen,
don’t break my jugs.
Drink, drink up, ladies,
don’t break my jiggers.


Here is the little finger play game that invariably brought squeals of delight from little children sitting on Babička’s lap:

Vařila myšička kašičku

Finger Play(Czech)

Vařila myšička kašičku
na zeleném rendlíčku,
tomu dala,
tomu taky,
tomu málo,
tomu víc,
a na toho maličkého
nezůstalo vůbec nic!
A ten maličký utíkal
do komůrečky
na homolečky
a tam se napapal.


Mother Mouse Cooked Porridge

 Finger Play (English)

Mother mouse cooked porridge
In a little green pan;
She gave porridge to this baby mouse,
To this baby mouse,
To this baby mouse
And to this baby mouse,
But there was no porridge left
For this smallest baby mouse!
So he ran and ran and ran
To the pantry,
Found some sugar cones,
And ate as much as he could.

Actions: Make circles with your index finger on baby’s palm as if stirring porridge, then gently touch baby’s fingers (= baby mice) one by one, starting from the thumb.  When you get to the little finger (= the smallest baby mouse), run your fingers along the baby’s hand up to the underarm (= he ran to the pantry) and tickle him.

Vařila myšička kašičku is still a popular game for small children, and there are a lot of videos of it on YouTube.  This is a good tutorial…


Here are some other cute versions of Vařila myšička kašičku:






And finally, for the truly ambitious here is a collection of Říkanky (nursery rhymes):


They are written in Czech.  If you want to see the English translations, I advise you to forget Google Translate.  Better to find a Czech grandmother to help you with them.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | 3 Comments

The Spirit of Christmas Past

Christmas has changed a lot in Our Town since the area was first settled in the early 1870s.  The Czech and German people arriving in the area had many rich Christmas traditions, but they often had to be put aside for a time as the immigrants struggled to adapt to the New World.  For example, the European carp had long been the centerpiece of the traditional Czech Christmas dinner (and still is in the modern Czech Republic).  However, the carp was not native to America; it was first brought to the U.S. from Germany in 1872, and was not introduced to Nebraska streams and rivers until the 1880s.  So the first Central European immigrants had to content themselves with wild game, preserved fish (barrel-packed salted cod and pickled herring), and, of course, Christmas breads (hoska/vanocka) and kolaches.

Many of the early settlers around the Maple Creek south of Clarkson were Roman Catholics, and their first years were difficult.  In her memoirs, my Mother, Blanche Cada, told an early story that was passed down from her ancestors:

“… several pioneer families had settled on Maple Creek.  They conducted their own religious services until missionary priests arrived [initially by walking from West Point].  On the first Christmas along the Maple Creek, the first settlers of the area gathered in the home of Joseph F. Sindelar for services.  Joseph Krajicek, one of the settlers, had a book of Epistles and Gospels, and a Bohemian Mass book.  Joseph Sindelar read the prayers and sermons from the books and the people sang the songs they knew.  When Mr. Sindelar came to the prayers for the Consecration in the Mass, his son rang a bell, and all the people who were gathered in the sod house broke into uncontrolled tears.”

It is interesting that the first Christmas service that the Catholics observed in their new home was an occasion for sadness and tears.  For Catholics, the Consecration is the central, most sacred part of the Mass, and it is an action that can only be carried out by an ordained priest.  Hence, the ringing of the bell at this part of the service reminded the first settlers of what they had given up when they left Europe – lovely churches, beautiful old traditions, and the comfort of a priest to minister to their needs and to administer the sacraments.

It didn’t take long for these determined pioneers to set spiritual matters right.  A series of circuit-riding priests began stopping in the area every month or so to celebrate Mass in homes and schools.  By 1871 the Bohemian and German settlers had acquired land in the so-called Heun Community for a cemetery, so that they could bury their beloved dead in consecrated ground rather than in private burial plots on the individual farms.  Although they were frustrated initially by droughts and plagues of locusts, and many were still living in sod houses or crude shacks, by 1878 they had managed to construct a 30 ft. X 60 ft. wooden framed church.  Rather than naming it after a Bohemian saint as many might have wished, they named the new church and parish Holy Trinity Church, so that their German and Moravian neighbors would not feel excluded.  The first Christmas Mass at Holy Trinity Church was celebrated in 1878.

Old Heun Church 1 Old Heun Church 2

The new church started out as a simple structure, virtually empty except for a few pews and a plain wooden table for an altar (much like the earliest Christian churches, I suppose).  Over the years, the original Holy Trinity Church at Heun was embellished on the inside, filled with statues and paintings of God and his saints.

Old Heun Church Interior 1

Old Heun Church Interior 2 Old Heun Church Interior 3 Old Heun Church Interior 4

The parish grew and prospered, and in 1928 a new, brick church was completed to replace the well-used, 50-year-old wooden structure.

Two Heun Churches

Some of my happiest childhood memories of Christmas center around Midnight Mass at that little, brick country church.  It was always beautifully decorated with a cluster of evergreen trees and a large manger scene on the right side altar.

Heun Church_20080627_9_86

Midnight Mass was always well attended in those days; often folding chairs had to be set up in the back and in the aisles.  In addition to the usual parishioners, relatives living away would come home for the holidays and join their families for the services.  Young people who were in a serious love relationship often brought their boyfriend/girlfriend to this Mass to introduce them to the Heun community.

In my memory, it was always bitterly cold outside (and of course dark), so we all filed in wearing heavy wool clothing and overshoes.  The church was warm, we were packed into the pews, and because there was no place to put our heavy coats we just kept them on.  It was a struggle for a little boy to stay awake in those close, cozy quarters.

Midnight Mass was preceded by 30 minutes of Christmas carol singing, so we would often arrive soon after 11 PM to be guaranteed a seat near our accustomed pew (about 1/3 of the way back on the left side).  The organist (Eleanor Sobota in my lifetime) would fire up the pipe organ, and the whole congregation would sing those beautiful old religious carols.

Heun Church_20080627_9_76

Heun Church_20080627_9_73

We didn’t need books – everyone knew the words to those classic songs that celebrated the Birth of Jesus.  The congregation sang loudly and with enthusiasm, and when we got to “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” even the plaster angels seemed to join in.

Heun Church P_20080627_16

Heun Church P_20080627_51  Heun Church P_20080627_52

Heun Church_20080627_9_36

After Mass, and hurried greetings to our fellow Christians in the frigid parking lot, we’d jump back into our cold cars and head home over crunchy, snow-packed gravel roads.  My Mother would scramble up some farm fresh eggs, accompanied by home-made butter and fresh-baked rolls for a late night snack.  Then we’d head for bed, because on Christmas Day we looked forward to visiting our extended families at Grandma’s house in Clarkson.

These days, Christmas is more of a cultural holiday than a religious holiday for many; we compete for the most outdoor lights, the largest inflatable Santa, the prettiest cookies.  It is my wish that you will be visited by the Spirit of Christmas Past – that all the rush and fun of holiday parties and gift-giving will not overshadow for you the true meaning of Christmas, a celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior.  Our immigrant ancestors may not have been eloquent or well-educated, but they understood this well.

I hope that you too have good memories of the old days, and are making more good memories every year.  Phyllis and I wish you all the Blessings of this Holy Season, and health, happiness, and peace in the New Year.  Gloria in excelsis Deo!

Heun Nativity

Posted in 1890s, 1920s, 1950s, 1960s | 1 Comment

Christmas Carols on the Prairies

In the weeks before Christmas, I often think of a popular, long-gone form of entertainment in the area around Clarkson – the country school Christmas Programs.  Up until the 1960s, the landscape was dotted with one-room country school houses, and it seemed like every one put on a program of Christmas songs, recitations, and short skits.  Perhaps it was a part of the curriculum.  In any case, it was a major effort for the teacher and students and parents to prepare for and stage the event.  Teachers would devote some of their limited teaching time to rehearsals and decorating the school, students would memorize their parts at home, fathers would set up the stage and curtains a few days before the show and add wooden folding chairs to the already crowded rows of wooden desks in the room.  Mothers would make costumes and prepare food for the meal that was served after the show.

The programs were always well-attended at my school; the audience was packed with parents, siblings, cousins, friends, and neighbors.  People made the effort to attend these little Christmas programs not only to show support, but also because they were still an important form of entertainment.  Social gatherings (card parties, dances, dramatic performances, and such) were much more common then.  For most of the 1950s, there were only two Omaha television stations to watch on your black and white sets – WOW-TV (NBC) on Channel 6 and KMTV (CBS) on Channel 3.  Late in 1957, KETV (an affiliate of ABC; Channel 7) added a third station to the dizzying lineup.  So there were plenty of reasons to go out for entertainment, even on cold, dark December nights.

A date would be set for the program, usually in mid-December, and a month or two before “showtime” we would begin practicing songs and memorizing our assigned parts.  The older kids may have had individual recitations or songs, but younger children usually performed as part of a small group of classmates.  It may have been the first time a cute little Kindergartner appeared before a smiling audience to recite a few lines about Santa Claus.

Theresa's First Program 12-1954

Christmas Program 1

Musical skits were often designed around popular songs.  For example, here’s a snappy little number that was done to the tune of Frosty the Snowman (or was it Return of the Mummy?)


The picture below shows how the school room was altered for the Christmas program. Heavy wires would be strung across the room to support the black fabric curtain in front, and a white curtain to cover the blackboard in the background.  (You can still see under the flag the examples of good penmanship that we were urged to imitate.  Remember Penmanship?  For that matter, remember cursive writing?).  The rows of wooden desks would be crowded to one side, and rickety wooden folding chairs would be packed as closely together as possible.  Sometimes you had to be a bit of a ballet dancer to reach an empty seat in the middle, crawling over and stepping on audience members bundled in heavy, hot, woolen coats.  Streamers decorated the ceiling, and a foot-tall wooden stage was placed in the front where the teacher’s desk and tables had stood.  Pupils waited in the wings behind the curtain for makeup and for their time to go on stage.


The skits were short and humorous and secular – I don’t remember any manger scenes or kids fighting over who would play Mary and Joseph.  And they often featured the boys wearing dresses.  Men in drag was always a source of great amusement; their appearances on stage wearing fluffy, girly dresses or bathing suits were invariably greeted with howls of laughter from the audience and catcalls and jeers from their buddies in the front rows.  And it was doubtless a chance for the teacher to get some payback for the boys’ misbehavior during the rest of the year.




This last picture depicts the finalists in the District 21 Cedar Hill Bees Style Show of 1957.  It was a real crowd pleaser.

Christmas Program 2a

As the program came to an end, the children would gather on the stage in their suits and pretty Christmas dresses to sing the songs they had memorized, always a mixture of well-known religious and secular songs.




It seems like the final songs were always sung by the entire school, which put them all on stage to receive the audience’s applause and await the appearance of….  Santa Claus!  At the appointed time, bells could be hear jingling in the parking lot outside, the door would be thrown open, and in would stride Dear Old Santa.  His bag was full of candy – cellophane bags with hard candy or red mesh bags with mixed nuts in the shell and an orange.  Every pupil would get a bag of candy from Santa, and then he would proceed to distribute gifts that were under the Christmas tree.  We had done a secret exchange of names earlier in the year, and each child brought his wrapped present and put it under the tree that night.

Heun Christmas Program big

His work done, Santa would laugh a few “Ho Ho’s”, wave, and shout “Merry Christmas, Everyone!”  Then he would stride back outside, climb into his Studebaker, and be gone in the night.

The lights would go on, and everyone would file downstairs to enjoy a delicious meal prepared by the ladies.  Topped off with an ice cream cone.  (Before the introduction of styrofoam to consumer products [in 1954], cold food was insulated with padded canvas, newspapers, whatever.  In the photo below, taken in the basement of Heun Hall, vanilla ice cream was packed in large cardboard cylinders, then each can was stacked in the insulated canvas tube.)

Dad and Jerome Spulak at Heun

I wish I had a picture of the long, decorated tables covered with food that the mothers had made for the After Party.  Beautiful, frosted cakes, bars coated with crushed peanuts, Rice Krispie treats, plates of festive cookies, big bags of Kitty Clover potato chips, and Tupperware containers brim full of egg-salad and ham-salad sandwiches made with snow-white Wonder Bread.  Boiled coffee for the adults and hot cocoa and pop for the kids.  It was a feast for a King.  To celebrate the Birthday of a King.

The rural Christmas Programs are gone, but no doubt they are alive and well in the town schools.  I hope you’ll have the opportunity to enjoy one this season.  Or, better yet, sit down and read a Christmas story to someone.  And sing a few of the dear old Christmas carols together.

Posted in 1950s, 1960s | 6 Comments

Our Village as Cold War Sentinel

These days our lives are often affected by preparations for and reactions to acts of terrorism – the threat of terrorists hijacking airplanes, the bombing of the Boston Marathon, armed gunmen walking into schools, businesses, and movie theaters.  We are all vulnerable to these acts of violence – deadly and horrifying, but also localized in their effects.  A recent, random comment from an e-mail correspondent reminded me of a much greater, more pervasive terror under which we Clarksonians have all lived, every day, for decades.  Since the early 1950s, we have been vulnerable to attack by an enemy armed with nuclear weapons, and in the beginning the Village of Clarkson had a role in protecting the U.S. from this threat.


Imagine looking up into the 1950s skies and seeing a flight of Russian bombers, carrying atomic bombs, each capable of obliterating a city.  Jetting in over the Arctic Circle, these enemy airplanes might drop their nuclear bombs on northern cities, potentially including Omaha, the headquarters of the Strategic Air Command, before they could be detected and stopped.  In the 1950s that scenario was a real possibility, and the United States helped protect itself from a Pearl Harbor-style sneak attack by expanding a program of civilian volunteers called the Ground Observer Corps (GOC).

The use of civilian observers to sound the alert about enemy aircraft goes back to WWI, when the British watched for German Zeppelins.  Civilian ground observers really got cranked up during WWII, in England during the Blitz, and in coastal cities of the United States as an inexpensive and effective means of avoiding another Pearl Harbor.  As the war wound down, so did the GOC ; it was dis-established in 1944. But it started up again in 1950, when Russia demonstrated that it possessed both a workable nuclear bomb and long-distance bombers to deliver it.  One radio spot darkly announced  “It may not be a very cheerful thought but the Reds right now have about a thousand bombers that are quite capable of destroying at least 89 American cities in one raid…. Won’t you help protect your country, your town, your children? Call your local Civil Defense office and join the Ground Observer Corps today.”  The Cold War GOC brought local Civil Defense agencies together with the military services.  During the decade of the 1950s, more than 800,000 volunteers stood alternating shifts at 16,000 observation posts.



Clarkson was a proud participant in the GOC in the mid-1950s.  Many citizens in town and countryside were involved, but it is so long ago that the memories of its organization and activities have faded.  Synthesizing the bits and pieces of the observers’ recollections, our GOC program went something like this:

The Clarkson GOC was organized by the Clarkson Fire Department, and Lumir Prazak was the Fire Chief at that time.  The adults who were involved took turns observing aircraft flying over the area only at night.  They would gather at the new high school on the south end of Clarkson and lie on the lawn looking up at the night sky.  Whenever a plane was observed, they would report the observation by telephone in the high school.  A surprising number of aircraft were observed late at night, and the men reported the time and the direction of flights.  Initially, the GOC was comprised of adult men –  Al Dusatko, Lumir Prazak, Vince Prazak, Ron Vavrina, Slavy Vodehnal, Louis Pavel, Dick Moore, maybe Doc Odvarka were mentioned.  There doesn’t seem to have been any adult women involved in watching the night skies.

Later, high school kids and even grade schoolers took their turns watching for enemy airplanes during daylight hours.  Eleanor Sousek Loseke, Edie Kudrna Welch, Avis Studnicka Heithoff, Edith Novotny Nepper, Arlys Dolesh Wehrer, Robert Prazak, and Gene Cinfel were among the high school students who participated.  Grade school observers included Bernice Studnicka Cada, Rich Neuhaus, Dennis Houfek, Tony Dusatko, and Bill Sixta.  There were meetings at the school to give the students guidance and information.  There was usually, but apparently not always, adult supervision of the juvenile GOC members.

Even the Girl Scouts got in on the action.  Evelyn Zrust, troop leader of the Senior Girls Scouts, combined enemy plane identification (taught by Mike Hammond and Bob Jonas) with a first aid class. The girl scouts were given books for instruction and plane recognition; they met twice a month, and after passing a test they began observing, as a troop, on Sundays.  At other times, the Girl Scouts were paired up and did 3 or 4-hour shifts on weekends.

In the beginning there was no building available; volunteers lay in the grassy area on the south side of the new high school (before it became a parking lot), and if they saw anything notable would go into the high school to phone it in.  Later, a building was dragged or erected near the high school to house the observers.  Initially, an old, windowless, cob-shed type of building was used that was perhaps 6’ X 8’ in size. It was propped up on the front to level it out, with a handrail across the front; there may have been a porch.  Later a deer stand sort of building on stilts was constructed, elevated one story above the ground.  Steps went up from the west side and there were lots of windows.  The building was unheated, but it had a light bulb hanging from the ceiling and it protected observers from the elements.  The buildings had their own dedicated telephone for dialing up (what they believed was) Offutt Air Force Base/Strategic Air Command Headquarters, or perhaps the Civil Defense Office in Omaha.  In fact, the calls went to one of 73 “filter centers,” where yet more civilian volunteers collected the data, plotted trajectories of aircraft that had been called in, and made judgments about the significance of the observations (Clymer 2013).

The dedication of Clarkson’s youth to fighting the Cold War was not absolute.  By one  account, most of the time the kids did not stay in the building, but could be found goofing around outside waiting for a plane to fly over.  For example, Bernice Cada wrote: “My most vivid memory from this world-saving practice included Bill Sixta. Several of us started collecting ears of corn from the neighboring field. We had a corn kernel fight. I placed one throw perfectly into Bill’s ear canal. As we tried to remove it, it just wedged tighter! He had to go visit Dr. O’Neil to get the kernel removed. I was scared and embarrassed. Thought I would lose my volunteer job!  But those Russians never made it past our watchful eyes.”

In fact, Clarkson’s young were not the only ones to occasionally let their “eternal vigilance” slip.  Public participation in the GOC never reached the levels hoped for, owing to skepticism about government’s warnings of the imminence of a Russian attack and optimism about the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force to detect and intercept enemy planes before they got to the continental U.S.  “By all indications, even the Soviet Union’s possession of an H-bomb [in August 1953] did not stir much desire to volunteer for the GOC.  Recruitment remained a chronic problem.  An Air Force report noted that, absent an emergency, the vast majority of Americans would rather play bridge [or taroks?], watch television, or go to bed.  By mid-1954, … a major problem had developed with attrition of volunteers who faced disparagement of friends or acquaintances.” (Clymer 2013).

There were posters on the walls of the observation building to provide information about friendly and unfriendly airplanes, and a book of silhouettes of planes was used to help in identifying what they were seeing.  Binoculars, pen and paper were used to make note of types of planes and estimates of speed, direction of travel, altitude, and identifying markings, which were entered in a log book.  A sign-in sheet logged the names and hours of the participants.

Clarkson Museum_20131104_03

Clarkson Museum_20131104_02

Clarkson Museum_20131104_04

Clarkson Museum_20131104_01

Clarkson Museum_20131104_05

One of the purposes of logging in the hours spent watching the sky was to amass enough volunteer hours to be awarded a cool blue and silver lapel pin – the winged GOC pin.  Lumir Prazak would turn in the names and hours of the observers.  Obviously this lapel pin was a desirable prize – many of the participants still have theirs.

GOC wings


As the Cold War wound on, offensive weapons and defensive systems were improved.  In the late 1950s the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, a radar-based early warning system in Canada, became operational, and eventually the slow-flying bombers were replaced by intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The value of civilian airplane observers was diminished, and on January 31, 1959 the Ground Observer Corps Program was shut down.

In retrospect, it seems pretty unlikely that Russian bombers could have flown all the way to Nebraska without being detected somewhere in Canada or the Dakotas, but you never know, eh?   Let the record reflect that there was not a single bombing of the U.S. mainland during the existence of GOC.

Thanks to Dennis Houfek (who first told me about the GOC in Clarkson), Rich Neuhaus, Bernice Cada, Tony Dusatko, Ele Loseke, Edie Welch, Ron Vavrina, Edith Nepper, Arlys Wehrer, and Robert Prazak  for their memories of (and membership in) Clarkson’s Ground Observer Corps.

An excellent history of the U.S. GOC is provided by:  Clymer, K. 2013.  The Ground Observer Corps – Public Relations and the Cold War in the 1950s.  Journal of Cold War Studies. 15(1):34-52.

Ground Observer Corps, Hurray!

Protects our Nation every day.

Protects our flag, Red, White, and Blue,

They Protect everyone, even you.

Always on guard with Watchful eyes,

Never tiring they search the skies.

From now to eternity we shall be free,

America’s guarded by the G.O.C.


Posted in 1950s | 4 Comments