Our Forefathers were Thespians

After last week’s grim discussion of slaughter and butchery, I thought it would be a good idea to post a story in a lighter “vein,” so to speak.  Rummaging around in The Vault, I found a clipping reprinted from the Colfax County Press issue of April 14, 1965.  It lists the cast members of a comedy performed in the Opera House by local men, many of them members of the Lions Club or Commercial Club, to provide some home grown entertainment and to raise money for local projects.

Owl Hoot Gulch - Opera House 1

Owl Hoot Gulch - Opera House 2

Owl Hoot Gulch - Opera House 3

Owl Hoot Gulch - Opera House 4


Richard Neuhaus found a publicity photo for the “Bad Day at Owl Hoot Gulch” production.  It depicts a holdup in front of the Lone Star Bar.  From left to right, the actors were Carl Waters, Elden J Manak, and Harold Neuhaus.

Waters Manak Neuhaus 1965

There were at least 4 of these plays performed for the amusement of theatergoers.  One production, on November 12, 1954 was set in the Alaska gold fields.  The businessmen purchased the script and may have also had some help staging and directing the play from a professional fund-raising company.  Later, in the 1960s, three more plays were staged, all written and directed by the endlessly creative Clarkson High School English and drama teacher, Gary Weibye.  The first, described in the Press story above, dealt with shenanigans in the Old West.  The next Weibye play, “A Bad Day in Sherwood Forest,” was a parody of the Robin Hood legend and featured Dick Urbanek in his breakout role as Maid Marian. The third (and last?) was written up in the Columbus Daily Telegram of April 6, 1967:

 Clarkson Lions to present play

“Big Noise in Moonshine Hollow” or “At the Still in the Night” will be presented by the Clarkson Lions Club on the Clarkson Opera House stage April 9 and 10, beginning at 8 p.m.  The author, Gary Weibye of the high school faculty, claims that the show is a melodrama of sorts “something of a social- economic political lampoon aimed at all ages and all creeds.”  Art Nosal is narrator of the spectacular.  Buster Miller, as stage manager, has been scouring the area for barrels, jugs, corn cob pipes, a black sedan for a rub-out scene and hundreds of rounds of ammunition along with the weapons to fire therein. “The roaring twenties was a noisy time to be around,” he stated. The cast of local men consider themselves as semi-professionals as they have appeared in “Bad Day at Owl Hoot Gulch” in 1965 and “Bad Day at Sherwood Forest” in 1966, both written and directed by Weibye, English and dramatics teacher at Clarkson high school. The proceeds go for local projects.

The common elements to all these comedies were low humor, outrageous puns, double entendre, and men in drag.  As near as I can tell, the most important criteria for landing a role as a woman in these all-male plays (outside of a good-natured sense of humor) were to be burly, swarthy, and/or hairy. The “drag queens” hammed it up with relish, and were wildly popular.  Sashaying around the stage, their antics could be counted on to draw the biggest guffaws, catcalls, and wolf whistles from the audience.

Sadly, I don’t have any pictures of the actual performances of the Weibye plays of the 1960s, but a few snapshots from the first production on November 12, 1954 have survived.

Minstrel Show 2 11-12-54Minstrel Show 11-12-54

Standing:  John Tomasek, unidentified, Alan Roether (as Bull Moose), Bob Odvarka, Lumir “Vrby” Vrbicky, and Joe Lauda

Seated:  Dan Teply, Marcel Brabec (as Klondike Kate), Frank Toman, Joe Toman, and Vince Prazak

How many of you were in the audience for these plays?  They were a laff riot, no?  I don’t suppose that anyone filmed these hilarious shows from the 1950s and 1960s, but I wonder if more photographs, or better yet, the scripts for these plays survive.  Wouldn’t it be fun to stage one of these comedies again in the newly restored Clarkson Opera House?  http://www.clarksonoperahouse.org/  Look through your attic and let me know what you find.


Posted in 1950s, 1960s | 2 Comments

The Only Thing We Threw Away was the Squeal

Earlier this year we visited the National Czech & Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  One of their temporary exhibits was a collection of fascinating black and white photographs taken by Igor Grossman, a pharmacist who lived in a rural Slovak village in the 1950s and 1960s.  To quote from the museum’s description of the exhibit, Grossman “… realized that the life ways and customs he experienced were part of an old world that was rapidly being replaced with a modern, communist one. He took up his camera to document those customs before they were gone. Grossman’s photographs capture the landscapes, people, and traditions of Slovak mountain villages, portraying the moment of transition between the old world and the new. As written in the introduction to Grossman’s book, Images Gone With Time, Grossman’s photographs are the land of our memories of home. They are a record of our existence, a guarantee of our survival.”

There were many priceless, timeless photographs in the exhibit, but the one that stopped me in my tracks was a picture of a grinning man hoisting a shot glass (kalíšek) of some liquid (slivovice?).  He was apparently toasting the successful dispatching of a hog, and would soon begin the considerable effort of butchering it.

Czech-Slovak Mu_20140531_13a

Although we all go to grocery stores or butcher shops to get our pork chops these days, there are a few of us who can still remember the time when farmers butchered their own hogs, using their own or borrowed tools.  In the late fall or early winter, when temperatures were suitably cool and the hogs had gotten suitably fat, a candidate for slaughter was selected from the hog pen.  The animal would be killed, cleaned, and butchered in a laborious, day-long process.  Sometimes this would be done by a single family, but because it was a relatively specialized, once-a-year activity, often several neighbors or families might come together in a group effort, sharing the tools and the physical labor.

There are a lot of body parts to a pig, and the Czechs, being a frugal race, have managed to find a use for most of them.  Many years ago, my father-in-law and I were discussing the details of hog butchering and all the consumer products that could be made from them, and he capped the conversation with the remark – “The only part of a pig that we threw away was the squeal.”

That statement is worth examining, because it is nearly true.  I can remember only the last time that my parents butchered a hog at our farm, when I was still a small child.  After that, they let the town butcher take care of business.  So the details are sketchy in my mind (my memories have been verified by my older brothers).  But it went something like this (those of you who are squeamish may want to skip this part, and, in fact, the rest of the story):

Step 1.  Dad chased us away and we waited in the house or behind a nearby shed while he killed the hog, probably with a hammer blow to the head.

Step 2.  A chain was attached to the hog, perhaps through the back legs, and by means of a pulley the heavy carcass was lifted upside down over a large wooden trough (see the photograph above).

Step 3.  A vein in the hog’s neck was opened with a knife and the blood was drained into a stainless steel or porcelain dish pan for later use.

Step 4.  The hog was lowered into the trough and immersed in scalding hot water.  After a few moments, Dad began to scrape the hog’s skin in order to remove all the hair from the carcass.  Brother Larry says that there was a specialized tool to do the scraping/hair removal; it was a wooden handle with a circular metal disk on both ends, one maybe 4” in diameter on one end and 2” on the other.

Step 5.  The hog was elevated again, rinsed off, and a long cut was made in the abdomen to remove the internal organs.  This is the point at which the dogs and cats became interested.

Step 6.  By means of very sharp knives and bone saws, the hog was dismembered into its constituent parts and sent to the house, piece by piece, for further processing and packaging.

The painting below by the renowned Czech artist Josef Lada illustrates much of the process.  In the Czech Republic, pig slaughtering was a special event, accompanied in some cases by ceremonies, gift-giving, and other festivities.

Lada pig slaughter

Truth be told, I didn’t witness any of Steps 1-5 except from a safe distance, but I think the sequence of the general events is correct.  Once the pork was brought inside the house, there was more activity with sharp knives, saws, and hot liquids.  The larger pieces of meat were turned into pork roasts, pork chops, etc. and were packaged in waxed paper and frozen.  The smaller pieces of meat (scraps) were ground up and cooked along with some spices and pieces of cartilage from the ears and made into the quintessential Czech sausage – jitrnice.


I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how to make jitrnice – you all have your favorite recipe.  But in the Old Country at least, this sausage is a delectable blend of cooked meat from the head, wattles, and hips, boiled lung, spleen, and stomach, raw liver, cooked liver, white bread, onions, and spices (black pepper, allspice, garlic, ginger, marjoram, and salt).  If you want to make some yourself, you can find the correct proportions here: http://czechthatout.wordpress.com/2011/10/10/a-half-of-a-pig/

It begins with cooking the hog’s head…

If you can’t be troubled to retrieve all the body parts called for in the Old Country recipe above, the book Favorite Czech Recipes For Today’s Kitchens (blue-covered edition) compiled by the Clarkson Woman’s Club has a good recipe that limits the “variety meats” to pork tongue, heart, liver, hocks, and head.

After the meat and spice mixture was put together, it was stuffed into casings (the polite word for thoroughly washed small intestines).  I couldn’t find a picture that looked exactly like the sausage stuffer that we used, but it looked something like this:

Sausage Stuffer

The sausage mixture was put into the cannister, the gear mechanism/plunger was affixed to the top, and great lengths of wet hog casings were slid over the tube at the bottom of the cannister (white plastic in this picture, thin aluminum in ours).  The operator slowly cranked the handle which moved the plunger downwards and squeezed the sausage mixture out of the tube and into the casings.  Voila!

Next comes sausage made from the reserved pig blood – jelita.


Actually, this was one of the first items of business when butchering a hog, because you had to keep stirring the warm blood to keep it from clotting.  Then the blood was mixed with a variety of ingredients similar to those for jitrnice and stuffed into casings.  Every family/butcher had their own recipe, but most of them included barley. A good mixture was about 1 pound of barley for each quart of blood.  Again, my brother Larry confirms that the pig’s blood was brought into the house ASAP but our parents never stuffed jelita into casings.  They would put it into a pan, like a big cake pan, add barley and spices, then kept stirring it.  It ended up looking like a very dark chocolate cake that our dad would cut and eat like a brownie. (As odd as this may sound, blood sausages and blood puddings are common all over the world.  Take a look at the black sausages at breakfast buffets in the British Isles, for example).

Moving down the line, we come to one of my personal favorites – sulc.  Sulc (aka sulz, head cheese, or souse) is a gelatinous treat made from pigs feet, and often pig snouts and skin as well.  The feet are cooked with salt, pepper, bay leaf, carrots and onion.  The bones are removed, a bit of vinegar is added, and, when refrigerated, the mixture congeals into a meat gelatin.


Others prefer to use the feet to make marinované vepřově nožičky (pickled pigs feet).

Hungry yet?  At some point, late in the proceedings, the large chunks of lard that had been cut away from the meat were put into a huge pot and slowly melted down (rendered) on the stove.  The skin and connective tissue that remained in the molten fat were fished out with a strainer, drained, run through the sausage stuffer to press more lard out, crumbled up, and eaten warm with fresh bread – škvarky.  Škvarky (similar to what is known in other cultures as cracklings, pork rinds, or chicharrones) are crispy, greasy, and delicious – the ultimate guilty pleasure food.  For the uninitiated, they MUST be eaten warm in order to prevent the cold lard from sticking to the roof of your mouth.  Some insist that the bread must be rye bread, with a sprinkling of caraway seeds, but I am not so particular.  I only remember eating cracklings fresh, late in the day of butchering.  The excess pressed-out cracklings were thrown into the trees for the dogs and cats to eat.

CracklingsCracklings 2







The molten hog lard was then poured into jars for use in cooking (how can a pie or any flavorful bread or pastry be made without lard?).  Usually there was more lard than a family could consume, so the rest was used to make homemade soap.  The recipe from homemade soap is simplicity itself – into the hot, liquid lard an appropriate quantity of lye (sodium hydroxide) crystals was stirred.  The lye saponified the fat, turning it into hot, liquid soap.  Then Mom or Dad would pour the liquid soap into a cardboard box, to a depth of 3 inches or so.  The soap would cool and solidify into a solid white sheet that could easily be cut into soap bars with a knife.  This was harsh, strong stuff – in our house, it was used in conjunction with a washboard to get the most stubborn dirt from work clothes – overalls and socks.  Again, we were kept a safe distance away during the rendering and soap-making so that we would not be burned by the hot, caustic liquid.

Let’s see – have we accounted for all the body parts?  Liver, ears, feet, snout, spleen, small intestines…  Oh yes, the brain.  In those days, as now, brains were scrambled.  With eggs and, for the gourmet, with mushrooms.  Don’t ask me how it tastes.  But the Clarkson Woman’s Club Favorite Czech Recipes book has an easy Scrambled Eggs with Brains recipe for the busy modern housewife.  In fact, the cookbook has recipes for all the food items mentioned in this story.

So let us pay homage to the humble swine.  Maligned in the Bible (read the story of the Prodigal Son), this versatile species turns garbage and corn husks into delicious protein with a multitude of uses.  Ask your friends – what other animal provides us with škvarky, jitrnice, jelita, and sulc?  With fat to make both delicate pastries and soap for scrubbing the dirtiest overalls?  A noble animal that provides not only the sausage meat, but also the casing to put it in.

Posted in 1940s, 1950s | 3 Comments

Things that Go Bump in the Night


On a recent autumn night I was driving down a quiet stretch of highway between North Bend and Snyder, when I came over a rise and encountered a coyote trotting across the road.  Neither of us had time to avoid the collision, and I ran over the unfortunate canine.  There were a lot of scraping noises coming from the smashed plastic bumper, so I stopped, straightened it out by the light of a flashlight, and continued on to Clarkson.  The next day I asked Don Sucha to take a look at it, and he quickly pointed to considerable damage under the hood – bent radiator, bent power steering lines and broken air conditioner.  I suppose that’s the tradeoff for making fuel-efficient cars out of plastic and aluminum instead of chrome steel, and in the following days I heard many stories about small animals doing large damage to modern cars.  Some expressed surprise that it was a coyote that I hit; it’s not unusual to run over a raccoon, rabbit, or even a deer, but coyotes are less common and are supposed to be wily.

It was a long, hot trip back to Tennessee without air conditioning, but it’s hard to blame the coyote.  In his defense, he was here first.  Coyotes have lived in the Clarkson area long before the European immigrants moved in, and for that matter for hundreds of thousands of years before the Native Americans moved into North America.  Before mankind complicated their lives, coyotes roamed much of the western U.S., feeding on bison, deer, birds, rabbits, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.  When farmers and ranchers moved into the area, their menu expanded – they became major predators of livestock (especially sheep and calves) and the scourge of chicken coops.  The increased food resource, as well as the removal of their major competitor/predator, wolves, permitted coyotes to expand their numbers to the point that they caused considerable losses of livestock and hardship for the farmers.  For the early settlers, and well into the 20th Century, hunting and eliminating coyotes was less a sport than an economic necessity.

When I told my collision story to Don Novotny (who grew up in the Heun Church area, southeast of Clarkson), he recalled his childhood memories of organized coyote hunts.  Don writes:

“Do you remember the community hunts for them?  The hunts were advertised in local area papers, and guys came, even from 20 – 30 miles away.  Big sport – Sunday afternoon events during November – March each year.   The sight of the closing phase, late afternoons on winter days, is unforgettable.  HUNDREDS of hunters and dogs, converging on a single, pre-determined spot, usually an open, barren pasture.  Usually the only coyotes bagged for the day were killed in that final, concluding circle, where hunters closed in from all directions, many times shooting at a remaining coyote (or two) running desperately along the inner side of the rapidly closing circle, looking for a gap to run through.   When finally killed, those last-to-be-killed coyotes must’ve been carrying a pound of B-B’s & buckshot.  They, too, were brutes, very very tough to bring down with shotgun, and of course with men converging from opposite side of circle, no rifles were allowed.”

“All afternoon, along the country roads that were within the designated circle-for-the-day (which was actually a 6 mile by 6 mile square to start with), designated cars/pickups would drive along, following the progress, seeing where there were gaps, and then passing the word to other places where there was an excess of hunters, and offering to transport them to the gap-places where they were needed to prevent coyotes from escaping the circle.   Those designated drivers also had the job of gathering the rabbits (jack-rabbits were the favorite game then) which were then taken to a central place (I’m not sure whether they were cooked for a post-hunt feed, or whether they were taken to a charity place).”

“I don’t specifically recall it, but I’m sure that the designated drivers also brought coffee, and maybe even beer/whiskey, to the hunters who stopped off for a few moments as they climbed the fencerows onto the county roads and dropped their collection of rabbits for pick-up.”

“But the closing phase was terribly exciting; the sound of shooting from the opposite side of the circle gradually became louder as the circle converged, and then, finally, the thrilling and awesome sight of the giant ring of hunters gradually closing in, some of them almost shoulder to shoulder at the last stage.  And the shooting at that point – well, it must’ve sounded like wartime battlefield.”

“And it was comical, too; many farmers that were “otherwise not hunters” would come out and join the fun, and since they had little experience or skill, there was lots of shooting very wide of the target; and of course lots of shooting at crows or other birds that happened to fly over; shotgun pellets flying all over the place.”

“At the end of each hunt, of course, the ladies’ clubs brought sandwiches and kolaches, there were bonfires, lots of story-telling and laughing, and then, finally, everybody climbed into their model A’s and went home to do the chores.”

“The Heun area had such a hunt several times, ending on the big bottomland area just to the north of the church (between the Stanley Lodl and Michael’s farms.  (Michael’s was former Folda farm, from whence came what was reputedly the biggest Czech-owned banking enterprise in NE (maybe USA).  I recall even Father Oborny coming down from the parsonage to join the campfire phase; he was a character, very lively (you’ll remember he was big supporter of the Heun Giants pugball powerhouse).”

“I seem to recall that there were bounties paid in those days, by whom I don’t recall.  Soon after WW II, Piper Cub planes came in, and became extensively used for spotting and killing the coyotes (shooting out of the plane windows); apparently it was great sport, but I recall some pilots bit the dirt over that.   Anyway, another case of technology causing great change.  The last of the coyotes gave way to the piper cubs, and the Sunday afternoon hunts suddenly were no more.  I recall that in the late 30’s, on any given winter Sunday, there was often a choice of hunts going on, sometimes even more than one in a given county, all having been, as I mentioned, advertised in the local papers during the week before.  But by the time those ended, the jack-rabbits were pretty well gone, too.”

“Absolutely unforgettable times.  Way better than church & school picnics or wedding dances – which, in those pre-TV years – think about it – were the only other social events or entertainment (other than after-Mass gatherings, or card parties) that life had to offer.   Yes, some pretty vivid recollections, quite unique times, nearly 80 years ago.”

Coyote Hunt Denton

Early coyote hunt near Denton, Nebraska.  Photo courtesy of the Denton Community Historical Society http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nedchs/photos/index.htm


Coyote pups

Photo of Oklahoma coyote hunter from Wolf and Coyote Trapping (1909).  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34501/34501-h/34501-h.htm


Coyote Hunt Gosper

Gosper County, NE coyote hunt.  Photo courtesy of William Mahar. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~negosper/photos/coyote_hunt.htm


The files of the Colfax County Press reveal several stories about coyotes and coyote hunting. (Note: coyotes were often called wolves, so it is likely that the “wolves” in these accounts actually refer to the coyote, Canis latrans):

December 1, 1908 – Ed Rozmarin, mail carrier on routes 4 and 5, tells that one day last week he saw three wolves and the following day two more, none of the animals having shown the least concern at his approach.
With wolves that plentiful, it is a little wonder that some of the poultry yards in the country south of this place have been suffering. It looks as though the farmers in that neighborhood ought to have a successful wolf hunt.

February 14, 1911 – They had a wolf hunt out at the Wisher ranch the other day and two large wolves were killed.

May 2, 1918 –  Ed Pohlman of Stanton made quite a cleaning last week. When he captured 13 coyotes, which netted him $26.00

May 4, 1922 –  Louis Folken, a resident of Colfax county, living about 8 miles northwest of Schuyler, is easily the champion coyote hunter in the county, if not in this section of the state.  Mr. Folken has killed 19 coyotes in the past two years. Last spring, he located a coyote nest and set traps for the elders and succeeded in trapping the mother, but she broke the chain and escaped with the trap about one foot. Mr. Folken finding the trap gone, killed the 10 small ones and the neighborhood kept a close lookout for the old ones, and saw the mother several times with the trap still on her foot.
Last fall Ernie Adams with his hounds attempted to clear the locality of the two coyotes, but the crippled one was able to keep away from the dogs and escaped. A short time ago, Mr. Folken located the nest and again set traps, but the old coyotes were wise to his tricks and refused to go near the nest.
Mr. Folken then determined to kill the young ones, and did. While he was digging out the nest, the male member stood a safe distance and witnessed the performance. Mr. Folken did not then have his rifle and has since been unable to get near enough to be within shooting distance.
However, with 19 young coyotes to his credit in two years, easily establishes him as the champion of the county, but he will be much more satisfied when he brings in the two old ones.

March 6, 1924 – It is estimated that three hundred people took part in the big wolf hunt southwest of Leigh last Sunday afternoon. An area of several miles was encircled and at the end of the hunt it was revealed that four coyotes paid the penalty.
Exciting scenes took place throughout the hunt and it is reported that one of the beasts was cornered in a feed yard on one of the farms where it was killed after a long chase.
Quite a number of rabbits also fell at the point of the numerous guns. Coyotes are said to have caused considerable damage in the locality where the hunt was staged.


Both Don Novotny and the Colfax County Press stories mention bounties paid for wolves and predators.  Here is what the Nebraska State Historical Society has to say about the bounty system (and the perhaps the inevitable corruption of that system).


Wolf Bounties in Nebraska –

“The large number of claims coming into the [Nebraska] State Auditor’s office for bounties on wolves and coyotes has led that official to make an investigation,” said the New York Times on January 20, 1902, “and he has arrived at the conclusion that the farmers and ranchers in the western part of the State have gone into the business of breeding these animals for the bounty market. In one instance it was found that one farmer had raised more than 100 wolves last summer from several animals he had trapped and penned up for that purpose.

“Other cases were unearthed where from fifty to sixty of these animals had been reared. In October and November they were killed and their scalps presented for redemption at the office of the County Clerk of each county. The State law authorized the County Clerk to pay $3 from the county fund for each coyote or wolf scalp presented, and he certifies the fact of payment to the Auditor, who pays $1 additional, making $4 for each wolf or coyote. The State Auditor declares that this pays better than hog raising, and naturally the farmers have turned their attention to this industry.

“The law was passed years ago when the wolf and coyote were the great foes of the cattle and sheep men. In the last ten years $150,000 has been paid by the State alone as bounty. The Legislature of 1899 appropriated $60,000 for the purpose, and of this amount $43,000 was immediately demanded by holders of old claims. The remaining $15,000 was gone within six months, and when the last Legislature appropriated $15,000 it was at once swallowed up by holders of old claims.

“There are now on file with the Auditor claims aggregating $25,000, and by the end of next year this figure will be doubled. These figures indicate that instead of being killed off, the wolves are increasing. The explanation is now simple.”

A new wolf bounty law, sponsored by James A. Douglas of Rock County, took effect in 1905. It provided for a bounty of $5.00 for each wolf, $1.25 for each coyote, and $1.00 for each lynx killed. The Lincoln Evening News of November 28, 1905, noted continuing problems with wolf bounty claims under the new law.

The News said: “Some of the state officials charged with supervision over the operations of the law are a little fearful that some of the county clerks are not well enough versed in animal lore to know the difference between the scalp of a yellow dog and that of a wolf, so that when John Jones comes in with a few bits of raw fur with ears attached they are apt to take the word of the claimant, as to the character of the creature from which the trophies were taken.”

Coyote Hunt Franklin

Hunters exhibit their trophies following a hunt in Franklin County in January 1914. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society NSHS RG3367.PH3-23.

Massed hunts occurred in the Elmwood, Nebraska area. In  http://www.blog-nebraskahistory.org/2013/01/fire-and-accident-a-friend-to-coyotes/ , David Bristow wrote:

Organized hunts for “wolves” (what we now call coyotes) were a frequent part of the winter sporting scene in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s. Hundreds of hunters frequently joined in, but despite all the manpower, the wily coyote was not always bagged. Sometimes he seems to have been amply revenged on his hunters.

In a hunt covering 117 square miles held in March 1900 in Rock and Brown counties, a ring of hunters on foot, horseback, and in vehicles was formed to trap their prey within an ever-tightening circle. However, the hunters were foiled and many coyotes escaped due to a prairie fire. The Omaha Bee reported on March 22: “A lighted match dropped accidentally by one of the riders ignited the grass and in a moment the prairie was in flames. The lines being broken to fight the fire, at least twenty-five wolves escaped, but after all five were killed within the ring.”

Coyote Hunt Elmwood

After a hunt south of Elmwood in 1913. Photo courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society. NSHS RG3384.PH3-5.

More than five hundred men participated in a hunt in January 1913 near Elmwood, with eleven coyotes killed. The editor of the Elmwood Leader-Echo, who took part, noted on January 31 the shooting mishaps that occurred: “During the hunt two or three men were shot as a result of carelessness, but no one was hurt seriously. A shot from a heavily loaded shot gun entered the mouth of one of the hunters through the cheek, and it is said the fellow spat it out, seemingly unconcerned over the incident.”

A large hunt in Franklin County in January 1914 by two to three hundred men and boys resulted in the shooting of six coyotes and a wild dog. No mishaps with fire or firearms were reported, but the Franklin County News said on January 17 that “some of the boys who were not used to trudging from eight to twelve miles, were about all in the next day.”

Hunting for coyotes continues in Nebraska. They are considered a non-game animal, and neither a permit nor a habitat stamp is needed for a resident of the State to hunt or trap coyotes.  It is always open season for them.  But the days of the raucous, exciting, terrifying community hunts are over.

Desoto Bend_20140924_08-001

Coyote is always out there waiting, and Coyote is always hungry. – Navajo saying


Posted in 1890s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s | Leave a comment

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.

Clarkson Museum_20140602_090
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.

Clarkson Museum_20140602_094

Clarkson Museum_20140602_096_6 Clarkson Museum_20140602_096_5 Clarkson Museum_20140602_096_4 Clarkson Museum_20140602_096_3 Clarkson Museum_20140602_096_2 Clarkson Museum_20140602_096_1

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?

Clarkson Museum_20140602_096_1

Clarkson Museum_20140602_096_4

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