What are these people doing?

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

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And why would self-respecting Czechs act like that?

And what is their connection to these Czechs?

Sokol Letna Plain

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

Posted in 1930s | 6 Comments

Clarkson and the Great War: Part 1 – War Memorial

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

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 These names lasted scarcely more than 20 years, when they were superseded by the even greater, more terrible World War II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Memorial Dedication Program

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

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

War Memorial Dedication July 11 1926


Posted in 1910s, 1920s | 1 Comment

The Watermelon Men


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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weldon and Marian Rakowsky 2008

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

By Tom Behmer | Posted September 16, 2006 

Madison – Call it the end of an era.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weldon and Marian Rakowsky 1938

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” he said retrospectively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weldon Rakowsky 2012

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


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


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



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

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

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

So here they are again, this time in context:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Czech-Slovak Mu_20140531_15

Posted in The 21st Century | 3 Comments

Test Your Knowledge of Clarkson and Our Czech Heritage

I’ve recently returned from a brief visit to Our Town, where we were treated to clear, fresh mornings, colorful sunsets, and broad, open horizons (at least, compared to the Tennessee Valley).  The weather was beautiful…

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except when it was storming and threatening hail and tornadoes….

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But that’s the Great Plains for you.

I thought it would be fun to see how close a look we take at our own town. Following are a number of close-up photos taken in and around town.  The contest is to identify the subject of the photo.  5 pts. for each correct answer.

1. Around Clarkson_20140604_57

2. Around Clarkson_20140603_51

3. Around Clarkson_20140602_21

4. Around Clarkson_20140603_48

5. Around Clarkson_20140603_42


6. Clarkson_20120618_42

That was easy, wasn’t it?

For the bonus round, here are two photos of the exterior of the Sykora Bakery in the Czech Village in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  (I can tell you that they make very tasty kolaches, although still not as good as from the Clarkson Bakery).  They have decorated their exterior walls with portraits of 7 famous Czechs from history.  Again, 5 pts. for each correct identification.

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Czech-Slovak Mu_20140531_15

Good luck!  The winner will be entered in a future drawing for a side of Prime Beef from the Ferenc Slaughterhouse, conveniently situated on the nettle-lined banks of the great grey-green, greasy Maple Creek.

Ferenc Slaughter House-001
L to R:  Rudy Sobeslavsky, Frank Lamplot, Eman Ferenc, Frank Ferenc, Ed Vitek, Bohumil Bukacek, and Emil Kacin


Posted in The 21st Century | 4 Comments

Survivor: Colfax County, Nebraska

Those of you with televisions may be aware of a popular reality game show called Survivor: ____, where the ____ is replaced by such exotic geographic names as Borneo, the Australian Outback, the Amazon, Palau, etc.  The premise of the show is to maroon a group of strangers in a desolate location, where they must provide food, water, fire, and shelter for themselves, while competing in challenges to earn either a reward or to avoid being removed from the game.  It’s a game – although the contestants may get sunburned or injured, no one dies.  The players are always within sight of the television crew, and when things don’t work out they can be immediately airlifted to a hospital or a comfortable, air-conditioned hotel.

In contrast is the contest for survival that was engaged in by the earliest settlers to Nebraska, our ancestors.  Beginning around 1870, immigrants arrived in the area with the intention of settling in and making a new life as farmers/homesteaders.  In many cases they were virtually penniless, spoke the local language poorly or not at all, and were mourning family members lost during the long journey.  These pioneers had no expectation of returning to their friends and families in Europe, no possibility of a government safety net if they got into trouble – they knew that they had to dig in and survive.

They survived a harsh climate, hunger, human, livestock, and crop diseases, and plagues of locusts.  In the first years they lived isolated, lonely lives, being too far away from churches, schools, and social activities.  Most of us have heard these stories of hardship and deprivation passed down as oral tradition, but sadly, these tales have rarely been written down.  In writing her invaluable 1929 book, A History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska, Rose Rosicky tapped the memories of some of our pioneering ancestors.  I’ve reprinted two of the stories from early settlers of Colfax County, Frank Čejda and Joseph Krenek.

Frank Čejda, who was living in West Point when Ms. Rosicky was preparing her book, wrote thus of pioneer days in Colfax County:

“In 1867 I came with my parents to Wisconsin from Bohemia and from Wisconsin to West Point in 1870, by wagon from Fremont. During the two years we lived there, father managed to make a living by working for the homesteaders and sawing wood for fuel in the town. In May, 1872, he took a homestead in Colfax County, one and a half miles (west) from the present townsite of Howell. The entry fee was $14.00, but all the money we could scrape together was $12.00. That was all we paid. How the difference of $2.00 was made up I do not know, but I suspect E. K. Valentine, at the time Registrar of the U. S. Land Office in West Point, a kindly man, paid it, father having worked for him.

Dugout NSHS C689-45

“Our Home.” The dugout of an early homestead family, cut into a hillside and covered with a pole roof, was far more primitive than even the more “modern” sod house.  Nebraska State Historical Society photograph C689-45.

We now had the claim, an old wagon, an ox and a dug-out on the claim. How to move with one ox? Father was acquainted with Frank Herold of West Point and in conversation discovered that he too had one ox, which he lent to father, not only for moving, but also for breaking ten acres.  We loaded the wagon with clothing, bedding (furniture was unknown to us), an old stove and cooking utensils, and prepared to traverse the twenty-four miles we had to go. There being no bridges, travelling was hard and the old ox (the other was young) mired in a creek so badly that we had to ask help to pull him out. Finally we reached our new home and were soon settled, for aside from the beds and stove, there was no furniture to place about. There were no barns or sheds and the old wagon was the only farm implement, except the breaking plow that we borrowed to use that season.

cz-95-cejdaWe broke ten acres and planted them to corn and potatoes. Our nearest neighbor was Joseph Kovar, two miles southeast and the next nearest Peter Shad, three miles in the same direction. To the north we had no neighbors for fifteen miles or more until the Elkhorn River was reached. Thus we were the farthest located of the first homesteaders in northern Colfax County. As the eldest of three children, I farmed during the next three years, for father was away earning enough to supply us with groceries and flour. Work was scarce and wages low. It required three years’ labor to put enough land under cultivation from which to make our living.

During our first summer there, several thousand Indians passed by, going to battle with other tribes or hunting buffalo and they camped at night within half a mile of our dug-out. They asked for food. We had nothing but hard bread, which mother gladly gave them, she was so frightened. Our bread being gone and there being no flour or provisions, and father away in West Point at work, we had nothing to eat. Father did not come for a week and in the meantime we subsisted on wild spinach leaves, which we cooked and ate. So I may say that we lived a week on weeds. When father came, he brought flour and groceries. Many times during our pioneer days did we have to ration our food, when provisions began to run low.  During the first two years barley coffee and corn mush, cooked in water, was our menu, for we had no cow to give us milk. Meat was scarce and wild game also, because there was nothing for it to feed on. When crops began to be raised, grouse, prairie chicken, deer and elk came. They disappeared later, when the country began to be more thickly settled.

Many years after I realized how frightened mother must have been when the Indians asked for bread that time. One day, when thinking about it, it dawned on me, for I recalled that a young Indian boy had asked me why she changed color and became so white. I had not noticed it, but he had. As soon as she could get away, she ran to the neighbor’s, but there too only the woman was at home. After our first year or two, wild game provided us with meat and hunting became a delight. I had an old muzzle loading gun that we had traded for ten bushels of 15-cent corn. One can imagine what a ‘beauty’ it was, but I prized it highly. One day, walking through a draw where the grass grew high, I came upon a deer lying down, but I did not see him until he had jumped up, frightening me so that I had no strength to raise the gun until he was two hundred yards away from me, out of shot. Although I have seen as many as twenty-five deer at one time, I never bagged one. Others had better luck. For instance, the Novotny brothers in one winter killed sixty.

In the spring of 1873 we had the ten acres, broken the spring before, prepared for seeding wheat, but no money to buy it. Father set out for the Tabor settlement, five miles south, to see if he could borrow the seed wheat until he could raise some. It happened that on that day there was a wedding at Tom Sindelar’s place and Tom at once filled a sack of wheat, saying, ‘Here, I donate that to you,’ and the others present followed suit, each one there giving him a sackful. Never was anyone happier than my father, and I myself can never forget their kindness and am grateful for it. The Czech settlement known as Tabor was established in 1870. At the time we located in Colfax County, they had already raised crops there and had horses, something not known in our vicinity. Later they built a church and a dance hall. Up to 1874 there was no church within twenty miles of us, so we had to attend the St. Charles church near West Point until that year. Then a church was built in Olean, four miles west of us.

A Nebraska town in its beginnings

There was no school within many miles until 1876, something I missed very much. I had attended school for some time in Wisconsin and then for two years in West Point, reaching what perhaps now would be the third or fourth grade, but from the time we settled on our claim to 1876, I saw no book and scarcely a newspaper. I had ‘forgotten the letters of the alphabet. When the school was built, two miles from us, I began to attend as a beginner, and continued until I was twenty-one, but never more than three months in the year, in the winter, for I had to run the farm.

During the first few years there were no social gatherings except on rare occasions, for there was no gathering-place and no refreshments to offer. A wedding now and then was the only jollification. My first vacation from farm work in three years was to participate in a Fourth of July celebration in West Point, in 1875. I was obliged to walk the whole distance (24 miles), but was glad to do it.

Prices for farm products were very low. In 1874 we got $1.80 for 100 lbs. dressed hogs and we had to haul them twenty-four miles to market. In 1874 we bought our first cow. Unfortunately we soon lost her. She fell head-first into a cave on Joseph Pimper’s place and a year elapsed before we could buy another, so that we lived three years without milk. And yet in those days no one thought we were under-nourished because we had no milk, for many others were in the same condition.

It was not until 1877 or 1878 when we bought our first team of horses by trading for them a yoke of oxen and giving a mortgage of $150.00 on the team. The neighbors told us if we did not pay the mortgage when it fell due, we would lose our horses, and we believed them. We had just finished threshing grain, so father began to haul it to market, to be able to pay the mortgage within a week. For six consecutive days he hauled wheat to market 24 miles each day, starting with a load at four in the morning and returning at ten in the evening. It was a strain on him, but a greater one on the horses, for toward the last they would fall asleep as soon as they stood still.

Winters were most dreaded, for we had to provide shelter for ourselves and the animals too. For fuel we had to depend on sunflowers, cornstalks, weeds and straw. One winter there was much snow. Our cattle-shed was built in the side of a hill. It was so covered we could not gain entrance. As fast as we dug the snow away, the wind would blow the drifts back. So we decided to dig a hole through the top of the covering of the shed. As this was of straw, we soon accomplished it and I was let down. Then father got a basket filled with hay and lowered it down by a rope, and I fed the animals. Snow also completely filled our open dug well one winter and we were without water until it was hauled out.

In summer snakes invaded our dug-out. I remember when one of them got into a neighbor’s bed. One of the boys cried incessantly. When his parents began to investigate and threw the covers back, they found the reptile, which had bitten the child. This boy was the son of George Nagengast.

When one travelled over the prairies by night, one was never sure of reaching his destination, for there were no roads or anything else to guide him, unless it was a starlit night, or the horses knew the way. One dark night I lost my way, so I unhitched the team, straddled one of the horses, trusting to his common sense and we all reached home, leaving the wagon behind. There were some provisions in it and as a light rain came on, my parents did not like to have them spoiled. I knew the way had been short and felt I could surely retrace my steps, but we could not find it. The next morning I discovered the wagon in an opposite direction. Had it not been for the natural instinct of the animals which led them home, I would have been obliged to camp out or wander over the prairies. Had I not stopped and unhitched where I did (on top of a hill) we would have rolled down, wrecked the wagon and perhaps been killed.

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

In summer we all went barefoot. In winter men and boys wore boots with rags wrapped about their feet, in place of socks. The women and girls managed to knit stockings for themselves and later made them for the male folk. When the men were out driving on cold days, or afoot too, they wrapped gunny sacks over their boots, to keep from freezing. For light at night we used old-fashioned tape soaked in a plate of grease, or an oil lamp, if we happened to have oil. However, we seldom had light for illuminating purposes. It was early to bed and early to rise, very little artificial light was wasted on us.

Finally those who had put in three or four years on claims began to get some income, so that a dollar or two could be spared for social purposes. Granaries and barns began to appear and these, whether the owner wished it or not, had to be dedicated. The boys and girls knew as soon as one of these buildings was going up that something would be doing and spruced up for the occasion. Dancing of course was the chief attraction, and my, how we did go to it! You know, a Czech would rather dance than eat, especially if there are any liquid refreshments. As soon as the accordion player struck the first note, the festivities were on and kept on until day-break. If by chance the musician wore out, there were plenty of others to take his place. Those were happy days for young and old. As time advanced, more room and more means provided other social functions. At all these gatherings and entertainments which I attended, from the first to the last, I have never known of a quarrel or disturbance to mar the harmony. The assembled company always included singing in the program and closed with the Bohemian national hymn, ‘Where is my home?’

The redeeming feature of those hard times was the mutual helpfulness and sympathy evinced by those homesteaders for each other. It mattered not what their nationality or religion, a common need made brothers of all and sisters of the women. They were all like one family. If one was in need or trouble, the others even sacrificed to help.

Czech Farm from Rosicky

In 1886, just fourteen years after we made entry and moved on our claim, the Northwestern Railroad built its branch from Scribner by way of Albion to Oakdale, connecting there with its main line. It cut across my land and the town of Howell was laid out a mile and a half east of my farm. By this time father owned a 320 acre farm and I had one of 160 acres. Compared with others, we were quite well off and living on a much different scale than in our homestead days, although not flying sky-high as many have done during the recent war period and then falling flat. We learned by hard work and stinting to preserve what we had, so that now we can ride in an auto which is not encumbered with a mortgage. We have helped to build schools and churches and bring transportation close to home, so that our children need not go through the hardship we endured, and they may enjoy the advantages we were in such sore need of but could not have. We are glad now that we were pioneers in all this. I have sold my farm and retired to West Point, where I once lived and where I expect to spend the remainder of my life.”

Indeed, Frank Čejda lived out his life in West Point, dying in 1932 at the age of 69.  He is buried in St. Michael Cemetery.

Frank Cejda grave


Another story from Rose Rosicky’s book:  As far as is known, there are on record three instances of Czechs perishing by prairie fires in Nebraska and one of these tragedies occurred in Colfax County. Joseph Krenek, a pioneer still living, describes the catastrophe thus:

“My father and mother (Martin and Rosalie Krenek), my father’s sister, my two sisters and I came to Nebraska in 1872, from our old home in Kardasova Recice, County Vesely, Bohemia. Father and I each bought 80 acres of railroad land, at $5.00 per acre, ten years’ time to pay at six percent interest. This land was situated nine miles north east of Schuyler. The family of Frank Polak came with us, from the same town. Besides his wife, Marie, there were two small children and Mr. Polak’s parents. They bought land on the same terms and were our neighbors.

Prairie Fire from Rosicky

On October 14, 1878, when I had been married two years, a fierce prairie fire raged. Mr. Beneš (I have forgotten his first name), who lived a mile west of us, set fire to the grass around his home at the close of day, after the wind had subsided. However, it arose again, swept the fire over the plowed fire-break and the flames passed beyond control. Driven by a southwest wind, the fire fairly flew directly to the home of Mr. Polak, destroying all the buildings, a colt in the barn and the threshed grain. Mr. Polak was not at home, and the few neighbors then living nearby also were absent. All were away earning a little money, and the women could do nothing to keep back the fire. Old Mr. Polak was herding cattle. Blinded by smoke, he sought refuge, but the flames leaped upon him not thirty feet away from the plowed strip, where he ran for safety. In vain! He perished and his wife, the grandmother, was badly burned. We had some grain in stacks. That year the crop was good, so we had four stacks left, all else was lost. Mr. Polak’s family, however, was in dire straits. The fruits of a whole year’s labor annihilated and a human life lost. The neighbors each donated a bushel or two. We were all poor in those days, but gave of our small means and hoped for better times. Mr. Polak built new buildings and set to work again. From 1873 to 1879 we suffered much from grasshoppers. However, we toiled hard and kept up our courage and now, when we have comfort and plenty, the past seems like a bad dream.”

Sod house Richland Precinct Colfax Co

A sod house in the Richland Precinct, Colfax County, Nebraska

Finally, in the Clarkson Diamond Jubilee book Charles J. Novotny wrote a story titled “Among the Earliest Settlers.”  He related similar stories of hardships, encounters with Native Americans, prairie fires, and locusts that were told by his ancestors (possibly the same deer-slaying Novotny Brothers mentioned by Frank Čejda above).  His story is too long to reproduce here, but I thought his final paragraph was a nice conclusion to this post:

Novotny conclusion

Novotny Homestead House 1

Novotny Homstead House 2

We all have “Survivor” stories that our parents and grandparents told us.  As always, if you have any that you would like to share, send them to me and I’ll be happy to post them.


Novotny, Charles, J. 1961.  Among the Earliest Settlers.  Clarkson Diamond Jubilee 1886-1961. Pages 85-89.

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 | 6 Comments

School Days, School Plays

It’s May, and one of the things that has been on my mind lately is the end of the school year.  Why?  Although it has been many moons since I was directly concerned with school letting out for the summer, the thought of it still brings a smile.  And so does the thought of school beginning again in the autumn – a chance to see my friends again and meet the new teachers.  Whether we were scholars or clock watchers, we students were always keenly aware of the first and last days of the school year (and all the holidays in between).

A common Springtime event, as school was winding down for the year, was posing for the class picture.  Going through a stack of papers the other day, I came across a series of annual class pictures from the old Clarkson Grade School that Edie Kudrna Welch sent to me.  They show the progression of little grade school pupils from 1945 to 1951 – well-scrubbed, well-behaved (?), smiling children, wearing overalls or cotton dresses, and flanked by a long-serving trio of teachers – Marie Vavrina, Anna Husak, and Louise Zelenda.

Enjoy the pictures, and any corrections to the identifications are welcomed.

Grade School 1945-46

1945-46  Mrs. Marie Vavrina’s Room

Top Row:  Eleanor Sousek, Joe Makousky, Beverly Roskicky, Joan Swoboda, Don Reznicek, Edith Kudrna, Dean Prazak

Middle Row:  Bob Prazak, Dick J?, Eddie Wanek, Avis Studnicka, Judy Houfek, Sharon Sup, Marie Sixta, Judy Kovar

Front Row:  Dorothy Barta, unknown, Duane Novotny, unknown, unknown, unknown, unknown, Arlys Dolesh

Grade School 1946-47

1946-47  Mrs. Marie Vavrina’s Room

Top Row:  Darrel Uher, Dean Prazak, Larry Poledna, Joan Swoboda, Bob Moore, Beverly Rosicky, Frank Miller

Middle Row:  Eddie Wanek, Marie Sixta, Joe Makousky, Eleanor Sousek, Edith Kudrna, unknown, Sharon Sup

Front Row:  Bob Prazak, Judy Kovar, Judy Cinfel, Arlys Dolesh, unknown, unknown

Grade School 1947-48

1947-48   Mrs. Anna Husak’s Room

Top Row:  Larry Poledna, Bob Moore, Frank Miller, Beverly Rosicky, Mrs. Anna Husak

Middle Row:  unknown, Joan Swoboda, Eleanor Sousek, Darlene Belohrad, Helen Teply, Edith Kudrna, Don Reznicek, Eddie Wanek

Front Row:  Arlys Dolesh, Dean Prazak, Jim Brown, Sharon Sup, Joe Makousky, Bob Prazak, Marie Sixta


Grade School 1948-49

1948-49  Mrs. Anna Husak’s Room

Top Row:   Joe Makousky, Jim Brown, Joan Swoboda, Don Reznicek, Dean Prazak, Bob Prazak

Middle Row:  unknown, Judy Houfek, Edith Kudrna, Eleanor Sousek, Carolyn Belohrad, Arlys Dolesh

Front Row:  Dorothy Tichota, Norma Cada, Avis Studnicka, Darlene Belohrad, Sharon Sup, Marie Sixta


Grade School 1950-51

 1950-51  Mrs. Louise Zelenda’s Room

Top Row:  Bob Prazak, Edith Kudrna, Sharon Sup, Darlene Belohrad, Don Reznicek, Joan Swoboda, Dean Prazak, Marie Sixta, Eleanor Sousek, Joe Makousky

Front Row:  Bernice Jedlicka, Judy Houfek, Judy Hobza, Duane Novotny, Bill Harris, Carolyn Belohrad, Norma Cada, Avis Studnicka, Dorothy Tichota, Arlys Dolesh

 And now for a message from our sponsors….

I want to take a minute to remind you of the importance of supporting Clarkson’s schools, whether you still live in town or a thousand miles away.  We lucky graduates will admit that our education in the Clarkson school system certainly enriched our lives, and likely our pocketbooks as well.  It would be great if we could give back by providing the same opportunities to the young people going through the school system right now.  An easy and smart way to show your support is through the Colfax County District #58 Foundation, which was created in 1990 to provide scholarships and a wide variety of educational and enrichment activities.  The Foundation is still operating and they still need your contributions.  You can read all about it and download their brochure at:


I hope you will give generously.

Now, back to enrichment activities from the Good Old Days.  How many of you were able to show off your acting chops in a school play?  Often these were staged grade by grade (Junior Class Play, Senior Class Play) or by the Drama Class, but occasionally, the teachers were brave enough to stage an all-school play.  For example, around 1965 Gary Weibye (CHS English teacher) and Dave Anderson (CHS Music teacher) put on a huge musical production called “Lovers Oak.”  If memory serves, the two men co-wrote the music and dialogue/libretto for the musical.

And throughout the 1950s the Clarkson grade school staged an all-school play, also known as the Operetta.  Edie Welch sent a picture of a play given by the students on October 24, 1950.  It was called “What’s the Matter with Sally?”  For the evening, the stage of the Clarkson Opera House was turned into a schoolroom of St. Thomas’ Orphanage.

Below is the group picture of all the little actors in that play.  Eleanor Sousek Loseke took a shot at identifying the kids.  To make it easier to see individual faces, I’ve split the picture into three pieces and blown them up.  Finally, the program that identifies which child played what character is given below that.  You thespians have fun finding yourself in the group photo!

School Play 1950 Big

Back row: Edith Kudrna, Sharon Sup, ?, Svik boy, ?, Sharon Harris, Kluthe boy?, Betty Vitek, Houfek boy, David Kabes, Hobza twin, ?, Hobza twin, ?, ?, David Pavel, Marvin Studnicka, Judy Houfek, Avis, Studnicka, Norma Cada, Joan Swoboda, Eeanor Sousek

Next row:  Hobza girl, Bernice Jedlicka, Lylus Indra, Darlene Belohrad, Carolyn Belohrad, Marie Sixta, Arlys Dolesh, Sharon Neuhaus, Dorothy Tichota, Duane, Novotny, Joe Makousky, Bill Harris, Don Reznicek, Dean Prazak, Bobby Prazak,

Next row:  little guy(Dennis Houfek), Novotny girl(Duane’s sis), Bill Sixta, ?, Richard Neuhaus, Madonna Balak, Youngest Spala boy, Frances Rosicky, Arlys Dolesh brother, ?, Dustako boy, ?, Kluthe girl?. Beverly Belohrad, ?, ?.

Front row: Vicki Harper, ?, ?, Janet Harris, Bernice Studnicka, Joann Reznicek, Poledna girl, Joanie Belohrad, ?, ?, David Houfek, ?(should know)

School Play 1950 left

School Play 1950 middle

School Play 1950 right

(Some of these costumes were preserved for later use.  My wife Phyllis said that she also wore the two costumes on the right side of the photo [worn in this picture by Eleanor Sousek as Sally’s Mother and Joan Swoboda as the Teacher] as well as the tiger lily costume in the middle of the front row) in later grade school plays.

School Play roster 1950-003

From the files of the Clarkson Museum comes this photo of an all-grades play from 1949.

School Play Big

School Play caption


Once again, I’ve split the picture into 3 parts to make it easier to find yourself.

School Play left

School Play middle

School Play right

These Operettas have a long history in Clarkson.  In combing through The Vault, I found a photo of my Dad in his Operetta costume ca. 1930.  I don’t know the date, but those look like lilacs blooming behind him, which would make it, what, May?

Jerome HS Operetta a

And the Operettas continued through the 1950s (as the World transitioned from black & white to Technicolor)…

Operetta 10-13-54

Operetta – October 13, 1954:  Chris Brabec and Rus Roether

Operetta 10-25-55 2

Operetta – October 35, 1955:  From left to right, Sally Studnicka and Lynn Svik (flowers), Ron Novotny, Gene Arnold, Duane Pavel, Sandy Chudemelka (?), Chris Brabec, unknown bee (Dave Svik?), unknown bee.

School Operetta 10-25-55

Operetta – October 25, 1955:  Phyllis and Chris Brabec

Operetta 10-23-56 a

Operetta – October 23, 1956:  Chris, Julie, and Phyllis Brabec

Operetta 10-22-57

Operetta – October 22, 1957:   Phyllis, Chris, and Julie Brabec

Operetta 2 10-1960

Operetta – October 1960

Top Row:  Julie Brabec, Phyllis Brabec, Rob Brabec

Front Row:  Trudy Brabec, Jackie Brabec (audience members)

Operetta 3 10-1960

Operetta at the Clarkson High School – October 1960

I guess this proves the old saying – “There are no small parts – only small actors.”   Here’s a big salute to all you Drama Queens and Drama Kings!

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s | Leave a comment