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:

Around Clarkson_20140604_57 Around Clarkson_20140602_21

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.

Around Clarkson_20140602_22

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.

Around Clarkson_20140603_51Around Clarkson_20140603_51-001

 

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.

Clarkson_20120618_42

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.

Around Clarkson_20140603_48

 

Around Clarkson_20140603_48-001

 

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.

Czech-Slovak Mu_20140531_14

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…

Around Clarkson_20140603_36-001

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.

Czech-Slovak Mu_20140531_14

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.

References

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:

https://clarksonhistory.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/clarkson-public-schools/

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)…

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

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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.

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Operetta – October 25, 1955:  Phyllis and Chris Brabec

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

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

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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

1945-1957 – Clarkson’s Golden Years?

This week we have a guest posting from Robert Prazak, who recalls fondly his childhood in Clarkson during the years 1945 – 1957.  So fondly, in fact, that he considers these years to be Clarkson’s Golden Age.   Because my own time overlaps considerably with his, he’ll get little argument from me.  But others may have different opinions, and I hope they will share them, either with comments on this post or in an always-welcome guest post.  Let’s see what he has to say…

It’s time for a little controversy here in this publication. Taking the 12 years it takes to get an education at the Clarkson area schools I am going to try to make a case for the years 1945 to 1957 being the “Golden Years” (which happen to be my years in the school system). There may be some negatives for that period as the swimming pool, senior citizen center, title nine and finishing the dike around town were still in the future.

Clarkson has always been about the land and the people.  Nearly every section of land back in that period was the home to three or four farm families which contributed greatly to the economy and schools. Our war heroes were coming back from the war; some to go back to the farm, some to help out in the family businesses, others to start new businesses, and yet others went to make a life elsewhere. There was a need for homes, cars, and anything else necessary for starting life all over again. No one who I knew was rich, but everyone seemed to have a decent life. No one was a millionaire then; I suppose with farm land increasing tenfold or more that may have changed today, on paper anyway; but that too can change.

Making a case for 1945 to 1957

Clarkson’s population stayed fairly constant at around 800 except on weekends when it usually soared to over a thousand due to basketball games (more on that subject later), stores being open on Saturday night, and services at the Catholic and Presbyterian churches on Sunday.

Main Street was bustling, and as I remember walking up main to school there were very few buildings vacant. I remember three new car dealerships; Severa Ford, Vacin Pontiac, and Prazak Chevrolet; two or three grocery stores, two or three hardware stores, lumber yards, a couple cafes and plenty of bars. Service businesses were plentiful, professional areas such as lawyers, dentists, and even a family doctor was a constant for the area. There weren’t many things that were needed that couldn’t be found in Clarkson. The Opera House was an often-used facility for such things as dances, plays, meetings, and of course weekend movies. Business and service organizations thrived and kept the area entertained.

Minstrel Show 11-12-54 1a

Class of 1944 Reunion 8-7-1954

What was there for the young people to do other than school activities? Boy and Girl Scouts were active, ice skating–firemen would flood an area dug out next to the depot for winter skating, tent roller rink located on our property for a few years, and about every summer afternoon we would have a pick up baseball game except the years when polio was an ever present danger and we had to take it easy. As we grew older, organized Junior Legion baseball became part of our summer life. If nothing else, there was always the Maple Creek to waste away a summer afternoon trying to catch bullheads. Churches were also a big part of our life (I can speak for the Presbyterians, but I am sure my Catholic buddies had plenty to do also). At our church Monday night was for Junior Choir practice (I remember that becuase everyone would hurry home to watch “I love Lucy”), and Sunday night was for our youth fellowship group. Some of us also had part time jobs, but there was still time to just be a kid.

Chris BDay Party 8-29-53a

Business organizations thrived and did great things for our entertainment–some of which have already been noted such as All Star wrestling. The Harvest Festival, which turned into Czech Days, was always a big undertaking, Pancake Day, Christmas movies and Santa handing out treats, and the Christmas lights on main street. (personal note–I don’t know who was responsible, but the strings of red and green lights were amazing to view when you climbed the hill on the south end of main–just like a big blanket)

band-stand-1960

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Inez Kudrna Doris Cernin Doris Sousek-001

Probably the biggest achievement was to get Harlem Globe Trotters to entertain at our new gym. Marquis Haynes, and Goose Tatum and some of their stars took on our local All Stars–guess who won? Town team baseball was big in those days and as I remember sometimes we used a hired pitcher who was paid $25 to the amazement of some. My dad, Vince, was usually the traveling umpire so I got to go along as a bat boy.  Baseball’s demise happened when softball became a popular sport, and many more became participants.  All the bars, and many other businesses sponsored a team.

Education and high school sports: Clarkson has always had a first class school system, but the facilities were greatly improved once the new school was built in the early 50′s and the old white wooden grade school which was part of so many of our lives was torn down. Here our era may take a rap as title nine did not exist and women’s sports were almost non-existent. I can remember a girls’ softball team for a few years, but that is about it for the girls. Basketball was king during the 50′s with the Red Devils being Class C State runner-up three out of four years. One year under coach Milo Blecha and two under Bill Kropp. When state basketball was on Clarkson became a ghost town. During my senior year football was introduced as a school sport, but took a few years before we became a force to be reckoned with.

Transportation–One might have thought that with the closing down of the Chicago Northwestern rail line through town that we might become a ghost town, but not so as the mid 50′s saw the hard surfacing of the new highway 91 just south of town which meant that now we could travel on hard surface roads to any major area you wanted to travel.

I know I have just scratched the surface as to what I think made those 12 years the “Golden Years”, but I know it was a great time to be a kid in Clarkson. There is a saying that “you can take the kid out of Clarkson, Nebr., but you can’t take Clarkson out of the kid.”

Now surely some of you will want to defend your era; for some of the historians you may want to tell of Clarkson’s early days, and for some of you young bucks tell of the good things happening now.

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Posted in 1940s, 1950s | 2 Comments

A Tale of Two Villages

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

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

Old Gimmigen 1

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Old Gimmigen 2

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

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

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

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

Heun Churches

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

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

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

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

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

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Heun Cemetery_20131103_26

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

CMBR

CMBR obit

 

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

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Heun Cemetery_20131103_30

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

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

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

Gimm environs_20131003_12

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

Robt Feller Fam_20131003_01

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

Becker Haus_20131003_13 Witsch Haus_20131003_17

Becker House                                                                    Witsch House

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

Kapelle Gimm_20131003_01

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

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

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

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

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

The Sport of Kings

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

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

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

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

Hans Schmidt

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

http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2013/11/hans_schmidt_the_world_s_second_most_infamous_nazi_was_a_french_canadian.html

Bill Melby

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

Ernie and Emil DusekJoe Dusek

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

Jack Pesek

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

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

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

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

Dwight 7-20-75 John and Jack Pesek a

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

Verne Gagne 1954a

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

Verne Gagne sleeper hold KMTV 9-23-56

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

ADDENDUM:  Dale Gentzler writes:

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

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

From Robert Prazak:

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

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

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

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