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Nebraska Czechs as I HaveBy Addison E. Sheldon
Superintendent of Nebraska State Historical Society
In a log school house on Turkey Creek, about three miles southwest of Wilber, I began to know Nebraska Czechs. I was seventeen years old. I had a secondgrade certificate entitling me to teach school and I was trying it out for the first time in my life upon about twenty children, half of them Czech. How well I remember their keen, hungry, curious minds. How the entire school, including the teacher, would burst into laughter at some odd break in their use of the English language. How fascinating the difference between the Slavic mind and the Anglo Saxon, as they worked side by side on home-made benches in the mud-chinked log cabin.
It was a cold winter with deep snow. When a few bright days came most of my Czech children would be absent from school. When I enquired the reason it was always the same, -- they were kept out by their parents to husk corn. This was typical of the Czechs in those early-settlement days. Most of those in Saline county lived in dugouts driven into the side of a ravine. They worked with feverish haste to get ahead in the new land. They wanted the children to get an English education, but corn husking took precedence over everything. Those were hard pioneer days for us all. But the Czech immigrant knew how to work harder and live on less than any other American-born settler. For that reason he fell into the severe condemnation of many of his neighbors whose ancestors had come to America a hundred years earlier or more.
If I were to put upon the printed page some of the epithets applied to these people from Central Europe, with their hard living, their queer customs, their joyous and sometimes hilarious beer-hall festivals, their old-country music, with its wild notes of passion, despair and defiance, their strange, intense language with its jarring Z 's and R's, --by their prairie and backwoods American neighbors, in the seventies and eighties, I greatly fear it would not add to the growing cordiality between this group and the rest of us. So I merely refer to those things which mark the early contact between the Czech and the Anglo Saxon in Nebraska.
But for all of that -- for me and my three hundred years of Yankee ancestry -- there was a challenge and a charm in these people. They certainly were different from the rest of us. They were more than different. They were hungry to know the new things in the new land. I had some Czech school-children who were dull, but I do not remember one who was not eager. And many of them had minds of extraordinary power and clearness. They were sensitive in so many ways, to a picture, to a story, to a sentiment. I learned to know and to love the characteristics of these people in spite of all the contrast between them and those of my own blood.
Later I learned to know the Czech settlers on the frontier in Dawes and Box Butte counties. Those were the times that tried men's souls, in the fierce drouths of the nineties. Whole companies of frontier homesteaders forsook their sunburnt claims and moved back toward the rainfall. The Czech settlers stuck about as long and as well as any of us, but many of them in the settlements at Lawn and around Dunlap reluctantly yielded their land-hungry hopes of a homestead and returned to the Czech settlements further east. But here again I came to know the Czech when put to a severe test, and recognized his sturdy fibre.
Almost fifty years of Nebraska life have passed since I first began to know the Nebraska Czechs. In those years I have come to know them in many ways. I have known them as they come in growing numbers every year to the state university, the chosen students from a great bread-winning constituency. I have known them in the halls of the state legislature, in state conventions, in music chambers, where the violin, the horn and the piano blend the wonderful strains of the great Slavic composers into a music that forever captivates the soul of man, no matter where he is born. I have known them in their own language and literature, an imperfect knowledge on my part, yet one that has given me some measure of comparison of the literary genius of Czechoslovakia with that of Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the British Islands. I have found the Czech in Europe and in America a fellow human being, with a great world of ideas and feelings different from mine, yet full of attractions and enjoyments.
So I welcome this book which undertakes to record the early annals of the sixty thousand Czech people in Nebraska and preserve for the Nebraska that will be centuries and centuries from now the heroic stories, the fortitude, the endurance and the names of these Nebraska Czech pioneers. It is a fine contribution that their little land, swept by wars and oppressed by despotism through a thousand years, has made to this great American Republic, and especially to this central star in that Republic, our commonwealth of Nebraska. We shall value this contribution as the decades pass by. The children and children's children of these Slavic soldiers of the American frontier will search these pages intensely for the stories which they tell. And when Nebraska has endured as many centuries from its founding as New England has now endured from Plymouth Rock, an intermarried and interwoven population upon these plains shall rejoice with a full, broad and comprehensive patriotism in the fact that Nebraska established peace and helpfulness between hostile nations from the Old World upon her soil many years before those nations in the Old World united in an enduring world peace.
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