Czech Footprints In Oregon
Czech settlers are known in Oregon only from the second half of the 19th century. After the first few individuals ventured to Oregon, the first sizeable group arrived in 1898. Then, within 11 years between 1898 and 1909, many more Czechs settled in three farming towns in three different counties. Their communities quickly became established either around the Catholic Church or around the traditional social organizations ZCBJ (Západní Česká Bratrská Jednota, “Western Bohemian Fraternal Organization,” name changed in 1971 to “Western Fraternal Life Association”) and Sokol (“Falcon,” a patriotic organization promoting “a healthy mind in a healthy body”). The Czechs shaped the life and landscape where they lived and became an integral part of Oregon society.
More than a century has passed since these Czechs came to Oregon. Today, very few desendants of the original settlers are still living in the old communities; the youngest of them are in their eighties. A visitor looking for Czech footprints must look very carefully. This paper will take you on a discovery tour of Czech footprints in towns that once had a substantial Czech presence: Scio, Scappoose, and Malin.
Scio is one of the oldest towns in Oregon. It is a pleasant little town, with a mild climate and rich farm soil. The gentle landscape reminds one of the old country. Botanically, it is a very rich area between two ecosystems, the native prairie of the Willamette Valley and the wooded foothills of the high Cascade Range.
A place referred to in old newspapers as the Bohemian Valley is no longer on the town map, and the people I have questioned do not know where it may have been. It is most likely the valley cutting through the Richardson Gap, five miles Southeast of Scio. Farms dot the bottom of the valley and climb into the hills. A group of Czechs lead by Joe Young Jr. from Kansas arrived in 1898 searching for a suitable land to start a Czech community, just at the time when large tracts of farmland became available for sale.
At the north end of the valley, there is Shimanek Hill, and below the Shimanek Bridge, one of five covered bridges in the vicinity of the town. Scio is very proud of them because they are rare survivors of the many covered bridges once found in Oregon. Shimanek is the largest of the bridges in the area and features a unique design: the hill and the bridge bearing his name keep alive the memory of the land Shimanek once farmed.
South from Simanek Bridge, on the other end of the straight Richardson Gap Road, looms a white two-story building, the former hall of ZCBJ Lodge Tolstoj, Number 224, known as Bohemian Hall. The hall is in the middle of the fields, and is a private residence now, in the process of slowly being rehabilitated. This lodge was founded in 1911 and built by the sixteen members themselves. They cut logs in the woods above the valley and floated them down the creek that flows just behind the lodge. This lodge was the second one in Scio. The oldest one, Lodge Oregon Number 65, was established in 1899 and did not survive. The lodge held dances, Sokol gatherings, concerts, 4th of July celebrations and it organized a Czech school. It was active until 1987, when it merged with yet another, newer and more centrally located lodge in downtown Scio.
ZCBJ Lodge Scio, Number 226, standing in the center of the town, was built in 1922. Just as when it was new, the building on Main Street remains an important landmark. Lodge Scio was once very active and absorbed all other Oregon lodges before it merged, in 2001, with the lodge in Malin. The Sokol gymnastic equipment is housed there, but it is no longer used. A tribute to the hall appears in a book on the history of Scio:
Down through the years the ZCBJ hall has had its fir floor changed to maple, its old rawhide chairs changed to folding, members have come and gone. The whoops and hollers of the stomping polka and schottische dancers have faded into dim reaches of the old lodge. Finished with the sweeping, I put the broom away and checked the damper on the stove. Subconsciously I wrote, ‘The ZCBJ hall knows much of the Scio past. Still serving the public after 60 years, it stands as a reminder of what one Scio organization did to supply a building that has been utilized by people, Scioans and visitors like.’ I turned out the lights, locked the door on the memories and went home.
Today, more than 20 years later, this great hall still keeps Czech memories of the past but is also very much part of the present life of the entire town. In 1993, the Lodge donated this building to the City of Scio for community purposes. It became the focal point of activities connected with the widely popular annual Linn County Lamb & Wool Fair in combination with the Northwest Champion Sheep Dog Trials held each May. During the rest of the year, the hall is home to community meetings, dances, dinners and concerts.
Further up Main Street is the beautiful and architecturally rich house of Charles Wesely, built in 1913. Toward the edge of town, his brother, Joseph Wesely, built his own house, even larger and more imposing. Perhaps the brothers were trying to outdo each other. Joseph Wesely’s house was carefully restored and since 1986 has been on the National Register of Historical Places for its Craftsman-style architecture and its well preserved agricultural buildings. The Wesely brothers were members of a large Czech family from Polacky in Kansas; some of them came with the first Czech group settling in Scio. For almost 50 years, the brothers were very successful businessmen. They had many businesses - a general merchandise store, a grocery store, a buggy and wagon store, a photo studio, a dance hall and a theater.
The Czechs, who at one time comprised some 170 families, owned farmland all around Scio, operated many businesses in town and were known for their orchestras and bands, are no longer visible as a unique community. If only the buildings could speak...
Scappoose today is a fast-growing bedroom community of nearby metropolitan Portland, connected by a four-lane highway. The south side of Scappoose along this highway is, in essence, one long strip mall, intersected by a short nondescript street with its name misspelled on a local map. It is Havlik Road, named after the first Czech settler in Scappoose, John Havlik, Sr. who purchased farmland here in 1905. Over the years he became a successful farmer and store owner, and the part of town that contained both his farm and the crossroads with his store was once known as Havliksville; today it is known as South Scappoose.
Havlik came from Crete, Nebraska. Why he came to settle in Scappoose and the route he and his family took to get there, is not clear; what is well known are the places of origin of the Czech migrants who learned about Scappoose through personal contact with him and followed him here. Most of them came from Nebraska. Others came from New York, Washington, Minnesota and other states, or directly from Bohemia or Moravia. Some came from nearby Czech communities. In the 1930’s, more than 50 Czech families were living in Scappoose.
A few blocks toward the center of town stands the St. Wenceslaus Church featuring a gold statue of the saint. Completed in 1947, it is the second church on this spot to serve the needs of the growing community. What at first looks like a solid brick wall is in fact only brick veneer over a wood construction. It was originally an army chapel at Fort Stevens on the Pacific coast. Designated army surplus, it was cut in two and barged for some 70 miles up the Columbia River and then pulled over a dike and dragged for more than a mile over the flood plain.
The first church of St. Wenceslaus was a traditional white church building, with a low steeple. Havlik donated two acres of forested land, and the community, consisting at that time of only a handful of people, donated funds and labor. Construction of the building was remarkably fast: in 1911, one year after the work had started, the church was completed and entirely free of debt.
A small cemetery is tucked behind the church. The earliest headstones behind the new parish hall have traditional Czech monument forms and bear inscriptions with all the diacritical marks of the Czech language. But this place of eternal rest did not escape the fast pace of today and almost overnight became surrounded on three sides by a housing development.
The Czech community in Scappoose may never have been very large in numbers but it has always been a strong, faith-based community. Some of the priests were Czech, many from Nebraska. Over the years it has been a birthplace of many nuns, priests and monks. Today the parish of St. Wenceslaus extends over a large geographical area and brings spiritual and social services to a growing and diverse population. There are only a few Czech-speaking people in the parish, but the women, like Czech women everywhere, are hospitable and still make their koláče (“cakes,” specifically, small yeast cakes with various fillings).
Malin is the youngest of the three settlements and is located in a landscape unlike anything Czech immigrants had encountered previously. It is situated in a huge basin of lakes, marshes and volcanic hills in southern Oregon at an altitude of more than 4000 feet. The Klamath River drains the basin and empties into the Pacific Ocean in northern California. The growing season is short, the summers are hot and the winters extremely cold. When the Czech settlers arrived they saw a huge lake and around it sagebrush growing to a height of 10 feet. Most of the land they were going to farm had to be claimed from Tule Lake. The Czechs of 1909 were true pioneers in the harsh environment of the American West.
There is a town called Malin near Kutna Hora in Bohemia, long famous for growing excellent horseradish. Even though none of the Oregon town’s settlers came from there, they adopted the name because of the impressive growth of horseradish they found near a ranch house. Today horseradish is still an important crop, as well as potatoes and hay.
One of the streets in Malin is named Rosicky, in gratitude to the spiritual father of the town. Jan Rosicky lived in Omaha and was the publisher of Hospodář (“The Farmer,” or, in older publications, “The Husbandman”) and the founder of the Český Kolonizační Klub (“Czech Colonization Club”). It was due to his organizational and publishing talents and activities that Malin came into being.
The Czech Colonization Club symbolizes trust in the federal Reclamation Act of 1902 and the irrigation-based farming programs, which were intended to turn the wastelands of the American West into “a blessed paradise.” The Club sent out three scouts to research the possibility of purchasing farmland and settling a Czech group on an irrigated land. They accepted the promise of a notyet- existing town on land that was still under the waters of Tule Lake. Sixty-six Czech families arrived soon after, in September of 1909. The first winter was brutal. The wind blew dust and then snow through the cracks between the boards of their simple, quickly-built cabins. Nevertheless during that difficult first year they managed to start a school so that their children could learn English. Gradually they organized National Czech Farmers, Sokol, a Czech library, and the ZCBJ Lodge Number 222 named Krásná Budoucnost (“Beautiful Future”) to commemorate the promise of their new home. Eventually Malin became a prosperous self-sufficient farming town. In spite of isolation from other Czechs and in spite of the hardships they suffered at the beginning, very few of the original settlers left.
Today there are witnesses to the passage of time in the old buildings still standing on the original farmsteads. Some are used for storage; some just sit there, abandoned. Small as they are, they were once a great improvement on the lean-tos with leaking roofs in which the families lived immediately upon their arrival in 1909. One particular house has a story to tell. It was built in about 1914, became a home to a family with first three, then eventually nine children. The mother of this family wrote a moving story about her life on the farm. She did the hard farm work alongside the men, and in the evening she did all the other chores needed to feed and clothe the family: she washed on a washboard, mended and knitted socks, and canned huge amounts of fruits and vegetables.
Today much of Malin history is found across the state line in the town of Tulelake, California, at the Museum of Local History located at the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fair grounds. Exhibits cover the Klamath Basin as part of both states and address its very rich nature and history: the volcanic geology, high desert environment, wildlife, native tribes (the Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin), the Applegate trail of 1846, the Modoc wars ending in 1873, the Japanese relocation camp of World War II, the camps for German and Italian prisoners, the large-scale government irrigation projects, and the homesteads of veterans of both world wars. One section is dedicated to Malin. There are historical photographs and objects used in the daily lives of the first Czech settlers. The Sokol organization there was once very strong, and a poster announces the Sokol festival of the entire Pacific region to be held in Malin in July 1928. The display of Indian clubs reminds us of the graceful and rhythmic but physically very demanding exercise performed by Sokol women.
ZCBJ Lodge Krásná Budoucnost is still active, the only one in Oregon and one of the few remaining lodges in the West. Every February, the annual jaternice – or liver sausage - festival takes place (in 2009 it was the 49th) with locally grown and prepared sausages, potatoes, horseradish, and excellent beer. The dinner is followed by dancing and a performance of the beseda, (a dance suite based on elements of Czech and Moravian folk dances).
The City Park is Malin’s true jewel. Laid out and planted soon after the settlers arrived with its lush lawns and magnificent trees and a swimming pool, it forms a green oasis in the dry environment of the high desert.
The theater on Main Street, which had seen many movies and big band performances over the decades, has long been standing empty. Across the street, however, the famous Kalina Hardware, owned by a descendant of the store founder, is still open for business. And on a mural facing a parking lot, figures in folk costumes dance their beseda.
Thirty miles away, in the City of Klamath Falls, is another, less obvious reminder of original Czech settlement in the area: Mia and Pia Pizzeria and Brewery. An inquisitive visitor will discover that this is no ordinary pizza-and-beer restaurant but a great Czech success story. In the equivalent of the saying, “when you get a lemon, make lemonade,” one hard-working family of Czech descendants turned milk into beer by using the buildings and equipment of their struggling dairy as the foundation for a successful microbrewery. One of the many beers produced there, Lahoda pivo (“Lahoda beer”), is named after Emmet and Anna Lahoda, the first couple to be married in Malin. A young woman with that same last name serves beer at the bar.
The town of Malin has seen many changes and struggles during its existence. Today, the successful agriculture based on largescale irrigation is threatened with water claims by other groups in the Klamath Basin and a long-lasting draught. Water has become an increasingly scarce natural resource.
Still, its very existence is a reason to celebrate. Over the years, every fifth and tenth year in July, the town holds a gathering commemorating the first settlers and honoring the solid work of the Czech farming community to which people travel from far away to participate. The centennial celebration in July 2009 was a particularly joyous and grand festival lasting several days.
There are many visible Czech footprints in Oregon, but they are only one part of the story. As a member of Sokol from Scio expressed it:
So often we look only to the past and all the glories that were. This past June we had a Slet (“Sokol festival”)… We didn’t fill Soldier Field [in Chicago]… We didn’t even fill the stands, but we did fill… the hearts of those who watched.viii
The wealth of the Czech heritage in Oregon is in the consciousness of the people, in their memories and in their hearts.Lida O’Donnell
A letter from Hana Sammer
Today, on the 28th day of September 2009, I lost my husband, my best friend, my teacher... someone who believed in me and helped me anytime I turned to him.
Jan Amos Sammer was born on 15th November 1920 in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, as the youngest of four children. We were married in 1948 and have two children, Helena and Jan.
In 1966 he got our family out of our old country, which had been his longtime wish. He was helped in his courageous decision to look for a new life abroad by the words of his father, who had always urged his children to leave at the earliest opportunity, as the centre of Europe has always been a troublespot. His father enabled him to learn English and French during vacations in summer school, sending him to England, Belgium and Switzerland. His best foreign language was German.
That knowledge of languages made our life much easier when with two teenage children and my father we sought refuge initially in Austria and subsequently in Canada.
It wasn’t an easy beginning, but we were a good team to fight together.
At the age of 47 he started University in Montreal while working full time; it took him five years to graduate with a business degree, devoting evenings, weekends and all vacation time to his studies. He usually took two courses during the summer and three over the winter. Shortly after graduating, he found a suitable job where he stayed until retirement.
His years in retirement were the best ones of his life. He started to fight for Czech Americans, whose property had been unjustly confiscated under the Communist regime and who were prevented from claiming it back since on becoming U.S. citizens, they had to renounce their Czech citizenship.
He helped many of them get their cases taken up by the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva and receive rulings in their favour.
In his family on his mother’s side, heart disease was the major cause of death. Hardly anyone lived past the age of 70.
He died just seven weeks short of his 89th birthday. He contracted pneumonia and passed away suddenly in North York General Hospital.
It was so sudden that as I write these lines the same day I cannot yet fully comprehend the fact.Hana Sammer
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