THE CZECH INFLUENCE IN FAYETTE COUNTY
By Carolyn Sumbera Heinsohn


     Since our immigrant ancestors chose Fayette County, Texas as their new home in America, this review of the history of Czechs in the county will give readers an insight into their lives, contributions and accomplishments. We are so fortunate to be the descendants of remarkable ancestors, who had incredible integrity, courage and fortitude – they “blazed the trail”, so that we can now enjoy the fruits of their labor.

     Texas has always had a propensity for attracting liberty-loving people. Her population swelled in the nineteenth century as a result of mass immigration and the influx of many pioneers who were the oppressed of other lands.  Newcomers, including the Czechs, were attracted to her natural resources and wide expanses of available land.  In the Czech lands, the climate and soil conditions were not conducive to adequate crop production; living conditions were crowded; poverty was prevalent, and few people had the privilege of owning anything more than a small amount of land.  In addition, the laws of primogeniture stated that all of the family property would be inherited by the oldest son or daughter if there were no males in a family, leaving nothing for the younger children.  Many Czechs were also seeking political and religious freedoms, as well as avoiding conscription into the Austrian army under the rule of the Habsburgs, who were “Germanizing” everything in Bohemia and Moravia, making German the official language and changing the names of Czech towns and villages to German names.  This caused much resentment among the Czech people, who felt that the Germans were robbing them of their language, heritage and identity.
     Although it has been estimated that approximately five percent of the population of Texas are of Czech or Slovak extraction, the percentage is far greater in Fayette County, which has been designated by some as the “Cradle of Czech Immigration”, because more Czechs came to or through Fayette County than any other county in Texas.
     The first small groups of Czech immigrants to Texas settled in Austin County, east of Fayette County, dispersing themselves among the German settlers.  Although there was some animosity between the two ethnic groups in the Czech lands, the Czechs often gravitated to the German communities in Texas, because many Czechs could at least understand the German language due to the large number of German colonists who had moved into the borderlands of Bohemia and Moravia beginning in the 13th century.  Not knowing English, the Czechs felt less isolated and could communicate with German merchants or officials. As the numbers of Czech immigrants increased, they spilled over into Fayette County, usually going through Fayetteville, where some of the earlier settlers offered their advice or acted as land agents for the newcomers.  The topography of Fayette County was similar to many areas of Bohemia and Moravia, so it provided an attraction for the Czech settlers, most of whom left their homeland, knowing that they would never see it again.  Eventually, there were twenty Czech communities in Fayette County, more than any other county in the state.
     There were a few Czechs who were among the early immigrants into Texas – Karel Postl, known by his pen name, Charles Sealsford, was a wandering writer who visited Texas as early as 1823, writing his tales in his book Das Kajutenbuch (The Cabin Book); Frederick Lemsky, who took part in the Battle of San Jacinto, playing the fife in the Texas band; Bohumir Menzl, the first Czech Catholic priest who arrived in 1840 and served Catholics in New Braunfels, Fredericksburg, Castroville and D’Hannis; and Anthony Dignowity, a physician, inventor and writer who settled in San Antonio in 1847. 
     Reverend Josef Arnost Bergman, who was born in Bohemia, came to Cat Spring, Texas in 1850 with plans to establish a new Czech Brethren community.  His letters written to friends in the Czech lands told of the opportunities that awaited those willing to immigrate.  He is credited with providing the stimulus to subsequent large scale Bohemian and Moravian immigration to Texas and has been described as the “father” of Czech immigration.  One of his letters somehow got into the hands of Josef Lidumil Lesikar, who lived in northeast Bohemia, an area that was severely depressed after several years of bad harvests.  In 1851, a group of 74 oppressed, hungry peasants, longing to escape their poverty, left their homeland to an uncertain future in Texas.  Unfortunately, many did not find a better life.  The conditions on their overcrowded ship were instrumental in causing the deaths of 36 of the immigrants.  Others died en route from New Orleans through Galveston and Houston to Cat Spring.  Those who survived endured loneliness, privation, and suffered many of the hardships associated with living in a foreign country, but nevertheless, they looked to the future with the hope that their efforts would eventually be rewarded, not only for themselves, but for future generations.  This was to be a repeat story for many years. 
     The Czech immigrants brought along the love of their heritage, their ancient and illustrious lineage, their passionate desire for freedom, plus their enterprising work ethics, all of which helped them to survive, flourish and progress from pioneer privation to representation in the fields of literature, science, medicine, art, law and politics.  The contributions of the Czechs in Texas were aptly expressed by Rev. R.D. Miller in an article published in The Bohemian Review in 1917, “They (the Czechs) are among the most progressive of our new citizens.  They are making great contributions to our economic, political and cultural life.  They have an intense love of liberty which makes them most appreciative of all that America stands for.”
     Wenzel Matejowsky, born in Nechanice, Bohemia, came to Texas in 1850, eventually settling in northern Fayette County, where he named his settlement Nechanitz after his village of origin.  A second group of Bohemians arrived in Austin County in late 1853.  They initially were not a cohesive group, but rather scattered out among the other settlers, building primitive dwellings and buying or renting land for planting.  Thomas Batla, who came with this group, settled at Fayetteville; Vinc Rypl, also from Bohemia, came in 1854.  Thomas Hruska arrived in the Ellinger area in 1855, along with Josef and Paul Jecmenek, Josef Lastovica, Josef Hlavaty and Jan, Josef and Pavel Wychopen. 
     A group of Moravians founded Dubina, the first Moravian community west of the Colorado River in 1856.  Valentin Haidusek, Josef Peter, Sr., Ignac Sramek and Ignac Muzny were members of this group of courageous pioneers whose fortitude was tested as they had to endure a bitter winter with a makeshift shelter and little food.  Augustin Haidusek, the son of Valentin, became the first Czech mayor in Texas, a county judge, a state legislator, a bank president, a Czech newspaper owner and editor, and the first Czech to serve on the board of directors for the Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College.
     Another group of Moravians from Trojanovice, who had traveled on the same ship with the immigrants who founded Dubina and a group that remained in Fayetteville, also arrived in the Bluff community south of La Grange in 1856.  They founded their own town, known as Moravan, which later was renamed Hostyn in 1925 in honor of a sacred place of pilgrimage in Moravia.  Some of these settlers were Joseph Janda, Alois and Benjamin Klimicek, Frank Koza, Frank Marak and Valentin Kolibal.  About the same time, Matej Novak arrived near the community of Mulberry in southwest Fayette County.  Additional Czech settlers arrived there in the next decade, and the community was eventually renamed Praha after Prague (Praha), the largest city in Bohemia.  These Czech pioneers along with others overcame the odds to rise above the difficulties, acquire knowledge, learn a new language and advance their station in life.  Some achieved positions of affluence and prominence.
     The acquisition of land has always been a high priority for Czechs, probably due to the fact that land was scarce in their homeland, plus owning land meant that an adequate livelihood could be provided for their families.  Considering the fact that most of the immigrants were from the cottage class who owned only a few acres of land, usually less than ten, and that political rights and social prestige were bestowed to property holders, they valued land ownership above all else.  It became a criterion of success, not only for full-time farmers, but also for the minority group of craftsmen and professionals, who worked at farm labor in addition to their main occupations.  Quoting from U.S. Senate documents written in 1933, “As a farmer, the Czech ranks high.  He farms intelligently and uses the most improved implements and methods of cultivation.”
     In the early 1850s, Texas offered better opportunities for agricultural pursuits than any other state, plus there was a longer growing season which provided for better crop production.  By 1856, there were hundreds of Czech families in Fayette County.  However, droughts, floods and insects often destroyed their crops.  In spite of hunger, sickness and sometimes despair, the Czechs maintained their faith and their courage.  They were frugal in their expenditures, saving almost all of their earnings in order to purchase more land.  When the price of land increased in Fayette, Austin, Washington and Lavaca counties due to supply and demand, Czech families moved to other newly-settled communities that were suited for farming, predominantly in Colorado, Bell, Williamson, Burleson, McLennan, Wharton and Ft. Bend counties.  When the availability of good land in those counties diminished, they moved on to Bastrop, Victoria, Falls, Baylor, Runnels, Ellis, Jackson, Bee, Liberty and Brazoria counties.  There were a few settlements scattered in other counties as well, including south Texas.  Many small communities that were predominantly Anglo in the pre-Civil War era were transformed into Czech communities as they moved in and bought farms from the Anglo landowners, who could no longer afford to operate their large farms without slave labor.  Many of the Anglo landowners moved elsewhere to pursue other occupations.
     Czech farm families could not afford to hire help, so the success of the farm depended upon the cooperation of all the family members without consideration of remuneration or individual self-interest.  Their family values and attitudes were typically based on conformity and group activity rather than independence.
     Soon after these early immigrants arrived, they were thrust into the conflict between the North and South.  They were fleeing the conscription laws of Austria and were now expected to join the Confederate army to fight and die for causes such as slavery that they could not understand or accept.  Some men hid out in the woods to escape conscription; others agreed to haul cotton to Brownsville in lieu of active service.  However, there were many who valiantly fought in a war they despised.
     Education was important to the Czechs.  The illiteracy rate among the immigrants was low because of compulsory education in their homeland.  Fayette County was soon taking the lead in establishing schools.  The Czech Catholic School built at Bluff (Hostyn) in 1868 was most probably the first of its kind in the United States.  In 1870, the first Czech-English school was established at Praha.  The public school system was very poorly organized until the 1870s.  Eventually, the Czech community schools were incorporated into the public school system as it improved and expanded.  In spite of the importance of education, the need to have children help with farm work resulted in a high absentee rate.  This was also the reason why few Czech children went to high school.  The 1871 law requiring that English be the primary language of instruction in all public schools was often ignored until 1883 when Judge Augustin Haidusek, who was the ex-officio school superintendent of Fayette County, announced that he was prepared to enforce the law.  Most Czechs agreed with his philosophy, because they realized that their children would need to learn English before they could become successful American citizens.  The Komensky Society was organized by teachers of Czech origin in the 1890s to help improve public education among Czechs.
     From the very beginning, Czech immigrants began showing their patriotism and devotion to their new homeland.  Writing in the Svoboda, a Czech immigrant made this profound statement:
     “We left the country of our birth with the intention of making America our permanent home.  We did this of our good will; no one forced us into it.  We selected the United States for our mother country; therefore, our identical interest is here with these other citizens…Anything that is beneficial to them cannot be harmful to us. Whoever recognizes this must recognize that our sacred duty is to become American citizens.  When we do this, we are obligated to support the American institutions not only because the law requires it, but because it is our moral obligation.  If we do not like some of the institutions, we have a right to point out their faults and make efforts to have them corrected.  Our nationality is well suited for American citizenship.  We love liberty; we are honest, industrious, economical, and law abiding.  These are essentials of a good citizen.
     Every sensible person understands that the most important part of a democracy is its educated citizens.  In a democracy, the people attend to their affairs through their representatives.  In order to get this work done well, the citizens themselves must understand it.  That which we do not understand well we are incompetent to manage.  The idea that a person who does know the English language can be as useful as an American citizen who knows the language is truly ridiculous.  The people who do not understand are incapable of indulging in politics.”
     The hunger for cultural and social activities led to the formation of various organizations in Fayette County.  In 1875, Jindrich Parma and Frantisek Lidiak organized an amateur theatrical society at Bluff, which later became Hostyn.  Similar societies were founded in Praha and Engle.  Admissions were donated to the local schools.  Reading clubs became popular.  The first in Fayette County was organized at Ross Prairie in 1871 at the Osveta School.  After WWI, a Sokol society, which combined studies for the development of the mind with a systematic training for the body with gymnastics and dance, was founded at Bluff.
     Fraternal organizations, that were mutual aid societies offering life insurance for their members, were very popular among Texas Czechs.  The CSPS, one of the earliest fraternal orders in the U.S., had its first Texas lodge in Ellinger.  The SPJST was a new fraternal organization founded in La Grange in 1897 by a group of secessionists who were dissatisfied with the CSPS policies.  The SPJST became the most powerful and influential Texas fraternal organization.  The first SPJST lodge was founded in Fayetteville, followed by Roznov, Ammannsville, Praha and Dubina.  Two of the prominent early leaders in the SPJST were I.J. Gallia of Engle, a successful merchant and real estate promoter; and J.R. Kubena of Fayetteville, a banker, state representative and member of the board of directors of Texas A&M College.
     At the urging of Rev. Josef Chromcik to organize an independent union of Texas Catholic lodges, the KJT (Czech Catholic Union of Texas) was incorporated in Bluff in 1889.  This Catholic men’s fraternal order began with four lodges in Fayette County: Cistern, Bluff, Ammannsville and Dubina.  The women later organized their own benevolent society called the KJZT.  Additional fraternal organizations were created, including one for farmers to encourage the improvement of agriculture and horticulture and one for the Czech Protestants. In addition to the fraternal orders, two organizations were also formed for the protection of their property: the RVOS, (Farmers Mutual Protective Association) and SVPS (Slavonic Mutual Fire Insurance Association of Texas).
     Approximately 75% of the Czech immigrants identified themselves as Roman Catholics.  Hostyn, Dubina and Ammannsville were the first Czech settlements in Texas that can be described as totally Catholic.  The first Catholic Church in Fayette County, St. Joseph’s, was a small log chapel built at Ross Prairie in 1855, an area that initially was settled by Germans, but later attracted many Czechs.  The log structure was replaced by a small frame church in 1859.  It was moved two miles south to Live Oak Hill in 1861.  The Czechs later changed the name of the church site to Hostyn Hill (near Ellinger) after a revered pilgrimage place in Moravia.  The name of the parish was changed to St. Mary’s in 1879 when a larger church was erected, probably because of the connection of the Blessed Mother to the original Hostyn.  The Czech settlers in Praha built their first church in 1866.  The Czech Catholics in Texas were more successful in establishing parishes and schools than in any other state.  In 1914, Czech Catholics established two of their own newspapers, the Novy domov in Hallettsville and the Nasinec in Granger.
     The first Czech-language Protestant services in America were held by Rev. Josef Zvolanek in 1855 at Ross Prairie near Fayetteville.  Rev. Jindrich Juren, a Czech minister who settled in Fayetteville in the early 1880s, spent years as a circuit minister to hundreds of Czech Protestants in several small rural communities. The Czech Moravian Brethren Church, a spin-off of the Unity of the Brethren founded by Jan Hus, was organized in 1890 by Rev. Josef Opocensky.  In 1900, the only Presbyterian congregation in Texas with a large number of Czech members was located in Fayetteville.  The majority of the members, however, were German.
     The most important art form among Texas Czechs is music.  A popular Czech proverb translated states, “Every Czech is a musician”.  Almost every family had at least one member who was musically-inclined.  Other families were musical as a whole and founded family bands, such as the Baca family of Fayetteville, the most famous of the Texas Czech musical families.  Josef Baca of Bordovice, Moravia, came from a “musical family”.  He settled on a farm near Fayetteville in 1860, naming the area after his home village.  The Civil War and the hardships of pioneer life prevented the organization of a formal Baca musical group until 1892, when Josef’s son, Frank J., formed the Baca Family Band, which included all thirteen of his children.  There were several Baca Bands that evolved from this original band, all with the distinctive “Baca Beat”, highlighted in some of the bands by the use of the “cymbal”, a type of Moravian hammer dulcimer.
     A very popular radio polka program, “Adolph and the Boys”, sponsored by Gold Chain Flour, was broadcast live from the Cozy Movie Theater in Schulenburg from 1935 to1940.  Later the live radio programs, featuring Czech music, were replaced by disc jockey programs which continued to remain popular with Texas Czechs.  Leroy Matocha, a well-known band leader from Fayetteville, produced Czech polka programs that aired from stations in Central Texas for decades.  There are still polka programs broadcasted on radio stations throughout Central Texas.
       Dances were first held in private homes or on outdoor platforms until the fraternal lodges grew enough in membership to build halls in almost every Czech community by the end of the nineteenth century. These halls were the gathering places for weekly dances, weddings, reunions and other celebrations.  There were several dances held throughout the county each Saturday night.  The 1930s were the golden age for Czech polka dances and radio polka shows.  World War II was instrumental in breaking up many of the polka bands in Fayette County.  The golden era of Czech ethnic folk music would never again be as popular, especially as rock and roll and country-western music became more popular with the younger generation.
        The Texas Czechs who were literate were very interested in reading material in their own language.  The Czech language press introduced Czechs to the American way of life and helped them understand typical American concerns regarding laws and customs, as well as national and local news, therefore potentiating their assimilation into the American community.  On the other hand, it also helped to provide cohesiveness among the Czechs and fostered the preservation of their culture.  In a 1933 U.S. Senate document regarding immigration from Europe, a statement is recorded that Czech immigrants hold the distinction of being the most literate of all immigrants who came to America.
     The first Czech-language newspaper in Texas, the Texan, was first published in February, 1879 in La Grange.  In 1890, it was bought by Frantisek Lidiak and renamed Slovan (Slav).  The Vestnik, which was the official newspaper of the SPJST fraternal organization was printed for awhile in the office of the Svoboda in La Grange and later was moved to Fayetteville until 1932, when it was moved to West, Texas.  Augustin Haidusek, a well-known political and cultural leader, was the founder of the Svoboda in 1885 and served as the editor of the paper that was published by a group of shareholders.  The Svoboda had 4000 readers during its peak.  For many years the Svoboda, under Haidusek’s leadership, played a significant role in influencing the life and education of Czechs in Texas.  In the early part of the 20th century, the owner and editor of the Svoboda was State Senator L.J. Sulak of La Grange, who was also a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas. 
     The Czechs in Fayette County, as well as throughout the state, developed a successful ethnic culture that was considered an important force until World War II.  They assimilated certain parts of the Anglo-Texas culture and rejected others.  The Texas Czech culture progressed and changed through the years, but still remained Czech in nature.  World War II caused an upheaval in Czech communities; young men left the farms, never to return.  The trends of urbanization and technological growth, better communications and general mobility of the population increased the rate of assimilation into the American society.  Czechs married persons outside of their communities and ethnic group, thus further diluting their heritage.
     The loss of contact with the Czech homeland following the Communist takeover, plus the lack of immigration had a great effect on the Texas Czech culture.  Ethnic awareness faded for a number of years until the sixties, when there was a re-awakening.  Czech polka festivals and community celebrations became more popular.  The Praha annual church feast on August 15th is attended by thousands of Czechs who return to “Maticka Praha” (Mother Praha) to enjoy Czech food, music and camaraderie.
     Czech choral and dance groups are again popular with lovers of Czech music. Some groups are associated with organizations, such as the SPJST; while others are community sponsored.  The Fayette Czech Singers and Dancers participated in an international music festival in 1993 in Roznov p.R., Czech Republic, which is located in the area of Moravia where many of the Fayette County Moravian immigrants originated.  This particular group is sponsored by the Fayette Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society, one of several organizations that helps preserve the culture and heritage of Texas Czechs.  The Texas Czech Genealogical Society, a spin-off of the Czech Heritage Society, appeals to Texas Czechs in search of their roots. 
      Representatives from all of the major Texas Czech organizations gathered together in 1995 to formulate a plan for a state Czech library, which eventually evolved to also include a museum and archives, now known as the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center.  La Grange in Fayette County was chosen for the site of the facility because of the size of the site, its central location, plus the significance of Fayette County in the history of Texas Czechs.  The Center, which was dedicated in 2009, now includes a genealogical research library with over 10,000 books, a meeting room, museum and gift shop in the main building, plus a Texas Czech village and amphitheater.  The Texas Czech Music Museum has also been established in the Kalich House, which served as the original visitor center. 
     Czech language classes are available throughout the state for many Texas Czechs who cannot speak the language fluently, but who are interested in preserving this aspect of their heritage.  It is still possible to hear the older generation speaking fluent Czech in Fayette County, most commonly the Moravian dialect.
     Since the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, there has been a tremendous exchange of information between Texas Czechs and the Czech Republic.  Groups of Texas Czechs have flocked annually to the Czech Republic since the Velvet Revolution in 1989, visiting the villages of origin of their ancestors and frequently finding distant relatives.  Native Czechs are also visiting Texas to visit their newly found relatives and friends and the state that attracted so many Czechs.
     The ethnic culture of Texas Czechs is experiencing a definite re-growth as the older people struggle to keep many of the familiar aspects of their heritage, and the younger generation is seeking its roots for a sense of identity in the melting pot of ethnic diversity in our country.  Our immigrant ancestors would be so proud!

Sources:
Hudson, Estelle and Henry R. Maresh.   
     Czech Pioneers of the Southwest,    
     Southwest Press, Inc., Dallas, TX, 1934.
“Immigration Conditions in Europe”, Senate
      Documents, vol. XII, 61st Congress, 3rd
      Session, 1933, page 383                     
Machann, Clinton and James W. Mendl.  
      Krasna Amerika, Eakin Press, Austin,
      1983.
Miller, Rev. Kenneth D., “Bohemians in
     Texas”, The Bohemian Review, Vol. I,
     No. 4, Bohemian Review Company,
     Chicago, May 1917, page 12
  Svoboda, La Grange, TX, January 14, 1889


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