If you love genealogy and the history that goes along with it, then this new resource is for you.
Do you love reading the stories of our ancestors as they, themselves, told them? I sure do and I’m willing to bet you do too. It is one of my favorite aspects of genealogy, ancestry, and family history. They add the human touch to our data, dates, and facts.
Previously only available in it’s original Czech and published in the Amerikán Národní Kalendár in 1895, Volume XVIII, Onward To Our Past® came across this article written by Czech-American newspaperman and author, Hugo Chotek, almost by accident. While working on our project translating the 190+ page book on the history of the Czech community of Cleveland, Ohio, I noted a seemingly innocuous sentence that grabbed my attention big time. Chotek made the comment that in 1894 he had spent a year of his life in Cleveland finding and interviewing the very earliest of Czech immigrants to this booming industrial city.
I had read the chapter in on Ohio Czechs written by Jan Habenicht in his History of Czechs in America, which was translated to English by Miroslav Koudelka, but had longed to read and learn more. I thought if I could find this publication there might be some worthwhile information in it.
Even though the Amerikán Národní Kalendár was published from the 1800s to 1957 and was a highly regarding mainstay in the Czech community, it was difficult to find. However, I did find that the Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad housed at the Joseph Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago holds the most complete set. After some wonderful help by the director, Ms. June Pachuta Farris, I had my copy and our translation project began.
Rather than tell you what I felt about the value of this genealogical gem of a resource I will let you read it for yourself. So sit back, relax, and read on:
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History of the First Czechs in Cleveland, Ohio
The founding of any new settlement is often a gripping tale, reflecting the struggles of the settlers in overcoming the challenges of nature and harsh conditions, and even using them to their advantage.
Each step towards advancing the community, no matter how small, comes with many privations, much suffering, and an innumerable number of hardships, which highlight the need for self-reliance and determination.
These qualities are particularly vital during the foundation, growth and development of a new settlement, dependent on many natural conditions requiring careful explanation. But if such hardships are faced with unyielding endurance, energy and intelligence, developments occur at a faster pace. Such iron determination, expended energy and what we might consider an American obsession have led to the miraculous development of America, which in a decade saw greater advancements than were accomplished during an entire century in Europe.
You need only look at the birth, growth and development of such large American cities as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Omaha, Minneapolis and St. Paul to see this. Such an explosion of growth is almost fairytale-like in nature and the average European can only gawk in wonder.
One interesting case of this explosive development is the birth and growth of Cleveland, and many Czech Clevelanders will certainly appreciate a short introduction before I launch into an account of the earliest beginnings of Czech immigration and the foundation and growth of Czech communities in this city.
The First Settlers
In the spring of 1786, an Englishman by the name of Hawder settled at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River. He was a trader of flour and bacon between Duncan & Wilson from the state’s interior and Caldwell & Elliot of Detroit. He lived in a tent, surviving by hunting and exploring the beautiful countryside while waiting for the goods to arrive. At the start of April he received his first supply, delivered by 90 horses and 30 cowboys. It took six such trips before the entire shipment was delivered, after which it could be sent on to Detroit by Mackinaw.
This trade brought greater awareness of the area, and it wasn’t long before the first settlement was created in Cuyahoga by German evangelists John Heckewelder and David Zeisberger. The remaining Moravian Indians, who had been baptized by the Moravian Brothers, also settled at the mouth of Cuyahoga River, adding to the small community.
But this first settlement failed to take root (most likely because their leaders were priests and religiously fanatical), and fell apart after a year. The evangelists parted ways, each taking with them their small band of faithful. Heckenwelder headed south while Zeisberger formed a new settlement on Black River: further proof that two roosters don’t like to share the same coop.
In 1789 the US government signed an agreement with the Indians to take control of all property west of the Cuyahoga up to the great Mississippi River and south to the Ohio River, naming the area Reserve. In 1795 a motion was passed to put these three million acres up for sale, and one, General Moses Cleaveland, immediately took them up on this offer, representing a company that purchased thousands of acres along the Cuyahoga. But this worried the Indians, who responded by ambushing expeditions of surveyors and causing all sorts of trouble to block the settlement plans. Moses Cleaveland and his crew pitched camp at the mouth of the Cuyahoga and began to negotiate with the Chiefs of six large Indian tribes, finally winning them over with cattle and one hundred gallons of whisky.
This meant the surveying work could go ahead as planned, and the required storage and other buildings were quickly constructed. In honor of its founder, the new station was called Cleveland.
In September of 1796 the first nine streets were measured out, with 520 acres set aside for the city itself. Its dimensions followed the designs and plans of head surveyor Seth Peasea exactly. The first street was Superior, followed by Lake, Federal, Huron, Ohio, Erie, Ontario, Miami, Water and Mandrake. Township surrounded the new town from the side of the Cuyahoga river, which lay east of the city of Euclid.
By 1797 this small settlement was home to many new immigrants, the most prominent of whom were James Kingsbury, Major Lorenzo Carter, Ezekiel Hawley, David Eldridge and John Morgan. But severe illness spread that summer, and many of the settlers did not survive. This encouraged many to move out from the lower marshlands, higher up and farther away from the river. Major Kingsbury built the first cottage there and named it Doan’s Corners (where the streets of Kinsman and Woodland presently cross and where the fine building of Woodland Ave. Bank presently stands). He was soon followed by many other families, who settled in Newburg. It was here, in Newburg, that the area’s first school was constructed in 1800, Sarah Doan becoming its first teacher. This first community of Newburg was really the birthplace of the larger city to follow. The community’s first wine press was also built in the same year.
Cleveland as Township and City
From 1800 to 1820 the small settlement continued to expand, albeit slowly. The canal joining Lake Erie with the Ohio River was completed at the beginning of 1827, after 10 years of construction. It went as far as Akron and played an important role in the hamlet’s growth. Many farmers lived in the area and made good use of the community, since its harbor imported and exported many goods.
But the real growth began in 1832, once the canal was completed and Lake Erie successfully connected with the great Ohio River. At that time the community’s population numbered less than 1,100.
The settlement’s first publication, the Cleveland Gazette and Commercial Register, commenced publication on July 31 of 1818, and the first steamboat to dock into Cleveland, the Walk in the Water, came in September of 1818. The Catholics built their first church in 1835 on Columbus Street, the Jews their first synagogue on Eagle Street. The first shipment of coal, which has since become such a valued heating fuel, was received with great reluctance by the local populace. No one would even take that “dirty, black, smelly and smoldering rock” free of charge, and for a long time Henry Newberry, owner of the local coal mine, had to put a stop to further orders. And why not, as beautiful wood could be had in abundance for free?
By 1835 Cleveland had a population of 5,080, a large part of whom settled in Newburg, which required the widening of the Newburg Road (now Broadway) from 66 feet to 99.
That year there was a particularly strong flood of immigration to the country. Both Cleveland and the rest of Cuyahoga County received their share of the influx, and the population increased to 7,954 by 1846.
This period also saw the arrival of the very first Czech immigrants.
Cleveland’s First Czechs and their Experiences
After extensive and thorough research I discovered that the first Czech to arrive in Cleveland was not, as many like to believe, Hladík (I could not determine his first name, even from those who knew him or heard of him, as none remembered more than his surname) but either a man named Adams (a musician and music teacher) or a certain Gottfried, followed by Fuchs and Umlauf. Because Leopold Levy and Bernard Weidenthal, Czech Jews, gave the best and most detailed report on who had moved to Cleveland in the spring of 1849, it would be in our best interests if I were to quote their words verbatim.
Leopold Levy and Bernard Weidenthal
When I entered the shearing store owned by Leopold Levy and located some way further along St. Clair Street, I was amiably received by a gray-haired, aged, and small-framed gentleman. His energetic character, cool and intelligent gaze, and smooth, almost oriental complexion gave him the air of a much younger man. My entire meeting with him made a great impression on me, as he did not appear as scheming, cunning, hard and avaricious as one might expect from his people. Rather, my impression was one of forthright honesty and jovial good thinking and character, reflected in every aspect of his business relations.
This was confirmed by many of the older Czechs who knew and did business with him during the ‘60s and ‘70s and who proclaimed that Leopold, fluent in English, would help them in many times of need, both obligingly and free of charge.
The old man spoke clear and fluent Czech and expressed himself quite articulately. From his movements and manner of speech, it was evident that he received a good education when young, which the reader will most certainly discern from his recount.
On learning of the purpose of my visit, the old man was immediately willing to oblige me. He called his daughter to join us in sitting in the comfort of his private residence, and after a moment of deliberation, he proceeded as follows.
“We all have our own fantasies, dreams and ideals. One might dream of wealth, another of love, and yet another of respect and fame. But these are not my dreams. I pondered on the sad state of my brethren and suffered as I watched how the local Christians regarded all of us during the ‘30s and ‘40s with disdain, a prejudice which continues in many developed societies still today. I was endowed with a greater sensitivity and compassion than is perhaps good for a poor Jew like me, but it is for this reason that I have dreamed of equality among all and greater personal freedom, rather than wealth and fame – as odd as this may seem to you. After all, a Jew is a person too, and there are probably more of us than you think whose hearts are in the right place and who are more noble-minded and honest than we are generally assumed to be. As for the worries of most Jews in the past and today, you can thank Christendom for those. Although I’m not trying to justify the actions of some of my people, as anyone well-versed in history knows the suffering of these people and know who is to blame.”
The old man paused to think for a moment, and then continued: “Like that of many Jews brought up in a poor household, my youth was sad and miserable. My upbringing was full of injustices, ridicule, contempt and torment, as the village boys would find pleasure in throwing rocks at us, pulling our hair, heckling us and harshly berating us. This is one of the reasons I was glad to leave my family home and birthplace (Smetanova Lhota, Písek region) in 1826, and to head to Prague, where I was to learn the art of commerce, with a joyful heart and high hopes. I found I could breath more easily in the rare atmosphere of that beautiful city of a thousand spires, quite opposed to the stultifying air of those backward villages ruled only by superstition, ignorant belief, and personal malevolence. However, I could not find that for which my heart hungered, as even here I was treated with that harsh malice woven into the very fabric of Christians from their first suckle of milk.
I slowly grew into a man, and at the age of 23 heard my first reports of a wonderful country across the ocean, a country where complete personal freedom reigned, where one’s status, family or religious inclination bore no merit. This was a land flowing with milk and honey; where even the rocks were golden.
Such reports stirred such a tempest within me that I immediately resolved to go to America, not because of the rivers of gold flowing in the streets, or so that I could live as a king without worries, work or exertion, but simply because I wanted to live somewhere as a free man. Up until then I’d been nothing more than a dog that every scoundrel could kick and bully. If America were really such a land of promise, I could imagine spending the rest of my life there. Consider now that I have been running my business here for almost 45 years, and that in spite of frequent opportunities to acquire greater wealth, I stayed comparatively quite poor. This small house and store is all that I own. But I’m digressing. Forgive me; the mind is slower than it used to be.
Once I had made my decision, I hurried home to ask for the opinion of my parents. But these promising reports reached my father earlier than I did, and by the time I reached him he had firmly set his sights on leaving. My tidings had therefore not surprised them at all, and as any mathematician would surmise: “Go ahead and take a look. It costs less to send one person as opposed to seven or eight, and one stands a better chance of getting back, as opposed to an entire family. If it will look good there, we’ll come after you; if not, you’ll get back easier.” Others taken with the feverish obsession to emigrate surmised the same.
Due to various unforeseen obstacles it was not possible to depart that same year (1848) and I was forced to delay my departure until the following year.
I returned to Prague and confided in my friend Bernard Weidenthal. He was a few years older, born in 1813 in the village of Vestec, Prácheňský region, and more a more serious sort than I. We discussed the matter, hatched a plan for the future and dreamed of unrestricted living in a country of equality and freedom. Bernard was of almost the same opinion as I, and his aspirations and desires were closely aligned with mine. He was more of an idealist than a materialist, so the allure of shiny metal didn’t cast such a magical spell on him as it did on most of our kind. His greatest pleasure was to read a good book and to study foreign languages. On his instruction, I began to study English with him, an indispensable tool for our beginnings on the new continent. Between that time and the spring of 1849, my friend Bernard decided to join me.
The journey? No different than thousands of others back then – full of hardship, hunger, danger and bitter distress. We were packed in there like pickled herring in a barrel and it is no wonder that diseases broke out. There were many Czechs on board and about 25 of them didn’t make it. When we reached the shores of America there were many orphans in our company, whose parents died during that arduous crossing. My goodness, what happened to them? What became of them in this new land? Did they win out in the battle of life, or did they fade away in their suffering?
Our goal was the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as it was for many of the Czechs with us, as Milwaukee was the source of many of the enticing letters that caused such a stir in our famous little Smetanová Lhota and the nearby region of Prachyňský. But by the time we had arrived in Cleveland, we were so worn out that we were quite content to pitch our tents then and there. And so we decided to stay there, while some of our compatriots – I can’t remember their name now – continued on westward.
At that time, the population of Cleveland was around 10,000. Everywhere we looked there was activity and enterprise. Construction of the Cincinnati, Columbus to Cleveland, Cleveland and Pittsburg rail lines had just begun, and all the streets had been lit by gas lights, although there were still no waterworks or water mains. The densely populated left bank of the Cuyahoga River had not yet been swallowed by the city of Cleveland. Its 9,000 inhabitants were divided into four wards under the name of Ohio City. Together these cities, connected by a single wooden bridge over the river between Columbus Street and Brooklyn, numbered something more than 21,000 in population. The competition between the two communities was enormous, to the point of absurd. The people of Cleveland did all they could to resist the efforts of Ohio City, who behaved the same way at every opportunity. When we first arrived, we thought we were in Kocourkov, because the people sometimes acted in the same way. Isn’t it sheer lunacy that the inhabitants of both sides of the river pulled out their guns and cannons in a feud over who owned that little wooden bridge? Most definitely, because that little wooden bridge certainly wasn’t worth all the blood that poured out through pure defiance and vainglory. It was a tragedy, but a ludicrous one.
Once we had a chance to explore the city a little and rest, one of our first thoughts was whether other Czechs could be found there. We went to the Town Hall, borrowed the city directory and started scrolling. Coming across the letter H, Bernard suddenly shouted: “Why, look, a Czech name!” My eyes followed his finger and I read “Hladík”. At that very same moment I felt a hand on my shoulder, and I looked up into a pair of smiling dark blue eyes.
“ Yes, I’m also Czech,” the young man admitted with a smile, “and the very name you just read out – that’s me!”
We became acquainted quickly and later grew to be friends once we got to know each other more. With Hladík’s help, we were soon introduced to others, such as Sigmund Stein, Umlauf, Adam Gottfried, a young musician and music teacher, and a certain Fuchs.
Stein owned a small hotel on Seneca Street, while Umlauf was a successful painter – a real artist in his trade. He was highly sought after and had plenty of work, but he passed away not long after our arrival. I have no idea what happened to his family. Mrs. Umlaufová moved somewhere to Brooklyn, while the children either became German or American. Fuchs returned back to Bohemia that same year.
Only five of our initial clan remained: Adam, Hladík, Stein, Bernard Weidenthal and I. Professor Adam had flown to America at the end of 1848. As the son of a rich pharmacist in Příbram, he was well educated. He had excelled in music since an early age and picked up English and French with relative ease. Fuelled by his great love for music, he poured all his efforts into piano and violin, and became a maestro. After completing university, he found work with the government and was soon appointed to a position in Prague by the Emperor’s Commissioner, a position he held with the same patriotic fever of his youth. When 1848 came, the hot-blooded young man took up arms to join those who rose in defense of rights and freedoms. But after the uprising suffered a bloody put down, the revolutionaries had to disband and flee. He met his young girlfriend in Hamburg– they had been together for a year – and headed out with her to America, heading first to Cincinnati but moving to Cleveland one and a half years later. Music, which had been nothing more than a private passion back home, became his bread and butter. He began by teaching piano lessons but it wasn’t long before he became the leader of a band and director of the orchestra for the Athenum Theater, the most illustrious in all of Cleveland, if not the entire state. He made a good living and earned substantial revenues from his wife’s estate, which the state had failed to confiscate. He lived life both trouble-free and comfortable, and loved to meet his compatriots, helping them out however he could. In particular, he was a rock of support for other musicians, and Frank Tupa, Jan Prošek, Václav Drábek and J. Bouška owe him a debt of gratitude for the positions they landed in the Atheneum Theater Orchestra, which greatly facilitated their early beginnings in America. He assisted other Czechs as well, such as laborers, gladly helping out with advice, deeds and trust. The young community certainly felt a loss when he moved to Tennessee to become the director of music at a girl’s school there. But the main reason was his health, as he felt the climate in Cleveland was not doing him good. Unfortunately, the warmer weather down south did not help him either and he died soon after moving. At least that is the story as it was reported to Frank Ťupa, who filled me on these details. Adam will always be well remembered.
Hladík was a very well educated, pleasant and good-hearted young man, full of energy, active and enterprising. Together with his German partner, Gemeiner, he owned a shop selling eggs, butter, cheese and fish, and he must have been doing well, because he built himself a nice stone house in only a few years, one which was quite costly for the time. Gemeiner had a beautiful daughter who the fiery youngster fell in love with and he asked for her hand in marriage. But before that happy day at the altar – I think it was either 1854 or 1855, I can’t remember – that promising young lad, loved by all those who knew him, passed away. At that time there were 19 Czech families living in the Cleveland area, and all attended the funeral. Men, women and children alike were as one as they followed their beloved compatriot in procession to his place of rest, returning their homes after a solemn funeral. He was a counselor and helping hand to all of us, one helped everyone as much as he could without ever a thought for personal gain.
Fluent in English and respected among Americans and Germans alike, he proved invaluable to us and I am convinced that he will be remembered as a saint by us all. Whatever happened to all his wealth would be best known by his partner and father-in-law to be, because when his male cousin flew in a few years later seeking an inheritance, Gemeiner reported that Hladík had left nothing. We thought this rather odd, but since we could not prove anything, we had to remain silent. Although Hladík was a great businessman, we all felt that he put too much confidence in his future father-in-law.
Neither I nor others like Weidenthal or Stein can remember where he was from; I only know that it was somewhere in the region of Klatov. May honor follow him!”
The old-timer once again drifted into his thoughts, but I had to interrupt him for another question, “What happened to Gottfried?”
“Ah, yes, I forgot about him. I never took much of a liking to him because he looked like a real prankster and had the face of someone who would swindle his guests of their last penny. My instincts were later confirmed, as hundreds of other Czechs later agreed. He acted as the agent of a Hamburg ferry and in one way or another managed to take advantage of the confidence placed in him by some of the less streetwise immigrants. Many families admitted they were severely short-changed when exchanging money in Hamburg and that they had to wait seven weeks before their designated boat arrived, during which time he earned himself a pretty penny in commission from local hotels. There must have been some truth in that, because although he did not work very hard, he amassed a fortune enabling him to set up a fine wholesale company either in 1851 or 1852. But this glory did not last long, as he suffered hard times soon afterwards and moved away from Cleveland. Whether or not he is still alive, I cannot say, as I have heard nothing of him since then.
A year after my arrival here, my father, mother and sister came too, my sister 19 years of age at the time and soon to catch the eye of my friend Weidenthal.
Since my father had brought some cash with him, and my brother-in-law had some saved up of our own, we decided to open a small grocery store. After some time, my brother-in-law left us and set up his own shearing store on Woodland Avenue. It was the first Czech store of its kind in Cleveland. Later on, I myself married. I was very happy in my marriage, and enjoyed the full support of my wife and children – three daughters and two sons – through all my financial difficulties.
Weidenthal’s brother-in-law is in much the same boat. In spite of owning a shearing shop for more than 40 years, he too is no rich man. But he is glad that he was able to provide a good education for his children, one son of which became an established doctor. Weidenthal’s brother-in-law is now spending his last years in comfort in the loving care of this doctor.”
The Arrival of Czech Immigrants during 1852 and 1853
and the Experiences of Individual Families
Their social life and the beginnings of a cultural scene.
Czechs who had arrived in America during the 70s or later had no idea of the suffering, injustices, misery and poverty their predecessors of the 50s and 60s had to overcome. Those who come now or who arrived some fifteen to twenty years ago would find the roads in a good condition, with plenty of help and advice at hand to help them get established and choose an employer who suits their needs. Even the journey here to the new land was greatly facilitated by those who had already established themselves here. During the 60s and 70s, with only a little bit of capital, prudence and energy, one could lay a sound foundation for the future, and everyone was able to distinguish themselves and “grow with the city”, unlike those who were the first to come here. But this is to be expected, since those who arrived later built on the experience of their predecessors, following a beaten path.
It was much worse for those who came first, not knowing the language, customs nor attitudes of those they were to live amongst. Everything they saw and heard was totally foreign to them. They lacked the time to scout out the new land or settle themselves properly because their complete lack of finances forced them to seek employment immediately, no matter how low the rate.
The larger arrival of Czechs occurred first, in 1852, when sixteen families moved to Cleveland. As far as I am able to gather it was the families of the following:
Josef Mach, Václav Žák, Jan Havlíček, Hala, Andres, Polák, Němec, Kotápiš, Zajeda, Vrána, Řehák and Pecák.
I was not able to determine the names of the last four families. Some had passed away while others moved on elsewhere, completely fading from our memories over those forty years. I myself have only the vaguest memories of the above, and we have a hard time remembering many of their first names. This is because we were not in frequent contact with them, since they lived and worked in a totally different area than the streets of Croton, Woodland Ave., Orange and Broadway.
Nonetheless, their experiences would have been similar in many ways, and so I will try to merge them together and paint a picture of what the conditions were like back then, and of the trials and tribulations of the first settlers as told to me by Mrs. Máchalová, J. Sýkora, Václav Žák, Jos. Zelenka, Štědronský, Levy, Stein, Kříž, Krejčí, Tupa and others, stories which in one degree or other are quite similar.
But first I’d like to give a brief life history of those I did meet.
Václav Žák was born in Varvařova, near the city of Písek. He trained in the baking industry and decided to come here when he first heard the amazing stories making their way into his village. In the spring of 1851 he left with his family and two older children, meeting other Czech families who were heading to Cleveland on the same vessel.
Shortly after arriving in Cleveland he started a bakery with his son on Jackson Street, an enterprise he successfully managed for the next 16 years. It was Cleveland’s first Czech bakery and his products sold like hot cakes. In 1879 his oldest son and partner in the bakery passed away, the father following suit in 1884. Because the younger sons were not interested in the business, the bakery ceased to operate and the sons now live with Mrs. Žáková in their own house on Jackson Street.
Josef Mácha is from Smetanová Lhota, in the region of Písek, who left his birthplace together with Václav Žák on the same ship. The ship sailed for 14 weeks and that was really the worst part of his life. Back in Bohemia Mácha earned a living guiding rafts from Šumava along the Votava and Vltava rivers to Prague. Once in Cleveland he found work in bricklaying, earning two dollars a day. Because work was plentiful and Mácha was thrifty, the family lived well while saving up some cash for rainy days. Altogether they had ten children, of which only three survived – two dying while they were still in Europe. Mácha lived to a ripe age of 72 and left his wife and three children well taken care of.
Jan Vitoň was born in Černé u Orlíka in 1823. He was a skillful stonemason and good bricklayer who also found work immediately on his arrival, earning $2.50 a day – good wages back then. He was a very jovial and social person and expressed great interest towards anything that would serve the common good of the small community. He had two daughters, one of whom married Mr. Ployhart, who previously owned a well-known and popular pub on Croton Street. The other daughter married the cousin of L. Vitoň. Jan Vitoň passed away in 1872. Those who knew him often think fondly of him.
Josef Zelenka was born in Šerková u Orlíka. He was a trained bricklayer and, wanting to improve his conditions and live in a freer land, he moved to America in 1852. But his beginnings were difficult, and he had to take whatever work he could find. He cut wood (often helped by his wife), dug ditches and other such work. His earnings were not substantial, and he often only got 5 to 75 cents per day, at a time when earnings of one dollar a day were considered good. Thank goodness that food was extremely cheap back then. Zelenka passed away in 1856, leaving behind him a wife and six children.
Social and Cultural Life
Social and cultural activity amongst the Czechs didn’t truly start until 1853, when the Czech community had expanded not only in its general population but in the number of well-educated, well-bred and culturally-engaged Czechs. Although developments occurred slowly, the leading figures of this small group were well known both from within and without. This can be best demonstrated by the stories told by Mrs. Machová, Mrs. Havlíčková, Mrs. Zelenková, Mr. Štědroňský, Sýkora, Krejčí and others. When those first sixteen families arrived to Cleveland, they received a cold, even cruel welcome from the local Americans. When the Czech women went to town as per their custom, barefoot and with shawls wrapped around their heads, bystanders would ridicule and holler at them, even going so far as to throw stones at them. The locals saw them as nothing more than gypsies, and they were neither valued nor wanted. No American would enter their homes and all 16 of them were forced to live in the courtyard and shed of Mr. Levý (who himself could only afford a small house) for many weeks. Because they had no money Levý would help by giving them food. The men and women would go to the slaughterhouse to collect free lungs, liver, kidneys, tail and noses (which was normally thrown into the river, because the price of meat was very low), surviving in this way until they managed to find work.
In a short time though they were perceived somewhat differently. The locals discovered how reliable, skilled and faithful they were, and how hard working and honest. They did not shy away from any sort of employment, behaved politely, and were faithful and dedicated to their work. In spite of the fact that they did not know the language, employers were still happy with them, because they quickly understood what needed to be done and adapted to the new conditions. It was the same with the women. Any American family who took a Czech woman into their home as a cook, servant or laundrywoman could not praise her enough for her skill, speed of work, diligence and cleanliness. Whenever a Czech hand held the reins or just helped out, the house would feel cozy and impeccably clean. The lady of the house would quickly discover that she could entrust her entire home, pantry or even kitchen into Czech hands, since all Czech women had learnt about thriftiness and the art of cooking back home. The diligence, skill and honesty of the Czechs quickly became common knowledge, and now the locals looked at their new neighbors with new respect. This is why Czechs would often be the first to be offered jobs , and why Czech servants were now much sought after. In spite of this, still many of those first immigrants suffered badly. The economy then was weak, the jobs few and far between, and poorly paid. This was particularly true in 1852, when those first 16 families arrived. But that only affirmed the age-old truth that hard times only bring a community closer together.
Because there were so few Czechs and they all had to struggle for just a loaf of bread, they loved each other like brothers and sisters, clung to each other closely and helped each other whenever needed, while their simple neighborly gatherings were in the spirit of sincere harmony and joy. They would take turns hosting, since no hall yet existed for that purpose, and someone would always bring a violin or accordion. How both young and old relished those dances! How radiant the faces and blissful their gaze whenever the small community would gather in a warm shelter for joyful entertainment. All of us were grateful whenever we could spend time with our compatriots in an atmosphere of brotherhood to the sweet sound of Czech music! No envy reigned at that time and no grudges or anger ever remained between anyone. Rather, at that time Czechs got along well and were eager to help each other rather than seek personal gain at the expense of another. This is why such gatherings, albeit in the modesty of a simple home, brought great joy and were as uplifting as they were encouraging. Remind any elder of those days and you’ll see their eyes sparkle and hear them whisper: “Oh, yah, those were beautiful times indeed. We really loved each other back then, but now?”
This social and cultural life received a major boost with the arrival of the first wave of immigrants between 1853 and 1868. That included the likes of M. Krejčí, Fr. Knechtl, Václav Drábek, Jos. Bouška, Jos. Skala, F. Buzek, Furst, Vrána, Fr. Tupa, Jos. Novák and Fr. Novák, followed thereafter by the Sýkora brothers, the Vobořilov family, the Payer brothers, the families of František Sprostý, Václav Rychlík, M. Albl and many other elated compatriots passionate for their culture and whose history readers of this article would certainly like to hear:
Josef Novák was born in 1818 in the village of Bažejovice. His father was a bricklayer and he too trained in the art. He moved to America with his family on the same boat in 1853. About 100 Czechs were with him, although only a few of them settled in Cleveland. Shortly after his arrival he found work with a larger company, Southworth & Williams, remaining there for a full 16 years, after which tiled the city’s streets. At the time the pay was miserable, no more than seven shillings a day. That remained the case until the presidency of Lincoln, when in 1860 and 1861 the earnings of a common laborer rose to as much as $4 a day. Back then there were only a few houses on Croton, Orange and Woodland Ave., while a dense forest spread out across what is now Broadway. “Property prices back then were a pittance and all those who came during those years could have been rich today if we had had a speculative, enterprising and a far-sighted nature.”
In 1854 his son Josef was born. He was given such thorough upbringing that, by the age of twenty-three, he was hired as a lawyer, and was in great demand, even in the higher courts. The other two sons became builders, who earned great respect for themselves not just among other Czechs but among the Americans and Germans too. Of the daughters, one is married to Ant. Wiesner and the other to Jos. Zíka, Cleveland’s first Czech brewer. The wife of Jos. Novák is still living, and she celebrated her golden anniversary with Josef in 1890, although he passed away on Sunday the 22nd of July of 1894. All who knew him mourned.
Frank Knechtl was born in Nenačovice u Beroun in 1827. He said of himself: “When a bear is doing well, he goes to the ice to dance. A person might thrive whatever hardships and challenges are sent his way, and never be content when things run smoothly. So, when he meets with better times he will force himself from his comfortable abode back into the wilderness. That is how it was for me as well. As a blacksmith I had a good wage, a nice house, free firewood and even my own deputy. I could have lived well and without worries until the end of my days, with only a little bit of effort. But between 1851 and 1852 news came from the west of the wonders of America, so I decided to emigrate, under the assumption that gold and prosperity would pour on me from heaven. When I arrived in Cleveland in 1853 I realized how terribly I had been mistaken. I did not find myself in an impossible predicament, because as a skilled blacksmith I found work immediately, and at a good pay of $2.50 daily, but none of my dreams came true. On the contrary, I lost ten children there and suffered many disappointments.
At least in the early years the social life was great and one could forget about the grief of life while spending time with noble-minded, good-hearted and cheerful friends. But today we don’t even have that, since times are harder and the outlook and more gloomy than they were back then, and no social happiness can make up for it. In fact, envy and hatred abound among us and if one man could drown another with a spoonful of water and get away with it, they would. Let’s just hope that we will one day return to the good old days.”
Jos. Štědronský was born in Štědronín, not far from Zvíkov, and came to America with his family in 1853. The voyage took a full five weeks and was one of the hardest experiences he had lived through. The ship was crammed with immigrants, many of whom were Czech, under such conditions of misery and starvation it was no wonder that infectious diseases broke out and afflicted 52 people. I myself knew the pain of losing someone dearer to my heart than any other. I will never forget the dreadful shroud of grief that descended over us when we gave our three-year-old sister into the ocean’s care. She died of the illness too. It is a wonder that our parents did not entirely lose their senses back then. But the human spirit is remarkably resilient, and all wounds heal over time.
Our beginnings in America were very difficult and my father had to take on a lot of work, something he wouldn’t have done back home. Certainly anyone who worked as hard and as long as did would have seen far greater results – and yet we did it solely to survive. But we knew that back there would have had to put up with fewer civil and political freedoms, not to mention the pressure of the church and tyranny of the government.
When we arrived in Cleveland there were only three houses on Croton Street. Few Czechs had settled here at the time, which is probably why they liked each other and were a close-knit group. We often gathered in a pub named U Kola, where we mostly played cards. The most fun we had was when we gathered at one of our homes, where we could let loose and forget about all our worries and sorrows. One truly needed faith, because the times were tough and wages were so poor. A common laborer would not earn more than 75 cents a day, at most $1.50. Meat though, at between 2 to 3 cents a pound, was quite affordable, as was wood and accommodation, while flour cost $18.00 a barrel. Any man with a large family had a hard time supporting them, his children suffering in hunger if it were not for the dedicated help of his wife. Later it got better and it was possible to save for the future, if you were hard working and economical. I had seven children: my three sons Josef, František, and Jan, and four daughters Maria, Julia, Frantisek and Maria (the last we named after the first, who we had lost at sea). Josef Štědronsky and his good wife are now long gone, resting in the womb of the earth, but their many descendants will always remember them with gratitude.
Written by Hugo Chotek for the American’s calendar.
Translation © 2013, Onward To Our Past®
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