Czechs struggled, but overcame obstacles

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Czech youngsters spend time teaching each other about the culture, music and dance. (Photo provided)

By Mindy Ragan Wood, Staff Writer – The history of Oklahoma Czechs and their immigration to the Sooner state tells the story of their culture, but also reveals their struggle to make a new life in a new land.

Some of Yukon’s Czech citizens opened up about their family’s history and how their stories live on today in their lives.

A major immigration wave started in 1848 when Czechs fled their country to escape political persecution from the Habsburgs. By the 1850s, there was an estimated 10,000 Czechs living in the U.S. By 1900, there were almost 200,000 American-born Czechs with only 156,000 born in Europe.

Many Oklahoma Czech families moved to Oklahoma during the Land Run of 1889.
Milo Shedeck’s family set about to enter the United States in 1874. His father’s side of the family were the Koubas. It was a tragic beginning for a future they believed held much promise.

“They were going to get on a train to get to the shipyards and the father got ran over by a railroad car. The 32-year-old wife and her four sons went ahead on the train, got on a boat, and came to America,” Shedeck said.

Immigrants faced a difficult road ahead. With the culture shock and the language barrier, it wasn’t easy. They often took menial or hard labor jobs to survive. Some found farming in the Midwest and when Oklahoma was opened up for settlement, many Czech families took advantage of the opportunity.

Elaine Benda said her family entered Oklahoma unaware of the political climate at the time between the federal government and Native Americans who had been promised Oklahoma as a new homeland. She said there is some reason to believe her ancestors in Europe read ads about the settlement opportunity.

“When they got here, they didn’t know Native American land. They thought it was land nobody wanted. My great-great grandfather got scalped,” Benda said. “It was a horrible tragedy. I don’t think they would have come if they’d known it was someone else’s land.”
When the political dust settled after the land run, the Czech people had to test their wits and strength against the Oklahoma land to make a living. With very little, they got started on a new life.

“We’re cheap,” David Masopust smiled. “Thrifty. We learned that from our ancestors. They just did without. They were very poor people. They made use of anything and everything that they had, even in their farming techniques. When the dustbowl came, a lot of those survived a lot better than they others (non-Czechs),” he said.

Shedeck’s family eventually settled where Lowe’s and Jimmy’s Egg are today on the south side of Yukon where he grew up.

“They gave some of that land to the school district and that’s why they named Shedeck school after my family. My mother was a teacher and so was my father, then he was a banker,” Shedeck said.

Shedeck celebrates his culture and heritage through the Bohemian Knights Band, and while music was part of his childhood so was the food.

“I remember making kolaches. We used to butcher our own hogs and make sausage, a Czech sausage,” he recalled. “My grandmother had a wood stove and she used to burn corn cobs and wood. She’d bake kolaches but she’d forget to turn the pan and one side would be not quite done and the other would be burned,” he laughed. “They had a big boiler outside and they made, after they redered the hog, they made lye soap. They used every part of the hog. They used to make a sausage out of the pig’s head, called jaternice.”

Food is still part of his culture. Every year he and others at Czech Hall bake a special bread for the holidays.

“We made Hoska bread for Christmas which is a braided bread with fruit and nuts. They still do it at the Czech building right before Christmas. We give them out as Christmas gifts to family,” he said.

Czech Hall plays a central role for the local Czech community. Every Saturday night since 1930, there has been a dance and a dance means music. Shedeck was around the music from a young age and later picked up Czech music.

“We slept in an upper balcony when we got tired,” Shedeck said. “Sunday, they would have a community meal after church and play pitch, and buck which is a Czech card game.”

Elaine Benda also shares the memories of Czech Hall where dance would play a large role in her quest to preserve and pass on the culture. She attends dances almost every Saturday night.

Her mother, LaVerne Svejkovsky Benda, was one of the festival’s founders, a musician, and a dance teacher. She was the dance coordinator who started teaching in the 1950’s but an illness almost ended her dancing days. She contracted polio shortly after her marriage. She was paralyzed and had to learn to walk again. A few years ago, Benda took over as dance director.

“She taped up her legs and wore braces so she could still dance,” Benda said.
In addition to acting dance director for the festival, Benda teaches three cultural classes to Czech children including language, geography, and other customs. Her determination is something she comes by honestly.

“In the 1800s the Czechs were ruled by Austria. A lot of that was to rule a country, you wipe out their identity. The music and the dances were kind of the defiance of keeping their heritage alive. I’ve always been told that and that may be one reason I’m so overly enthusiastic about our Czech school. This is symbolic of the Czech spirit. It’s amazing their culture survived at all,” she said.

From the harsh reality of early migration to the prosperity of today, their history lives on. In the music, the food, the dance, the national dress, and in the way their families and communities stay close.

“I think we’re living history,” Benda said. “It’s living history. It’s not dead in a book. It’s real. It represents all of us.”

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