By Carol Mowdy Bond
One night a week you’ll find Betty Cernosek at Czech Hall, taking a Czech language refresher course. Born in Oklahoma City in 1929, Czech was the language spoken in her home. She learned English just prior to entering school.
An accountant, Betty retired in 1991, and moved to Yukon 15 years ago and now lives at Spanish Cove Retirement Village. And she loves her Czech heritage. Betty’s grandparents emigrated from the Czechoslovakian/Bohemian region of Europe’s contentious Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Anton Blecha and Katerina Novotny, both born in the 1850s, met in Chicago, Ill. They married in 1879 in Nebraska. They bought a farm southwest of Oklahoma City in the late 19th century, joining a dynamic Czech population.
Anton farmed while Katerina raised their children. When their daughter, Mary, died in 1891, the Blechas buried her on their farm. Czech families buried their loved ones around Mary’s grave.
So, the Blechas allotted two acres for a cemetery. By the time of Oklahoma’s 1907 statehood, the Czechoslovakian National Cemetery was in place. Now located at Villa and S.W. 44th, the cemetery is an ethnic memorial surrounded by Oklahoma City.
The Blechas had seven other children: Tony, Bill, Rose, Frank, Joe, Helen, and Anna. Born in Nebraska, Anna was Betty’s mom. Betty’s dad Frank Cernosek was born in 1879 in the Moravian region of today’s Czech Republic and emigrated to the U.S. in 1880 with his parents.
Betty’s Uncle Tony was a crackerjack sharpshooter in Europe during World War I. Seriously wounded in battle at age 25, Tony returned to the U.S. aboard the SS Leviathan in 1919. His sweetheart, Christina “Tena” Boevers of El Reno, was waiting. They married and established a Canadian County farm.
In 1901, Czech immigrants built Yukon’s Czech Hall. In 1925 they rebuilt what is today’s Czech Hall, 205 N. Czech Hall Rd. Betty’s Uncle Tony performed in the band that played for the first dance when the new hall opened. Now listed on the U.S. National Registry of Historic Places, Czech Hall’s polka dances have continued every Saturday night since 1930.
Tony and Tena and their children Carson, Tony Lee, Leviathan (named after the ship that brought Tony home), and Gloria, formed a polka band that played Saturday nights at Czech Hall. They moved to Missouri in the 1930s.
And Tony built a large farmhouse with a big room where their band played and people came to dance. But periodically they drove back to Yukon to play for Czech Hall dances.
Betty’s Uncle Bill worked at the Miller Brothers 101 Ranch. Then while stationed with U.S. forces in France, Bill became enamored with a medieval castle, and vowed to build a replica back home.
In 1928, Bill married Opal Williams, a seamstress with a special gift for making wedding dresses. In 1945, Bill, Opal, and their daughter Willia Dee began construction of Bill’s dream castle on their five rural acres near Oklahoma City.
Bill was a Manhattan Construction Company manager with access to historically significant architectural pieces, removed during the 1920s and 1930s downtown Oklahoma City urban renewal, and he held onto many of them. The family built the three-level castle themselves, using salvaged items Bill had saved. In 1950, they finished the castle, making it their home.
Bill and Opal’s grandson, Lt. Col. USAF (Retired) Randy George of Norman, grew up in a house Bill built on the castle grounds. Of Czech Hall, Randy says: “I remember live bands playing polka music and seeing Bill and Opal dance.”
Oklahoma City has engulfed the castle, located at 820 N. MacArthur Blvd. Known today as Castle Falls, the 5,500 square foot citadel houses an award-winning restaurant and event venue, and has expanded with a new, larger event venue on the grounds.
During childhood, Betty watched as the castle was under construction. After completion, she and her parents often visited the castle. Betty says the castle “amazed” her. Tony’s grandsons Mike Blecha, of Grove, and his brother Kevin, of Missouri, thought the castle was “fascinating.”
Colleen Benda Carlisle, the granddaughter of Betty’s aunt Rose Blecha Zoubek, tells, “My fondest memory is climbing the massive staircase in the castle.” Now in the wedding industry, Colleen sometimes works weddings at Castle Falls.
Yukon’s annual Czech Festival began October 1966. That’s when the Czech Hall lodges held a festival to celebrate Yukon’s 75th anniversary. Colleen makes kolaches for the Czech Festival, annually held the first Saturday of October. She also serves on the Czech Cemetery’s board.
Colleen’s parents Sylvia and Jerry Benda were married in Czech Hall, with 1,000 guests attending. Colleen’s great aunt Opal Blecha made Sylvia’s wedding dress.
Like many members of this huge family, Sylvia and Jerry grew up in homes where their families only spoke the Czech language, initially making school difficult due to their lack of English skills.
Growing up, Colleen polka danced with her family every Saturday night at Czech Hall. Colleen’s mom Sylvia, and Gladys Benda, taught over 100 children and adults to dance the iconic Czech Beseda Dance. Colleen explains, “We danced it for the first Czech Festival in Yukon.”
Colleen and her husband married at Czech Hall, with over 700 guests attending. And the family celebrated Sylvia and Jerry’s 50th and 60th wedding anniversaries at Czech Hall.
Mike Blecha recalls visiting Czech Hall with his family. Also, Betty’s great niece, Judy Roof of Luther, and her family were constantly at Czech Hall, where all their family events were held. Before she was old enough to dance, Judy slept under the stage while her parents, grandparents, and cousins danced.
When she was old enough, Judy took dance lessons, and even danced in the Czech Parade. She, her brother, and cousins slid across Czech Hall’s freshly sanded dance floor on their knees during dance intermissions. She remembers, “Boy, could we slide!”