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True Bohemians

Texas’ Czech immigrants never lost their sense of place.

By Larry Bozka

It’s only when we grow older, when we’ve lost many of those closest to us and our own mortality becomes suddenly real, that we seriously begin to reflect on our heritage. It’s a destined epiphany to realize that someone, sometime in the past, gathered family and precious few possessions to challenge a vast and unpredictable ocean aboard a rudimentary wooden boat powered solely by the wind.

We want to know when it happened, who made the trip and how they came to plant their first seed in the burgeoning promise of American soil.

Ultimately, we can’t help but wonder why.

I instinctively sensed those roots as a child. They were as real as the old men in overalls speaking Czech and playing dominos on the square in Hallettsville, as solvent as the narrow but quietly powerful waters that carved the Lavaca River bottom just below the steep and grassy hill where my grandfather’s house still rests.

The house once belonged to a Confederate doctor named James Lay. He was an accomplished surgeon, a bona fide Renaissance man who possessed an intense interest in the weather, the environment and the land. A Texas State Historical Marker festoons the left-side driveway, chronicling the history of the red-and-white “Wedding Cake House” and my grandfather’s purchase of it in 1948.

Construction began in 1878 and lasted four years. B.J.E. Dietz built the six-bedroom home at a cost of $4,750. It was designed by architect and French diplomat Victor Hugo.

Its native stone walls are in places a full two feet thick.

The structure is made primarily of cypress, with a red mansard roof, a cacophony of variegated windows, fireplaces upstairs and downstairs and a screened-in porch that doubles as the backdoor entry. My cousins, my brothers and I used to scare the wits out of our parents by straddling the second-story stairwell railing and riding it to the floor.

I lived there in the summer of 1974, and will never forget the charcoal shadows of wind-blown leaves dancing on the 10-foot-high walls late at night. I slept upstairs, imagining the people who visited a century before, the things they did and what they discussed. I remembered the reunions, the grand family gatherings that occurred every spring until my grandfather’s death in 1969.

M.I. Bozka was for many years the mayor of Hallettsville, a proud and resilient rancher and outdoorsman with a thick and always-groomed shock of snow-white hair, a barrel of a chest, a booming laugh and an omnipresent pipe. Grandpa Bozka epitomized everything grandfatherly, the colorful patriarch of a large and gregarious clan of hard-working Bohemians. He split his time behind an ancient rolltop desk at People’s State Bank and riding the pastures of his beloved ranch near Vienna, 11 miles southeast of town off FM 530.

Glance over at the radio while driving by and you’ll miss it.

I wish I could have asked him more questions before he died ofa heart attack at the age of 77. I was 13 when it happened, and like the entire family, I was devastated. Through the grandiose nature of his life, his ranch and his family, he personified a provincial culture that persists today throughout Lavaca County.

In the Hallettsville community, M.I. Bozka was an icon.

As a youth I was drawn to Hallettsville — only two hours west of Houston geographically yet light years away culturally — like a tree seeking water. I knew surprisingly little about my family’s legacy but nonetheless understood that it defines who I am.

My mother and father grew up there. I spent the summer of 1976, no doubt the best summer of my life, living with my Grandma McCrumb and working odd jobs in between my sophomore and junior college semesters at the University of Houston.

I drove a rice tractor. I cut scrap iron with a torch in hundred-degree heat, cleared impenetrable brush and loaded countless stacks of sand-packed hay for 25 cents a bale. I swam with friends in a cool and pristine creek just outside of town, fished for channel cat in the family’s farm ponds and spent three sweltering but unforgettable days at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic in Gonzales.

At night I danced the Shodish and two-step at the KC and VFW Halls. On a hot afternoon in June, when she sold me a vanilla milk shake at the local Dairy Queen, I met the pretty, brown-haired girl who would years later become my wife.

My Grandma McCrumb’s family history in Lavaca County predated the Civil War. Her husband, Herbert McCrumb, worked as a Justice of the Peace and died long before I was born. She never remarried.

I’ve always regretted never having known my Grandpa McCrumb. He left behind a wife, a son and five daughters. His children flourished, though, and today I have trouble remembering the names of their children’s children.

I return to Hallettsville as often as possible. I’m still drawn to the town square and to the inimitable Cole Theatre, where my brother Bill and I saw our first “picture show” (King Kong vs. Godzilla); to the Lavaca County courthouse, built in 1897 for $64,000; to the region’s sprawling area ranchland, with its endless stands of post oak; and most of all, I’m drawn to the people.

I already knew as a tyke that this is where I belong.

Historian Doug Kubicek calls it “a sense of place.”

Kubicek traces his own family heritage to the second boatload of immigrants who left “the Old Country” in 1854. A longtime friend of the late Judge Paul Boethel, who chronicled Lavaca County’s history in a series of books including Sand in Your Craw and A History of Lavaca County, Kubicek recalls my grandfather’s lifelong friend as, above all, “a storyteller, and mentor.”

Born and raised in Shiner, Kubicek went to Victoria College and moved on in 1974 to graduate with a degree in U.S. history and cultural geography from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. For two summers afterward he attended the University of Texas and took Western history classes. Today, he teaches seventh-grade history at Hallettsville Junior High.

A volunteer with the Texas State Historical Commission and a charter member of the Czech Heritage Society, Kubicek is also an archeological steward. When a Native American campsite is unexpectedly unearthed by a local bulldozer operator, Kubicek gets the call.

Still, it’s the immigration of Czechs, the remarkable odyssey of his own people that holds the greatest appeal to the personable historian.

“Only a few boats came into Texas with Czech immigrants before the Civil War,” Kubicek says. “At the time, various European countries were at war with each other. The Austrian-Hungarian Empire (ruled by Austrian Emperor and Hungarian King Franz Josef) was taking on literally all of the countries in Europe. There was a mandated time of military service,” Kubicek explains, “and mortality rates were extremely high. Throughout parts of Germany, Poland, Austria, Moravia, Bohemia and Slovakia, times were tough at best.”

Among Lavaca County Czechs, some 70 percent hail from Moravia. The remainder emigrated from Bohemia. “The term ‘Bohemian’ is now thrown out to encompass all Czech people,” Kubicek says, “but at the time of emigration, both regions were independent countries.”

Prague, then the capital of Bohemia, was the homeland of a great many Texas Czechs. My own ancestors once lived there, leaving the area around 1890 with only $300 cash and a trunk packed with their belongings.

Hynek Bozka, my great-grandfather, was a carpenter. His skills were in demand after he reached the mainland with his wife, Kathryn Broz of Netolitz, Bohemia, and his two sons. The family took a train from Galveston and disembarked at the little community of Moulton.

Like virtually all other Czech immigrants, Hynek spoke no English. Fortunately, carpentry work paid around $1.50 a day, which at the time represented substantial pay. He and Kathryn supplemented the family income by growing corn and cotton.

My grandfather, Mathias Ignatius (“M.I.”) Bozka was born on February 24, 1891. Another child, Carl, followed in 1893. He died at infancy and was buried in Moulton.

In 1891, Hynek helped build the first church in Shiner. On February 9, 1896, my godmother, Apalonia Anastasia (“A.B.”) Bozka was born, followed by a sister, Marie, in 1901. In 1907 Hynek bought a meat market and packing business in Shiner, where my grandfather worked until moving to Hallettsville and buying his ranch in the mid-1920s.

All of this, Kubicek says, is a mirror reflection of Czech values and lifestyles.

A letter sent to Moravia from Reverend Josef Arnost Bergman was published in a local newspaper in 1850. Bergman’s missive inspired just under a thousand Czechs to leave their homeland and travel to Texas before the Civil War engulfed the United States. Following the war, Czech immigration resumed in earnest in 1865.

Intrepid Czech travelers boarded the same dozen or so 60-foot-class ships time and again to make the cramped and punishing journey across the Atlantic. It was, for many, “a three-to-four-month-long nightmare,” Kubicek says, but one made in pursuit of a very tangible dream.

Czech Texans formed fellowships to welcome newcomers. The new arrivals quickly became part of a tight-knit community. “It wasn’t just a matter of fellowship,” Kubicek says. “It boiled down to survival.”

From music and dance to religious ceremonies and cuisine (kolaches, pigs-in-a-blanket and, especially, sausage-making), Czech customs and cultural identity endured. Nothing the immigrants brought, however, outranked their love of and respect for the land.

“They risked everything to come here and own property,” Kubicek says, “to live The American Dream. They rarely had enough money to buy it, so instead they became tenant farmers who shared their profits with the original landowners.

“For all the cotton that was grown and sold in Lavaca County in the late 1800s, we don’t have a single acre today,” Kubicek says. “It’s come full circle, from ranching to farming back to ranching.”

The combination of sandy loam and rich river bottom pastureland is what encouraged my grandfather and others like him to buy property. The area’s soil is fertile, prime for raising hay, and it holds dense stands of oak interspersed with yaupon and other protective brush that affords valuable cover to both cattle and wildlife during inclement weather.

Though the market is cyclical, cattle — like the registered Herefords my grandfather once bred — generate considerable money for Lavaca County landowners. Nowadays, deer hunting greatly supplements ranching revenues. Thanks to vastly improved wildlife management programs, area deer leases are now more valuable than ever.

“The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s new whitetailed deer management plan is the best thing that’s happened to this region in years,” Kubicek says. “It’s one more way to let people care for their property and resources, a concept with which the Czech community deeply identifies.

“Pecan growing has expanded, too,” he adds. “New orchards are being planted every year.”

Residents who left Lavaca County 20 years ago are increasingly returning home to recapture their past. As much as things have changed in the world, many aspects of life here still remain the same.

No matter the region, no matter the heritage, the eventual desire to “go back home” is as natural a process as breathing. As steadfast as the wind in the live oaks, as timeless as the grasscarpeted bottomlands and as resolutely unyielding as the human spirit that a century-and-a-half ago inspired the strength to cross the seas, the sense of place for Czech Texans young and old will never be diminished.

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