THE CZECH AND GERMAN PIONEERS OF THE BIG TIMBER COMMUNITY*

By Harwood G. Kolsky

 

*Extracted and updated from the bicentennial celebration booklet : “Big Timber 1873 – 1976, Altory Township, Decatur County, Kansas” by Lillian Shimmick and Harwood G. Kolsky, 1976.

Introduction

What is the difference between “Czech” and “Bohemian”?  A short answer is: “They are the same”.  The region of northwestern Austria-Hungary from which most of the Big Timber pioneers came is called “Bohemia” in English.  (The name is from the old Roman name for the territory.}  After World War I the Austria-Hungarian empire was dismantled and the nation of Czechoslovakia was formed, made up of three main parts: Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia. Recently Slovakia became a separate country, and Bohemia and Moravia became “The Czech Republic”.  It is correct to call people from that land either Bohemians (old term) or Czechs (present term).

Big Timber Creek

Decatur County is one of the "northern tier" counties on the high plains of Kansas.  It borders on Nebraska to the north, and is the third county east from the Colorado border.  The streams that traverse the plain are small, but vital.  They were particularly vital to the early settlers.  The original settlements grew along the creeks that provided water for cattle and timber for firewood and fence posts.

  The Big Timber creek rarely appears on maps.  It wanders, flowing eastward, only about 15 miles across Decatur county, crossing and re-crossing six township lines before joining the Prairie Dog creek a few miles east of Jennings.  Its name came from the tall cottonwood trees that grow along its banks.  The name was used first to describe the geographical area, then later the community, its school and its cemetery.

The opening of the West

There have been few migrations in history to equal the settling of the West.  At the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the territory between the Mississippi and the Rocky Mountains was wild and inaccessible.  Very few mountain men or trappers had even traversed it at that time.  Consider the contrast that by 1890 the frontier was mostly gone.  The battle of Wounded Knee in 1890 officially marks the end of the frontier.

During the period of a little over eighty years, the American West was settled.  Not only Americans of older stock from the Eastern states came, but also millions of new immigrants from Europe, many of whom were recruited by landowners, railroads, steamship lines, etc. to come to help settle the new continent.

After the Civil War, the migration swept westward.  Hundreds of new towns were founded – new townships, new counties - and several new states were established. Thousands of new businesses and speculative ventures were also established, most of which have long since faded away.  Many towns were founded which also never grew, or withered and died.  Even within Decatur County there are the ghosts of five or six such towns.

The Settling of Northwest Kansas

  A key event to the opening of Northwest Kansas for settlement was the battle of Arickaree in 1870. In this battle in eastern Colorado the Cheyenne were finally conquered. With the threat of the Indian gone, the whole territory was opened for settlement. The northwestern counties of Kansas were surveyed during the summer of 1872, when the major section lines were laid out. The Homestead Act was supplemented in 1872 by the Timber Claim act.

Settlers began to come to the territory of the northwestern counties almost immediately.  Small groups studied maps at the land offices and searched up and down the various creeks looking for the very important combination of level land and good water.  Decatur County at that time was a hunter's paradise.  Early accounts tell of large amounts of game of all sizes and descriptions.  In the spring of 1873 many groups of settlers came through Decatur County, and many of them stopped to make their homes. The first settlers in what became Oberlin came at this time, as did the first settlers to Big Timber in the spring of 1873, when our nation was less than a hundred years old.

The settlement of the county followed the same general pattern as elsewhere in the West -- many immigrants when times were good, followed by the departure of discouraged and "busted" settlers during bad times. The panic in 1873 resulted in a depression lasting for several years thereafter.  However, the panic and depression made less difference to the settlers on the plains than did the terrible drought that occurred during the summer of 1874.  There are many accounts of the suffering which early settlers had during this time.  There was also a terrible plague of grasshoppers that ate everything that was green. A number of the settlers who came to Decatur County in 1873 left the following year or two.  Those who remained on the claims did so as much out of desperation as out of courage, for there was nowhere else for them to go.

The buffalo were being exterminated during the early 1870's for two reasons, one to make room for domestic cattle, and second to deprive the Indian tribes of their main source of supply.  1875 is usually considered the year when the buffalo were finally driven from the Kansas plains.  For many years, hides and buffalo bones were a major item of export from Kansas.

The last Indian raid in Kansas was in the fall of 1878.  This has been described in great detail by many accounts.  None of the Big Timber families were killed in this raid, although the Cileks,  Steffens and Rohans had hid from the Indians for several days in an outcropping of rocks near a spring in a ravine, just 1 1/2 miles north of the Big Timber cemetery.  The hideout with its rocky ledge and surrounding shrubbery can be viewed today in the pasture on the Krizek farm.

The Settling of the Big Timber Community.

After the hard times of the early 1870's, there were several very good years. 1878 was described as having an ideal summer. There were very good crops, everyone was enthusiastic, times were booming and settlers poured into Decatur County in ever increasing numbers. This is the time when the second and largest group of settlers came to the Big Timber. 1879 and 1880 were the peak years of homesteading. The Norwegian group also came at this time and settled south of Kanona. During the following two years land prices zoomed upwards over four-fold as the free land was all signed up.

The members of the Big Timber community came from various parts of Bohemia, Austria-Hungary  (now called The Czech Republic).  They did not come as a single organized group, as was true of some others, such as the Mennonites.  Most of them did come first to an existing community of Czechs further east, usually in Nebraska or Minnesota.  When they moved on west to Kansas they did so in small groups, sometimes just a single family.  Frequently one member of a family would go ahead, to be joined later by his wife and children, brothers, cousins, or parents.  For example, George Kolsky Sr. came alone to Nebraska in the summer of 1879.  After coming to Big Timber and homesteading, he sent for his wife and children, who joined him, a year later to live in a dugout, later in a sod house.

The Joseph Cilek family arrived in the U.S. accompanied by Barbara Cilek's sister, Elizabeth Rohan.  The family first moved to Richardson Co., Nebraska, for four years.  There Elizabeth met and married Gustav Steffen.  After the Cileks moved to Decatur Co., Kansas in 1873, the Steffens followed them there a year or so later.  The daughter, Anna, grew up to marry Joseph Petracek.  The son, Karel, became the first member of the Big Timber community to die at the age of six in 1874.

In 1879, about a year after the last Indian raid, Decatur County was organized as a separate governmental unit.  Before that time it had been a township of Norton county.

In order to leave Austria-Hungary for America, it was necessary for the emigrants to carry a birth or baptismal certificate and a travel pass from the Austrian government.  A number of these precious old documents still exist, handed down to the present day descendants of the pioneers.

The community grew rapidly as long as there was free homestead land available.  Settlers who arrived later had to buy land from those who were leaving or had abandoned their claims.  By 1884 one account says there were 20 families living along the Big Timber.  The third group of settlers came to the community in 1884, to be followed by a fourth in 1886-87.  A fifth group came during the period of 1890-95, a sixth in 1897, a few others in 1906.

Early-day Business and Commerce.

Newspapers came to the county early.  The Oberlin Herald began publication in 1879 and has continued to be published continuously ever since.  The first Jennings paper, the Jennings Echo, was started in 1887. Czech newspapers published in Nebraska and in Chicago were widely read, but there is no record of any local paper in that language.

The early 1880's were the time when mortgaging became popular and many Kansas farms were mortgaged for the first time.  In 1884, there was a panic in the East, which was seriously felt in Kansas in 1886, at which time there was a serious drought in the country, and many mortgages were foreclosed.  In fact, many loan companies went broke because they were forced to take over land that they could not resell at the time.

The railroad came to Decatur County in the summer of 1885.  However, before that there were railroads crossing the country both in Nebraska and in Central Kansas.  At first the main shipping point for the county was called Buffalo Park, which was little more than a rail siding about 40 miles directly south of Jennings.  This was the common point to which grain was hauled and freight was brought before 1885.  It was also the point to which many of the pioneer's families came to join their husbands who had made claims somewhere on the Western prairies.  It is recorded that every train for months during the summer brought many new home seekers into the country.  Even though many still moved the old fashioned way by wagon, the railroads really brought the majority of the people west. The Rock Island railroad was built through Jennings starting in 1887.

The first flourmill was built in Decatur County in 1882.  The flourmill at the town of Jackson, west of Jennings, was built in 1889.  Thus, for a period of nearly fifteen years the Big Timber settlers had to take their grain great distances, one direction or another, to be milled.  There are many accounts of people taking wagonloads of wheat 40 or 50 miles to a mill to be ground into flour.  The Jackson flourmill was actually steam driven.  The establishment of this industry could itself be considered as marking the end of the frontier.

Burials before the Founding of the Big Timber Cemetery

The price tag on home ownership ran high on the western Kansas prairie. Only those possessing an indomitable will and an unfaltering faith could qualify.  Stoically, the settler with his wife and children faced the basic stern realities of life without benefit of doctor or clergy. Life's pattern of birth and death was readily accepted, and in fact, anticipated.  Preparation had been made well in advance that neighbor would come to the aid of neighbor.  Each bore the responsibility for welcoming the newborn, and for consoling and easing sorrow when loved ones were laid to rest in unmarked graves on the homestead.

It was not long after the first settlement in 1873 that the land began to claim its own. The earliest known death in the Big Timber community was that of Karel (Charles) Cilek, oldest son of Joseph and Barbara Cilek. Karel was born in Sobeslav, Bohemia, in 1868 and was brought by his parents to Nebraska in 1869.

Little Karel Cilek died at the age of 6 years in 1874 and was buried on the Rohan farm near the east bank of the Big Timber creek.  An infant son named Vaclav (Jimmy) of the Rohans died about 1875 and was buried near by.  The Steffens later lost an infant son about 1877.  It is said that slight depressions where the three little graves the land owned can still be seen, although none of them were ever marked.

Even though we realize that infant mortality was high everywhere in the 1870's, there is something especially sad about these little unmarked graves on the bank of the Big Timber.  We should bow our heads in homage to the brave pioneer men and women who bought our land at such a cost.

Earliest Burials at Big Timber Cemetery

The Czech settlement on the Big Timber grew from a few isolated dugouts in 1873 into a small community of twenty families by 1884.  It was then that the community faced the need of a common burial spot.  The Bohemian (Czech) cemetery was organized February 25, 1888, just 10 months earlier than the cemetery at Jennings.  It was instituted as the Bohemian National Cemetery (Cesko Narodni Hrbitov).  Its location (NW Sec 34-3-27W) is approximately eight miles northwest of Jennings.

The newly-elected 1888 Cemetery Board purchased a two-acre plot from Mr. and Mrs. Frank  Krizek for the sum of $18.00.  In 1922 an adjacent acre of land was purchased from Mrs. Josephine Krizek for the sum of $75.00.  In 1951, 1.24 acres of adjacent land was purchased from Mr. And Mrs. Henry Steffen for the sum of $124.00.

On the original land that was purchased were three small graves in the northeastern part of the cemetery.  Each of the unmarked graves is now outlined by triangular-shaped pieces of red brick.  It was learned from the late Frank Machart, Jr. that these graves were those of: (1) an infant son of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Krizek Sr., (2) Joseph Machart, aged six, who died of pneumonia, and (3) Henry Machart, an infant.  The latter two were Frank Machart's brothers, sons of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Machart, Sr.

The exact dates of these burials were not recorded, but they were in the period 1885-87.  The Krizeks later lost three other infants that are buried at their family lot (block 13-lot 3).  The earliest is listed as 1887 in the grave registration book, although this entry was not recorded until after 1911 when the official book was prepared.

The first of the original pioneers to be buried at Big Timber was Wenzel (Vaclav) Rohan, who died May 22, 1888, at the age of 50.  The next to go were two infants, a Prachejl and an Urban, that died in 1899, followed by a young mother, Pauline Wentz Netik, aged 22 in 1890. The list shows the earliest burials at Big Timber and the cause of death, when known.  Many of these victims could have been saved by modern medical treatment.

MORTALITY RECORD OF THE BIG TIMBER PIONEERS   1874 - 1900

     Karel Cilek                         --died in 1874, age 6 years.

     Vaclav (Jimmy) Rohan       --died about 1875 (infant)

     Gustav Steffen Jr.             --died about 1877 (infant)

     (infant) Krizek                   --died about 1885 at birth.

     Henry Machart                --died about 1886 (infant)

     Joseph Machart              --died about 1886 of pneumonia, age 6 years.

     (infant) Krizek                   --died in 1887 at birth.

     Vaclav (Wenzel) Rohan --died in 1888 of accidental gun shot, age 50 years

     Lizzie Prachejl                   --died in 1889 (infant)

     (infant) Urban                  --died in 1889, at birth

     Emma Steffen                   --died in 1890 of typhoid fever, age 17 years.

     Ella Steffen                       --died in 1890 of typhoid fever, age 8 months.

     Pauline Wentz Netik       --died in 1890 in childbirth, age 22 years.

     Carl J. Heilman                 --died in 1891 of pneumonia, age 1 year.

     George Stramp                 --died in 1891 of dysentery, age 1 year.

     George Kump, Sr.            --died in 1893 of lung cancer, age 63 years.

     Barbara Janousek            --died in 1893 (infant).

     (infant) Petracek              --son of Frank and Julia Tacha Petracek,  died in 1895 at birth.

     Julia Tacha Petracek       --died in 1895 in childbirth, age 28 years.

     John Shimmick, Sr.          --died in 1895 of diabetes, age 55 years.

     Henry Stramp                   --died in 1896 of spasms, age 2 months.

     Alma Kolsky                    --died in 1898, age 3 years.

     Barbara Rohan Cilek        --died in 1899 of cancer, age 58 years.

     (infant) Urban                  --son of Joe and Lizzie Rohan Urban,  died in 1899 at birth.

     Lizzie Rohan Urban         --died in 1899 in childbirth, age 20 years.

     Vojta (Albert)Janousek  --died in 1900, age 76 years.

     Fred S. Miller                   --died in 1900, age 32 years.

The Big Timber Cemetery Board

The oldest records preserved concerning the organization of the cemetery are in the clerk's record book containing the minutes of the meetings from 1895 to 1937.  There is also a separate book containing the official grave registry, which lists the ownership of each lot together with the names and dates of burials.  This official grave registry book was not started until 1911, although the older burials are also recorded in it.

The first two sheets from the clerk's book are missing.  These two sheets were probably a title page and the minutes of an earlier meeting, or of two earlier meetings, or perhaps a list of charter members.  There is no way to be sure unless the pages are eventually found among some other old papers.

The business of the governing board was conducted in Czech and the minutes of the meetings were written in that language until 1925, when English was used for the first time.  The first officials with their Czech titles were:

            Predseda  (director):                Matej (Matthew) Kaspar

            Tajemnik  (clerk):                      Frantisek (Frank) Machart Sr.

            Pokladnik (treasurer):              Josef (Joseph) Cilek

 The minutes are interesting to a student of languages because some are written in a colloquial dialect, not in standard textbook Czech.  In addition to the real dialectical differences, many words were spelled in non-standard ways and some English words were mixed in, using Czech spellings.

Beautification of both public and private property has long been an attribute of the Czech community.  Following its organization, a barbed wire fence enclosed the cemetery with a central gateway at the north end of the grounds.  Inside the entrance were two wire gates that swung outward when open.  High above the gates was a wooden arched sign identifying the place as the "Cesko Narodni Hrbitov" (The Bohemian National Cemetery).  Here and there within the cemetery a few family plots were enclosed in decorative wrought-iron fences.  Other less expensive enclosures were of wood or concrete.  None of these remain as they were removed to facilitate the care of the graves.

In 1952 the original wrought-iron gateway was removed. Milo Flaska built a brick entrance at the northwest corner of the cemetery.  To encourage landscaping, a tool house, rest rooms, and a windmill with supply tank were added.  Trees and low-growing shrubs were planted along the fence and flowering plants at the gravesides.

In time of sorrow, religious leadership was assumed by a few devout men of the community.  Karel (Charles) Votapka was one of the early residents to conduct funeral rites at the home and at the graveside. Frank Machart, Sr., had studied for the priesthood in Bohemia, his native country, but was never ordained as a minister.  Nevertheless, he volunteered his services and officiated from 1888 until 1911, when he moved with his family to Beroun, Minnesota.  He was followed by Frank Pachner, who came to Decatur County in 1901, and was one of the founders of the Jennings ZCBJ lodge.  As lodge chaplain he continued to conduct funeral services in Czech for members of the lodge and friends in the community until he passed away in 1947.  Since that time chaplains Joe Flaska, Stanley Mazanek, and the late Rudolph Skubal have officiated-- all representatives of Lodge No. 153 of the Western Bohemian Fraternal Association (ZCBJ).

Country Schools

Accounts tell us that the lack of education for their children was one of the major worries of the early settlers.  The hardships and dangers could be endured only if they promised a better life for the children. Informal subscription schools were held in various homes first.  The school terms were short -- after the fall fieldwork was over and before the spring work began.  Many children attended school only 2 or 3 years.

School districts were organized and separate school buildings built starting about 1890: The "Big Timber" school, located just west of the Rohan home; the "Kaspar" school, located one mile east of the Old ZCBJ Hall; The "Norway" school, located 2 miles west of the Big Timber cemetery, and the "Jackson" school, 5 miles west of Jennings. These schools were all consolidated about 1924.  Before that the few members of the community who aspired to go to high school went to the Decatur County High School in Oberlin. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of these country schools to the community.  They were the main force in Americanizing the young children of the immigrants and instilling in them the lasting values of their chosen home country.

Bohemian Lodges

After the turn of the century much of the social life of the Big Timber settlement revolved around the activities of the ZCBJ lodges.  ZCBJ are the first letters of "Zapadni Cesko-Bratrske Jednoty", usually translated as "Western Bohemian Fraternal Association".  The Jennings chapter of the lodge, No. 153, was chartered July 29, 1905, and a lodge hall was built soon thereafter near the Petracek homestead.

At one time there were two ZCBJ lodges each with its own hall – called the "Old Hall" and the "New Hall", fighting for membership.  Some minor disagreement that now seems unimportant caused the split.  The second lodge, No. 244, also called the Oberlin lodge, was chartered March 26, 1916.  The rivalry often resulted in both organizations having competing dances on the same nights.  The New Hall building was later sold and torn down. The Old Hall was moved to Oberlin where it is part of the Decatur County Museum.. 

  An Old-Fashioned Memorial Day at Big Timber  

The Big Timber band entering the Cemetery on Memorial Day about 1910.
( Notice the arched gateway.)

The Big Timber band was a feature for many years.  According to the late Fred Janousek, an old-time musician, a band was originally started by Mr. Gilbertson, one of the Norwegian settlers.  He had learned to play the alto horn very well in a band at a orphanage where he lived as a boy.  Fred's father, James Janousek, Sr., played clarinet with the original band.

Memorial Day at the Big Timber cemetery has traditionally been held on the Sunday preceding the date set for our nation's memorial observance. This to the Czech family in the peaceful days before World War I, was a very special day.  It was a day to be spent away from home, at the cemetery in the morning, and at the picnic grove in the afternoon.

Preparations were preplanned for the annual event.  Leaves and brush accumulated from the year before was removed, grave repair was made, needed wood and stone markers installed, and trees and shrubs planted. As always, the children were present helping where they could with the clean up.  On the evening prior to Decoration Day, the children carried boxes and baskets and searched the countryside for prairie flowers and greenery.

On the morning of that longed-for day, the settlers were in a state of readiness.  The young and the old, decked out in their Sunday best, journeyed on foot, on horseback, in buggies, and  in spring wagons along a road that ran west through the Gustav Steffen farmstead to the Machart picnic grove.  By ten o'clock the settlers had assembled, and after engaging in joyful greeting and swift embrace, each joined in the procession behind the Big Timber band.

After the graves were decorated and the morning service concluded, the families reassembled and together they walked southward down into the valley to the picnic center, where there was ample shade and a plentiful supply of cool spring water.  By noon, boxes and baskets of food were carried to a previously chosen spot and placed on blankets or newspapers, around which the adults and children gathered.  My, what a feast!  Everywhere the picnickers were enjoying prune, cottage cheese, and makovi (poppy-seed) kolache; rohliky (crescents); buchty (coffee-cake, buns); fried chicken; jaternice (liverwurst); and potato salad.  As the family groups feasted, a constant chatter augmented by ripples of laughter, permeated the meadow, as children frolicked and adults discussed family events and politics.

The program, also locally planned, reflected the talents of the Czech settlers and their families.  The band played several pieces.  Czech group songs were sung to the accompaniment of the accordion, the violin, later the organ, and then the piano.  Children performed in patriotic drill exercises, in dance, and in vocal and instrumental numbers.  Since many of those present spoke little or no English, the speaker delivered his address in Czech.

There was a touch of reverence about it all.  A feeling of peace and goodwill hovered over this rustic scene as the old and the young fraternized in native and modern dress.  Shortly before 2 o'clock the multitude assembled as a group in front of the platform.  A surge of pride gripped the throng as a sudden breeze swept over the bunting-draped speaker's stand and set in motion the red, the white, and the blue of Old Glory.  At this awesome moment, the band, resplendent in uniform and instruments, added a dash of color accent, thus captivating the eye and then the ear with stirring martial rhythms-- ever deepening the sense of pride and the love of God and country.

Since World War II, the picnic and afternoon programs have been discontinued.  There is, however, still the Memorial Day service held on Sunday at 10 o'clock.   The descendents of the pioneers still gather in groups at the cemetery to decorate the graves of loved ones and to renew friendships.  Those living close by, linger to visit, while others living at a distance, hurriedly take to their cars in order to be back to work the next day.  Precious memories remain.

Czech Gravestones

Before the First World War several of the gravestones at Big Timber had inscriptions written in Czech.  Most of these give just the names and dates.  For example: The Janousek gravestone gives the names and relationships -- "Matka Aneska, Otec Vaclav", etc. (mother Agnes, father James).  The Ruzicka stone gives the full dates spelled out in Czech: "Katerina, narozena 10 Brezna 1840, zemrela 22 Kvetna 1933".  (Catherine, born March 10, 1840, died May 22, 1933).

The Josef Vacura stone has the names and dates in Czech, contains the simple phrase "Zde odpociva" (resting here).

The Cyrill Vacura inscription includes the age information spelled out: "Rudolf, zemrel Dne 7 Cervna 1903, star 14 Mjesicu 21 dni".  (Rudolph, died July 7, 1903, age 14 months, 21 days).  The word for month is usually spelled "mesic" not "mjesic", although they would sound the same.  Perhaps the stonecutter did not know the language very well. Another example of this is seen on the Jan Vacura stone, where "zemrel" is spelled "zemtel", a mistake anyone who knew the language would not make.

Only two stones have lengthy inscriptions.  One is the touching inscription on the stone for Jan Vacura, the year-old son of Charles and Marie Vacura.

                 Spi sladce             Sleep sweetly

                 milacku                  our dear one

                 nas az nas             until

                 Buh povola          God summons us

                 sejdem                   to meet

                 se zas.                   again.

The most interesting stone is probably that of John Shimmick, grandfather of one of the authors, which has the lengthy inscription: "John Shimmick, Nas otec zesnaly dne 14ho zari 1895, u veku 55 roku 1 mesic a 20 dni." (our father deceased the 14th of September, at age 55 years 1 month and 20 days).  On the other side of the stone is the beautiful poem shown.  We do not know the author of this inscription. It may be a well known poem or one composed by a member of the family. The inscription is very hard to read and the carving is quite shallow, which leads us to suspect that the stone was carved locally, rather than by a professional stonecutter.

     Drimej sladce, otce drahy              Slumber sweetly, father dear

     posledni svuj sen,                           your final dream,

     az te zbudi hlas andela                   until an angel voice awakens you

     mocny v soudny den,                    powerfully on judgment day,

     abys prijal na nebesich                  in order that you may arrive in heaven

     vecnou odplatu                               eternally to repay

     za svou lasku ku svym                   for your love to your

     milym, za svou dobrou.                  loved ones, for your goodness.


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Wednesday, June 18, 2003