From Praha to Prague – Czechs in an Oklahoma Farm Town is an ethnic history by historian Philip D. Smith published this year by the University of Oklahoma Press. As a history, it provides fascinating insight into the life of Czech settlers in the US state of Oklahoma in the late 19th century. During a land run in 1891, they settled in an area they named after the Czech capital and began new lives, assimilating into the dominant culture but never losing their pride in their own cultural identity. The historian told me much more about emigration to the US by Czechs then, including which factors contributed to them leaving their homeland.
“My research shows that, yes, it was primarily economic, although some of it was political, some people were just tired of Habsburg rule, but a lot of it was just what was happening in the United States. Keep in mind that this was a boom time for the United States economically with the second industrial revolution, and a lot of Czechs wanted to come here. An interesting thing that I found was that unlike a lot of other Slavic ethnic people, a large part of them wanted to have land, and land was hard to come by in Bohemia and Moravia during this period, so many of them came for the land and moved west to find it.”
One of the things that is described early on is the difference between how the Czechs adapted compared to other Slavic groups. What was the difference?
“Czechs were different from the other Slavic groups, not completely, but a large part, and I think that this was due to the affiliation of the Austrian Empire which led the Czechs to always look more towards Western Europe, which made them more at ease with western ways. Of course, they struggled linguistically once they came here, but as far as looking west, they were not the peasant society that the Slovaks, the Bulgarians, or the Poles were. Now, there are some Poles that looked west, but overall, the Czechs with their affiliation with the Germanic speaking people, that helped them with their assimilation into the west.”
Was it also important in, say, preserving elements of their own culture in the United States once they had settled there, because, after all, they had been used to being under the Habsburg rule for three hundred years, and yet their language survived and their different customs survived?
“Yes, that’s a good point. They were used to being - and I hesitate to use this word - but a persecuted minority under a dominant culture and a dominant language. In turn, when they came here, it helped, really, I think it helped them unify. They sought each other out, though, even in urban areas, they still lived close to German communities. In my study of Prague, Oklahoma, I found that, though not as large as they were, there was a large German community just north of where most of them settled. So, they seem to settle close to the Germans. Definitely they were a minority and that helped them cling together, to work together, and to not just lose their identity.”
One thing that’s described in your book is how some Slovaks went to the United States, but they went over in an attempt to make money which was then sent home, whereas with many of the Czechs that wasn’t the case. Once they decided to leave, it was a broad decision that affected the whole family.
“Yes, the Czechs, by and large, came over as families, specifically young families with young children or no children at all. Sometimes it was a husband and wife alone and recently married that made the decision to come over and they came over, by and large, to stay. When they made that decision, it was almost as if there was no turning back.
“On the contrary with the Slovaks, a lot of their young men came over, either married, or a lot of them were unmarried, to make money and then return to their homeland, which I found interesting and quite a bit different from the Czech experience. Now, is that to say that there were more Slovak families that came over, yes there were, but there were a lot of young men, and historians have labeled them ‘birds of passage’. They came over, spent a few years working in the factories, usually in the eastern part of the United States, and then they would return home with money in their pockets and of course were sending money back to their families all the time that they were here.”
It is interesting certainly. The opening passage describing that kind of ‘quintessential’ decision to leave and the emotions involved there because that is something that every immigrant experiences. We forget sometimes how difficult of a decision that is, even if one is going towards the promise of something better, it’s never easily to leave behind one’s identity and culture…
“That was a huge decision, you know, when you’re leaving family, I can’t imagine doing that, I mean I grew up around my family, my mother and father and my grandparents and aunts and uncles, and I just can’t imagine doing that. Especially during that time period when you didn’t have email and they didn’t have telephones! All that they could do was write letters back and forth, and going across the ocean, you can imagine how slow that was, so it was a huge emotional journey for them as well as economic. That separation I’m sure caused a lot of loneliness and homesickness.
When they restarted in Oklahoma, that would be all the more reason to reinforce things from home, wouldn’t it?
“Yes, absolutely. The other thing, now that you mentioned Oklahoma, I already mentioned that they wanted land, but when Oklahoma started their land runs in the late 1800s, the Czechs were drawn to this, and when they came, the specific land run that I talk about in the book had to do with the Indian reservation which was carved out and put up for the land run, which was a race. You were allowed to go out and settle 160 acres. I had found out that what had happened was that prior to the land run, people had gathered in Oklahoma City, which is not that far from where Prague, Oklahoma, is. The Czechs were drawn to each other and a lot of them decided to line up of the land run together and try to claim land close to each other.
You describe some of the events of that land run, one of the Czechs didn’t make it too far because he had the misfortune of his horse dying on him.
“Yes, this happened quite a bit along with wagons breaking down. The one I specifically wrote about in there was tough because both of the man’s brother in laws made it Prague whereas he did not. He and his wife, his wife being the sister of the Vlasak brothers, did not make it because their horse died. That happened quite a lot, but by and large most of them made it and it became Prague, Oklahoma. And yes, that is how it’s pronounced here [like Hague]. Initially it was Praha, then it became Prague, and then they Americanised it to Prague. So, that is the current pronunciation, Prague Oklahoma.
“Yes, what happened was that when the Czechs all banded together and claimed this area, there were about three hundred of them, and they claimed their land and settled their, but there was no town. This is 1891 to 1892, but they immediately formed a Bohemian fraternal association called the Bohemian Hall. This was where they started to hold meetings and began a community, but there was no town yet.
“In fact, the area became known as Barta Post office because the US government set up a post office, and a fellow named Frank Barta, who was one of the Czech immigrants, worked there, and it was on his land, so the area was called Barta Post Office. Then, in 1902, the Fort Smith and Western Railroad out of Arkansas decided to put a railroad line from Fort Smith,Arkansas to Guthrie, Oklahoma, which, at that time, was the state capital of Oklahoma, which is a little northwest of Oklahoma City. They chose the Barta Post Office area as a coaling station, a refueling station, and a stop for their trains. So, they bought the land, which would become the town of Prague, from Frank Barta. So, Fort Smith and Western plotted the town, and then they put up the land for sale. Once they put up the land for sale, not all of the Czech farmers wanted to move into town.
“This is 1902, so now a lot of anglos and Germans moved in, so with the exception of Prague, the population of Czechs was most likely roughly around 30 percent of the total population. The point is that they were immediately in the minority once the town came into being in Prague Oklahoma.
“By the way, the reason it got its name Prague is because the railroad company allowed Frank Barta’s wife Josephine to name the town since Frank had passed away. She originally wanted to name the town Praha because she was born and raised in Prague, Bohemia. So, the town early on was known as Prague, but that didn’t last long because the native born Americans that started moving in began to call it Prague [rhyming with Hague or Haig].”
If we talk about the community, how did that change over the years, because there were different Czechs in prominent positions. So, how involved did they become in civic life or in sports? There’s a photograph there of the football team and so on so I am just curious as to how they assimilated and how they became Americans.
“They became American in pretty much every way, especially by the 3rd generation, however, they never lost their identity. Even today if you go down there, which I did, I had a book talk and a book signing in the museum down there, and the decendents of the Czechs were literally coming out of the woodwork and they are so unbelievably proud of their Czech heritage and to this day they are. There are even a few still today, who I wouldn’t say are fluent, but can still speak the Czech language.
“I talked to a couple of families that were so excited to have been able to go back to Bohemia, one of them went just a couple of years ago, and remember, this is 2017 and she was telling me that she cried almost every day thinking about here decendents while she was in Prague in the Czech Republic. So, you can tell that the motherland is very near and dear to their hearts. Now, if I can go back towards assimilation; now, when the town Prague first opened up, the Czechs formed their own school where lessons were taught in Czech, but it didn’t last for more than two or three years, and I could not find much information on it aside from a few photographs and some family history on it. Early on, there was a small group of Czech immigrants who made the decision that if they were going to succeed, they had to cooperate and integrate into the dominant society.
There were several of them, one of them was a fellow by the name of Cyril Sadlo, who ran a harness shop. He was somewhat of a blacksmith, but was also a member of the Bohemian Hall, the fraternal organization. He was a pretty important fellow. Another guy, who I already mentioned, was Frank Vlasak.
“He was quite an amazing guy. He seemed to be in almost everything. From the inception, he was voted onto the Prague Public School Board of Oklahoma, he also rose to vice president of Prague’s number one bank, and he also built a building downtown called the Vlasak building where he ran a grocery and mercantile store on the first floor, and then rented apartments above, he had a building in downtown Prague, Oklahoma. Those are two pretty important ones right there that assimilated and were actually leaders within the community.
If we talk about Prague, Oklahoma, this is a town with a population of about two thousand today. In what ways does the culture survive today? Is there a Kolache festival that is still held? Are there other festivals?
“The Kolache festival is the only festival that they hold and its held in May. However, in Yukon, Oklahoma, which is a suburb outside of Oklahoma City, they also have a sizable Czech community and they also run a fraternal organization called the Czech Hall, and they run a festival that takes place in October, and a lot of the Prague Czechs make the trek.”