Charities/Volume 13/Number 10/Bohemian Farmers of Wisconsin

Charities, vol. 13, no. 10  (1904) 
Bohemian Farmers of Wisconsin by Nan Mashek

Mile Posts in the
History of
Bohemian Farmers
of the Northwest

I. The Original Log Cabin With Mud Plastering and Board Roof.
II. The Middle Period of Lime Plastering, Smoothly Hewn Logs and Shingled Roofs.
III. The Modern Farm House.

Bohemian Farmers of Wisconsin

Nan Mashek
Kewaunee, Wis.

In studying any group of "strangers within our gates," it is necessary to know intimately its pre-emigration history. I know of no nation of which this is more fundamentally true than the Bohemians. They have had such a stormy national struggle, and the bitterness of it has so entered into their lives that it is impossible rightly to judge them apart from it.

For the last two hundred and fifty years they have been oppressed by a pitilessly despotic rule. In the days of their independence, before 1620, they were Protestants and the most glorious and memorable events of their history are connected with their struggle for the faith. The history of their church is, in fact, the history of their nation, for on the one hand was Protestantism and independence; on the other, Catholicism and political subjection. For two centuries Bohemia was a bloody battleground of Protestant reform. Under the spiritual and military leadership of such men as Jerome of Prague, John Huss and Ziska, the Bohemians fought their good fight and lost. After the battle of White Mountain in 1620, national independence was lost, and Catholicism was completely forcibly imposed upon the country. All Protestant bibles, books and songs were burnt, thus depriving the nation of a large and rich literature. Those who still clung publicly to their faith were banished from the country, their property becoming forfeit to the state.

After hundred and fifty years, when Emperor Joseph of Austria gave back to the Protestants some measure of their former freedom, many of the churches were re-established. Protestantism had, however, lost much of its strength. Among the less educated, Catholicism, at first bitterly distasteful, had become customary, and in the second generation sincere. Those, however, who knew Bohemian history and had read the story of Huss and Jerome, kept more nearly the ideals of their fathers. They could not but be hostile toward a nation and a church which had tried so utterly to crush them.

Then, in 1848, came the political revolution. Encouraged by the success of the French people against Louis Phillippe, the Bohemians again broke out in remonstrance. With the subdual of this outbreak came a reaction toward despotism in which is found the first impulse toward emigration. Large numbers left the country in the quest of freedom, and of these some found their way to America. Thus our first Bohemian settlers were of the most intelligent and more prosperous classes. Those who came West established themselves in two settlements, one in St. Louis and the other in Caledonia, Wis. (near Racine). In the next few years settlements spread to Milwaukee and Manitowoc counties. These first Bohemian farmers came almost without exception with money enough to buy their lands, at least in part. The country which they selected was heavily wooded so that their first great labor was to clear their farms. This they did by cutting and burning the logs, making no attempt to sell them as timber, as did their countrymen who came later. With farms wholly or in part paid for, they could direct all their energies toward clearing and cultivating the land, finding an immediate means of subsistance in small crops raised among the stumps. From this small beginning, the way to prosperity was clear. Their farms in Milwaukee county, directly north of Manitowoc, are among the finest in the state.

These were the centers toward which the subsequent immigration naturally drifted. By 1870 the greater part of the later-comers had arrived. These were mostly ambitious farm laborers and mechanics who hoped to find here an independent and more profitable livelihood. As they came with little or no money, their first need was for cheap farms upon which they could make a humble living from the very beginning. Such farms they found in the timber lands of Kewaunee county, directly north of Manitowoc. Here they settled in such large numbers that they still make up over one-third of the total population—6,000 of the 17,000 inhabitants of the county.

The Problem Before the Early Settlers.The early settler bought from forty to sixty acres of land, making only a small cash payment, and giving a mortgage for the rest. The price ranged from five to ten dollars an acre. With the help of his neighbors, who blazed trails as they came lest they should not be able to find the way back, he built a log cabin and felled a few trees to give space for a vegetable patch. Then came the serious work of clearing the land, and at the same time earning enough outside money to live and pay part of the debt. This was accomplished in various ways. Sometimes the head of the family and the eldest son worked part of the year in the nearest sawmill or in the logging camps of northern Michigan. Sometimes they went to the large farms to the south of Michigan to help during the harvest. Very often they made hand-shaved pine shingles of the trees on their land, and exchanged them at the nearest market for what they most needed.

These were, indeed, hard years for our pioneers, but better times came after 1861. The war broke out and the forest products of which they had such an abundance, increased in price. Tan-bark, cedar posts for fencing, cord-wood, railroad ties—all found a market so good that the village shippers bought them as fast as they could be made and brought to the shipping piers. Many of these merchant lumbermen advanced money to the farmers with which to buy oxen and sleighs. They also took timber products in exchange for flour, cloth and other necessities, and in other ways the struggle for existence became less severe, the clearing of the lands went on more rapidly, and the farmers were able to meet more easily their living expenses and debts, notwithstanding war prices on food products and clothes, which put flour at $12 a barrel, coffee at 60 cents a pound and ordinary sheeting at 85 cents.

During the Civil War and After.But the war, even with its attendant prosperity, was not an unmixed blessing. Enthusiasm and patriotism, everywhere rife, was further encouraged among the Bohemians by their newspaper The Slavie, then published in Racine, Wis. Many entered the volunteer army, and when later a draft was ordered, large numbers of farms were left without men. There remained usually a large family with only a mother, and perhaps a fourteen-year-old son, to carry on the work of the place, an outlook calculated to overwhelm the most courageous of women. Yet our Bohemian wives were not disheartened and it is remarkable that in all that war-time not one mortgage was foreclosed in Kewaunee county, and not one of these brave women forfeited the homestead that was given into her care.

After the war, the material progress of the farmers was steady. To-day, were you to travel through their settlements, you would find large, well-ordered farms, with only here and there a stump or disused log-house to remind you of pioneer days. In Kewaunee county, farm land is now worth from $25 to $50 an acre, five times its original value.

Very little was done during the early years toward education. Schools were widely scattered, hard to reach, and there was work for the children at home. The Catholic church, in the few places where it was established, had in connection with it no parochial school. Only a very few children learned even the beginnings of English. Some, however, were taught at home in the mother-tongue, which enabled them to read the Bohemian newspaper.

The Schoolhouse and Other Beginnings.When, later, more roads were opened, and pioneers had overcome their first difficulties, schoolhouses sprang up and children were given from seven to ten months tuition each year. It would seem that once the "little red schoolhouse" was built, the way toward American citizenship would have been clear. But even here there were difficulties. The small Slavs insisted on talking Bohemian out of school hours, and the distracted schoolmaster could do nothing to stop them. As a consequence, they learned English slowly; other branches of knowledge, still more so. In communities where there were a few Irish and American children, conditions were somewhat better, but even here "recess-language" was Bohemian. The minority of little Americans were overcome. It was a common complaint among their parents that even at home they spoke to each other in Bohemian and a strange, unnatural language it must have seemed to these English-speaking parents.

These beginnings belong to the past. It would be hard in our day to find a Bohemian of the second generation in Wisconsin who cannot read and speak English. The older people do not learn English so readily. Their children and neighbors can speak with them in the mother-tongue, the village merchant provides Bohemian clerks of whom they can buy, and for reading they have the Bohemian newspapers. Those who can speak German adapt themselves somewhat more readily: for having a knowledge of one foreign language, they find it less difficult to master a second which is allied to it.

Higher Education.In the matter of higher education, the Bohemians of Kewaunee county have a remarkably good record. Within the last twenty-five years the local high school has sent to college fifty-nine young men and women and of these thirty were Bohemians. It is plain, then, that there is no lack of ambition in the children of our pioneers, and this ambition is upheld and fostered by progressive Bohemians of the West. Two years ago a council of higher education was organized at Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which, in the words of its constitution, is "to encourage the Bohemian youth to acquire higher education, to inform our people concerning the manner in which they may secure such education for their children, and the advantages whioh various educational institutions afford, and to aid promising students, who lack the material means necessary to higher education, by honorloans, without interest."

The society was organized mainly through the efforts of W. F. Severa, a prominent Bohemian of Cedar Rapids, and Professor Simek of Iowa University. To put the project in motion, Mr. Severa subscribed $2,500, a sum which has been so liberally contributed to by Bohemian societies and individuals that in the two years the society has been able to loan much more. Though in 1903-4 there were seven students at various western universities and this year the number has been increased to twelve, it is hoped that as the fund increases, both by contributions and repaid loans, the society will be able to broaden its scope.

The movement is further supported by another, the aim of which is to establish Bohemian libraries in the larger Bohemian communities. The public library of Milwaukee is to install one hundred books on history, literature, biography, The Preservation of Bohemian Culture.fiction and science and the free Library Commission of Wisconsin is considering the purchase of two sets of books, seventy-five in each, to be used as traveling libraries in the thickly populated districts of the state. In addition to these libraries, there is to be another of about a hundred books at the University of Nebraska, and a second traveling library under the management of the council of higher education. Mr. Severa voices the ambition of progressive Bohemian-Americans when he says: "We want our young men and women to enter American colleges and to work hand in hand with Americans on the path of progress, but we want them at the same time to respect the land of their fathers, to know their language and to be informed concerning their history and literature."

In the country the assimilation of Bohemians is not a problem which offers difficulties. The public school is everywhere so potent an Americanizer that it alone is adequate. There is, however, one other influence which if brought to bear, especially in the large communities, would be helpful. I refer to the Protestant faith. For the most part Bohemians conversant with their history as a people are naturally hostile to the Catholic church, and when the restraints which held them in their own country are removed by emigration, many of the most enlightened quietly drop their allegiance and, through lack of desire or opportunity, fail to ally themselves with any other. So strong is this non-religdous tendency among Bohemians (especially in the cities) that it has resulted in active unbelief and hostility to church influence. This spiritual isolation, with its resultant social separation, is doing great harm in retarding assimilation. The benefits to be derived from social intercourse within church would be especially marked as assimilative and educational factors.

Assimilation of American Customs.Aside from this matter of religion, the Bohemian falls into American customs with surprising readiness. This is the more remarkable when we consider the great difference between American and Bohemian country life. Nowhere in the old country are there isolated farms as here—the cultivated lands radiate. To a Bohemian immigrant then, American farm life must at first seem extremely dull and void of social pleasure.

A general impression that Bohemians are much like the Germans is not true. They are to begin with a very emotional people. In this they resemble more closely the Latin races, except that where the Latins are more or less consistently light-hearted, the Bohemians have an unconquerable tendency toward melancholy. They are excitable and have an unusual capacity for entering heartily into their pleasures; but, on the other hand, they are easily depressed and have not the cool-natured endurance of the northern German. Generally liberal money-spenders, hard-working and thrifty, they still have a fondness for good living, good clothes, and an occasional glass of beer, which makes it difficult for them to bear poverty.

But, perhaps, their most striking characteristic is their love of music and dancing. In the country, almost every village has a band of self-taught musicians, and the country dance is a time-honored institution. Their national music is peculiarly Slavonic and has in it the same undercurrent of strangeness and melancholy which one finds in their personal traits and again in their folk-lore.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published in 1904, before the cutoff of January 1, 1928.

This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.

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