“I learned English because when I was young I was infatuated with Jon Bon Jovi.”
We have stopped in the small village of Kojakovice on our 50 mile bike between Cesky Krumlov and the Bohemian town of Trebon to the east. After steep hills and miles of rocky dirt roads and grass paths as we cut our way east, we were ready for a break.
Stephanie (as she explained was the English version of her name), greeted us as we pulled up to the Czech Immigration Museum in this tiny village with a warm smile and a welcome offer of coffee. “How did you hear about this place? Do you have Czech relatives?”
I explained that I had found a website with very helpful explanations about this area, and we had detoured here to visit in person. She took us inside an old building filled with an assortment of tools, kitchen gadgets, and cardboard wall displays. And, as we admired some of the finely decorated gingerbread for sale along with packaged cookies meant to feed hungry cyclists who ventured through this town as part of the extensive bike trail networks surrounding the town of Trebon, she invited us to see her workshop.
Stephanie makes this local gingerbread art, and like learning English, this is also self-taught. A tiny bag of icing and a needle is all she needs to trace intricate designs on gingerbread hearts and hedgehogs and pumpkins and other creations. She tells us that she has been invited to sell her gingerbread at a local fall fair, and so she is making her inventory to be ready. Last time she sold out in two hours. She can sell them for a decent profit … they are prized as gifts and can last four years. I tell her how honored I would be to receive one of these as a gift, and how sorry I am that I can’t buy one … they would never survive two weeks bouncing in a pannier on my bike. This pleases her.
She takes us through the museum, which is full of letters and documentation from Czech immigration to the United States in the 1800’s, when America was giving away land to anyone willing to brave the hardships – and occasional Indian attacks – to live there and own what they farmed after 5 years.
In the small village of Kojakovice over 30% of the inhabitants settled in Oxford Junction, Iowa, a massive exodus driven by economic hardship. Families were incentivized by the prospect of land and opportunity when there was none in the old country. Wilber, Nebraska is the self-proclaimed Czech capital of the US, and hosts a Czech heritage festival every year which is attended by families of Czech descent from around the country.
She reads a letter sent from a local family from the village who emigrated- accompanied by a stained black and white photo. “We finally settled and the corn was planted and ripe. And just before the corn was ready to harvest the grasshoppers came … and we had nothing two days later.” This family with several children was surviving the winter without their harvest in the cold midwest. They wrote home in the winter because they had the time … there was nothing to do on the farm but wait for spring.
After many handshakes and goodbyes and thank yous to our new friend Stephanie, we made our way the final 10 km north to the Bohemian town of Trebon. And here the baroque facades of the central town square, with their medieval fountains and Dukes’ palace tell a different story of life here at the turn of the century.
The end of the square is dominated by the palace and enormous formal gardens – the last occupants being the Schwarzenbergs (ruling after the last of the Rosenbergs – who built the palace and who ruled for centuries before they died out).
The ruling families stamped their mark in stone throughout the region. Keeping power and wealth means displaying power and wealth, and the Bohemian nobles had no trouble affording to keep their dominance visible.
The Schwarzenbergs built an elaborate mausoleum and ornate chapel in a large wooded area on the lake south of the palace. The walls were meticulously decorated by goose quill pricks to give them texture. The coffins underneath speak to the the importance of a family ruling such a large and wealthy state.
The town of Trebon is unique. Not for its royal grandiosity, but for its fish ponds. As early as the 1500’s, villages and towns dug and maintained fish farming agriculture, a fish-farming system that was upgraded in the 1800s with new techniques for foods and dams and waterworks. And still exists today. As we walked around one of the dammed ponds we saw huge fish lazing near the surface in the sun.
This town is famous for its fish, and last night we enjoyed our best meal so far in the Czech Republic – for me pike with red lentils and tarragon foam – a meal that would have held its own in the best Seattle restaurants.
Fish is so important here that local clothes and artwork are traditionally decorated with carp scales … carefully cut into designs and sewn into pillows or clothes or wall hangings. The carp is such an important economic and cultural lynchpin here that there is even a sculpture of the fish mounted to the wall of the local monastery underneath the 15th century original gothic wall paintings. Last night after dinner the waiter gave us two decorated carp scales for good luck … on top of the bill.
Local villages – like Kojakovice – kept their fish ponds from the middle ages, too. But the contrast between the wealth of the rulers and the poverty and lack of opportunity in the villages just ten kilometers away, makes it obvious why so many left their home and traveled the dangerous journey to America.
Americans, with the exception of the abused Native Americans, are descended from immigrants like these Czechs, who did the backbreaking labor on roads and railroads and farms to build our country. Recently traveling in Ireland, I read a quote from a letter of an Irish immigrant around the same timeframe. “Not only are the streets not paved with gold. We are expected to pave them.” Which says it all.
My ancestors helped colonize America much earlier – as early as the 1600s from England and later Ireland. But even with that family history, it’s places like Kojakovich and Trebon that help me understand why people would risk that terrible journey and difficult life to try for something better. And appreciate their story.