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The Czech Settlers of Nueces County, Texas

The Pamatnik was originally published in 1920 and contains labeled photographs of thousands of Texas Czechs. The book was published in Rosenberg, Texas at the end of WWI, after the formation of the Czechoslovak State. The group and individual photographs are of those who helped to fund the independence of Czechoslovakia.   This is the Robstown group.  Names are available upon request.

We are the Czechs of Northwest Nueces County and we are proud to be here ninety-four years after we first arrived.

Vítáme Vás! (I welcome you!)

It was the rich, waxy black soil that drew the Texas Czechs to Nueces County starting in 1907. Most were immigrants or the children of immigrants who had come to Texas decades before from The Czech Crown Lands, mainly the Frýdek-Místek region of Moravia, but also from Silesia, and Bohemia…in smaller numbers. Whether they came through the Port of Galveston or by train from the East Coast, most had originally settled in Austin, Fayette, Lavaca, McLennan, Washington, and Williamson Counties. They were a farming people.

When the land in northwest Nueces County opened for development, it was a strong magnet for those who tilled the soil and needed to purchase land. In many cases, fathers who had settled in Central Texas now had sons who were ready to establish themselves. Land in many of those counties had been in production since the time of the Republic of Texas. And, over time, even the Texas Czechs who were known for their farming prowess were unable to stop the degradation of the land. The rich, black prairie land of Nueces County would receive this second migration of Texas Czechs.

In 1881, the Corpus Christi, San Diego, and Rio Grande Railroad completed construction of a railway that connected Corpus Christi, Texas, to Laredo, Texas. This railway had a section house about two miles east of the present location of Robstown. It was called Rogers. Then in about 1902, another railroad, then called the St. Louis, Brownsville, and Texas Mexican Railway, started a line to Brownsville and Robstown was established as a station for receiving material for construction.

Around 1904, a large section of what had been “The Famous Driscoll Ranch” and other ranch land was made available for development. The area of Robstown was included in this. Initially, the German-American Land Company marketed the land. Their efforts were not very successful and the George H. Paul Land Company of Washington, Iowa, took over the development.

The Paul Land Company brought prospective buyers in on special trains from Kansas City and Saint Louis. The perspective buyers were mostly northern people from Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. Many or most of them had little, if any, farming experience. Upon arrival on the special trains, mostly Pullman tourist cars along with dining cars, the trains were parked conveniently to unload to crowds. Carriages and buggies were provided for their use of viewing the land. Each group was guided, or perhaps the word is “steered” by a trained salesman and they made their tour under the supervision of their guide.

Many of the Texas Czechs came to the Robstown area before the Paul Land Company’s promotions were at their height. Some of the first to arrive were the Tom (Tomas) and Johanna Marek Mŕazek family from Williamson County, Frantiśek and Stanislav Procháska from Fayette County, and the brothers John (Jan) and Louis (Alois) Rektořík from Lavaca County. Land was generally purchased with a cash down payment and a series of notes due about harvest time.

Running mesquite” covered most of the area. There was only a little growth above the ground but each mesquite had a vast and heavy root system. Most early farmers cleared their land by hand, grubbing out the mesquite, and burning it. Some early settlers sought to avoid the intense labor and purchased tracts of land that were relatively clear of the mesquite. Over time, it would be learned that those tracts of land did not grow brush because they were in low areas that would stand water for months after heavy rains. This was before the drainage ditches were put in. Soon, Tom Mrazek and his sons would design and manufacture a grubbing plow which helped clear the area of running mesquite in a much more efficient manner.

While an ethnic German community would grow, generally, on the south side of the railroad from Laredo to Corpus Christi, an ethnic Czech community would grow, generally, to the northwest. The area around what is now County Roads 44 and 77 formed the hub of the Czech community. On some county maps, County Road 77 is still called “Old Moravian Road.“ A County School, Ward One, was built at the intersection of those roads on an acre of land donated by Mr. Adolf Berkovsky. While the children of both Czech and Mexican settlers attended the Ward One School, English was the only language permitted and students were punished for “speaking Bohemian.”

Cooperative efforts by the local Texas Czech settlers would include the creation of the original “Moravian” Community Hall, on County Road 42, and the Moravian Gin Co-op. There would also be local chapters of mutual aid and mutual protection societies. The Slovanská podporující jednota satu Texas (SPJST), known in English as the Slavonic Benevolent Order of Texas provided, and still provides, life insurance. The SPJST began operation in 1897. The Rolnický vzajemní orchranní spolek státu Texas (RVOS), later known as the Framers Mutual Protection Association of Texas, provided fire, lightening, and storm coverage to farmers when commercial coverage of farms was not available. The RVOS began operation in 1901. Also, over the years, the local Czech settlers would be very active in the formation and operation of the first frozen food locker plant, the Nueces Electric Co-op, and the local Farm Bureau. They would also serve on the Robstown school board.

Robstown Moravian Brethren Church

Czech Settlers were mainly either of the Roman Catholic or the Moravian Brethren faith. In 1904, the congregations of the Texas Moravian Brethren Churches formed a Unity of the Brethren. The original Unity of the Brethren traces its roots to the work of the reforming priest, John Hus, martyred in 1415. Hus was concerned with bringing the church back to its spiritual roots and removing distracting influences that tradition and custom had added over the years. Hus was concerned with providing the scriptures in the language of the people, instead of the church Latin version which only the educated and clergy had the opportunity to learn. Hus also desired the church to surrender much of the secular power and material possessions it had accumulated so that its spiritual mission could proceed unhindered. The reforms that Hus suggested met with tremendous opposition from church authorities, although they were popular with the common people. The execution of Hus by the church in 1415 incensed the people of the Czech lands and led to the development of an alternative church, the Unity of the Brethren in 1457.

Tom Mrazek had been a founding member of the Granger, Texas, Moravian Brethren Church and he was would again serve in this role in Robstown. The first service of the Robstown Moravian Brethren Church was held in the home of Tom and Johanna Mrazek. Reverend Joseph Barton was the first Moravian Brethren minister to travel by train from Granger, Texas, to conduct services in Robstown. Ministers would continue to come by either train or automobile for many years.

From the time the first Moravian Catholics arrived in the area of Robstown in 1907, they too struggled to attend their religious services. They would have to wait for six years for a priest. In 1913, Reverend Joseph Klobouk arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, and was petitioned to serve the Robstown Moravian Catholics. There was no church so for two years, mass was celebrated in the home of Frank Prochaska Sr. In 1916, the first church was built and then destroyed by a storm. In 1924, the old Robstown Methodist Church building was purchased. First it was called “Mission St. John” and over the years it grew into the parish of Saint John Nepomucene. A new church would be dedicated on October 17, 1937. St. John Nepomucene is patron saint of Bohemia. Next, a rectory and later a parochial elementary and high school would be added. The school was closed in 1987.

As elsewhere, the Czechs of Robstown were proud to be American citizens. For centuries the native peoples of the Czech Crown Lands had struggled under foreign rule. The Czech language had almost ceased to exist under the intense “Germanization” pressures of the Habsburg Dynasty. The Revolutions of 1848 led to the abolishment of serfdom and the end of the much hated compulsory service (Robota) to the aristocracy. However, personal and religious freedoms were still greatly limited, taxes by the Crown and Church reached seventy percent of income in some areas, land ownership was restricted, and there was a compulsory three-years of service in the Austrian Army for all males.

When the Austrian Constitution was amended in 1867 to guarantee the principle of free immigration, many Czechs began to search for a new homeland. By the 1870’s and 1880’s, natural calamities such as intense droughts and floods combined with the severe restrictions imposed by the Austrian Crown made immigration to Texas the best hope for many Moravian families.

At any meeting of a Texas Czech organization, they always sang first the American National Anthem and then the Czech National Anthem. Also, the American flag was always placed over the Czech flag.

Many Texas Czech families managed to retain their language through the third and even fourth generations. However, the second half of the 1900’s saw the children of rural Czech communities disbursing and becoming more fully assimilated into the mainstream American culture. The traditional family farms could not support the growing families and the lure of life in the cities called others away. But, there are still a significant number who still speak “moravska“ or “české“ In fact, the Texas Moravian dialect is now considered an “archaic” dialect of the language because it is still, with a few innovations, the language of the Czech farmers of one-hundred years ago.

Have the Texas Czechs been absorbed into the homogeneous American culture? Yes and no. The freedom found in American allowed the Texas Czechs to prosper. We will never forget to be grateful to our new homeland. At the same time, we will always be Moravian (Czech). Some of us more than others. Look throughout the State and you will find “Kolacheand “Czech” festivals in many towns. In addition, there are organizations such as the Czech Heritage Societies, the Czech Cultural Centers, the Texas Czech Genealogy Society, and the Czechoslovak Genealogy Society, International, that work to preserve and transfer to younger generations our unique ethnic history.

And, with the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, Texas Czechs can now more easily communicate with the people of the Czech homelands. Many Texas Czechs travel to the Czech Republic to see their ancestral villages first hand and even to connect with relatives. Also, several Czech-related organizations organize yearly tours to the Czech lands.

Although some Texas Czechs have left their ethnic culture behind, there are still others who dance the “beseda;” a traditional folk dance, own a “kroj; a peasant costume, bake “kolaché;” a sweet pastry with a fruit filling; or research and keep their family histories.

And, look to the local farm lands. The Charbas, Hrncirs, Jalufkas, Kocureks, Nemecs, Otahals, Prochaskas, Rektoriks, and other Czech families still hold and/or work the land. The Texas Czech were and always will be a farming people.

Na schledanou! (Until we meet again!)

Susan Rektořík Henley

 

Kdo chce s vlky byti, musí s vlky vyti!

"If you run with the wolves, you must howl with the wolves!"

 Remember who your people are, keep and tell their stories.

Rekindle and keep the fires of the culture alive!

 

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