A Message - Virginia Czech/Slovak Heritage Society
Our major goal is to capture the immigration history of the Czechs and Slovaks who settled in Virginia during the late 1800s. Though we know that this group of new Americans played a vital role in the growth of our state and our nation in countless ways, their contributions were for the most part lost to Virginia’s documented history. We want to learn more about them and their achievements by capturing their stories and documenting the significant differences they made during their lifetime. To do this, we need to gather the stories and memories you have of your immigrant Czech and Slovak ancestors: who they were, where they came from, why they came here and what it meant for them to become Americans. Many of these local stories are in jeopardy of being lost and forgotten as time moves on and that is why we need your help. Already trusted into our care for preservation are collections of personal interviews, copies of family histories, genealogies, old photographs and other documents as well as other rare books and papers. We do not want your precious and historical artifacts, we only want to make photographic copies of them. This then is what will be saved, archived and donated to local libraries and genealogy centers where it will become a treasured gift that will have been left for future generations of historians and family researchers. For information you can reach us by E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
John E.Wells, (VDOT Richmond District) before his untimely death in 2007, had just completed researching and collecting raw data on the Czechs and Slovaks in Virginia. It is the most comprehensive collection about the settlements of this particular ethnic group to date. His original research pulled together previous research by Anderson in 1929 and Kovacs in 1939 making his contribution a cohesive and timely document. (See SVCSHS's website for Anderson's and Kovac's work.) This collective data is extremely valuable for serious researchers of Eastern European Immigrants in Virginia. In John's first paper, completed in 2004, he concentrated only on the Czechs and where they settled in Virginia. It was therefore titled,The Czech communities in Virginia and it consisted of 27 pages. Later in 2007 he had combined this piece of work into a 42 page document titled The Czech and Slovak communities in Virginia.click here We will always be grateful for the time John took to validate his research, interview us, our organization, it's members and other locals in search of historical facts that concentrated on the location of the Czech immigrants in southern Virginia, many of whom were our ancestors. The SVCSHS was pleased that John presented us with a copy of this work for our records.
So it began.......
There were a group of Czech families who left the Kingdom of Bohemia around 1824 -26 from the area near Plzen, a large city to the east of Prague. They left their homeland due to the struggles they had long endured under selfish rulers who refused to allow home/land ownership and who had no regards for their needs. History tells us that some of these émigrés traveled on foot overland while others traveled at least part of the way down the Danube on barges. Either way, their journey took them into the Banat, the southern part of Austria Hungary which, since the end of WWII, is located in present day Romania. Many families,ours among them, banded together to go to the Banat because they held promises of free land to homestead, a 10 year exemption from military service, opportunities to build ethnic schools for their young and churches of their choice for worship. To them, it was worth the risk, for the conditions under which they lived were certainly worsening and this seemed like a new beginning to them.
Our Blaha family has many great stories. The most famous of which is their immigration to America beginning in 1888 by Joseph Blaha from the Czech village Gernik. As you already know there are several of us here today who visited the village in 2005 and again in 2006. Many of us saw you in the faces of our relatives thousands of miles away. It was a life changing event for us. We gathered their genealogies, first person stories, photographs, documents and other memorabilia which will help our future family historians.
But, this morning I believe I have some new information to share about our family that dates back to when they first settled the 1824 - 26 village that we visited. During our 2005 visit, Mr. Josef Merhout, the village librarian, handed Joyce Pritchard a two page mimeographed paper titled History of the Settlers in the Banat. It was a much copied document of poor quality plus it is written in the old Czech language. To my knowledge it has never been translated into English. However, with my recent attempt, and with the help of Google and my little translation book, I have been able to get the gist of what transpired.
Apparently the only known translation of it was written in German by Dr. Stanislav Shutter, who along with other colleagues from Charles University in Prague, made reference to it in some of their papers in 1982. Daniel Mair who was also a scholar at the University and our traveling guide and companion, also based his thesis on our village of Gernik and its inhabitants. These exposes are my sources for the story I’m about to tell you. This story belongs not only to us whose last name is Blaha, but to other Czech families who immigrated into Virginia from the remote village in Romania that many of our relatives still call home. As the story unfolds you will see how all of us are truly related if not by family blood then by family spirit and you will see that when they came to America from Gernik it was not their first chain migration.
It begins when a giant of a man calling himself George the Hungarian, walked into their small village, somewhere near Plzen, which at that time was located in the Kingdom of Bohemia. With his great enthusiasm and promises he eventually enticed them and others to follow him into the unknown and mysterious mountainous region of Southern Banat. This land was in Hungary and it required overland journeys made on crude carts and wagons even before reaching the Danube where days of river traveling was required and then before climbing up the mountains where their villages would eventually be built.
According to Mair, this giant of a stranger, George the Hungarian, was a wood-monger from Austria who had secured harvest rights from the Kings’ army. The land he was to lead them to was full of hard-wood forests making it was a perfect place to make charcoal because it was frequently damp and mossy. To get charcoal however, the trees had to be chopped into small logs, set on fire and covered with layers of damp moss. This charcoal was needed for the King’s armies, meaning that the Hungarian desperately needed a strong workforce for this mission. On his travels, this giant of a man had ventured into small villages along the way where serfs and peasants were disenchanted with their living conditions. We can assume that the farming village where Martin Blaha, the senior, lived was also unprogressive and down-trodden due to the hardships the Bohemians were enduring and had endured during this time period in Europe.
As this stranger came into their village with tales of a Promised Land far away in the Banat of Hungary, the Blaha’s among other villagers, were interested in hearing what he had to say and what he was offering them. These villagers were constantly being over worked, over taxed and over stressed by the nobles and rich landowners. Further, for too many years they had sent their sons to war, war that was stealing away their youth, many never returning from the mandatory service.
Untold struggles and the fact that they saw no end to their present dilemma was perhaps the deciding factor that made our families pack their carts with their few belongings and begin their travels to the shores of the Danube where they were to embark on crude rafts that would eventually take them to their new destination. They believed they would find happiness and peace and freedom when they followed this Hungarian to what they thought was the quote “New Promised Land.”
This paper, subtitled Family Patriot by way of Banat, tells us that in 1863 a priest visited each of the six villages and recorded and or translated their birth and marriage registers. We were allowed to photograph the pages of these registers because there were no copiers in this remote village.
As you know, words get lost in translation but this paper gives us a pretty good idea of some of their experiences leaving Bohemia to begin what they believed would be a new beginning for them.
I quote: “In the year 1826 …throughout the Kingdom of Bohemia declared that the government is looking for new settlers to southern Hungary. Each settler to receive for free, tools that strikes land timber, and 30 acres, timber to structure, land, firewood and seeds needed for the first sowing. In ten Czech villages found enough people interested about starting up proposal. Many of them as a cause for a better livelihood.”
I learned that in 1827 they sent two trusted village men ahead of the migration to verify what they had been told. Their names were Martin Mares and Michal Glazer. They were to explore this new land that the Hungarian told them about because the paper states that they wanted to see if the “Offers comply with the truth, what is the landscape and what will be future neighbors.”
Continuing it tells of the two seekers return to their Bohemian village.
“It was in summer of 1828. The two explorers returned, told that they were friendly, welcome, that this country is beautiful, very fertile, there grows a beautiful wheat field, fruit and vine, the land that they had seen and to be inhabited by them is located at the foot of Ovary - the forest to the east and that it is confining. It continued by saying that following the two explorer’s description of all future beauties of the Promised Land, is prepared to emigrate 56 Czech families.”
The promise that they would have opportunities of becoming land owners, that they would be exempt from military service, that they were to be given seed and be allowed to worship without government interference, our Blaha family joined the others in making the decision to leave Bohemia for these new opportunities.
The convoy of emigrants set off towards Budejovice where they stopped to rest and wait for the others to catch up with them. Apparently this overland journey was tedious and some needed to decide if they wanted to continue. Some did not and turned back.
The next stop was in Vienna, then on to the shores of the Danube where they were to embark on the river part of their journey. After days of delays waiting for their rafts to be made or obtained and the goods delivered upon it, and it being sturdy enough to navigate in the waters of the Danube, “they happily left hoping to soon to reach the country.”
Apparently their life while floating on a raft down the Danube was far from lonely or boring. I continue:
“On the boat the men took turns at the oars, the women cooked and tended the children, also did laundry in the Danube water. Young girls dressed in white and entertained the young shipbuilders, who is perfectly enjoyed telling funny stories.” Also while on the rafts, it tells of making “new friendships and acquaintance and love. It seemed that” life really will be happier,” someone wrote.
Without doubt, the most exciting event that happened on the raft as they traveled down the Danube was that a baby boy was born on October 9 or 10th to Mrs. Terezie Glasrova whose husband was Vaclava Glasra. It was told that he (the baby) was “humbly named Petr.” Dr. Shutter tells us that 77 years later Petr Glaser, graduated from Charles University and became a professor in Sarajevo. He along with a co-writer released in Prague, in 1904 a book titled History of German settlement in Bohemia Banetu. In it were some brief statements on the life of our emigrants before their new, but hard life in the Banat.”
Now, it is for you to decide if this is the beginning, or the middle of our family history. Personally I will leave the rest for our future family genealogists and historians. I will add that along with this important document that Josef Merholt so proudly gave us, was a list of everyone who lived in the village and where they originated from, some with birthdates dating back to the early 1700s. Many of you in the audience today will find your family names on this list which I have posted in the Parrish Hall. They are your ancestors who paved the way to this celebration in Dinwiddie, Virginia today.
Finally I will add that our Blaha family members were not famous, nor were they lords or nobles. They were farmers, men of the soil who greatest desire was to own a piece of land that was free from tyranny. They were just ordinary folks like us but they lived in a different time in history. A time where freedom of choice, freedom of religion and freedom of oppression was unavailable except to the royalty and the very wealthy. What they had however, that the rich and wealthy did not, was a daring dream that they were eventually willing to give up their homeland for in order to have opportunities for a better life.
With God’s help they eventually made their way across the waters onto the shores of America where many of our ancestors took different paths before coming to Virginia. Though the paths were long and varied, they all found that America offered them opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. Here their hard work provided them opportunities to own a small piece of land where the soil would provide them with their daily needs. Leaving the ancestral land of their birth, leaving their family and friends, carrying only a trunk or satchel full of bare necessities made it all worthwhile for being a people who were brave, strong, intelligent,adventurous, fearless, courageous, and clever they found a new and free home in America.
Today we are proud to have Czech blood running through our veins and we are proud to be called BLAHA because the way was paved by these courageous men and women if nothing else. Considering all of this we have a proud family name and a proud heritage. Let’s go now to celebrate and honor it.
Upon arrival to their destination they immediately realized too late that the land was unsuitable for planting and harvesting. These hopeful families found that the entire countryside had to be cleared of dense hardwood forests, large boulders and rocks before they could stake out and build a habitual homeplace. The landscape proved to be much worse than they had been led to believe by the Hungarian land agent with whom they had been dealing. Upon seeing their "new homeland" most families were without necessary resources to enable them to turn back so they had no option but to remain and make the best of the situation. To use a modern term, they had been "scammed." Although some eventually did leave, most of them, being the honest, hard working and desperate people they were, realized that they must stay and do whatever it took to make a homestead. Eventually enough of the forest was cleared and rocks moved to build their houses and to make paths and roadways. Clearing the land for fields was necessary for their survival and it required a tremendous amount of physical labor by every man, woman and child. Gernik and five other villages were eventually established and today it remains much as it existed at it's beginning.
Loosely translated the description under the photo reads something like this: "families of Slovaks voyage down the Danube."1824-26 through 1889: The Journey of the Blaha Family began in the Kingdom of Bohemia and ended in America. For a span of 75 years, they settled in the Banat region of then the Austria -Hungarian Empire, now Romania ,where the final leg of the journey resulted in a chain migration of some of the villagers coming to America, specifically, Petersburg, VA. This migration lasted about 20 years before ending in the 1920's. Some family members remained in the village, Gernik and continue to live there today. We were amazed at the names we recognized in the village because although they were not our direct family they were the names of family friends in our area of Virginia. Although we could not speak each others language, some of the villagers would come up to us and say their name. We would respond in any way we could to let them know that their name was known to us. Each and every time this happened something special developed between us and we knew.... and they knew .....even without words that we were all in essence and spirit "one family."
It would be two and three generations later before some of these same families felt they needed to leave their homeland once again because of some of the same struggles they had faced and endured in the past. Thus as stories got back to them from those earlier pioneers who had ventured across the ocean to America where they reported of the opportunities there, it seemed to them that this was the one place where they could once and for all escape the demoralizing problems they were encountering. When they considered that to remain living where there was no hope for a better life and that it meant to continue living with wars and threats of wars, that the future held no promises under the leadership of selfish government, they found encouragement in thinking and talking about finding a way of getting to America. With a leap of faith and with hope in their hearts, the exodus began as families and friends in this little village made their plans to journey into the unknown.
Of survival in America, most had no fear for they knew how to live under self-sustaining circumstances. They had never known modern conveniences. They had never known complete freedom and they had lost hope for a better life where they were. Later, those who remained in the villages became victims of communism and suffered severe hardships which lasted decades (until 1989) when they were no longer under the grips of insufferable dictatorship. During this time, for those who had immigrated to America leaving loved ones behind, it caused a great deal of fear for the safety and livelyhood of those who remained behind. Family ties had been severely compromised and unfortunately there was little if any reliable information coming out of the country directly to them about their loved ones or their homeland. They had to rely on American newspapers plus the rare and infrequent letters and papers that were eventually smuggled out to them. Sadly through the years, as the older people who remained in the village died off, new relationships were difficult to form. Many of our relatives actually lost touch with those behind the iron curtain and in many instances contact had not been made with them until we came along in 2005 and visited them.
The children of these first immigrants must have learned early on not to ask questions about their parents past because they were told that the past life in the old country was to remain in the past that it was bad and they never wanted to live that way again. The second American generation, mine, was confused because it was never discussed at all as we grew up. We only knew our grandparents were from Czechoslovakia and that is why they had a "funny accent." What we now know is that for them the life they had left behind was truly painful. That they had been afraid and hurt and that to deal with that fear they kept it buried if not forgotten.
Our generation feels differently for we have learned that it is best to talk about and discuss painful events. That in talking about our difficulties it gives us healing power and though we never truly forget the pain, by pulling it out from behind the walls we built around it, we are eventually able to put it in a place where it does not hurt as much. In defense of our relatives, they truly did not think this way. Their goals were simply to find a way to earn a living for their families in a land where they did not know the language, had no or only a few relatives or friends, had no credentials to offer as they attempted to build trust and credit, and did not have the proper resources to gain assistance from others. Their goal was to literally rebuild their lives - so they refused to dwell on the past and their children learned by their behavior and their silence not to question them about it. The immigrants felt this was justified because they were to busy working in the present where they saw a chance for a much better future.
In our years of research that is still ongoing, we learned that what they did have, and how they eventually succeeded in rebuilding their lives, was the desire, the courage, and the guts to try. It required strong backs, intelligent minds, and frugal lifestyles. Not knowing the language, not having any friends except others of their kind, having no "references" for credit, they had to work and struggle for their very existence - an existence that still was far better than what they had left. Today we feel we understand them better, we know what challenges they faced and we no longer feel deprived of knowledge they withheld from us. We understand them and in doing so, we are in awe at what they were able to accomplish, especially under the circumstances that they lived under for most of their lives. They speak to us from their graves and as we unfold their stories, we grow proud of them and we understand and we wish we could somehow let them know....but we can't except by keeping the traditions, the customs, and their stories alive.
We also try to keep our feelings realistic for we know that then, as now, there were failures. That the difficulties they faced were the same as we face today. Within their families and communities there were those who abused alcohol and their wives, there were foreclosures when crops failed, and there were those who had mean and difficult personalities. They were not saints, nor are we, but most of these early immigrants through trial and error were able to find ways to build nice homes and farms,successful businesses, churches of their choice, and to educate their children through the college years and beyond. As we look into the lives of all of our relatives we try to keep in mind that they, like us, also had "warts."
Today in the village that our ancestors left behind, conditions are somewhat better. Some modern conveniences are available to them. Most have running water into their homes, although it is piped in from the stream that runs through the center of the village. In 1998 electricity was brought to them and most of the houses and pubs have electricity at least part of the day. Lately, eco-tourism has found the area which in the summer months brings hikers and bikers to the village and that helps their economy. This new endeavor allows them to make some improvements in the village and current living conditions. Unfortunately, the young people upon reaching adulthood leave the villages for higher education or work and seldom return to live. Today the village has mostly elderly families living there making the future of it bleak. If it should fail, what will be lost is the ethnicity and rare opportunity for the world to witness life as it was lived 80 to 100 years ago. It's existence is very questionable and concerns many of us who care about these villages and the outstanding people who remain there. People in Need is an organization who is trying to help them establish better living conditions, education and commerce. The strides they are making are slow and may not be enough to make the village a desirable place for families to stay, grow and prosper.
Although most of the Czechs and Slovaks who came to Virginia settled near the city of Petersburg and counties of Dinwiddie and Prince George, others found that land was promising in the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover, Henrico and Emporia and decided to migrate there. Today many of these original farms founded by our forefathers throughout Virginia are still vital to their communities and remain in the same family - five and six generations later.
First Czech and Slovak Families of Virginia
Top row, left to right: Anton B. Cizěk, Anton Mifka, John Zaruba*,Josef Blaha*, Frank Skalický,Walter J. Zalík. Second row, left to right Frank Basl, Jos. Mendlík, Pl. Jos. Ruzicková, Pl. A.Micková,Fred Suda, Frank Valta. Third row, left to right Jos. Veselý, Milton Výborný, Jos. Ružička, St., Center Photo, Harry P. Stratton, Czechoslovakian Representative for Petersburg, VA; Rev. J. A. Kohout, Jos. Jerábek, Jos. Bendl. Fourth row, left to right Jos. Wagner, Jos. Machat, St., Vclav Shredl, Jos. Ruzička,ml., Václav Horák, Arnold F. Zeleyník.
*John Zaruba, pictured above, is my maternal great grandfather. Both my maternal and parental grandparents immigrated from Czechoslovakia and will be featured on these pages. The Zaruba's and some of the others pictured above, were not part of the chain migration from Gernik as were the Blaha's, however John came to Virginia in the late 1890's, having first gone to Ohio, from a village in the Banat named Anina. This village was about 100 miles north of Gernik.
Joseph Blaha*, pictured above is my great grandfather's brother and was the first from the village Gernic to come to Southern Virginia.
Industrious and goal orientated Bohemian's build a new community in a new country
ESTES is renamed "NEW BOHEMIA"
Several of the families who stayed in the Petersburg / Prince George area formed a tight community with their fellow countrymen and women. They jointly built their homes, churches, schools and businesses in the location of a train stop on the outskirts of the city to the east. The train platform was originally known as Wells Station and later named Estes. Because of the pride in this community a group of these Czech and Slovak farmers and businessmen approached the railroad officials in Roanoke, VA where they pleaded their case to have the area renamed New Bohemia. They convinced the officials of their determination , explained the settlement and they were successful. It was done. To this day, the area is still known as New Bohemia, although it is in dire jeopardy of being overtaken by reconstruction of the present Route 460 which is a major highway going from the western part of the state to the east and to the ocean. Below are some old photos of the village that is no longer in existence. The one house that remained was moved in 2008 to make way for the road.
Czech/Slovak business men of New Bohemia, Petersburg, VA
A determined group of men and women became the envy of local merchants and businessmen due to their achievements in such a short time and in view of the hardships they had to overcome in order to succeed. Later they were approached by the same businessmen and merchants who asked them for help in encouraging other "good Bohemians" to come and settle in the area.
New Bohemia was built as a group effort. It was well planned and well constructed. Life was quite different in this new country and new modern techniques were desired. Many of the immigrants had skills acquired in the old country. They were not only farmers, they were also carpenters, tailors, jewelry makers and bakers among them. Although they had been well educated in the old country, learning a new language in a foreign land presented new challenges. Banding together proved to be a successful method for them to accomplish their goals. Creating a "New Bohemia" took foresight, hard work and determination - and they were up to the task.
The General Store
The School where both English and Czech languages were studied.
Although the immigrants wanted in the worst way to become Americans, they also wanted their children to cling to the traditions and customs of their homelands. They felt that the ideals, beliefs and the very spirit that had been ingrained into their culture for hundreds and hundreds of years should still be honored.
The Tobacco Market in Petersburg, VA
Meet Mary Kovaks who lived in Henrico County. Mary was dressed in her village kroj when this photo was taken in the 1930's. Early Czech and Slovak immigrants often met together to celebrate their heritage which gave them an opportunity to wear the clothes of their ethnic origin.
This photo was taken in the 40's at my grandfather's farm in Dinwiddie, Va. Left to right are Matyas Blaha, my grandfather, Uncle Eddie, and Christina Zuruba Blaha, my grandmother. A photo below shows a similar scene taken in 2005 while visiting the Blaha home in Gernik. It shows that farmers then and now are very proud of their animals.
Here is our relative Josef, proudly showing us his work horses. This photo was taken within the courtyard of his home. This is also the site of the original Blaha homeplace from where my grandfather (in the photo above) immigrated. Photo courtesy of Pat Kolakoski.
This is a typical family on the way market. Notice the old wooden wagon and the muddy roads.The majority of families in the villages travel by horse and wagon although a few automobiles were seen. An old tractor can be seen in the background. During the communist era, we were told that one tractor was given to each village. More than likely this is the one Gernik was issued.
During the late 1800's and early 1900's most of the Czech & Slovak immigrants who settled in Southern Virginia were farmers. The first to arrive on our shores followed the normal immigrant paths by going to homestead in the Northern and Western parts of the United States, however many found the conditions there unsuitable for farming, mainly due to the harsh weather conditions in that part of the country.
Hearing from others who came to explore the milder climate in Southern Virginia, they began to purchase hundreds of acres of farmland that had been vacated and deserted by Southerners who could no longer afford large land holdings following the American Civil War. It took these brave and hard-working Czech and Slovak men and women years to build their neat, clean and stately farms as well as to finally earn the respect from other Virginians who seemed to misunderstand the strange immigrants and who for many years refused to accept them into their society.
Soon however local business and industry began to notice how these immigrants, through hard work and frugal methods, began to not only earn a good living for themselves, they saw that they were excellent contributors to the local economy. They put their money in local banks and supported local economy. Later they established Czech and Slovak insurance funds and widow pensions for their own, and their children were excellent students albeit they were at first thought to be below standard.
Most of this success was due to the farming methods they brought with them from the old country. They were instrumental in rotating crops that enriched and nourished the deprived Virginia soil and as a result they were responsible for many advanced agriculture techniques. Neighboring farmers saw the success of these farming methods and incorporated them on their own farms which in turn helped the local economy thrive. Slowly because of having favorable climate in which they could plant two crops each growing season instead of one, by working from sun-up to sun-down as farm life dictated, and by helping one another, they were able to realize their dreams. Their enduring efforts contributed to the fact that they became model farmers and citizens helping the economy grow and prosper in nearby cities and towns. Encouraged by local merchants and businessmen, they enticed other "good Czechs and Slovaks" to come to Virginia to establish new homesteads as well. History has proven that these Czech and Slovak immigrants became thriving Virginia farmers, who even today, five generations later, others strive to emulate.
Digging peanuts. Dinwiddie, VA circa 1930's?
This is a photo belonging to Jim Blaha and illustrates how men, women and children were needed to work in the fields at specific times during the year. This practice was frowned upon by some of the FFV's who believed that proper ladies should always have lilly white skin. In the Czech and Slovak communities when it was time to harvest the crops, it was a common practice that everyone in the family pitch in to get the work done. Not only that when one's fields were harvested, they went to another and another until everyone's crops were in. Team work and cooperation was a major factor to their eventual success in Virginia.
This is a photo of my Dad, Frank John Blaha, Sr. as a young man. He is of five sibling born on American soil following his parents immigration. They were (using their Americanized names) Matthews and Christina, nee Zaruba Blaha. Matthews or Mathias arrived in Virginia as a 17 year old. His farm faced Squirrel Level Road in Dinwiddie, VA. The original farm has continued to be owned and occupied all these years later into this present generation.