I’ve grown up hearing America called the melting pot of the world. If you spend time traveling Kansas, then you understand the Sunflower State is the biggest bubble in that boiling mess. In a few hours’ time, travelers can visit Lebanon, Denmark, Norway, and Cuba. During that journey, drivers can drop south to Glasco, named for Glasgow, Scotland. Kansas is a state of many cultures, evidenced not only by town names but also by buildings designed to honor old-country customs.
It’s interesting to cruise our state checking out churches, schools, barns, old homes, and main streets of ethnic communities. It doesn’t take long to realize our ancestors brought their building styles from their homelands and recreated them in a region with little moisture and few trees. One of my favorite discoveries includes local Bohemian Halls. Once I spot one, I think immediately of either my favorite American writer Willa Cather or of singer Chuck Suchy and his tales of transplanted Bohemian culture.
For years I thought the Wilson, Kansas, area was the main destination for immigrant Czechs. Since then, I’ve discovered that Bohemians settled many regions of our state. One is Cuba, Kansas, off Highway 36. It has a wonderful ethnic hall where families gathered on Friday or Saturday nights to socialize and dance. It would have been a place to speak and hear a longed-for native language, evidenced by Ćeska Narodin Sin written above the entry. Not only is Cuba home to this Czechoslovakian National Hall, it also has a Czechoslovakian National Cemetery with Czech inscribed tombstones.
A short distance south, sightseers can find another such site in the countryside near Delphos. Again, the closest town’s name misleads one to think of Aegean, not Czech, culture. Despite the confusing designation, this area welcomed many Bohemian settlers who cooperatively built this structure for common use. Current area residents maintain the building and grounds, continuing a longstanding tradition for surrounding communities.
Bull City Café in Alton is close enough to visit in the same day. What does that have to do with Bohemian Halls, you ask? In a former incarnation, the building was a Czech cultural center near Claudell. At some point, townspeople moved this edifice into Alton to serve as the local cafe. Once inside, you can view a Czech exhibit that explains this structure’s history. In addition, current operators have kept the old stage in place so diners can see where musicians of old would have stood to play and sing.
These are only a few of the Bohemian communities in our state. Interested folks can spend the rest of their lives cruising blue highways. Along the way, they’ll discover scores of tiny towns settled by people who left brought their culture and their halls to a new country. If walls could talk in these old buildings, I wouldn’t understand a word. I would, however, recognize festive rhythms of polkas and other folk dances and the shooshings all mothers use to soothe tired little ones. After decades of teaching high school, I’d also quickly identify the laughter of flirting couples. Some forms of communication are universal.
I hope these small towns find resources to preserve these remnants of their not so distant past. Such structures tell part of the story of dreamers who came to our state seeking a good life on the prairie.