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The Winedale Story - Czechs

Leiskar home in Austin CountyLeiskar home in Austin County.
Winedale Photograph Collection

Czechs came to Texas in the mid-1800s for the same reason as the Germans: a search for the freedom and opportunity lacking in their native land. The first Czech immigrants were mostly farmers from Bohemia, who began to settle in the Fayette County area in the 1850s. The main tide of Czech immigration came from Moravia after the Civil War, adding a new cultural imprint to the social mix of Fayette and nearby counties. To help adjust to their new life, the immigrants developed Czech religious, benevolent, and sports associations to nurture their community and culture.

 

Czech homelands of Bohemia and Moravia Map of early Czech settlements in Texas Czech homelands of Bohemia and Moravia Czech homelands of Bohemia and Moravia
and Early Czech settlements in Texas.

Maps by Drew Patterson

In the 1840s, limited opportunities, political and cultural repression, and forced military service in the Austro-Hungarian Empire led many Czechs to seek a better life in America. Most of the immigrants came to Texas from northeast Moravia and southeast Bohemia directly by sea to Galveston. From there they founded Czech colonies in Austin, Fayette, Washington, and Lavaca counties in the 1850s. Settlement spread from these “seed” colonies in a process called chain migration, whereby Czech communities maintained their cultural contacts while expanding into new territory. The Czechs’ arrival once again altered the cultural landscape of Fayette County, transforming the German town of Fayetteville, for instance, into a mostly Czech community.

 
 

Portrait of Josef L. LesikarPortrait of Josef L. Lesikar.
Winedale Photograph Collection

Josef L. Lesikar, a Czech tailor, farmer, and political leader, organized the first groups of immigrants to Texas in the early 1850s. Though their passage was arduous, and many of the immigrants died, the settlements eventually prospered. Lesikar built a log home in New Bremen in neighboring Austin County and continued to promote Czech immigration in Texas until his death in 1887. His descendants hold yearly gatherings where they display a prized family heirloom: a Czech prayer book of 1615 carried by Josef Lesikar on the perilous journey of immigration.

  Descendants of Josef Lesikar, ca. 1915, and Lesikar family Czech prayer book, 1615. Lesikar family Czech prayer book, 1615. Descendants of Josef Lesikar, ca. 1915.

Descendants of Josef Lesikar, ca. 1915, and Lesikar family Czech prayer book, 1615.
Winedale Photograph Collection

     
Portrait of Joseph Peter, Sr., ca 1860

Portrait of Joseph Peter, Sr., ca 1860.
Courtsey of Mrs. Ivan Koenig.
Winedale Photograph Collection

  Joseph Peter and his family were among the early Czech immigrants to Texas. The family came from Moravia in 1856 and established the Fayette County community of Dubina (“Land of Oaks”). Peter’s son Joseph, Jr., personified many Texas Czech immigrant stories. He began as a blacksmith, and during the Civil War the young Peter hauled Confederate cotton to sell in Mexico. After the war Peter became a successful merchant and cotton gin owner. In the 1890s he represented Fayette County in the state legislature. Among those who worked the lands of Joseph Peter, Jr., were Fred Svecina and former slave Tom Lee (pictured on panel 4 of this exhibit).   Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Peter, Jr., ca. 1860

Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Peter, Jr., ca. 1860.
Courtsey of Edwin Peter.
Winedale Photograph Collection.

         
         

Shadowbox Biblical scene by Johann SladekShadowbox Biblical scene by Johann Sladek.
Winedale Decorative Arts Collection

Czech immigration reintroduced Roman Catholicism into the Fayette County region, where the Catholic religion had largely given way to Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran worship. Religious fraternal and benevolent organizations such as the Czech Catholic Union of Texas (Katolicka Jednota Texaska, or KJT), formed in Fayette County in 1889, helped nurture Czech community identity and cultural cohesion. Czech craftsmen in Fayette County, like their German counterparts, used Biblical stories as vehicles for artistic expression. This scene from the Old Testament story of Joseph is part of a series of shadowboxes created by Texas Czech artist Johann Sladek and exhibited in the McGregor House on the Winedale property.

 
La Grange Svoboda campaign issue, August 20, 1892

La Grange Svoboda campaign issue, August 20, 1892.
Texas Newspaper Collection

 

SPJST celebration in Fayetteville, Texas, ca. 1910SPJST celebration in Fayetteville, Texas, ca. 1910.
Courtesy of J. J. Stalmach.
Winedale Photograph Collection

At the same time that Czechs were embracing the Texas way of life, they developed powerful institutions to preserve their language and cultural identity. One of these was a Czech-language press, represented by this 1892 election issue of the La Grange Svoboda ("Freedom"), whose front page lists all the candidates for local offices. In 1896, the Slavonic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas (Slovanska Podporujici Jednota Statu Texas, or SPJST), was created in Fayette County as a regional fraternal insurance organization. SPJST lodges have since provided places for music and dances and have promoted Czech language and culture, including the study of Czech at both the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A & M University.


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