Caldwell, Texas, proud of Czech settlers and their contribution to America

THE festivities honoring this east Texas town's Czechoslovak heritage got off to a shaky start; the flag-raisers were not sure which end of the Czech flag was up. The day was saved by a miniature flag in a display at the Caldwell Chamber of Commerce. It showed the white field above the red.

Before long the flag joined the Stars and Stripes and the Lone Star, which dominate the courthouse square, and this town of 6,000 in the state's ``Czech Belt'' began rediscovering a part of its heritage that had been slipping away.

``It's really a renaissance,'' said Clinton Machann, a Caldwell native of Czech descent who entertained the Saturday crowd with traditional tunes from his hammer dulcimer. ``The ethnic revival of the '60s and '70s has finally made it to this area.''

There is, of course, nothing unusual about any community in this nation of immigrants celebrating its ethnic heritage -- which festivalgoers in Caldwell referred to time and again as ``our roots.''

For example, across the American Southwest and beyond, Hispanics this week are observing Diez y seis, the anniversary of Mexico's independence from Spain. Similarly, the Irish have St. Patrick's Day, the Chinese their New Year, the Germans their Oktoberfest. And as new nationalities continue to establish themselves in the United States, new customs, foods, and music are introduced.

In other Texas towns the Czechs, whose language may be the third most spoken in the state, have been commemorating their homeland for decades.

But Caldwell is different. Only this year did the town decide to celebrate the nationality that has been an important influence in southwest Texas farming communities since the 1870s. And it happened quite by accident.

``It started almost as an afterthought,'' says Irene Rinehart, an extension agent in Burleson County, for which Caldwell is the seat of government. While planning a year ago for the Chamber of Commerce's annual ``Spooktacular,'' a Halloween promotion, someone suggested that there might be interest in a kolache bake contest (kolache is a traditional Czech pastry).

``We were overwhelmed by more than 100 entrants,'' Mrs. Rinehart said. ``I don't think anyone realized there were so many people out there baking kolaches.''

This first festival was named in honor of the square, breadlike pastry which has a dollop of filling such as prune, apple, or poppy-seed paste in the middle. The bake contest again netted more than 100 entrants, and a crowd equaling a good fraction of the town's population stopped by for the music, food, dancing, and crafts.

``I haven't seen the community out on the square like this for years,'' said Beverly Mahlmann, whose mother had just been named the bake contest's grand champion and was busy giving out recipes. ``People don't usually take the time.''

Why no one thought to organize such a festival sooner is open to interpretation. Bernard Rychlik, Caldwell's mayor pro-tem, said, ``People have traditionally been very reserved about their heritage. Up to about 25 years ago you were still being discriminated against if it was known you were Czech.'' He added that ``during the world wars, it was very important to be associated with America, and not the old countries.''

In this vein Joseph Scrivanek, a retired professor of Czech language at Texas A&M University, introduced the Czechoslovak national anthem by noting, ``We are Americans, America comes first, and we aren't trying to make any substitutions. We just hope you enjoy this number.''

Like most Czech descendants in Caldwell, Mr. Scrivanek describes his background as ``Moravian,'' referring to a region of present-day Czechoslovakia. His forebears came to the US through Galveston, which at one time rivaled New York as a port of entry.

More than 60,000 Czechs came to Texas in the first 40 years of this century. Although no official count has been made, the locals estimate that about half of Burleson County's 12,000 people are of Czech descent.

Standing beside a war memorial peppered with names like Sefcik, Janac, Sebesta, and Hruska, Mr. Scrivanek described the value of knowing a foreign language, and of knowing where and how one's ancestors lived.

``Look at the Czech anthem, `Kde Domov Muj,' or `Where Is My Home,' '' he said, citing its ambiguous title to explain the hymn's melancholy air. ``That helps you understand why America was so very important to them.''

As president of the Czech Education Foundation, Scrivanek said he hopes to raise $1 million to establish a permanent chair in Czech at either the University of Texas or Texas A&M. Yet he said he ``never forced the language at home,'' and now his two sons ``only speak a few words.''

A number of the young people questioned on Caldwell's town square said they liked learning about their background. ``I think most people are interested in where they came from,'' said Belinda Butach, a college student who is ``100 percent'' Czech. ``I just wish I knew the language.''

For Mr. Machann, it was the realization that schools teach very little about US ethnic populations which got him interested in the subject. ``It disturbed me that many of the major ethnic groups are not represented in history texts,'' said the Texas A&M associate professor of English.

He said the final call to action came when a young woman at the counter of a store in a heavily Czech town said she had never heard of Czechoslovakia. In part as a result of that experience, he and a colleague have written ``Krasna Amerika'' (``Beautiful America''), a history of the Czechs in Texas.

Still, others indicate that it may only be natural to sever ties to the place one's forebears left, and to wrap oneself more tightly in the land they chose.

``If our parents and grandparents left their country, it was for one reason,'' said George Hlavinka, whose woodworking was one of the festival's attractions. ``It was to come to America, where they could live their life just the way they wanted to.''

It is that thought, he said, that stops him from pushing harder to interest his children in their background, even though he believes it is slipping away.

``I talk to them about it sometimes, but they aren't too interested,'' says Mr. Hlavinka, whose words carry a slight accent. ``They feel like this is the country of the free, where they can go their own directions.''

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