Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center: Preserving the Past for the Future
By Lorie A. Woodward
Originally appeared in the November 2018 edition of the Round Top Register –Ed.
Photos courtesy of Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center
The idea for the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center, established in 1997 in La Grange, began at the 1936 Texas Centennial Celebration held at the State Fair of Texas.
“There was a huge mural and exhibit depicting Czech culture in Texas that planted the seed about the need to celebrating our history, language and culture,” said Mark Hermes, manager of TCHCC.
Decade after decade the idea would surface and then disappear. Then, in 1996, at the annual meeting of the Texans of Czech Ancestry, an umbrella organization that connects all of the Czech-founded groups ranging from the SPJST and KJT to the Czech Educational Foundation of Texas and the Czech Heritage Society of Texas and several others, it surfaced again—with urgency.
“By the late ‘90s, Texas was changing quickly,” Hermes said. “Representatives from the Czech Heritage Society, who presented the idea to the larger group, said, ‘We need to have a central place before we lose our heritage, language and all of the artifacts and history we’ve collected.’ People in the room agreed.”
While their names may have been different, the attendees at that meeting shared similar ancestral stories. In the 1850s, a confluence of factors, including military conscription, crop failures, and ethnic persecution prompted the Czechs to leave their homeland. Rev. Josef Arnošt Bergmann, who settled in Cat Spring in Austin County, brought Texas to the attention of his fellow Europeans by writing letters extolling the opportunities that awaited future immigrants including the ready availability of fertile land.
“Land was important to the Czechs, but the opportunity to own it in the Czech lands was limited,” Hermes said. “The firstborn inherited everything—and everyone else had to look elsewhere.”
In 1853, Josef L. Lešikar inspired by Bergmann’s letters, led the first group of Czechs to Texas. During the 17-week Trans-Atlantic voyage, they lost half their number en route to the Port of Galveston, which became the preferred port of entry for later immigrants.
The first group came to Cat Spring but then found better land and moved into Fayette County. Fayetteville became the dispersal point for the immigrants with Austin, Fayette, Lavaca and Washington counties being the site of early settlements. Dubina, in southeastern Fayette County, became the first Czech settlement.
“Eventually, the Czechs founded some 250 different communities across the state,” said Hermes, noting that the majority of the immigrants came from the Moravian region and felt at home in the similar landscape they found in Central Texas.
Drawing on their shared commitment to conserving their collective past, TOCA spearheaded the effort, creating a committee that became the interim board of directors for the fledgling TCHCC. When it came time to choose a location for the new center, the board called for proposals from Czech communities across the state. La Grange was selected from a field of four.
“Right before World War I, which is considered the end of the main Czech immigration period, Fayette and Lavaca counties had more people of Czech heritage than any other counties in Texas—and Texas had more Czech immigrants than any other state in the nation,” Hermes said, “Fayette County’s population at one time was about 80 percent Czech, earning it the nickname ‘Cradle of Czech Immigration.’”
In March 1997, the TCHCC was officially incorporated and later that year recognized by then-Gov. George W. Bush through a concurrent House Resolution, which also honored the contributions of Texas Czechs to the state’s history. The TCHCC signed a 100-year lease with the city of La Grange for a 26-acre site adjacent to the Fayette County Fairgrounds.
“Although we have Texas in our name, we are not state supported,” said Hermes, the center’s only full-time employee. “We are volunteer-based and rely on donations, grants and fundraisers to operate.”
By 2000, the TCHCC had opened its doors to the public, using the restored Kalich House, a circa 1890s farmhouse originally located in the Schulenburg area, as its visitor’s center.
“More than 80 volunteers from all over the state, put more than 3,000 hours into restoring the Kalich House,” said Hermes. “Their efforts not only literally put the center on the map, but symbolized the level of commitment and passion that people have for this place.”
Today, the Kalich House, which now serves as the Czech Music Museum of Texas featuring folk, classical, liturgical and polka music genres, is part of a multi-structure complex. TCHCC Main Center Building as well as the Czech Village, which includes 10 main structures, and the 5,500-square-foot Sanford Schmid Amphitheater, home to Muziky, Muziky, an annual performance of Czech music held in conjunction with Heritage Fest in October.
“At the center, we tell the whole story of the Texas Czechs from the old country to the new, but we really focus on the Texas experience to keep our unique heritage, culture and language alive,” Hermes said.
Visitors start in the 10,000-square-foot main center that houses the “Our New Home” Museum and the Bill and Betty Melnar Library as well as a dining and meeting room and a gift shop. Completed in 2009, the building features a contemporary glass entrance that represents the “beacon of light that attracted settlers to Texas.”
The museum houses a mix of permanent exhibits dedicated to Texas-Czechs. The permanent exhibits are arranged along the outer wall, while the center is reserved for exhibits that changes annually.
“Currently, our central exhibit is ‘Made in Czechoslovakia’ and features handcrafted items, kroje, and other patron donated artifacts that were made in the early Czechoslovakia, which will be changed to ‘Made in Czechoslovakia, Christmas Special’ during the holidays,” Hermes said.
For the record, the museum also features a print of the 1936 mural that started it all.
“We tried to get the original here, but it is too fragile to move,” Hermes said. “It will stay at the SPJST Lodge #88 in Houston.”
The library is full of resources, ranging from port of entry records, census records, baptismal records from Texas-Czech parishes (as many as 90 percent of the immigrants were Catholic), reference books, Czech novels to microfilm of Czech language newspapers. All can be used on site.
“Ours is the largest Czech genealogical library in the country,” Hermes said. “I often say, ‘If you’re not kin to somebody when you get here, you will be by the time you leave.’ Time after time, visitors will strike up conversations with other visitors from a different part of the state only to discover they have relatives in common.”
The staff also maintains a relationship with the Texas Immigration Museum in the Czech Republic that chronicles the life of the immigrants from the perspective of their homeland. It is estimated that about half of the Czech lands’ population left during the immigration period.
“Using records from the Texas Immigration museum, people have found the house number where their ancestors lived previously and then used Google Earth to see it without ever leaving Texas,” Hermes said.
The Czech Village, comprised of renovated period structures and replicas built in historic style, spreads out behind the Main Center. Armed with detailed information, visitors can take a self-guided tour of the past showcasing different aspects of Texas-Czech family, farm and community life.
“In the village, time stops at about 1940 just prior to World War II,” Hermes said. “After the war, big changes such as electricity and mechanization where tractors replaced draft animals, came to rural Texas.”
The most recent addition to the village is the SPJST Hall #19 from Velehrad in north Lavaca County. Opened in May, the hall contains the original furniture and the new paint duplicates the original color scheme.
“Life revolved around land, family, friends, faith and civic involvement,” Hermes said. “Organizations such as the SPJST were central to life in the Czech communities—and this lets people experience what it would be like to attend a meeting in 1897.”
The Hospoda (tavern) and General Store pays tribute to the country stores that dotted the landscape.
“At the country stores, people got their mail, drank a beer with friends while playing Tarocky or dominoes and bought the staples that they couldn’t make or grow themselves,” Hermes said.
The Czech Newspaper Museum contains the printing press and type used to print the first Czech newspaper in the United States as well as the motor that once ran the press for the La Grange Journal newspaper. Texas-Czechs were politically minded and committed to preserving their language, so Czech-language newspapers served two purposes.
“The Svoboda, Fayette County’s Czech newspaper was founded in 1885,” Hermes said. “The Našinec, published in Granger, was the last operational Czech newspaper in Texas and it closed in 2018.”
The village includes three houses: the Hoelscher Haus built in 1880, operated by the Polka Lovers Club and open by appointment only, the Hulchanek-Salaš House, a white frame farmhouse built in 1890 in the Holman area of Fayette County that represents middle-class rural life, and the Migl House, a rustic farmhouse built in 1890 by František and Johana Migl, showcasing authentic period furniture and family memorabilia. In 2005, it was estimated that the Migls had more than 5,000 descendants.
“All of the houses began with two rooms, and families would add on as they became more prosperous,” Hermes said. “At one time, the Salaš house, which is about 1,500 square feet after all of the additions, housed 13 people.”
Outbuildings such as a log corn crib, the Janak Barn site of the Texas Czech Agriculture Museum, and the Sladek Smoke and Wash House as well as the Zapalač Sawmill round out the village.
“The outbuildings tell even more about daily life and daily living than the homes and businesses,” Hermes said. “Here is where they did the work that allowed them first to survive and then to thrive.”
For instance, a dog trot log corn crib may have been one of the first thing a family built on their land after, or before, a rudimentary dwelling. Some crude houses were transformed into a barn as time went on.
“Depending on what the family needed, the dog-trot cribs could store corn, protect equipment from the elements or hold livestock until they could build a barn,” Hermes said. “A true barn, such as the Janak Barn, signaled a move toward prosperity. They may have even lived in the structure as they built their house. If you look at it, it was better than a tent.”
While the center is open year-round, the village vividly comes to life during the annual Heritage Fest held the third weekend of October.
“We start the printing press, fire up the saw mill, smoke sausage in the smoke house, put chickens in the brooder, fill the barn with hands-on activities and offer a host of other things to bring the early 20th century back to life,” said Hermes, noting the event also includes historic demonstrations as well as vendors, food, music and the annual Muziky, Muziky. “Experiencing history is important because if you don’t know where you came from you march blindly into the future.”
Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center
250 W. Fair Grounds Rd.
La Grange, TX 78945
Monday – Friday 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.
Saturday 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
Museum Admission: Free. (Donations accepted).
Group Tours (for 10 people or more):
By appointment with advance notice.
Cultural Center Only $3/ person
Cultural Center and Czech Village $5/ person
Full Tour with Lunch (available for groups with 15 people or more, scheduled in advance) $15/ person
Don’t Miss! Annual Events:
Valentine’s Dinner & Concert
Near Valentine’s Day
Slavnost ‘May Fest’ & Tribute to the Czech Immigrants to Texas
Third Sunday in May
Heritage Fest & Muziky
Third weekend in October
First Saturday in December