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My Memory of Europe by JN Pivonka

J. N. Pivonka

I was born on the 6th day of December, 1872, and father, Jacob M. Pivonka, moved his family, in the fore part of April, 1880, to Rush County, Kansas, so that I was only a little over seven years old when we left Europe, and what I am going to write of my days in the little village of Vohrazinice, may not be true, and is only a young boy's imagination. However, what I am writing, I believe it to be true. If only youth's fancy then pardon me.

The small village of 73 numbers, or dwellings, was divided by a small running brook, crossed by gravelled ford and wood foot bridge. The lower part of the village was built partly along the brook, but mostly on a steep slope, with two streets, or roadways, one above the other, with buildings only on one side of the road. This part of the village was inhabited by poorer classes of people, working men and tradesmen, including blacksmith, weaver, cabinet maker and others.

The upper part of the village, which was built around a natural, bowl-like formation, was inhabited by richer classes of people, like the "Sedlaks", who were larger land owners. The forester, Burgomeister or Mayor. Our home was built in the center of this part of the village, the other buildings circling it. A small chapel, with green lawn between it and our home was the children's play­ground for games and loafing.

There was a small pond beyond the chapel where water collected and usually a flock of geese and ducks were swimming in it. The overflow then ran into another reservoir full length of father's back yard. This was walled up and steps ran down to water at one place, of which I will write later. The water in the upper pond was muddy, stirred by the swimming birds, but the water in the lower one was the color of strong, black coffee, as it was fed mostly by drainings from stables and manure pits of surrounding farmers.

The buildings in the upper part of the village, as a rule, had roofs covered with red tile, only father's building was covered with straw bundles tied to the rafter with straw bands - thatched. The chapel was a neat building of stone, plastered, and kept whitewashed on the outside, the same as nearly all buildings in the village. It had a small steeple on its front gable where a bell was mounted. It was father's job to ring this bell at noon, and at six: o'clock in the evening for prayer, and also in case of death, fire or some official decree, in which case the cowherder would walk through the village beating a snare drum, and in a loud voice would announce what the decree was.

The lawn between our home and the chapel was also used as a camping ground for gypsy bands, and for traveling troups of comedians. Only one show that I can remember was tight rope walking, gymnastics and a magic lantern show.

The front entrance into father's was a large dance hall, in the rear of which was a bar where beer and liquors were served. From this little nook, a

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stairway led down to the ice cellar. Another door from the hall led to a combination of kitchen and living room and bedroom, beyond which another door was to a small room, which mother called her "Sanctuary", which she kept locked to keep us kids out. There she had an altar with statuettes, holy pictures and other personal treasures.

An outside door from the combination building led into the yard. To the right was a stairway to the loft of the building where hay was stored. The cobble stoned yard, ten or twelve feet wide ran full length of the building to the left, at the end was a stable for two cows that were used for what farming was done, next to it was a storage room and in front, outside of the cobbled area, was a deep manure pit. The hay-loft was filled through a window in the gable of the building facing the street.

The homes of the "sedlaks" were built very much on the same plan. All under one roof, in front were the living quarters, then a storage room, or grain room, and then the stables, in front of which was a walled up manure pit into which liquid drainings from the stables ran and a force pump was used to spray the manure pile to speed the decomposition. Across the back of the yard was a building for storing unthreshed crops, and threshing floor, in the rear of this building usually was an orchard surrounded by a stone or brick wall eight or ten feet high.

Father had a building about one block away where he stored his grain bundles, some in the loft, and some in one half of the ground floor. The other half was prepared for threshing floor by mixing cow dung with clay and stomping, or rolling it down, which when dry was hard like cement. The grain bundles were untied, spread out and flailed. Then the straw was re-tied and stored for feed.

Father hired a threshing machine from somewhere, which was handpowered by two persons, one on each side of the machine by turning a crank connected to a cog wheel which seemed about five feet in diameter that connected with a small pinion on a cylinder shaft, the cylinder running overshot. The tied bundles of grain were held against it and turned over until all of the grain was whipped out and ran onto the floor in back of the machine, then fanned out on a fanning mill.

The stone steps leading down into the drainage pit that I have mentioned before, almost cost me my life. I do not remember what I was trying to do, all that I do remember is that I was on the bottom step of the stairs and scooted down, my rear end butted the step behind me and I toppled over into the coffee colored liquid. Next thing that I remember is lying in bed at home, very sick at my stomach. It was my older brother Jack that jumped after me and drug me out, but who carried me home I do not know, but I am quite sure that it was not Jack, who then was called "cracker" because he was so thin, and I was called something like "fatso" and was too heavy for Jack to carry me.

Instead of orchards like most residents had in their back yards, father had an apiary, and a bowling alley. This was made by driving stakes into the

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ground and nailing 1x12 boards to them for sides, then square nine pin frame at the end to set the pins on, in back of which was a number of four inch poles four feet long, hanging on iron rods for balls to bump against. The balls were returned to the players by means of an inclined trough made of 1x4 boards. At the players' end, a frame shed was built to furnish shade, and also for card players for whom seats and tables were provided, and where beer and liquors were served. This took place only on Sunday afternoon during warm weather.

To celebrate the May Day, the owners of the forests would donate to the young men a straight trunked tree from the forest. The limbs and bark were re­moved and the pole was set up with the national flag at its top in front of father's dance room. The limbs were used as rafters around the pole with the green foliage on top completed a large circular area for outdoor dancing. A similar arrangement was made for after harvest celebration called "Posviceni", (Benediction), which was also held on Sunday. The surrounding villages each selected different Sundays for the celebration, giving the young folks the opportunity to enjoy the festivities a number of times.

What I liked about the "Posviceni" was that everybody baked large supplies of "Kolache", rolls with poppy seed, dry prune butter or cheese filling. There was no limit to how many a boy could eat. I remember going to mother's parents in Bohusice, which was two or three miles away. Grandmother Dvorak spread out on her sanctuary floor bundles of clean rye straw, and on it were all kinds of rolls - "Kolache" - spread out to cool. She was a large woman, but as to her features, I do not remember anything. Grandfather Dvorak was a short chunky man, with a mop of curly silver white hair. Uncle Frank Dvorak, their only son, played an accordian, and liked to sing a revolutionary song that was prohibited by the government. After we moved to America, he married their house maid and had a son that was quite a violinist. Uncle Frank fell down from the hayloft and ran a pitchfork through his stomach which killed him.

The village of Bohusice was in a narrow valley across which a dam was built creating a large lake above the village, all of which was built below water level in the lake. A railroad was built crossing the village midway by a high bridge. Adjoining the Dvorak orchard which had some large apple trees in it, and there was a flour and saw mill run by water power. A deep ditch with running water from the water wheel separated the two places.

Someone took me to the mill where I saw the water wheel, the stone grinding wheel, or burr, and the saw used to cut boards out of logs, which worked like a hand saw with up and down movement.

Those "kolaches" diverted me from completing the description of our village, which, as I have stated, was divided by a small running brook that was crossed by graveled ford for wagon crossing. Right above this ford was a small pond from which the ice was cut in the winter time for father's cooling of beer, and used by the small fry summer time for swimming, wearing only suits that they were born in.

Above this pond the valley broadened out on both sides of the stream

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into a flat green meadow with many blooming wild flowers during summer. About a quarter of a mile above the pond in the center of the meadow was a solitary large boulder the size of a small cottage, about which tales were told that it was accursed, bewitched, that witches and ogres lived there, so of course us little fellows were leery about gathering flowers near the rock.

Below the ford the valley narrowed. On the east side was room only for the road and first row of thatched cottages all facing the road. On the west side was a fair sized meadow, on which I have seen women bleaching many yards of home spun linen, which was used for making clothing. On the edge of the village was a dugout, brick lined, used as a kiln. It was heated with wood slabs, and after the ashes were removed the bundles of flax were stacked in it to dry. When dry, the women would remove the husk by means of a hand operated contraption until only the clean fiber was left. Then on winter evenings, they would gather at some home and spin the fiber into a thread. Usually, there was some one that would read aloud from a book for all to hear, making a social affair out of labor.
The thread would be taken to a local weaver to make into a cloth, who would dye the thread to make colored cloth as ordered by the customer.

There was no school in our village, so we had to go to a village named "Blatnice". (Mudville would be about the right translation). It was about one half hour distant. The name described it 100 percent, as it had plenty of mud to justify the name. The school was built on the edge of the village nearest to us. There was only one large room with rows of benches holding about ten or more pupils. I do not remember if there was anything like a desk provided or not, but there must have been sixty or more pupils . The teacher was a tall, lanky, long-legged man, and instead of pupils going to the teacher to recite, the teacher would come to the pupils, stepping over us, and carrying a small cane stick which was often applied to the scholar's back, or across the palm of his hand for any vio­lation of discipline or poor lesson.

Every Friday afternoon a priest from Jaromerice parish would teach catechism for about one hour, after which we were let out to go home and usually were escorted by a number of "Mudville" scholars part way home, by them throwing rocks and sticks at us and calling us names that are not fit to print. Being in minority, we did not stop to dispute, as we were outnumbered at least two to one.
Father got his beer and alcohol from a combined brewery and distillery in Jaromerice, about one hour, or three miles distant, and he sent Jack and me after about fifteen gallon wood barrel of alcohol. The road was through thick pine and cedar forest, which was rumored to be frequented by thugs and robbers. We had a small four wheeled wagon to haul the liquor on, and wasted no time in going through this forest. Once on our way back, Jack someway pulled the cork out of the barrel, and with a rye straw we sampled the contents of the barrel, but must not have taken much of it, as we had no trouble in getting home.

Where the road to Blatnice and Jaromerice forked, there stood a wooden cross, about ten or twelve feet high, with a tin figure of Christ nailed on it. In passing it we always removed our head covering, and crossed ourselves. In meeting older persons we would also remove our caps and recite "Praised be the Lord Jesus Christ" and the reply would be "For ever and ever, Amen", which greeting was always used on entering a home.

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The superstitions among the people were great. If you hear any-hooting at night, then don't dare to answer it, as the "hooter" would come and roll over you till you were almost dead. Should you see colored ribbon floating on the water, you better leave it alone, for if you try to pick it up the "waterman" will pull you right in and drown you. If a bad thunderstorm was coming there was a man that could tell what kind of spirit was guiding it and he could pray to divert the storm, or hail from your crops. A man was visiting his relations until late at night when he started to go home in another village. On the edge of the village he found a big snow drift that he could not cross, so he tried to go around it but the snow drift was always before him, so he turned back and spent the night with the relation. Next morning there was no snow anywhere.

Then there was a villager who had a large patch of cabbage that he guarded over night. He built a shelter in which he slept. About midnight he was aroused from sleep and saw a headless horseman galloping right through the cabbage patch, the cabbage heads cracking and rolling as the horse tramped and kicked them. Next morning he was examining the cabbage patch and did not find a single head that was hurt.

Father did some poaching, and I believe that he had a partner in this illegality, but he never was caught as far as I knew. Mother told once about him killing a fawn, and fearing that the forester, who was father's good friend, might come and search the premises, he dressed it, put it in a tub of water with a lot of cut up straw on top of it, and placed it in the stable in front of the milk cows.
The gendarm made regular trips through the village, and usually stopped for lunch, of scrambled eggs, bread and beer, that mother prepared for him. He wore a dark blue coat that reached down to his heels, buttoned all the way with large brass buttons and shiny black belt around his waist. He carried a gun with a bayonet on it and always had a strong odor from the polish he used to polish the buttons and other brass trimmings.

A scarlet fever epidemic hit all of us at the same time. Mother made a bed for us on the floor by spreading clean rye straw and covering it with a sheet. The doctor was called from a distant village who looked us over, and after stroking his goatee a few times he left some powders and told mother that she might expect that some of us may not survive, and left. Jack was the sickest of all, and some granny told mother that if she will light the stub of a candle, place it on his navel, and cover it with a cup and the candle will burn, that Jack would then get well, but the candle always died as mother repeated the rite a number of times. Then another woman herbalist gave mother some herbs to make tea out of for Jack, who by this time was almost blind. The tea was purgative and one dose saved him. Mother told me later, that I was not sick enough from pes­tering around, while others were almost dying. But we all survived.

During certain times in summer the country was beautiful with small patches of different crops mingling with each other. There were patches of purple blooming flax, peas in bloom, of which, and a lot of lentils was raised, the two, with potatoes and rye bread made about ninety percent of the native food.

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Then there would be a patch of many colored poppy, which nearly every one planted for their own use. When potatoes were being done, a fire was built with the dry vines, and potatoes were roasted in the hot ashes for us little ones to eat, while parents were gathering the crops.

The plow that father had to do his plowing with was a square log, 6X6 inches and about three feet long, with beam and handle on it. The steel share was shaped like a lister share fastened on thefiont of the beam. I did hear some talk about some one having a new kind of a plow that "grunted" as it cut the roots. I assume that it was the steel plow as used in America.

On Halloween Eve, a witch effigy was made out of straw or potato vines, and burned, with some kind of ceremony connected with it, but which I do not remember what it was. Of course the air was supposed to be full of witches riding on brooms, but I never saw any.

Easter was celebrated very much as it is in America, by going to church, and coloring eggs for the children. Also, young men would go from house to house where there were grown up girls, catching them, and switching them till they redeemed themselves with colored eggs. Father brought a large goose size egg made of sugar, with magnifying window at one end and some Holy Picture on the inside.

On St. Nicholas Day, December 6th, two men with peaked golden bishop's caps made of heavy paper, in white robes, and long white beards, each with a long staff, led a chained devil between them, going from house to house where there were small boys or girls, demanding that they pray the "Our Father" and "Hail Maria", and if they did not know their prayers, threatened to have the devil to take them. Many a boy or girl found refuge under a bed, or some other sheltered nook in the house, if they did not know their prayers.

The Christmas, as in American, was the most observed Holyday of all. In fact, it was almost a three day affair, starting the day before Christmas, when the little ones were promised that they would see a "golden piggy" if they will not eat anything between breakfast and supper. I never did see it, or even hear it squeal. In the evening, there was the Christmas tree, with lighted wax candles on it, also garlands of colored paper, red apples and tin foil covered walnuts hanging in the branches, but no gifts, only candy, walnuts, apples and a few hazel nuts that had been gathered in the forest.

On Christmas day, a feast was served at dinner time including large apple cobbler, poppy seed, dry prune butter and cheese rolls. Usually a fat hog was butchered a day or two before Christmas so that there was a large platter full of liver and blood sausage, and even coffee to drink, which was bought as green berry, and had to be roasted before it could be used. The day after Christmas was a St. Stephens Day, and was observed as a holiday with some kind of ceremony that I do not know what it was.

After harvest, the village cow herder would gather cows and other stock, and drive them into stubble fields and along the roads to graze. The goose herder would do the same with geese, as there were many of them raised, mostly among the poorer class.

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When a band of gypsies invaded the village, all of the outside doors and gates were locked. All work stopped and everybody would watch them to keep them from stealing anything of value, as they would scatter over the village like a flock of grasshoppers, the gypsy men were pretending to buy or swap horses from the men, while the women would try to get inside of the homes to tell fortunes, and their many skirts made good hiding places for anything loose that they could lay their hands on.

Mother took me along to the church at Jaromerice. As I remember it, it was a large round room with dome roof and red brick floor. There were no seats that I could remember seeing. All the worshippers were standing, and also no heat, as I was cold. It must have taken a lot of faith, when at Christmas time many worshippers from our village would get up early and tramp through one or two feet of snow for three miles to attend the High Mass, and stand for its duration in the zero weather. Of course, I may be mistaken, and there might have been some heat provided. I am only stating what I experienced.

Once a year a religious pilgrimage was made to a distant place where the Virgin Mary had made a miraculous appearance. I remember one such procession by possibly twenty men and women. One man would carry a banner and the leader would shout out the words of a song, then sing them with his followers. Mother said that at the place of this meeting there would be all kinds of peddlers, selling various wares such as candy, honey cakes, songs, religious pictures, rosaries and other items. The pilgrims had to sleep out of doors, as no sleeping quarters were provided, and these meetings lasted two or three days.

I remember Grandfather Pivonka sitting on a low stool by a fair sized wooden chest, or trunk, in a corner of the room. He was bald headed, with only a thin circlet of silky gray hair at the base of his scull, he had a hard tumor the size of a soft ball on one side of his neck, which made him hold his head sideways. Some times he would open the trunk, inside he had about five gallon stone Jars half full of honey, all sugared, and often would give me a taste of it.

I understood that father bought a barrel of alcohol from the distillery, and tested it when it was delivered home. He found it below lawful degree of strength and refused to pay for it. He had already sold the home and had a certain time to give possession. The distillery manager knowing this, held the trial back to force father to pay the bill in order to get the permit to move. So father moved the family to his brother-in-law in Moravian Budejovice, and knowing that the distillery had spies, or guards, at all railway stations near, he got the brother-in-law to haul us to Jihlava, which was a long ways away, making the trip during the night, then we got on the train that took us to Hamburg.

At Hamburg we boarded a small steamer that took us to Hull, in England, where we again took a train to Glassgow. I remember that the cars were very small. In Glassgow we located in a hotel near the wharf, awaiting the ship that was to take us across the ocean. We stayed only one or two days. Here father bought the first orange that we had ever seen, dividing the segments so that each of us got a taste.

I remember Glassgow as a dirty, smoky city. The brick buildings were almost black with soot from the smoke. Father took us boys to the wharf through

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the cobbled streets, where we saw ships being loaded. A heavy two wheeled cart pulled by one big horse, full of coal was backed to a chute, and the coal was dumped into it, and into the steamer. After a short delay, we were again loaded onto a small steamer, which took us out to sea, where we were transferred onto the large steam ship "Bolivia", which took us to New York, where we were unloaded in Castle Garden, which was then the immigration station - 1855 to 1892 - and became a municipal aquarium - 1896 to 1941 - and is now a National Monument.

While on the ship we were fed something that looked and tasted like bread pudding, only it was much stiffer, almost like bread. We also had access to a large cask of some sort of a cracker, which came in irregular sized slabs, and much thicker than crackers. During a storm we were eating our dinner on the floor of the steerage with the dishes between us. When the ship took extra big slant, then the dishes and all of us would slide along the floor, and back again with the next heave.

One evening, while on the deck of the ship, the sea was so calm that there were almost no waves, and we saw a number of flying fish leap out of the water, and fly probably fifty or more feet, then drop back into the water. Also, one clear day we saw two whales spouting water in the distance. We also saw one iceberg.

On arriving in New York, there was a big crowd of people looking at the new arrivals through steel grating. Then we rode in railroad cars that had slat bottom seats. And somewhere along the way our car was rolled onto a ferry, and hauled across some water.

We arrived at Newton, Kansas, on the l7th day of April, 1880, and were moved into a little frame house west of the station, and north of the railroad from where we could see trains turn south to Wichita. Father and the agent, Mr. Joseph Novinsky, went on to Rush County, where father bought a timber claim from Aaron Bortz, which was our home for nearly three years, and is now owned by some of Charles Pivonka's sons.

Joseph Novinsky, I understand, was an agent selling land for the Santa Fe railroad. He sold some land to two of our neighbors, Frank Brazda and Mike Chlumsky, who made him a down payment on the land. It appears that he collected money from buyers, and failed to turn it over to the railroad company, who had him arrested, and he was jailed in Great Bend, Kansas. He killed himself with a revolver while in jail, and is buried in the Great Bend, Cemetary.

This document was apparently prepared by John N. Pivonka late in life, before his death in 1968, and published in the Pivonka Family Record in 1979.
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