Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Ethnic Czechs from the historic provinces of Bohemia and Moravia brought diverse architectural traditions to the Great Plains. They were part of a general emigration that began after the Peasant Uprising of 1848 and surged after emigration became legal in 1867. Czechs on the Plains clustered in large settlements in southeastern and south-central South Dakota, north-central and northwestern Kansas, and all over Nebraska. Later settlements were established in central and north-central Oklahoma. The diversity of their architectural tradition resulted from many factors but primarily from the dominance of the emigration by small farmers and cottagers with their varied provincial cultures.

An ancient preference for log construction was transferred to the Plains by skilled Czech carpenters. Log dwellings(rouben)were characterized by wall beams planked on the inside and outside faces, then set with full dovetail notches and chink spaces between the beams. Interior log partitions were dovetailed through the exterior walls, and many structures utilized mortised vertical timbers for door and window jambs. Several incorporated the old common rafter roof with tie beams, while most adopted the simple American rafter roof secured to the wall plates. Outbuildings were often built in the same fashion, though for these other variants also occurred, such as saddle, V, and full dovetail corner timbering on unplanked beams.

Some Moravians built earthen walls for their dwellings(rouben). The most common technique utilized unfired clay brick, but puddled clay and rammed earth were not uncommon. As Czechs adopted light frame construction, brick, puddled-clay, and lime mortars were used as nogging between the studs for stability and thermal mass. Other masonry construction was utilized by Czechs from both provinces. Skilled masons commonly employed rubble, coursed rubble, and occasionally ashlar work for limestone walls. High Plains Czechs in Kansas built with sod.

Though considerable provincial variation in house type existed in the way of room size, configuration, and nomenclature, the distinctive Czech tradition is evident as variations on the quintessential Czech house (Stredocesk), a type common in the heart of Bohemia. Its tripartite arrangement was comprised of a main room or hall (tnice), a narrow central entrance chamber and fire room, and a small storage chamber (komora). In old times it was subdivided to provide for a kitchen (cern)(kuchyn) at the back, but on the Plains that practice was abandoned with the adoption of American cast-iron stoves. The Pechan house in Yankton County, South Dakota, is the only tripartite dwelling known to have subdivided a kitchen in this manner.

Numerous first-generation houses were built as single-room dwellings comprised exclusively of the svetnice; these often became the basis for an expanded house. Two-room variations (dvojd) were the most popular, with both an old type and a new American type (komora) being built in large numbers. The latter type simply eliminated the technologically redundant and moved the single threshold to the big room. This dwelling was similar to another ancient type that included doors into both rooms. Derived from the house with attached stall, on the Plains the smaller space of this double-door type took the role of principal room.

In most Czech lands, houses were oriented with their narrow gable ends facing the public street. Typically symmetrical, this gabled facade continued to be built as the "front" wall in North America. If decoration was present at all, it was focused on this gable. On the Plains, where farms were dispersed rather than tightly clustered into rural villages, the front gable was often reoriented to the rear, where it faced the farmyard. Thresholds were in the side of the house, also oriented toward the farmyard or toward a small courtyard if in an urban setting.

The old practice of attaching farm buildings to the house and creating single-unit courtyard farmsteads was abandoned on the Plains, where land seemed limitless. Following American practices, farm buildings were built as detached structures, though often these were initially modeled along traditional lines; separate stables, cowsheds, and hay barns were built instead of the single multifunctional American barn. The first "barn" in Valley County, Nebraska, was a traditional threestall stable with walls raised half a story in height to accommodate a diminutive hayloft. Other remnant examples of the old practices exist, such as the Veselhouse with its attached cowshed in Knox County, Nebraska, and the long Merkwan "barn" in Bon Homme County, South Dakota, with its linearly attached storeroom, cowshed, and stables.

Early modernized houses retained traditional characteristics while becoming modestly enlarged. Most common was the one-and- one-half-story cross-wing house (uhlov), which provided bedrooms in the loft and a kitchen, parlor, and chamber (storage room, often with a bed) on the first floor. Typically, this house was still built with a single threshold, now into the kitchen, the new principal room of the modern dwelling. By the early twentieth century other houses were copied from American models, though interiors often continued to accommodate traditional living practices by emphasizing kitchens and dining rooms as principal spaces. These houses also continued to be built with facades facing the farmyard.

Also distinctive was the public landscape created by the ideologically diverse Czechs, who included freethinkers, Catholics, and Protestants. Old animosities among these groups produced separate cemeteries, which served symbolic, ceremonial, and even nationalistic functions. A fourth kind, a community cemetery with a more inclusive intent (Cesko- Slovansk hrbitov), initiated efforts at ethnic cohesiveness. Many of the cemeteries, particularly the national cemeteries of the freethinkers (Cesko-Nrodni hrbitov), were distinctly designed and landscaped, while others also exhibited homeland features such as curbed and planted graves, cast- and wrought-iron crosses, and Hussite iconography. Elaborately crafted iron entrance gates were typical.

While church architecture was primarily denominationally derived, freethinking and Sokol (gymnastic society) halls often followed popular Czech styles. The most distinctive of these were latter-day American versions of the provincial baroque style (venkovské barok) that had become popular in the Czech agricultural villages after enclosure. The overt nationalistic associations of these designs on the Plains were in direct contrast to the Renaissance Revival of the elite national movement in Bohemia, where the baroque carried negative associations with the Counter Reformation. Many variations on the baroque were built, from the simple lunette fronts of halls such as Sladkovsk at Pishelville (1882), to the modeled facade and doubly curved dormer of the 1903 Hora hall at Verdigre, both in Nebraska.

Built following the multifunctional model of the vernacular opera house (albeit in a distinctly noncommercial mode), the public halls of Sokols and Czech fraternal organizations served a variety of community needs, including dances, speeches, funerals, gymnastics, and banquets. Most contained full stage facilities for the popular Czech national theatrical performances. These interiors focused on a proscenium arch with its locally painted curtains, which usually portrayed Czech landscapes and symbolic scenes. Few new halls have been built since the 1880–1920 period, but most of those extant are still in use.


David Murphy Nebraska State Historical Society

Frolec, Václav, and Josef Vaeka. Encyclopedie lidová architektura. Praha: SNTL—Nakladatelství technické literatury, and ALFA—Vydavatel'stvo technickej a ekonomickej literatúry, 1983.

Murphy, David. "Dramatic Expressions: Czech Theatre Curtains in Nebraska." Nebraska History 74 (1993): 168–82.

Murphy, David. "Jejich Antonie: Czechs, the Land, Cather, and the Pavelka Farmstead." Great Plains Quarterly 14 (1994): 85–106.

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