By Gary McKee
As in many states, there is a Czech settlement in Oklahoma. The term “Sooner” applies to settlers in the late 1800s. Sooners were people who were able to legally enter the Oklahoma Territory prior to statehood. Some Sooners crossed into the territory illegally at night, and were originally called “moonshiners” because they had entered “by the light of the moon.” Sooners would hide in ditches at night and suddenly appear to stake their claim after the land run started, hours ahead of legal settlers that began on April 22, 1889.
Among the Sooners, who illegally claimed land before the Land Run of April 22, 1889, were about 25 Czech Americans led by Anton Caha, a Moravian who had been born in the village of Klanchov in the 1850s. As a youth, Caha had immigrated to America with his mother and stepfather, and he spent the first part of his adulthood in a Czech settlement in Colfax County, Nebraska. With a background as a militia leader in the Second Sioux War (1876), Caha was an adventurous man who led his Czech group into the Unassigned Lands and attempted to stake his claim at a location just west of present day Oklahoma City.
Like many others, the Czech Sooners were prosecuted for their breach of the law, and Caha himself served a two-year sentence in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas, before returning to Oklahoma and establishing himself as a respectable citizen. Apparently his land claim held up as the site incorporated the Canadian County townships of Yukon, Mustang and El Reno in the present day Oklahoma City area. Shortly afterward, Czech family groups settled in the area that later became Kingfisher County and in the community of Mishak, Boone Township, Oklahoma County. These first groups were typical of the Czech Americans who would continue to be attracted to Oklahoma in the following two decades. The majority came from immigrant colonies that had been previously organized in Nebraska, and others came from Kansas, Iowa and Texas. Furthermore, many of the Nebraska Czechs had previously immigrated from Wisconsin and many from Kansas had come via Chicago.
Fast forward to 2013 – this writer had always seen an exit sign for Czech Hall Road on Interstate 40 and finally had time to pull off in Yukon, Oklahoma, and see if there was still a Czech Hall that the road was named after. I found a wood frame structure that was built in 1925 that resembled some halls in Texas. There was a granite historical marker in front that indicated it was listed on the National Historic Register of Historic Places. The present hall replaced the original structure built in 1899 and was the Sokol Karel Havliček Lodge and Western Fraternal Life Association Lodge Jan Žižka No. 67 headquarters. The Sokol organization was the gymnastic training center for the Czech culture. The German equivalent would be the Turnverein halls found in German culture centers.
This particular hall has the distinction of having dances every Saturday night since 1925!!! The hall has a good website, www.CzechHall.com, which tells its story in more detail. I contacted LaVerne Benda via the phone number provided on the website. LaVerne was a delight to talk with and possessed a wealth of information on Oklahoma Czech culture. Upon entering the hall, my initial impression was that the architecture was very similar to the hall at Shelby, Texas with the arches leading to the seating tables on both sides of the hall. Lining the walls were hand-painted Czech designs. In the corner was a small, orderly museum relating to the hall and the Sokol lodge. What impressed me most were the charters to the lodge given by the Territory of Oklahoma in 1899 (Oklahoma was granted statehood in 1907).
The band was – as it is most Saturdays – was The Bohemian Knights. The Knights, a horn-driven ensemble, consisted of six brass players, one accordion and a drummer. Most of the polka dancing couples performed the “hopping” style of polka which derives from the north. In the first set, the band played four schottisches, two back to back and then four more in the next set. This filled the dance floor with all ages. Waltzes and polkas, for some reason, did not fill the floor with dancers. The big moment came each set when the chicken dance was announced. The chicken dance drew over 95% of the seated patrons, with an inner circle going counter to the outside. Large fun was had by all ages. At the end, one member pulled out ping-pong balls from under his chicken hat and tossed them to the kids on the floor. Afterward, I commented to the band that they must be paid better than Texas bands as six members had on chicken hats versus the one per band I have observed in Texas.
Other observations included a large participation for the Seven Step Polka and likewise for the Mexican Hat Dance. When the Flying Dutchman dance was announced the floor filled. The dancers joined up in threesomes and foursomes and proceeded to do what Texians call the Garden Waltz. The Cabbage Patch dance was well known and performed by over a third of the crowd. When the Hokey Pokey was announced the floor once again filled and the crowd “put in” most body parts and shook them all about.
Carolyn Strejskal and Irene Smrcka Littlejohn, who were volunteering at the front door, provided some wonderful insight to the hall. They told me that a lot of the regulars weren’t in attendance, but their absence had been made up by two different parties celebrating family occasions. These two ladies, along with Marilyn, who worked the bar, popcorn machine and museum gift store are instrumental in keeping the polka tradition alive in Oklahoma. I would encourage anyone heading up I-35 through Oklahoma to take a left in Oklahoma City and drive 15 miles to stop in on a Saturday night in Yukon to Polka On.