Written by: Dick Ammann
Coming to Racine County because of the area’s agricultural potential, the Bohemians (from an area now know as the Czech Republic) mostly settled between Five Mile and Seven Mile Roads. As time passed, the group felt the need to build churches, meeting halls and schools to keep their heritage alive. The 1888 Schoolhouse was constructed as part of this need and provided weekend Bohemian language and culture lessons to children who also attended regular County schools during the week.
Racine’s Bohemian Community
Bohemians, like many other Europeans, left their homeland in the 1800s. They came to America to escape religious turmoil and low wages, to purchase their own land and to provide a better future for their families. The earliest Bohemian settlers were mostly farmers and skilled trades workers, along with some intellectuals. This group was generally more highly skilled than the later Bohemian and Czech immigrants, who were drawn to prairie lands farther west than Wisconsin. Bohemians generally settled in states that had agricultural potential.
The first Bohemians settled in Caledonia Township in the spring of 1849. This was the first Bohemian farming settlement in Wisconsin. Within about five years there were a hundred Bohemian families in the area. The first farmers cleared their land and then sold or traded the wood for household staples. Wheat and other grains were their first crops. Then farmers diversified by growing strawberries, sugar beets and cabbage. They raised cattle and sold milk. The Chicago and North Western Railroad, with its main line through Caledonia, was a ready market for the timber that was cleared from farmland. The railroad was just about a guaranteed buyer of wood, which was used as fuel in its engines before a switch was made in 1870 to burning coal.
The majority of Bohemians in Caledonia lived between Five Mile and Seven Mile Roads. The City of Racine and the township of Caledonia have been outstanding centers of Bohemian culture. In fact, at one time Racine was known as the Czech Bethlehem. The Bohemian area in Caledonia became known as Tabor, which was an ancient fortress in their homeland.
Divided between free-thinkers and traditionalists in their beliefs, the Bohemians built churches and meeting halls to foster and enhance their beliefs and culture. By 1877 they established a Bohemian Cemetery on Five Mile Road.
The Schoolhouse Raised
By 1888, several Bohemian meeting halls and schools had already been established when the present Schoolhouse was constructed. This new one-room structure served mainly to teach Bohemian language and culture on weekends. Children went there as well and to regular county schools during the week, where they learned in English. Students of diverse ages attended the weekend classes, just like the age range of the rural public schools. The pupil desks range from small in front to large in the back of the room. The building was used for weekend classes until around 1916.
By World War I, the children of the two Bohemian factions, free-thinker and Roman Catholic, had married more across group lines and with people from other ethnic backgrounds. As the immigrants and their children became more comfortable in their new country, an emphasis on preserving Bohemian ethnicity and culture declined. The Schoolhouse became a meeting place for the Bohemian Society and for area social events. The Caledonia Women’s Reading Circle met there until a town community center was built. By the 1950s the building was rarely used.
The Bohemian Men’s Lodge, which owned the building, turned it over to the Bohemian Cemetery Association, which transferred ownership to the Racine County Historical Museum, now the Racine Heritage Museum, in 1974.
Other Bohemian Stories
“Czech” out more about Bohemians in Racine County. There are several fascinating stories: Martin Secor, who was a trunk manufacturer and mayor of Racine, and whose tombstone inscription in Mound Cemetery is thought-provoking; Karel Jonas, whose statue is at the corner of Douglas Avenue and High Street, began the first Czech language newspaper in the United States, and compiled and published a Czech – English dictionary; or William Svoboda who became the first Socialist Mayor of Racine, in 1931.
© 2003 Racine Heritage Museum – The Outlook Newsletter