Bohemian Brick Hall is 100 years old

Published 9:11 am Saturday, September 26, 2009

Like a legacy from the past, the place known since 1909 as the Brick Hall is located on County Road 30 between Myrtle and Hayward. It may be one of the last freestanding fraternal lodge buildings in this part of the nation.

The Brick Hall’s importance in the life and heritage of so many area Czech-American families helped to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places in March 1986.

The tan brick building with its background of oak trees has a sign over the front entry with three dates, the initials of Z.C.B.J., and several words in the Czech or Bohemian language. One of these dates is 1909. This is the year the Brick Hall, or north hall, was built by the members of Lodge No. 44 for just over $3,300.

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Another social center for a once-active Bohemian or Czech American community in the southeastern part of Freeborn County was located about a quarter mile south of the present hall on County Road 30 between Myrtle and Hayward. This was the Wooden Hall, which was built by members of an earlier Czech or Bohemian organization called the C.S.P.S. in 1896, and later used by Lodge Jaroslav Vrchlicky No. 327 of the Z.C.B.J. This hall, which replaced an even earlier wooden structure, lasted until 1981, when it was torn down. (There has been a recent proposal to mark the site of the former Wooden Hall.)

An even earlier hall was constructed in the 1890s as a social center for the Czech/Bohemian pioneers and located somewhat across the road from the Brick Hall. Thus, the present hall can be considered to be the third Czech/Bohemian hall in this part of Freeborn County.

Both the Brick Hall and the Wooden Hall, or south hall, were affiliated with the same fraternal organization. This was the Zpadni Cesko-Brdtrska Jednota (Z.C.B.J.) of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, founded in 1897, which is known today as the Western Fraternal Life Association.

There was a time when all three halls served as the social and recreational centers for a community of immigrants from the Bohemian provinces of what was then Austria-Hungary. Some of these people from central Europe had settled in the Hayward, London, Glenville and Myrtle area just before and during the Civil War. More Czechs or Bohemians came in the 1870s and ’80s.

These immigrants and their descendants tended to maintain the old country customs and language. The three halls helped to preserve this heritage.

According to an information sheet about the designated historic places in the county, “The Brick Hall helped (to) preserve the language and customs of the old country. The particular hall was a center for dances, family reunions, meetings (both lodge and for other organizations), suppers, and theatrical productions.” These theatrical productions, incidentally, were presented by area residents and by traveling troupes in both English and Czech.

For many years the Brick Hall featured dances two or three times a week. Among the bands that once played on the small stage were Skipper Berg’s Viking Accordion Band of Albert Lea, “Whoopee John” and his German Concertina Orchestra from New Ulm, the Six Fat Dutchmen, also from New Ulm, and Moeller’s Accordion Band from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The most famous name to be featured on the dance program at the Brick Hall was Lawrence Welk. The six-man Welk orchestra operated out of Radio Station WNAX in Yankton, S.D. This group played a one evening engagement at this hall on July 29, 1935. However, an alleged second appearance by the Welk group at the Brick Hall has never been confirmed.

The Brick Hall is well-preserved and rented out for family reunions, graduation parties, seed corn meetings, board meetings for the nearby Bohemian National Cemetery, wedding receptions and even a recent wedding.

The fraternal lodge holds nine scheduled meetings a year; five or six in the Brick Hall and the rest in Glenville.

This place is like a museum,” said member Marie Krikava.

And entering this hall is almost like going back to the days of the horse and buggy, back to an era just after World War I when the Bohemians of central Europe gained their independence as the nation of Czechoslovakia in late 1918.

A small stage dominates the west end of the building’s interior Booths are located along the south wall. In the east is a unique balcony, or mezzanine.

This upper area has a half-moon or what’s also called a horseshoe bar which can also be used as a lunch counter. The dark woodwork and railing overlooks a well-used floor.

The newest addition to the Brick Hall property is a wooden sign created by Emil Prantner. This sign gives the history of a long barn-like structure that was located near the woods behind the hall. This building served as the place for visiting lodge members and their families to stable their horses while they attended functions in the hall

This building was torn down in the 1970s or early ‘80s and some of the lumber was salvaged to construct the refreshment stand, which is located just to the south of the Brick Hall.

Still another reminder of the former barn or stable is barely visible under the brush and several trees with remnants of the old foundation.

Present officers of Lodge 44 are Jim Benesh, president; Georgia Jech, vice president; Jim Becker, treasurer; and Marie Krikava, secretary.