Old Homes of New Americans

Country Life in Bohemia and Moravia
Chapter 3

The Similarity of Modern Cities the World over -- The Goose-Girls of Bohemia -- Human Labor and Wire Fences -- "Full Peasant" and "Half Peasant" -- The Ribbons of Land -- A Typical Moravian Village -- "Horse Peasant" and "Ox Peasant" -- The Dowry of a Peasant's Daughter -- The Kind of People America needs -- Whose Fault will it be? -- The Good Blood of the Czechs.

Since we have learned something of the heroic but bloody history of Bohemia, let us look at the more pleasing picture of Bohemian life in this peaceful twentieth century.

The larger cities are much like all modern cities in every part of the civilized world, for the tendency is for all great agglomerations of men to become uniform, dull in appearance, and lacking in individuality. Evening dress is the same in New York and Prague, the same in Chicago and Czernowitz. Hotel waiters, too, assume the same spiketail coat and ample shirt-bosom in the cafes of Boston and Budapest.

You must visit the country districts to find individuality of costume and custom. Here the shepherds patronize their own flocks for clothing, and are immensely picturesque in their stiff sheepskin cloaks, which serve as shelter from the rain and snow in winter and from the sun in summer. Sometimes these cloaks are beautifully embroidered.

In other districts the woolly side is left out and the skinny side in; but however they are worn, they always form a striking feature of the landscape, as their owners lounge on hillside or plain, staff in hand, while their docile flocks graze peacefully near by.

The goose-girls also attract the unaccustomed eye. All through the Slavic countries they may be seen from every car window, watching their feathered flock. Their gay petticoats and bright kerchiefs, the distaff and shuttle which they hold in their hands, or the long stockings which they are knitting, all seem to carry one back from the twentieth century to the sixteenth. Shepherds and goose-girls have not changed with the passing centuries as have their city neighbors. While watching them you forget that there are such things as trolley cars and telephones, X-rays and wireless telegraphy, to disturb ones peace.

One Bohemian peasant was heard to berate the extravagance of a farmer who built a fence around his pasture instead of having a man to watch his sheep and a girl to watch his geese. That remark, as has been said, tells volumes concerning the difference between farm life in America and in the Slavic countries today. In one country, wire fences are cheaper than human labor. In the other, human labor is cheaper than wire fences. Yet wire fences and farm automobiles and threshing-machines have brought with them losses as well as gains, and it is not as yet a closed question whether the farmer is happier in the old world than in the new though there is no question as to where he is the more prosperous.

Up to the year 1848 the peasant's lot in Bohemia was indeed hard,for though actual serfdom had been abolished, yet all the land was owned by the lords. To be sure the Peasant had hereditary rights in the land, yet he could not sell or mortgage it, or even give it up, without his lord's permission. He must do a certain amount of work for his lord, and render certain tribute in the shape of butter, eggs, and poultry, for which he received nothing.

A mighty upheaval came to all Europe in I848. Paris was in revolt against the King. The German princes were compelled to call a national parliament at Frankfort. Kossuth was fighting for liberty in Hungary, and Bohemia shared in the blessed movement for the rights of the people. From that time the peasants were allowed actually to own the land they cultivated, though it took theln some years to repay to the state the redemption money which had been advanced to the lords.

It must not be supposed that the word "peasant" in Bohemia, or indeed in Austria-Hungary generally, implies degradation or anything derogatory. It corresponds more to our word "farmer" than any other, and some of these peasants are very considerable farmers, too. A "full peasant" owns from fifty to one hundred acres of land, a "half peasant" half as much, a "quarter peasant" a still smaller amount, while below the quarter peasants are still smaller fractions, and also day laborers and workmen who own not a rood of land.

Let us visit one of the peasant homes. It is a small but comfortable adobe house, made of wattle and plastered with mud, and whitewashed on the outside, while the roof is a generous overhanging thatch. If our host is a "full peasant" of the better class, his house is of brick, or even stone, perhaps, with a tile roof. His barns and outbuildings are commodious, and great stacks of hay surround the house, at which the cattle may nibble throughout the winter. Geese hiss, turkeys gobble, hens cackle about the dooryard, and a loud-mouthed watchdog gives notice of our approach.

Altogether it is a pleasant domestic scene, and we do not see, at first, why the boys from such a farm should care to risk their untried fortunes in far-off America.

But this is a "full peasant's " house that we are visiting. A "quarter peasant" with a single acre or two, might tell a very different story. Even at the door of a " full peasant's" house we see no automobile, as we should very likely see in the yard of a Kansas or a Dakota farmer, and we certainly see no steam gang-plows about the premises, capable of breaking up a hundred acres in a day or two. Instead, we see the land divided up into long, narrow ribbons, a few yards wide,and running out into the distance almost as far as the eye can reach. These narrow strips of land are so divided because, according to immemorial custom, every son inherits his proportion of the family estate, which is divided lengthwise so that none shall have the advantage of the others in location or in quality of the soil.

Miss Balch, in her interesting book on "Our Slavic Fellow Citizens," tells us that she has counted thirty men ploughing at the same time, each working his share of the same big, unbroken field, each man's share marked not by hedge, fence, or wall, but only by a furrow about a foot wide. It is said, and I believe the case has actually occurred, that the strips are sometimes so narrow that a man must walk on his neighbor's land to lead the plough-horse on his own.

She describes a typical Moravian village, where the houses stand in a row on each side of the street, which is lined with a solid facing of house-fronts and high Yard walls or gates. Back of this village street stretch cultivated fields in long strips. In this village of Prikazy are no "whole peasants," nothing above, but there are fifty-six of these "half peasants," with farms of about fifty acres each. These farms are cut up into shoestring strips of land, so that the same farmer may own a little strip in a dozen different places and even on different sides of the town. Besides the "half peasants" are humbler folk, with only twelve or fourteen acres.

The larger farmers usually own three horses, and the horse determines a man's social standing, for his poorer neighbors must plough the soil with the aid of only an ox. Sometimes a poor aristocrat keeps a pair of that he cannot afford, simply for the sake of being reckoned a "horse peasant" instead of an "ox peasant." Substitute "automobile " for "horse," and we find that human nature is much the same in America as in Moravia.

Inside the house, and even about the farm, the mother and daughter may go barefoot, without in any way losing their social standing, though they may be abundantly able to purchase American shoes, which are the standard of comfort and elegance in this part of the world. The women, too, will help on the farm when need demands, and consider it no reflection on their womanly character. For my part, I see nothing derogatory to woman in farm labor. It is a hundred times healthier and happier work than that which many of these same Bohemian women may be driven to in the sweat-shops of America.

Strange as it may seem, we are told on good authority that the dowry of a peasant's daughter in this same Moravian village of Prikazy is from five to twelve thousand dollars, and hundreds of dollars more will be spent on the wedding festivities.

Not all, to be sure, who come to America from Bohemia are of the land-cultivating class. Many skilled workmen emigrate, especially of later years. There are also laborers and house-servants. But nearly half the people of Bohemia are agriculturists, and a much larger portion of the people of Hupgary, Galicia, and Dalmatia, whom we shall consider later. So by far the largest number of the new Americans from the old homes of Austria-Hungary are genuine sons of the soil, the very people whom America most Ineeds, -- honest, frugal, hard-working, obedient to law, respectful to superiors and yet self-respecting, as those people are bound to be who have belonged to a settled social order. They have acknowledged the rights of superiors, to be sure, but most of them, even the "half" and "quarter peasants" have people beneath them in the social scale, who look up to them and to whom they owe oversight and protection.

If Bohemian and Moravian emigrants do not make good American citizens, it will be the fault of American and not of Bohemia and Moravia. If they huddle together in the great cities or coal-mining towns, instead of cultivating the prairie soil (since the soil has been their inheritance for centuries), if the children grow up unruly and untamed, looking down upon their parents as "foreigners," if our jails and reformatories are recruited from their ranks, American environment and training will have more to do with this moral deterioration than the countries from which the people come.

The Czechs are the descendants of heroes. Crecy and Domazlice were as bravely fought as Culloden or Marston Moor. The Czechs have good blood in their veins, good sinews in their arms, stout hearts, honest purposes, as they begin life anew in a new world, far from their old homes. The kind of Americans that they will make, whether worthy or unworthy, will depend upon the schools and churches of America, and still more upon the neighborly influences and examples which they find in their new homes.

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