Czechs in Oxford Township

Jones County lies in scenic eastern Iowa. The soil here was made rich by glaciers and prairie grass. Abundant rainfall supports varied flora and fauna. A river meanders through the southeast part of the county, the 36 square miles called Oxford Township which contains the peaceful villages Oxford Junction and Oxford Mills and many farms.

The Native Americans (Indians) of this area were joined by white man in the early 19th century. The earliest settlers were English (Walston, Coon, Bryan, Lathrop, Courtright, Morton, Waite, Leffingwell, Strong, Carter, etc.), followed by an ethnic diversity that still exists here. Czech emigrants began to arrive in the 1850s: Bek/Beck and Sabata from near Vamberk in northeast Bohemia; Beranek, Jilek, and Slouha from Dzbanov near Vysoke Myto; Luk/Luke, Pavelka, Pazourek, Kadidlo, Kaspar, Dostal, and Vilimek/Willimack from around Kostelec nad Orlici; Wosoba from near Pisek.

The mostly foreign-born pioneers were farmers of crops and cattle (if not in their homeland they were here, by necessity). They had arrived by oxen, cow and horse-pulled wagons since no railroad line served eastern Iowa until 1855, nor Oxford Township until 1871. And they “wrote home”, asking their friends and relatives to join them. Pavlista, Dusil, and Prokop came from near Vamberk, probably prompted by Bek whose wife was born Pavlista. Many more came from Dzbanov: Vozenilek, Pekarek/Pegorick, Balichek, Buresh, Kubik, Nespor, Dlouhy, Dolezal, Zamastil, Pekar/Peckosh, etc.

The villages surrounding Suchdol nad Luznici in South Bohemia lost many peasants to Oxford Township. First Lejsek/Lasack, Divoky, and Korbel, and even before 1871 when the railroad arrived in Oxford Jct. the year it became officially a town: Benhart, Mizaur, Kouba, Dvorak, Homolka, Nowachek, Koranda, Kropik, etc. And later: Benischek, Blizek, Pashek, Burda, Ciml, Dudracek, Fritz, Sazma, Vochoska, Kostecka/Kostichek, Kucera, Kudjila, Marousek, Podolak, Moravec, Novotny, Roubik, Shimanek, Tech, Vacek, Weber, and Zaruba. This cluster emigration was surely prompted by the satisfaction of the earliest arrivals with the conditions found in this area, and may have been a reflection of the desperation felt in “the old country“.

The skills, determination, and persistence of the Czech emigrants had a distinct influence on the nature of this community. They developed productive farms from partially wooded prairie and built businesses in the towns, with a work ethic that remains intact. They learned cooperation in their homeland villages, walking to their fields and working together. Perhaps Ciml the shoemaker bartered with Koranda the wheelwright, and carried the village economy concept to America. The isolation of the American-style farming led to the organization of social structures such as Bohemian Slavonic Benefit Association which became Z.C.B.J., and other groups that brought people together. The residents of Oxford Township continue in the tradition of frequent celebrations and projects of group effort.

The people who lived in South Bohemia near the Luznici River would have been accustomed to ethnic diversity as there were Jews, Germans and Austrians in addition to Czechs and they spoke each others’ languages. There is no evidence of racial problems among the various factions of Oxford Township where the culture was and is from a great blend. The music heard in Oxford Jct.’s opera houses was distinctly Czech, with a German sound. The dancers and the musicians were of varied blood lines, but the Czechs drank the most, laughed the loudest, and were the last to leave the party. The architecture of Oxford Jct. is not unlike other small towns in the Midwest but in the past there were elements that reflected a European background. Downtown there were several taverns, like the pubs of Europe — gathering places that served beer and provided tables for card playing, chatting, and lively discussion. Many of the houses had barns with a horse and/or cow, chicken houses, workshops and other sheds in the backyard. They created the feel of the courtyards of their homeland villages, and enabled the self-sufficiency of these hardy folks.

Daily life in Oxford Township was flavored by the Czechs, too. While the farmers planted orchards of fruit and nut trees, town people had vegetable gardens, grape vines, even tobacco plants. Women sewed clothes, preserved (with home canning, drying techniques, etc.) the produce, dressed poultry, stuffed sausage, plucked geese to make feather pillows, and baked hearty rye bread. Czech bakery is commonplace today and present at every celebration, especially the fruit-filled kolach. Many homes served sauerkraut with every dinner as recently as 1960, cabbage being a staple of the Czech diet. Men and boys went fishing and hunting to feed their families. Outdoor work and fun provided fresh air and exercise for these robust Iowans in every season.

Every community has social norms and common traits among its people. Oxford Township reflects norms and traits of its fine Czech citizenry, both past and present.