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Czech and Slovak Roots in Mid-Michigan

By Tom Bradley

The migration of Czechs, Slovaks, and Moravians into the Central Michigan area began around 1904, increased rapidly over the next 12 years and then decreased. Many of the immigrants would come directly from Europe, but a more significant number would come from the Czech and Slovak communities in the cities of Chicago and Cleveland. Although there was a sizable Czech settlement in the city of Saginaw dating back to the 1870s, it appears to have had little influence on the settlement of the Czechs and Slovaks in the areas to the west. Rather the major factor was sugar beets.

Sugar beets were an ideal crop for the heavy fertile soils found in the areas of Gratiot, Clinton, Shiawassee, and Saginaw counties. Czechs and Slovaks were sought out by the sugar companies to work the beet fields because they were good workers and many brought knowledge of working beets from Europe. The major problem the sugar companies faced was that the Czechs and Slovaks were more interested in obtaining and farming their own land than working in someone else's beet fields. Every year recruiters had to be sent to Chicago, Cleveland, or other urban areas to obtain additional workers for the beet fields of Mid-Michigan.

The beet workers were provided free housing by the sugar companies. In most cases this housing was adequate. However, I have also heard it described in the following terms:"so small the only way our family could all sleep in the house was if the cook stove was moved outside." "We slept on loose straw. Every night before we went to sleep we sifted through the straw with a fork to make sure there were no rattlesnakes." "They told us if we came to Michigan we would have a nice house. When we got there they wanted us to live in an old box car." The recruiters did not always paint an accurate picture of the working and living conditions the beet workers would encounter.

ZCBJ hall in Bannister.

Fraternal Societies became a powerful force in the lives of those who became members. Based upon common bonds, ethnic, and religious, they offered the opportunity for friendship, networking, and mutual aid. This was true for the Czechs and the Slovaks who organized lodges or branches of the societies in Central Michigan.

The number of members continued to grow, as did the feeling that it would be nice for the lodge to have a hall of its own. When Bannister businessman, Frank Newsome, offered to give the lodge land next to his store for a hall, plans were made to build.

The main part of the lodge hall was completed in 1916. In the early 1930s there was a talk of building a new hall, but it was decided rather to add on to the existing hall. The back part of the hall was built in 1935. It included the stage and an area for coal storage. The storage area now contains the bar and restrooms. The two story front area of the hall containing the kitchen and upstairs bar was built in 1938. In 1984 a 120 foot by 24 foot pavilion was built on the east side of the hall. The cost of this project, as well as the previous ones, was covered by donations from lodge members as well as non-members.