It all began with a casual introduction.
A friend of Marie Blaha Pearson’s thought she should meet Joyce Pritchard.
The two women — Pearson and Pritchard — were of Czech descent and the friend, a historian in Prince George County, thought it would be a good idea if the two got to know one another.
“He thought the two Czech girls should get together,” Pearson said.
What started as an informal introduction blossomed into a friendship and led to the creation of the Virginia Czech/Slovak Historic Society.
The society, along with local historians and regular residents, are working to tell the story of a Czech and Slovak immigration into Prince George that began in the late 1800s and continued through the early part of the last century.
Like most immigrants, these Europeans were fleeing hardship and looking for opportunity. But unlike fellow Czechs and Slovaks, they chose rural Virginia over more common destinations in the Midwest. Some, in fact, came here after originally settling in the middle part of the U.S.
During the immigration, between 700 and 800 families moved to Prince George and some trickled into surrounding areas, including Dinwiddie, Chesterfield, Henrico, Hanover and New Kent counties.
Now, the descendents of those settlers are looking to recapture some of the history and culture.
Ancestors “didn’t talk a lot about the Old World and we weren’t smart enough to ask about,” said Ed Hanzlik, a local authority on Czech Slovak history in the area.
The society, made up from descendents of the original immigrants, is working to collect materials. It hopes to eventually build a virtual library of old news clippings and books, create a genealogical database to help families reconnect, host events locally that promote their heritage and encourage descendents to visit their homeland.
“A lot of it has been lost, but we’re doing a very good job saving what’s available now,” Pearson said.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Back in 2003 Pearson, whose family immigrated to America in 1888, and Pritchard began to take a real interest in their heritage.
Pritchard lives in Denver these days.
“We started talking about our family, and where they came from. And we realized that we didn’t really know where they came from,” Pearson said.
They women knew they were Czech and began to research their past, joking that they were going to fly out one day to find their village.
And then one day they did.
During a 2005 trip, they found their ancestral home, Gernik, a village that is now in Romania, and visited with a group of other Prince George descendents.
“We found family there. They had a festival the same weekend we were there. It was just a marvelous, wonderful experience,” Pearson said.
After the trip, Pearson and Pritchard began going around the county and nearby areas giving talks about their heritage and the history of Czechs and Slovaks in the area. And they began to work on preserving and protecting their culture.
“A lot of families had large farms that have been cut up into private acres. In doing so, they have thrown out some of the old documents, old papers, old items that came over with the immigrants from the villages,” she said.
“So yeah, a lot of it has been lost, and, I think, with our new awareness that is no longer happening. People are beginning to treasure what they have now and are proud of it. That has been one of our greatest accomplishments.”
Like many Eastern Europeans in the mid-1880s, Czechs and Slovaks faced a series of hardships that forced them to consider leaving their homelands.
Bruce A. Vlk, a researcher at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and a member of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Science and the Virginia Czech/Slovak Heritage Society, says “conditions for Czechs and Slovaks in Europe were less than ideal.
“In 1848, revolution across Europe stirred political, social and religious ideas of freedom. One must remember that the Czechs and Slovaks were under rulers prior to that time. The Prussian War, which began in 1866, made conditions unlivable for many,” Vlk wrote in a paper titled “New Bohemia in the New World: Czechoslovak Immigration and Assimilation in Prince George County, Virginia.”
The paper was published by “Kosmas: Czechoslovak and Central European Journal” last year.
Vlk has written extensively on politics, public policy and Virginia’s history, and was a co-producer for the PBS documentary “Locked Out: The Fall of Massive Resistance” while with U.Va.’s Center for Politics.
He says that Czechs immigrated because of religious and political persecution and social conditions as well as for economic opportunities.
Slovaks left to avoid conscription into the military and because of a lack of available farm land — the shortage was made worse by wars that helped spread diseases on those farms.
In the U.S., Virginia was going through its own issues that would make it an attractive option.
The South’s agricultural economic system had collapsed after the Civil War because there was a labor shortage after slavery was abolished. That was compounded by the condition of the land because battles fought there contributed to widespread disease in crops and livestock, Vlk writes.
“These ‘gentlemen-managed’ plantations could not operate in the new reality of the postwar South; hired labor did not work as well. Therefore farm land was rented out, sold in pieces or exhausted for its timber resources. In turn land prices dropped significantly making way for the transition to new owners,” Vlk wrote.
The situation was ripe for the immigrants. “They were very important to the overall lifestyle here. They revived farming here after the Civil War,” said Carol Marks Bowman, Prince George County Regional Heritage Center executive director.
“And, of course, they were seeking a place to live free from any persecution. So they thought this was a real opportunity to come to this country and be a part of this society.”
In 1887, Josef Machat became the first Czechoslovak to settle in Prince George County.
Machat, who came from Nebraska, wrote in letters that he found the farms neglected.
Vlk said Machat wrote in letters that “initially the local population hated him because of the Civil War aftermath, and they would give him purposefully bad advice on farming techniques.”
But that didn’t dissuade Machat or others whose couldn’t resist the opportunity to farm their own lands. Soon, other Czech and Slovaks began coming to Prince George and the surrounding area.
The early immigrants didn’t come from Europe but got here after spending time in South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Nebraska.
In 1900, immigrants began coming in from Bohemia and other European countries, including Russia, present-day Romania, Austria, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia.
By 1910, there were 1,059 Czechs in Virginia and 486 Slovaks.
Czech and Slovaks made up nearly a third of the white population in the county at the peak of the immigration.
These immigrants built businesses, churches and communities. On weekends, they’d go to Petersburg to shop.
The immigrants were lured to Virginia by land agents and railroad companies that wanted to sell the newcomers land. To entice them, they would write articles in publications about the good farming conditions in Virginia, Vlk wrote.
He reports that the Petersburg real estate firm Pyle and Dehaven started advertising to Czechs as early as 1888 and that the Norfolk and Western Railroad Co. also contributed through a guide written by F.H. Labium, an agricultural agent.
Czech language newspapers in the late 1800s were also responsible for attracting newcomers to the area, he said.
Immigration slowed after World War I when Czechoslovakia was established, and when U.S. immigration laws tightened, according to Vlk.
The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the National Origins Act of 1924 both limited how many immigrants could come from countries.
Historians know better than anyone that keeping the past alive is a matter of maintenance: The past must be carefully preserved, and the stories need to be told.
In Prince George the effort to do just that for the largely forgotten but important piece of county lore is gaining steam.
The centerpiece to the cultural renaissance in Prince George is a heritage center that could open as early as next year.
The Czech Slovak Center, which is part of the Prince George County Regional Heritage Center, will be in the old clerk’s building on the courthouse grounds.
“We want to be able to carry the (culture and heritage) for years to come for the descendants that will come after us,” Bowman said.
She said the exhibits at the new center will consist of donated items and some that are already in the collection.
The main goal, though, is to make sure future generations know what Czechs and Slovaks meant to the community, and to create a space where descendants can house their culture.
“It will tell the story of what it was to immigrate to this area and how important the family was, and their religion was and the other aspects of their culture,” she said.
“Even the music and the dance and the colorful costumes that they wore. Those things were all a very important part of their heritage which they have a great fear of losing as the future generations take over.”
Bowman said the Czechs and Slovaks played an vital role in Prince George and it’s important that the heritage is preserved or it could be lost to history.
“I would say with each generation you’re going to have some dilution of the flavor of the culture and the color of the culture, and I think that’s of great concern,” she said. “The family values of these folks, the tremendous religious values that they had … you’re seeing it’s not quite as important as it was at one time. They need a central place that will preserve this heritage and this culture.”
Last month, Virginia Czech/Slovak Historic Society took a major first step in bringing its community together when held its first heritage festival. It drew more than 1,000 people.
“We feel that our heritage has been very important in this area; it’s kind of been overlooked in the past,” Pearson said. “But there’s hasn’t been a real cohesiveness. … There’s not been a group effort to do things together, to celebrate our culture, traditions or heritage.”