One of the best kept Czech secrets hides approximately 20 miles east of highway 127 amidst grain, corn fields and sugar beets in Central Michigan. Small farm houses sit on the flat farming land tucked away from the roads. The only noise is the wind whistling through the fields.
But, every year on the first Sunday of August, the small unincorporated village of Bannister, comes alive with polka music and traditional folk dances. The men and women put on traditional folk costumes and celebrate the Harvest Festival, in Czech known as Dozinky.
Most of the 100 people who live in Bannister are of Czech origin, and they have been looking forward to the celebration all year long.
Tom Bradley, dance troop leader, proudly polishes up his Russian dance shoes.
“A dancer is only good as his shoes,” he laughed.
Tom Bradley and his wife Dianne are at the head of preserving the century-old tradition of celebrating the wheat harvest with Dozinky. Dianne leads the kids in dancing to the music of accordionist Linda Quarderer.
The day starts with a polka mass at St. Cyril’s Catholic Church. The musicians just like the dancers wear authentic custom made costumes rich with embroidered ribbons. The church is decorated with Czech dolls in folk costumes and with harvest wreaths.
The hymns are arranged to polka music. The first time I heard the Czech hymns here deep in the Midwest fields, I had tears in my eyes. I realized what this small group of people, who has been far away from home for more than a century, was doing.
Yes, they were preserving something that is dying out back in the old country. Similar harvest celebrations in Czech Republic can be found only in tiny villages on the border of Moravia and Slovakia.
The center of all happenings is the ZCBJ Lodge, home of the Western Bohemian Fraternity. It is also the only building on Main Street that stands out. It has united the Czech immigrants for more than 100 years.
Right after the mass, the traditional Czech dinner is served both inside and outside the hall from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The food consists of ham and chicken, dumplings, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and gravy, and for dessert either kolache or poppy seed and apple turnovers.
I was amazed how authentically the ladies of the hall recreated a traditional Czech meal. Most of them have never set foot in the old country. But, the recipes have been handed down from generation to generation, much like the dance, and the music. The only thing that didn’t make it throughout the decades was the language.
The parade gathers in front of the ZCBJ hall, and it is led by both flag bearers and wreath bearers. The giant wreath has been made from wheat stalks and wild flowers. Other participants in the parade carry the ancient tools of wheat harvest, a scythe and a rake, adorned with ribbons.
The parade stops at the podium created from a decorated wagon with all three flags; Czech, USA and Slovak. Then the choir leader starts to sing the Czech & Slovak hymn;
“Kde domov muj, kde domov muj.
Voda huci po lucinach, bory sumi po skalinach………”
Translated it means:
“Where is my home, where is my home,
Water roars over the meadows, forests murmur over the rocks..”
The dancers range from two years of age to more than 60. They perform traditional folk dances in couples or in a circle around the maypole. They could make any true Czech turn green with envy. Czech songs accompany the performance.
In the heat of more than 90 fahrenheit, the women sport black stockings, several support skirts under the main one, fluffy three-quarter length sleeves, lace caps, and men and boys wear black hats and vests over fluffy shirts and baggy pants.
After the official performance, a polka band plays for the public to dance inside the hall. The hall itself is decorated with paintings of old Czech leaders like Jan Zizka and others.
The event this year will be held on Aug.4. The cost for the dinner is $10. Come early, it sells out. For info about the ZCBJ Lodge activities go to http://zcbjbannister.org/events_calendar html
Follow the blog for a video from the festival.
Copyright © 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova