Fall in love with Lowell

Lowell area offers abundance & variety

One entire chapter in my memoir “Greenwich Meridian” is dedicated to me living and working in Lowell. It is called Emma Palova, the journalist, because my daughter is also Emma Palova.

My husband Ludek Pala and I moved to Lowell in August 1995 after living in Kentwood suburb for two years. Today many people still ask me, “How did you end up in Lowell?”

“It’s a long story,” I answer as we sit down and talk.

That afternoon, long time ago,  we drove down Main Street. I immediately fell in love with the charming town. There was no Riverwalk yet, and the Lowell chamber office was located in the tiny white building on the east end of town. I remember talking to director Liz about basic information on the town.

A colorful block on Main Street Lowell.
A colorful block on Main Street Lowell.

We walked into Reedy Realty looking for land or a house. The Flat River Antique Mall still existed with its soda fountain, and instead of Flat River Grill there was the Swan Café. I think Flat River Cottage was located inside what is today Main Street Inn.

I liked everything about the town including Springrove Variety and Larkin’s had their saloon door, way before the modern street façade. There was a Spartan grocery store Family Fare just big enough not to get lost in it.

We found land in Vergennes Township and built a house not far from the Franciscan Sisters. I think at the time the railroad track was to a certain point functional.

My son Jakub Pala went through the Lowell Area Schools system from Cherry Creek Elementary third grade to Lowell High School. He played soccer under coach Pala.

Lowell is home to a strong arts organization Lowell Arts! Artsy knits wrap around trees.
Lowell is home to a strong arts organization Lowell Arts! Artsy knits wrap around trees.

When my mother Ella first visited with us, she said Lowell looked like a “cowboy village” recalling her first years in the country in Hawkins, Texas in the seventies.

“This looks like Hawkins,” she said.

I liked the quaint atmosphere of the Lowell area mainly the Fallasburg Park with the Covered Bridge and the historic pioneer village. I visited the one-room school-house many times, most recently right before my trip to Europe.

My love for history led me to explore many area historical sites and museums. Compared to Europe, the museums and history here in North America are young. One of the oldest bridges in Prague made of stone, the Judita bridge, dates back to the sixth century.

I’ve seen and written about all the special exhibits at the Lowell Area Historical Museum including the most recent and my favorite one, “Real to Reel.” The town has a strong Lowell Arts! Organization that puts on many exhibits, concerts, and theatre plays by Thebes Players.

Riverwalk with Showboat with pedestrian area on the banks of the Flat River. Summer concerts are held here.
Riverwalk with Showboat with pedestrian area on the banks of the Flat River. Summer concerts are held here.

The Englehardt Library was constructed with monies from the Englehardt Foundation. Overall Lowell has been fortunate to have many philanthropists and community foundations that enable community projects such as farmland preservation.

I love the architecture of Main Street, its buildings with front and back door entrances. That differs a lot from European towns and villages. Most European towns and cities have squares with fountains or monuments in the middle. The buildings usually have one front entrance only.

However, there are some similarities such as many towns and cities in Czech Republic also sit on the banks of rivers. They do have promenades like Lowell has the Riverwalk. Prague even has several botels on the Moldau River, which are floating hotels on boats, but they don’t have a Showboat.

Old Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce office on the east end of town.
Old Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce office on the east end of town.

Today, as I took photos for my EW Emma’s Writings online journal blog to show my friends in Czech Republic how we live, I realized how fortunate we are.

From the artsy knit work on the trees in downtown to the Pink Arrow Pride t-shirts, the town has a lot to offer. We patronize all the businesses in Lowell. My future daughter-in-law Maranda will have a baby shower at the beautifully renovated Main Street Inn.

I love the Summer Sizzlin’ concerts, just as much as I love the Fallasburg Fall Festival, (FFF) for the Arts, FallFest Bluegrass, Harvest Celebration along with the chili cook-off. The annual chili-cook off held in mid October is sponsored by Larkin’s Pub, and it is held on Broadway Street in downtown Lowell. Larkin’s Other Place serves as a venue for plays by Thebes Players complete with a dinner theatre. For this year’s repertoire and schedule for FFF check out the Lowell Arts! website at http://www.lowellartsmi.org

Larkin's pub on Main Street in Lowell. Larkin's Other Place next door hosts plays by Thebes Players.
Larkin’s pub on Main Street in Lowell.

Each year in September, the town decks its lampposts with posters and pink shirts commemorating cancer victims. The Pink Arrow Pride project in its sixth year raises money and forces against cancer. For the annual football game that takes place at the Red Arrow Stadium both the players and spectators dress in pink. This year the game will be held on Sept. 6.

It is the hottest game of the season.

Lowell is surrounded by two townships, Lowell Township and Vergennes Township. The high school along with the stadium is located in Vergennes Township.

Other area attractions include a charming bed & breakfast Witt’s Inn in Vergennes Township completely remodeled with a wedding barn. It is nestled among apple orchards.

Red Arrow Stadium at the Lowell High School annually hosts the Pink Arrow Pride.
Red Arrow Stadium at the Lowell High School annually hosts the Pink Arrow Pride.

Among the many interesting churches in the area is the Vergennes United Methodist Church constructed in 1864. It is a simple clapboard structure reminiscent of buildings on the East Coast.

The Franciscan Life Process Center holds their annual Harpfest in mid August. The center has many arts and music programs.

And then of course, there are the trail systems and Lowell is at their crossroads. I can’t wait to hit the Frederick Meijer Flat River Trail from our place to town or to Belding.

The trails have been in the making for the last six to 10 years due to hard work of many involved volunteers.

So, as the years roll by, I learn to appreciate more and more the rural area we live in with all that it has to offer.

American Midwest has its own magic with the changing seasons, and the changing colors. When I first found out that people do color tours here, I could not believe it. Now, I understand the beauty of  the American fall.

Vergennes United Methodist Church and Vergennes Township hall. Vergennes & Lowell townships surround the city of Lowell.
Vergennes United Methodist Church and Vergennes Township hall. Vergennes & Lowell townships surround the city of Lowell.

Precincts 1&2 vote at the township hall and at the Methodist Church.

The Main Street Inn is the only hotel in Lowell with seven rooms and large meeting spaces. It has been totally remodeled in the space where a hotel used to stand.

Main Street Inn in downtown Lowell overlooking the Flat River.
Main Street Inn in downtown Lowell overlooking the Flat River.

Copyright © 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova

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Mom’s birthday

Mom’s birthday marks end of summer

My memoir “Greenwich Meridian” is dedicated to my mother Ella Konecny of Big Rapids, Michigan. Out of the entire immigration saga now spanning three generations, she was the one who suffered the most.

“Immigration is a lot of give and take,” she said in an interview in Venice, Florida in March.

Today as she celebrates her birthday, I recall the summer birthdays of the past in former Czechoslovakia.

Mom Ella Konecny, the pharmacist
Mom Ella Konecny, the pharmacist

After returning from Texas on presidential amnesty in 1973, we spent most of our summers at grandparents’ old house in Vizovice, region of Moravia in former Czechoslovakia. The old dwelling was called a “chalupa,” which has nothing to do with the Mexican food.

“I wanted to go home to help my parents,” mom said in a recent interview in Venice, Florida.

Mom was working at the pharmacy in then regional capital Gottwaldov, while we were living the country life on the streets of Vizovice. At first I wasn’t too happy about leaving behind the American lifestyle.

Back in Hawkins, we had a car, dad’s university apartment, and a coke machine at the Junior High School. I was not only on the honor roll, but also on the basketball and softball teams. I played the flute at the time, later the clarinet. I had dreams bigger than this world.

Coming home to Czechoslovakia was a shock. I couldn’t name the months of the year in Czech, I didn’t know Russian or geometry. So, mom entered me in seventh grade instead of eighth at the local 1st through 9th grade school in Stipa.

The school in comparison to USA was very strict and a lot more difficult. I thought the teachers were mean. My aunt and classroom teacher Martha had to tutor me.

But, I loved the summer breaks at the “chalupa” in Vizovice. By the time August rolled around, I was tanned and hardened by the streets. We spent all our time on street Krnovska in Vizovice playing whatever and with who ever was available.

Moravian dwelling called "chalupa."
Moravian dwelling called “chalupa.”

I started a street club with friend Zdena who was the treasurer. I remember exploring along the banks of the river Lutoninka. The river had a weir, and for many years we swam in its cold waters. My grandpa Joseph poached on the river catching fish with his bare hands.

Every year when August 23rd approached, grandma Anna gave me a 20-crown bill, usually late in the afternoon.

“Go and buy a gift for your mother,” she said. “It’s her birthday.”

I grabbed the money and proudly marched into town passed the tobacco/jewelry shop close to the grade school. I’ve always loved window shopping. In awe, I admired the crystal glasses and other famous Czech crystal and garnets.

Sometimes, I would just walk into the shop and buy a newspaper and linger around so I could smell the tobacco. Therein are the origins of my love for newspapers.

When I finally made it across the bridge to the general store called “U Kaluzu” ( “By the puddle,” ) I was fascinated by all the merchandise.

The store pitched atop the river bank had everything.

Many decades later, I was surprised to find a small organizer sewing basket at my parents’ condo in Venice.

“Mom you still have this?” I asked. “I got this for you ages ago in Vizovice.”

“I know,” she said. “And I kept it.”

Happy birthday, mom.

Copyright © 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova

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Prague Spring ’68 spurred immigration

Thousands left former Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of Soviet invasion

As Czech and Slovak republics approach the 45th anniversary of the Prague Spring invasion of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops on Aug. 21, I continue to work on my memoir “Greenwich Meridian.”

The memoir tracks the history and present of our family immigration saga which now spans three generations. It was directly spurred by the Soviet invasion in 1968 also known as Prague Spring.

Like many other Czech expatriates living around the world, our family left the country as a result of the Soviet occupation of former Czechoslovakia.

Soviet tanks invaded the streets of major cities in former Czechoslovakia.
Soviet tanks invaded the streets of major cities in former Czechoslovakia.

Here is an excerpt from the second chapter of the memoir titled:

On the run

The 1968 Prague Spring was looming over Czechoslovakia. On August 21st, the country was invaded by Soviet tanks from the East and the armies of the Warsaw Pact. Hundreds of tanks roared all over the country in the full- blown invasion that impacted an entire generation of immigrants to the US, Germany, Canada and Australia. The country was occupied, and the Russians set up bases both in Slovakia and in the Czech part. The Russians were out to punish the Czechoslovak liberal government for creating “socialism with human face.” The movement was led by Alexander Dubcek, and late president Vaclav Havel was part of a signatory group called Charta 1968. A series of reforms were meant to ease restrictions on media, free speech and travel.

          At the time of the occupation, my mother was on a spa stay in Carlsbad in Western Bohemia, a famed town known for its 12 healing springs.

          “I went to the colonnade in the morning,” mom said. “People were crying, listening to the radio. There were huge demonstrations, as people knocked down statues of the communist leaders.”

          Mom had to stay three more days, because the roads were closed due to tanks. Then she took a detour bus through Sumava to Brno.

          “We had a new apartment in Brno, but I left for Vizovice to be with my parents,” she said.

          There was no telephone connection, according to mom. But, the borders were open for anyone to leave freely.

          “ My friends were leaving the country, crossing the border on foot with just a suitcase in their hands,” she said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere.”

 

Copyright © 2013 story by Emma Palova

PlumFest in Vizovice aka Trnkobrani

PlumFest in Vizovice, Czech Republic features contest in eating plum dumplings

Every year at the end of August, my mom’s native town of Vizovice in Czech Republic celebrates a big plum extravaganza that lasts three days. The annual PlumFest traditionally attracted thousands of people because of its free-spirited nature.

We stayed at my grandparents’ summer house at Krnovska 111. My grandpa Joseph called the old house a ranch, which was a stretch of imagination but it stuck.

Classic plum brandy known as slivovice.
Classic plum brandy known as slivovice.

I always invited a lot of friends for the festival from the secondary school in Zlin. So, the three days were a big party inside and outside all over the town. We picked up those who didn’t know where ranch was at the local train station.

Grandpa always looked forward to the PlumFest as much as we did, because he liked to party with us. I only remember him once really getting angry at us, and that was when someone on a Saturday night locked us up and threw the key to the ranch inside a rubber shoe. The next morning that person didn’t remember a thing, and just jumped out the window to catch the first bus.

The rest of us didn’t know where the key was, so we couldn’t let grandpa in. Grandpa thought we just didn’t want to let him inside his own home.

“Let me in you hooligans,” he pounded on the door.

Other than that incident, everything always went smooth. The program usually consisted of different bands including at the time famous band Olympic in the evening.

The town is also home to well-known comedian and mime Borek Polivka, and he quite often made a cameo appearance.

But, mainly Vizovice is known for the famous liquor company Jelinek that makes plum brandy. Plum brandy is exported around the world, and can be easily recognized by the plums on the vignette. Plum brandy also called slivovice was presented as a gift at the Heritage Mass at St. Cyril’s last week at the Czech Harvest Festival in Bannister, Michigan.

Contest in eating plum dumplings in Vizovice.
Contest in eating plum dumplings in Vizovice.

The major event on Sundays was the plum dumpling eating contest. Brave men sat at a long table on the stage. Assistants brought out plates with batches of 20 dumplings at a time. The rest of us cheered them and encouraged them to eat more.

One champion ate 60 plum dumplings, and then received a certificate and a paid  hot dog at the local establishment. I never found out if he ate the hot dog. He could hardly stand up from the table.

The tradition of the PlumFest continues to this day. It takes place at the Jelinek liquor company, and it has been shortened to two days. So, if you want to test your eating capabilities, the contest in plum dumpling eating is this year on Saturday, Aug. 24 at 1 p.m. on Starobrno Stage.

For more information on the  PlumFest go to: www.vizovicketrnkobrani.cz

Note: I published a recipe for cream cheese fruit dumplings on my facebook. I will also put it on my author’s page. Even though they’re sweet, they are not considered to be a dessert.

 

Copyright © story and photo by Emma Palova

 

 

Czechs in Bannister, Michigan

Czech tradition lives on in new country

I went to a traditional Czech costumed wedding called “veselka” approximately 30 years ago. It was in a castle in the small town of Holesov. The bride Miroslava was 17 and the groom was 27. His name was Vojtech and he was from the region where these customs originate right on the border of Moravia and Slovakia.

Czech dances in Bannister, MI in traditional costumes custom made in Czech and Slovak republics.
Czech dances in Bannister, MI in traditional costumes custom made in Czech and Slovak republics.

By Czech standards it was a huge wedding of close to 100 people. They had a classic polka band with accordions and trumpets. The acoustics in the castle were amazing.
The men wore hats called “burinka,” embroidered vests with ribbons on them. The women had festive costumes and small caps on their heads. After years I finally remembered the significance of the cap as opposed to a wreath from fresh flowers on younger women. The cap signifies that a woman is married, while the women with fresh flowers are single.
Many years later, as I watched the dancers in Bannister this past Sunday, listened to the accordions, enjoyed Czech food, and checked out the old paintings in ZCBJ Lodge in the middle of nowhere, I admired the people behind this event. Most of them have never been in Czech Republic let alone at a classic “veselka.”

The men carry ladies up in a traditional Czech dance.
The men carry ladies up in a traditional Czech dance.

What they have recreated, preserved and continue to carry on to next generations is more than triumphant. I can safely say that most people in the old country don’t know how to dance polka, czardas, or mazurka. The Czech Harvest in Bannister is a testimony that human spirit will always prevail.

According to  the chairman of the festival Tom Bradley’s “Pamatnik” published for the 100th anniversary of the ZCBJ Lodge in 2011,the Czechs and Slovaks immigrated to Central Michigan around 1904 from Chicago and Cleveland. They were recruited to work the sugar beet fields. Eventually they worked on their own farms. And the recruiters had to look for different workers from big cities.

Copyright © 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova

Cucumber season

The story behind Czech pickles

My parents Ella & Vaclav Konecny have always had a cucumber patch here in Michigan. When they came to the United States four decades ago, they did not like American pickles because either they were too sour, too sweet or both.

Coming from the Moravian region in Czechoslovakia which produces one of the best canning goods around, they decided to take the matter into their own hands. They had a recipe from Czech Republic, so they put it to use.

Ella Konecny with flagship sweet and sour pickles.
Ella Konecny with flagship sweet and sour pickles.

The real big deal annually was the fact that during the ripening season of cucumbers, they would leave for vacation. It was either left up to us to pick the cucumbers, and leave them in the fridge to be canned. Later, they switched their vacationing habit to accommodate the almighty cucumber. At their peak, they made hundreds of jars of pickles that they usually gave away. Most recently, they took an entire box of pickles to Florida.

When my mom had a surgery with her back three years ago, the pickling task was up to us. I canned before but never quite as much. Living up to their expectations hasn’t always been easy, but this was a very definite challenge. Since then, my husband and I have developed a knack for canning to the point of loving it. Even though my back is killing me, and I probably should be writing another chapter in my memoir, I still like the down to earth business of canning. I have expanded from Czech pickles to gardinieras, marinaras and salsas. The biggest surprise is yet ahead.

I like the joy of making a true Czech American product in my own backyard.

Follow me on my blog, I will be broadcasting live this Sunday from Czech Harvest in Bannister.

Copyright © 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova

Preserving Czech traditions in United States

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.

Czech folk dances during the Harvest Festival in Bannister.
Czech folk dances during the Harvest Festival in Bannister.

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.

Czech festive fair, pork roast, sauerkraut, dumplings & golden lager.
Czech festive fare, pork roast, sauerkraut, dumplings & golden lager.

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..”

Czech cookbook and Czech jewelry sold at the festival.
Czech cookbook and Czech jewelry sold at the festival.

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

Czech classic pick

A Czech classic pick of berries

Czechs love to pick anything and on anyone. That’s what I like about the legacy of my predecessors.

I have fond memories of picking currant as a child along with my brother Vas in my uncles’ garden in the Moravian town of Vizovice. The summers were hot, and the small berries were ripe right around mid July. We spent all our summer breaks at grandma and grandpa’s house.

Red currant bush. The berries contain the most vitamin C.
Red currant bush. The berries contain the most vitamin C.

“You have to go and pick currant for the pie,” said grandma Ann.

“But, we don’t want to,” we both whined. “It’s just too hot.”

There was no fooling about it. We had to go, if we wanted to eat. We crawled up the hill to uncles’ garden. The bushes were huge. We each had a pale, and whenever I wasn’t watching, Vas stole the small berries from my pale and put it in his. I slapped him on his hand. I was sweating like a pig.

“What are you doing, pick your own,” I was upset.

I wanted to go out on the street Krnovska and play with the rest of the gang. The tiny berries were getting on my nerves. They were sour, and they left red stains on my shirt.

To make things worse, my brother kicked my pale and the berries rolled into the grass.

“You fool,” I slapped him again.

We started fighting in the heat of the day. I could hear from the cellar just a few feet away, the berries in a barrel fermenting. Not only did the family bake and cook using currant, the uncles also made currant wine. When I got married a few years later, I was surprised that my mother-in-law Julie also made currant wine.

Bubble cake with red currant berries.
Bubble cake with red currant berries.

“You make that too?” I asked annoyed. “Who picks the currant?”

“You will,” she laughed. “Luda said you love to do that.”

We grew three types of currant, the most common red, black and white. We also had gooseberries; bizarre looking greenish white fuzzy berries that were used for making fruit cocktail along with apples.

There’s a saying that Czechs love to pick just about anything. I am beginning to believe that. Every year, my mom and dad go picking blueberries on the farms in West Michigan near Holland and Muskegon. As a child, mom too was forced to pick wild blueberries in the woods near Vizovice. Now, she loves to pick them, and makes tons of products from blueberries.

When I couldn’t find currant in the stores here in US, I planted a red currant bush of my own some six years ago. This year, I added a black currant bush. As I meticulously picked the red berries sweating in the July heat, I thought about my childhood.  I could even smell the old sweat of yesteryear along with the new one.  There’s always something that we like to bring back from the past; something that somehow keeps us connected.

 

Copyright © 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova

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