|The ZCBJ Hall being built in 1910.|
The building was erected between 1909 and 1911 by J.P. Shavlik at a cost of $3,739.35. Above the front entrance are the initals ZCBJ, which stand for Zapadni Cesko Brauska Jednoty. When translated from Czech, the title roughly means
“Western Bohemian (or Czech) Fraternal Lodge.” The ZCBJ was a fraternal organization that originally required its members to be of Czech descent. The phrase Rad Plzen, also displayed above the entrance, was the name of this particular lodge of the ZCBJ.
Stranik, the son of a Czech immigrant, remembers the lodge being the center of Morse Bluff social life when he was a youth.
“It was kind of a big thing then,” he said. “There wasn’t much (socially) outside of church meetings and the lodge there. They didn’t have PTA meetings and all that like they do now.”
Some of the families in the rural areas might only make it to town a couple of times a month, so the lodge meetings were met with great anticipation from adults and kids alike. Even winter didn’t cool the enthusiasm.
“When I was a kid there used to be a big coal and wood furnace in that (northwest) corner,” Stranik said. “You’d burn up in that corner and over here you’d be freezing.”
A pot luck dinner preceded the meeting, with card playing following.
“Always after the meeting there was card playing,” Stranik said. “That was standard.”
On June 16, 1940, English replaced Czech as the official language of the Morse Bluff ZCBJ.
The hall also hosted programs and graduation ceremonies of Morse Bluff school district 14 until the school got its own stage. A trap door in the stage of the ZCBJ hall leading to a small basement was used by the performers.
The ZCBJ evolved into the Western Fraternal Life Association, a fraternal life insurance organization. The WFLA still has about 245 members today, though many of them no longer live in the area. Eventually, the decline in active membership made it difficult for the WFLA to maintain the lodge building.
“For meetings as a kid I remember we would get 40, 50 people and we’d have a pot luck and play cards afterwards,” Stranik said. “They used to have dances. Now we get a meeting and we have 8, 10, 12 people.”
Some lodge members wanted to sell the building or use it as storage. It was decided to give the lodge to the American Legion, whose own hall sat just south of the ZCBJ hall on the same block. The Legion’s hall was small and inadequate, so a compromise that benefited both organizations was reached.
In 2001, the Legion took over ownership of the hall, with the WFLA retaining the right to use the building as long as the organization exists in Morse Bluff.
The Legion was happy to have a new home, but the building needed major renovations. It had no heating or cooling, no kitchen and still had outhouses as its only restroom facilities.
Over the course of a few years the Legion installed a new roof, new furnace and air conditioner, and added an wing to the southwest corner of the building that houses a kitchen and indoor restrooms. A false ceiling was removed and the original metal ceiling was repaired and painted silver.
Morse Bluff American Legion Commander Galen Johnson said his group couldn’t be happier with the building.
“It’s probably one of the nicest Legion Halls around, as far as the ambience and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears went into it, but it’s something we can all be proud of. We get a lot of compliments on it.
“It’s a glorious building. It really is.”
The last remaining phase of renovation is the building’s windows. Johnson estimated that replacing all the lodge’s windows would cost roughly $16,000. He said it is important to the Legion that the new windows blend in with the building’s historic look and feel.
Today the 100-year old building is still the center of Morse Bluff social life. The hall is regularly rented out for parties, prenuptial dinners, reunions, weddings and wedding receptions. Two of the busiest weekends for the lodge is over Old Setters, when one or two classes might hold reunions there, and NBC graduation weekend. Johnson said the hall is booked for graduation parties through 2012.
Stranik can still climb the balcony stairs he used to scramble up as a kid, though he now moves a little slower and uses the assistance of a cane. Once he’s up on the balcony he is able to survey with pride the same room he used to look over as a kid.
“I’m sure all the old-timers would be really happy to see this place now,” he said, “They’d be glad to see that it got saved and that it will be here for quite a while yet.”
No doubt that appreciation would be expressed in Czech.
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