The North Bend Eagle


Tales from Old Morse Bluff - Part 2

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Six to eight weeks later, Helvetia unloaded its cargo at Castle Garden on the southern tip of Manhattan Island, New York. The Castle Garden processing center welcomed America’s European immigrants before the operation was moved to Ellis Island in 1892.

The Pabians checked in at Castle Garden on October 10, 1876.

Like the Hineses before them, the Pabians had to earn some money before settling down on their own land.

They first settled in Omaha where their blacksmith skills learned in Bohemia were put to use as laborers and machine operators.

Sometime between 1880 and 1885 the clan finally got their land. They traveled west from Omaha along the Platte River to a spot between present day Linwood and Schuyler where they could safely cross to the south side of the river. From there they backtracked east a little ways before finding their new home.

John Pabian homesteaded about four miles southwest of present-day Morse Bluff, with his brother Joe Jr. settling another mile to the west.

Their father, Joe Sr., made it as well. Though the date of his death is unknown, he is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, not too far from his family’s homestead. Presumably– though unmarked– his wife Dorota is buried by his side.

The land the Hineses and Pabians settled in is affectionately know as the Bohemian Alps, and for good reason. The area is very similar to the landscape they once looked across in Europe.

LandscapeBohemia Township, Saunders County, Nebraska

The northwest corner of Saudners county where the families transplanted their roots is now part of Bohemia Township.

On June 27, 1887, a new town was platted just east of the Hineses and Pabians. It was named Morse after Chester L. Morse, who owned the land that the town would sit on. Not coincidently, the Chicago Northwestern Railroad built a train line through Morse that same year. The line started in Omaha, and crossed to the south side of the Platte River just west of Fremont. It traveled through Morse Bluff on to Linwood, where it split with one line making its way to Hastings and the other to Superior.
In the early 1900s the town’s name was changed to Morse Bluff, so as not to be confused with another Morse on the Chicago Northwestern line.

Phone service reached Morse Bluff in 1904. In the early decades of telephones, several houses would be on one line, meaning if your neighbor was having a phone conversation, any other house on the line could pick up and listen in. Even into the middle part of the 20th Century, some people spoke Czech when using a party line to protect the privacy of their conversation. However, this tactic was often futile because most people on the line spoke Czech.

In 1910, Morse Bluff received the luxury of running water, which was followed in 1912 by electricity, pronounced “elesstricity” by the native Czech speakers who were trying to learn English.

Prohibition hit Morse Bluff and the rest of the nation in 1920. All shipments of alcohol had to be halted where they were until government agents could come get them.

One such barrel of booze was stranded at the Morse Bluff depot. One local resident, who was well known to enjoy the taste of a drink on a regular basis, sized up the situation and saw an opportunity.

The Morse Bluff depot sat on blocks without a basement or a foundation. So the man figured a drill would do the job nicely as the barrel sat on the station’s platform.

By the time the government agents came to collect the contraband alcohol, the barrel was mysteriously empty.

The social center of the area was Scott’s Lake, just east of Morse Bluff. The long, narrow lake was actually a dammed up stream fed by a spring.

In the late 1910s a dance hall was built beside the lake. During the summer, it hosted dances every Saturday night with local bands providing the music. The shutters over the windows would be raised, allowing the breeze to roll off the lake and flow through the hall. Soft light from paper Japanese lanterns filled the hall with a soft glow.

People who couldn’t afford the 50 cent admission stood outside and looked through the windows, still able to enjoy the music.

In the ‘30s and ‘40s John Vopalensky put on large fireworks displays at Scott’s Lake every Fourth of July. To help offset his costs, he charged a small admission fee to cross the bridge over the lake. Of course, some people just sat on the other side of the lake to watch the show, much to Vopalensky’s chagrin.

A merry-go-round and other carnival rides were often featured on the shores of Scott’s Lake. When it wasn’t hosting carnivals or dances, Scott’s Lake served as the local swimming hole, with kids on one side of the lake and cows on the other.

The lake was also useful in the wintertime, when men sawed blocks of ice and hauled them to one of Morse Bluff’s various ice houses. There the ice was packed with straw into huge holes in the ground, enabling the ice to stay frozen long enough to be used in the summer to keep the kitchen’s ice box cool.

Scott’s Lake wasn’t the only place Morse Bluff got together to dance. The village had many dance halls throughout the years.

One such place is the top floor of what is now the Wolf Sand and Gravel building standing east of the Post Office. Besides dances, the hall – sometimes know as the Morse Bluff Opera House – hosted Catholic church services from 1945 until St. George’s permanent church was built in 1955. It even acted as the local gymnasium, hosting various boxing and wrestling exhibitions. In the ‘30s and early ‘40s it also served as the home court for the Morse Bluff High School basketball team.

Morse Bluff High was established in 1900 when ninth and 10th grade was added. Students who wanted to continue their education beyond 10th grade finished their final two years of high school in North Bend.

The Morse Bluff Cardinals represented the school on the basketball court starting in 1930 until the outbreak of World War II brought a halt to most interschool competition. The Cardinals would play other area 10th grade high schools or the reserve teams from 12th grade high schools.

Another highlight of the ‘30s through ‘50s was the outdoor movies shown on Friday nights. Planks on cinder blocks would serve as seating in the area east of the small brick building now owned by Webster Well, across the street from the Walla Brothers building.

As to be expected, the Hines and Pabian lines eventually merged.

Born in 1931, Joan Hines Hruza is the great-great-granddaughter of both Josef Hines Sr., and Joe Pabian Sr. She grew up on the east end of Morse Bluff, east of the school.

“I joked one time when I was growing up that I was related to half the town and it was wonderful,” she said. “Then I started doing genealogy and I found out I must have been related to about 75 percent of the town.”

She remembers growing up during the Great Depression, but she said the gardens, livestock and general resourcefulness of area residents protected Morse Bluff from many of the era’s worst hardships.

“Everybody had so little,” Hruza said, “but we never ever felt poor, especially on the farm. I think still to this day most of the people in Morse Bluff would be pretty low on the income level, but I think about how good their quality of life is. Everyone has a really lovely home. I equate that to city life and I think how fortunate people in the small towns are. If you’d have that same income level in the city, it’d be slums and people waiting for checks from the government.”

Throughout the last century and a half, the Morse Bluff area has stayed true to its Czech roots. The Czech language was still spoken by a good number of second and third generation Americans, including Hruza’s father, Edward V. Hines.

That began to change around the time of World War II, when national pride put emphasis on being American rather than German, Russian, Czech or Italian. As a result, use of the old country languages started to fade out.

Traces of the Czech language haven’t disappeared altogether, Jerrine Racek said. She is also a descendant of the Pabian line, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Josef Pabian Sr.

“Even in my lifetime,” Racek said, “and I think it still holds true though maybe not as strong, you can go down (Highway 79) toward Prague and the dialect changes. There is a heavy Czech accent. They speak old school.”

Sometimes, the Czech pride would lead to fisticuffs.

“This was such a strong Czech settlement right here,” Hruza said, “and across the river was a strong Irish settlement (North Bend). This was a big deal. On Saturday nights they both drank a little too much beer and the Czechs would go over to the Irish and pick an fight, or the Irish would come over to Morse Bluff and pick a fight. This went on quite a while. The North Bend Irish would say that we were on the wrong side of the river, and the Czechs didn’t take that too kindly so they would always get into these big brawls. It was all in good fun, I’m sure.”

Now, 125 years after the founding of Morse Bluff, many of the names of those first pioneers are still prevalent in Nebraska’s Bohemian Alps. Joan Hroza said that fact was driven home when she visited her family’s ancestral home in central Europe.

“One thing we found when visiting the Czech Republic,” she said, “is that you see those same names. It’s just like they picked up the whole region and dumped all those families right here. The same names that are over there are over here.”

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