St. Wenceslaus church in New Prague
St. Wenceslaus church greets as one enters downtown New Prague.
I have always been drawn to towns that speak their history. So I decided one Saturday to explore New Prague. I had heard about the old Schumacher Hotel. And, of course, I figured the town must be Czech. Other than that, I didn’t know what I’d find when I made the 50-minute drive southwest from my home in St. Paul.
My first stop was Lau’s Czech Bakery (W. 121 Main St.) Doug and Patty Lau bought the business in 1989 from the Bilek family (who owned it for decades before moving to Hawaii). The Lau’s ancestors were German, but they kept the old Czech recipes alive—the pillowy kolacky, the donut-like koblihy. The place draws fans from all over, who come for a traditional treat or lunch. “We’ll get 1,200, 1,300 people today, probably,” Doug tells me.
Patty invited me into the back kitchen where Doug was busy preparing Monday morning’s items on a massive five-by-ten-foot oak workbench—the remaining piece of original equipment. Doug is a jovial guy who’s been in the bakery business his whole life. His first job as a teenager was cleaning at a bakery in his hometown of Janesville, Minnesota. He could blast his music as loudly as he wanted because the bakery manager was deaf. (The manager, who also couldn’t speak, communicated by tossing flour onto the workbench and writing in it with his finger.)
After loading up on poppy seed kolacky, apricot koblihy, and Bohemian dark rye bread to take home, I checked out the New Prague Library to soak up the town’s history. The New Prague Historical Society has a space there for rotating displays. And in the cozy Mary J. Tikalsky reading room, a six-by-six-foot stained glass window tells the story of the woman from her birth, which was to Bohemian parents on an American-bound ship in 1875, to her family’s success as farmers and merchants in New Prague. History buffs could spend a lot of time in this room, exploring books written in Bohemian; poring over a register of those buried in the town’s Catholic and Czech National cemeteries; and reading obituaries from the New Prague Times newspaper dating back to 1889, all indexed and available on microfiche.
The first settlers came to New Prague in 1855, but it wasn’t until after the Civil War that the larger waves began arriving, according to Dennis Dvorak, who heads the New Prague Historical Society. They had typical Bohemian names like Novak, Mikiska, Stepan, and Rybak (yes, like that Rybak). His wife, who is 67 and grew up here, had many classmates who did not speak English when they first came to school. “What’s interesting about these families is they’ve remained in this community. They have retained their language,” says Dvorak, who took me on a tour through the town. “They’ve retained their culinary characteristics.”
Courtesy New Prague Chamber of Commerce.
A drive through the Catholic cemetery, about three blocks north of St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church, revealed stone after stone inscribed with Bohemian words and names. A sign at the entrance gives translations. Here is where we came upon one of the buildings that Dvorak seemed most proud of: a small marble chapel with a copper dome, built in 1899, which stands over a number of priests’ burial crypts. “This is one of the most superlative pieces of architecture in the state of Minnesota,” he says. “It was supposed to have been a prototype of what the church was going to resemble.”
We headed over to Main Street. On the side of a circa-1896 brick building is the word “Lakarna,” meaning apothecary in Bohemian. It later became a butcher shop. Dvorak ticks off the past lives of other turn-of-the-century buildings: The tattoo parlor used to be a soft drink–bottling factory. The Prairie Pond Vineyard & Winery, which has a lovely, upscale atmosphere and gourmet menu, used to be a general store and later a furniture/mortuary business. (“You know, in the down time, you could bury bodies,” Dvorak says.) The 1897 Corner Bar building was, well, always a saloon.
At the west end of the commercial district is the hotel owned and run for more than 30 years by John Schumacher. Philanthropist Caroline Amplatz bought the 1898 property and began a sweeping restoration project in 2011. She has resurrected the original name, the Hotel Broz, with plans to reopen it as a hotel and restaurant this year.
Interior of Hotel Broz. Coutresy Hotel Broz
She consulted with Dvorak on the history and original design of the building. “There is not a doorknob or a window or a floor or a spoon or a glass that has not been thought about and handpicked,” she says. Local artisans have worked to make her vision a reality. “I just basically would come in and say, ‘This is what it needs to look like. Make it happen.’”
Amplatz herself has taken shopping trips to Prague, Florence, Paris, and other locales, and sent back container-loads of items: 34 crystal chandeliers, 50 chairs, and five tables from Prague; five or six 100-piece sets of shot glasses; French antiques; more chandeliers from Florence; rugs from Israel.
West of the Hotel Broz is the flour mill, built in the late 1890s, from which International Multifoods Corporation began. But certainly the most prominent structure in New Prague is St. Wenceslaus Church, an impressive red brick edifice built in 1906. The current pastor, Father Kevin Clinton, showed me inside, and let me in on some enticing tidbits about the church and the town as he showed off an architectural innovation of the time. The interior is unusual in that it is very wide, though it has no pillars; those are outside. “The trusses holding up the roof are made out of cast iron, not wood,” he says, “so they hold a lot more weight.”
He tells me that the first Bohemian immigrants to New Prague found that a German settler, Anton Philipp, had gotten there before them. Philipp was not necessarily inclined to welcome the newcomers, with their strange language and culture. But legend has it that when the Bohemians began to say grace before a meal, Philipp saw them make the sign of the cross and realized that they, too, were Catholic. His attitude changed.
The parish, like the town, grew mainly through the Bohemian influx. One of the stained glass windows of the church, part of a series of seven male saints, depicts Saint (King) Wenceslaus of Bohemia standing next to a priest, Saint John Nepomucene, who is holding a finger to his lips. The priest, Clinton says, has just heard the queen’s confession. The king wants to know what she said, but the priest isn’t going to spill. As punishment, the king throws him in the river.
I had hoped New Prague would have stories to tell. I wasn’t disappointed.
Emily Gurnon, a former Pioneer Press staff writer who covers health for Next Avenue, lives in St. Paul.