Texas Town Preserves Czech History

Iconic Communities, On the Road, This Week in History
on January 21, 2001

In 1997, the state legislature made it official: West, Texasoften called West comma Texas to differentiate it from the region of western Texasis the Kolache Capital of the state. Then-Gov. George W. Bush signed the document which is prominently displayed in the town museum.

Wests 2,500 residents were pleased, but not surprised. After all, folks regularly drive more than 100 miles to West so they can gorge on the Czech delicacy, an oh-so-light pastry puff filled with fruit, cheese, or poppyseeds.

Weve taken a Czech tradition and made it a Texas tradition, explains Wendel Montgomery, who opened the Village Bakery in 1952. For more than 30 years it was the only kolache-making establishment in West; now there are five. But even with the competition, Montgomery, whose recipes are adapted from those of his Czech mother-in-law, sells 2,700 of his sweet pastries on an average weekday and an additional 900 or so on Saturdays.

Czechs flooded into central Texas during the late 19th century because America was the Land of Opportunity, says Eugene Maroul, owner of The Czech Glasshouse, which specializes in hand-cut Bohemian crystal. Texas had plenty of land, and that appealed to Czechs, who were mostly poor farmers.

West coalesced into a town as a rail stop in 1883 when the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad reached central Texas. Named after a local businessman, Thomas M. West, the town grew rapidly. Gradually, some of the Czech newcomers began opening shops in townmeat markets, restaurants, and bakeries. West became a town where Tex-Czech culture thrived.

Today, at least 75 percent of the population can trace its family back to the former Czechoslovakia. (In 1992, Czechoslovakia peacefully split into two countries: Slovakia and the Czech Republic.) It seems like everyone around here is related to everyone else, says Czech-by-marriage Carol Bajer, president of Wests Chamber of Commerce.

The construction of Interstate 35 in the 1960s, the major route between Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio, made rail stops in small towns unnecessary. The old depot closed. Today, it has been reopened as a museum, and the trains10 to 15 a dayrumble through without stopping.

This is just fine with most Westonians. It preserves the small-town feel, and that makes it easier to preserve our heritage, says Maggie Grmela, who has turned her fabric shop into a virtual museum of Czech culture. An antique dance dress stands at the entrance; behind are samples of the costumes Grmela designs, hand-produces, and sells to folk dancers throughout the country.

The costumes tell stories, she says. A wreath of flowers in a girls hair says shes single; a bonnet says shes married. The colors of the clothing and ribbons tell which region people come from. The costumes from Moravia, for example, are the most colorful and elaborate.

In 1976, Grmela organized The Czechoslovakian Folk Dancers of West. The group, which now consists of 20 adults and 15 children, has performed throughout Texas and Oklahoma, at Floridas Disney World andin a trip no participant will ever forgetin Czechoslovakia.

Every Labor Day they perform at the local Westfest, a spectacular celebration of all-things Czech that draws as many as 40,000 people. The community begins preparing for the event in early summer. People fill their freezers with home-baked pastries, build floats, and refurbish booths where theyll sell all sorts of crafts and Czech taste-treats.

They plan kolache-baking contests and taroky tournaments (played with a special deck of cards), as well as demonstrations of jobs performed by the early settlers, such as corn grinding and rope making. Everybody gets involved, Grmela says.

Barbara Bartyzel Nelson, who lives in Phoenix, comes to West as often as she can, especially during Westfest. The dancing and music are terrific, but what I really like is the small-town atmosphere. You can tell that people worked hard to get everything ready, but you can also tell that they enjoyed it. Theres a smile on everybodys face.

We do enjoy it, says Bajer. People in West have a real sense of community pride.