Where Kolach Is King

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on May 27, 2007
An honor guard leads the Kolach Days parade through Verdigre, Neb.

Come early-June, Pete and Mary Pavlik can be found at their bakery in Verdigre, Neb. (pop. 486), working around the clock to make more than 6,000 kolaches—baked pastries of yeast dough and often fruit filling—in time for the town’s annual four-day celebration known as Kolach Days.

“We just keep making batches starting on Wednesday and on through Saturday,” says Mary, who owns Verdigre Bakery with her husband.

“Kolach is sort of a generic name for a sweet pastry,” Pete says. The local, circular kolaches, which are descended from Czech and Slovak desserts of Eastern Europe, are center-filled with cherries, apricots, prunes, poppy seeds or cottage cheese. Pete adds that, including the kolaches baked by church and civic groups, roughly 18,000 of the pastries are consumed by 5,000 attendees. Fitting, since Verdigre is the self-proclaimed Kolach Capital of the World.

The town’s Czech Federation began the celebration honoring Czech food and community spirit in 1939. It was held intermittently until the 1950s, when it became an annual event hosted by the Verdigre Improvement Club with the help of local organizations, youth groups and churches.

“It involves so many different people from different walks of life and of different ages,” says Kathy Masat, 63, who has volunteered at the event for nearly 30 years.

Scheduled June 7 to 10, Kolach Days brings an international flavor to the town with polka music, dances, variety shows, a parade, alumni gatherings and, of course, kolaches. “Many of the events are fund-raisers for groups around town,” Masat says, noting that the kolach-eating contest, sponsored by Verdigre High School students, is a crowd favorite.

Masat’s great-grandfather was among the early Bohemian immigrants who settled on land in the scenic valley along the Verdigris Creek in the 1870s. Today, Verdigre, which was platted in 1887, offers wide, tree-lined avenues nestled along lush, wooded hills that residents call the Czech or Bohemian Alps.

David Shrader, president of the Verdigre Heritage Museum’s board of directors, is proud to show off his town’s heritage at the community museum, which is a popular attraction during Kolach Days. “The part I like most is visiting with people who come back to the event year after year,” Shrader says. Museum volunteers present a diverse group of exhibits, ranging from Czech heritage displays to a working gristmill and inventory from an old general store.

Kolach Days also is a celebration of the dogged determination of Verdigre residents. When the town’s bank closed at the height of the 1980s farm crisis, Verdigre was thrust into the national limelight as local churches started a food pantry for families and a feed pantry for farmers who couldn’t afford to feed their animals. A brightly painted billboard on the side of a grocery store says, “Verdigre’s future depends on you,” reminding locals of their self-reliant tradition.

Haley Zimmer, last year’s Kolach Queen, relishes the determination and heritage of her community. Donning traditional Czech attire, she was honored to ride in the Kolach Days parade. Zimmer says she recognized kids that she used to baby-sit waving to her from the crowd lining the parade route. Verdigre is like that, says Zimmer. “You know everybody.”

And everybody knows the town’s favorite pastry, too. “We all grew up with kolaches,” Masat says. “My grandmother would bake a big batch and call us up to come over and eat them hot. It’s been something we’ve handed down through generations. And it’s always been symbolic of our celebration.”