Peter Leih, Guest Columnist
The names are familiar to anyone who bikes, walks, drives or lives in and around the southern Hopkins and Minnetonka area, Smetana, Dominick, Feltl, Dvorak, and Bren, amongst others. We’ve seen and been on the roads that bear these names, but where did these names come from and who were they? These names were some of the early European families to settled and made their new homes in the area. They were the Czechs and Bohemians who were fleeing the Austrian Empire and making a community in Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie that would help establish the early roots of the area, while cementing their names into our local history.
In the 19th Century, the Austrian Empire was one of the great powers of Europe. A multinational empire, built on the foundations of the recently dissolved Holy Roman Empire following the Napoleonic campaigns of the early 1800s, the empire covered vast tracts of Central Europe, including the Kingdom of Bohemia and the Czech regions.
An absolute monarchy, the Austrian Empire was relatively stable, near stagnant, through force and strict censorship of education, press and speech to repress opposition, however 1848 saw uprising and revolution, creating for a volatile environment of political and social tension. Though these revolutions were violently extinguished, the ruling class was forced to allow a more free society, including expanded freedom of movement and the abolition of serfdom. In the wake of these new reforms, many Czechs and Bohemians left their homes to immigrate across the Atlantic to the United States.
The first of these Bohemian immigrants to southwest Hennepin County were Joseph Prib (Przib) and Francis Pesek (Peshek) and who settled an area near the southern end of Shady Oak Lake. Pesek was so impressed with the area and both its natural beauty and abundance of resources, including farmland, he quickly wrote to his friends and family in Europe to encourage their emigration as well, beginning the foundations of the tightly knit community of Czechs in the area.
Joseph Smetana came to the Hopkins area in 1855 and was a land tenant, on what was to become the Hennepin County Home, also known as the Poor Farm, on the south side of Hopkins. Smetana was later to purchase 80 acres of mostly wooded land near the southeast corner of Shady Oak Lake. At a time when the first business of settling an area was to clear the land, Smetana was reportedly asked why the Czech settlers were attracted to such heavily treed parcels; he replied that, in Bohemia, no one ever had enough wood. Only the wealthy and elite classes had access to the scant timber supply, so the trees here were seen as a benefit, rather than a disadvantage.
John Feltl and wife Josephine Dvorak left Bohemia in 1867. An unfortunate voyage found the family with nothing but a gun and the clothes they wore upon their arrival in Minneapolis. Not understanding the English language well, Feltl was taken advantage of at a land auction for a lot south of the Poor Farm, near where St. Mary’s Cemetery is today, which was not an uncommon experience for newcomers to the United States. The first Feltl home was a hole in the ground covered with hay. By selling the gun that survived the journey, the family made enough money for wood boards to build a small, one room house, which sadly, burned down not long after its construction. Despite these difficult times for the Feltls, they survived, and indeed flourished in the coming years. John developed a technique for overwintering raspberry canes that spared the plant from the harsh Minnesota winters, which became widely used by the Bohemian raspberry farmers in the area, some of the first early steps of Hopkins becoming the Raspberry Capital of the World.
Joseph and Frank Bren first arrived in the area prior to the U. S. Civil War. Joseph served in the Union army and for his service was granted land just south of Shady Oak Lake. Frank’s plots were on the west and north sides of Shady Oak Lake. In 1887, Frank donated a part of his land to help build the newly organized Bohemian Church, with Joseph on the first board of elders. When the needs of the church outgrew that original building, every timber that was still serviceable from the original building was reused in the construction of the new church, by this time known as the Bohemian Presbyterian Church. Sadly, this building was destroyed by fire in 1933, but the congregation rebuilt on the original building footprint, and in 1934, opened their third church building, which can still be found as Faith Hall at Faith Presbyterian Church on Excelsior Boulevard, where Czech language services were held well into the 1940s.
These short stories are just a small sampling of the people whose early experiences help make this area what it is today. Keen eyed observers can find more evidence of the early Bohemian community’s presence all around. Barefoot Valley and names like Dominick, Pokorny, Mashek, and Empanger, are only a few other examples of this rich Czech immigrant heritage all throughout Hopkins and Minnetonka. More information about the early European families and settlers in the Hopkins and Minnetonka area can be found by visiting the Hopkins Historical Society, at the Hopkins Activity Center, where copies of the book “Hopkins Minnesota: Through the Years” are available for purchase, as well as other memoirs, photographs and documents in the museum collection, including many books published in the original Czech language from some of these early families. More about the Society can be found at http://www.hopkinshistory.org/ or find the Hopkins Historical Society on Facebook or Twitter.
Peter Leih is a volunteer for the Hopkins Historical Society.