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Crowd rebounds for Czech festival

Dancing, sausages and Bohemian beer celebrate immigrants who settled in the Klamath Basin
Sunday, February 26, 2006

MALIN -- The word was out across the lower Klamath Basin that this could be the final year to gather for spicy Czech sausage and Bohemian beer.

Every year, fewer people come to celebrate and remember the Czech immigrants who came here early in the 20th century from Chicago, Nebraska and elsewhere to put the plow to the rich Tule Lake bottomlands.

A band of about 60 settlers was drawn by a colonization project sponsored by a Bohemian agricultural magazine, Hodspoda. They named their settlement Malin after a Czech city that suggested "wonderful country, a paradise where crops never fail," according to an account by the Klamath County Historical Society.

"It was nothing but jackrabbits and sagebrush then," said Joe Victorine, 79, whose grandparents paid $35 an acre plus 8 percent interest for 80 acres in 1909. His son, David, still grows alfalfa, wheat and barley nearby.

The settlers built Bohemian Hall, and, as the historical society says, "on Saturday nights brought their families, stowed sleepy children on benches or against the walls, and danced and sang."

While Malin has the only Czech lodge left in the state, attendance has dwindled at the annual party called Jaternice -- named for the homemade pork sausage. It hit a peak crowd of about 350 people 30 years ago, but by last year had fallen to less than half that, Victorine said.

Malin reflects the change. The town's tumbleweed main street today has scant evidence of its Bohemian beginnings. There's just a fading mural on the side of the post office showing dancers clad in Bohemian folk costumes called "kroje" and a hardware store sign that reads both "closed" and "zavreno," the Czech equivalent.

Malin, population 800, also has fewer Czechs. "I don't imagine there are 30 full-blooded Czechs left," said Victorine, president of the local lodge. "Most of them are old or have kicked the bucket." Census figures from 2000 show that 54 percent of the town is Hispanic.

Even the Jaternice dinner is no longer served in Malin. It started here in 1960 but moved five years ago to the home economics hall at the Tulelake-Butte Valley Fair grounds in nearby Tulelake, Calif.

That's where those who still claim Czech heritage or who just like good food gathered a week ago to feast on the garlic-heavy sausages, apple strudel, warm sauerkraut and, this being the Klamath Basin, potatoes.

Victorine introduced a performance of the Czech national dance and held a microphone to a small tape player to amplify a scratchy recording of traditional music.

Among the dancers were four of Victorine's grandchildren, the girls dressed in red skirts and frilly white shirts, the boys in red vests and yellow sashes.

"If you look around, there aren't many people my age," said 16-year old Whitney Tofell, sitting with her father, Russ, who has been coming to Jaternice off and on since he was a child.

But there were plenty of others, an overflow crowd of 225 that sent volunteers to find more folding chairs.

The turnout was enough to give hope that the festivities might continue next year. "It was such a busy one," said Mary Victorine, Joe's wife and co-organizer. "I don't think we dare not to."

Matthew Preusch: 541-382-2006; preusch@bendbroadband.com




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