Czech & Bohemian culture showcased in Houby Day tradition
For many years, the Czech community was Chicagoland’s most recognized cultural presence. As Chicagoland’s immigration makeup has expanded, the Czech community identity continues each year with the popular Houby Day Festival and Parade in Chicago’s West suburbs
By Ray Hanania
Much is made by the mainstream news media of some ethnic holidays such as St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day, Fiestas Patrias, and Bud Billiken Day, for example.
Television reports on these and other parades dominate the holidays’ weekends and the events receive major coverage.
But one ethnic holiday seems to have been forgotten, the Houby Day Festival, because the ethnic group it is associated with have been pushed to the back of the line of ethnic identity and activism.
Houby is the Czech/Slovak word for mushroom and symbolizes a common experience for many cultures, the Fall Harvest.
Czechs and Slovak came to Chicagoland in the middle of the 19th Century, consisting of people from the old Hapsburg Empire in Europe, a Roman Catholic community consisting of Czechs, Bohemians and Moravians.
These Czech immigrants settled on the near West Side of Chicago’s Loop, in a community they dubbed “Praha,” according to Czech historian and writer Frank S. Magallon. No one remembers the name Praha, but everyone remembers what happened there when, according to Chicago folklore, Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow knocked over a lantern starting the Chicago Fire there in the Fall of 1871.
The Czech and Bohemian community grew as Praha was rebuilt, and it transformed into Pilsen. Many people associate the name Pilsen with today’s large Mexican American community but in fact the name Pilsen is named after a city in Western Bohemia in the Czech Republic.
One of the main roads that cuts through Pilsen and served as the superhighway for the Western expansion of Chicago is 22nd Street, which years later was named in honor of a famous Czech mayor of Chicago.
Anton Joseph Cermak’s parents immigrated from the Czech Republic in 1874, and enjoyed a very successful career in Chicagoland politics, supported by the large Czech community. Cermak was alderman of Chicago’s 12th Ward, then the President of the Cook County Board, and then Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Organization. In 1931, in the wake of the Great Depression, Cermak was elected Chicago’s 34th Mayor, succeeding the controversial Mayor William Hale Thompson in a political war that divided the influential Irish and Czech communities.
During a visit by newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Chicago in February 1933, Mayor Cermak was shaking FDR’s hand when an gunman ran up and tried to kill the president.
No one knows for certain how it happened, but the gunman’s aim was thwarted when a woman knocked his arm when he fired. The bullet hit Cermak, according to reports. Although theories are abundant that Cermak was the real target, not FDR, because the Chicago Mayor was in the crosshairs of Al Capone’s Outfit.
Cermak died three weeks later from his wounds, or complications from Colitis, according to the often inaccurate rumor-filled Chicago newspapers. But not before he uttered his famous quote, “I’m glad it was me instead of you” – or maybe the quote was a creation of the mainstream tabloid news media which thrived in wild rumors and typewriter-crafted myths.
Cermak’s son-in-law, Otto Kerner Jr., became Illinois’ 33rd Governor. Cermak’s grandson, Frank Jirka, lost both legs during World War II and was a hero of the Battle of Iowa Jima. He became a doctor and served as president of the American Medical Association.
With Cermak’s death, and the increase of other immigrants into Chicago, the ethnic landscape of Chicago continued to change and the strong presence of the Czech’s was diluted.
Pilsen quickly transformed into a Mexican neighborhood of Chicago, and Czech’s continued to move west into Lawndale and later into the suburbs of Cicero and Berwyn.
Many other Czech Americans rose to great heights of prominence in every career including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Chicago football coach George Halas, actress Sissy Spacek, Secretary of State John Kerry, astronaut Jim Lovell, actor Ashton Kutcher, actor Peter Falk and President Donald Trump’s first wife, the late Ivana Zelnickova.
The rich history of the Czech community continues to survive in many of Chicagoland’s traditions, although they often do not get much attention.
Every year in the Fall, Czech’s celebrate the Fall Harvest season with a parade dedicated to the mushroom called the Houby Day Festival and Parade.
This year is the 49th year of the Houby Day Festival and the parade will be held, as it has been over the years, in both Berwyn and Cicero in Chicagoland’s West Suburbs.
The parade features floats and groups from the Chicagoland region from all ethnic walks of life. More than 25,000 people line the parade route along Cermak Road beginning this year at Riverside Drive in Berwyn and ending at Central Avenue in Cicero. Each year the parade route switches starting locations between the two suburban communities.
Actor Martin Sheen served as the Houby Day Parade Grand Marshall in 2014, and television celebrity Rich Koz, who plays the “Son of Svengoolie,” served as grand Marshall of the Houby Day Parade in 2011.
Svengoolie’s presence caused a stir when the Chicago Sun-Times attacked the parade organizers for spending $1,000 to buy several hundred “rubber chickens” that Svengoolie passed out to the massive parade crowd.
This years 49th Annual Houby Day Parade is being held in honor of Fire Departments around the country and First Responders and will cap-off a week of Czech and Bohemian celebrations of cultural dance and performances, food and family fun. Artisan and food vendors will line Cermak Road.
This year’s Houby Day Parade will begin at 11 am on Sunday, October 8.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter. He writes his syndicated column each week on ethnic, cultural, political and slice-of-life issues every week at TheDailyHookah.com.)
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Hanania also writes about Middle East issues for the Arab News, and The Arab Daily News criticizing government policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A critic of mainstream news media bias, Hanania advocates for peace & justice for Israel & Palestine, & the empowerment of Arabs in America.
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