Investigation and Memory: Our Czech Family Tree

My mother’s side of the family is from Czechoslovakia. Our family will be living in western Romania this fall, and I’m hoping that we can visit Czechoslovakia while we are in Eastern Europe, so I started a little investigation and memory project on my Czech heritage. This post is a version of the research project. The next one will involve memories.

A lead article in the 22 January 1932 Shamokin News Dispatch announces, “Racketeer is Free on Charge of Bribing Women.” The alleged racketeer, a Thomas Miklencic of Emmaus, PA is described as a “big shot” in a liquor racket set.

Here’s a link to the article: Shamokin_News_Dispatch_Fri__Jan_22__1932_

 A jury convicted him of owning a still in Hosensack, PA where, unfortunately, an attendant was killed and a federal agent was wounded in a gun battle in 1928. A Mrs. William Yocum, the wife of the man killed at the still claimed to the Pennsylvania Prohibition department that Miklencic promised her $1,500 and free rent if she would “keep her mouth shut” about the still. She did, but, Miklencic apparently went back on his word, prompting Mrs. Yocum went to the Prohibition officials.

 

Thomas Miklencic was my great grandfather.

Thomas Miklencic was born in 1894 in Cervene Janovice, a small village about 35 miles south west of Prague.

I don’t know anything about his life there, and I don’t think there is anyone alive who does. I was talking with my mom about this a few days ago and she said, “Well, Eric, no one ever talked in that family.” After reading the article in the Shamokin News, I think I know why.

Thomas immigrated to the United States in 1911. No one knows whether he met his wife, Anna Valovich (b. 1985) in Czechoslovakia, or if they met in the States. There is some evidence that Anna was born in the same village as Thomas—if that’s true, it’s probably safe to assume they immigrated together. My mom,though, remembers family members telling stories that Thomas and Anna arrived in the States separately and met at the Allentown Hospital where they both allegedly worked shortly after they arrived and where I was born in 1965.

Thomas and Anna had six children: Agnes (1916-2011), John (1917-2000), Anna (1918-84), Theresa (1920-63), Pearl (1923-95) and Joseph (1925-2003). I suspect that Thomas kept his job at the hospital and was running the still in his spare time. Anna, named after her mother, was my grandmother. The second to youngest child, Pearl, was born just a year after the racketeering conviction.

After his racketeering conviction, though, Thomas turned his life around. Except for Theresa, who died young, the children all lived relatively long and moderately prosperous, blue collar lives. My mother tells me that during the depression Thomas and Anna, who had some money, would leave eggs and bread outside their front door in the morning for neighbors who were struggling to take.

In 1931, Thomas bought a 60-acre farm in Emmaus and opened a public establishment, Tavern in the Park. I am not entirely sure about this, though, at Prohibition was still in effect in 1931, but perhaps things had loosened up by then—it was only two more years, after all, until Prohibition was overturned.  Nevertheless, it makes me wonder, was Tavern in the Park a speakeasy? Did Thomas sell his own gin there?

Two years later, Thomas and his oldest son, John, built a swimming pool that at one time was the largest outdoor pool in the state of Pennsylvania. They installed amusement rides near the pool and renamed the place Pine Tree Park. My mother told me that Thomas also ran a drive- in movie theatre on the grounds. This was an interesting move for Thomas in that it represents a shift from an underground, adult world into a public, civic-minded and outward looking vision of the future.

Here is a contemporary photo of the pool. It looks almost exactly as I remember it from the 1970s:

Community-Emmaus

In the mid 50s, Thomas sold the grounds to the borough of Emmaus and they renamed it Emmaus Community Park. Nearly 100 years later Emmaus Community Park is a vibrant public space. The current website for the Borough of Emmaus calls Emmaus Community Park

. . . one of the elite community parks in the entire Lehigh valley, consisting of a very popular swimming pool, a soccer / football field, baseball and softball fields, a nature walking patch along the creek, a snack stand, and beautiful pavilion that can be rented throughout the course of the year. 

People from all over Emmaus and its environs came to swim and relax at Pine Tree Park in the summer. Sometime in the mid 1950s, it seems that Thomas sold the park to the Borough of Emmaus. John, Thomas’ oldest son, subsequently built a new tavern just off the grounds of the park and he and his wife Josephine called it the Pine Tree Tavern, which opened in 1957 and did not close until 1991. John and Josephine were the proprietor for the bulk of that period and it became a favorite meeting spot for local civic clubs as well a popular space for weddings and parties.

While Thomas was building the infrastructure for the park, he was also building a row of brick cottages for his wife and his children on a narrow dirt road just southwest of the park and that overlooked the pool. Thomas and Anna lived in the first house and some of his children lived in the other cottages while others moved away.

I have acute memories of Pine Tree Tavern and Thomas and Anna’s home, and I’ll explore them in the next post.

The management of the park and the pool became the business of the Miklencic family. Thomas and Anna’s children all had a hand in the day-to-day operations, and that set of opportunities and responsibilities were handed down to the next generation, too. I remember my mother telling me that she and her siblings worked as lifeguards at the pool and clerks at the snack shop adjacent to the pool during their summers off of school. Later, I learned to swim in that pool.

Anna, Thomas’ wife, died in 1975 and Thomas died in 1981.

By the time of his death, Thomas had become a well-respected member of the community. His funeral was covered by the local paper and here is a photo of the memorial to Thomas and Anna that the Borough of Emmaus set up shortly after Thomas’ passing. It sits at the current entrance of Emmaus Community Park.

comm park entance

It’s impossible to read from the photo, but the plaque is dedicated to the memory of Thomas and Anna Miklencic and the legacy they left in the park.

Thomas Miklencic’s story is the story of my mother’s side of the family, but it’s also the story of immigrant America, a story that seems to be lost on the bulk of this nation that has turned a suspicious eye on current immigrants. If there’s anything ‘great’ about America, it’s that someone like Thomas could arrive here, ostensibly penniless, make a few (rather large) mistakes but then pull it together, raise a good family and leave a public legacy in the form of a long-standing public space.

Beyond all that, though, Thomas and Anna left strong impressions in my mind, and I’ll explore them next post.

6 thoughts on “Investigation and Memory: Our Czech Family Tree

  1. HI Eric,
    I will try to fill you in on information from the Miklencic Family.
    I have an Ancestry Account and have been searching the last few year.
    We have a lot of info on my Fathers side KIRK.
    I am your Mom’s cousin, Aunt Mary’s daughter..

    1. Hi Carolyn! It’s nice to hear from you. I would love to learn about anything you know about the Miklencic side. Thank you for getting in touch. All the very best. Eric

  2. Eric,

    I am Donna Shelly Lash, your mother’s cousin. Our mothers were sisters. Pearl was my mother.
    I will try to get an email address for you for Eva Flajzikova. Our grandmothers were sisters. I have Skyped with Eva, It has been at least a year. I here from her off and on. I asked about Anna, our grandmother, but didn’t get any new information. Maybe I didn’t ask the right questions..

    Eva’s last address:
    Eva Flajzikova
    Petzwalova 28
    94911 Nitra
    Slovakia

    Really happy that you are working on this project because there are some missing links in the Miklencic family…I asked your mother this winter if she knew anything about grandparent’s circumstances when they arrived.
    Just one note, there were 8 (live birth) children. Mary and Margie are not mentioned in your notes…
    Keep up the good work. We all knew that he was a bootlegger at some point, but didn’t have the specifics. Never read the account that you found…

  3. Pingback: Eric Fretz
  4. Hi Eric,
    Stumbling across this post just really intrigued me. Thomas was my great great grandfather, angus was my great grandmother and horace (her son) is my grandfather. I’m actually very close with that side of the family and my grandfather was very close with him, and knows a lot about him, he worked with him in the park basically his whole life until he was grown. I actually own the house that they used to live in, on the street he built behind the park.

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