The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation and postponement of countless events across the state, including the annual Kolache Festival in Prague.
However, what the festival symbolizes – Czech culture and the ubiquitous pastry often associated with it – remains alive in this Lincoln County town.
The Prague Bakery, closed for about six weeks during Oklahoma’s stay-at-home directives, reopened May 2 for takeout orders – with kolaches being a continual bestseller.
The Czech influence began in 1891 with the opening of the Sac and Fox Nation to a white land run. Eva Barta, who owned the land where the town sprang up, named it after the Czech capital, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. That pronunciation of that European city (prahg) is about the only Czech element that didn’t come to the Oklahoma hamlet (pronounced praig).
Diane Kinzey, longtime president of the Prague Historical Society and operator of the town’s history museum, isn’t Czech herself but she says she knows as much about the culture as anyone descended from those Bohemian and Moravian immigrants of the late 19th century. Her brother, William Smith, married a Czech woman named Rose Patak, and Kinzey became entwined in her sister-in-law’s life.
“I grew up around the Czech community because of Rosie’s parents,” says Kinzey, who graduated from Prague High School in 1961. “When we’d come into town, we’d visit her mother, which was a challenge because she didn’t speak English very well. I got to where I could pick up a word or two of Czech.”
Over the past two decades, Prague has turned from a farm town into a bedroom community for those making the 45-minute commute to Oklahoma City. Many work at Tinker Air Force Base, she says.
While the makeup of the town has changed, the Kolache Festival hasn’t. Thousands of visitors the first weekend of each May routinely double or triple the town’s size. Kinzey says 2020 is the first time in 55 years there hasn’t been a festival.
The celebration began in 1951 as a test run for the event in 1952 to mark the town’s golden anniversary of incorporation.
“There were bandstands every other block, and you could wander up and down the street and never miss a beat,” says Kinzey, adding that sponsorships for the festival dried up by 1955, so it went into a hiatus until 1965. “But we’ll regroup in 2021.”
In 2017, Philip Smith, a professor at Tulsa Community College, wrote what is arguably the definitive history of the Czech people’s influence on this Lincoln County town. From Praha to Prague: Czechs in an Oklahoma Farm Town was published by the University of Oklahoma Press.
Jim Thorpe, born in 1887 about 7 miles southwest of Prague in the Sac and Fox Nation, was dubbed by King Gustav V of Sweden as the world’s greatest athlete after winning the decathlon and pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics. Thorpe played football and baseball professionally. He is one of only two Olympic gold medalists in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Sprinter Bob Hayes, who played for the Dallas Cowboys, is the other.)