The First Czech in Chicago

by Miloslav Rechcígl Jr.

According to Thomas Capek’s classical book The Czechs (Bohemians) in America (1920), the first groups of Czechs began filtering into Chicago in 1852- 53. Similarly, a noted Czech American journalist Frantisek Boleslav Zdrubek, who lived in Chicago since 1875, stated in his first published study about the Chicago Czechs that the Czech settlers began arriving with the year 1853.

We must assume that both authors were referring to a mass migration to that city rather than to the arrival of individuals, inasmuch as both authors were aware of the fact that some Czechs lived in Chicago already before 1850, although they did not mention specific names.

Jan Habenicht in his Czech publication Dejiny Cechüv americkych (History of American Czechs) published in Si. Louis in 1910, categorically wrote that the first Czech settler in Chicago was a Moravian native Dr. Frantisek Adolf Valenta. This claim was generally accepted even by such eminent scholars as Professor Francis Dvornik.

Dr. Frantisek  A. Valenta originally came to America in 1849 and, after a brief stay in New York City, he settled in August of the same year on the north side of Chicago. Later on he established a pharmacy on the corner of State and Van Buren Streets. His knowledge of German enabled him to practice medicine especially among Germans. After fourteen years of medical practice, he was quite rich and returned to Bohemia, reportedly with some $50,000. There he purchased a farm and in 1870 he died. Habenicht harshly criticized Valenta’s German orientation, however, if we look at it from a different perspective, we ought to give him credit for his entrepreneurship and be comforted by the fact that his presumed riches did not come from the back of poor Czech settlers.

Another Chicago resident Anton Pergler claimed two years earlier in Pamatnik Spolku ceskych osadniku v Chicagu (1908) that the first Czech settler in Chicago was Joseph Chvil who arrived in the city in 1843. Subsequently it was learned that this was a mistake, based on the erroneous assumption that the family name Chiville of the settler originated from a Czech name Chvil.

The earliest existing reference to Chicago Czechs was made in 1888 by Josef Pastor in Hamburg, Germany in his Czech magazine Ceské osady v Americe (Czech Communities in America). He included the following passage: “We have received an announcement from Chicago about the death of one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Czech American settler Vojtéch Skliba who came to America in 1846 and lived in Chicago for 42 years.” Rudolf Bubenicek, the author of Dejiny Cechü v Chicagu (History of Czechs in Chicago), published in Chicago in 1939, who came across this reference, made an effort to verify this information. Although he did not find such name in any Chicago directories, he eventually succeeded in tracing Skliba’s descendants under a modified name Skleba. Specifically he found the following entry in one of the city directories: “Skleba L.F., M.D., 2215 Addison St.” Actually such a transliteration makes some sense since phonetically the Czech name Skliba would be pronounced in English as Skleba or Schkleba.

Upon contacting Dr. Leonard Skleba, the information was indeed verified. The original settler Vojtech Skliba who in America used Albert as his first name, had a son Frank who did not know Czech too well and changed his name to Skleba. According to family history, Vojtech Skliba settled in Chicago with his mother when he was only twelve years old. In Chicago he learned the saddler and harness trade and established a shop on Michigan Street between State and Dearborn. In addition he also maintained a cartage business and employed as many as fifteen employees. He married a Czech woman by the name of Josefa Kucerova with whom he had several children, including Joseph, Albert, Robert, Emil and Frank. Vojtéch SkIiba died on April 24, 1888 at the age of 54 years. He had apparently also had a brother and a sister. His brother’s son, who wrote his name John T. Skliba, lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico and his sister married Vyskocil and lived in Traverse City. Michigan.

After several years of diligent search, the present author can now report a discovery of another Czech settler who came to Chicago four years prior to the arrival of Vojtech Skhba. The person in question is Henry Homer who established the oldest wholesale grocery house in Chicago. He was born in the town Ckyne, near Prachatice in Southern Bohemia on December 29, 1818. After settling in Chicago in 1842, he started in the grocery business at the northeast corner of Randolph and Canal Streets. At that time the farmers brought their produce from the country in exchange for groceries, this constituting the main business of that period. In 1861 he moved his grocery store to 267 South Water Street, at the same time establishing a bank at the southeast corner of Randolph and La Salle Streets.

When the infamous Chicago fire of 1871 came, both of his business houses, as well as his residence at Jackson Boulevard and Wabash Avenue were burned to the ground. Not being discouraged by these losses, he started business in his own building at 78 West Randolph Street, a business which has grown to gigantic proportions. He was generally known as “Uncle Henry” by his business associates on the Chicago Board of Trade of which he was a charter member.

In 1849 he was married to Hannah Demburg, by whom he had eleven children: Dilah, Joseph, Isaac, Angel, Minnie, Charles, Dora, Maurice, Henry, Albert and Mattie. Both Henry Homer and his wife were residents of Chicago until the end of their lives. Henry died in 1878 leaving a dual responsibility to his wife, tat of rearing their minor children, and of carrying on a business destined to advance to that very forefront of Chicago mercantile enterprises.

The business of Henry Homer & Co., founded in the early forties, continued its rapid growth, eventually occupying the entire half block on Randolph Street between Clinton and Jefferson Streets. After Hannah Homer’s death in 1902, the business was conducted by Homers’ sons. Subsequently it was reorganized under the corporate name Durand, McNeil, Homer Company which occupied leading position among the wholesale grocery establishments in America.

Henry and Hannah Homer left behind them numerous descendants, many of whom attained a high level of distinction. The most illustrious of them was their grandson, Henry Homer (1878-1940), namesake of the founder of the family, Probate Judge of Cook county since 1914 and then two-time Governor of Illinois (since 1932). He was one of the best governors Illinois ever had. Homer was well aware of his Bohemian background and was proud of it. The Czech community of Chicago was aware of it as well and their vote for him was, in part, responsible for his tremendous victories at the polls.