The Wilber Czech capital sign in between USA flag and Czech flag.
Wilber has been the Czech capital since 1987. The community is busy preparing for this summer's Wilber Czech Festival.

Wilber is a town 45 minutes south Lincoln in Saline County with a population of just under 2,000 people. The town is a Czech heritage town, with about 90% of the residents Czech, according to 3 Seas Europe

Saline County resident Sheryl Kastanek said she appreciates the pride residents have in her hometown of Wilber. She has lived in Saline County for 67 years, her whole life, and has volunteered at her hometown festival since 1976. 

Wilber is known for a festival that celebrates the Nebraskan Czech heritage. The festival is called the Wilber Czech Festival, also called Czech Days. 

According to Kastanek, in 1865, Czechs immigrated to the United States for three primary reasons: religious freedom, getting away from military obligations and the promise of a new land. Many Czechs that immigrated worked in agriculture, and the Freedmen’s Bureau Acts of 1865 and 1866 back then allowed Czechs to farm 160 acres of land for free. Nebraska being a big agricultural state, Czechs moved to Nebraska.

Eugene C. Zajicek, Joe T. Vosoba, Walter A. Baer, and the Rev. William Temps founded the festival in 1962. Kastanek said the goal was to promote Czech culture and heritage, provide economic development to Wilber and promote tourism in Nebraska.

On average, about 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the festival every summer. Some visitors spend the weekend at the Wilber Hotel, and others will either camp in Legion Park or stay in motels in Crete, Beatrice and Lincoln, according to Kastanek.

The festival celebrates Czech culture in several ways, including Czech beer, dumplings, roast duck, kolače and rye bread. Festival highlights include the Miss Czech-Slovak U.S. Pageant, Czech bingo, music, dancing and a parade. 

IMG 9617 1 300x197 - Wilber pride keeps annual Czech festival alive for over 60 years
Four people participate in an event called “The Bohemian Tractor Pull,” in 2022. Photo by Sheryl Kastanek

Kastanek has volunteered at the festival for 47 years and serves on three festival committees. Kastanek puts together festival brochures, coordinates youth dancers, and helps with the Knights and Ladies community awards, which are awards given to those who volunteer for the festival. Most recently, she completed 20,000 12-page brochures and distributed them throughout the Midwest.

From when Kastanek began going to the festival in 1976 to now, she said the culture has grown. The tradition of dancing and foods has remained consistent, but the festival over the years has increased in celebrating the Czech culture.

“The art show, the costume contest…finding out where you came from. It’s about learning about your past,” Kastanek said. 

Community volunteers make the festival happen in August every year, but it’s a year-round process that includes 50 festival committees and more than 1,000 volunteers. Some committees only have one member, such as Kastanek, as she is the only one on the brochure committee. Other committees have around 40 members.

“If someone starts getting paid, there would be a problem,” Kastanek said. “I fear if we started paying volunteers to work, that sharing and working together spirit as one might get lost.” 

Steve Ourecky, owner of the Fox Hole Tavern, said Wilber is busier during the weekend of the festival when compared to a normal weekday. The pre-festival celebration of the festival goes from the first Thursday to Friday of the first week of August, and the actual celebration is on the first Saturday and ends at the end of the day Sunday.

“There’s no comparison for any venue in town,” Ourecky said. “With tens of thousands of people attending the festival, everyone is very busy during the festival.” 

Other towns in Nebraska have Czech culture, and some of those towns are known as the Bohemian Alps. The Bohemian Alps include Brainard, Dwight, Clarkson, Abie, Bruno, Prague, and other rural towns. For context, the Bohemian Alps is a region in Nebraska where Czechs migrated when they left their origin country. 

Hana Waisserova, associate professor of Czech studies at UNL, takes her students to visit and learn about some towns of the Bohemian Alps.

“It’s absolutely fascinating to see how some of these small communities, which are obviously shrinking, are also very proud of their Czech heritage,” Waisserova said. “We realized that in some places, it’s actually the Czech heritage who bring life to their community.” 

Waisserova discussed other Czech festivals in Nebraska. Those festivals include the Clarkson Czech Festival, the Dwight Czech Festival, the Czechfest of York, Czech Heritage Day in Prague, the South Central Nebraska Czech Festival in Hastings, the Milligan June Jubilee, the Saint Wenceslas Brewfest in Milligan, and Lincoln has an annual Czech festival. 

The 62nd Annual Wilber Czech Festival will be held from Aug. 4 – 6. Plans for the next festival have been going on since the week after the 2022 festival.

Connor Wieseman is a double major in Journalism and Sports Media and Communication with a minor in Communication Studies.