June 23, 2010

Celebrating 175 years: Karel Jonas statue

The triangle where the Karel Jonas statue sits on the city's north side is getting a makeover, thanks to the Douglas Avenue Business Improvement District. 

Kristin Niemic, of the Racine County Economic Development Corporation, appeared before the City Council's Public Works Committee seeking approval to replace pavers on the triangle, install new flower planters and clean the base of the statue. The changes breezed through the committee and the council (though city officials noted the road is scheduled to be rebuilt in 4-5 years, which could undo the changes). 

But it got us wondering about the statue and the man it represents. Who was Karel Jonas? And why, of everyone in Racine's history, was he immortalized in granite? For answers, we turned to local historian Gerald Karwowski, who provided the following story and photos using materials collected at his Oak Clearing Farm museum. 

Karel Jonas statue

By Gerald L. Karwowski, racinehistory.com

Scattered throughout the City of Racine are statues, monuments, plaques and markers of all sorts. But on Racine’s north side the Karel Jonas statue stands tall and watches over passing traffic on Douglas Avenue. The aged patina of it makes a statement of the once strong Bohemian presence on Racine’s north side.

The Karel Jonas monument, a tribute to Racine’s nationally famous Bohemian-American statesman, was originally dedicated in May of 1912. It was located on the lakefront in a small park at the southeast corner of Barker Street and Michigan Boulevard. Erected by his grateful countrymen, the bronze statue done by sculptor Mario Korbel, was set on a 38-ton granite base at a cost of $5,000.

Jonas was a political exile. He arrived in Racine in 1863 and soon became the editor of The Slavie, a Czech language Racine-based newspaper, and also wrote and published the first English-Bohemian dictionary ever printed. A Democrat, Jonas was elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 1877, later became a state senator and served as lieutenant governor from 1891 to 1894. Jonas resigned to accept President Grover Cleveland’s appointment as American consul-general in St. Petersburg, Russia. He died in January 1896 and was buried in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

According to a 1949 Journal Times article, William Svoboda, a Racine mayor of Bohemian descent, was the driving force in 1935 to move the statue from Michigan Boulevard to its present site -- known as Flat Iron Square where Douglas Avenue and High Street intersect. The headline reads, “Suggest Moving Jonas Statue From North Side Intersection.” The article stated, “Police called it a traffic hazard and that in its present location it obstructs vision and is highly dangerous from the viewpoint of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.”

It’s obvious the police did not get their viewpoint and concerns across to the people and aldermen of Racine. The Karel Jonas statue in all its grandeur and patina still stands where it was placed in 1935.

The illustrations are copied from “exclusive” Original items which are part of the Racine/Bohemian history collections gathered and preserved at Oak Clearings. 

View of Flat Iron Square. The photo was taken in the early 1900s by Frank L. Stritesky, a young Bohemian boy who worked with his father at the Stritesky & son Harness shop at 1701 Douglas Ave. The Stritesky building, as it was known, still overlooks the Jonas monument. Young Stritesky was interested in photography and treasured his camera. During the early 1900s he took snapshots around his north side home and later opened Home Portrait Studio. Among his early views was this rare photo of a wagon belonging to local house mover Joseph Stage as it passed the small fountain which stood on Flat Iron Square at the time.

Karel Jonas (right) and a colleague, Voyta Masek, were photographed during a visit to little Rock, Arkansas.

Dedication of the Jonas Monument in 1912 in a small park on the southeast corner of Barker Street and Michigan Boulevard. The Jonas family is seen gathered at the right of the photo.

Postcard view of the monument as it looked in the Michigan Boulevard park.

1897 Letter with a Karel Jonas illustrated letterhead sent to the Tabor Sokols in Caledonia, from the Racine Sokol Society. 

Title page of a rare 1886 book written by Jonas.

Title page of 4th edition of the Jonas Bohemian - English dictionary