January 17th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 3
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Frank Wejr – An Immigrant's Life Story - Part I
Looking Back
Courtesy: Google Maps
Map showing Frank's birthplace in Bohemia
So the stories of many immigrant families have been carefully documented by the museum in both volumes of Crowsnest and Its People. Most are important brief overviews but some go into greater detail which sometimes provides an important window into the happenings around the Pass from their family perspective.

One that is not in their archives (yet) is the life story of a Czech immigrant named Franz (Frank) Wejr. (pronounce it wedger). It was sent to me by his grand niece Moira Mackenzie, executive director for the BC Teacher’s Federation. It is a whopping 28 pages done on an old typewriter and contains invaluable information that connects many historic dots. It was written in 1931 when Frank was living in the town of Frank. So I thought I would take you through Wejr’s legacy and elaborate on some of his interesting comments, for context purposes.

His biography and genealogy start with his birth on November 9, 1873 in Strihov, county Kralove Mestec in the Podebrady region of what was then known as Bohemia. About 85 km. east of Prague.

It gets a bit tricky with geographical names here. So Bohemia now constitutes the westernmost half of the Czech Republic (Czechia). Moravia makes up the eastern portion of Czechia. At one time, after World War One, both were combined with Slovakia (to the east) to form Czechoslovakia. During World War Two the Nazi’s took over parts of the country and in 1948 it became part of the Soviet bloc. Russia invaded in 1968 and communism was the order of the day until a fed up country’s protests led to what is referred to as the Velvet (Quiet) Revolution in 1989. Part of the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. The communists resigned en masse and in 1990 it saw the first democratic elections in fifty years. The country was eventually split apart in 1993 into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. But I digress.
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Frank was the oldest of eight children with seven brothers and a sister that passed away at three months old. Life in his country was complicated back then by tensions between the Czech population and a German minority. His eight years of schooling were by two teachers who he names as Vaclav Zlunecky, a great reactionary and clerical sympathizer and Konrad Listopad, a great liberal and anti-clerical. My oh my, talk about a mixed bag of instruction!

At fourteen his father Josef decided his son, who he often referred to as Franta or Frantik, would go to Vienna to study to be a shoemaker. Frank really wanted to be a musician but Josef said of that craft: “they were all great drinkers” so shoemaker is was to be. So on St. Sylvester Day (New Year’s Eve) in 1887 Frank headed for Vienna to start a three year apprenticeship with a Silesian shoemaker named Franz Bauer. The very last words from his father’s mouth as he caught the train were an admonishment: “Frantik, I am losing my right hand in you, you have already been very helpful on the farm, mind you to stay as good as you have been so far and we will never forget you; on the other hand, should you become a hooligan don’t even try to come home because I would pick up a stick and beat you out of the house.” Josef passed away in 1890 while Frantik was away in Vienna, at the age of 44 from a torn spleen from lifting.

So it was that Frank trained for three years to be as he called it “an ornamentalist of the human limbs.” He eventually attained the status of journeyman and carried that craft back to his mother’s village where he attempted to make a living with it. Frank was a restless sort and through the next few years worked here and there at his shoe craft, albeit begrudgingly, and also tried his hand at other jobs in the country side at a sugar mill and in construction.
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Eventually at the end of 1893 as the weather turned colder he chose to go to work in the Johan Schacht coal mine. Of this he states: “Like many other men of different trades, I too exchanged my trade for the poverty-stricken mining”. It was to be the beginning of a career in coal mining that he never really left. A little research here reveals that the area mines in Bohemia were mostly peat and lignite coal. Frank pushed loaded coal cars for 12 hours a day. He took sick while in the mines and fell into a coma at one point and almost died. While he was recovering (by drinking only goat milk in the hospital!) he received a letter – a notice from the mayor of his native village to report in April of 1894 for the military draft in Kralove Mestec.

While looking for somewhere to room and board and waiting to start his military training he wound up at the Stocek household in the town of Bruch where he met the love of his life, the landlord’s daughter Karolina. That June they fell quickly in love because as Frank said: “our glances collided quite frequently.”

In October Frank reported to the 36th Infantry Battalion in Liberec. Frank detested militarism and this was exacerbated by a commandant there who was as miserable as they get and who according to Frank felt that: “we were good for nothing but to gobble the army bread and waste God’s time…” Two years into his service his fourth regiment was called to Northern Bohemia in full armour into a mining strike. Of this Frank said that they were issued one hundred rounds of ammunition each and “so we went against the striking miners.” He wrote that despite that their password was: “don’t shoot in case of conflict” which sounds somewhat sympathetic to the miners methinks.

Once done military service he returned to the Johan Mine and he writes:”On February 6, 1898, I took my beloved Karla for my wife. We lived for a while with her parents and slowly started furnishing our own household. I have to mention that my wife’s mother was a good-hearted woman but her father was very quarrelsome and a heavy drinker. After about two months we rented a small house and established our own household.” Yup, never good living with your parents.
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October 1898 their first child Anna was born and conditions at the coal mine had begun to deteriorate. By January 1900 a general mining strike was called in all parts of Bohemia. During that strike, in February, their second daughter Julie was born. Just like a lot of strikes here not much was accomplished except for free coal and a subsidy for rental housing. Frank refers to the mine owners as coal barrons. There was another child in April of 1902, a boy that died after about a week. Mining conditions continued to deteriorate with a reduced work week and cut wages. Seems like the coal mine story was the same everywhere in the world back then.

1903 brought more wage cuts and a five cent cut per loaded cart which meant they were paid a paltry six cents per cart American. Miners began leaving for Germany and for America and when Frank protested the cuts he was told: “if you don’t like it you know what you can do.” This angered Frank and Karolina told him that day: “listen Franz, I see that it is getting worse here all the time, I would advise you to bag the mining here and go to America.”

So Frank went to say goodbye to his mother whose last words to him were:”I know, my son, I will never see you again. And she never did. Her son Franz and four other men, one of which brought his wife and three children, travelled to Rotterdam, took a small boat to Grimsby in England then by rail to Liverpool. There at the end of January they boarded the Lake Mackenzie ship for St. John, New Brunswick.

Author’s Note: I knew I couldn’t finish this story. So much more to tell about Frank and his family in Canada. The story is rife with tragedy and successes and unfolds a lot of rare Pass history in the process. Next column will have a forest fire in Lille, Karoline’s tragic early passing and Frank’s amazing mining career and life in the Pass. Don’t miss it.

To read the other parts of the Series:

Frank Wejr – An Immigrant's Life Story - Part I
Frank the Czech in Frank - Part II
Frank from Frank Life's Twist and Turns - Part III
Frantisek Vejr – Honor to His Memory - Part IV
January 17th, 2018 ~ Vol. 89 No. 3
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