Polka by the Bay
Corpus Christi has always been a place in Texas that is known as a beach-oriented tourist destination. For the folks who live there, it has been a place of hard work turning the South Texas ranch land into a garden paradise and the connection to the Gulf of Mexico and the world into a vital a link in the commerce of Texas.
The shelter of Corpus Christi Bay has attracted ships of all nationalities and reasons, but a settlement was never established despite attempts by Spaniards, Germans, freed slaves, and others that failed for various reasons ranging from Lipan Apache activity to the Texas Revolution. In 1839, a trading post was finally established, or more properly labeled, a smuggler’s clearing house. The owners struggled against Mexican bandits and the weather.
By the mid-1840s, it had a small set of shacks, including a couple of grog shops. The citizens voted to incorporate, however no one ran for any office, so that failed. The U.S. Army came to stage its invasion of Mexico from there, but few soldiers returned to the area. For the next several decades, Corpus struggled against Yellow Fever, the Civil War, and of course, hurricanes all stifling progress.
The cattle industry of South Texas kept the diehards working but the main problem was the lack of a deepwater port. All maritime commerce was conducted by a ship anchoring in the bay and the cargo being ferried ashore; this was a common problem in Texas. In 1926, the U.S. government finally approved the dredging of a ship channel, and two years later, a deepwater port was opened, and commerce boomed.
Stanley Kostoryz was born in 1866 in Bohemia, received a good education, immigrated to New York, and then Chicago working as a newspaperman and teacher. He then moved to Wilbur, Nebraska, the Czech center of Nebraska and began printing a Czech newspaper in Wilbur and later for other Czech settlements in the area. At the same time, he established Czech schools and businesses for his fellow immigrants. Kostoryz was later responsible for Nebraska State University establishing a Slavic languages and study department. Kostoryz must have felt his mission was accomplished in Nebraska and began scouting other states to expand the Czech culture.
Kostoryz became aware of the burgeoning Czech population in Central Texas and sensed that it would soon be “full up.” In the late 1800s, the cattle industry was declining in South Texas and the ranchers had set their eyes on the unfenced Western United States and were ready to sell out and move. Kostoryz saw an opportunity for his hard-working Czech kinsman. Between 1904 and 1910, he purchased approximately 10,000 acres of ranch land on the western outskirts of Corpus. He organized the Bohemian Colony Lands corporation and sold 80-acre parcels at minimal cost for farming and associated services. Kostoryz, along with others, established school and other progressive institutions, such as the Sokol Hall, to serve his fellow Czechs as they began transforming the ranchland into farms.
The first couple of Czechs encountered some Germans who had established a colony of their own. Despite religious differences (due to language) they soon found common ground in trying to cultivate the area. By 1906, Frank Kocurek from Ellinger (Fayette) Adolf Rohan from Yorktown (De Witt), Fred Polasek and Mr. Zezula from Granger (Williamson), and Jacob Koblizek from Cameron (Milam) had moved in to farm the fertile land. In several years, the families of John and Frank Malchar, Alois Motal, John Voly, John Janosec, Anton Ermis, Kaspar Zdansky, Anton Sita, Marak Osady, and Ondrej Pospech all moved from the Buckholts area of Milam County.
In 1914, a contingent of Corn Hill and Granger (Williamson) Czechs moved in. Some of their names were Netek, Pavelka, Polasek, Brezna, and Slezinger. Lavaca County Czechs came south to this new land - the R.E. Hrncirs (farmers), the Jerome Jalu›as (ran cotton gin), among others - to lend their expertise in the cotton business. This increase triggered the formation of the K.J.T. and K.J.Z.T societies. Once again, nature intervened with the combination of a drought and then a hurricane which devasted the farmers for two years.
In the late 1910s Czech sympathizer/ speculators from Nebraska, Longin Folda and his son, bought the Kostoryz Ranch. They cleared what was left of it (4000+ acres), subdivided, improved the land, built small houses and sold them to needy Czechs for whatever they could afford. This generosity saved the Czech community and it responded in kind by producing large quantities of cotton and other truck crops which supplied Corpus and other areas of Texas and Mexico. These two men were instrumental in establishing the new home for the former immigrants, some of whom were born in the old country. The 1920 census noted 360 Czechs, 97 of them foreign born in a total population of 10,522. Several years back the estimate was 8,000 to 10,000 Czech in Nueces County.
Not to be overlooked, due west down Highway 44, is the community of Violet and town of Robstown, where other Czechs settled in the 1920s and 30s. They performed similar feats of transforming the ranchland into productive farms, thereby enhancing the growth of Corpus and its vicinity. The popularity of Corpus caused a transplant to write to the Weimar Mercury paper several times bragging about the area.
On May 7, 1921 he wrote, "The cotton is big enough to be chopped, and the corn about three feet high, is tasseling. Vegetables are plentiful and we have them everyday." He predicted that when the deepwater port was completed Corpus would build up rapidly. (He was right.). Of course, he had to brag on catching 20 pounds of fish the day before. A quick scan of Central Texas newspapers from the 1930s show that many Czech and German folks vacationed and visited relatives in the Corpus area.
The Czechs, after living under kings and princes, fell in love with the democratic form of deciding things for the good of the people and formed many societies in which they had a say in how things were done.
In 1923 a Moravian Club was formed with the mission to build a hall for community events with Leo Netek, Rudolph Polasek, and Kaspar Zdansky as officers. Mr. Zdansky leased an acre of land for 50 years, and a hall was built. In 1939, the hall was replaced by another larger one, which in later years was bought by the government as it was at the end of the newly built naval air field. The government built a new Moravian Hall which is the present one still being used.
The oil and gas fields of South Texas were being developed now that there was a deepwater port for shipping out the product of the refineries being built. Refineries and shipyards were being built along with the associated facilities of the port activities. They paid comparatively high wages which drew many folks who were struggling during the Depression to support their families. With the influx of hard-working, family-oriented Central Texans fueling the labor market, Corpus’ industrial economy took off.
Wherever Czechs go they bring their music with them and it is noted that one of the first orders of business of the Colony was to build two halls capable of hosting dances. Documentation is scant to non-existent for music in Corpus during the early years, more likely for the reason that with the geographic size of the Bohemian Colony, a poster on the window of a store or gin would suffice, and the basic language was still Czech. It is safe to say that the sound of accordions and brass were frequently heard on the southwest side of Corpus. After World War II, the economy had grown sufficiently to begin supporting touring orchestras such as Adolph Hofner, Ted Daffin, Texas Top Hands, and Hank Th ompson, but the Leo Majek Orchestra was the top orchestra keeping the dancing crowd of Corpus dancing.
THE MAJEK FAMILY
In 1897, European-born 12-year old Leo Majek, (Sr.) began playing the accordion around the Moravian (Europe) countryside. Life in the town of Slavkov was hard and minimal. Breakfast was coffee with bread crumbled in it, soup with potatoes rounded out the day’s menu. On Sundays, everyone got a slice of meat and maybe a kolache. If you traveled (by foot only) distance was measured in hours walked. At the end of a workday at the sugar factory, Leo would take off walking with his accordion searching out a place to play and if he was lucky, earn a little money. Courtship with the future Mrs. Majek consisted of her walking with Leo, at times, several hours for him to play, she didn’t dance, but loved watching him play and absorbed the music. In 1913, the bugles of war were sounding, and Leo knew he needed to get his growing family out of Central Europe. He took a steamship to Galveston, and then traveled to the Granger area where his wife’s brother had immigrated.
After he established a home, Leo sent for his family. They left on the last passenger ship to leave Europe before the hostilities began. Reunited in Texas, the Majek family relocated from Granger to the Cameron area. One by one as each of his six sons began to get older, they were taught music, and all intermittently played with their father as they found their way through life.
The Leo Majek Orchestra, at times, consisted of John, Julius, and later Charlie, Joe, Frank, and John Jr. They played house dances (25c each) and private functions honing their sound with their father and friends. For Leo Sr., his musical life was better than in the old country as now he had a horse and buggy to travel to gigs. By 1930, the Leo Majek Orchestra was asked to play for pay (minimal, for sure), in New Tabor (southwest of Bryan), after a Czech play. The Czechs in Texas were very fond of combining stage productions and dances. The Majeks stayed close to Cameron performing at Beran’s Dance Pavilion and the National Hall with an occasional dance in Dime Box. In 1934, the Majek Orchestra journeyed to Corpus Christi, to provide music for a play their son, Julius, was associated with. Their popularity made the Majek Orchestra the go-to band for weddings, parties, and public functions in the Cameron area during the 1930s.
By 1940, the Bohemian Colony in Corpus needed music, and Leo was ready to improve the living conditions of his family. He relocated his family to the Gulf Coast with the men and boys taking jobs in the port area. Reuniting with families from “their neck of the woods,” the Majek sound of accordions and horns at the Moravian, Sokol, and Legion halls began to be heard as frequently as the boys' military service allowed during WWII.
Over the years Leo Sr.’s sons began having sons and they continued their musical heritage, though not all at one time. Frank had two sons, Randy and Ronnie, who continued playing, time and family permitting. Charlie Majek’s son, Michael, continues playing his trumpet with the Majeks to this day.
John, had a son named Jerry who was eager to play. He began learning any instrument he could get his hands on and soon found himself playing a sousaphone (marching band style tuba) in the Leo Majek Orchestra at the age of
15. In the 1950s, the Majek Orchestra was in demand on the Coastal Bend with the band playing at least twice a weekend in the Corpus area. In June 1957, the Majeks broke loose from the Corpus area for a dance at SPJST Lodge 88 in Houston. All during this time, the Majeks returned yearly for the church picnics around Cameron.
JERRY & MARTHA ANN
The Majeks were performing at the Moravian Hall in Corpus on New Year’s Eve 1964. The crowd was dancing away, the clock had struck 12 and the festivities continued on into the early hours of the new year.
Martha Ann Stefek had grown up in the Czech culture of the Corpus Christi area. The family never missed an episode of the Lawrence Welk Show and Martha Ann was mesmerized by Myron Floren’s accordianship. As the family attended various picnics, festivals, and family reunions, 10-year-old Martha Ann decided that she could do the same thing these accordion players were doing. She asked her parents for accordion lessons. It was suggested that she learn the piano first, but Martha Ann knew she couldn't lug a piano around, so she began taking lessons with the only accordion teacher in Corpus Christi. After two years of lessons Martha Ann was frustrated as the instructor only knew classical-style accordion; no polkas or waltzes.
Armed with the basics of music, albeit classical, she began playing at home with her record player, using mostly The Vrazels' records as a guideline. A friend, Joan Havelka, had also learned the accordion and they practiced together. The two 14-year-old accordionists were soon introduced to the Lone Star Polka Boys and they quickly became part of the band, which rehearsed in the back room of Vanicek’s Store in nearby Sinton.
That same New Year’s Eve in 1964, the Lone Star Polka Boys had just finished playing at 1 am at the American Legion hall, and the two girls decided to check out the competition at the Moravian Hall. Back in the day, many bands played until 2 or 3 or later in the morning. The Majeks were commanding the stage. Martha Ann noticed a good-looking young sousaphone player named Jerry Majek. The attraction was mutual, and they began dating, with Jerry picking her up on his way to play a Majek gig. After a year, they were married. Martha Ann was determined to keep on playing and whenever possible she sat in with the Majeks giving them a double accordion sound. In 1972, Jerry bought her a new accordion and Martha Ann officially became the first female in the family band.
Leo Sr.’s wife, Rosie, totally supported her husband’s band, and used her musical knowledge to contribute: The lovely, haunting Vzpomínka na Cameron [Memories of Cameron] was co-written around the late 1940s by Rosie Majek, matriarch of the Leo Majek family of Corpus Christi, and John, one of her seven children. The song describes a mother's anguish when a son leaves for war and her joy when he returns. This description is courtesy of Frances Barton, accordionist and polka historian.
Their offspring have truly inherited their rhythm and musical abilities at a very early age. As the little Martha Anns and Jerry Majeks started coming along, Martha Ann would play with the band as close to the due date as possible. Her first, Jeanette, spent several months on stage before being born as did the following children. After being born, the children sometimes stayed with Grandma, but frequently showed up with her at dances and other times were kept on stage or at a nearby table.
Having Majek DNA and absorbing the music subconsciously in their early years pretty much ensures that music will be passed along to the offspring. Their son, Jerome, had learned guitar and bass at an early age, but still wasn’t satisfied. This became apparent one morning when Martha Ann and Jerry were awakened by their son, Jerome, who was married by then, and asked them a favor. He brought in his dad's tuba and his mom's accordion and asked for tuba lessons. So, before coffee was enjoyed, his parents played two polkas and two waltzes while he videotaped them. He took the tape home and within several hours he had the tuba down.
DNA must have helped as Jerome is also proficient on lead guitar, bass guitar (and tuba), accordion, sax, and drums in the Majek Orchestra. Martha and Jerry’s daughters, Jeanette and Janell, occasionally sit in or help with the business side; a son, Justin, played with the band for many years but has taken a break to let his son, Austin, play guitar. Jerome keeps the band on beat with his bass sound and sweetens the sound with other instruments. Jerome’s daughter, Lauren, sits in on guitar at some shows.
One of the big thrills of the Majek Orchestra was playing live on the local TV station for several months in 1971 and in color, no less. Color TV was slowing getting traction in Texas. Jerry said that the studio had set up several microphones to catch all the musicians' sounds, and when cued, the Majeks took off singing in Czech and playing polkas and waltzes.
The Majeks just love to play music. For decades they have been performing every weekend for crowds across Texas, from the Music Box in Six Mile; to Lodge 88 to their Texas roots in Cameron, to Harlingen in the Rio Grande Valley and for years have played a German Maifest at Gruenau Hall. Around home base Corpus, in addition to the Sokol, Moravian, and Legion halls, they have performed on the T-Heads in the harbor, for sailors from the Naval Air Station, and at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in nearby San Patricio. The band has played yearly at the Catholic and other denominational festivities around town. The Majek Orchestra has also performed in Europe and is a favorite at the multi-band gatherings in Hallettsville, Victoria, and El Campo.
In 2013, the Majek Orchestra, had four of the five generations performing on stage. However, time has taken its toll and now there are three generations on stage playing as only a family can play together.
The awards are many and well-deserved. In 1992, The Texas Polka Music Association bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award for “A Family band dedicated to preserving and promoting polka music for 95 years” (this year makes it 122 years). In 1997, the Texas House of Representatives honored the band on its 100th birthday.
In 2015 South Texas Music Hall of Fame awarded the Majek Orchestra a star on it for contributions to the local music culture of Corpus Christi. They join such notables as Selena, Doug Sahm, Kris Kristofferson, and George Strait who have been honored for keeping South Texas music alive and well.
Also in 2015, the Texas Czech Heritage & Cultural Center honored the Majek Orchestra at its annual gala which recognizes Texas Czech bands.
“When you’re a Majek, the name says it all. We’re a group, a family, we’re one. Playing happy music for happy people, that’s what it’s all about,” Jerome said.