When Czech and Slovak immigrants moved to Minnesota in the late nineteenth century, they carried with them the idea of a Sokol—a social, cultural, and gymnastics society that combined physical and mental education. In 1900, St. Paul residents formed the St. Paul Sokol. It became very popular and inspired the creation of Sokols across the Midwest. The St. Paul Sokol has served as a community center for more than one hundred years.
The Sokol movement was founded in 1862 by Dr. Miroslav Tyrš and Jindrich Fügner in the city of Prague, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. "Sokol" is the Czech word for falcon. Dr. Tyrš chose the name because falcons symbolize fearlessness, swift action, and sure flight.
Sokols were intended to strengthen the Czechoslovakian nation through physical and moral training. The state of Czechoslovakia was not created until 1918, but Czechs had been fighting to gain their independence and maintain their culture since the 1600s. European Sokols became an important part of that movement. In 1865, Czech immigrants brought Sokols to the United States. In the US, Sokols maintained Czech culture and history while promoting American assimilation.
The first Sokol in St. Paul was formed in 1882. It ran small physical education classes and sponsored dances in the winter and picnics in the summer. The Sokol also organized joint outings with the Turners, a German physical culture society. In 1885, the Sokol adopted the name Sokol Zizka, after Czech Hussite General John Zizka. Interest in Sokol Zizka waned, however, and it closed in 1890.
In 1900, after the arrival of Czech immigrants from Eastern cities, St. Paul formed a new Sokol. The St. Paul Sokol became very popular. Immigrants joined the Sokol for its physical training activities and its dramatic singing programs. The St. Paul Sokol helped to spread the idea of Sokol to neighboring states and other Minnesota towns. In 1906, women joined the Sokol and formed a ladies' auxiliary.
In 1915, the St. Paul Sokol participated in its first slet—a gymnastics competition and public exhibition—at Harriet Island in St. Paul. The slet was organized by the District of Minnesota Sokols, a regional organization that included the St. Paul Sokol.
Sokol development slowed during World War I. Many Sokol members enlisted in the Canadian or US army to fight against Austria. Yet the St. Paul Sokol remained popular after the war. In 1926, the District of Minnesota Sokols built a camp in Pine City, Minnesota.
From 1900, the St. Paul Sokol used the CSPS (Czech Slavonic Benefit Association) Hall as a gymnasium. The hall, located on Michigan Street in St. Paul, was built in 1887 by the Cesko-Slovansky Podpurjici Spolek, or Czechoslovakian Protective Society. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977.
The St. Paul Sokol served the Czech and Slovak communities in St. Paul throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. In 1966, for example, the St. Paul Sokol had 99 members. The Sokol celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2007. In 2012, it offered folk dancing classes and performances; gymnastics classes and competitions; cultural celebrations; ethnic dinners; and language, cooking, history, and genealogy classes.
Sheppard, Karleen Chott. Czechoslavaks (Bohemians): Earliest Settlers in the West Seventh Street Area, St. Paul, Minnesota. St. Paul: Karleen Chott Sheppard, 1979.
St. Paul Gymnastic Society. Sokol Slet, Western District A.S.O, June 18 and 19, 1966. St. Paul: The Society, 1966.
Strong, Fred H. " 'Sokol': History of an Ideal Two Hundred and Fifty Years Old." Program of the Sokol Gymnastic Exhibition. Pine City, MN: American Sokol Union Minnesota, 1930.
Pamphlets relating to physical education and training in Minnesota
Pamphlet Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Program for 1930 American Sokol Union Minnesota exhibition, in a collection of pamphlets and printed ephemera relating to gymnastic athletic societies, ethnic group societies for physical training and gymnastics, city athletic clubs, physical fitness, and related topics.
In 1910, a new St. Paul Sokol is founded. It serves as a community center for Czech and Slovak immigrants in the Twin Cities and as a model for Sokols elsewhere in the Midwest.