Thursday, October 20, 2011

Roadtrip October 2011 Part 2 Adventures in Iowa

My sister Nancy was excited to show me and my friend around and learning Marylea was also of Czech descent told us of Spillville, Iowa.    This small town in Northeast Iowa is a community that has a large concentration of Bohemians, and museums to tell of their great talents and history.

The Bily Clock Museum is an amazing place, with an amazing story.  I highly recommend it to anyone headed to NE Iowa!  The Bily brothers were master wood carvers that made several INCREDIBLE clocks from various types of wood.  We were not allowed to take photos so all photos here are from the website, as is the following story.
The Bily Brothers
The history of the Bily Brothers, Frank and Joseph, began on the farm where they were born and raised. Located between Ridgeway and Spillville,Iowa, the farm is where the two brothers started their carvings. These uniquely designed clocks have attracted people from all areas of the United States, Canada and from many foreign countries as well.

Beginning in 1913, the brothers employed the idle hours of long winter days and evenings with their skills of woodcarving. Being farmers and carpenters, they carved only as a hobby while still doing their regular chores and maintaining a well kept farm. In 1915 and 1916, they built the Apostle Clock from which the Twelve Apostles appear on the hour. During the period of 1923-1927, the Bily Brothers added their masterpiece to the collection, The American Pioneer History Clock. A memorial clock to Charles Lindbergh was carved in 1928 commemorating his historic flight. In these beautiful artistically carved clocks the brothers have used woods from a number of foreign countries as well as numerous pieces of walnut, butternut, maple and oaks from North America.

The Bily Brothers moved their collection to Spillville in 1946. They bequeathed the clocks to the town of Spillville with an agreement that they would never be sold or moved from their present location.The second floor of the building was the home of the famous Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, and his family during the summer of 1893.

We were told on the tour that the brothers were bachelors that never traveled farther than 35 miles from home.  They had no living relatives and had burned all plans for the clocks and planned to burn the clocks as well.  A neighbor convinced them to donate them to the city and they agreed as long as they were promised that they would keep with their wishes and never sell any of the clocks just as they had never done...even when offered $1 million dollars by Henry Ford!  What a couple of humble, talented men.

Our next stop was the local church, St. Wenceslaus.  Here is some info about it from the website 

St. Wenceslaus is the oldest Czech Catholic Church in the United States. It was built with the hard work and generosity of Czech settlers that imigrated to the area. The original church was completed in 1860. A bell tower was added in 1869 and the sanctuary and transept were completed in 1873. The original pipe organ installed in 1876 still remains and was played by Antonin Dvorak during his stay in Spillville.

These crosses were made by a local man named Charles Andera.  See website info below.


The Unique Cemetery Art of a Czech Immigrant

"Dust you are and to dust you shall return."22 Sep 2005 updated 04 Sep 2010

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When Charles Andera died in 1929, he left behind a unique legacy: hundreds of ornate distinctive cast metal crosses which mark the final resting place of Roman Catholic Czech Americans in no less than twelve states. His beautiful grave markers have been found in cemeteries from Prague, Oklahoma to Bohemia, New York and from Pisek, North Dakota to Halletsville, Texas. Almost exclusively these monuments are in Czech Catholic graveyards. Loren N. Horton, Chief Historian for the Iowa State Historical Society, now retired, calls Andera's cemetery art a "Czech-American treasure."

In addition to his wonderful work, Andera left us with a number of questions: Where did he learn his many skills, where did he have his intricate crosses cast, how did he market them, and how many more are there that we don't know about? Those questions are all begging for answers. An effort is now underway to resolve them and to locate and catalog all of his wonderful grave marker crosses.

Andera came to this country with his parents and several siblings in the early 1860’s from Hrobska Zahradka (Garden of the Graves), a small village near Tabor, Bohemia. It’s name derived from the ancient burial grounds near which it was located. After a short stay in Toronto, Canada, the family settled on a farm near Spillville in Winneshiek County, Iowa. There in 1875 Charles married Barbara Dostal, the daughter of a wagon maker. Where he lived in the interim is unknown. Was it perhaps with an older half-brother near Charles City, Iowa who had trained in Vienna, Austria as a furniture maker? When the question came up, long after his death, no one had an answer.

Now a skilled carpenter and cabinet maker, Charles Andera opened a furniture store next to his small house in Spillville. His work included the construction of the communion rail and other wooden appointments in Spillville’s St. Wenceslaus Church. Bells of the clock he installed in the steeple sounded on the quarter hour and could be heard for miles. Commuting by bicycle, he crafted the altars in the Catholic churches in nearby Fort Atkinson and Protivin. He also made burial caskets.

The earliest crosses still in existence in the Spillville cemetery were made from wagon maker’s strap iron and may have been the product of John Dostal, Andera’s father-in-law. Was this connection perhaps what gave Charles Andera his cross-making start? There would have been wooden crosses of Oak, a common practice which in his native land, went back several centuries.

Charles Andera sculpted his crosses from wood and Plaster of Paris, then sent this pattern to a foundry to have them cast. The corpora, of which there were several sizes, as well as the small statues which adorn two of his designs, he carved from wood. The inscription plates he may have cast himself. The foundry was probable in Wisconsin but to date no solid evidence has been found.

Most puzzling is the question: how did this craftsman locate buyers scattered throughout such a wide region? Spillville was a village of less than 400 souls, Tremont less than a quarter that size. The sole Andera ad that has been found was a 25th anniversary history of the Catholic Workman, a Czech Catholic fraternal union, the Spillville chapter of which Charles Andera was the founding member. He was a also a charter member of the Western Czech Catholic Union which was incorporated in Spillville on 1 January 1899.

Branches of both organizations had formerly belonged to the Bohemian Catholic First Central Union which had formed in St. Louis, MO in 1877 and which used the newspaper HLAS as it organ. The paper’s readership extended throughout the country’s Czech Catholic community and was one of its prime means of communication. Was it somehow through this union that Andera learned of potential buyers?

The Andera grave marker crosses are rich in symbolism. His #1 was adorned with a skull and crossbones. (This did not indicate that the deceased had died from poison as one school child surmised, but was an image commonly displayed by Czech Catholics in centuries past as a reminder of man’s mortality.) This style was also available with an abstract design. Other symbols and decorations that the cross maker utilized included angels, cherubs, crucifixes, the Lamb of God, statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, the crown of thorns, quatrefoils, and trefoils.

States in which Andera crosses have been found are Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, North Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Texas.

Shown below are examples of the Charles Anderas crosses. Andera’s photos of the crosses he sold show eight different basic designs which, through markings, can be identified as his work. Each cross could be obtained with a variety of stone or metal bases. Strangely, there appears to be no pattern in the manner in which Andera marked his crosses. Some simply have his intials, “C.A.”; others include his intials or name, the words “Spillville. IA” or “Tremont, MO” and may include the date of manufacture. Some, on the back of the heart shaped inscription plate, are marked “No. 5” or carry the outline of a cross. Many monuments, otherwise indentical to the marked crosses, are unmarked.

If anyone has knowledge about Andera crosses, contact
Cyril M. Klimesh, Sebastopol, CA
or Loren E. Horton, 3367 Hanover Court, Iowa City, IA 52245

Grave monument of Vojtech Krall in Sec 46 of the St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in Newport Township Johnson County, Iowa

Information for this article was provided by Pat Krall Skay, a member of the Iowa City Genealogical Society.
The web page was created by Harvey W. Henry, Webmaster and a member of the ICGS

This is a link of the names of those buried in the cemetery. 

Our next stop was Burr Oak, Iowa and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum!

I was going to post my photos, but this is an AWESOME link that gives you the same tour I and all!



  1. Next time you're in Iowa...check our barn out!

    Loved reading about your trips!

  2. Thanks Natalie! Can you send me the link for your barn?