Cuba, Kansas: A town of doers

11/28/2010 1:35 PM

11/28/2010 1:35 PM

CUBA — It is a tiny dot on the big map of Kansas, a blink-and-miss-it-type of town. But with less than 200 residents, this Republic County community near the Nebraska state line has been a symbol of rural America for more than three decades.

It was first made famous when National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson documented it and has since been featured twice on the "CBS News Sunday Morning."

It is a quirky community where residents are just as apt to drink a beer and dance polkas in the street as they are to pitch in when someone needs help.

"Whether a town lives or dies depends on the spirit of people," said Marci Penner, director of the Kansas Sampler Foundation. "To these folks, you don't look at the size of their population. These are people who just get out and do it. They do what has to be done for the community. Theirs is such a lesson for a town of any size. They do anything for their beloved community."

At 8:30 on a recent weekday morning, polka music was blasting from the speakers along Main Street. A semi carrying a week's load of groceries sat at the back door of the Cuba Cash Store.

Store owner Dale Huncovsky wheeled around on a forklift, lifting pallets from the truck and placing them in front of a line of a dozen men. The men passed boxes of eggs, radishes, potatoes, lettuce, beets, sweet pickles, green beans and more into the store.

For nearly a decade this scene has been carried out weekly.

The town has become an icon of community involvement, known for its annual week-long Rock-A-Thon where residents typically raise more than $25,000 by simply rocking in rocking chairs.

They host a harvest festival in July, a community Thanksgiving feed and a Christmas open house.

On a whim, they've done blindfolded lawnmower races in the streets and stacked empty beer cans on top of the blades of the ceiling fan in Czechers, where there is karaoke and a pool table, and turned the fan on just to give things a whirl.

In 1975, Richardson, who now lives in Lindsborg, began documenting the community because, he said, "it had a healthy band of characters who knew how to make life interesting."

It "was a town of 300 but a community of 700 — because you have people from other places who come and be part of things."

Richardson acknowledges he may have initially given Cuba publicity, but "they made it famous. You can only turn so many knobs on the camera, but you have to have something in front of you. And they always supplied that. They are practiced at it."

The Cuba Cash Store

Life here revolves around the Cuba Cash Store, a more than century-old grocery with the original warped wood floors, lockers with forged hinges and thick wood doors, and a fresh meat case featuring Czech ring bologna, jaternice, smoked briskets, ribs and custom meat packages.

Dale and LaVerna Huncovsky bought the store 25 years ago, shortly after Dale had suffered his first heart attack at the grain elevator.

He and LaVerna both had come from longtime farm families, and the future looked uncertain.

"That's when farmers were going broke and that kind of triggered it off," said Dale Huncovsky, now 57. "Heredity had a lot to do it with it. My mother died when she was 56, my grandpa at 50. Both of my grandpas died of heart attacks."

So, they bought the store. At first, they were afraid.

"We were afraid of being on our own. We were too young, and I thought, 'What if we fail?' We had a daughter that was handicapped, and to not get a paycheck every week made me scared," LaVerna said. "But it turned out to be the greatest thing."

They hadn't counted on their family of friends.

When Dale began to have serious heart problems — bypass surgery 13 years ago — people stepped up and ran the store while the Huncovskys were in hospitals in Wichita and Kansas City.

And when they returned home, the community continued to help keep their store going.

Each Thursday when the semi pulls into town — whether it's 5:30 or 11 a.m. —volunteers show up to unload its contents. They also buy there, making sure the store clears more than $7,500 in sales each week so the semi keeps coming to Cuba.

Dale Huncovsky stirred up a batch of biscuits and gravy to feed the volunteers. LaVerna baked a fresh batch of kolaches to feed the town's senior citizens, who gather to play pitch at the Two Doors Down Cafe — which is really three doors down from the Cuba Cash Store. It's one of the town jokes.

"This is a town I wouldn't leave now," LaVerna Huncovsky said.

"Without the people, we couldn't do what we do," she said. "We wouldn't have anything."

The community

Cuba is predominantly Czech.

It may have been founded in 1868 by a settler who had once lived on the island of Cuba, but it grew with a wave of immigrants from Bohemia, some settling by the early 1870s.

The local cemetery is named the National Bohemian Cemetery and has family names such as Baxa, Zacek, Krotz, Soustek, Stepanek, Koukol, Benyshek, Immenschuh and Havel.

Exploring the town is a step back in time.

The glory days of Cuba were at the turn of the 20th century when town leaders built the giant community hall.

The town has some empty storefronts and houses now, but what makes it an anomaly is that businesses still survive:

A grocery store.

A post office.

A bank.

A cafe.

A greenhouse.

A beauty shop.

A fertilizer plant.

A public library.

An American Legion.

A gas station.

Four years ago, the community lost its school — but Cuba still keeps ticking.

Residents have since restored the old blacksmith's shop, which first opened in 1884, and gotten it listed on the National Register of Historic Places; restored the office of Doc McClaskey, who died in 1981 but was the town doctor for more than half a century; and brought in an old country schoolhouse where they display school pictures through the decades.

They open the community hall for senior citizens to exercise, young couples to have wedding receptions and children to roller skate on Saturday nights.

More than 100 veterans faithfully attend gatherings and events at the American Legion.

Cuba is a place where at the end of a long day, someone will buy a 12-pack of beer from the Cuba Cash Store and friends and neighbors suddenly appear to drink, sit on benches and watch the children play in the street.

"Cuba is always where things are hopping," said Nick Gieber, who has a house in Cuba but also lives in Topeka.

Last Thursday, he and his brother, Butch, helped unload the truck at the Cuba Cash Store.

"This grocery is the lifeblood of the community," Nick Gieber said. "It's where people come together and see each other. It is a place where people know you."

La Vern Kopsa owned the store for 26 years before selling it to the Huncovskys in 1986. Now 89, he still comes each Thursday to help unload the truck.

"It's the only way I can eat breakfast and I'm the boss here," he said, jokingly. "Dale makes the gravy and he is getting to where he is pretty good at it."

Guy Chizek helps Dale in the store and ran it last month when the Huncovskys took a vacation to New York and Washington, D.C.

Dale introduced him and said, "We went to high school together and he used to play in the band. He has had health problems like I did."

Chizek laughed and said, "Together we make about half of a good person."

The grocery store smokes its own bacon, grinds hamburger and wraps fresh meat in paper packages.

The Huncovskys make hundreds of pounds of ringed bologna, some spiced with jalapenos, that is sold each week. It is made from an old Czech recipe, calling for lots of spices and few preservatives.

The meats are shipped around the nation, particularly as winter holidays near. Two weeks ago, the store started its own website: www.cubacashstore.com.

"I thought when I bought the store from him it was something that was dying," Dale Huncovsky said. "Older people were the ones that bought the bologna. We came up with the cooker and do brisket and prime rib and catering.

"But anytime you don't have the bologna, they come in and give you hell."

Cuba's future

The residents make no bones about it: Cuba is rapidly aging.

Town boosters are 60, 70 and 80 or older.

Some have moved away and then come back because it is home and will always be.

"What is the future of Cuba? We don't know," said Darlene Kopsa. "We didn't think it would last when the school was gone, and here we are still going."

Perhaps it doesn't matter.

"I am not sure we need to look so far ahead for towns like Cuba," said Penner, of the Kansas Sampler Foundation. "We don't know when the next blow will happen. Right now, it is just important to live in the moment. They are a strong community and will get through it whatever it is."

When resident Leslie Popelka came down with cancer, they tied a big pink bow around a huge tree downtown and offered to help drive her to Salina for treatments.

And when 95-year-old Bessie Chizek was having health problems, a few of the residents brought in a polka band and held a dance in the middle of the street to celebrate her.

"Here this old gal was living in the country by herself, and we chipped in and got this band," Dale Huncovsky said. "I got her a big old crown chair, and she sat there and just laughed the whole night. Her legs were bad and she could barely stand up, but she got out there and danced with one of her nephews."

And because, in her heyday, Bessie Chizek was also known to play a mean accordion, one of the band handed her an accordion.

"She sat there and tried to play that, telling jokes and stories and stuff," Huncovsky said. "That was on a Saturday, and by the next Saturday she was gone. It was just one of those things that was meant to be."

A bench with Bessie Chizek's name carved in it now sits on the main street, across from the Two Doors Down Cafe.

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