Family Stories

Our Immigrant Soper Family: A Narrative by Berniece Lebeda Brown, 1976.

Since I am not a writer I regret that it is “me” that is preparing this Soper story. But, be it ever so poorly done – perhaps it is better than not done at all. With the help of true stories contributed by relatives – let us proceed.

Joseph Sopr and Anna Housner Sopr and children were our immigrant Sopr family. Some years later, in the United States, I’m not sure exactly when, the spelling of Sopr was changed to Soper so that English speaking people, who were unfamiliar with the Czech language, would readily know the pronunciation of their surname. It probably was changed around or by 1913. My reason for thinking this is because my mother received a 1904 Christmas Greeting from her teacher with the names of pupils printed therein – her name is listed as “Mary Sopr” – but in 1913 she received a souvenir booklet from her teacher with her name written “Mary Soper”. This later booklet had these added words – “A rememberance for not whispering during the term of 1912 – 13.”

Joseph and Anna Soper’s eldest son was my grandfather, and his name was also Joseph Sopr. Among the possessions my grandfather brought over from Bohemia was his pipe which had his name painted on the china bowl portion – JOSEF SOPR. So his father’s name surely had the same Czech spelling but for purposes of this story I will spell their names, in most instances, as they spelled it later in the United States, as Joseph Soper.

Joseph and Anna Soper’s ten children were: Joseph, Anna, Mary, Matt, Frank, James, Frances, Christina, Anton and Rose. All were born (probably Rose too) in Bohemia which is now part of the country Czechoslovakia.

Not much is known about Rose Soper. When I first began this compilation my Aunt Emma Irvin was the first to give me her name, the others had been given to me long ago by my mother. Millie Drabek tells me that Rose died of smallpox at about age 10, or perhaps she was even a teenager at that time, she wasn’t sure. Millie didn’t know where Rose ranked in age with the rest of the family but she said, “Rose was not the youngest!” Since Anton Soper, the youngest child was born in Bohemia then Rose apparently was too. Joseph Soper’s obituary states that he and his wife had ten children, nine of whom are still living. It further states, “Mr Soper and family came to America in the year of 1893, and have since lived as becomes men and women blessed by the protection of Old Glory.” (Garber Sentinel; Garber Oklahoma, October 28, 1920, page 1)

A copy of the Soper family tree, written by Agnes Zoubek, was kindly sent to me by Mary Selement. An excerpt reads:

Joseph was born in a village in Czechoslovakia and was married to Anna Housner. Joe and all the people who farmed lived in a village. Each day they would go to their little farms to work. Mary Soper, daughter of Joseph and Anna, always spoke of the large strawberries grown there and it was her job to herd the geese. They used the goose feathers to make huge feather beds to sleep on and to cover up with during the cold nights. Mary would much rather take care of the geese than go to school, which later she regretted.

[According to Mary Lebeda:]

In Bohemia the farms were very small, only a few rods in size and the field work was done by the whole family with a spade and a hoe. They had large ovens and when they baked rye bread they baked sixteen large loaves at a time. It was the custom and hospitable thing to do when some came to visit, even for just a short while, to serve them brown bread and wine . . The children were named after one of the Saints . . The house, barn and other buildings were all built under one roof.

“I recall my father (Frank Soper, son of the elder Joseph Soper) saying his grandparents were well to do landed people”, writes Beatrice Soper, “but when the estate was divided it did not amount to much so his parents came to America.”

Bohemia had compulsory conscription and the young men had to go into the army when they became twenty years of age; they were in for four years. This I learned from my mother Mary Lebeda. She also said this is why her father had to be smuggled out of Bohemia because he had already reached his twentieth birthday, but had not as yet gone into the army.

More from Agnes Zoubek:

They decided to make the move to America, and twice they went to Hamburg Germany to book passage. The second time they were able to make the trip, but only as third class. Anna Soper would slip up on deck and dance, but Mary was too shy and also younger. They arrived in New York City in March 1893. Later they moved to Chicago where they saw their first oranges. That was in April (1893) and in August they moved to Kingfisher (Oklahoma Territory) and stayed at the Jindra’s. The Jindra family and Joe Soper were in the Cherokee Strip Land Run.

“Dad (young Joe Soper) tried to stake a claim”, Emma Irvin relates, “I don’t know where except some distance from his folks. Someone else had also staked a claim and won the contest. Got there first, I suppose. It was south of Garber I believe.”

And from Agnes Zoubek:

For their home they built a dugout around a tree. They had many hardships as the crops were very poor. Joe sent his eight year old daughter Christie, three miles to get help from a neighbor with a note to lend them some money. The neighbor came the next morning. They went to town and bought flour, but would not take pay. Instead, Joe and son Jim went to the neighbor’s farm to chop wood and husk corn. Anna and Mary Soper did not come with the rest of the family to Garber. They did housework until they made enough money for train fare. Being very lonesome, they quickly took a train for Garber. When they came into the dugout, they were two very disappointed girls. They both went to Enid Oklahoma to do housework. Mary Soper worked for Joe Swanda and Frank Swanda. Here she met Jim Swanda and they were married.

I think the story about sending Christie Soper to the neighbors illustrates that the Sopers had not been in dire circumstances before and felt much embarrassment to have to ask for aid, but were desperate to keep their family in food. By sending a little daughter for help, they would meet with speedier, positive results.

Their troubles were not over as seen by the following account of a, no doubt painful, decision. From Emma Irvin:

The Sopers were so poor at one time they were afraid of near starvation. This was on their homestead near Garber. They gathered their children together. Joe, Matt and Fanny, the oldest children, and Frank, Jim, AB and Christie. “I have here in my hand all the money I own (amount unknown, but less than $5.00) and can get for this winter coming on. We have some flour, sugar and dried fruit, not enough for us all thru winter. I want you three oldest to take it, equally among you, then go try to find jobs. Beg for food if you have to, but don’t spend it unless you have been without food for a day or two, and spend it for food – ONLY”. They had a small cart or a contraption and a horse. First they went to Enid. Joe and Matt found a man that would take them out to herd, then [they would] drive cattle to Dodge City Kansas. For this they got food and lodging – that is all. Fanny walked the streets, knocking on doors, asking for food and shelter in return for household help. At night she saw a girl come out the back door to feed table scraps to some cats. She asked her if she knew someone that might give her a job. The girl happened to be Czech too. She had no one in mind at the time, but if Fanny would stay close after everyone went to bed she would pretend to use the back house – then she could come with her and sleep. So she did and in the morning she would sneak her out again. She was lonely and needed a companion and there was lots of food. Then with this girl’s help she found a job, caring for seven children, cooking and washing on a board. The mother had a new baby. Fanny did this work, for room and board only. On a table in the living room were a stack of penny postal cards, several times she asked for one, so she could let her folds know she was ok. Each time she was refused. Finally, she took one.

The Soper’s dilemma continued awhile longer. This story was told to Emma by one of her aunts:

Frank, their folks believed, had charm and was a cute lad. So one day they told him, since his shoes were in pretty good shape to walk a couple of miles north where a man and his wife, who seemed to be of better means and no family, might enjoy his charm. For return – room and board – he could cut wood, milk the cow and care for the pigs. Sure enough it worked. They were happy to have him and would go to town and get him some warm shoes so he could go to school. On the way to town they stopped at the Sopers to see if they needed some supplies. Of course they could use flour, sugar etc, but they would have to make do as they had no money. On the return trip the neighbors brought some staples and said, “Pay when you can”.

These extremely hard times for the Sopers did not continue. Their lot immensely improved, as they all worked very hard to get back on their feet financially. In later years one of their daughters remarked, “I wonder if this generation would be so strong?. In composing this Soper history no statement was made if the immigrant parents were pleased about the opportunities and fortunes of their children, but they did live to see their children grown, settled and prosper and many grandchildren to love. From references made about this close-knit family, I’ve learned about their fine sense of humor and the ring of laughter and joy that pervaded when in their presence. This was so typical of all the Sopers. They are people we can be justifiably and mightily proud of. And may we too learn to persevere through adversity and affluency, retaining our wits and sense of humor as this fine Soper family who left their footprints on the sands of time.

Our Immigrant Soper Family: A Narrative by Berniece Lebeda Brown, 1976 was edited and retyped by Pamela Hutchison Garrett, March 2013; for Family Stories at