Sokol Baltimore: A Brief History
By Dolores Zajicek Gentes
The Sokol organization was already well established in Baltimore, Maryland, more than one hundred and forty years ago. Sokol, the physical training program devised by Miroslav Tyrs in Bohemia (modern day Prague) in 1862, was started in Baltimore by 1872. At that time numerous Czech immigrants settled and worked in East Baltimore; therefore, Sokol Blesk had its meager beginnings in the Kremelberg Cigar Factory which was a center for Czech speaking people.
East Baltimore was the center for the Czech speaking people, which is why it became known as Little Bohemia.
The major objectives of the organization were the education of its members, the sponsoring of cultural events, and the perpetuation of the Czech language and culture. Right from the start, its members participated in serious gymnastic and swimming events, and in cultural, social, and altruistic activities. In 1887, the members already participated in exhibitions and competitions in the United States and Prague.
The photograph above was taken in 2014. The back portion of the building where the gym and bowling alley once were collapsed during a blizzard around 2010.
Because of a momentous growth in membership and need for larger quarters, the unit purchased land at Gay and Preston Streets which necessitated that the unit be incorporated as Sokolska Jednota Blesk.
The new building, which was heated by steam and lighted with gas, not only had a gymnasium, but a restaurant, meeting room, two school rooms, living quarters for the janitor, a manager's office, a bowling alley, a kitchen, three bathrooms, showers, a warehouse, a stage, and dressing rooms.
Its Grand Opening was on September 6, 1902.
A source indicates that there were 552 members including women in the women's group that performed calisthenics and was vital to all social functions. In 1906, one hundred thirty Sokolska Jednota Blesk members marched in uniform, led by their own Sokol band, at the 175th Anniversary of the City of Baltimore Parade. They were judged the best in the parade.
One of the most unique and dramatic events involving the unit occurred in October 1918. Thomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia and a long-time proponent of the philosophy of "sound body and sound mind", visited Baltimore. It was a great honor for Sokolska Jednota Blesk to make him an honorary member.
After WWII, it was decided to sell the unit's beloved building and moved to a new location at 2931 E. Madison Street. Its Grand Opening occurred on Saturday, January 16, 1954.
A few years later in 1962, the unit changed its name to Sokol Baltimore.
The photograph above was taken in 2009.
It is significant to note that in 1990, only a few months after the fall of Communism, members of Sokol Baltimore proudly participated and carried the Sokol flag in an exhibition in Prague.
It was the first gathering of Sokols on the Czechoslovakian soil, the birthplace of the Sokol movement, since Sokol was banned by the Communist in 1948.
Sokol Baltimore remained at [Madison Street] and continued its activities there until 1998. When the property was sold, the second floor of St. Patrick's Parish Hall on Broadway was chosen as a temporary location, and this is where Sokol activities [were held until 2011].
In May of 2000, recognition was given to members of Sokol Baltimore who have maintained their membership for more than 60 years.
Under the extremely capable leadership of President Bohus Bata, and with the support of a loyal and enthusiastic membership, Sokol Baltimore continued to offer gymnastics and other physical and social activities, that not only benefit the health of its members, maintain the Czech spirit, but play a significant role in the welfare of the entire community.
St. Patrick's in Fells Point provided room for our program from 1998 until 2011, when the "East Coast Earthquake" damaged our building beyond repair. For 3 years, classes were put on hold as board members and volunteers worked diligently to find a new, permanent home for Sokol Hall.
On November 13, 2013, Sokol Baltimore announced the purchase of a building for the new Sokol Hall. The new hall underwent over 6 months of renovations to create a welcoming atmosphere and to become up to date with building code and ADA regulations. The grand re-opening was held on September 20, 2014.
The photograph above was taken in 2011 as a crane repaired the fallen steeples after the earthquake.
The current Sokol Baltimore Hall on Noble Street.