Little Balkans Festival: a celebration of heritage, history

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Background of Southeast Kansas’ largest annual festival

Southeast Kansas’s annual festival, Little Balkans Days, is a celebration of history, heritage, and unity. Dating back to September 1984, this festival has brought area residents together every Labor Day weekend for fun, music, and historical interactions. 

According to the Little Balkans Days website, article written by Pittsburg State University Archivist Randy Roberts, the festival is meant to “pay homage to the region’s history, ethnic diversity, and community spirit.” The article explains that the establishment of the Little Balkans Festival Association in 1984 helped restore the region’s image and their purpose was “to educate the public about the origin and development of the term Little Balkans and to plan and conduct a regional exposition known as the Little Balkans Days Festival.” The Little Balkans Festival today also derived from a previous festival held in the 1930s called King Coal Days. 

“Because of the region’s heritage and history of the coal mining and the immigrants from Europe and parts of Europe that are known as the Balkans region, we became known as the Little Balkans,” said Steve Cox, Pittsburg State University archivist and curator of Special Collections. “And there was a King Coal festival that started in 1934 and ran for seven years up until World War II when they decided to take a break. And that was sort of a smaller version of what we celebrate today as the Balkans Festival. They had parades, concerts, picnics, food. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that the Pittsburg Area Festival Association decided to start up what basically had been King Coal Days and they renamed it the Little Balkans Days Festival. There had actually been, starting two years earlier, a Little Balkans Folklife Festival, so that was sort of turned into the Little Balkans Festival that we celebrate today.” 

The term “Little Balkans” holds historical background that connects Southeast Kansas to Europe and its ancestors. Many individuals traveled from the Balkan region of Europe to Southeast Kansas, so this in addition to the fact that both areas had such “volatile” economic and political climates in the 1900s—according to Roberts’ article—the coal fields of Southeast Kansas became known as the Balkans of Kansas. While at first the term “Balkans” was supposed to be offensive, “Little Balkans of Kansas is now an expression of pride that celebrates the region’s diverse cultural and ethnic heritage and rich history,” Roberts writes. 

“I think it’s part of a memory every year, a way to say ‘hey, we know who we are and we know where we came from,’” said Angela Meyer, Little Balkans Days Festival president. “… Every year we celebrate that we are a culture and ethnic melting pot, and we have a way to honor that where it’s still very family-oriented and it’s fun. … But as far as what it means to Pittsburg and Southeast Kansas, I think it’s that landmark event that says, ‘yep, this is home.’ …” 

Another reason why Southeast Kansas was often referred to as the “Little Balkans” was due to the vast amount of nationalities that settled in the area for coal mining—many nationalities included French, Swede, British, Italian, German, and Eastern European, according to the Miners Hall Museum. Primarily, the celebration for this festival was designed to commemorate the era of the 1920s and 1930s, which it works to accomplish through its numerous ethnic events over the weekend-long festival. 

“… Every year we just keep growing and growing and trying to add events that used to happen that faded and kind of disappeared off the schedule, new events to get a different part of the community and area involved,” Meyer said. “So, it’s back on the uptick and growing every year.” 

With the creation of the Little Balkans Days Festival, it positively impacted the Southeast Kansas community, as was reported in the Garden City Telegram Newspaper Archives from August 27, 1985, page 22. The Telegram reported that “The spirit that allowed Southeast Kansas to survive the Depression and the disappearance of its coal-mining industry has been revived with the organization of the first Little Balkans Days celebration.” 

In beginning the festival, as well, Rod Dutton and Chris Blancho paired together to create the festival’s logo. The final design included a black derby hat with a hatband of various country’s flags. The Joplin Globe Newspaper Archives from August 9, 1985, page 33 reported this as, “The 1930s-style Derby depicted in the logo is reminiscent of the hats worn by early coal miners in the Pittsburg area. The headband is decorated with replicas of flags of the Balkans countries in Southern Europe.” 

While much of the Little Balkans Days Festival has stayed consistent—such as the original logo—there’s also much that has evolved over the years. According to the Garden City Telegram, at the first year of the festival many of the attractions included “a ball, country-western concert and street dances, a parade, chili cookoff, a speakeasy, crowning of a miss Little Balkans, fashion shows, film festival, and an attempt to build the world’s largest banana split.” Meyer said she grew up attending the Festival, which was a large reason why she got involved with it. She said the two attractions that stood out to her were the fashion show showcasing different decades’ clothing and a double-decker bus history tour. 

“… It became this weekend family history was handed down and how things happened and life at a different time was passed down,” Meyer said. 

Meyer described that after she returned to Pittsburg from attending law school, she walked downtown one weekend and realized something, calling the festival a “soft spot” for her. 

“… I want this to feel like it did when I was a kid,” Meyer said. “I want somebody to bring their kid and feel like this is some memory this child will remember. So, almost seven years later, and I feel like we’re getting there. … For me it’s very personal … both sides of my family were born and raised here, so for me it’s all about trying to honor what they did, where they came from, and both sides are immigrant families. So, it’s a reflection of who I am, that weekend.” 

Not only does the Little Balkans Days Festival provide a weekend to commemorate the region’s history, it also acts as a celebration for those of the area who still hold family ties to the European heritage.

“… When they first started celebrating that heritage in the 1930s we still had a lot of those European immigrants that came from the Balkans region here and it gave them a chance to kind of celebrate their heritage, and now that their descents are still around they don’t want to forget that heritage, so it’s one way to celebrate the culture of the Little Balkans in Europe,” Cox said. 

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