LB06Every geographic region in Kansas is distinctive in some way. Due to its mineral resources, settlement patterns, and ethnic diversity, perhaps no region of the state is more distinctive than the southeast corner. From the 1880s through the first two decades of the twentieth century the inhabitants of southeast Kansas mined almost one-third of the nation’s bituminous coal. The coal powered an extensive system of railroads in the region and was used to heat homes and businesses. Southeast Kansas coal, and later natural gas, also fired the kilns that processed great quantities of lead and zinc ore extracted from the tri-state mining region of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma. Iron foundries, cement plants, tile and pottery manufacturers, glass pane factories, lead and zinc sheet mills, and brick plants made southeast Kansas the most industrialized region of the state.

LB05To work the mines, smelters, and other industries, laborers immigrated here from all over the world, demonstrating the American melting pot experience in Kansas. After 1900 most of the immigrants who came to work in the coal field that extended through Cherokee, Crawford, and Bourbon Counties, came from the region of southeastern Europe known as the Balkans. Labor unions became an important feature of the economic landscape of southeast Kansas. Labor unrest and strikes for higher wages and better working conditions occurred frequently. Because so many of the residents of the area came from the Balkan region of Europe and because the economic and political climates of both regions were so volatile in the early 1900s, the coal fields came to be called the Balkans of Kansas. Although once a pejorative term for the region, Little Balkans of Kansas is now an expression of pride that celebrates the region’s diverse cultural and ethnic heritage and rich history.

The establishment of the Little Balkans Festival Association in September 1984 helped to restore the image of the region. The Association’s 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 Festival has been held annually on Labor Day weekend since 1985 to pay homage to the region’s history, ethnic diversity, and community spirit.

This article was written by
Randy Roberts
University Archivist - Pittsburg State University