The heritage of Southeast Kansas is not like the rest of the state. A nickname given in the early 1900’s, “The Little Balkans,” was meant to be derogatory and vilify the region. After all, homes and railroads needed coal. Miners worked in deadly, deep shaft mines and were underpaid. Immigrants with generations of winemaking traditions clashed with 67 years of Kansas Prohibition. Strikes. Protests. Bootlegging. Survival. The “Little Balkans” moniker allowed the rest of the state to dismiss and ignore Southeast Kansas. Yet, in time, it gave families with diverse backgrounds but similar values a shared identity.
The Mid 1800’s
The Western Frontier
Situated where the Ozark Plateau meets the Kansas prairies, Southeast Kansas once was covered by rolling tall grass prairies broken by woodlands along the various creeks and roamed by bison.
A military road was blazed through this frontier, connecting Fort Leavenworth and Fort Scott to the north, to Fort Gibson, Oklahoma to the south. Eventually, a stage coach line and railways followed.
Camped and hunted by Native Americans, the region was intended to be a buffer with pioneers. It wasn’t until the mid-1800’s that family owned farmsteads and small settlements took root.
Despite lawless raiding and skirmishes of the Union and Confederate forces, these rural families were mostly left to their own for generations, and in 1867, Crawford County was officially established.
The Late 1800’s
The need for coal changes everything
The corner of Southeast Kansas sits on a coal bed. From the 1880’s through the mid 1970’s, the demand for power, electricity, and heat from coal led to an expansive railroad system. Numerous boom towns swelled in population as miners followed coal veins.
Many miners were immigrants escaping an increasingly violent Europe. These families brought their own traditions with them, including music, food, and wine making. At one point, because of this skillset and the soil of the region, it was thought Eastern Kansas would become a Wine Country. Kansas Prohibition, lasting from 1881-1948, put a stop to that.
Despite diverse backgrounds, they shared one value in particular: they would do whatever it took to protect and provide for their families, whether or not it was legal.
Miners worked long, hard hours. When they had leisure time, they flocked to sporting events and lakes would eventually be built just for recreation. Before the Internet, TV, and even radio, nearly every coal camp had an opera house to entertain miners with live performances.
The Early 1900’s
Rise of the troublemakers
Deep shaft mining was deadly work and pay was low. Plus, when Winter ended, the need for coal decreased and the number of jobless increased.
There was no workers comp. No unemployment benefits. To keep families fed, many bootlegged wine and “deep shaft whiskey“, delivering it as far east as New York City.
The area became a hotbed for worker rights. The small town of Girard was home to the busiest post office in the state at the time because the largest socialist newspaper in the nation was published there. Decades later, that same publishing house started “The Little Blue Books,” cheap, pocket-sized paperbacks that brought literature and controversial ideas to the working class. They even pioneered “how to” books. For their efforts, the publisher was put on the FBI’s “enemies list.”
In December 1921, a march and protest that closed mines made national headlines. It had been made illegal for the men to protest, so mothers, sisters, wives, and sweethearts protested the working conditions of their loved ones. Thousands marched for three days. The governor and state guard were called in to help. National newspapers dubbed them “The Amazon Army.”
Continuous turmoil in the Balkans of Europe prompted one Kansas legislator to call Southeast Kansas the “The Little Balkans”. It was meant to be derogatory and alienate the region from the rest of the state. But, in time, the moniker provided people from varied backgrounds with a shared identity, was embraced, and The Little Balkans Days Festival has been ongoing since 1985.
The Mid 1900’s
From the coal mine, to Gorillas and chicken
Originally founded as a manual job training school in 1903, what became Pittsburg State University prepared teachers, artists, tradesmen, and entrepreneurs whose influence as “Gorillas” would ripple for generations throughout the region, and the country.
Population around the coalfield peaked at 90,000 in 1920, but fewer workers were needed as safer and more efficient surface mining by machines replaced shaft mining.
Families choosing to stay got creative, including a Hungarian immigrant named Ann Pichler, whose husband had been injured in a mine. Chicken Annie’s opened in 1934 and was the first of several chicken houses. Today, six chicken houses have been open for more than 50 years, continuing to make the area famous for good, inexpensive, chicken dinners served in a family style atmosphere.
The Late 1900’s
From mining to leisure
In surface mining, machines stripped away the topsoil to get to the coal beds that lay underneath. The largest of these machines was a 16 story electric shovel. Retired in 1974 and too expensive to scrap, Big Brutus is now a monument and museum to honor the area’s mining heritage.
Since the 1800’s, baseball and other leisure activities had always been popular as miners sought ways to relax and pass what little downtime they had.
But, the “strip pit lakes” left behind from mining spurred the growth of a man-made natural habitat unlike anywhere else in the state. These man-made lakes quickly became prime outdoor recreation areas: camping, fishing, hiking, hunting, and increasingly, mountain biking and kayaking.
The Early 2000’s
Cutting edge entrepreneurs and employers
They are not familiar names like Sam Walton or Bill Gates, but the Dean, Marietta, Miller and Webb families have built nationally prominent brands, and they are the namesakes of many buildings throughout the region . In Southeast Kansas, they are not alone.
The Marietta family opened a country store in the 1930’s. They started selling homemade fireworks, and, in time, Jake’s Fireworks/World Class Fireworks became the nation’s leading distributor of wholesale and retail fireworks.
Miller’s Professional Imaging/Mpix started as a photography studio in 1939. The company grew through the years, and in 2003 became one of the first web-based digital labs serving both professional and amateur photographers throughout North America.
Pittcraft Printing started as a small town local printer in the early 1940’s and grew to serve organizations nationwide, including the 2015 World Series Champion Kansas City Royals, the 2008 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Champion Kansas Jayhawks, and the Kansas City Chiefs for nearly 30 years.
Harvey Dean’s startup, Pitsco Education, started in a basement in 1971, providing kits to industrial art teachers nationwide. By 2013, in addition to CO2 dragsters, a joint venture with LEGO, the creation of Tetrix robotics and other STEM kits, their curriculum programs spanned into classrooms across the nation.
Watco Companies, founded in 1983 by Dick Webb, started as a railroad switching operation and repaired rail cars. Through the decades Watco expanded, transporting goods throughout North America, and in 2010 began operating in Australia as well.
Since 1989 Backyard Discovery has provided families with products promoting exercise, imagination, fun and leisure. They’ve grown to become the largest outdoor toy company in North America providing everything from wooden swing sets and playhouses, to pergolas and decorative ponds.
Where to explore our stories
Explore the world’s largest remaining electric shovel and the 1920’s shovel made from scrap that inspired the design of this 16-story earth mover.
6509 NW 60th St • West Mineral, KS
The area’s largest collection of local history, including a one-room school, mom & pop grocery store, & more. Hosts several Living History reenactments throughout the year.
651 S US-69 • Pittsburg, KS
The home of the country’s largest socialist periodical, plus The Little Blue Books, and the country’s first airplane manufacturer west of the Mississippi River.
300 S Summit St • Girard, KS
McCune History Museum
Communities just off the coalbed, like McCune, missed the population boom-bust of the industry and thrived as farm towns. They keep alive skills like rope making. Ask about McCune’s gold medal Olympians.
509 6th St • McCune, KS