Compelling heritage found in Slovak, Arkansas
Slovak is a small Arkansas community with strong ties to its heritage.
The unincorporated town was originally settled by Slovak immigrants in the 1890s and is named after Slovakia. It is around 50 miles from Little Rock and near Stuttgart, known as the duck and rice capital of the world.
Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church is a landmark and center of the community. Outside this church is a statue to Saint Isidore, the patron saint of farmers. The Slovak crest can be seen on the design of the stained glass windows inside the church.
“The vast fertile flatlands of the Grand Prairie look a lot like the farmlands of southern Slovakia and the village of Slovak is a lot like farm hamlets in the old country,” said Dr. David Ware, State Historian and Director of the Arkansas State Archives. “It's a nexus of kinship, one in which social activities tend to center around the Catholic church. It is unincorporated but that does not matter. For centuries, Slovaks were agrarian folk and that traditional preference survives in the community of Slovak. So do traditional lifeways, particularly in terms of faith, family and food.”
Traditions have stayed strong within the families of the Slovak community and annual events in town include the The Knights of Columbus Oyster Supper, which is held at the church and dates back to the 1940s. The event was a finalist for the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame this year.
A Slovak Heritage Day also takes place at the church, where customs can be experienced in the realms of food, family, music and culture. Dishes include kolaches ( pastries filled with fruit), bobalki, holubky (stuffed cabbage) and sauerkraut soup. Other cultural elements of the festival include music of the fujara, a large wooden flute traditionally played by Slovenian shepherds.
The idea for Slovak Heritage Day has foundations in a trip that Slovak resident Dan Hooks took. He traveled to Slovakia with his wife and sister to visit the village of their great-great grandfather. He was going to show a slideshow from their venture at the church’s monthly coffee and donut fellowship. Another resident, Virginia Lisko, took the idea further and said they could have a heritage day and invite people and make an event of it. This event, which took place at the church in 2015, became the first Slovak Heritage Day. “Families brought their family memorabilia and family pictures and records and set up their own displays,” Hooks said. “We all know families have their own family history but we don’t ever get to see it and share it. So it turned into an opportunity for this.”
Slovak Heritage Day has since become an annual opportunity to share this heritage.
“It’s the traditions,” Hooks said. “We still make homemade wine ( muscadine), a few of us make homemade sausages, kielbasa.”
Slovak is an agricultural community and many families are the descendants of the Slavic immigrants who first came to the area and they still farm the family farms.
“Family history says great granddad came and went two or three times and he bought a bit of land ( in Slovak) and would go back to work ( in Pennsylvania) and make enough money to buy 40 acres,” said Hooks. Virginia Lisko is from Stuttgart and has German heritage. Her husband Joe is from the community and his grandfather immigrated there in 1898.
A strong kinship thrives in the community. “The heritage, to me it’s like if your family came over on the Mayflower,” said Hooks, who farms rice and soybeans. “We are here and we are still here and it is that lineage of being a fourth or fifth generation on the same land. Several of us have done the century farm, hundred year old farms whose farmland has been in the same family for over a hundred years.”
Today Arkansas is among the top rice producers in the nation. The adoption of rice cultivation not only had an impact on the state, but on Slovak too. “Initially farmers around Slovak were mainly haying,” said Ware. “But hay is not a massively profitable crop. And the soil of the Grand Prairie does not make it easy to grow traditional crops such as oats or wheat. That soil, the “buckshot” soil, our official state soil, the “Stuttgart series,” has a clayey layer to it, so water doesn’t percolate quickly. The ground stays sort of mucky. Which made it great for growing rice, which loves wet ground. So in the early 20th century, the farmers of the Grand Prairie turned to rice farming, and the rest is history.”
Ware said that by 1905 there were 1000 groundwater-irrigated acres of rice planted. In 1906, nearly 6000 acres on the Grand Prairie were committed to rice.
“So one might say that the advent of rice culture changed the agricultural economy of Slovak from one based on harvesting animal forage to one based on intensive staple-crop production, feeding into and dependent on the national, even the global economy,” he said.
The community was founded in 1894 due to efforts of the Slovak Colonization Company of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The company, begun by Peter Rovnianek, founder of the Narodny slovensky spolok ( National Slovak Society), bought 3,000 acres of Arkansas land for settlement, in the area that would become Slovak. The initial group of immigrants included farmers and coal miners.
“At the time, this was grassland, largely unfarmed, but the company had big hopes for it,” said Ware. “This site was planned for an agricultural community on untouched grassland and included 160 acres in the center of the tract for a township and lots for farms, the church, and a school.” The goal of this effort was to attract farmers and Slovakian coal miners, “possibly including some of the 18,000 who went on strike in the Connellsville, Pennsylvania, region in 1891.”
Many that first came to Slovak were looking for a different life than working the mines, which had been a first introduction to life in the U.S. for many. After leaving the mines, some continued venturing back and forth to work in them to make money for their farms.
“Slovak was a good example of an ethnic or cultural colony drawing populations mainly from ethnic communities already established elsewhere in the United States,” said Ware. “This was a secondary migration destination for these immigrant miners and farmers. They had come to this country, seeking a chance to own land and prosper on their own terms. Cultural colonies like Slovak allowed them to do this, preserving community values and religious traditions of the old country, right here on the Grand Prairie of eastern Arkansas.”