LITTLE BALKANS — People are submerged in southeast Kansas Balkans history during Little Balkans Days.

In the 1800s, people came to southeast Kansas bringing their diverse heritage. People traveled from across the United States and Europe for its farmland and “abundant mineral resources, supported by numerous railroads,” according to documentation provided by the Little Balkans Days committee.

It was coal mining, smelting of zinc and other coal-related activities which attracted thousands of people to the area.

The area boasted a population of nearly 220,000 by 1880, almost a quarter of the state’s total, and according to the committee, the area was referred to as the Kansas Balkans because of its “relative geographical position in the state and the diversity of its population.”

According to the committee, the Europeans brought a “rich ‘cultural baggage’ of different languages, religions, cuisines, backgrounds and lifestyles.” People are reminded of their heritage each year during Little Balkans Days; a celebration of their ancestors culture, struggles and achievements regarding labor in the mines.

Just like most families, tradition is passed down from generation to generation. Linda Roberts and Lynette Downing keep their grandmother’s’ recipes close. During Little Balkans Days there were demonstrations on potica, French cookies and Swedish pancakes.

“The recipes are like treasures in the family,” Roberts said.

 

Traditional dishes

As per tradition, Downing was 12-years-old when she was finally allowed to be in the kitchen while her grandmother made potica. She said the recipe is complicated, therefore young children were shooed away from the kitchen for the sake of the recipe.

The Slovenian dish is a yeast bread with a walnut or raisin filling. The dough is rolled which creates the distinct swirl inside.

Downing uses a personal recipe, a hybrid of two of her grandmother’s’ recipes.

This particular dish cannot simply be written down in the recipe book, many details are left out.
“There are details in the recipe you don't write down,” Downing said. “It’s just trial and error.
“I still make notes on recipes, it’s really a work in progress.”

Creating potica is more than just the end product, it is the family experience which matters most, Downing said. She plans on teaching her 12-year-old daughter how to make potica, continuing the family tradition.

There are many versions of French cookies and most have the same ingredients. It’s the alcohol which often makes them different. Some cookies are made with bourbon and others are made with rum or brandy.

“I would say they are from the ‘Balkan peninsulas,” Roberts said. “I like all french cookies, but you tend to like the ones you grew up with because it reminds you of family.”
Years ago the cookies were made with a heated iron, but now are much more convenient to make now that there are electric grid irons.
“When the electronic one came out my mother rejoiced,” Roberts said.

 

Music and Dance

Music and dance are also passed down generations.
Johnnie Zibert keeps his family’s tradition of Polka music alive by playing the accordion during Little Balkans Days and other community events with his band, Johnnie Zibert Band - SEK Polka.

“It’s a great heritage for southeast Kansas to keep alive,” Zibert said.

He wasn’t the first in his family to do so. His father, played Polka music for 70 years.

“He was a first generation Polka musician out of the family,” Zibert said. “They were Slovenian and they were big into Polka and accordion music so the insisted for him to learn it young, around 10 year old.

“I saw the enjoyment my dad had playing thought it was neat so I joined in with him.”

Similar to the French cookies, Polka music came from a variety of places and there are a variety of styles — Germans, Czechoslovakians, Slovenians all had their own style, Zibert said.

Zibert practices a more “Cleveland-style” Polka, which is upbeat for dancing. This version was popular in the U.S. because of that.

“It was a very popular dance music for years and years,” Zibert said. “It still is nowadays in some populations.

“Southeast Kansas has a good following of Polka music because of the Balkans. It keeps it in southeast Kansas.”

Although there are fewer and fewer bands and audience members, Zibert said he plans to continue the art to keep it alive.

“We want to keep the music going because it is kind of a dying art and style of music,” he said. “We will play every opportunity we get, we love to have crowds and dancers.

“If for nothing else the heritage, because Polka music is so much associated with Slovenians, and other nationalities. Festivals like the Balkans Days are an excellent opportunity show that to the public.”

Potica, French cookie demonstrations and polka are a few of the many rich pieces of the area’s history which are kept alive because of Little Balkans Days.

— Stephanie Potter is a staff writer at the Morning Sun. She can be emailed at spotter@morningsun.net or follow her on Twitter @PittStephP and Instagram @stephanie_morningsun.