Slovenes may not be a numerous ethnic group, but southeast Kansas was blessed with more than its share to add their culture to the Little Balkans.
Their story will be told in "Slovenes in Southeast Kansas," the latest special exhibit at the Miners Hall Museum, Franklin. Curated by Jerry Lomshek, Chicopee, it will be on free public view October, November and December.
"Slovenes are at least the second largest immigrant group to come to southeast Kansas, next to the Italians, if not equal to the Italians," Lomshek said. "I've found Slovenes here as early as the 1880s, but the largest part came from 1900 to 1915. Virtually all of the men worked in the mines."
It can be difficult to determine just how many Slovenes did come to this area, he added, because sometimes they were listed as Austrians or even referred to themselves as Austrians.
"That was technically accurate, since they were under the Austrian Empire at that time, until the end of World War II," Lomshek said.
The exhibit contains items from his family and several other area Slovenian families, along with a map of Slovenia and copies of literary works by Slovene authors.
"The Slovenes have always been a pretty literary people," Lomshek said. "From 1991 to 2007, when they adopted the Euro, about all the people pictured on the Slovenian currency were non-military and many were writers."
One of the best-known poets was France Preseren, and the exhibit includes a copy of his poems and his portrait.
A Slovene writer closer to home was Mary Molek, poet and author of "Immigrant Woman," a fictionalized biography of her mother, Lucija Jug. Molek was born in 1909 at Chicopee and graduated from Kansas State College in Pittsburg (now Pittsburg State University) in 1928. She died in 1982.
The Slovenes of southeast Kansas had several lodges or fraternal organizations.
"The SNPJ 225 here is still active, and it's the last one in Kansas," Lomshek said. "It's a more secular organization. There was also the KSKJ, a Catholic Slovene lodge, and Druzba Sv. Barbara, a society of Slovenian miners named for St. Barbara, the patron saint of miners. It still exists among Slovenian miners in Belgium."
Lomshek's grandfather, Matevz Lomsek came to the United States in 1902 and worked at the coal mines in Fleming for three years to earn money to send for his fiancee, Ana Novak.
"She came to the United States in 1905 and they were married a week later at St. Barbara's Church in Chicopee," Lomshek said.
His wife's family came later, after World War II, and she still has two aunts living in Slovenia.
Lomshek and his wife have maintained ties with their ancestral homeland.
"I first went there in 1969, and have now been there 10 times," he said. "My brother Steve goes over every summer and spends two or three months. My three children all have Slovenian names, and now all eight grandchildren do, too."
His daughter, Jasna, married Slovene Gregor Kalan and the family lived in Slovenia for several years.
Slovenia became part of communist Yugoslavia after the end of the war, but broke away in 1991 and is now a proud and free nation.
The Miners Hall Museum is open free to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.