Southeast Kansas once looked like the rest of the state with farmsteads and settlements on rolling hills of the prairie. The search for coal changed everything, shaping the land and the culture of what became known as The Little Balkans.
The Mid 1800’s
Crawford County – established 1867
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 trail was blazed, then a stage coach line, and eventually 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.
The Late 1800’s
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 and 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–frequently leading to clashes with the law because of Kansas Prohibition (1881-1948).
Despite diverse backgrounds, they shared one value: they would do whatever it took to protect and provide for their families.
Coal 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. To keep families fed, many also bootlegged wine and “deep shaft” whiskey, delivering it as far east as New York City.
A hotbed for worker rights, Crawford County was home to the busiest post office in the state, because of the publishers of the largest socialist newspaper in the nation and the Little Blue Books. In 1921, wives and sweethearts dubbed “The Amazon Army” made national headlines by marching and closing mines to protest work conditions.
Continuous turmoil in the Balkans of Europe prompted one Kansas legislator to call Southeast Kansas the “The Little Balkans”. Meant to be derogatory, instead, the moniker provided people from varied backgrounds with a shared identity and was embraced.
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 that continue 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. 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.