Samuel Gompers, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, wrote in the New York Times in 1910: “Of all the days celebrated for one cause or another, there is not one which stands so conspicuously for social advancement of the common people as the first Monday in September… Labor Day glorifies no armed conflicts or battles of man’s prowess over man…[It] stands for industrial peace and for the toiler’s economic, political, social, and moral advancement.”
Labor Day began as part of the late 19th century Labor Movement, becoming a national holiday in 1894 as “a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” For proponents of the Labor Movement, the day sought to recognize and further advancements in organized labor including reduced working hours, more time off, better working conditions, an established minimum wage, and child labor laws.
Southeast Kansas was no stranger to the social progress earned by organized labor, nor the issues that arose from it. The coal mining industry, which had existed in Crawford County since the mid- to late- 1800s, had been responsible for the foundation of several mining communities.
Local historian William E. Powell researched the growth of mining camps into still-existing communities in the 1970s. One of Powell’s findings was a 1926 issue of the Pittsburg Daily Headlight, “[which] described the causal relationship of the “opening” of a shaft mine and resultant mining camp in Crawford county: “The opening of mine No. 1 of the Cherokee-Pittsburg Coal Company was the principal cause of the establishment of the camp, which later became known as the city of Frontenac.” Discussing the stimulation of coal mining upon the genesis and growth of the community of Mineral City the author of a Cherokee Countyhistory wrote: “The coal mining industry is the big thing of the place. The beginning of this is what gave rise to the city. It has fostered its growth, and it will continue as the chief business of the community.””
Like other 19th and early 20th century labor forces, coal miners and their families endured dangerous working conditions, long work days, and little pay for their labor. As with the nationwide Labor Movement, the miners began to push for improved working conditions and compensation. Strikes began to occur, garnering national attention with the 1921 mining strike and concurrent marches of the miner’s wives, mothers, and sisters, dubbed the Amazon Army.
Pittsburg’s Hotel Stilwell became a focal point in the mining labor movement in 1919, when Governor Henry J. Allen temporarily moved the governor’s office to the hotel in response to miner strikes. From this location, Governor Allen met with miner’s union member Alexander Howat and negotiated the miner’s return to work. After the agreement was reached, Allen issued a call from the hotel to the Kansas legislature for a special session to consider labor legislation.
Crawford County continues to recognize the miner’s labor, ethnic heritage, and push for improved working conditions every Labor Day weekend with the Little Balkans Days Festival. The term “Little Balkans” was attached to Southeast Kansas early in its mining history, since many of its immigrant workers came from the Balkans region of southeastern Europe. Pittsburg State University Archivist Randy Roberts explained: “Although once a pejorative term for the region, Little Balkans of Kansas is now an expression of pride that celebrates the region’s diverse cultural and ethnic heritage and rich history.” Little Balkans Days continues to be held every Labor Day weekend since 1985.
Visit the Miner’s Hall Museum to learn more about this topic.