REX NELSON: Hailing Slovak's heritage

Posted: February 7, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

They'll gather on the Grand Prairie of Arkansas this Sunday for the fourth annual Heritage Day at Slovak. Many of those in attendance will attend the 11 a.m. Mass at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church. Mass will be followed by a potluck lunch. The parish hall will be filled with people who have brought photos and other memorabilia concerning one of Arkansas' most fascinating communities.

I love Slovak. I was in my usual seat on the final Friday of January for the Slovak Oyster Supper, which attracts more than 1,500 men. It's my favorite annual winter event, and I've attended almost every year since moving back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989.

The oyster supper is a fundraising dinner put on by the Knights of Columbus. Through the decades, it has secured its spot among the iconic rural events that officeholders are expected to attend. It's right up there with the Gillett Coon Supper in Arkansas County, which is held earlier each January, and the Grady Fish Fry in Lincoln County, which is always the third Thursday in August. Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin were among those in attendance at this year's oyster supper.

I took then-Gov. Mike Huckabee to the Slovak Oyster Supper in 1997. I explained to him on the way over: "It's all male. Most of the men in the long line outside parish hall will be dressed in camouflage. They will be loud. Some of them will be drinking to stay warm. Expect to hear an off-color joke."

Huckabee dived right in like the political pro he is. He walked the line, slapped folks on the back and discussed duck season. This is always my advice to politicians: "Don't sneak in a back door and then sit with the group who came over with you. Don't ever wear a suit. Stand outside in the line. Visit with folks. Buy plenty of raffle tickets once you get inside. And eat both the fried and the raw oysters."

I arrived early this year, leading Hutchinson to ask me if I had ignored my own advice and come through the back door. I assured him that I hadn't. I know how things work in Prairie County.

I wasn't raised in Prairie County, but my mother was. My grandfather, W.J. Caskey of Des Arc, served as Prairie County judge from 1937-41. He often would make what in those days was the long trip south from Des Arc to campaign in the area. He knew the Slovak families, understood their roots and took on the difficult task of learning to spell their names correctly. My mother, who was born in 1925, remembers going to Slovak with him in the 1930s and having a woman ask in her thick eastern European accent: "Would the little girl like a glass of wine?" My grandfather, a deacon in the First Baptist Church of Des Arc, quickly informed her that neither of them would be having any wine.

Slovak was founded in 1894 as part of an effort to bring immigrants to break up the Grand Prairie and raise crops.

"Various Slovak fraternal and nationalistic organizations, such as the National Slovak Society, translated advertisements promoting the favorable agricultural areas of Arkansas into the Slovak language at presses in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Illinois," Jamie Metrailer writes for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "Following such advertisements, the Slovak Colonization Co. was organized in 1894 in Pittsburgh by Peter V. Rovnianek. The company bought 3,000 acres of Arkansas land for settlement in the southern portion of Prairie County. 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."

Twenty-five families arrived in the fall of 1894 at what was originally known as Slovactown. Metrailer writes that the families were headed by "farmers and coal miners who had struggled in the northeastern United States. ... This first group of immigrants arrived at DeValls Bluff by rail and then proceeded to their new homes by wagon. The newly arrived settlers erected a community house where the pastor of Stuttgart, 12 miles south of Slovactown, provided religious services. By 1895, letters to Bishop Edward Fitzgerald requested a priest devoted solely to Slovactown. The growing Slovak congregation, under the guidance of another Stuttgart priest, built its first church in 1900." The church has been the heart of the community ever since.

The Slovak Oyster Supper has been around for decades, but the first Heritage Day wasn't held until 2015. The Stuttgart Daily Leader reported that "American and Slovakian flags hung over tables filled with memorabilia that included needlework, folk dress, pottery, photo albums, cookbooks, maps, woodcarvings, folk art, antiques and more. ... More than 150 parishioners and visitors browsed the items that were displayed. They swapped memories and family connections."

The foods ranged from a stuffed cabbage dish called holubky to a cabbage and noodles dish called halushki. The newspaper reported: "A Beranek cake shaped like a lamb offered a nostalgic centerpiece, surrounded by apricot, nut, poppyseed and prune-filled kolachies baked by the Slovak Bakers, a parish group of men and women who come together to make the traditional pastries."

Also served each year is a fruit brandy known as slivovitz. My friend Stephen Saranie provides important advice: "Be careful with that plum brandy. It will take the enamel off your teeth."

------------v------------

Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 02/07/2018