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Updated: Apr 4

The US State of Arkansas, which is situated on Quapaw native land, is known for many things: the only diamond mines in the United States, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Johnny Cash, and college football, to name a few.

However, it also is the location of the only town in America -named after the European country of Slovakia. Slovak, Arkansas (originally referred to a Slovactown) is an agricultural community founded in 1894 by the Slovak Colonization Company, in response to the poor working conditions in Pennsylvania’s coal mines and steel mills.

This was during the Great Migration, when tens of millions of Europeans migrated to America in search of work. Slovakia, then Upper Hungary, was no exception. One of third of the nation travelled by boat to the US to meet the demands of the Industrial Revolution. They were promised streets paved with gold, but what they got was dirty and dangerous work.

Still, Slovak farmers could earn up to ten-times more than what they got in the ‘Old Country’, and so they risked it all to survive.

From 1870 to 1920 some 750,000 Slovaks travelled across the ocean arriving on America’s shores desperate but also determined. They worked, saved money and hoped to return back to the homeland. One third managed this, but the greater majority stayed in America with many longing to re-create ‘Slovakia’ in the New World.

Community debate ensued and men argued that the fate of the ‘Slovak in America’ belonged in the countryside, far-away from the exploitation and wickedness of industrial city life. A ‘back to the farm’ campaign was ignited, 3000 acres of land were purchased in the prairies of Arkansas, and many brave families began to journey again to a new home.

Hardship awaited as the pioneers had to tame the vast, open and wild prairieland that awaited them. The 7-foot-tall prairie grass was prone to uncontrollable fire outbreaks and the soil failed to grow the European crops they were skilled at farming. However, determined to survive and thrive, the families bailed and sold the prairie grass, which provided only minimal stability. Eventually, strife gave way to innovation, when rice was seeded into the soil around 1904. The Arkansas clay basin, prone to natural flooding, proved compatible with the crop and a new industry was born.

Today, Arkansas is the largest rice producer in the United States. The state not only feeds America, but it exports its surplus to 50 other markets around the globe.

It continues to be home to around 80, mostly Slovak families, that are the descendants of those 19th century Slavic pioneers. Located some 50 miles east of Arkansas’s capital of Little Rock, the unincorporated ‘Slovak’ town is a nest of successful family farms, and a thriving duck hunting industry. The roughly three-month long duck hunting season generates over 1-million US dollars a-day in tourism revenue for the greater town of Stuttgart - which Slovak, is a part of.

Indeed, 21st century Slovak, Arkansas has struck gold.

Yet, few have heard of this remarkable town, and even fewer still in the country of Slovakia- whom the community is named after.

The Cold War and the ideological divide that separated the Eastern Bloc from America via the Iron Curtain, has a lot to do with it. But also the lack of engagement between Slovakia, its government and the American South in general. For now, rural Arkansas is more than a stone’s throw away from the usual diplomatic priorities of Washington DC, New York and of course Silicon Valley.

But Slovakia has a lot in common with rural America.

Driving across the sparsely populated flatlands of Arkansas, is reminiscent of southern Slovakia, and its vast expanses of fertile farmland. The little American town of Slovak, steeped in a strong faith and hard work ethic, shares many similarities to Slovak villages. Here, almost everyone is kin whether it be by blood or marriage. Being a good steward of the land is at the core of being a member of the community.

The current and past residents of Slovak, Arkansas make it a point to acknowledge their Slovak heritage, which includes kolaches (sweet cakes) and polka dancing, but also values that are the pillars of rural life: faith, family and farming. For centuries upon centuries, Slovaks (in Slovakia) were an agrarian people, the country was only industrialized during communism in the 1960s. And although the magnetisms of city life pulls young people into the capital, the vast majority of Slovaks still live a traditional life.

Similar values are embodied in Slovak, Arkansas, a community that does not shy away from hard work, nor being proud of their Slovak Heritage. An honor that is bestowed on their church's stained glass windows- vibrantly donning the Slovak Crest. The national insignia of Slovakia weaves its way into the American town’s welcome sign, but also in the everyday items the community holds dear – coffee mugs, t-shirts and baseball caps, to name a few.

But it is the annual Heritage Day Festival that is the most colorful display of Slovak pride in the Grand Prairie. Established in 2015, after a descendant of one of the founding families returned from a trip to the ‘old country’ eager to share their memories. A gathering resulted, amongst plentiful halušky, holúbky, and koláče and has been on-going ever since.

Global Slovakia joined this year’s Heritage Day Festival with the aspiration to connect this fascinating community with the people of Slovakia with several projects on the horizon. Also in attendance was an independent documentary film crew and archivists there to capture this important part of American and Slovak history for the upcoming film The Pioneers of Slovak, Arksanas.

Many of the residents who remember the original founding fathers and mothers have passed away, or are in their late eighties and nineties. The ‘Heritage Day Festival’ provided an special opportunity to connect with the greater community of residents of Slovak, Arkansas.

Men and women who still run the farms their great-great-grandparents bought, but have now reached levels of prosperity their forefathers could have only dreamed of. And yet despite reaching the ‘American Dream’, they did not lose touch with their origins – their Slovak roots, spiritual values, and the memory of their ancestors' determination and strong will.

Article by: Zuzana Palovic and Deah Partak

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