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The Slovak Oyster Supper

Men from across Arkansas will head to the Grand Prairie by the hundreds again Friday night for the annual Slovak Oyster Supper, one of this state’s great traditions.

I’ve attended the oyster supper on the final Friday night in January most years since moving back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in 1989.

It’s usually quite cold as the line snakes out of the parish hall at the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius and continues for hundreds of yards outside.

Technically, the oyster supper is a fundraising event put on by the Knights of Columbus. Through the years, though, it has become much more than that. It’s one of those landmark rural events in Arkansas, right up there with the Grady Fish Fry each August and the Gillett Coon Supper early each January.

I’ll long remember taking then-Gov. Mike Huckabee to his first Slovak Oyster Supper.

“You need to understand what you’re getting into,” I explained to him on the drive over to Prairie County. “It’s an all-male event. There are no women. Most of the men in the line will be dressed in camouflage. They will be loud. Some of them will be drinking to stay warm in that line.”

Huckabee dived in like the political pro he is — walking up and down the line, slapping folks on the back, discussing the almost-completed duck season.

A free piece of political advice for you officeholders and aspiring officeholders from someone who has done a bit of political consulting in the past: Don’t sneak in a back door, sit down and then eat with the group who came over with you from Little Rock. And don’t ever wear a suit.

Regardless of how cold it is, stand outside in the line. Visit with the boys. Don’t be afraid to tell a joke. Buy plenty of raffle tickets once you get inside.

And know that when you’re inside that crowded hall, the sound will be deafening.

Here’s the pot of gold at the end of the line: You’ll receive a plate of fried oysters and french fries. You also will get a cup filled with raw oysters.

The oysters are fresh.

They’re good.

And the servers will give you plenty to eat. You won’t go away hungry.

I always say that my favorite event in the summer is the Grady Fish Fry and my favorite event in the winter is the Slovak Oyster Supper.

Even though Slovak is just a few miles from Stuttgart, it’s in Prairie County rather than Arkansas County. My grandfather, who died in 1980 at age 96, was once the Prairie County judge. During those years as county judge, he often would make what was then a long trip from his home in Des Arc in the northern part of the county to Slovak in the southern part of the county.

He came to know those families with their strong European roots and even took on the difficult task of spelling their names correctly in county records.

Slovak had been founded in 1894.

“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 in The 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.”

In the fall of 1894, 25 families arrived by rail at DeValls Bluff from the northeastern United States, where they had struggled as farmers and coal miners. They then took wagons to their new home, which originally was known as Slovactown or Slovaktown. The first church was constructed in 1900.

“By 1909, about 50 families had settled in Slovactown,” Metrailer writes. “Most of these families were Slovak, but a few were Bohemian and Russian. This community built another church, the Church of Saints Cyril and Methodius, around 1914, and yet the congregation still did not have a parish priest. In the absence of a priest, men of the Miklik, Matoske, Konecny and Dolny families conducted services. By 1910, the Slovaks stopped cutting prairie hay and began farming rice as the region experienced the economic boom associated with the introduction of rice. By 1916, rice was the mainstay crop of the community.”

The rice industry remains important to this day.

The first resident priest, Father Louis Glinski, arrived in 1917. By 1925, there were about 60 farm families in the community. That number had increased to almost 90 families by 1948.

“In the early 1950s, an estimated 500 citizens of Slovak descent lived on farms in or around Slovak,” Metrailer writes. “During this time, businesses also came to include crop-dusting, seeding and private flying businesses. During the 1950s, Father Frank Janesko acted as clergy for the community. Janesko was raised in Slovak and came from a family of the original settlers to the area. The Slovak community continues to be largely defined by farming, kinship and religion.”

Farming, kinship and religion.

That’s a nice way to put it.

The Slovak Oyster Supper combines all of those traditions on the final Friday night of each January.

And just think: It will be warmer than usual this year when you’re standing in that long, long line.

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