WILSON — “Dobry den! Vitame Vas na Wilson!”
Those phrases — Czech for “Good day! We welcome you to Wilson!” — could be heard repeatedly throughout Friday and Saturday as the town of about 800 welcomed family and visitors to its annual After Harvest Czech Festival.
In the commons area of Wilson High School on Friday afternoon, that heritage was in full display in the Miss Czech Princess Pageant, where eight girls, ages 4 to 13, competed for the titles in their age groups of Mini Princess for ages 4 to 7, Little Princess for ages 8 to 10 and Princess for ages 11 to 13.
In addition to wearing the traditional dress called a kroj, the girls had to show knowledge of their family history and answer questions about Czech culture. The younger girls were asked what their favorite tradition is, while the older girls got tougher questions, such as what year the Czech Republic become a country and the name of the prime minister of the Czech Republic.
The winners of the princess pageant become ambassadors, riding in the festival parade as well as attending events in nearby communities such as Ellsworth’s Cowtown Days, Hoisington’s Labor Day parade and participating in the cultural showcase at the Kansas State Fair.
In Saturday’s pageant, the festival crowned the Kansas Czech-Slovak Queen. After serving her year as the Kansas queen, she will compete in the national pageant in Wilbur, Neb. The 2018 queen, Emma Carlin, will compete in next weekend’s national pageant there.
The reigning national queen, Janae Buckley, Omaha, was on hand to help judge the pageants. As queen, she has traveled more than 30,000 miles to 11 states and recently returned from the Czech Republic.
“I just love the pride you see in everyone and I’m happy to be here and excited to celebrate the heritage and the culture,” she said, adding the Wilson festival is one she’s always wanted to visit.
A design major with an emphasis in ethnic dress preservation, Buckley worked for about two years to restore the beadwork and other elements of the kroj she wore Friday.
“The whole point of this festival and pageant is keeping our heritage alive and making sure the next generation knows where they came from,” said Cathy Grosscup, director of the princess and queen pageants.
“The girls have to research what percentage (Czech) they are and where their family came from, and they discover a lot of things about their personal heritage, but then also just Czech heritage as a whole,” she said.
Grosscup, herself the 2004 Kansas Czech Queen, took over direction of the pageant this year after Lynn Kasper retired in 2018. Many of those helping with the pageants, including Friday’s emcee Anna Hand, Ellsworth, have also served as queen.
“Everybody comes back and pitches in or attends the pageant, so it’s pretty cool,” Grosscup said.
In addition to the pageant, a traditional Czech meal is served and traditional dances, including a maypole dance, are demonstrated in Lions Club Park, and the Wilson Community Band plays a concert.
This year, the band recognized two of its long-time volunteer members, twin brothers Kenneth and Willis Becker, Sylvan Grove, who have been playing in the band since 1949.
There is also a meeting of Kansas Czechs Inc. Christy Thomas, Hays, has been president for five years.
“I probably, technically have been a member since I was 10. I’ve been attending the meetings for as long as I can remember,” she said.
Her parents grew up in Wilson and her grandparents still live there. “This is one of our favorite weekends of the year, and we’re heavily involved. So it’s busy and sometimes stressful, but we love it,” she said.
An important role of the organization is making sure the heritage remains the center of the festival, she said.
“Our big focus is keeping the festival Czech. They have rock bands and different things participate, but we want to make sure the focus is still the heritage. So our part is making sure we support those people and organizations that do that as well as putting on our own events,” she said.
There are other Czech festivals in Kansas — in Republic County, Rossville and Blue Rapids among them — but Wilson is the largest, Thomas said.
“This is the crowning thing every year,” she said.