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Thursday, August 7, 1997
Pottsville Republican/Evening Herald

In coal region, Lithuanian Day was like Christmas
County celebration still going strong in 83rd year
Ed Schreppel
Community Editor

Preparation of kugelis and bandukes would begin a week prior to the big event. But it was probably the eves of the annual Lithuanian Day celebrations at Lakewood Park that saw some of the wildest action. Because crowds could swell to 25,000 in the late 1920s and '30s and picnic tables were at a premium, older male family members would go to the Barnesville park the night before, pick a table and sleep there to assure his family a spot.

Lithuanian Day for anthracite region Lithuanian-Americans was like Christmas, Saint Clair's Anna Klizas Wargo said. The event is now in its 83rd year. And Shenandoah, fueled by the great immigration from eastern Europe, had been known in the early part of the century as the "Lithuanian Capital of the U.S.," she said. It has the oldest organized Lithuanian Catholic parish in America, St. George's.

"Everyone was Lithuanian on that day," said Mary Koons, Shenandoah. "It was just like when everyone would be Irish on St. Patrick's Day." "That day" was Aug. 15, the Catholic feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Later, Lithuanian Day was held on the Sunday closest to Aug. 15.

Sometimes the method for reserving a table at Lakewood Park didn't involve much sleeping. Wargo recalled one year when her two older brothers took a quarter keg of beer with them when they went to secure "reservations." A party ensued and the beer was gone by daybreak, she said with a chuckle. In the 1920s, she recalled, her brother had an old Ford with a rumble seat, and he'd leave the house at 4 or 5 a.m. to make sure the family would have a spot. "People would fight over picnic tables," Bernice Mikatavage, Minersville, remembered. In the 1930s, she said, "everyone went, by train, by truck or by car." Koons said you could hop aboard a Reading Company train on East Centre Street in Shenandoah. It would wind through several towns and had a stop at East Mahanoy Junction, which was a short walk from Lakewood. Eleanor Vaicaitis, Frackville, remembered the train. "That's the only way we could go," she said. "We didn't have a car." Those who didn't get an early start would wind up in lines of traffic that formed at the park entrance and stretched for miles in both directions on Route 54, then known as Route 45. "I can remember going, as a child, in a car from Minersville," Mikatavage said. "We'd get in a line of traffic way outside of Lakewood and inch our way to the park."

But when the crowd gathered and the festivities began, the day was marked by good times and camaraderie, she said. "The feeling in the park was so neighborly," she said. "Relatives would come in from the city." Each table would have as its centerpiece a vase of garden flowers that included the herb "ruta," Lithuania's national flower.

Wargo, Koons, Mikatavage and Vaicaitis are all members of Schuylkill County's Anthracite Council No. 144, Knights of Lithuania, which has sponsored the Lithuanian Day observances since 1977. The 220-member council includes Lithuanian-Americans from throughout the county and even from the Mount Carmel area in Northumberland County.

Today's celebrations are mild compared to the sometimes raucous gatherings of the '20s and '30s. It isn't likely anyone will spend the night on a bench at the Schuylkill Mall, where the event has been held since 1989, to reserve a spot. And families won't tap kegs of beer at the mall or take swigs of homemade boilo, an eastern European elixir containing grain alcohol, honey and various fruits, as they did at "The Lake." Nevertheless, the council members expect several thousand people will visit the mall on Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 16 and 17, for the 83rd run of what they now call Lithuanian "Days." It's the longest running continuous ethnic observance in the state, said Wargo, Council 144 president. There have been no interruptions since the first one in 1914 -- not even for World Wars I and II.

Although the modern observances are more subdued than the old bashes at Lakewood, some things -- like the food -- haven't changed. Lithuanian pork meatballs -- bandukes -- will be one of the most popular items. They'll be served on rolls, Mikatavage said. But oldtimers would just as soon have them with rugieni duonas -- Lithuanian rye bread that features a hard crust. Another favorite will be kugelis, which is similar to bleenies but baked rather than fried. Other Lithuanian delicacies that'll be available in the low-set area behind the mall's center court include mesini deshros (Lithuanian sausage), bulvini deshros (potato baloney in a casing) and balandeliai (halupkies). Soup was a big part of the Lithuanian diet. Mikatavage and Wargo said shalti barsciai (cold red beet soup), kopustai sriuba (cabbage soup) and lapienai (spinach soup) will be available. And enjoying ogurkai -- Lithuanian dill pickles -- with bandukes or mesini would be as close to Heaven as one could get on Earth.

The observance grew from a dream by two priests to keep Lithuanians united in a spirit of gaiety, good will and friendship, according to a history outline in Koons' 1964 Lithuanian Day golden jubilee book. The Revs. Vincent Dargis, pastor of St. Joseph's Parish, Mahanoy City, and Francis Augustaitis, rector of St. Vincent's Parish, Girardville, called on other priests and representatives of various groups to meet at Boczkowski's Hall in Mahanoy City shortly after Easter in 1914. From that gathering, a committee was formed and the first Lithuanian Day was held at Lakeside Park that year. Later, better financial terms offered by Lakewood Park lured the celebration there.

(Ed Schreppel is Community Edition editor of The Herald. His column appears on Thursdays.)

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