By the time he set eyes on the Arkansas farm where he would spend the rest of his days, Paul Plafcan had already traveled far in life.
A native of what is now Slovakia in Eastern Europe, at 16 he fled famine and unrest in his home country, arriving in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1892 with two nephews roughly his own age. Plafcan worked in a tailor’s shop, then moved on to Pennsylvania, where he joined thousands of other Slovaks in the coal mines.
Then, in 1900, he joined several dozen families who answered the call to start a new agricultural township in eastern Arkansas, populated by Slovak immigrants. Six years earlier, the Slovak Colonization Society had organized about 300 Slovaks to leave “labor-troubled” areas of Connellsville, Pennsylvania, according to the Library of Congress, to start a Slovak colony on 3,000 acres of farmland it had purchased about 12 miles north of Stuttgart.
They named the new community, appropriately, Slovak.
Awaiting Plafcan in Arkansas was his wife Annie, a Slovak woman he had met in the Connecticut tailor’s shop, and their 18-month-old son. The couple made for an interesting sight: Paul a tall, ruddy man of six-foot-three, Annie a petite woman who stood well short of five feet. Yet her slight stature obscured a strong will; according to family legend, when Paul reacted upon seeing Arkansas with an immediate desire to leave, Annie informed him that they were staying. And that was that.
Tragedy befell the couple not long after, when their young son perished in an out-of-control wheat field fire. But they kept working, and their family kept growing, with Annie eventually giving birth to 12 more children.
As the family expanded, so did the farm. Over the next few decades, a series of land purchases by the Plafcans enlarged their original 20 acres to a more than 600-acre spread that remains in the extended family today. The Plafcans refer to it as their “century farm.”
Like many of the early Slovak family homes, the Plafcan house was plain and sparsely furnished, said their grandchildren Jon, 66, and Frank T. Plafcan, 72.
Their grandmother moved around the big kitchen in an ankle-length dress, seemingly always wearing an apron, her gray hair pinned in a bun. She cooked meals from scratch, churning butter, making sauerkraut and boiling big pots of chicken noodle soup, cooking dough and cutting it into strips, then hanging the noodles to dry. Their grandfather specialized in making muscadine wine.
“I always remember that wine smell when you came in, along with the earthy sauerkraut,” Jon Plafcan said.
The legacy of Paul and Annie Plafcan lives on through the lives and memories of more than 150 living descendants, most of whom remain in Arkansas. One of the first families to grow rice in the state, most of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren remain in the agriculture industry.
But today there is another tie that binds: duck hunting.
The Duck Club
Frank Plafcan, Sr., the ninth of Paul and Annie’s 13 children, farmed with his father until he was 42. In 1954, he bought a farm near Carlisle, about 10 miles northwest of the family farm in Slovak.
After Annie passed away in 1960, and before his own death in 1963, Paul took to visiting his son’s family, setting off in the morning to Carlisle in a mule-drawn wagon because he never learned to drive a vehicle. He conversed with his son in Slovak, and Frank translated when Paul wanted to speak to the grandchildren. The next morning, Paul would set off before daybreak in the wagon, wearing a denim shirt and a wide-brimmed straw hat to keep the sun off his pale ears.
Though his father never hunted ducks, Frank had grown up in east Arkansas and loved hunting. Not long after purchasing the 650-acre farm, he realized that a 30-acre sliver of timber at the corner of his property line formed the perfect conditions to attract migrating ducks. When rainfall flooded the timber, ducks flocked there in droves, attracted by the protective canopy and abundant acorns that tumbled off the oak trees onto the watery forest floor.
There was just one problem. Three other properties bordered the timber. If these pristine conditions were to be replicated each hunting season (and harmony with the neighbors maintained), Frank needed a way to reliably flood the woods on his property alone.
That’s when he and some hired men set about constructing a small levee between his farm and the neighbors, who also had a duck club. Because the area was too overgrown to use a tractor, the men toiled for weeks building the levee by hand, with shovels. And there the levee stood, stretching a quarter of a mile, for another four decades, a testament to the sweat and toil of Frank Plafcan.
“I just remember as a kid, he was so proud of that,” Jon Plafcan said. “He carried me in on his shoulders when I was, like, 7 years old. A clean, clear little spot in the woods.”
Ducks were so plentiful, Jon recalled, that the family would meet their limit by 8 a.m.
A family tradition grew around the informal duck club. Ten or 15 family members and their friends would gather before dawn at the edge of the woods, pull on their waders, take a five-minute boat ride and clamber into the duck blind. There they swapped tall tales and munched on Klobásy, a traditional smoked Slovak link sausage, with white bread and yellow mustard, washing it down with hazelnut coffee. After the hunt, they’d celebrate with rye whiskey and the occasional cigar.
By the time Frank Plafcan’s farm passed to his children, generations of Plafcans had grown up spending winter weekends in the clean, clear little spot in the woods of which he was so proud.
“Some people golf,” Jon Plafcan said. “We duck hunt.”
The Next Generation
Almost immediately after graduating from college in the late 1990s, Cole Plafcan – son of Frank Plafcan Jr., grandson of Frank Sr. and great-grandson of Paul – began chipping in to coordinate maintenance of the property, which requires regular upkeep such as mowing the undergrowth in the summer and fall. The family has rebuilt and enlarged the levee, and installed pipes to drain the water off the trees until duck season, when they transfer water from two reservoirs onsite to flood the timber.
In the early 2000s, Cole and the family volunteered their property for celebrity duck hunts through Waterfowl USA, a nonprofit organization that works to promote awareness and the conservation of wetlands.
Bidders purchased the opportunity to hunt on the Plafcan property with celebrities, guided by the Plafcans. Over several years, the family guided hunts with people such as former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, professional football players and actor Larry Hagman, who among his roles played oil baron J.R. Ewing in the popular television show, “Dallas.”
The details are catalogued in a notebook Cole Plafcan, 46, has kept for more than two decades, documenting every hunt he participated in at the property. He records weather conditions, who participated in the hunt, and the number and species of ducks taken.
“I wanted to know how successful we were,” Cole said of the notebook. “It gives you an idea of when you should drop what you’re doing and go.”
The optimum hunting conditions at the farm, gleaned from decades of data from Cole’s notebook, are a temperature of 35 degrees, a light wind between 7 to 10 mph and a cloudless blue sky — what he calls a “bluebird morning.”
His own sons — William, 19, Samuel, 17, and Paul, 13 — are inheriting some of the responsibilities of maintaining the timber on the Plafcan property. In doing so they are ensuring that, some 120 years after Paul and Annie Plafcan first set down roots in the Grand Prairie, their great-great-grandchildren are still working the land.
To Lawson Plafcan, 31 — Jon’s son and Cole’s cousin — it’s not a surprise.
“We’ve got staying power,” he said. “We haven’t gone anywhere.”