Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - June 3, 2005
Cymru am byth
Catherine Zeta-Jones, Richard Burton, Thomas Jefferson, slate blackboards and Bala, Kansas - what could they possibly have in common? The first is a beautiful actress, the second was a sex symbol actor to the baby-boomer generation, the third was a founding father, the fourth is a material used in old school rooms and the last is -or used to be - a small town west of Riley in Kansas.
But they share a common origin - they are all products of Wales - a place so small that if it was compressed into the eastern part of Kansas, its western border wouldn't even reach Topeka.
But despite being a tiny nation, Wales has made its mark in the world in places as far apart as New South Wales - a state of Australia - to Bangor, Maine to Riley County.
Art got fired up about our local Bala after I told him about visiting the Bala town site on one of the Riley County sesquicentennial tours sponsored by the historical society. Vaughan is a Welsh name and during our visits to the land of his great grandfather, we've visited the original Bala several times. It's a picturesque village of 2,000 inhabitants, resting on the west side of Lake Bala, midway between the east and west borders of Wales and about one-quarter of the way from the northern border.
I bought Art a book from the Riley County Historical Society about the local Bala as he was wondering if there was some particular connection between the two, such as a flood of settlers moving from the former to the latter. He discovered that while there were some connections, the Welsh who settled in this area seemed to have originated from every corner of Wales.
When our lovely Flint Hills turn green in the spring, they remind me of the lush green hillsides and mountains of Wales which are watered by abundant rains. But the landscape in Wales is deceiving. In most places, the soil is thin, with rock just below the surface. Herding sheep or mining were for years the only occupations that could support many people. But there are only so many sheep a country can consume, and mining slate in the north or coal in the south is hard, dirty and dangerous work. The situation became worse when cheaper and lighter substitutes were found for the high quality slate that had been shipped to schoolrooms all over the world. Having big families in such a small land didn't help the situation either.
The Welsh have been somewhat inclined over the years to blame their situation on their dominant English neighbors. They can look back to the 13th Century when Edward I subjugated the Welsh. He was reported to have told them that the next king of England would be born in Wales and would speak no English. The idea was to placate the Welsh by having them conclude that the heir to the throne would be Welsh. Edward later sent his pregnant queen to Carnarvon on the west coast of Wales to give birth to a son, who, being a baby, not only couldn't speak Welsh, but couldn't speak any other language either. But the Welsh did get something out of the deal. To this day, the heir to the British throne is called the Prince of Wales.
The tension between the Welsh and the English today has a more modern basis - one that is played out in many rural communities in America too. Well-to-do English from places such as London purchase vacation homes in the beautiful Welsh countryside. These purchases drive up land values, pushing poorer Welsh farmers from the land. When Art first visited Wales, he was advised to always make sure people knew he was from the United States and not England.
Oddly, the Welsh also owe the English a debt of gratitude. While conditions in Wales may have been what forced many Welsh to cast their eyes overseas for a better life, subjugation by the English meant that almost all Welshmen were fluent in English as well as their native tongue - a language that may be the oldest living one in Europe. This allowed the Welsh to more easily fit into English-speaking lands such as Australia and America.
Through a concerted effort, the Welsh language has not only been kept alive, but is gaining. There are as many people in Wales who speak their native tongue as their primary language as there are people in all of Kansas - about 2.5 million.
So, while Bala, Kansas is pretty much a memory, Bala, Wales is doing just fine. Cymru am byth - Wales forever!
Katie and I at an entrance to Bala, Wales, left, and Kevin Larson
leading a history tour near the bridge by Bala, Kansas.