Polonia in Turners Falls

Sep 20, 2012

First published in the Montague Reporter, September 20, 2012.  Story by Joseph A. Parzych

The Great Hall at the Discovery Center in Turners Falls was packed with enthusiastic people of Polish descent last Thursday. In order to report on this gathering without being charged with a conflict of interest as a Pole, or a Polonian, I am happy to be able to dodge the bullet: the United States Army classified my nationality as Austro-Hungarian Russian, there being no such country as Poland when my parents were born. (Polonia is Latin for Poland, and is also used in reference to a Polish colony, or to Polish emigrants.)

“The Polish night was a consensus of ideas,” said Lisa Davol, director of Turners Falls RiverCulture as she welcomed the crowd. “Frank Abbondanzio was largely responsible for the content.”

Montague town manager Abbondanzio credits the selectboard’s administrative secretary Wendy Bogusz for being a great help in scanning pictures he’d collected, and for working to put together the memorabilia on display at the Great Hall to accompany the RiverCulture sponsored presentation, second in a series called Tales and Legends of Turners Falls.

Many others helped. Walter Kurtyka baked Polish cookies; lemon crescents as well as other shapes, including confectionery sugar covered cookie balls with walnut centers. Stas Radosz, director of the Polish Center of Discovery and Learning at Elms College in Chicopee, began the program by giving an overview of the history of immigration to the United States.

“It came in three waves,” Radosz related. “The first was ‘for bread,’ meaning there was poverty among the lower classes. That was the Great Polish Emigration in 1831-1870.”

Upon the death of a Polish farmer, farmland was divided up amongst heirs so that after a few generations, increasingly smaller strips of land did not make farming feasible for family members. Land was cheap in America, and there was plenty of it. So the immigrants came.

Polish families were often poor. They often pooled their money to enable one family member to immigrate to America. The emigrant would find work and send money back home to Poland for others to follow. The cost for passage in steerage was only about $10, but they needed a few more dollars to get settled in the U.S. Immigrants seldom had as much as $25, as listed in ships’ manifests in records on microfilm available at the Silvio Conte Records Center in Pittsfield. At one time, emigrant’s records were listed alphabetically by first name only. Now sanity has prevailed; records are listed by last name, and better yet, can be accessed by computer.

There was also forced immigration when Prussian Poles had their land confiscated by the German government. Former owners were put on ships bound for the United States, and were required to work off the price of passage as indentured servants in America. Skibiski, the Onion King in Sunderland was one of them.

For those living in the Russian sector of Poland there was the danger of being conscripted into the Russian Army at age 18 to serve until 25. Individuals, or even entire families, risked being sent to Siberia to cut logs for export, or to build prison barracks. They were treated as prisoners, though they had committed no crime. My grandfather, Joseph Parzych, spent nearly three years in Siberia, starving and worked half to death simply because he was a carpenter. A question once common in Poland: “Have you been to Siberia?” Answer: “Not yet.”

The second wave of immigration to America came after WWII when Polish soldiers, who had fought for their country in the British Army, could not go back home because Poland had been handed over to Russia at by the Allies at Yalta. Former Polish soldiers faced a hostile environment in Russian-dominated Poland, where Polish officers often were shot because Russia perceived them as a possible danger. Poland also suffered economically and chafed under Soviet rule. Poles fled to the States from England and from Poland itself. The Soviets allowed only one person from a family to immigrate to the United States for fear of losing too many people. The Soviets also collectivized Polish farms in an unsuccessful attempt to increase food production. Landless Poles set out for America as best they could.

The third wave, according to Radosz, came in the 1980s under visa lotteries. These immigrants were well educated in contrast to earlier waves, who were often poorly educated peasant farmers or miners.

Abbondanzio next introduced topics of Polish cultural life, employment in the mills, neighborhoods, clubs, and churches of Turners Falls. He hit a treasure trove when he asked members of the audience to discuss these topics and got a lively response. Edie Bourbeau told of her father having inflamed eyes, prior to departing from Poland. Any ailment, signs of being crippled, blind or infirm would be reason for an emigrant to be sent back home from Ellis Island. No doctor seemed to be able to cure his eye condition. “Finally,” Bourbeau said, “a Gypsy woman told him to pee on a rag and wipe his eyes with it. And it worked. His eye problem cleared up and he was able to enter the country.” There’s one for the medical books.

Ed Gregory’s family’s name was changed, by a processor at Ellis Island, from Gregorsciewcz to Gregory, perhaps figuring the name needed to be changed to look less like a row of letters on an eye chart. Charts like that can cause eye inflammation.

It has long been rumored that the reason there are so many consonants appearing in the Polish language is that vowels are very expensive in Poland.

Gregory, who’d grown up in the Patch, mentioned several of the 130 -150 local nicknames he had personally added to the extended list compiled at the Carnegie Library. His own parents nicknamed him “Gizmo” at birth. Some of the other nicknames were Schnoz, Hero, Shaver, Al Capone, Voit, Slasher, Yabush, Lefty and Blacky, to name but a few.

Paul Petruski brought in a collection of Russell Cutlery knives of various shapes.

“When the power company drained the canal, as kids, we used to look for knives that workers threw out of the Russell Cutlery windows,” Gregory said. “They were usually mistakes workers didn’t want their boss to see. When the cutlery was closing, the workers were mad at the company and threw more knives out the windows.”

Russell Cutlery joined forces with Harrington Cutlery as Russell Harrington Cutlery during the Depression; the company exists to this day. The huge replica of a knife that adorned the cupola atop the Russell Cutlery is now to be seen atop a shop in Old Deerfield, according to Gregory.

Russell Cutlery made a great variety of knives. A three pronged knife in a sickle shape was designed for use by one-armed people so they could cut food by rocking the knife back and forth, according to Gregory.

George Bush spoke of Polish athletes who excelled in sports at Turners Falls High, and the proud day the Turners Falls High School baseball players won the state championship in 1942, with Walter Kostanski as pitcher.

Polish farmers sharecropping with Yankee farmers was a common practice. The father often worked in a factory while his wife and children worked the fields, as my family did at the Cold Brook Farm in Montague. As sharecroppers of onions, my family got a rent free house, a pail of milk a day, and a share of whatever produce was in season.

Most Poles saved their money in the mattress, since they didn’t trust banks. When hard times came, or banks failed, and the host farmer could not pay taxes or mortgage, it was not unusual for the emigrants to haul their money out of the mattress and buy the farm at foreclosure. This caused resentment; the Poles weren’t playing by the rules by squirreling their money away instead of banking it. Most of the farms in the Connecticut Valley that are now Polish owned, were acquired that way, though many became Polish owned, as Radosz pointed out, because Poles outbid other buyers in their strong desire for land.

Many Poles in Turners Falls found work in the cutlery, cotton, silk, and paper mills at substantial wages. The Keith Paper Mill was unionized; women received pay equal to that of men. That was very empowering for women, who were often disparaged as second class workers, unequal in the workplace.

Women who worked in the Keith rag room, sorting and cutting up material, had their work weighed. The women competed for producing the greatest amount of material sorted, the prize being the highest weight ticket at day’s end. Mill management rewarded the women for their zeal by allowing them to take home cloth material. The women arrived in the morning with a cloth valise hanging flat from each hand. They left work with the valises bulging, staggering up the stairs over the canal, laden like pack animals.

When Saint Kaziemerz’s Club was mentioned, Rev. Charles DiMascola stood up to say, in jest, “There’s an old saying that if you had three Polish people in town, you’d have five Polish social clubs.”

DiMascola, who has been pastor of Our Lady of Czestochowa since 1986, went on to say with a smile, “Poles are very social. They like each other’s company, and they like building a community. The Saint Kazimierz Society was founded in 1904, the first Polish Social Club in Turners Falls. The purpose of the club was to build a church. They called on Rev. Francis Chalupka who had founded the first Catholic Church in New England in Webster in 1887 and a Church in Chicopee in 1891. The club members wanted a church so badly they taxed themselves, each, a month’s salary to build our church.”

In the meantime, the members bought the old Protestant church on L Street, now home to the Elk’s Club. After a small fire in that original church in 1928, members decided it was time to build a new church - of brick.

“The new brick church is not only brick on the outside,” DiMascola said, “but even the interior walls are concrete. It was as if they were afraid of fire.”

There were several Polish communities in Turners Falls. One was on L Street. On the corner of L and 3rd Street, a man named Civik owned a grocery store. He also dealt in real estate, bought a house on the opposite corner and built a gasoline station where F.L. Roberts is now. Though enterprising, Civik was a kind and compassionate man who let people buy groceries at his store on credit during the Depression years, when people had no other recourse. He bought brush land of low value on the Hill in Turners Falls, in the vicinity of the new fire station, when it was considered worthless. He made a fair amount of money selling building lots and other property in which he’d seen potential. His credit was good. People who could not get mortgages, were able to go to him for a mortgage that he, in turn, sold to other investors, so he could loan mortgage money, again. Though he became prosperous, Civik was frugal, and heated his grocery store with a potbellied stove using cardboard from canned goods cartons. “Why buy wood, and throw away the cardboard?” he’d say.

The largest Polish community was in the Patch, an island with the 11th Street double trestle bridge serving as the main entrance.

It seemed everyone spoke fondly of those wonderful “jelly balls” made at the Olchowski bakery in the Patch, and the sour dough rye bread baked in the bakery’s wood fired oven with wood, no doubt, salvaged from the canal. Ed Gregory reminisced of how wonderful the aroma of the freshly baked rye bread was as it drifted through the air at the Patch.

Edward Jeronczyk, who lived in Millers Falls but now lives on Log Plain Road in Greenfield, told of his parents meeting. “My father came to Turners Falls, and met my mother at one of the Polish clubs. They married and moved to Millers Falls.”

Jeroncsyk went on to talk about meeting his wife. “I met my wife at a Polish dance in Holyoke, and her parents also met at a Polish dance.”

The moral of the story being, “If you want to get married, learn to Polka.”

The churches in the Polish community held classes to teach emigrants to read and write English, and also helped them prepare for citizenship exams. Those same churches held Polish classes for the following generation so they would know the language, songs, customs and traditions of Poland.

“Oh, yes, I remember well taking Polish lessons at Our Lady of Czestochowa, where I learned to read and write it too,” Bourbeau said with a smile.

In later years, Bourbeau traveled as an interpreter on tours to Poland. One year, she also taught Polish at the Greenfield Library.

All too soon, the evening was over, and people went away saying, “We need to get together, again. There are so many stories people didn’t have time to tell.”

Are you listening, Lisa Davol and Frank Abbondanzio?

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