Polish Settlers in Grand Rapids, Michigan
The pattern of Polish settlement in Grand Rapids, the city's second largest ethnic group, was unlike that of the Hollanders who arrived here from the Netherlands much earlier, in 1846, in groups or congregations lead by a pastor or a church deacon.
The first Pole, Joseph Jakubowicz, came to Grand Rapids alone in 1853 from Kalisz, Russian-held Poland. He was, however, an exception since most of the Poles settling in Grand Rapids until around 1900 came from German Poland. A large percentage came from the town of Trzemeszno near Poznań. The majority of them were skilled workers who found ready employment as shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, carpenters cabinet-makers and wagon-makers.
Prussian oppression under Bismarck, the failure of the 1863 insurrection against Russia, lack of work and land, and the hope of economic improvement were the principal factors which induced Poles to migrate to the United States in general. Prussian oppression did not cease, for as late as 1908 the local Poles and their clergy sent a letter to Washington asking the United States Government to protest the cruel persecution of Poles in German Poland.
According to Mrs. Valeria Lipczynski, who arrived here in 1869 with her husband John (a veteran of the Polish insurrection of 1863), there were about a dozen Polish families living in the city. They were Joseph Jakubowicz, Anthony Stiller, Jacob Pogodzinski, Simon Dzieniszewski, Andrew Poposki, Stanislaw Cerklewski, Thomas Kolczynski, Albert Damski and F. Tloczynski. Two of them, Joseph Jakubowicz (who changed his name to Jackoboice), and John Lipczynski conducted businesses, the first a small machine shop which later became known as the West Side Iron Works, and the second a pottery works located on the corner of Michigan and Eastern Avenue. The grand children of Jackoboice are still in, more or less, the same line of business, producing road building machinery, with their factory located on Michigan Street. John Lipczynski discontinued his pottery works and retired.
His wife, Valeria, however, was instrumental in bringing to the city from her native town about forty more families. Extremely active, she was for the Polish community until her death February 16, 1930, counselor, interpreter, job-getter, instructor, midwife and nurse—a kind of grandmother devoted to all of them. For this social and philanthropic work, and for her service in the cause of Poland's freedom, she was decorated with the Polish Golden Service Cross in 1927 by the Polish Republic. She also did yeoman service during the first World War, urging Poles to invest in Liberty Bonds, contribute to the Red Cross, and help the United States in every way to win the war.
Since the first Polish settlers knew the German language, it was natural for them to reside close to the German element on the West Side and, being Catholic, attend the German Catholic Church of St. Mary.
Progressively growing larger, and wishing to have a church and school of their own in which the Polish language would be spoken by a Polish priest, the Poles organized a church committee of three to gather funds for building an edifice. The committee consisting of Anthony Stiller, Albert Damski and Thomas Kolczynski obtained permission from Bishop Caspar Borgess of Detroit, and a site was purchased on Fourth and Davis. The cornerstone was laid in 1881 and a year later a modest wooden church named St. Adalbert, in honor of Poland's patron saint, was consecrated for divine worship. Subsequently, 14 years later the parish had grown to over 200 families and a new building was erected. This likewise became too small and in 1906 it was decided to build a larger structure of masonry and brick at a cost of $100,000.00. One of the finest buildings in the State, it was dedicated on April 22, 1913. In 1921 a modern school was built to meet the augmented student body at a cost of $300,000.00 with accomodations for 1200 students. Additional buildings were erected, a convent for the religious teaching staff costing $40,000 and a new rectory in 1922 for $65,000, making a total outlay of $405,000.00. A new convent costing around $400,000 was built and the property today all told, church, school, building, rectory, and convent is valued at $2,000,000.00.
When St. Adalbert's church was built in 1881 for the West Side Polish settlers, it did not definitely resolve the need of an edifice for Poles living in the northeastern part of the city. The large brickyards operating in that area gave them employment and in time around too families settled there. Without a church and school for several years, they were compelled to attend by foot the church and school of St. Adalbert.
To remedy this situation, on June 14, 1897, a group living in the northeast section appointed a building committee which planned the construction of a church on Diamond and Flat Street. The committee included John Konwinski, Clement Zukowski, Joseph Derlenga, Peter Sikorski, and Albert Szymanski. The cornerstone for St. Isadore's church was laid on September 5, 1897. This first church was a two-story structure of brick, sixty by seventy-five feet and two stories high. The first floor contained three classrooms and quarters for the religious teaching staff, and the second floor was assigned to the church. On December 6, 1889 the church and school were made available to the parishioners. The parish census then registered 103 families most of whom were former members of St. Adalbert.
With unabated flow more Poles settled in this section, and in the summer of 1910 it was announced that a new parish church seating 800 families would be built. The cornerstone was laid on October 27, 1912 and 5 years later on March 22, 1917, an imposing structure of masonry and brick costing $90,000 was dedicated for divine worship. Nine years later, a modern school costing $100,000 was opened for the parish children. Substantial additions were made from then on until today, with new buildings replacing the rectory and teaching quarters of the religious staff. The old rectory was demolished, since it stood too close to the State freeway under construction; in consequence, the topography of the area has also changed beyond recognition. Numerous fruit trees, a flowing brook, oak forests and the Grand Trunk railway line were the land-marks when the first Poles took up residence there. Today, the Grand Trunk railway is the sole remaining vestige of a once semi-pastoral scene with backyard gardens and orchards, chicken-coops and the out-side toilet then known as the backhouse. Sewage came later, some time after the First World War.
Another section where a considerable number of Poles settled was in the southwest, near John Ball Park. Here they found employment as miners in the extensive gypsum mines. Many of them were unskilled laborers who came from villages and hamlets of Austrian and Russian Poland, toward the end of the nineteenth century, in the last immigrant wave to the United States between 1890 and 1914. They, too, like the settlers in the northeast part of the city came on foot to attend the school and church services at St. Adalbert.
Since the distance to church and school was considerable, about three miles away, this growing Polish community also wished to have its own parish church and school. Although there was agitation for a new parish as far back as 1897 it was only in 1903 that permission was granted to organize one with the, name of Sacred Heart. A committee composed of John Radlicki, Frank Sniatecki, James Pienta, Andrew Amborski and Joseph Nickiewicz bought land for the edifice at Park and Valley. At that time, there were about 100 families willing to undertake the construction of the church. The first building considered of a joint school and church similar to St. Isadore. The first floor was occupied by the school and quarters for the religious teaching staff, the second floor became the church. As the parish grew, alterations were made to enlarge the school and church. On February 29, 1920 it was decided to build a large new parish church. The cornerstone was laid the same year and in 1923 the structure was totally completed at a cost of $225,000. It was built after the style of St. Paul's Basilica in Rome. The school was remodeled and enlarged in 1958. It contains today 16 classrooms with an attendance of 700 and two sets of grades from one to eight.
Within less than fifty years from the time the first Polish church of St. Adalbert was built and St. Isadore and Sacred Heart founded the capital investment in Polish parish property exceeded over $2,000,000. Considering their somewhat insecure foothold on the local economic ladder and the low wages paid workers, skilled or unskilled by Grand Rapids employers, this was an achievement worthy of respect and admiration. The churches were not puny frame buildings; they were palaces for divine worship comparable to some of the finer churches in Poland. The Polish settlers made tremendous sacrifices to finance these structures including the schools. Thanks to their frugality and hard work, the self-imposed financial levies and good management manifested by their pastors the three parishes thrived and developed the spiritual welfare of their parishioners. Each church now could celebrate the elaborate pageantry of the churches in Poland, the blessing of food at Easter, midnight Mass at Christmas, outside processions at Corpus Christi, May devotions to the Blessed Virgin and other religious events performed in a Polish manner. In other words, the Polish settler of Grand Rapids felt right at home with his God.
Polish settlers in their time were acutely aware of the political situation in their native land which had lost its independence and was partitioned among Germany, Austria and Russia. Several of the settlers had participated in the 1863 uprising against Russia, whereas others were compelled by Prussian oppression and famine in Austria to emigrate to the United States and settle in the city.
In the hope of helping their native land some day regain its independence, and of keeping Polish national and religious traditions and customs alive among themselves and their children, the Poles organized various societies, the majority located on the West side. All of them included mutual aid and sick and burial benefits. The first society organized in 1872 was that of St. Adalbert, and it was chiefly instrumental in building the first church by the same name. Within the next seven years, it will celebrate its centennial anniversary. According to its last official report, it paid some $100,000 in sick and burial benefits. It contributed thousands of dollars to American and Polish patriotic causes by purchasing Liberty bonds, Polish government bonds, donations to the American Red Cross and Polish War Relief. It assisted financially St. Adalbert Church in liquidating the parish debt. The oldest and most respected, the society has been one of the most influential in promoting the general good of the Polish-American community through its cultural and spiritual activities. Looking backward, forty of its charter members participated in the city's celebration of the centennial anniversary of American independence on July 4, 1876. The group paraded with the banner of St. Adalbert Society on that day.
The second oldest, the Polish National Aid Society, was founded February 11, 1878, by a group of nationalist-minded settlers, including six who had taken part in the 1863 insurrection against Russia. They were John Lipczynski, K. Jackowski, A. Letzenberger, J. Naliszewski, F. Szocinski, and J. Nowacki. This society was undoubtedly the most active in fostering the sentiment of Poland's liberation among the settlers in the city. From its inception, its social program included regular, annual commemorations of Polish historical events such as May 3, Polish Constitution Day, and the November 1831 and January 1863 insurrections. On a city wide scope, it celebrated King John's Sobieski's victory over the Turks at Vienna in 1683, the centennial of May 3, 1891, and George Washington's death in 1799, which involved the participation of prominent city officials and politicians who delivered addresses appropriate for the events.
The society contributed heavily from its treasury to American and Polish patriotic causes during both World Wars. It gave money grants to aid local Polish parishes, instituted money and clothing drives for Polish War Relief and supported Polish American candidates for political offices. It contributed funds to aid the furniture strikers in the citywide furniture strike of 1911. It was probably the heaviest contributor from among all the Polish societies in the community to various patriotic, educational and religious and philanthropic programs.
A fourth society, Knights of St. Casimir, a quasi-military organization, which included mutual aid and sick benefits, was founded in 1895 with the express purpose of working for the liberation of Poland. With the permission of local authorities the society conducted military exercises and physical training. On gala occasions when celebrating American and Polish historical events members appeared in colorful uniforms and carried side arms. Military exercises and preparations were dropped when Poland regained its freedom after the First World War. Following the example of the other societies, St. Hyacinth participated abundantly in the American and Polish war efforts during the two world wars.
Its report cites purchases of American war bonds for $10,000 and converting its headquarters into an American Red Cross center. Parallel with its work in the American war effort it also conducted money and clothing drives for the Polish War Relief and encouraged Polish non-citizens to join the Polish Armed Forces organized in Canada during the First World War. It likewise gave generous money grants to St. Adalbert Church and school and contributed $2,000 toward the construction of the new West Catholic High School.
Despite the tendency for all types of American societies, clubs, and associations today to show a falling membership, chiefly the result of the flight to suburbia, the automobile and television which keeps one class uselessly on the go and the other at home, seven other Polish societies, long established, continue to operate. They are motivated by the same ideals and purposes as the above mentioned, that is to help their members, their churches and schools, and the Polish American community of the city. They include: Sacred Heart, St. Isadore's Parish, founded 1896; St. Stanislaus, St. Isadore's Parish, founded 1898; Sacred Heart Aid Society, Sacred Heart Parish, founded 1903; St. Ladislaus Society, Sacred Heart Parish, founded 1904; St. Hedwig Society, St. Adalbert Parish, founded 1904; Polish Falcon's Aid Society, founded 1927; and Polish Veterans Association, founded 1927.
Two other societies, the Polish Political Society organized in 1908 and the Polish Industrial Society, the first founded to support Polish-American candidates for local political offices and the second to foster and support the business ventures of their compatriots, no longer exist.
Unable to participate fully in socio-cultural programs open to Americans because of language limitations, the Polish settler organized his own which expanded rapidly following the erection of the Polish National Hall on Jackson Street still in existence. The first Polish Hall in the United States, it was built in 1889 and from then on it has served as the focal point for various kinds of cultural programs, Polish and American anniversary observances. That same year the Polish National Aid Society reports in its jubilee publication, 1878-1928, the Lutnia Halka Choir was organized and a Polish military band. The choir numbering sixty voices, male and female, gave many concerts at the Polish National Hall, the Powers Theater, and the Germania and Hibernia Halls for different causes and gained considerable fame in the city. It played a significant role in presenting not only Polish songs but also American. It won national fame in contests held in the United States by the Alliance of Polish Singers in which similar Polish Choirs from all parts of the United States participated.
One of its members, Mrs. Katherine Jansheski Phillips, became president of St. Cececlia Society. Her husband, Eugene Phillips, organist at St. Andrew's Cathedral, was the choir's last conductor, and after his death in 1939 it appears to have disbanded after existing over fifty years. Numerous lesser choirs served the Polish parishes. The best of these was the Moniuszko Choir of St. Adalbert's church conducted by Casimir Kowalkowski, organist and father of Albina Kowalkowski, today a leading pianist-pedagogue of the city.
Dramatic presentations by theatrical circles and schools were much enjoyed by the community. These were staged chiefly for church and patriotic benefits. Although no great stars resulted from them, the performances let audiences forget their cares and hard daily work while witnessing such popular plays as "The Church and Divorce", "The Matchmaker", "Foe of Women", "Parisian Street Walker" and others ably produced by Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Skowron, who not only acted in the troupe but also made costumes and props for most plays.
Being ardent music lovers, the settlers organized bands and dance orchestras. The oldest, the Pulaski Cornet band conducted by Gustaw Albrecht, was organized in 1885. It was composed of twelve "hot" cornet players. Later, it was succeeded by the Polish Military band of thirty pieces, conducted by Andrew Kubasiak. Both bands played in celebrations marking American and Polish holidays, in parades and concerts in city parks. Most of the dance orchestras, although small in size, four to five pieces, were conducted by young American-born musicians and played at weddings and dances at the society halls. These halls were much frequented, serving as social centers.
The first harbinger of refined music and its popularization in the city was Jaroslav de Zielinski, a distinguished pianist and music teacher who came to Grand Rapids in 1869. For ten years Zielinski taught piano and served as organist at St. Andrew's Cathedral. His students came from among some of the city's leading families, and included Kate Gilbert, Cora Miller, and Mary Smith, daughter of Rev. J. Morgan Smith. Zielinski gave musical soircees at the Morton House in which outside musicians participated as guest players. One of them was the noted cellist R. Speil. Zielinski also staged two operas, "Somnambula" and "Mignon" at the Powers Theater with the aid of local and outside talent from New York.
Despite his intensive efforts to raise the music level of the city, he apparently was disappointed with the results. He left in 1879 and died in 1922 in Santa Barbara, California. His large collection of music, manuscripts and publications was purchased by the public library of Los Angeles, California.
Prior to coming to Grand Rapids, Zielinski (born in Austrian-held Poland) studied as a youth with some of the leading musicians of Europe. He fought in the 1863 Polish insurrection against Russia, and on the side of the North in the Civil War. A brief biography of him is found in Groves Encyclopedia of Music.
The hunger for news in their own language and the need of communication between the three parishes undoubtedly inspired the publishing of a Polish language newspaper called Glos Polski (Polish Voice), edited by T. C. Skaryszewski. The first number of this weekly was published on March 22, 1899. Despite the abilities of its publisher, formerly editor of Narod Polski (Polish Nation), the official organ of the Polish Roman Catholic Union, the newspaper folded after sixteen months.
On September 15, 1900, the Polish weekly Echo, published by Walter Buszkiewicz, succeeded Glos Polski. It was edited by Louis Skory, nephew of Msgr. Casimir Skory, pastor of St. Adalbert's Church. As a Polish language newspaper, with a format of 17" by 23" and four pages it presented a well balanced coverage of news and information of domestic and foreign origin. Until the First World War, it covered closely events occurring in the partitioned areas of Austrian, German and Russian-Poland, of interest to the settlers coming from those parts. A weekly, its subscription rate was $1.00 per year. It ceased publication in 1957, having outlived every other Grand Rapids foreign language newspaper except the Dutch. As a newspaper, it kept a good record of the social history of the Polish-American community during its formative years. Issues of it from 1908 to 1928, part of the most important period of development are on microfilm at the Grand Rapids Public Library. It is deeply regretted that the entire fifty-seven years of the publication were not saved, since they would have given a fairly complete and good picture of those years for the future student of the Polish ethnic group in the city.
Polish family life in Grand Rapids was, like elsewhere in the United States, dominated by the father with the mother playing the minor role of advisor and manager of the household and children. "Honor thy father and mother" was rigorously enforced while the children were young and controllable. Parental authority was influenced strongly by customs brought from respective areas in Poland supported by the Catholic Church's teachings and the voice of the pastor. The ambition of most families was to have one of their children become a priest or nun serving God. If the father's wages did not suffice to meet the expenses for a religious career, the mother "took in" washings and ironings from the rich or did chores in downtown offices scrubbing and cleanings the premises. Because of the settler's poor living conditions and small wages, the first generation American-born children were freuently forced to leave school at an early age and seek work in factory or shop. Girls generally found employment in biscuit and cigar factories, laundries and hotels, and the boys in furniture factories and sundry shops. The first generation's contact with social elements outside the home undermined parental atuhority and beliefs that parents knew better, and resulted in frequent conflicts between children and parents.
Although not seriously affecting the community as a whole, it did introduce disruptive elements into it. Members of the first generation, gradually aware of their educational limitations, proceeded to correct the situation and encouraged their children to continue attending school and completing their education at the university or college level.
The social life of the earliest families was centered in the homes, the church, and the society halls, these latter devoted to staging concerts and plays, card parties, weddings and Saturday night dances with copious amounts of beer flowing from the bar taps.
Church affairs consisted for the most part of fairs or bazaars, ice cream socials, card parties and bingo parties, until the latter were outlawed by local ordinance.
The most popular entertainment was the Saturday-night dance at which Polish dances of the native whirlwind type prevailed until after World War One, when they gave way to the foxtrot and other later American dances, which the older generation considered too tame to enjoy. The mazurka, oberek, Vienniese waltz, however, were not the favorites of the young American-born for fear of being called "green-horns", a derisive term employed by the American community against the immigrant.
Among the older generation, particularly among a few hotheads, chiefly the more backward individuals addicted to heavy drinking, occasional fracases would occur over some attractive female or insulting remark resulting in a call for the police to re-establish peace and order. Grand Rapids newspapers have recorded a few knifings and a considerable number of bloody noses following such affairs, but on the whole behaviour was not too distressing. The parish priests and the Polish newspaper hammered home to their people the need of disciplined behaviour in public and of maintaining an unblemished image of the good Polish-American citizen.
Mixed marriages between the first Polish-American generation and other ethnic groups, particularly the Hollanders, were rare. Religious differences chiefly kept them apart. Instead, Catholic Polish-Americans sought their mates either in their own community or among Catholics of German, Italian or Irish origin.
Family name-changing took place whenever it appeared necessary for business or social reasons, for there existed Polish names which were difficult even for a native to pronounce or enjoy ownership of, either the names were transliterated into English or suffered minor operations by trimming off the "ski" (case ending), employing phonetic transformation, or being wiped out entirely and replaced by a totally brand new Anglo-Saxon name having no relationship with the original. In such instances, Hudson replaced Wisniewski (literally translated as Cherry-man), Preston for Przekopowski, Walker for Walkowiak, Jarvis for Jaworowicz which could be translated into Mapleton, or Smith for Kowalski (exact translation) Mishkevich transliterated from Miskiewicz. Such practices naturally destroyed all identification of origin and the owner, disposing of his birthright, immediately sank into the mainstream of conformity, anonymity, and homogeneity of American life. However, this has not been a mass rule, although it was succumbed to by many of the first generation trying to rid themselves of an inferiority complex. Of particular interest for the sociologist is the reaction of children of mixed marriages who bear Polish family names but are totally ignorant of the ancestral past of either side.
The Polish settlers' participation in the political life of the city was delayed for a considerable time for reasons of language and lack of citizenship as well as general lack of interest in the political situation on the local level.
The settlers from German Poland were more politically minded, having experienced politics on their native soil, whereas those from Austrian and Russian Poland had practically no experience, being oppressed and hounded by police for any political activity or beliefs. Moreover, most of them came from isolated backwood hamlets or villages where politics were a remote phenomenon.
Yet, if they were here in a favorable position, their voting strength in the early years of 1870-1895 would have been comparatively slight if not negligible. The number of families living in the city in 1895 did not exceed 700 families, and certainly the number of qualified voters was much less. However, slowly coming of age, though being a minority ethnic group, they began feeling a growing political consciousness, and in 1899 organized the Polish Democrat Club. It is not known whether this organization was responsible for the outcome, but in 1900-1903 Frank Damski (Damskey) became an alderman.
Subsequently, in 1908, the Polish Political Society, capable of polling 2,000 votes, was organized with Max Wojtalewicz as secretary. The avowed goal of the society was to look after the interests of the Polish-American community and public improvements in its district, which appeared to be ignored by the city fathers, and to support their own candidates for public office. This action had its positive effect and John Koperski was elected alderman in 1908. He was capable and intelligent, active in labor circles, and worked as an engineer in the city's waterworks system.
The Polish community was compelled to organize to meet the strong clannish opposition of the Holland group headed by the Fas and Jus organization which, well-knit and strongly disciplined by Dutch church leaders, gave every non-Holland candidate for office tough opposition.
Again, in 1924, under the leadership of Louis Nueman who became County Clerk, another organization called the Polish Political League, which united all Polish societies, was for a long period active supporting Polish-American civic and political interests.
Beside the two Polish-born aldermen, Polish-born Stanley Jackowski was the first office holder of prominence in city government. He served as a member of the original city charter commission, deputy city marshall, and superintendent of public welfare from 1907 to 1909. Retiring from the political arena, he founded in 1919 the Polish-American Bank which, like other city banks, suffered from the depression and ceased functioning in 1935. Jackowski also served as chairman of the combined draft boards of Kent County during the First World War.
Anthony Panfil, representing the first ward, served as city commissioner and president of the commission at intervals from 1928 to 1933. During his period in office, the controversial Civic Auditorium was constructed after prolonged discussions and opposition from different civic grups. Panfil was chairman of the Civic Auditorium building board. Joseph A. Kozak succeeded Panfil and served as commissioner from 1933 to 1947. Joseph Haraburda succeeded Kozak and served from 1949 to 1952.
The longest office holder, Mayor Stanley Davis (Dyszkiewicz), succeeded Haraburda and has been both commissioner and mayor from 1953. Roman Snow (Sniatecki) served as commissioner from 1958 to 1960 and subsequently was elected to associate judge of the police court in 1962. Joseph Sypniewski became commissioner in 1960, like his predecessors, representing the first ward. Representing the first ward as supervisors at various periods were Joseph Zalenski and Edward K. Muraski. Walter Finger (Paluszek) served as supervisor of the second ward.
Heavily populated with electors of Polish origin, the first ward has been chiefly responsible for electing to local offices Polish-American candidates from its district. Much of the voting in the city from its early history followed an ethnic pattern. This is evidenced by the successes of candidates of Holland origin. They, perhaps more than any other, have always shown a cohesive and clannish solidarity in city politics and have had the loyal support of the Holland-American community. It was only natural for Polish-American candidates to follow similar tactics other-wise they had little if any opportunity to win.
During both World Wars the Polish-American community manifested its undivided loyalty and strong support for the efforts of the United States to bring those conflicts to a successful and victorious conclusion. The word "slacker" was alien to them. The response to the purchases of war bonds, contributions to the American Red Cross, the call for volunteers to join the American army was practically automatic and enthusiastic. For many it spelled the liberation of their native land.
Polish non-citizens likewise rallied to join the Polish armed froces organized in Canada. Scores from Grand Rapids enlisted, and after serving with General Joseph Haller on the French front when hostilities ceased were shipped to Poland to fight the Bolsheviks then inundating that country. With peace declared, around thirty-two survivers returned and organized, in 1927, the Polish War Veterans Association whose membership includes Poles who fought in the Second World War and have settled in the city.
With other local citizens, numerous Polish Americans made the supreme sacrifice for the United States in both World Wars. Their names are enblazoned with others on the pillars of Memorial Park, and there are many. Their names are inscribed for immortality in the narthexes of the three Polish churches and other parishes of which they were members.
The first casualty of the Spanish-American War in the Phillipines was volunteer private Joseph Fabisiak. A report of his death was carried in the Evening Press, stating that he was buried with military honors on October 30, 1899, in Mt. Calvary cemetery. Funeral services were held in St. Adalbert's Church and attended by the entire Polish community on the West Side.
With the exception of the West Side Iron Works founded in 1860 by Joseph Jackoboice, the earliest recorded Polish settler in the city, and a pottery works operated by John Lipczynski in 1875, the Polish settler did not until the turn of the century engage extensively in developing local industry. The first arrivals between 1855 and 1890, although skilled workers, were handicapped principally by lack of the English language, investment capital, familiarity with American business practices, and general business experience. It was not a situation of their own choice; rather they were victims of conditions then prevalent in their home countries. Whether true or not, the story is told on the West Side that the Widdicomb Furniture Company bought out the interests of the Pogodzinski brothers, all cabinet-makers, who owned a table making shop.
With the beginning of the twentieth century, many of the settlers, emulating other ethnic groups, began operating saloons, bakeries, grocery and butcher shops, coal yards, real estate offices, printing shops and numerous other sundry small enterprises. These humble businesses were a kind of training school for more venturesome enterprises, which included tool and die making works, housebuilding, trucking plating, hand-made rugs (famous V'soske Shops whose rugs grace the White House) operating under trade names.
The American-born first generation not only engaged in the above business ventures but also turned to the professions, particularly the priesthood, law and medicine, with two and three members of a family chosing the same profession.
Whether he ever heard "Go West Young Man", handsome, first-generation sixteen year old Stanley Ketchel (Kiecal), native of Grand Rapids, headed West as a cattle man to work on a ranch at Butte, Montana. Out there, he found fame and death within several years. He was shot by a farm hand on the ranch of millionaire Peter Dickerson near Conway, Missouri, while recuperating his health. He died on October 15, 1910, a month after his twenty-third year.
Slight of build but tough and scrappy, young Ketchel, called the Michigan lion, won several fights out West which culminated disastrously when he fought the Negro Jack Johnson, the world's heavy weight champion. Ketchel was of the middle weight class and fought Johnson royally in San Francisco October 16, 1909, where he was knocked out in a twelve-round fight scheduled to last twenty rounds. The match was a kind of David versus Goliath, with David losing but not disgracing himself. Boxing historians hail Ketchel as a phenomenal boxer who, if he had a smarter trainer than thirty-two year old Willus Britt, could have become the world's finest boxer. Despite defeat, Ketchel's fame which brought his native city signal honor will endure brightly in boxing annals.
Ketchel lies buried in the Polish cemetery of Holy Cross in Grand Rapids over which stands a $5,000, tombstone presented there by his faithful friend, Peter Dickerson, on whose ranch he was killed.
Ketchel's renown contributed to the boxing sport in the city, and various athletic clubs were organized training local young boxers of the Polish-American community. Martin Lewandowski, graduate of Western State Teacher's College, won the national amateur lightweight title years later. Another who followed Ketchel closely was Al Kubiak, called the "Human Battleship". Kubiak apparently faded out after being defeated October 29, 1910, in Paris, France, by Joe Jeanette, who proved too big and strong. Other local celebrities were Edward Wosinski, Leon Jasinski, Leon Nowakowski, Henry Sampolinski, Albert Maslowski, Edward Anisko who won contests in Golden Gloves tournaments staged at the City Armory. Toward the second half of this century the sport waned, the trend moving toward bowling, and high school and college sports.
On balance, the settlers have been and continue to be a positive and valuable asset to the city. Owing to hard work, thrift, and good management they have never been a heavy public charge. This is evident from statistics showing assistance given various immigrant groups. In the so-called "poorhouse" era, the Poles perceptually stood among the lowest recipients of such public aid. It was considered quite a disgrace among them to seek public help in times of need. Even during the furniture strike of 1911, which affected critically all citizens, not many Poles asked for city help.
While their achievements cannot be measured exactly, the Poles, like other immigrant groups, made notable contributions to the life and culture of the city. They rank highly as property owners, even though their homes may be of modest value. They take pride in keeping their property well kept and orderly.
As with immigrants from other countries, the Polish settlers in time were absorbed into the life and ways of the strangers among whom they settled. And of what they brought with them, their Catholic faith alone remained steadfast, the rest gradually receded and faded away, ignored by the young American-born generations. Perhaps the second and third generations, in search of something adventurous and exciting, will make excursions into their past ancestry to learn about its culture and history.
The settlers' spiritual development was in the capable hands of the following pastors: Rev. Simon Ponganis and Rev. Casimir Skory of St. Adalbert; Rev. Ladislaus P. Krakowski and Rev. Joseph Kaminski of Sacred Heart; Rev. Marion Matkowski and Rev. Joseph Pietrasik of St. Isadore. All, with the exception of Rev. Kaminski, were Polish-born and this fact enabled them to acquire a rapport of confidence and mutual respect with their Polish-born parishioners. Psychologically a part of the community, they were in a better position to resolve and administer their church and school problems.
Rev. Simon Ponganis was not only popular in his church but was voted in 1901 by the general public the most popular clergyman in the city in a contest conducted by the Evening Press. He won the award of a paid week's vacation at Niagara Falls. When he was transferred to Gaylord, Michigan, thousands of people bade him farewell at the Union Depot.
The death of Rev. Casimir Skory in 1935 elicited editorial recognition from the Grand Rapids Press which stated: "City and State join his parish in mourning the loss of a respected dignitary, known as a man of fine culture and a student of the human heart. An inspiring builder of lives who won the confidence of all by his common sense."
Lay leadership derived from the community served the settlers efficiently with needed knowledge and experience in local social and political life. Roman Glochaski, John Smolenski and Sigmund Zamierowski, prominent lawyers, helped with their wisdom and advice. The various societies also developed competent leaders in the early years prior to the twentieth century. Among these were John Lipczynski and his wife Valeria, leader in social and philanthropic work, Bernard Centilli, Albert Damskey, Simon Jansheski, Joseph Jackoboice, A. Walczewski and M. Buzalski. However, with the death of attorney Sigmund Zamierowski no one has taken the reins of leadership. The present situation is one of free wheeling and fragmentation.
In the very early days, and later, Grand Rapids has been the focal point for world famous Polish artists playing here at frequent intervals.
Helena Modjeska, famous Shakesperian actress, gave her first performance at the Powers Theater, September 9, 1883 in Cymbeline. She returned in 1887 to play Twelfth Night with Maurice Barrymore; January 2, 1888, Adrienne; April 19, 1890 Hamlet with Edmund Booth; February 3-4, 1892, Mary Stuart and Macbeth; October 18-19, 1893 Merchant of Venice and Mary Stuart, with Otis Skinner; November 16, 1900, King John; and March 15, 1902, Henry VIII and Merchant of Venice, for the last time. She died in California in 1909.
Xavier Scharwenka (1892), Moritz Rosenthal (1899) and Antoine de Kontski, famous pianists, preceded the giant of them all, Ignace Jan Paderewski, who gave his first concert in the city in 1902 under the auspices of the Schubert Club. He returned in 1905, 1923 and 1930, warmly acclaimed by both public and press, the latter hailing him "Wizard of Music". A score of years later Witold Malcuzynski, pianist, played with the Grand Rapids Symphony orchestra in 1949 and 1956, and was likewise acclaimed.
In retrospect, the development and progress of the Polish settlers in Grand Rapids since the arrival of the first Pole in 1855, has, on all four planes—economic, spiritual, cultural . and political—kept pace with the other immigrant groups of the city.
This article is reprinted from Polish American Studies, Vol. XXI. No. 2, July-December 1964, with permission from the Polish-American Historical Association.