Poles

Their Own Stories: Stories From Middletown’s Melting Pot

polesOne of the most important possessions of Polish women living in Middletown’s Cooley Avenue neighborhood in the 1930s was a small notepad containing a statement of their accounts at the store of John and Marcela Floryan. While John delivered groceries in his truck, Mrs. Floryan tended the tiny store attached to their home, selling canned goods, penny candy, and Polish mushrooms which hung from the ceiling. When a customer bought groceries, Mrs. Floryan wrote the amount owned in the notepad, then handed it back. Whenever a family had extra money, the wife came in to make a payment on their account.

Nineteen families lived in the Cooley Avenue neighborhood, 18 of them Polish. As foreigners in a new land, they leaned heavily on each other. If someone visited a doctor, she might bring along Josephine Ryczek, the only neighborhood woman who spoke English. For phone calls, they went to the Floryans’ store, which had the only telephone on the block. Mostly, the Polish families stayed close to home–the neighborhood boasted only three cars and the Floryan delivery truck.

The Cooley Avenue residents were part of a wave of Polish immigrants that began arriving in Middletown in the 1880s. At the time, Poland was not the united entity it is now, as the competing nations of Russia, Austria and Germany were constantly invading and conquering it. Middletown’s first Polish settlers had been farming peasants from the Russian part of Poland called Galicia; in coming here, they fled both oppression and poverty. The early Poles worked largely as day laborers, nearly all of them living in a single boarding house on lower William Street. Around that boarding house grew an entire Polish neighborhood (called “Duck Hollow” because of frequent floodings), which spread between lower William and lower College Streets.

The decade from 1900 to 1910 marked the peak of Polish immigration. By 1902, over 300 Polish families had settled here, and in 1903 they formed their own Catholic church, St. Mary of Czestochowa. Some of the Polish immigrants returned to their rural roots, farming in the Maromas or Westfield sections, but most men worked in local factories such as Russell Manufacturing, Goodyear Rubber, or Wilcox and Crittenden. Often their wives and children worked at home separating border strips for the Wilcox Lace Company.

wilcox-crittenden-employees

Wilcox and Crittenden Employees

As the 20th century progressed, the flood of immigrants from Poland slowed to a trickle. Still, by 1980, people of Polish descent were the second largest ethnic group in Middletown. Today, though there are no more Polish neighborhoods in town, the descendants of the early immigrants are active in virtually every aspect of Middletown’s life and culture.


Polish Lancers
Courtesy of St. Mary of Czestochowa Church

In their high, plumed helmets and military-style uniforms, the Polish Lancers cut quite a figure when marching in local parades in the early 20th century. Yet the group of Polish men who formed the St. Kazimierz order of Polish Lancers in 1902 was interested in much more than parades. Its mission was to preserve Polish religion and culture, and it was instrumental in establishing the Polish community’s church. While the Lancers required their members to abide by strict rules (such as weekly confession), they also promoted camaraderie within the Polish community by sponsoring dances and other social events.

 

polish-lancers

Polish Lancers


Ewanowski Family, 1914
Courtesy of Mrs. Violet Ewanowski Bladek

Stanley Ewanowski had few options when he came to Middletown in 1907. He was forced to leave his wife and three children in Vilna, Poland, while he tried to earn enough money to bring them to America. For three years, he worked a series of jobs as a laborer, scrimping until finally he had saved enough for his family’s passage.

The Ewanowskis boarded at a farm in Middletown’s Westfield section, where they were able to rent land for a garden plot, recreating the farming life they had known in Poland. In 1914, when they posed for a family portrait, the Ewanowskis looked to be prosperous, middle-class citizens. By then the family had increased to seven: Stanley and his wife Maria, with (front row) Mildred, John, Helen, (back row) Aleck and Mary.


Photograph of John Wiernasz: as bartender at
Flynn’s Wine Room, c. 1905; and as Middletown
police officer, c. 1920 Courtesy Anne (Toczko) Nowakowski

Jan (John) Wiernasz emigrated from Poland in 1893 when he was 12 years old. After his marriage to Katherine Wasowicz in Middletown, John began tending bar at Flynn’s Wine Room on lower Court Street. (Middletown did not yet have a Polish-owned café or saloon.) In 1910, the Middletown Police Department hired Wiernasz as a supernumerary officer, promoting him in 1918 to regular police officer–a first among the city’s Poles

 


Wasowicz-Wiernasz Family, 1920s
Courtesy Anne (Toczko) Nowakowski

The story of Katarzyna Zalukiewicz’s life would make a movie today. She came from Poland as a young woman, probably in the late 1890s. Here she married Jan Waskiewicz (also known as John Wasowicz), another Polish immigrant, and had several children. After the death of her husband and one of their children, Katarzyna (or Katherine) remarried. Her new husband, Jan Wiernasz, was 10 years her junior. The couple went on to have 12 children together.

The Wiernasz home stood on Hubbard Street, home to Polish, Italian and Irish families in the early 1900s. Jan Wiernasz, who (like many Polish immigrants) began as a laborer in Middletown, quickly advanced into other employment, first tending bar at Flynn’s Wine Room. In 1910 he became a supernumerary for Middletown’s police department; in 1918, a regular officer.

In the 1920s, Katherine and John posed for this family portrait with all of the Waskiewicz and Wiernasz children. In the front row (from left) are Florence Wiernasz, May Waskowicz, Elizabeth Wiernasz, Daniel Wiernasz, Katherine Zalukiewicz Wasowicz Wiernasz, and Wladyslawa (Lotty) Wiernasz. In the second row are Frances Wiernasz, Josephine Wiernasz, Edward Wiernasz, John Wiernasz, Anthony Wiernasz, Helen Wiernasz, and Stanley Wiernasz.

wasowicz-wiernasz-family-1920s

Wasowicz-Wiernasz Family, ca. 1920s


First St. Mary Church, built 1905
Courtesy of St. Mary of Czestochowa Church

Like the majority of early Catholic immigrants, Middletown Poles first worshipped in St. John Church. They sat in the back rows and listened uncomprehendingly to the English and Latin services. To hear the mass in their native language required an eight-mile journey to St. Stanislaus Church in Meriden.

By 1902, with 300 Polish families resident in the city, Middletown’s Poles had determined to build a church of their own. That summer, a small group planned the organization of the St. Mary of Czestochowa parish, which gained formal approval from the bishop in November of 1903.

Religion was an important part of immigrant life, and despite the low wages earned by most church members, they contributed a total of $3,000 to a building fund. The new church, on Hubbard Street, opened in 1905.


Polish Falcons Baseball Uniform of John Ryczek
and photograph of John Ryczek
Uniform courtesy Mrs. Irene Smith; Portrait courtesy Frank and Katherine Ryczek

John Ryczek was 12 years old in 1913 when he set off with his parents and seven siblings from their hometown of Mielec, Poland. The Ryczeks first settled in Moodus, Connecticut, where John attended school until age 14, then went to work in the Moodus Twine Mill. There he met his future wife, Josephine Tylec, herself the daughter of immigrants from Mielec. John and Josephine married in 1921 and moved to Middletown the following year. Here John worked in the Russell Company factory, and the couple lived with his aunt and uncle until they were able to move to a home on Clay Avenue with their three children.

Nothing could be more American than baseball, which John took to enthusiastically when he arrived in his new country. But when he joined an amateur team in Middletown, it was to play with teammates from his homeland, sponsored by a Polish men’s organization called the Falcons. Known by his nickname, “Kid” Ryczek, John was a pitcher and outfielder during the early 1920s when the accompanying photograph was taken.


Their Own Stories: Voices From Middletown’s Melting Pot – Index

Introduction Wangunks English Africans
Scots Irish Germans Swedes
Poles Jews Greeks Italians