Buffalo in the ’20s: The Polish colony ‘out Broadway’

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

In 1923, there were 181,300 people of Polish extraction living “out Broadway”— the shorthand for what many in Buffalo proper also called “the Polish Colony,” metaphorically centered by St. Stanislaus Church and the Broadway/Fillmore intersection.

The author’s great grandparents were a typical Polish immigrant family in Buffalo in the 1920s. He worked as a laborer for Schoellkopf Chemical (later National Aniline), she ran the home they were able to save enough to buy in 1922, after less than ten years in this country. Aside from their ten children, the small house on Fulton Street was also home to boarders and extended family.

For the rest of the half-million plus people who lived in Buffalo, the Polish were at best a very foreign group whose language and customs seemed swathed in mystery. At worst, the Polish were a hard-working but lesser people who – aside from laboring in factories, mills and foundries – were best to stay in “Polacktown, where there are more children in the streets than in the yards.”

“Trouble in Polacktown” Buffalo Evening News front page, 1883. Buffalo Stories archives

Beth Stewart was among Buffalo’s first female newspaper reporters and later became a feature reporter for the Courier-Express. She married fellow Courier reporter Gordon Hollyer and served as the public relations director for the YMCA through most of the 1950s and ’60s.

St. Stanislaus was established in 1874 with a simple wooden church. The landmark Onondaga limestone structure standing today was built in 1886.

Among her first series of feature reports was a three-part series on “the large and growing Polish colony of Buffalo.” It was a sympathetic and celebratory look at Buffalo’s Polonia, giving many outside the Polish neighborhoods their first opportunity to have a comprehensive understanding of how their Buffalo neighbors lived.

The Polish people were without their own nation for the entire 19th century. Poland was carved up between the Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires.

The first big wave of Polish immigrants to Buffalo came from Prussian Germany after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck made it more difficult for the Roman Catholic ethnic Poles to freely practice their religion.

A wave of Poles from the Austrian province of Galicia started coming to Buffalo in 1882. Russian Poles started arriving en masse in 1905.

Buffalo’s first Polish councilman and later assemblyman James Rozan remembered coming to Buffalo as a boy in 1872. His family was one of a dozen or living in the mostly German Fruit Belt neighborhood.

Fourteen years later, when St. Stanislaus church was built at Peckham and Townsend Streets as Buffalo’s first Polish church in 1886, there were 19,000 Poles in the city, mostly living near St. Stan’s.

By 1923, there were 27 Polish churches for the roughly 380,000 Poles spread across the East Side, Black Rock, Elk Street, Seneca Street, Lackawanna, Dunkirk, Niagara Falls, North Tonawanda, Cheektowaga and Depew.

Without much explanation other than just printing the Polish names without translation, Stewart wrote that the larger Polish community, first built around St. Stan’s, was further split into seven communities that would be readily understood by those who lived among them.

The community in and around St. John Kanty was called Kantowo.

The first was Stanislawowo—members of St. Stanislaus Church. Then was Kantowo, from parishioners of St. John Kanty. Members of St. Adalbert’s were from Wojciechowo, Pietrowo was made up of the members of Holy Apostles Ss. Peter and Paul Church at Clinton and Smith.

St. Casimir’s in Kaisertown made up Kazimierzowo. The community surrounding St. John Gualbert in Cheektowaga was Gwalbertowo. Black Rock was directly translated into Polish as Czarna Skala.

But however far-flung, Broadway and Fillmore remained “the Polish Main Street and Delaware Avenue” for Buffalo’s Polish population. The business district there was equivalent to the main street of a mid-sized northeast city. Polonia boasted 2,930 Polish-owned businesses and 14 community banks.

Right at that intersection was the building created as a hub of Polonia-wide activity. Translated, Dom Polski means “Polish home.” The substantial edifice opened as “The Polish Literary and Assembly Rooms Association, Inc” in 1889, replacing a refashioned barn used for the same purpose for at least a decade before.

Rather than an organization itself, the Dom Polski was the home of the Polish library and fraternal groups like Kolko Polek—the Polish Women’s Circle, Polskich Krawcow—the Polish Tailors, Sokol Polski—The Polish Falcons, Szewcy Polski—The Polish Shoemakers, and the Polish National Alliance.

The Kaisertown Polish community which centered around St. Casimir Church was called Kazimierzowo.

It was a place on a Sunday night where you might find a half-dozen small family dinner parties in the different rooms and men smoking and playing billiards in the library. It was the Polish equivalent of the clubs on Delaware Avenue which routinely denied membership to most Polish-Americans past the middle of the twentieth century.

Much like their uptown counterparts, the members of the various clubs of the Dom Polski worked together to make their community a better place. One such effort was lobbying for a high school for the 6,000 Polish-American children in the Buffalo School system in 1923. They were fighting against the notion that the educational needs of Polish-Americans could be addressed by the city’s vocational schools. In 1926, East High School opened to serve the children of East Buffalo.

East High School, 1930s. Buffalo Stories archives

One of the amplified voices of Buffalo’s Polish population was “Everybody’s Daily,” a Polish newspaper with a circulation of 26,000.

“The paper is a force in the colony,” wrote Stewart. “It has enemies and many friends. It proclaims a policy of honest advertising. It fights for community interests—civic, political, educational, and religious.”

One still familiar institution is the Adam Mickiewicz Literary and Dramatic Circle. It still survives on Fillmore Avenue, but it was once one of many such organizations. Singing societies were also a popular element of Buffalo’s Polonia population in the mid-1920s, and one through which a greater number of Buffalonians were introduced to some Polish customs.

The Aleksander Fredro Literary and Dramatic Circle was a Mickiewicz-like group in Kaisertown. The Moniuszko was Polonia’s first singing society, and in 1923, headquartered at 570 Fillmore. The Chopin singers were at Broadway and Lathrop. There were also the Kalina, Lutnia, Lirnik, Harmonia, and Jutrzenka societies among others.

The Poles of 1923 weren’t just joiners of Polish groups—most of Buffalo’s 4,000 Polish-American World War I vets belonged to the American Legion. Adam Plewacki Post 799 was among the city’s “most active and lively posts,” and 98 percent Polish in membership.

The first home of the Plewacki Post was inside “Unia Polksa,” the Polish Union Hall, 765 Fillmore Avenue. Buffalo Stories archives

Plewacki, who lived on Best Street, was the first Buffalonian killed in World War I. The post named in his honor worked to “cultivate the love of American ideals in foreigners,” working to “Americanize” immigrants beyond just proficiency in English.

If Buffalo’s landed class could appreciate anything about the people of Polonia, it was the way that most worked quickly to buy land, and then maintain and improve property once owned.

“Polish colonists are not merely home owners,” wrote Stewart, “they are improvers of communities. A piece of land is more than a commercial investment to the Polish buyer. It is a plot to be made his own, a place where a home may be built and trees and shrubs set out for beauty.”

“Fillmore Avenue, wide and shaded, set off on both sides by neat residences, is proof of the Polish ability to build up attractive communities.”

Clearly, Beth Stewart thought she was writing to an audience that—if they thought anything at all– thought very little of the Polish people. She wrapped up her 20,000 words worth of reporting with a glowing summary of her expedition “out Broadway.”

“The Poles in Buffalo have achieved much of which they may well feel proud. They built up a great and prosperous community—a city within a city.

“They have given to the city of their adoption distinguished professional men, sober industrious workers, artists, gallant soldiers.

“They have added to the beauty of the city turreted churches, dignified homes, and fine public buildings.

“They have borne themselves in a manner which leaves the city no room for regret that one-third of its population once bore allegiance to a foreign land.”

Buffalo in the 1890s: Polish and Italian freight workers clash

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Today, it’s one of Buffalo’s newest waterfront spaces—RiverFest Park– nestled between Ohio Street and the Buffalo River, just across the water from Buffalo RiverWorks and the Labatt grain silos.

The Buffalo Evening News, May 26, 1899

The Buffalo Evening News, May 26, 1899

At the tail end of the 19th century,  Buffalo’s waterfront was rough and tumble. On this day in particular, it was the place where two immigrant groups clashed and “a race riot looked imminent.”

The unionized mostly Polish freight handlers at the New York Central Freight House on Ohio Street had joined the unionized mostly Irish grain shovelers in striking for better working conditions and in protest of contract abuses.

Cincinnati-Street-from-LOC

When the dock-working Poles came back to work, many were displeased to be working alongside mostly Italian non-union men. Management promised to dismiss the Italians, but when 150 showed up ready for work the next day, “within five minutes, a good sized riot was in progress.”

How the fight started seemed to be in question—The News’ account laid the blame at some of the 200 Poles who began accosting the Italians and calling them scabs. The Courier said the Italians may have started it when one of them threw an old tomato can into the group of Poles.

“Knives and revolvers were flourished,” reported The News, “and fists were freely used.”

Witnesses heard as many as 25 gunshots—one Polish man was shot in the back. An Italian man was slashed in the face. Five were arrested and charged with rioting.

Buffalo in the ’70s: Saint John Paul II visits Buffalo

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

On Buffalo’s biggest Polish holiday, BN Chronicles looks back on Buffalo’s connections to the most influential Pole in recent memory: Pope Saint John Paul II.

As the cardinal of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla — later Pope Saint John Paul II — visited Buffalo twice. That first visit was in 1969 as he toured the United States and Canada, thanking North Americans for their help in helping Poland and the Polish church rebound after the devastation of World War II.

Buffalo News archives

Described as “solidly-built, handsome man” in The News, Cardinal Wojtyla stayed at St. Stanislaus Church and visited, among other Catholic institutions, St. Adalbert’s Church (above) and Hilbert College (below.)

Buffalo Stories archives

At a reception for Wojtyla at the Statler Hilton, the future pontiff spoke of his admiration for Buffalo and Buffalo’s Polish community in fluent English.

“Remember that your fathers and grandfathers brought Polish souls to this country, and you are continuing in their spirit,” Wojtyla said. He added, after receiving the key to city from Mayor Frank Sedita, “I will always remember Buffalo and take your good wishes back to the Mother Country. And now that I have the keys to the city, I may come back and open it.”

He made good on that promise in 1976 — only two years before being elected pope.

As Krakow’s Cardinal Wojtyla left the Buffalo Airport for St. Casimir’s Church in 1976, the children assembled sang “Sto lat,” the traditional song for birthdays wishing that the honoree might live a hundred years.

Buffalo News archives

This time, he stayed at the rectory of St. Casimir’s in Kaisertown, where 900 people attended a Mass concelebrated by Cardinal Wojtyla and 19 other bishops.

Msgr. Edward Kazmierczak, pastor of St. Casimir, hosted Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in 1976. (Buffalo News archives)

The Polish saint made no widely known pronouncements on Dyngus Day or any of the other similarly themed happenings on Easter Monday in Poland. But even though the water-throwing and pussy-willow-slapping celebration may have been squashed by Nazi occupation during his formative years, it’s nearly certain that a young Karol Wojtyla would have had some Śmigus-Dyngus experience as a boy growing up in Poland.

In fact, over the last several years, in John Paul’s hometown of Wadowice, the fountain in the town square — which has been renamed in memory of the pope and saint — has been the site of Dyngus Day pranks involving turning the water into suds to fill the square.

There’s also one of Saint John Paul II’s more famous quotes that leads one to believe the first Polish pontiff would have felt at home at many of the parties happening around Western New York this Easter Monday.

“I have a sweet tooth for song and music,” Pope Saint John Paul II once said. “This is my Polish sin.”

What it looked like Wednesday: Easter ’83 at The Broadway Market

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

This week, The Broadway Market kicks off its busiest time of the year — the days leading up to Easter.

For generations, the market was the epicenter of Buffalo’s Polish community.

A fixture in the Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood for more than 125 years, the market’s heyday was likely in the 1950s – when every Friday and Saturday people from the neighborhood stuffed into the newly renovated structure in the same way we see now only during Holy Week.

William Roesch, The Albrechts, Broadway Market

The glory years were certainly waning by 1983, but the market had much of the same character and charm as it did in the earlier years. Dozens of second- and third-generation family businesses filled the stalls once run by their fathers and grandfathers.

This piece takes a look back at some of those families and how the market had changed through the years up until that point. Many who still remember the old daily hustle and bustle of the market miss it terribly – the next two weeks is an opportunity to relive a part of what it was like, and perhaps conjure some idea of what the future of the beleaguered landmark might be.

The photos and text here were featured in “The Magazine,” The News’ Sunday insert in 1983. The paper is from the Buffalo Stories collection.

The Redlinskis Broadway Market

The Wojciechowiczez, The Bordeaus, Broadway Market

 

From the Archives: Sounds of St. John Kanty in 1967

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Buffalo, NY – The Rev. Henry Orszulak grew up in the St. John Kanty parish on Buffalo’s Polish East Side in the 1960’s and was excited to get his hands on three reel-to-reel tapes from the church’s 75th anniversary year in 1967.

The sounds of St. John Kanty celebrating 75 years being digitized. Recorded by a parishioner 47 years ago on reel-to-reel tape, a Mass and Christmas concert are copied for future generations (Buffalo Stories Photo)

Despite being nearly half-a-century old, two of the three St. John Kanty tapes sounded great. The recordings of Mass and the Christmas carols actually sound as good as they did in 1967. The concert, however, didn’t fare as well. Despite trying to play the tape back on several professional and consumer model reel-to-reel machines, significant bleedthrough and ghosting have permanently ruined the tape. It makes audio that remains difficult to listen to– although I did post a portion of it here anyway. It’s still beautiful to listen to if you can fight through the backwards organ music and singing over significant parts of it.

These descriptions  were taped inside of the boxes. 

 

Buffalo in the ’80s: Smell of pierogi at Broadway Market

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Can you still get homemade duck soup at the Broadway Market?  This story could have been written this week:

April 21, 1984: Smell of pierogi, road of crowd greet market Easter shoppers

“Under a heavy aroma of pierogi, 99 varieties of cheese and all manner of fish, the shoppers maintained a dull roar all afternoon. The aisles were flush with people of all ages, housewives pushing baby strollers, stockboys struggling with mobile racks laden with the kind of breads and cakes that could be bought nowhere else.”

Get your dupa dyngusing: Making the most of Easter Monday in Buffalo

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

BUFFALO, NY- I have had dozens of people ask me what to do and where to go to make the most of Dyngus Day… So I collaborated with a few Polish princes, and came up with a pretty good list of ideas to get your dupa dyngusing:

Everybody is Polish on Dyngus Day, and those of us who are already Polish, are even more Polish!
Everybody is Polish on Dyngus Day, and those of us who are already Polish, are even more Polish!

DYNGUS MORNING (10a-Noon): Start early. The first Dyngus parties in WNY begin at 10am. The Polish Villa 2 (1085 Harlem Road, Cheektowaga) is known for its “Bloody Mary Breakfast” with live polka music.

NOON: Join me as I emcee the kielbasa contest at the Broadway Market…. If you are looking for other family friendly activities, try the Kid’s Smingus Dyngus Day Party at St. Casimir’s Church Social Hall (1388 Clinton Street) or attending Dyngus Day Mass at Corpus Christi Church (199 Clark Street). No kids? Begin Polish tavern hoping in the Polonia District with a stop at the famed R&L Lounge (23 Mills Street) where you can grab a plate of pierogi and a bottle of Polish beer…or Genny Cream Ale!

EARLY AFTERNOON (1-4p): Explore Kaisertown…the fast growing Dyngus area of Buffalo. Experience live polka music at Ray’s Lounge (2070 Clinton Street) and at the Firehouse Bar & Grill (2141 Clinton Street). In walking distance of both venues is Porky’s Tavern (2028 Clinton Street), a wonderfully restored “shot & a beer” gin mill. Just down Clinton Street you’ll find Potts Banquet Hall (41S. Rossler at Clinton) featuring live polkas with John Stevens Doubleshot Band.

PRE-PARADE (3-5p): Head back to the Polonia District, park at the Broadway Market and hit the pre-parade parties at Corpus Christ Athletic Club (165 Sears Street), the Adam Mickiewicz Library (612 Fillmore Ave.) or the Pussy Willow Park Party Tent (Memorial Drive @ Peckham Street). Make sure while you’re there, you head over to the St Mark concession area, and pick up a sausage and support a great parish school. You might also want to stop by the Polish Cadets (927 Grant Street) in Black Rock which will feature live polka music in its legendary upstairs hall.

DYNGUS DAY PARADE (5p): The highlight of the Dyngus Day Buffalo experience. Best places to watch the parade are in front of any Dyngus Day Party venue. For a family friendly spot, grab a curb near the Broadway Market or St. Stanislaus Church on Fillmore. The rowdiest and wettest location to experience the parade is near Arty’s Grill on Peckham Street across from the Pussy Willow Park Party Tent. For a full parade map visit DyngusDay.com

POST-PARADE POLONIA: (6p-8p): Staying in the Old Neighborhood? Head over to the St. Stanislaus Church Social Center (Fillmore @ Peckham) for live polka music and Polish food prepared and served by Nuns.

POST-PARADE SUBURBS: (6p-8p): On Dyngus Day, Buffalo is transformed into the largest polka music festival in the world…and you’ll find some of the greatest bands in America at large, suburban festival halls. The Leonard Post VFW (2450 Walden Ave, Cheektowaga) features Lenny Gomulka & the Chicago Push, Polish Falcons (445 Columbia Ave, Depew) features Phocus and the Millennium Hotel (2040 Walden Avenue, Cheektowaga) features Freeze Dried.

DYNGUS DAY FINALE: (8p): If you never experienced Dyngus Day with the band Those Idiots, than you NEVER experienced Dyngus Day in Buffalo. This year the band will be the headlining act at the Pussy Willow Park Party Tent in the Polonia District. After the Those Idiots Show, stop at the G&T Inn (58 Memorial Drive) to hear Geno, the World’s Only Polka Singing Bartender

DON’T LET THE PARTY END: (10p-3a): Come back to where we began in the morning. The Polish Villa 2 features live polka music with the Piakowski Brothers at 10pm. Historically, the party ends earlyTuesday morning as musicians who have played all day end up at the Villa to finally unwind. It’s a who’s who of polka greats with the occasional jam session breaking out.

CAN’T PARTY ON DYNGUS DAY? (Wednesday-Sunday). You’ll find Dyngus Parties with live polka music every day of the week between April 23rd and April 27th. The best post-Dyngus party? Catch live polka music with Tony Blazonczyk at Potts Banquets on Saturday, April 26th at 6pm.

Of course– keep Dyngus Day safe and select someone as a designated driver.