The Red River Valley Polacks

by

Shane Stewart

 

In the early years of the Red River Valley there came agreat people from across the Atlantic Ocean. These people are jokedabout more than any other nationality. Their names are hard to pronouncebut with all this the Polack takes it in stride.

The names of these people generally end in a "ski",at least we always think it should. As time passes and the younger generationsgrow up and marry, the names of these younger people change, but they stillhave that happy-go-lucky Polish blood in them.

It has been told that quite a number of families left Polandabout the year 1888 and 1889. Different countries at that time ruled differentparts of Poland. As a result of that, there were Poles coming from Austria-Poland,Russian-Poland and Germany-Poland. These people all wanted to come to theUnited States and start a new life.

The journey on the water took about twenty-seven days,so there were some pretty tired Polacks that arrived at New York. I havebeen told that these parents and grandparents of the people I interviewedthought they had landed in heaven when they arrived in America.

From this group there were about twenty-five families ofdifferent Polish origin that settled in the eastern part of Kittson County.The majority of them came by way of Chicago, then to Winnipeg by train andfrom there they settled in a land that most of them preferred.

This land could or was bought in both cases. I am toldfor about two dollars per acre. It was mostly wooded land, poplar treesmostly. Here they could clear the land for buildings, have lots of woodfor fuel, plenty grass for the animals, and still be right in the midstof one of the most favorite avocations they all liked to do, hunt and trap.

I am told about the first order of work after buildingtheir homes was to have a school for their children. Most of my grandmother'sgenerations were very happy if they received an eighth grade education andI know many of the people my mother's age went out to work or stayed onthe farm after the eighth grade was finished.

Three years after the majority of these people settledby Orleans and Lancaster, the Polish people built a small Catholic Churchwhere the present Krozeir Church is. This little church was later used asa recreation hall after the new church was built. This summer the Polishdescendants of these pioneers will celebrate the seventy-fifth anniversaryof this church.

These people always seem to find plenty of time for funand get togethers, along with their work. The Polacks have made a lastingrecord of their celebrations at weddings and even their funerals are somewhatdifferent from most others.

Some weddings have been celebrated with merry making anddancing for two or three days. I am told, it seems as if the younger generationsare falling away from this more as the years go by, but I suppose when weare living in the time when the buck is better than a good life. This isn'ttrue and if we could have a celebration like this it would just be likea fair. The funerals were somewhat of a sorrow but it never tookthem very much time to mourn for they knew that the departed ones were goinginto the world of eternity. After the funeral they would all have a toastto them.

When they had first come here they went into Canada togrind wheat into flour for they lived pretty close to the Canadian border.These Polacks also liked a good drink when they were living, and the bestwere the ones that made them sit down. Most of the moonshining stills werein Canada, where the Mounties could take people into custody if they didn'tgo through customs. The thirst stricken Polacks had a big advantage overthe Mounties, for it was a way of life for them and it had a purpose.

The Polacks hardly ever used English in the home untilmy mother was in the third or fourth grade. She still has words or phrasesshe can remember in Polish and she also has trouble saying words with the"th" in them.

The church also conducted their sermon in Polish untilabout when I was born, for the traits of tradition were strong in them andthey kind of kept it to themselves.

If my great-grandparents were here now, they would be astonishedto see the freezer and refrigerator, for when they were living they eitherhad to salt it, can it, or eat it right away. They would put the meat inwooden barrels and salt it down real good. When they needed the meat theywould just take it out and boil the salt away from it. This took some doingand usually was pretty salty when they started to eat it. The groceriesthey bought came a long way and usually the store was too far away for ashort trip. It would take them close to two days through woods, marshes,mud and hard winds to get to the store. They figured on about two days togo round trip. Before winter settled in they had to store up salt and othernecessities for the winters were usually harsh and couldn't get throughuntil spring.

In those days, the winter was a time for work, for oneof their most important incomes. The Polacks would cut cordwood so the peoplein the prairie had something to burn in their stoves and fireplaces.

They also had lots of time for hunting in the winter andthey would go after wolves for their bounty or the pelts. They would trailthem for days.

My grandmother told me a story of how a Polack came toAmerica by a strange coincident. She said while they were in Poland, peoplewould sometimes shanghai a person and make him work for little or no pay.He was braiding a rope with his boss and told him to sit down. He braidedfor a long time until he worked himself to the door. The boss had growntired and had to sleep so he slipped away. He worked his way to the seaportand left with the rest of the twenty-five families that settled here.

Many years have passed since these first people settledin Kittson County. I am one of the great-grandchildren of one of these families.I have tried to think of different family names that live there now butI have been told that many have moved away to the bigger towns and tookup a different life. The generations of Polacks today are probably livinga different life than before and have lost many of their customs. One thatsticks in my father's mind is the Polish picnic which would draw large crowds.At these, the Polacks would have a supper and then dance to a band for prettyclose to all night. They would have a bowery for the dance and would. makea shelter for the band by poplar branches hanging over their heads if itstarted to rain.

That spirit within the Polacks very strong and whetherthey are working or playing they have a grand time. The jokes about themgo on and on, and when I hear them it seems as if I'm kind of a specialperson. If the Polacks weren't around, the Norwegians and the Swedes wouldhave a lot more jokes put on them.

Bibliography

Kraska, John (Mrs.) Interviewed January 10, 1972

Masloski, Mary (Mrs.) Interviewed December 29, 1971John (Mrs.) Interviewed January 10, 1972

Masloski, Mary (Mrs.) Interviewed December 29, 1971