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In the Classroom > Course Overview > Unit Overview > Lesson 3

Lesson 3
Through the City, To these Fields: Eastern European Immigration
by Kris Woll

Around the turn of the last century, a tide of Eastern European immigration dramatically altered the ethnic and religious landscape of Franklin County -- and the entire Connecticut River Valley.1 Coming from many sprawling empires, forming nation-states, and a multitude of provinces and small villages, this new wave of immigrants practiced a variety of religions, spoke different languages, and harbored varied loyalties and prejudices. Diverse as they were, individuals were often referred to en masse as "the Polish" in western Massachusetts newspapers and even census records. That the immigrants themselves at times embraced the generalized term on their own accord created a sense of shared identity among individuals from very different backgrounds united in their "foreignness."2 While some of the Eastern European immigrants found work in the mill towns of Holyoke, Springfield, and Turners Falls, many worked as agricultural laborers in the rich fields along the Connecticut River.3

The story of Eastern European immigration to the Connecticut River Valley reveals that not all immigrants in the Progressive Era landed at Ellis Island only to move into Lower East Side tenements or Chicago's south side for work in the booming factories.4 Like others that preceded them, immigrants coming between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Great War settled on agricultural landscapes, performing agricultural work, which for many was a return to the labor they performed in their home country.5 The eastern European immigrant experience, like so many others, is an example of the "push" and "pulls" of immigration, a lens through which we can look at changes in the homeland that encouraged some to immigrate, and at factors that encouraged them to choose the U.S. and eventually stay.6

Nativism forms still another important element of this story. Already-established residents discussed the threats posed by "outsiders" whose language, religion, food, and lifestyle differed from their own, while also grappling with the valuable contributions these immigrants made to the area's economy. The grouping of all Eastern Europeans into a pot called "the Polish" -- a practice by native residents and immigrants alike -- provides insight into the way "ethnicity" is formed, and how lines of nation, town/village, and region seemingly disappeared amidst the Eastern European immigrants to Franklin County.

Deerfield and surrounding towns in Franklin County, Massachusetts, provide a particularly interesting example of both assimilation and cultural preservation on the part of immigrants and earlier residents, alike. The Arts and Crafts movement and Colonial Revival of the late 18-and early 1900s, with their nativist undertones, shaped the landscape, as did the preservation efforts, the activities, and the creation of "Old Deerfield." These efforts competed for attention in a landscape also shaped by immigrants from Eastern Europe, as the three large Eastern European churches built by first and second generation immigrants in South Deerfield demonstrate.7

Eastern European Immigration: An Overview

Between 1880 and 1914, at least 7.5 million people from Eastern Europe migrated to the U.S. These immigrants were part of what is known as the "second great wave" of American immigration, in which 27 million immigrants landed on U.S. shores.8 Locally, Eastern Europeans first arrived in the Connecticut River Valley around 1890, with their presence increasing throughout the next two decades. In 1890, 90 individuals from Poland lived in Franklin County; by 1900, the number had grown to 716 individuals from Austrian Poland, German Poland, and Russian Poland combined. By 1920, 2006 individuals born in Poland lived in the county, comprising approximately 4% of the county's population.9

Immigrants from Poland (which at that time was divided among three larger empires, Russia, Prussia/Germany, and Austria) and from other Eastern European territories were most often landless peasants, displaced by land redistribution efforts employed after the abolition of serfdom. While suffering from poverty and overpopulation, many peasants also experienced religious and cultural oppression, sometimes through legal measures and sometimes through violence. Many landless peasants migrated from the countryside to the cities in continental Europe, either around their homeland or in nearby industrializing Germany. There they worked in factories or in mines before traveling to the U.S. The hope of higher wages and greater security often pulled them to the harbors of New York or Baltimore.10

Because most of the Eastern Europeans coming to the U.S. were peasants, they were among the poorest "ethnic" groups entering the country. Lack of money prevented many Eastern Europeans from moving out of the port cities in which they landed or the transit centers through which they passed; many found industrial jobs in these locales. But the story of Franklin County reveals that some Eastern Europeans eventually landed in rural areas where they worked as agricultural laborers. Nationwide, only 10.9% of "Poles" worked in agriculture; by contrast, in the town of Deerfield, 83.6% did.11

Eastern European immigrants to Franklin County met the initial resistance to newcomers that relatively closed communities traditionally express. They were different -- Catholic, poor, non-English speaking, and agrarian in origin. Silences in works like George Sheldon's History of Deerfield -- written as the Eastern Europeans' presence was first being felt in the community -- illustrate that some worked to deny their entrance into the community. Immigrants, at least at first, were outsiders, not part of the town's story. In fact, their presence -- and the increasing numbers of non-English speaking, Catholic, agrarian immigrants on the East Coast and through the Midwest -- inspired attempts to preserve a pure, "American" past, an idyllic and constructed local and national history stressing Protestant virtue and Anglo-American progress.12 Across the country, nativism took varied forms, from acts of violence and terror to refusal to hire or work with immigrants. As elsewhere, nativism surfaced in Franklin County, evidence of which survives anti-immigrant writing of the period.13

After arriving at Ellis Island or to the port at Baltimore, many Eastern Europeans stayed in cities to work in dangerous industrial jobs or moved to mining communities in Pennsylvania to work in dangerous mining positions.14 In this labor, immigrants found opportunities to make money, often more than they could at home, and to buy material goods. But the work was long and hard, and immigrant's standard of living among the lowest in the country. Thus, immigrants tried to save money to protect themselves against unpredictable unemployment. They also saved money to send or eventually bring home, as many Eastern Europeans originally intended to make enough money in the U.S. to return to their native land and live well.15

The situation in Deerfield and the rest of Franklin County varied from this urban model. Many of the immigrants to Deerfield probably worked for a time in New York or another Eastern industrial center, or in the mines of Pennsylvania, before coming to this area. Those first to arrive were likely recruited by labor brokers seeking farm hands to help in the Connecticut River Valley's farms, after the catastrophic Civil War and booming urban areas reduced the area's population.16 The immigrants came to work in labor-intensive onion and tobacco fields, crops adapted as bigger farms in the Midwest took over corn and wheat production and made New England's small scale farming unprofitable. Recruitment began as early as 1880 and continued through the end of the century. According to one study, two labor brokers claimed to have brought 9000 individuals to New England States for work in mills or agriculture in sixteen years; by 1895, labor brokers left their trade due to a decreasing demand for recruiting, as immigrants could find their own way to the jobs through other connections.17

As in urban areas, initially many immigrants were single men, though single women migrated as well. The men saved the money they earned as agricultural laborers. They often lived in boarding houses, many of which were eventually be run by an immigrant family who could afford to buy a house (perhaps after working for a time in the Valley or elsewhere) and let out rooms. Single women often worked as domestic laborers, learning English and American housekeeping through first-hand experience, living in the home of the family they served. Immigrants who arrived alone often eventually married either someone from the immigrant community in the area. The work of both partners -- both before and after the nuptial -- contributed to the new family's attempts at financial success. Together the young couple often saved enough to transition from tenant farming to actual ownership of land, up for sale amidst agriculture change in the area. The new wife would leave her role in domestic service, aiding on the farm, in the fields and with the livestock, as well as in the kitchen and with the coming large family. Influenced not only by their Catholicism but by the economic value of many children, large families were the norm among Eastern European agricultural families. Many hands to help on the farm, coupled with the perceived economic mobility of America, encouraged the large families.18

While the family was central to the social and economic organization of Eastern European agricultural laborers in western Massachusetts, another institution often formed the center of immigrant communities: their church. Many of the new immigrants found established Roman Catholic Churches in or around the communities they settled in -- Greenfield, South Deerfield, and Turners Falls all had established churches with their own buildings and priests by the 1890. Around 1910 in Greenfield and Turners Falls, the established churches began offering mass in Polish to meet the needs of this new population, yet the growing Polish Catholic community in both of those towns and in South Deerfield sought more than one mass in their language. Due to fundraising and building efforts within the immigrant community, Polish Catholic Churches began to appear on the landscape of Franklin County; in1912 St. Stanislaus was completed in South Deerfield, followed in 1914 by Our Lady of Czestochewa in Turners Falls, and in 1920 by Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Greenfield. Smaller in numbers than Polish Catholics, Jewish families in Greenfield organized to begin their own synagogue by 1910, and Ukrainian Catholics (Byzantine Rite) organized to build their own church in South Deerfield by 1921. For both Polish Catholics, Jews and the Ukrainian Catholics, actual buildings appeared several years after an organized and practicing religious community developed. South Deerfield's churches reflect not only that religious splits did not only occur between ethnic groups, but among them, as well. In 1930, Holy Name of Jesus Polish National Catholic Church was built by Polish Catholics breaking with the Roman Catholic Church over issues of lay involvement in the church and lack of Polish leadership in a German and Irish dominated American Catholic Church.19

Places of worship were often the center of social functions and served -- through services in the native language and through informal measures like meals and holiday traditions -- to preserve and transmit the immigrant group's culture. From oral history interviews, we learn that women "followed" their husband to his church after marriage; one woman remembers that for her that meant moving from a Ukrainian Catholic Church to the Polish Catholic Church.20 It appears also that some non-Polish immigrants may have joined one of the established Polish Catholic Churches in their community, feeling somehow closer to those traditions or unified with the Poles in the area through the shared experience of immigration.21

Once strangers in the land of the Puritan, these immigrants and the generations that followed both assimilated to western Massachusetts and changed it. One needn't look far, if driving through Franklin County on Route 5 & 10, to see the evidence and effects of Eastern European immigration on this place. From farm stand names to church steeples, their presence and activity through the past century is embedded in places and spaces throughout the area, testimony to the way in which they and their descendents continue to shape the landscape and culture of the Connecticut River Valley.


  1. See Hilda Golden, Immigrant and Native Families: The Impact of Immigration and the Demographic Transformation of Western Massachusetts, 1850-1900 (University Press of America: New York, 1994), and Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Ethnicity and Immigration in American Life, (Harper Collins: New York, 1990).
  2. The use of "the Polish" as the label for all immigrant groups is widespread in articles in the Greenfield Gazette & Courier, in articles including "Are we to be Polanized" (5-19-1900, p. 4) and "Aliens in New England (12-7-1912, p. 7), and in publications including New England Magazine's "The Pole in the Land of the Puritan," (Vol. 29, 1903/04). Discussions of this from a second-generation immigrant's perspective are found in Marilyn Kuklewicz oral history interview 1, PVMA Collection, transcript pages 10-11; and William Kostecki oral history interview, transcript page 1. For more on how ethnicity is created by both immigrant groups and those native to their new destination, see Kathleen Neils Conzen et al, "The Invention of Ethnicity: A Perspective from the U.S.A.," Journal of American Ethnic History (Vol. 12, No. 1, Fall 1992).
  3. See the Massachusetts Entry within the U.S. Census Records for the years 1880, 1890, 1900, and 1910, United States Historical Census Data Browser (http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/census/), published by Inter-University Consortium for Social and Political Research. Also see Long, "Agricultural Labor Brokers," (FINISH ENTRY).
  4. Daniels, p. 220. He cites the top cities of Polish immigration as (in order): Chicago, New York City, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Cleveland.
  5. See Jennie Danielski et al oral history interview, PVMA Collection, no transcript available. Also see Caroline Golab, "The European Background of Polish Migration," in Immigrant Destinations (Temple University Press, 1997), p. 75, Blejwas, "Puritans and Poles: The New England Literary Image of the Polish Peasant," Polish American Studies (Vol. 42, Autumn 1985), p. 49, and Dirk Hoerder and Horst Rossler, "From Myth to Reality," in Distant Magnets: Expectations and Realities in the Immigrant Experience, 1840-1930 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1993).
  6. The usefulness of the "push/pull" concept has been aptly debated among scholars for its deterministic approach to immigration, reducing immigrants to masses moved by large forces. Useful for their general overview but problematic for their tendency toward oversimplification (erring in effort to prove their titles well chosen) are Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted and John Bodnar, The Transplanted. Roger Daniel's response to this debate is discussed in the preface to Coming to America, where he suggests he is attempting to put the immigrants at the center of his discussion.
  7. A helpful starting point for a discussion of the Arts and Crafts movement in Deerfield is Marla Miller and Anne Lanning, "Common Parlors: Women and the Recreation of Community Identity in Deerfield, Massachusetts, 1870-1920," in Gender & History (Vol. 6, No. 3).
  8. The 7.5 million figure is found in Hoerder and Rossler for the areas accepted as Russian and Austria-Hungry. Because part of Poland was actually under German control in the late 19th century, it is difficult to accurately account for total numbers of "Eastern European" immigrants. According to Sylvia Pedraza, Origins of Destinies: Immigration, Race and Ethnicity in America (Boston: Wadsworth: 1996), the "second great wave" lasted from 1881 through 1930.
  9. U.S. Census Records for the years 1880, 1890, 1900, and 1910, United States Historical Census Data Browser (http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/census/). Again, at issue here are the terms available for classification. Poland in the 19th century was divided among the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the German Empire. Designation for which part of Poland one was from was not an option on the 1890 or 1920 census. The 1910 census offered no "Polish" option.
  10. An extensive and thoughtful discussion of the background of Polish immigrants to America is found in Golab.
  11. See Blejwas, and also Long, Grady, "Agricultural Labor Brokers of Eastern European Immigration to the Connecticut Valley" (Deerfield, MA: Summer Fellowship Program, 2000).
  12. See Miller & Lanning; also see John Higham, Strangers in the Land.
  13. For more on nativism, Higham, Strangers in the Land. The newspapers of the period attest to the use of nativist language but do not suggest, at least in the period 1890-1920 that any vigilante anti-immigrant activity took place. This fits Higham's thesis that since the turn of the century was a relatively prosperous era for the nation, the immigrant threat did not seem so immediate or dangerous, and thus violent nativist activity did not take place. This stands in contrast to the precarious 1850s as the Irish flooded American shores, or in 1920, as the nation's economy dipped after the Great War and the KKK revived nationwide with vigor.
  14. According to Daniels, p. 149, many Eastern Europeans departed through the port at Bremen for the port of Baltimore; The Fr. Basil Juli oral history interview, PVMA Collection, transcript p. 1-2 contains recollection of his immigrant parents coming through Baltimore.
  15. See Golab, p. 75, 85-87; Daniels, p. 213-220. Also see Kuklewicz oral history interview 2, PVMA Collection, transcript pages 20-21 and Juli oral history interview, PVMA Collection, transcript p. 6-7.
  16. Blejwas, p. 48, calls the immigrant's labor on and then purchasing of the land an "agrarian revival" for the area.
  17. Long, "Agricultural Labor Brokers"
  18. Golab, p. 68; Blejwas, p. 51-52. Recollections on the structure of family life fill the oral histories utilized for this project, especially Kuklewicz oral history interviews 1 & 2 and Danielski et al oral history interview, both PVMA Collection.
  19. An excellent overview of all the churches of Franklin County is InMarie Jones, Franklin County Churches (Greenfield Recorder 1983).
  20. Kuklewicz oral history interview 1, PVMA Collection, transcript pages 11-12.
  21. Kuklewicz oral history interview 1, PVMA Collection, transcript pages 9-10 reads: "Many people who are of Ukrainian descent or some of the other close-knit eastern countries, some of the Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, Lithuanians ... they went, they wanted to belong to a church. We didn't have a church at first when we came, so many of them passed themselves off as Poles. It was easier to be a Pole in this Valley than it was to be from the other nations that I mentioned ..."

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