The Pole in the Land of the Puritan
by Edward Kirk Titus
Reproduced with permission from
New England Magazine, Vol 29 (1903-01)
"It's about time that the Irish and
the French and the Yankees lined up against these Polanders."
So spoke an Irish-American leader in Western
Massachusetts, suggesting the interest and uneasiness awakened in
the Connecticut river valley by the rapidly increasing Polish colony.
Alien in thought, grotesque in manner of life, the thrifty and laborious
Pole is a conspicuous figure in this old Puritan community, and
his prospective effect upon social and political conditions is the
subject of solicitous inquiry. Slow to learn even simple English,
unable to express in our tongue any abstract ideas, one can only
conjecture his inner life and mental attitude. His part in the drama
of conflicting races has thus a silent, pantomimic effect. It is
not lacking in sinister suggestion.
In the smiling country along the Connecticut
river and included within Massachusetts, there was three decades
ago possibly the most distinctive survival of early New England
Puritan life. The first Poles came in the early eighties; many of
them were attracted by glowing reports of returning Jews, who told
of a land of boundless freedom and countless dollars. Soon the descendents
Pynchons and the Chapins were marvelling
at the expressionless Slavic faces, which looked as if flattened
against a board at birth; at stunted figures that bespoke grinding
toil; at the masculine forms of the women, that told of field-work
beside brother and husband and domestic animal. To-day the Polish
tide, swelled by continuous immigration and prolific births, is
steadily rising in this old Yankee community. The Massachusetts
section of the valley is the home of twelve to fifteen thousand
of these aliens. The change is particularly striking in little farming
You can find colonial dwellings whose ample
halls suggest the broadening atmosphere of the English country home,
whose traces of Greek architecture hint at an outlook into finer
and more spiritual aspects of life, that are to-day Polish boarding-houses,
with beds rented at twenty-five cents a week. Walls that once heard
the agonizing prayer of some Puritan Ebenezer of Nehemiah to his
aloof and angry God, now ring with Polish revels. Here sounds the
phraseless and tuneless strain of the fiddle and two-string 'cello,
while Wojciech Krzystyniak, having paid his dime, is dancing with
the bride, puffing in her face the cheap cigar given as premium
with his blushing partner; and in the background are lurking the
disappointed rivals whose vengeful purpose will provide the usual
denouement for the morning's police court.
Chicopee is the Slavic capital of the valley--an
old Yankee town that once worked and slept at command of the Congregational
church bell--now a cotton manufacturing city cosmopolitan in origin
and one-third Polish. Yankees, Irishmen and Frenchmen have in turn
tended the looms, but to-day the Poles crowd the mills. In one school
where once only Yankee children were learning the three Rs, now
all but four attendants are of foreign parentage, mostly of Polish
origin. In quarters once American, later Irish or French, the overflowing
Polish tenements suggest the New York East Side, and their resistless
spread alarms the remnant of the Puritan community. With the rise
of this obliterating tide, amusement at outlandish customs begins
to give way to solicitude for social and economic results. In Indian
Orchard the other day, a hundred men, women and children struck
because two inoffensive looking Poles had been given work. In Sunderland
where several dwellings associated with old village families have
been acquired by these aliens, the leading men have agreed upon
a plan of campaign to keep the old houses out of their hands.
In forecasting the future of the Pole in the
land of the Puritan, remember that although the two race types seem
antipodal, the former possesses in marked degree physical endurance,
industry, frugality--qualities very largely contributory to the
material success of the latter in his original rôle as pioneer.
Pinching economy and tireless industry make the Pole's slouchy figure
and brutish face familiar at the savings bank, and although he may
look like a tramp, he can draw from his greasy pocket a bankbook
showing a fat deposit. Unmarried men live on a dollar a week. They
hang about butchers shops like hungry dogs, and eagerly snap at
some dusty or tainted neck or flank
offered for two or three cents a pound. Properly
tagged for identification, this acquisition is thrown with pieces
belonging to other boarders into the common pot on the boarding-house
stove. On such meat, with milk, coffee, rye bread, and a bowl of
grease for butter, the Pole thrives, and his round cheeks contrast
with the hatchet face of the Yankee who bought the best cuts of
beef. The history of Wawrzeniec Gwozdz is typical. He saved in three
years $450 from his twenty dollars a month and board as farm laborer.
Meanwhile his fiancée had accumulated $350 from her three
dollars and a half a week as housemaid. The two little hoards bought
a run-down farm that no American would cultivate. Wawrzeniec toils
from starlight to starlight, and is now planning to get a barn for
a hundred dollars by hewing out the timbers by hand. As domestic,
his wife's slashing industry rapidly transferred china from the
dining-room to the dump-heap; but since marriage her physical exuberance
has found vent in wielding the hoe. Week-days both summer and winter
she and the children will go barefoot. In a decade, Mr. and Mrs.
Gwozdz will be as prosperous as their Yankee neighbors. Either as
farm hand or land owner, the Pole displays industry that adds greatly
to the production of the valley. Help is very scarce, and but for
him the farms could hardly be tilled.
In the mill towns he is of equal economic service.
Had it not been for him, the cotton industry of this section had
probably gone south for cheap labor and long hours. The Pole came
at a time when the Irishman and the Frenchman were becoming discontented.
Cheerfully he accepts their leavings, never strikes, and saves money
where they ran into debt.
Lacking the mental acuteness of the Yankee,
the Pole might not survive in strenuous economic competition, although
at present he is underselling him in the markets for farm produce.
But agriculture no longer appeals to the imagination of the young
New Englander, who shows little disposition to contest the Pole's
acquisition of farm land. It is not unlikely that in twenty-five
years he will be the principal land owner of the valley. Preferring
the railroad towns, he still occasionally goes back into the hills,
and may yet solve the abandoned farm problem.
More than half of the Poles come here to accumulate
a little money to pay debts or buy land at home, and return thinking
their little hoard will go farther there. Stanislaus Czelinsniak,
who returned to Poland the other day, exulted over his draft for
$1,500. "No work no more," he shouted. This coming and going greatly
hinders Americanization, as the progress of the colony is slow when
at any given time every other man is a raw recruit.
The prospective effect of this migration upon
social and political conditions is a serious problem. As the Pole
can read and write in his own tongue, no educational test will every
shut him out. Superficially he becomes after a few years somewhat
Americanized. He wears American coats and collars, though cleanliness
he still regards as finical. He imitates American farming methods,
goes into the grocery or undertaking business, starts co-operative
forms labor unions. He is less and less frequently
gulled by some plausible promoter of his own race, who tells him
he can acquire a tenement only through influence, and collects twenty-five
dollars for his services as intermediary with the heartless landlord.
When the young people marry, they are less likely to keep potatoes
in the bed, and one room will probably be considered inadequate
for all family purposes. But unfortunately the Pole neither grasps
not accepts the fundamental principles of American citizenship.
Commercially he is regarded with respect, for
he pays his debts. It is safe to lend him money. In this he seems
to be governed by his old-world experience, where debt collection
was merciless. Regarding Yankees and Irishmen as a ruling class
and fearing lest they crush him, he almost never steals money from
them. He takes the bolts and nuts from the mill machines, for in
his childishness he supposes this will never be noticed. But the
Polish quarters are in constant turmoil over his thefts from his
compatriots whom he does not fear, many of whom in distrust of banks
keep money in trunks and bureau drawers. The Pole has little sense
of responsibility, and leaves work without notice. In all this his
conformity to commercial morality appears to be regulated only by
his fears, which are intensified by his ignorance. Should he awake
to the possibilities open to dishonesty, he might not be so welcome
at the grocery store.
Sympathy with his down-trodden country is universal
in America, and hence the figure of the Pole is not without romantic
suggestion. He still hopes for a free and reunited Poland. His race
experience has given him a certain crude love for liberty. The schism
in the American Polish church shows traces of this feeling, as the
independent priests perform the offices of the Roman clergy without
authority from the hierarchy, and the church property is vested
in the congregation instead of in a bishop of another race. The
Pole cherishes as essential to freedom the privilege of committing
numerous acts of petty violence. When Martin Van Buren invites Thomas
Jefferson--it should be explained that a mill overseer, tired of
the consonant bristling names of his Polish help, renamed them after
the presidents--when Martin Van Buren invites Thomas Jefferson to
his daughter's wedding, and Thomas quarrels with Grover Cleveland,
the fiddler, for playing the wrong tune, Thomas feels that freedom
involves the right to punch Grover in the head. No disgrace attaches
to arrest, and the Pole who has no police court record is regarded
as lacking in spirit.
Although he no longer walks in the middle of
the street, as did the pioneers of the migration who dared not venture
upon the sidewalk, he yet retains much of his old-world fear of
authority. But he lacks imagination, and authority must wear visible
symbols. Should the Governor or President appear in Chicopee and
suggest to Wenceslas Oszajca that he display less exuberance of
spirits, he would only bawl the louder. But when Michael Moriarty,
clothed in all the majesty of blue coat, brass buttons, and swinging
club, says "Be aisy now," Wenceslas becomes "aisy" at once.
Politically the Pole is as yet indifferent and hence
harmless. To him the dollar is all, and so far he sees no money
in politics. A naturalization club was organized several years ago
in Chicopee, but only about thirty Poles have taken out papers.
It is unlikely that the Pole would object to selling his vote; and
a community in which he is strong numerically, unless protected
by an efficient public sentiment, could easily be made by an Addicks
into a second Delaware.
Although he has taken little advantage of certain
opportunities for dishonesty eagerly grasped by other races, he
has his tricks and stratagems; but they are childishly transparent.
In taking his money to the savings bank, he often inserts a few
ones or twos in packages supposed to be all five dollar bills, hoping
the clerk will count each bill as a five. When he goes for his beer,
of which he drinks copiously, he often offers a pail several times
too large, hoping the bartender through mistake will give him more
than he pays for. His density appears in business transactions.
Roman Sibisky, a veritable Napoleon of finance in the colony, made
three thousand dollars two years ago by a lucky speculation in onions.
The next season all his neighbors supposed money could be made that
way every year, and laid in large stocks of the vegetable. But most
of their hoards bought at sixty cents a bushel were thrown upon
the ground for lack of demand at any price.
There are Poles and Poles; the Russian is superior
to the Austrian; the farmer gains faster than the mill-hand. The
race is badly misrepresented by the Western Massachusetts colony,
which is drawn from low social strata of fatherland life. Taking
the average Connecticut valley Pole, judging by his small trickeries
and falsehoods, assuming that he learns the possibilities open to
dishonesty and the means by which punishment is ordinarily evaded,
one must pronounce him capable of very considerable commercial and
political trickery. But his density may save him. He is too slow,
his stratagems too childish to outwit the Yankee or the Irish-American.
The Pole of to-day is said to be superior to the Irishman of fifty
years ago. But his development can not possibly follow the rapid
progress of the Celt. The single obstacle of language is too great.
Night schools are doing something for him, but his progress educationally
The real problem lies with the children in the
schools, who show much promise. They will inherit strong bodies,
courage, industry, thrift, endurance, and will gain some degree
of mental acuteness, thus acquiring the qualities most largely contributory
to the material success won by the Puritan as pioneer. They will
be of great economic service, will till the farms and tend the looms
that the Yankees have left. But when one thinks of the formalism
of their religion, of their crowded homes and promiscuous life,
of the lack of moral sense on the part of parents, one sees little
hope for a helpful social or political influence. In spite of many
faults, the Puritan hitched his wagon to a star, but the Pole sees
more pulling power in a bankbook, and his mind is fixed on things
of the earth, earthy. But of course there is always hope for a third
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