THE FIRST POLES IN MASPETH
The first Polish settler recorded to have come to Maspeth was Marian Krygier in 1888, according to the publication commemorating the blessing of Holy Cross Church in 1913. But there were Polish people in the Maspeth-Elmhurst area before then. These two adjacent areas, joined by the main artery of Grand Avenue running through both, have always been closely associated with each other. Saint Mary’s Church in Winfield, bordering both communities, drew Catholics from all over the area.
There was a group of about fifty Poles attending Saint Mary’s who wanted to start a parish where services would be held in the Polish language. The Most Reverend John Loughlin, Bishop of the Diocese of Brooklyn, sent Father Joseph Fyda to these people in December 1891 to help them organize a Polish parish.
On March 1, 1892, this group banded together “…in a society under the patronage of Saint Adalbert.” Altogether, Father Fyda purchased sixteen lots of real estate on 83 Street in Elmhurst for a total sum of $3,300. Construction on the rectory and church was completed within the year.
On November 13, 1892, the church was blessed by the Most Reverend Charles McDonnell, Bishop of Brooklyn. St. Adalbert’s was the first Polish parish on Long Island and people came from Elmhurst, Maspeth, Flushing, Bayside, Blissville, Winfield, Jamaica and as far as Floral Park Hempstead and Mineola to hear Mass in the Polish church. They would hear a sermon and recite prayers in Polish, except for those prayers and parts of the Mass that had to be said in Latin.
The increase in the number of Polish immigrants to Maspeth created the need for a second Polish Catholic church to serve them. In 1912 Holy Cross Parish was created and the following year the church was blessed. The Polish people of Maspeth now had their own parish.
THE POLISH COMMUNITY
The section of Maspeth, which was most densely populated by the Poles, was located in the vicinity of Holy Cross Church. Hull Avenue, Clermont Avenue, Clinton Avenue, and Perry Avenue are the streets around which the Polish community grew. The streets were dirt roads along which were usually two families painted frame houses.
When the Polish immigrants first came to this section, they tried to find a room in one of the two and three family houses in this neighborhood. Usually these would be single men, boarding with a family while they worked nearby, trying to build up their financial resources.
Some of the immigrants already had relatives here and were able to live with them. There was an opportunity for some extra income for those who could take in tenants, and the women could earn additional income by doing the laundry for the boarders. William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America discuss how groups of men came to the United States from Poland with intentions of living together in a boarding house, with one of the men bringing his wife or fiancée to take care of the housework. But it was very important for the Polish-Americans in Maspeth to save enough to buy their own homes. This was one of the factors, which caused them to emigrate to this country.
There was a great cohesiveness in the Polish community and the newcomers were looked after by the older residents. People going to the grocery store, with long shopping lists to buy food for the many tenants who could not speak English was a familiar sight. They aided each other in whatever way they could an advantage the new immigrants could not have enjoyed if they had not gathered into a community where the Polish language was spoken and where information towards their Americanization was disseminated. The Polish community, therefore, served as an important stepping-stone from the old world to the new.
THE PARISH AS THE CENTER OF THE COMMUNITY
The parish itself assumed this intermediary role by serving as the center of the Polish community. The existence of parishes where people could speak their native language filled more than just a religious need.
As St. Adalbert’s 75th Anniversary album puts it, “the church in our society becomes more than a place to hear Mass; it becomes a parish, a home where the people’s culture and customs are incorporated with their faith, a place where the social aspects of man’s nature can be evidenced.”
The parish served to unite the Polish people into a group which aided the total assimilation of each individual into the community. The new immigrant learned the customs of America in his native tongue from those who had already experienced the problems he was about to encounter. The clergy serving these two parishes were themselves of Polish descent. Reverend Monsignor Boleslaus Puchalski succeeded Father Fyda at St. Adalbert’s and the Franciscan Friars Minor Conventual took over the parish in 1906.
They continued to provide the parish with priests who spoke the Polish language. The first Easter of Holy Cross Church, the Reverend Doctor Adalbert Nawrocki and his successor, Monsignor Wiadyslaw Manka, were both born in Poland and received part of their education there. To this day both parishes are staffed by clergy who speak Polish fluently.
Both Holy Cross and St. Adalbert’s parish schools were served by the Teaching Sisters of the Community of the Holy Family of Nazareth. They instructed the children in both the Polish and English languages. At St. Adalbert’s School morning classes were conducted in Polish and afternoon classes in English.
For the immigrants who had come from Poland, it was important to them that their children should receive an education – something they had not enjoyed. They established a school within the parish in which the children would learn the basics necessary in the American way of life, but in the Polish atmosphere that was familiar to them from their family backgrounds. Many of the students in St. Adalbert’s School continued their education in neighborhood public schools, since the parish school at first only held classes from the first through the fourth grades. The first class graduated from St. Adalbert’s School in 1916, and in 1921 a new school was completed in that parish.
Classes began at Holy Cross in 1913 in the basement of the church while construction on the school was being begun. The school, therefore, played a transitional role between the two cultures. It not only served to strengthen the Polish community, but also to solidify the Americanization process of the children.
Parish organizations were important to the Poles for providing a structure in which those sharing common interests might associate with each other. Such participation in organizational activities would not have been possible for the newly arrived immigrant with the Polish parish providing the background for these activities. Parish club meetings provided an opportunity for the people to “enjoy themselves and relax after they had labored.” The Saint Cecilia Dramatic Society was established in St. Adalbert’s in 1916.
The following year an athletic club was begun and a choral society followed in 1918. Many of these organizations provided more than just an opportunity for socializing with one’s neighbors, although this was an important aspect. In many cases they provided some service, mutual aid societies, for example from which the parishioner could not otherwise benefit. The Confraternity of the Holy Rosary of St. Adalbert’s Parish was founded on October 8, 1893, “for the purpose of mutual help and cooperation between the members of the organization.”
The Confraternity of Saint Stanislaus Kostka, stated St. Adalbert’s 1942 album, “as with many other societies attached to the Church,…has for its aim the cultivation of mutual interests and to aid needy members.” Both parishes had many of these fraternal organizations, in which men and women could join together under the patronage of some saint. St. Joseph’s Society, St. Casimir’s Society, and St. Hedwig’s Society were organizations of this type in Holy Cross Parish.
Many of the organizations of this parish held their monthly meetings in Polish National Hall, on 56th Road in Maspeth, an auditorium built in 1927 to serve as a meeting house for the Polish community.
The Polish National Alliance, another fraternal organization which met at the Polish National Hall, was nationally affiliated. The Polish Roman Catholic Union, also a nationwide confraternity had headquarters in Chicago and a chapter in St. Adalbert’s Parish.
Through the Kosciusko Society and a fraternal organization, called the Standard, incorporated in 1907, families were provided with benefit protection in case of the death of one or more of its members. Since most of the immigrants could not afford conventional life insurance policies, this was a most valuable service.
The Falcons was another fraternal society which originated in Poland and was incorporated in 1903 in Maspeth to provide the Polish community with social and athletic events.
While the parish served as the cultural center of the Polish neighborhood, it did not hinder the Americanization of the people or isolate them from the rest of the community. It provided them with guidance and stability in adjusting to their new environment.
The Holy Cross Commemorative booklet of 1913 included valuable information for its Polish parishioners. It recommended good health habits they should follow to avoid disease, especially tuberculosis, which was a problem at that time. They were advised to boil the water they had to take from the neighborhood wells.
The booklet describes how the Poles had banded together in a community effort to install sewers in their neighborhood. It instructed them on the manners that were considered good conduct in American society.
This Polish parish, therefore, provided a system of transition which enabled the Polish immigrant to encounter American ideals and customs and incorporate them into his own pattern of life.
EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES FOR THE POLISH AMERICAN
The Polish people who came to the United States during the second wave of immigration did so because of the economic squeeze in Poland. Many had been farm workers, landless peasants, who had to till the soil for a meager living. Some had worked in the growing industrial centers in Poland for the most part in an unskilled capacity.
Few had the advantages of having worked at a trade in the old country with the ability to find jobs in the United States where they could practice their skills. Although they had tendencies to certain kinds of work, for the most part the Polish immigrants, were not in a position to be selective about job opportunities. Uneducated and untrained, they had to take whatever work they could find to provide for themselves and their families in this new country.
Many of the Pennsylvania mine workers of Polish birth had been recruited by mining companies as these immigrants stepped off the ships from Poland, onto one of New York City’s piers, and first set foot in America. They grasped the first opportunity for employment and security to come their way.
Some of these men had worked in the mine fields in Poland but most of them were simply won over by company representatives who were themselves of Polish origin and could promise employment with others who shared the same nationality.
Maspeth and surrounding areas of Elmhurst and Middle Village still had a good amount of farmland, even during the 1920’s. Some of the Polish immigrants who settled in Maspeth sought their first jobs in America on these farms. They possibly were inclined to seek employment because of their agricultural heritage in Poland. In any case it was an opportunity to make a few dollars during the picking season. These were not large farms, so employment opportunities were limited.
The average farm in Maspeth could take on only about four extra hands for seasonal employment. A thirteen-acre farm with a family of four farming it the year round might hire twelve people at the most during the peak of the season. Most of these farms grew vegetables and flowers. There was the Hyatt Farm on Fulton Street, after which was named Hyatt Avenue adjacent to Fulton Street. Mostly corn was grown here.
On Maurice Avenue was situated the Staffield Farm where women were hired to pick beans. Alongside Mount Olivet Cemetery was the Schwabe Farm, which faced out on to Grand Avenue.
On Fresh Pond Road was situated the Vahlsing Farm, also growing various vegetables. There were five large dairy farms in Maspeth. Gimple’s on 58th Street and Freeman’s each had about sixty cows which were fed and milked in large barns. Mintzer’s dairy farm was on Maurice Avenue and on Maspeth Avenue was the Fechter farm. Blum’s dairy farm was located on 57th Street and Mount Olivet Crescent. There have been a few farms which were able to survive until quite recent times.
The Szachacz farm operated until 1952 and 1967 saw the last farm in the area, the Schrimpe farm, which grew flowers in Middle Village, was sold to be replaced by a housing development. I have mentioned just a few of the farms where employment could be found, some even through the 1920’s. By this time, however, most of the Polish immigrants who had taken their first jobs on farms had moved on to more permanent employment in the businesses and industries in and around the area.
But when the Poles first came to Maspeth in the greatest numbers, right after 1890, the farms were often their first place of employment.
CEMETERIES AND MONUMENT WORKS
There are quite a few cemeteries, which take up a good deal of property in this section of Queens. Mount Olivet Cemetery is situated in the heart of Maspeth with the main entrance on Grand Street. Adjacent to Mount Olivet, and stretching deep into Middle Village is the much larger Lutheran Cemetery.
Also in Middle Village is St. John’s Cemetery, bounded on the northeast by Woodhaven Boulevard and divided by Metropolitan Avenue, which cuts through it. There is also Calvary Cemetery in Laurel Hill, Mount Zion Cemetery, and the New Calvary Cemetery, bordering on Queens Boulevard, which was opened at the time of the terrible flu epidemic around 1918.
These cemeteries provided employment for many of the Polish people in the Maspeth area. There were jobs available not only for gravediggers but for gardeners and people who would attend to the care of the grounds.
A large number of Polish people took these jobs, especially in the larger cemeteries. The accessibility of Calvary and the New Calvary Cemeteries prompted more Polish Americans to work there, except possibly for the smaller Mount Olivet which was located nearer the Polish neighborhood. In addition to the jobs in the cemeteries themselves there were related businesses in which jobs were available. On Grand Street near 58th Avenue was the large concern of the Sterling Casket Hardware Company.
Adler’s Monument Works also had a large plant. Both the M. Lerman Monument Works and the J.Levine Monument Works were situated on Maurice Avenue.
Frank Kowalinski (photo, right), after whom the Kowalinski American Legion Post in Maspeth was named, was a stonecutter before World War I. These monument works, of course, could not employ as many people as the cemeteries could. In many instances, the cemeteries, like the farms, were a source of immediate income until the worker found a better job.
Those with strong backs who were willing to work long hard hours, could find plenty of jobs available in these cemeteries whose owners took pride in their beauty and hired many people to care for their many acres.
In Maspeth there were many factories which employed Polish workers. There was an Aluminum works on Flushing Avenue where many Poles worked. The Downey Iron Works and the Hughes Pottery Company, which made sewer pipes for the City, both situated on Flushing Avenue in Maspeth, employed a great number of Poles. The Phelps Dodge Copper Company is almost always mentioned, along with the Nichols Copper Company and the National Enameling and Stamping Company of Laurel Hill, as one of the largest employers of the Polish Americans living in Maspeth.
Another of the companies always mentioned is the Cating Rope Works on old Fisk Avenue today known as 69th Street. This cordage factory employed many Poles and is still operating today. There was a factory on Maspeth Avenue, which was run by the Stines Family where a good number of Poles were employed making sailors’ uniforms. Sampson’s Oil Cloth Factory, on Mt. Olivet Avenue and Fresh Pond Road was quite a large operation. A great percentage of the employees were Polish, and the company built houses for them on Mt. Olivet Avenue.
Old timers in Maspeth used to call it “Shirt tail road” when referring to this section. Many of the Poles worked in the lumber companies scattered through Maspeth. The most prominent one was the Rossert Lumber Company which was actually located in Brooklyn, just across the Newtown Creek. The Poles tended to work in these companies more than in any others situated in Maspeth.
Commuting from Maspeth to Manhattan was not difficult. The Grand Street trolley ran through Brooklyn and into Manhattan over the Williamsburg Bridge. The Flushing Avenue line of the Brooklyn and Queens Rapid Transit ran through Maspeth and Brooklyn and over the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. The Grand Street line connected up with the trolley along Queens Boulevard, which ran down to Bridge Plaza in Long Island City and over the 59th Street Bridge into Manhattan. The Borden Avenue trolley, which ran through Maspeth, Woodside and into Long Island City, connected up with the ferry, which crossed the East River to 34th Street. The Polish Americans of Maspeth, therefore, not only could take jobs in Manhattan at such places as the Delevan Machine Company but could get positions in firms such as Rogers Peet Machine Company. The ability to get into Manhattan was an important factor in Polish social mobility. It gave the individuals greater opportunity for skilled jobs and made it possible for them to get to white-collar jobs in the large Manhattan firms.
Long Island City was the site of a growing industrial complex with factories producing goods of all types. The Borden Avenue trolley otherwise known as the Calvary Car, because it ran past Calvary Cemetery was a great place for Maspeth residents to meet friends from the neighborhood as they traveled to their jobs in Long Island City.
The Haberman Company on Borden Avenue in Long Island City employed many Poles from Maspeth. This was a skin-curing plan and its employees were glad to escape its aroma at the end of their working day, Brunswick Balk & Co., which made pool tables, was another company where Poles were employed.
There were many Polish employees at the American Drug Syndicate, sometimes called the A.D.S., a large firm situated on Borden Avenue. Polish workers rode the Calvary Car to their jobs at the Loose Wiles Biscuit Company, what is today Sunshine Biscuit Company and one of the largest firms in Long Island City. Another of the Long Island City firms that employed Poles from Maspeth was the Mallinson Silk Mills. The Lenge Air Products Corporation also employed Polish workers in its factory.
In discussing the importance of transportation in opening up employment opportunities in various parts of the City, the transportation system itself cannot be overlooked as a source for jobs.
The terminal for the trolleys of the Brooklyn and Queens Rapid Transit Company was located in Maspeth. The terminal was popularly known as the Car Barn and was located at the intersection of Grand Street and Fisk Avenue.
Some of the Polish Americans of Maspeth were employed on the trolley lines in Maspeth and Brooklyn, both the Brooklyn and Queens Rapid Transit and the Brooklyn and Manhattan Transit Companies. There were other jobs provided by the city in which the Poles were employed. Some of them worked in the Highway Department in Queens, which was constructing new roadways throughout the borough.
Some of the Poles residing in Maspeth held jobs with the Department of Street Cleaning in the Long Island City Division of the Bureau. There were a number of policemen and firemen living in the area in which the Polish neighborhood was situated, but I have no evidence that the Poles took such occupations. One of the Polish immigrants held the position of clerk for the Department of Water Supply in Long Island City.
Besides taking jobs in large companies, some of the Poles were able to go into business for themselves. They opened up neighborhood shops in Maspeth, at first concentrating around the Polish section. They operated grocery stores and delicatessens, shops in which Polish foods could be purchased. There were a number of saloons in the Polish neighborhood, operated and patronized by members of the Polish community.
Wine and liquor stores and clothing shops were run by Polish proprietors. There were a number of Polish Banks in the Maspeth area, which not only assisted the community in their financial needs, but also served as travel agencies in arranging passages to and from Europe. Real estate agencies and employment offices were run by Poles whose businesses were especially aimed at serving the Polish community in Maspeth.
Maspeth also had funeral homes which were owned and operated by Polish undertakers.
The Poles who established their own businesses, for the most part owned their own shops by the 1920’s. They began to spread out through Maspeth instead of concentrating in the Polish section alone. An outstanding example of success is Felix Jamrozy whose father was among the first Polish settlers in Maspeth.
Mr. Jamrozy operated the Maspeth Melody music shop on Grand Avenue for a number of years and was one of the founders of the Maspeth Federal Savings and Loan Association, of which he is the vice president.
William Szachacz has been a leader in the community, and for 32 years the president of the Taxpayers’ Civic Association of Maspeth. He was born in Poland and both he and his father operated farms in Maspeth. He studied the real estate business on his own and opened his office on Grand Avenue.
There were at least two Polish Americans who were able to run their own construction companies. The Pietrowski and the Chanski construction companies built many homes in Maspeth.
This article, written by Robert John Winnemore,was published in the Gay Nineties Parade program, October 26, 1975. Special thanks to Ethel Chahales, former owner of Spartan Restaurant on Grand Avenue in Maspeth who supplied the Juniper Berry with the information. Along with her husband Peter, the Chahales’ organized countless functions and parades in Maspeth in the 1950’s to the 1990’s. Peter was dubbed the “Mayor of Maspeth.” Additionally special thanks to Christina Wilkinson, president of the Newtown Historical Society, for supplying several photographs for this article.