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

Lesson 3
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 of the

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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 towns.

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

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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 bakeries, and

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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.

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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 is slow.

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 generation.

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