Between 1870 and 1914, the first wave of Polish immigrants arrived in America seeking a better life. The late 1940s brought a second wave, followed by a third in the late 20th century.
They brought with them their love of ethnic cuisine in the form of pierogi, kapusta and golabki; their rollicking polka music; and their devotion to the Catholic faith. They brought with them the hope of better jobs, a more stable financial state and a brighter future than what their homeland could offer.
During the first wave of immigration, only one Johnston residence contained individuals of Polish descent. Pawel Kurkowski and his wife, Annie, owned a bakery and shared their Highland Avenue home with their seven children and two Polish boarders – Walter Matiascki, a housepainter, and Alexander Matiascki, an iron foundry worker.
By 1920, Johnston counted 45 Poles among its residents. Cotton mill weaver Stanislaw Gotebiewski and his wife, Emilia, lived on Jackson Avenue, as did Adolph and Helen Kulunscz. Another mill weaver, Paul Oszajcs, lived on Johnston Avenue, while Boleslaw Wolosiewich, who was a weaver as well, resided on Highland Avenue with his wife, Victoria.
Within 10 years, the number of Polish immigrants in town had risen to 78. Another woolen mill weaver, William Styka, lived with his wife Bertha on Oakland Avenue. Joseph Novak, employed in a woolen mill washroom, lived with his wife Jenny on Flanders Street.
The number stayed consistent until the third wave. The majority of Poles found work in cotton mills and settled in close proximity to the residences of other Poles who knew their language, shared their diets and appreciated their music and customs.
Many of the Poles did not have a lengthy education to fall back on. Thirty-nine-year-old carpenter William Bukowski and his wife, Mary, lived on Rosemont Avenue in 1940. The extent of William’s education had been the completion of second grade. That same year, 55-year-old Waclaw Warys and his wife, Martha, were living on Dyesville Avenue. Waclaw had completed the fourth grade.
Some Polish men were able to find jobs outside the mills. Frank Strembicki, who was born in Zabince and settled on Merino Avenue, was employed in the Hospital Trust building in Providence. Frank Lazaeski, a native of Tarno and resident of Hopkins Avenue, worked for the Providence Gas Company. Stephen Sefsick, born in Lomza and residing on Hartford Avenue, worked for Wallace Motor Sales in Warren, while Alexander Stadnick, a resident of Traver Avenue, was employed by the Franklin Machine Company.
It’s a misconception that Polish immigrants were all tall, light-skinned blondes with blue eyes. Tomria native Josef Mistkowski, employee of Lymansville Mills, who lived on Oakland Avenue, had dark skin, black hair and brown eyes. Joseph Kalinowski, an Atlantic Mills employee residing on Ostend Street, stood 5 feet, 3 inches tall.
Most Poles came through Ellis Island, with little more than a trunk and a dream. Anna (Skrydlewska) Spirydowich came through New York in the summer of 1913, aboard the SS Campanello. The native of Mozyiki was just 18 years old. Her husband, Wladyk, had come to America aboard the Cincinnati in the summer of 1909 when he was 16. A native of Pokarcy, he and Anna later settled in Johnston and opened a grocery store.
Currently, there over 10 million Poles living in America. While integrating themselves into society here, most have managed to retain the customs of their ancestors, passing them on to the next generation who will carry their stories into the future.
Note: The names of individuals of Polish descent, as well as the names of the towns they originally hail from, are often spelled various ways in official documents. While the spelling of the names and places mentioned here may not be as descendants know them, this is the way they appeared in early records.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.