Yesterday, October 11, was once traditionally celebrated in cities with large Polish-American populations as the traditional Pulaski Day, marking the day that Count Casimir Pulaski, a native of Warka, Poland, heroically died in 1779 while fighting for American independence.
By the late 20th century, Pulaski Day had became three Pulaski Days in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In other parts of the country, it has morphed into “The Polish Festival,” being held at some point during the early autumn calendar, typically overlapping with the German-American Oktoberfest and sometimes coinciding with today’s controversial Italian-American Columbus Day.
No longer honored consistently on the day he died, however, hardly dims the tale of how Pulaski’s passionate belief in liberty has endured as a potent symbol for the Polish for over two centuries.
As Americans were fighting to break from the crushing control of England, Poland was doing the same with Russia.
Following his late father, who helped foment an armed defense of Poland, at only 22 years old Pulaski displayed military bravery as a skilled cavalry leader against the troops of the Russian-controlled Polish king and quickly earned a legendary status among the Poles. Within six years, however, he was exiled on charges he planned to kill the king.
In Paris, Pulaksi’s principled mission impressed Benjamin Franklin, who was enlisting foreign military support for Americans to fight England.
Franklin implored General George Washington, leader of the Continental Army to commission Pulaski as “an officer famous throughout Europe for his bravery and conduct in defense of the liberties of his country.”
The Continental Congress refused to make Pulaski as an Army officer, not trusting many of the grandiose claims made about numerous European military leaders eager to lead colonial American troops to glory.
Impressed by the Polish leader, however, General Washington coaxed him to cross the Atlantic and join his army without commission.
Despite proving his skill at the Battle of Germantown and the Battle of Brandywine, earning a Brigadier General commission and being named first Commander of the American Cavalry, the Polish national encountered another obstacle based again on the simple fact that he was a “foreigner.” Colonial American troops, primarily of Anglo ancestry, resisted being led into battle by someone who wasn’t born in the colonies like them.
Recognizing not only Pulaski’s commitment to the principal of freedom but his valuable military skill, the Continental Congress decided to create a special “Pulaski Legion” consisting of other foreign-born soldiers. Pulaski broke the hold of British troops at battles in New York and South Carolina.
On October 11, 1779, however, while leading French troops in battle at Savannah, Georgia he was hit by cannon fire. He died two days later and was buried at sea.
In the U.S, memory of Pulaski faded, but for Poland, its cultural spirit crushed for over a century by Russian tyranny and division among other bordering nations, his heroic legend persisted as a point of pride, linked to the example of American freedom to which he contributed.
Freedom, be it to work and save earnings, buy and hold property or practice one’s faith, is ultimately what drove the Polish to the United States.
In 1608, two dozen Polish craftsman had come with John Smith to work in the Jamestown, Virginia colony in 1608, but the first permanent U.S. settlement of Poles were minority Protestant escaping Catholic oppression in the early 1700s; the small number settled in Delaware and New Jersey and rapidly assimilated.
In 1854 a settlement of “Silesian Poles” (from the Prussian border area) formed the insular community of Panna Maria, Texas and a century and a half later descendants retain their unique ancestral dialect.
In the mid-1830s, several hundred Polish military leaders, intellectuals and nobility, fleeing the threat of Russian execution for staging an uprising, were able to proceed from Austria to the U.S., although promised settlement land in Illinois and Michigan never came through for them.
Many, however, received Union Army military commissions during the Civil War.
After the Civil War, Polish workers were enlisted to pick cotton in the South alongside now-freed African-Americans who had been slaves and performed labor-intensive oyster shelling and farming near Baltimore, Maryland, creating the Fells Point area of the city.
The massive immigration of Poles, estimated to be as high as four million, began in the 1870s and continued on until the start of World War I, consisting uniformly of those desperate for work, largely from the peasant classes.
Willing to take hard manual labor jobs, they predominated the steel mill industry, coal mining and blast furnace workforce, the reason why they rapidly populated the cities of Cleveland, Detroit, Buffalo, Milwaukee,and Pittsburgh, as well as the meatpacking industry in Chicago.
Depending on what regions of Poland they came from, this large first generation of Polish-Americans were Catholic and Jewish.
Polish immigrants faced derision from Americans who, confounded by the sound of their language, presumed that their difficulty in learning English proved they were somehow incapable of doing so.
Demeaned in this way, seeking only to secure steady work, many Poles made it a priority to work among the only ones they could trust, fellow Poles, even at the lowest paid and most labor intensive factory and farm jobs.
Willingness to take the most strenuous tasks fed a stereotype that all the men possessed a brutish, sturdy physicality, making them worthy of only manual labor or, later, sports – especially football.
Their long history of Russian oppression fed a disinclination for engaging in public battles to coalesce power, or even to challenge misunderstandings about them.
All of these factors fed into what had become so ubiquitously known as “the Polish joke,” that by the 1970s even the likes of Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan cracked them publicly.
By the 1920s, a core of Polish community was established in the growing number of social local clubs, athletic leagues, fraternal organizations and saloons, the last being especially important gathering places for late-shift laborers.
Establishing their own Polish Catholic churches became a priority and conflicts with German and Irish Catholic parish leaders led to the creation of the Polish National Catholic Church in America.
There was also one powerful factor to keep Polish immigrants moving forward.
Peasants may have been unable to bring to America what meager old country possessions they owned, but nothing could prevent their importing the oral tradition of how General Pulaski had come to this same land and faced resistance until his hard work proved his value.
The fact that a native of Poland had so dramatically contributed to establishment of American freedom was emotional inspiration for Polish immigrants who had little else to feel hopeful about in the new world.
Pulaski remained an ideal for Polish-Americans, a genuine hero.
In 1929 the U.S. government recognized this, Congress officially designating October 11 as General Pulaski Memorial Day. It would be another seventy years, however, before a President, Barack Obama, signed a bill granting Pulaski posthumous honorary citizenship.
By the 21st century, however, the need for a Pulaski among Polish-Americans seemed unnecessary. After great effort all through the 1980s to establish the first Monday in March as a Chicago public school holiday (for his March 4 birthday), it went back to a regular school day in 2012.
In 1960, as her husband pursued the Democratic presidential nomination, Jackie Kennedy learned to deliver speeches in Polish to Wisconsin primary voters.
Today, no congressional district in the country is determined by their ballots. Most of the 10 million Americans who identify as “Polish,” are no longer of a single ancestral heritage.
Hints of the old Polish immigrant culture may be reflected in family stories swapped over beers in corner bars or identified up on old church spires in Rust-Belt cities from Canton to Camden.
With the largest Polish-American population numbers, New York still manages an impressive annual Pulaski Day Parade.
Second-largest in count, Illinois so long ago adapted its palate to the various regional and holiday iterations of kielbasa (wiejska, myśliwska, krakowska, weselna, kabonosy) that a generic blend is commonly packaged simply as “Polish sausage.”
Michigan may rank third, but by some estimates its 850,000 Polish-American residents compose nearly ten percent of the state population. It may explain why, although Milwaukee Wisconsin’s Polish festival is the nation’s biggest, the relatively small Grand Rapids, Michigan can annually support the longest one, for not just one but three Pulaski Days.
Prompted by the 1850 Swamplands Act which let pioneers claim land ownership of the murky soil they could make arable, the first permanent settlement of Poles in Michigan began in 1857 with six families on Parisville’s farmlands.
Michigan became a point of destination for Polish immigrants, totaling 50,000 by the turn of the century.
Another wave of Polish immigration to Michigan came in the late 1980s, with the end of Poland’s communism rule and status as an independent nation.
Chicago and New York still drew the biggest numbers, but the Detroit, Michigan area was not far behind. Old Polish Catholic churches are again flourishing in Wyandotte, and an impressive American Polish Cultural Center and National Polish-American Sports Hall of Fame have been established in Troy.
The towns of Alpena, Manistee and Bay City now boast a demographic of new Polish immigrants. Still, only four percent of “Polish-American” nationally are immigrants.
Grand Rapids may not be home to Michigan’s largest Polish-American population but during its three Pulaski Days on the first full weekend of October, it might seem so.
All of the city’s fourteen private “Polish Hall” social clubs, functioning since the late 19th century, are opened to the general public.
The annual Pulaski Days help raise funds to keep the local Polish-American organizations going. Even though there are many other Pulaski Day celebrations throughout Michigan, the events in Grand Rapids are especially heralded and draw crowds from not just around the Wolverine State but the nation.
The mission of the Grand Rapids event is to not just honor Pulaski but “foster recognition and respect to people of Polish heritage and their right to a place of honor” and “bring together people of all nationalities, to promote understanding, good will, make lasting friendships and acquaintanceships and eliminate bigotry.”
The state’s second biggest city, thirty miles from Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids was strongly defined by its largest ethic group, the Dutch.
Immigrants from what was called “German Poland,” were the second biggest group to settle there, most being skilled laborers from the town of Trzemeszno near Poznań. The city’s department store names would reflect its immigrant heritage: Herpolsheimer’s, Jacobson’s, Steketee’s and Wurzburg’s.
By the latter 19th century Grand Rapids became a busy lumber milling and processing center, logs easily floated down the river where the city sits and from which it takes its name. It led to Grand Rapids soon being dubbed “Furniture City,” as an industry of home furnishing manufacturing burgeoned there and came to define the city’s economic power.
When some of the first Grand Rapids furniture companies created displays of their wares for exhibition at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, the style of the pieces were made to evoke the American colonial era.
That “colonial revival” look found immediate currency with Americans and came to define a standard household appearance for nearly a century, forever known as “Grand Rapids style.”
With particular skill in carpentry and wood cabinetry, many of the Grand Rapids “German Polish” found easy employment designing the pieces.
With a perpetual need also for laborers working day and night shifts, the Grand Rapids furniture factories also brought an influx of unskilled Polish immigrant workers so massive that they soon formed their own distinct neighborhood on the city’s Westside.
Of course, they were employed in all of the city’s industries, an especially heavy presence among gypsum workers.
While there is hardly a flood of new Polish immigrants to Grand Rapids and most of those descended from earlier arrivals have intermarried, a recent article by A. Wolfe recalls the multi-generational importance still of the neighborhood bar as a legacy blending the city’s Polish, German and Eastern European heritage, A Family Saloon Serving Stiff Drinks and Second Chances.
Newsweek prematurely declared Grand Rapids a “dying city” in 2011, but three years later Lonely Planet named it the number one U.S. travel destination on its Top Ten List, outranking even Yosemite National Park.
Over sixty distinct architectural styles are preserved in its “Heritage Hill,” section with examples dating from 1848 into the 20th century.
When North Carolina became the nation’s leading manufacturing center of home furnishings, the city focused on the burgeoning need for computer-based office furniture.
There are a large number of art museums in the city, and it is also a destination site for presidential history buffs, with its Gerald Ford Presidential Library, one of only twelve in the country.
In fact, downtown Grand Rapids is flourishing in a massive boom of revitalization. Sturdy old stone buildings and streets of early 20th century storefronts are undergoing gentrification.
Hipsters and those looking to live where they can walk to work are packing coffee shops and new restaurants. Theater and art galleries are helping make downtown a nightspot.
All of this has helped give the old Polish social halls a second life, especially with droves of new and younger members joining, most of which are no longer of Polish heritage.
That, in turn, has only propelled the popularity of Grand Rapids’ three Pulaski Days, which serve as the leading fundraising event for the social hall clubs and as a reminder of the city’s strong working-class history.
Founded in 1973 by locals Ed Czyzyk and Walt Ulanch, the festival is now one of the largest celebrations of the Polish culture outside of Poland, drawing record numbers of crowds and revamping what was often just a day for a parade.
The fundraising actually begin with a summer pageant and golf tournament. During “Pulaski Weekend,” there are dances, concerts, trophy ceremonies, a raffle, traditional Polish Catholic mass, offerings of Polish food specialties and, of course, a parade.
Yet beneath the surface, it isn’t about polkas and pierogi. A large part of what makes the event especially fascinating is that the majority of those participating are not of Polish heritage but rather from a wide mix of ancestral backgrounds, joining together to simply explore, learn, enjoy and celebrate but one of the many peoples blended into the definition of American.
Despite all that seems to be degrading the national culture, Pulaski Days in Grand Rapids is healthy evidence that our old motto of e pluribus unum is still growing, evolving and living.
Here’s a video from earlier this year, of a musical performance by the Grand Rapids Polish Heritage Society:
Among the most famous Polish-Americans are lifestyle maven Martha Stewart, architect Frank Gehry, major league baseball players Stan Musial and Carl Yastrzemski, actors Zack Efron, Gweneth Paltrow, David Duchovny, Steve Carell, Stephanie Powers, Jack Benny, Pola Negri, Jennifer Connelly, Lisa Kudrow, Rose Marie and Christine Baranski, liberal feminist Gloria Steinem and conservative commentator Laura Ingram, television and radio host Larry King, MSNBC journalist Mika Brzezinski, , cosmetic titans Max Factor an Helena Rubenstein, U.S. Senators Barbara Mikulski, Lisa Murkowski, Christopher Murphy and Edmund Muskie, rockers Pat Benatar, Marilyn Manson, Jon Bon Jovi, economist Alan Greenspan, author Jerzy Kosinski, swing kings Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa, surf guitarist Dick Dale, The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart and Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, AFL players the Gronkowski brothers (Rob, Chris, Dan) filmmakers Aaron Spelling, Sam Goldwyn, and the Warner brothers, Joint Chiefs of Staff general John Shalikashvili, Admiral Hyman Rickover of the U.S. Navy, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, pianist Liberace and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.