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History & Culture

Polish Farmers and Workers in the United States to 1914

Sister Lucille, C.R.

 

The first Polish farming community in America was Panna Maria (Virgin Mary), Texas, founded by Father Leopold Moczygemba OFMC in 1854. He was sent by his ecclesiastical superiors to do mission work in Texas. The emigrant priest invited some hundred families from Upper Silesia who made their way through the Texas prairie and wilderness, exposed to wild animals and venomous snakes, to fever and elemental storms, and to the ill-will of the natives. They brought domestic furniture and farm implements with them as well as a huge wooden crucifix to be planted in the midst of the primeval wilderness of the Far West.

 

The beginnings of the first settlement, piously named Panna Maria, were very hard and many of the settlers succumbed to these hardships. Yet all difficulties were overcome by the iron endurance of the sturdy peasant nature and Panna Maria became the center of several thriving settlements!1 The colonization was slow, the pioneer Polish cotton farmers had to struggle to maintain themselves on the land, but the sons and grandsons of the original immigrants became well-to-do farmers of the American type and remained faithful to their religion.2

 

The Upper Silesian settlements in Texas were the forerunners of a number of others. As early as 1855 the first Polish farming community in the North was founded. The first settlement, Polonia, in Portage County, Wisconsin, was located among earlier German, Irish, and French communities. In 1863, a separate Polish Roman Catholic Church was established. In 1906, Polonia numbered 360 families and showed evidence of its prosperity in a magnificent church structure which towers over the country side. The community also possessed an orphanage and a parish school. The farms were well established and Polonia became one of the most prosperous rural communities.3

 

Polish immigrants continued to settle in Wisconsin and soon other farming communities were established at Pulaski, Krakow, Sobieski, Torun, Krok, Poznan, Kopernik, Poniatowski, and others. The greatest number of Polish farmers settled in Wisconsin. The climate was similar to that of Poland, the soil was fertile; in general the conditions were favorable. The early settlers changed their form of agriculture with changing economic conditions. In Portage county, for instance, potato growing developed to large proportions. The standard of living rose to a marked degree in the old colonies.4

 

About three quarters of a million Poles went on farms. Many of the New England farms became the property of Polish immigrants, who became owners of abandoned farms in the Connecticut Valley through farm labor and tenancy. They raised fine crops of onions and tobacco. Old colonial homes were occupied by Poles.5

 

Another place where Poles farmers settled was the Hudson River Valley. The Poles came here around 1900. Most of the immigrants came from agricultural districts, and emigrated to America to become farmers, but they found themselves in factories and in mines. After years of saving they bought the farms for which they had yearned.

 

The original settlers who had been in the valley for three centuries gradually began assimilating the Polish group which had come several decades ago. The Poles lived on friendly terms with their neighbors and became as much an integral part of the region as the original New En[g]landers.6 This was especially true of the Poles in the Orange County of New York. After a few immigrants discovered this paradise of the onion and their affinity for raising it, they informed their relatives and friends in Poland and soon hundred of Poles worked in the onion fields.

 

The work was hard, yet the Poles seemed to thrive under it. Onions were a profitable crop in a good year, when six hundred or more bushels an acre could be grown. Though onions never yielded high profits, they were rarely a total failure. The Orange County area became a haven for Polish owners of the black dirt land.7

 

Most of the Polish immigrants came from the class of landless peasants; they sought employment in cities immediately after their arrival in America. In time, however, some who had been engaged in industrial pursuits in the cities were attracted by advertisements of cheap land. They bought land with the earnings they had made in industrial work.8 

 

Polish farmers are found in every state of the Union, but especially in the Northwestern and Western States of Iowa, Arkansas, Nebraska, and Dakota. Some Poles were pioneers. In some places land that years ago was forest or swamp land was transformal 80 per cent to 90 per cent to cultivation and produced profitably.9

 

No class of citizens, whether immigrants or descended from immigrants half a dozen steps removed, could ask for greater material progress, better buildings, homes, churches, schools, and town buildings, than the Polish settlement around Warsaw, Poland, Minto, and Ardock in Walsh County, North Dakota.10

 

That the Poles were here to stay as farmers was stressed by the report of the Immigration Commission of 1911. The three North Central States of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin reported 63.4 per cent of all Polish farmers of the first generation, and approximately 60 per cent of the second generation in 1900. In the following ten states, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Texas, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, New York, North Dakota, and South Dakota, 90 per cent of the foreign born Polish farmers, and 55.7 per cent of the agricultural laborers were found. The figures for the second generation were similar: 91.9 per cent of the farmers, and, 94.1 per cent of the agricultural laborers. The increase in the percentage of Polish farm laborers in the second generation in part was explained by the number of native-born Polish children less than twenty-one years of age who lived at home and were classified as farm laborers, However, few Poles of either generation remained farm laborers very long, Land was practically free, and a young man very soon claimed or purchased wild land and set up a home.11

 

The Polish farmers of the second generation, like those of the first were located in the same states: Wisconsin 34.8 per cent; Minnesota 11.4 per cent; Michigan 13.7 per cent; and Texas 15.1 per cent. The increase in the proportion of farmers in Wisconsin in the second generation from 30.3 per cent to 34.8 per cent signified that the children were keeping old farms or with the assistance of parents buying new farms in the same vicinity.12

 

In his study of the American Pole, Konrad Bercovici commented as follows on the work of the Polish farmer:

 

Tens of thousands of acres of cut-over land, which have been lying worthless because no native farmer cared to undertake to clear it of stumps, have been bought at very low prices,,, by Poles who have saved up enough money,,, to purchase it. What they have done with their land is an amazing feat of human endeavor. For land which had been lying worthless is now fertile and productive, and the forest fires that had been decimating, timberland are now slowly being eliminated by the vast stretches of cultivated areas. As far as the land is concerned, this country has benefited considerably by the work of its half-million Poles. The fact that these men had practically to make their own land, instead of buying it readymade as other populations have done, has made the land dear to them. They consider it a part of themselves, and they love it as much as they formerly loved their own dear Polish land.13

 

The Polish peasant, constituting the bulk of Polish immigration to this country, had always been agricultural. He belonged to the soil but instead, he was lured in the main into cities, factories and mines. The wave of Polish immigration reached America when her energies were turned to the tremendous process of industrialization. Industry hungered for men, and they came from Poland and other lands of Eastern Europe to feed the mines and factories of every state of the Union.

 

Pennsylvania attracted the greatest number of Polish miners. The stream of Polish immigration began to enter into Luzerne County at the close of the Civil War and increased in 1876; then the number of immigrants expanded to hundreds in 1881; and finally the last influx came in the early twentieth century. The history of the first Polish settlement at Nanticoke was the history of any Polish colony, because the various Polish colonies of Luzerne County were alike.14

 

The Wyoming Valley in the Pennsylvanian anthracite region, centering around Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, drew 160,000 miners of whom more than a third were Poles. In the bituminous, soft coal region, the Johnston-Pittsburgh area, reaching down into the West Virginia, there settled about 500,000 miners of whom about a third were Polish.15

 

The coal fields of Eastern Pennsylvania in the Schuykill County represent the anthracite coal mining industry. In 1880, it was reported that 556 Poles were there; in 1890, 4,492 Poles were present. The first Poles who settled in the neighboring town of Jackson came in the early seventies. After 1877, the Poles and other Slavic settlers began to replace the English-speaking miners.16

 

The Immigration Commission of 1909 and 1910 studied the coal mining industry in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Alabama, Virginia, and West Virginia, and concluded that there were 7,370 Polish miners.17

 

In the Middle West prior to 1890 mine workers were native Americans or immigrants from Great Britain and Germany. The southern and eastern European immigrants came to the fields in the later decades. The following per cent of Poles were found in specific mining localities: Pennsylvania 12.3; Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois 4.4; Kansas and Oklahoma 3.1; Virginia, West Virginia, and Alabama 2.2.18

 

The Poles were faced with obstacles, They felt estranged, could not speak English, and were resented and abused more by fellow miners than by the employers. With time, however, the Polish miners learned English and won the respect of their co-workers.

 

There were two types of miners among the Poles. The expert contract miner who worked regularly, got ten dollars a days for a supposed eight-hour day, but often he had his car loaded and was out in five and a half or six hours. Such a miner fared fairly well, had his own home, with modern equipments. On the other hand there were company miners who were lucky if they worked two or three days a week, and got less than six dollars a day. A company miner usually lived in a company house.19

 

One of the characteristics of a company miner was to have a boarder (or boarders) of the same nationality. In this way the miner was able to add to his monthly savings, or perhaps to help pay off the mortgage on his house if he happened to possess one. The motive was not always a financial one; sometimes it was the desire to furnish a home for a newcomer with whom the family was acquainted.20

 

The standard of living rose slowly in the mining areas. Although most of the Polish miners were fairly well housed prior to the World War I, the conditions generally were in a pitiful state.

 

The largest proportion of American Poles became employed in various factories. Since the Poles settled in the New England and the North Central States, they made there homes and found occupations in these industrial areas.

 

In 1890 iron and steel manufacturing east of the Mississippi employed an estimated 7,897 Poles. A national displacement took place in the Pittsburgh district after 1890, when the immigration of the Irish, English, and others began to decline and by 1900 a considerably smaller number, with the exception of the Scotch, was employed as iron and steel workers. Poles and other Slavic immigrants were secured to satisfy the constantly growing needs of the iron and steel industry.22

 

Toledo, Ohio, also attracted Poles to its steel and iron industry. Their arrival dated from 1850, when a few unmarried men came in quest of work. Others followed from their native land in response to advertisements for labor.23

 

The Poles first settled in South Chicago during the latter part of the decade 1870-1880. Their immigration continued until 1893. There was a pause in the immigration caused by the depression of 1893-94. An increase, however, followed until the financial depression of 1907, after which the number of new arrivals remained relatively small.24 In general, the mines and steel mills of Pennsylvania, the steel works of Gary, and the Ford factories of Detroit drew the greatest percentage of Polish labor.

 

Two industries, glass and furniture manufacturing, employed a small number of Poles. Glass factories in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland were included within the scope of investigation by the Immigration Commission. Of the laborers, 39.3 per cent were foreign born and of these the Poles numbered 671.25 The operating forces of the furniture manufacturing establishments were studied throughout the territory east of the Mississippi River. Of the total 4,295 employees, 59.1 per cent were of foreign birth; of these there were 482 Poles.26

 

National movement occurred in the New England and Middle Atlantic States where textile industry developed to importance. In Lawrence, Massachusetts, Polish immigrants were numbered among the population of the city since the beginning of the twentieth century. The 1903 census showed 600 Poles. The number increased rapidly and grew to 2,100 Poles in 1910. Most of the Poles were employed in woolen and worsted goods manufacturing.27 The number of woolen and worsted workers whose parents' birth place was Poland was reported as follows: in Massachusetts-671; in Connecticut-235; in New Jersey-146; in Rhode Island-103; in Pennsylvania-91; in New York-79; in Maine-13; a total of 1,338.28

 

In cotton goods manufacturing of a total of 66,800 cotton mill operatives, 68.7 per cent were of foreign birth, and of this number 8,920 were Poles. The story of New Bedford, Massachusetts, was similar to that of Lawrence, Massachusetts. The Polish workers were a factor in the population for only a relatively short time. Strikes in New Bedford cotton mills in 1894 and 1898, which caused many operatives to leave, encouraged the coming of the Poles, although they were not brought in as strike breakers. Their number in 1909 and 1910 was estimated at between 3,000 to 4,000, and they continued to arrive in increasing numbers.29

 

Polish immigrants, an important factor in the mill population, began coming to Manchester, Vermont, at the end of the past century. The Poles first entered the city about 1895, and after then new arrivals continued to come.30

 

Silk goods manufacturing and dying in Paterson, New Jersey, attracted Poles in larger numbers about 1898 when several iron manufactures were established. Poles had been employed in various branches of the silk industry but only in less skilled positions. When the iron plants closed in 1907, many of the Poles entered the mills and dyehouses.31

 

The Poles entered clothing manufacturing in smaller numbers. In Baltimore, Poles in 1900 displaced Germans in the unskilled occupations. When the Poles and the Russian Hebrews worked up into the skilled occupations, the Germans left the industry and entered new fields. In Chicago, in 1885, Poles found themselves among the first employees in the clothing industry. Their number increased, but the Bohemians outnumbered them. In New York, the Jews predominated in the tailoring shops. At the end of the century between 1890 and 1895, few Poles entered the industry.32

 

In the leather tanning, currying, and finishing industry of Milwaukee, the Poles were among the first of the more recent immigrants to be employed, appearing about 1870. In 1877 and 1878 they were strongly represented, and continued to increase although there were halts at various times.33

 

Of the old immigration, the Germans and the Irish predominated in the slaughtering and meat packing industry. Among the recent immigration, the Poles with 7,121 had by far the largest number of workers in this industry in Chicago and other cities of the Middle West in 1909 and 1910.34

 

Poles were found in smaller numbers in the manufacturing of cigars and tobacco. In oil refining in the two principal oil-producing centers of the country, Bayonne, New Jersey, and Whiting, Indiana, the total number of Poles amounted to 1,031 in 1910. In the sugar refining states, New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, the number of Poles employed totaled 1,758. By way of summary, the Immigration Commission stated in 1911 that the Poles were employed in practically all branches of manufacturing enterprises.35

 

Representatives of labor very often considered the Poles and other recent immigrants as "imported" or as contract laborers. The Immigration Commission investigated both United States and in Europe, and failed to discover any evidence of systematic importation of contract laborers. The Commission concluded that, owing to the rigidity of the contract labor law and to the special provision which was made for its enforcement, there were probably at the beginning of the twentieth century few actual contract laborers admitted.36

 

The Poles with other immigrants came by thousands and supplied the call for men, strong of body, to do coarse, hard and dangerous work. They played their part with a devotion, amenability, and steadiness not excelled by men of the old immigrants. They did not shrink from the dangers of the mines nor the heat of the mills; hundreds of them were killed at various jobs; with other immigrants, they did their work. They played a noteworthy role in the industrial expansion of the United States before the first world war.37

 

1. X. Waclaw Kruszka, Historya Polska w Ameryce, (Milwaukee, 1905), Vi, p. 11-18.
2. Jeremiah W. Jenks and Jett Lauck, The Immigration Problem: A Study of American Immigration Conditions and Needs (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1911), p. 93.
3. Frank Miller, "Polanders in Wisconsin," Parkman Club Papers, (Milwaukee, 1896), p. 230.
4. Jozef Okolowicz, Wychodztwo i Osadnictwo Polskie (Polish emigrants and Their Settlements) (Warsaw, Poland: Gebethner and Wolf, 1920), p. 41.
5. Edward Ross, The Old World in the New: The Significance of the Past and Present Immigration to the American People (New York: Century Co., 1914), p. 126.
6. William Seabrook, These Foreigners (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1938), p. 297.
7. H. H. Moore, "Black Dirt People," Outlook, XCIII (December, 1909), p.951-54.
8. Jenks and Lauck, The Immigration Problem, p. 92. 
9. Ibid., p. 73.
10. John Lee Coulter, "The Influence of Immigration on Agricultural Development," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, XXXIII (January-June, 1909), p. 377.
11. Reports of the Immigration Commission, Senate Document No, 747, 61 Congress, 3 Session, (Washington, 1911), LXXX, p, 153.
12. Ibid., LXXXIV, p, 154.
13. Konrad Bercovici, On New Shores (New York: Century Co., 1925), p, 122-23.
14. Sister M. Accursia, O.S.F., "Polish Miners in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania," Polish American Studies, III (January-June, 1946), p. 5.
15. Seabrook, These Foreigners, p, 284. 
16. Reports, LXXVIII, p. 659.
17. Ibid., LXXXI, p. 20.
18. Reports, LXXXI, p. 54.
19. Seabrook, These Foerigners, p. 283.
20. E. G. Balch, Our Slavic Fellow Citizens, (New York, 1910), p. 349. 
21. Reports, LXXXI, p. 17.
22. Ibid., LXX, p. 231. 
23. Ibid., LXXI, p. 12.
24. Reports, LXXI, p. 10-11. 
25. Ibid., LXXXI, p. 21.
26. Ibid., LXXXI, p. 28.
27. Reports, LXXXI, p. 61.
28. Ibid., X, p. 650.
29. Reports, X, p. 42.
30. Ibid., X, p. 46.
31. Reports, LXXIII, p. 19.
32. Ibid., LXXIII, p. 271.
33. Reports, LXXXT, p. 78.
34. Ibid., LXXXI, p. 19.
35. Reports, LXXXI, p. 32, 33, 38.
36. Reports, I, p. 29.
37. Peter Roberts, The New Immigration: A Study of the Industral and Social Life of Southeastern Europeans in America (New York: Macmillan Co., 1912), p. 61-62.

 

This article is reprinted from Polish American Studies, Vol. XV. No. 1-2, January-June 1958, with permission from the Polish-American Historical Association.

  
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