Poland to Portage County

Related articles:  Polish Heritage Trail Polish Heritage Highway

This pamphlet was prepared by the Polish Heritage Awareness Society for a 2 year exhibit at the Historical Society's Beth Israel Synagogue Museum in Stevens Point,  "Poland in the mid-1800’s"

Most of the Polish immigrants arriving in Portage County before the Civil War, came from the Kaszuby region of West Prussia, now northern Poland, located to the west of Gdansk with the Baltic Sea as its northern-most border. Since ancient times, this region was populated by a Slavic people known as Kaszubi (Kashubes). They were one of several Slavic tribes populating what is now Poland, each of which had its own language.

The climate and geology of Kaszuby was very similar to that of central Wisconsin. Both regions show evidence of glaciation with many lakes and moraine hills amid forested land. Light, sandy soil interspersed with stones and rocks predominates in both areas.

Small towns, villages, and clusters of farm buildings surrounded by fields dotted the countryside of Kaszuby in this largely agricultural area. The Baltic coast was lined with fishing villages.

This replica of a nineteenth century thatched-roof cottage is composed of planed logs dove-tailed at the corners with no basement. The interior walls were usually white-washed and might have been plastered. Often, a single room, heated by either a tiled or brick stove, comprised most of the building with accommodations for sleeping along the sides of the room or in the loft. There might be a small recessed area or alcove which would serve as sleeping quarters or as the living quarters for a married son, elderly parents, or for a farmhand and his family.

Poland is made up of many folkloric regions; each has distinctive arts and crafts. The Kaszuby region is particularly well known for its colorful haft (embroidery), weaving, woodcarving, and ceramic pottery. Notice the horn tabakierka (snuff box) - a Kaszubian man was seldom without his.

A testimony to Poland’s Catholicism were the many wayside shrines found at crossroads in the rural areas or the small chapels found in the villages. Holy days were recognized with the addition of wreaths, multi-colored ribbons, or flowers. Notice the similarity between the Konkol Corner’s chapel at a Portage County crossroad and the Kaszuby region chapel. The John Konkol family emigrated from this region in 1883.

Poland had been occupied by three foreign governments -Prussia, Russia, and Austria - since 1795. Even though Poles were citizens of these countries, they maintained their Polish identity in language, customs, and culture. Immigrants from all three partitions came to Portage County, however the majority came from the Prussian rural areas surrounding Gdansk (Danzig), Bydgoszcz (Bromberg), Poznan (Posen), and Gniezno (Gnesen). Notice the Polish and German names for each of these cities.

Poles are noted for their intense loyalty and tenacity. Despite this, families began to make plans to leave Poland for America. Overpopulation, poor harvests, estates no longer under Polish ownership, farms too small to support a family with no available land, had contributed to a large number of "landless" or migrant workers. Their occupation government had become more oppressive and aggressive which added to an already bleak future. The arrival of the railroad in the 1850’s, provided better access to the ports of Hamburg and Bremen. Opportunity beckoned.

The passage to America

The promise of a better life in America had drawn immigrants from Pomerania since the late 1840’s. Apparently this news had reached the nearby Kaszuby region as well. It also appears as though the 1857 departure of the Michal von Koziczkowski family may have been among the earliest to leave this region.

The mass emigration from Kaszuby which soon followed was the earliest and largest in all of Poland. It was also unique in that it was an immigration of families--at times, three generations appear on passenger lists. They did not plan to return.

Canadian ships, empty of their cargo of lumber, were early choices of the Kaszuby immigrants during the early 1860’s, as affordable and sometimes free transportation to Quebec from Hamburg. Their open holds held few comforts for the long voyage--some lasting 6-8 weeks. Later, agents from the Hamburg line offered passage in trade for land. Accommodations were slightly improved with bunks and cooking facilities in the cramped steerage area.

By 1870, stricter regulations provided travelers with better conditions and the steam powered ships required less time for the passage. Bremen to New York became the preferred route.

Most of Portage County’s Polish immigrants entered the United States through Castle Garden; a converted opera house established in 1855, and replaced by Ellis Island in 1892. Neither were they greeted by the Statue of Liberty which was erected in the harbor in 1896. However, as mentioned previously, the earliest immigrants from Kaszuby arrived in Quebec. Most had a destination in mind-areas where their countrymen had already settled; typical of a chain migration. Most had been farmers and had come to find land. Those who did not stay in Renfrew County, in Canada’s Ontario province, traveled to the Great Lakes and on to the ports of Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee. Some stayed in these cities. Others stayed only temporarily until farmland was found, and some of these set out for Portage County where a Polish community was developing at Poiska Krzyzowka (Poland Corners).

The challenge of the early years in Portage County

In the mid-1800’s, the Midwest was appealing to immigrants because most of the Northwest Territory was divided into states with stable governments and little or no threat of conflict. Land agents were actively touting this area as the best place in which to settle.

Rail service was available as far as Berlin, Wisconsin. Stagecoaches provided service to central Wisconsin. One family’s tradition relates that in 1869, their ancestors walked from Berlin to Polonia.

Many of the newcomers worked as hired hands or in logging camps to earn the money needed to buy land. Their small, humble homes were shared with those who followed them--providing food, shelter, and guidance as they adjusted to their new circumstances.

The best land in Portage County had been chosen by the earlier Yankee, German, Irish, and Norwegian settlers. The Poles found the rock and stump-filled land in northeastern Portage County affordable and undaunting. Husband, wife, and children bent to the task of clearing and farming the land, usually aided by a team of oxen. The crops they planted and the farm buildings they built closely resembled those they had left in Poland. The similarity in the landscape and weather of Portage County may have moderated the longing for their homeland.

The Civil War broke out in 1861. In August of 1862, males between the ages of 18 and 45 years were required to register for military duty. Three young Polish men from central Wisconsin reported for duty and served in the Grand Army of the Republic.

By 1863, the rapidly growing Polish community, now about 40 families, decided to petition for their own church. They attended Mass at St. Martin’s church with their German and Irish neighbors, but wanted the comfort and warmth of their own language and culture. St. Joseph’s was chosen as the name of the first Polish rural church in Wisconsin and one of the earliest Polish Catholic parishes in the United States.

Few Poles had immigrated to Portage County during the Civil War. At its end, more families arrived from the Kaszuby region along with others from the more southern regions of the Prussian partition; namely the Bydgoszcz, Poznan, and Gniezno districts. It was at this time, that the families from Gulcz, Stevens Point’s Polish Sister City, began to arrive. Some of them had lived temporarily in Dunkirk, NY.

About 1870, in the tradition of their homeland, Polish farmers began to use the public square in Stevens Point to bring their produce and animals to market. Their wives also participated in the sales by bringing eggs and garden produce. Market day was not only for business but also for socializing with friends and relatives.

The early 1870’s also brought a historic climax and resolution of a problem which had confronted the St. Joseph’s congregation for some time. Noise created by the rowdy and brawling customers of the four neighboring saloons was a distraction during Sunday Mass. Several priests had attempted to negotiate the problem, but to no avail. In 1871, a young Polish immigrant priest, Rev. Jozef Dabrowski, accepted an appointment to serve the parish - his first. After failing to convince the saloonkeepers to cooperate, he made the decision to move the church 1 1/2 miles to the east. The building was dismantled and moved by wagon to the new site which was named Polonia. This move was not without controversy. The saloonkeepers complained about the loss of business and some unhappy parishioners resented what they considered the high-handed decision of the young priest. In protest, they constructed a schismatic Polish church at Poland Corners, the first in the United States. Unexplained fires hit the relocated Polonia church and also the convent of the newly arrived Felician nuns. In 1876, a new church, rededicated to the Sacred Heart, and a new school-convent were built. Within a short time, the dissident parishioners began to return and the Polonia parish prospered under the direction of Rev. Dabrowski and the Felician nuns.

The need for a church to serve the growing Polish population in the Hull area soon became apparent. Rev. Dabrowski responded by building a mission chapel dedicated to St. Casirmir. A resident priest was not appointed until 1875.

By 1876, the 4th ward of Stevens Point had a significant Polish population. Some of the more recent immigrants had chosen to live in the city and not all of the sons of the Polish farmers chose to remain on the land. 53 people founded the city’s first Polish parish of St. Peters.

The hopes and dreams of these immigrants began to be realized as they moved into the 1880’s. Their simple log homes became part of larger and more comfortable white frame houses. Their children moved to their own farms or to the city for work or to set up a business. Seven more Polish Catholic parishes were organized. Even though the "chain migration” from the Kaszuby region had begun to subside by the mid-1880’s, immigrants from the Austrian and Russian partitions of Poland began to find their way to Portage County - usually after a short stay in Chicago or Milwaukee while deciding where to locate. Perhaps they were drawn to this area by the large, successful Polish community with its Polish Catholic Churches which had its beginning 140 years ago.

Polish Pioneers

The story of Michal and Franciszka (Zielewska) von Koziczkowski, Portage County’s first Polish family, is told through maps and documents. Their coming resulted in the development of the oldest Polish rural settlement in Wisconsin. This family originated from the Kaszuby region. The couple was married in the Suleczyno parish in 1838, and lived in the nearby small village of Podjazy. In 1857, at Sunday Mass, the priest announced to the parish that the family planned to leave for America. Their departure generated a great deal of interest with a large group of people gathering to wish them well on their journey. A young boy, Antoni Hinz, watched this unusual event with his parents. Little did he realize that in 1880, he and his wife, Jozefina nee Cybulska, and Marianna and Maria, would make the same journey. On the first day of his arrival in Stevens Point - who did he meet on the street but Koziczkowski! He often told this story with a sense of wonder.

Other families, most of them from the Kaszuby region, who arrived in the county shortly after the Koziczkowski's, are identified since their contributions were instrumental in the development of this community. Their arrival has been documented by census records, naturalization papers, land records, the Civil War registration, church records, etc. The list is not complete--there may be errors as well as omissions. The Polish Heritage Awareness Society encourages visitors to share their knowledge.

Recently, Gulcz was selected as Stevens Point's Polish Sister City. Several families from this village, located on the Notec River in the province of Poznan, in Prussian Poland, immigrated to Portage County in the late 1880's. Some of them lived in Dunkirk, NY, for a short time. A close relationship has developed with Gulcz, under the leadership of Mae Kobishop and Audrey Somers. Through visits to the village, they have located he ancestral homes of these families and determined their occupations while living there.

Thank you for your interest in this exhibit which features the early years of Portage County's Polish history.

Dziekuje I do widzenia!
(Thank you and Goodbye!)

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