Hearty Souls in a New Land
By Hal Gorby
As the largest “new immigrant” group from Eastern Europe, the Polish became the most recognizable ethnic culture on the Southside. Made up of hearty blue collar workers, devout Roman Catholics, and strong families, the Polish-American neighborhoods took their lasting heritage from those who arrived generations ago. With their country divided among three imperial powers, declining farm sizes, and the enticement of higher wages, Poles arrived in three distinctive migrations. The first group came from West Prussia in the 1870s and 1880s. They were craftsmen and small businessmen, who worshipped atSt. Alphonsus because of its German language mass. Poles from Russia emigrated beginning in the mid-1890s and arrived in another wave from 1903-1907; they came from rural villages and urban areas around Lublin and Warsaw. Finally, Poles from the Austrian Empire in Galicia, a rural region in southern Poland and Ukraine, arrived from 1906-1914 fleeing the terrible agricultural crisis. Many learned of Wheeling via established chain migrations of family and kin already in town. Polish single men were “birds of passage,” who migrated among cities like Buffalo, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago, and Wheeling. Hundreds more stayed, making South Wheeling and Benwood their homes. By 1920, the census claimed Wheeling had over 1,800 Polish language speakers. This neglected many of their American born children or those in Benwood.
Poles settled in clusters near large factories. Because of increased mechanization de-skilling factory work by 1900, most toiled in unskilled labor gangs working the blast furnaces and rolling mills at the steel factories. Most congregated in the region from 43rd through 48th Streets near St. Ladislaus Parish. However, Poles lived throughout Wheeling. Early immigrants worked in the Top Mill’s blast furnace and lived in North Wheeling in the early 1890s. The next largest enclave was located in North Benwood, working as laborers at the National Tube Company’s Riverside Mill and the Wheeling Steel & Iron Company. Another large contingent lived near 25th—27th Streets working in the Belmont Mill’s blast furnaces. A large group of Galician Poles settled in Fulton along National Road to labor at the Wheeling Mold & Foundry. Finally, many Poles lived in Boggs Run or in several boardinghouses known as “Hitchman Row” to work as coal miners and loaders at the Hitchman and Wheeling Steel mines in Benwood.
Because of low wages, many Polish families utilized a family economy that required the wages of children and women to get by. Many young boys worked at local glass houses, especially the Northwood Glass Company. By the 1920s, one of the largest employers was the Wheeling Can Factory at 48th Street, which employed many young and married Polish women. These Polish girls were vigorous union supporters and won a successful strike in 1915. Polish girls worked as tobacco strippers at Bloch Brothers as well.
Upon arriving in Wheeling, Polish immigrants faced a myriad number of problems. Most earned meager wages; steel mills paid the unskilled a common wage rate in the early 20t century ranging from twelve to 20 cents per hour. Most worked a hot and rigorous ten to twekve hour day often six days a week. Coal miners were paid by the ton. Another major concern was housing. Many older South Wheeling structures were constantly hit by floods, and some even lacked indoor plumbing. Overcrowding in boardinghouses in Benwood was common as well. The constant presence of streetcars and the B&O railroad presented a daily challenge. Mothers worried that their children would be hit by a speeding streetcar, and many exhausted Polish men were killed by B&O trains coming to and from Benwood. Many factories were unsafe. Numerous accidents maimed and killed Polish men at the Riverside and Belmont Mills. Tragically, 39 Poles died in the Wheeling Steel mine disaster in Benwood in April 1924, the largest number of deaths for any ethnic group.
Added to these daily worries was the often rude reception many received. Beginning in the 1890s, Wheeling’s native born citizens vigorously criticized the Poles. In the press, they were constantly referred to as “Polanders.” Stories of crime, hard drinking in saloons, and street fights were used to suggest that Poles were a dangerous, aggressive group. In one story, as a group of Poles walked home from the mills, for no reason, “they began pelting each other with stones.” One man was wounded by “a well directed stone thrown by a husky son of Kosciusko.” These demeaning stories often led to an insular, defensive tendency among the Poles
Predominately blue collar workers, many Poles were successful small businessmen. Most started as factory workers, but through entrepreneurial initiative opened up businesses that catered to the needs of the community. Many Polish businesses on the Southside tended to be bakeries (like Lukaszewicz’s Royal Bakery at 4727 Jacob Street), or grocers (like the Wincenty Front Grocery at 4404 Wood Street). There was also the Olszta Funeral Home at 4510 Jacob Street, and several specialty stores and saloons. Stanislaus Duplaga owned the South Side Department Store and a grocery in Fulton; the family continues to run Generations Bar on National Road.
Even with their initial tribulations, Wheeling’s Polish community created a vibrant social and cultural life. The center of the Polish community, or Polonia, was St. Ladislaus Parish at 45th and Eoff Streets. Led by their first priest Fr. Emil Musial (who served an amazing 60 years!) and an activist lay community, the parish provided many avenues for spiritual and charitable assistance. The parish and various clubs and societies also promoted Polish ethnic traditions. St. Ladislaus sponsored a Boy Scout troop and branches of the Polish National Alliance and the Polish Roman Catholic Union. These fraternal organizations also held baseball and basketball games. Another key institution is the Polish American Political Club (PAP). Formed in 1919, the organization helped Polish immigrants get their naturalization papers, learn English, and urged members to be involved in politics. Initially promoting Americanization, the club evolved over the years. By the 1940s the club focused more on athletics, forming basketball, baseball, softball, and bowling teams. The club still operates at 4410 Jacob Street. Wheeling’s Poles have always been quite patriotic, with many veterans serving since World War I. In 1949, a grotto was built next to the parish commemorating those who died during WWII.
Large community celebrations were unique cultural events on the Southside. Many occurred in the Polish Hall, located in the parish school on Wood Street. In the multi-purpose auditorium upstairs, church societies held religious events. Beginning in the 1920s, the hall showed commercial movies, held wedding receptions, political rallies, and celebrated Catholic holidays. Weddings were a popular event in South Wheeling. In 1903, a reporter noted how “A Polish wedding is the signal among those of that nationality for prolonged jubilation, generally lasting two or three days.” Another major event was the pre-Lenten Paczki Balls held at the Polish Hall; three days of dancing and hearty food prepared Poles for the upcoming fasting period. Another prominent event were the May Processions, where young children dressed in Polish dress, carried flowers and a statue of the Virgin Mary, and crowned a May Queen. By the 1920s and 1930s, Polish ethnic culture was extremely popular in the Ohio Valley. The Polish American Rhythm Kings ran a 30 minute Polka band program on WWVA radio. In addition, the community held an annual “Polish Day” festival at Oglebay Park with ethnic folk dancers and food vendors highlighting the best of Polish culture. Even with population decline and St. Ladislaus’ closure in 1995, the Polish culture remains strong. You can still attend a Polish mass every third Sunday at St. Alphonsus, and if you desire a taste of Polish cuisine stop at their Memorial Day service at the Grotto or at a summer Polish Day at the PAP.