My grandparents were born here, but my great-grandparents were immigrants from Poland, who came to America to escape poverty and the political oppression of the Germans. Milwaukee had a huge number of German immigrants and the German heritage and influence is widespread in this area and very well-known, but there is also a significant number of Polish. In fact, Milwaukee became one of the largest Polish settlements in the U.S.
Like many Poles, my great-grandparents settled into an area where there were many other people from their own country who spoke their language and could help them assimilate and with whom they had commonality.
My great-grandfather Boleslaus came to America in 1911 at the age of eighteen and settled in a north side neighborhood in the city of Milwaukee, WI. which was essentially a Polish community, many of whom were also new to America. Later in the century, the south side of Milwaukee became known as the most Polish part of the city, but most early immigrants settled on the north side first.
Boleslaus was the youngest of eight children, born in 1893 in Raciaz; two other older brothers had already come to America before him and had sent financial assistance home to the rest of the family in Poland.
Walter was the first to come to America, followed by eldest son Ludwig. A travel visa was purchased for another brother in 1911, but because he had poor eyesight, he was not allowed to go and so the ticket, having already been paid for, was given to Boleslaus instead. Within a few years after arriving in America, Boleslaus married; his wife, called Pauline, was also from Poland. She was also an immigrant and probably had settled in the same neighborhood. I don't know exactly how she and my great-grandfather met, but it's possible they might have met at a Polish Falcons club event, as they often had dances there.
The mainly Polish north-side neighborhood where they lived was first settled in the 1850s by wealthy Germans, but by the turn of the century the area had become mostly Polish and still has many examples of houses that were known as "Polish flats" (click here to learn more about those) . Today the area is known as Riverwest and has become a trendy spot favored by college students from nearby UW-Milwaukee, artists and co-ops and is made up of a diverse group of ethnicities including many Russians,Iranians and Asians.
It was once very common and quite popular for ethnic groups to form social clubs in their new homeland as a way to socialize and further the well-being of their people. Similar to social and civic-minded clubs like The Elks, The Wheelmen, the Knights of Pythias and even the Freemasons, there were dozens, even hundreds, of clubs like these.
On December 6, 1916, my great-grandfather Boleslaus and several other north-side residents founded the Polish Falcons of America Nest 725. Boleslaus remained very active in Nest affairs throughout most of his life and was Vice-President and Instructor in 1919, as well as President of Sub-District II for 10 years. He also received the Bronze Legion of Honor Cross from the Falcons for his work in the organization.
The Polish Falcons were very interested in physical fitness and gymnastics, as well as wrestling, bowling, Polish folk dances and drills and over the years won many National and District competitions.Nest 725 still offers classes in tumbling, gymnastics and dance or boys and girls of all ages but you don't have to be Polish to join!
My great-grandfather Boleslaus ("Bill") c. 1920s
This year was the 95th Anniversary of the Polish Falcons of America Nest 725 and a special Christmas program was held where some of the children performed drills and gymnastics and there were also some awards being presented. I attended the program with my mother and several other relatives.
This is the tavern and bowling alley that are housed in the same building as the Polish Falcons hall, which is actually quite large and extends quite a ways down the block. Nest 725 purchased this building in 1945 and have been here ever since. The building itself dates to 1882. Their first quarters were on Fratney Street, only a couple of blocks away from this location. My great-grandfather and his wife and children lived on Fratney Street as well.
Just down the street you can see St. Kasimir's on Bremen Street.
Before living on Fratney Street, my great-grandparents lived on Bremen and attended this church. There was also a school, which is where my grandmother and her siblings attended school.
Kitty-corner to the Polish Falcons building is this lovely old building which now houses a food co-op.
The neighborhood is full of charming old buildings and houses set close together on narrow streets.
Evidence of the Polish origins of the area can still be found.....
At the end of the children's program, there was a brief skit involving the adults and these amazing Christmas costumes:
The woman in the center is the current president of the club and she made all these costumes herself. (She also works as a professional clown).
Here is "Starlite the Clown", the club president (center) with two of the "sisters". I have no idea how long it took her to make all these costumes, but there were about 20 of them, I think.
At the end of the program, there was a special "award"; a plaque was given to my great-aunt Phyllis (center) who is Boleslaus' only surviving daughter (of his five children, only my great-aunt and the youngest, my great-uncle Stanley, are still living). The plaque was to commemorate her father as one of the original founders of the club on the club's 95th anniversary.
They took a photo of Boleslaus' descendents who were at the ceremony; a daughter, two grand-daughters and a great-grand-daughter.
From left to right: my mom's cousin Judy, (who is a grand-daughter of Boleslaus)
Phyllis,( Boleslaus' daughter)
Janice ( my mom, Boleslaus' grand-daughter)
and me (great-grand-daughter and towering over all my short Polish relatives!)
It was a very lovely program and an experience I treasure.
My great-grandfather "Bill" passed away in 1990 when I was twenty; he was 97 years old and the last of my great-grandparents. I feel lucky that I was old enough to know him and had a chance to spend some time with him. It's not often these days, with people getting married later and having children later, that children are able to know some of their elders. There are many people even my own age whose great-grandparents died before they were even born or whose grandparents died when they were little and they never had a chance to meet them or know them. I feel lucky, indeed!
Thanks for stopping by!