Polish-Americans in Reading, PA

I remember my maternal grandmother telling me about growing up in a Polish neighborhood in her hometown of Reading, PA. I recall hearing about a Polish festival and participants (including my mother?) dancing the polka. What was it like to be part of such a community?

I read a bit about the Polish immigrant population in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, so I knew about their existence in Pennsylvania (aside from my own family of course). However, I wanted to learn all I could about Reading’s Polish-American community, but until now, I hadn’t found any information …

A reference in an annotated bibliography (The Peoples of Pennsylvania) finally provided some historical evidence of a Polish-American community in Reading in the early 20th century, although I do not know its size. A newspaper was published for that community, starting in 1909, named Gazeta Readingska:

https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn88080884/

Both the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and the State Library of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg have this newspaper, so research trips to access their collections are planned for sometime in 2019 (and who knows what else I’d find?). The newspaper may be in Polish, but I still want to see it!

Kolanko or Kolansko or Kolano

In 2017, I hit a brick wall when trying to trace the Polish ancestry of my maternal great-grandmother (Agata Kolanko). I have her parents’ names and birthplace, but not much else. However, thanks to FamilySearch, I found passenger tickets for ships bound for America for a Kolansko and a Kolano in the early 20th century. Both were from Austrian Poland, as was my great-grandmother, and since the names are similar, they may have been related.

The ticket from 1903 belonging to Josef Kolansko:

Josef Kolansko_Austria-Polish_1903 copy

The ticket from 1912 belonging to Stanislaw Kolano (Kalano?):

Stanislaw Kalano Kolano ship ticket 1912 copy

A great find! Both arrived in the port of Philadelphia, as my great-grandmother had in 1899. (I enjoy the Philly connection, as I lived there after college and through grad school, and I still feel some emotional ties to that city.)

I also found records for other Kolano relations, including Aniela Kolano and Amiela Kolano — since their birth years are very close (only one year apart), I thought maybe it was the same person, but the immigration records are quite different. However, both (?) emigrated in 1913 from Galicia and came through Ellis Island.

More records were unearthed for immigrants named Kolanko, who resided in Równe or Krosno (in present day Poland), as did the Polish ancestors on my family tree. Are they also my ancestors? More research is needed in order to reveal the truth and (hopefully) expand the Kolanko family tree.

French ancestry?!

After my wedding this past October, I finally resumed my genealogy research, albeit not with the same energy at first. I’ve hit some brick walls with the Polish genealogy research, but my aunt mentioned something interesting, that my Polish family surname Menet was actually French in origin. She wanted to know why her Polish ancestors possessed a French surname (and as I learned a bit about the importance of focusing with a research question, this is my first one). I decided to just throw the surname into a Google search and see what came up. I can’t even recall the trail that I followed on the Web, but it led me to a small village in France called Menet, and I wonder if my Polish ancestors came from that village, which dates to at least the 12th century:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menet

Menet France

Owing to my Polish brick wall (in that I could only trace the Menet line back to the late 18th century in Poland), I have no idea of their French connection. My aunt also had a DNA test, which indicated that she has *possible* French ancestry. (More preliminary research revealed that Menet is a Huguenot surname, but I know nothing about that history.)

When I hit that brick wall, I had turned to my father’s side of the family, which I was told was mostly English and Welsh (with some French Canadian added into the mix). My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Disney, and I also discovered the French origins of that name! (So I may have French ancestry on both sides.) His family tree has been easier to trace, and I discovered what I consider a fascinating history: Continue reading “French ancestry?!”

From personal history to Reading’s history (& beyond)

In my 20s, or even earlier, I disowned parts of my life. My Polish and German ancestry, my Catholicism, and even the town where I grew up. I was ashamed, or I was disillusioned, or I wanted something better, better than my lower middle-class upbringing, better than the hand-me-downs from cousins, a city that wasn’t in decay but one that was a vibrant center of culture and opportunity … something else, something more.

And eventually, after college and the disappointment of having chosen the wrong profession, I moved away from that city. My mother had died before I even thought of college, and in some ways, I wanted to be far from all of it, all the family messiness and unexpressed grief and all the things I chose by default. Not knowing what I wanted or who I was.

Years passed and as I worked, pursued graduate studies, and embarked on relationships, I started discovering “myself” and my interests and goals, hopes and dreams. I found my own eclectic spiritual path, and that was okay. I spent time with family at the holidays, although less and less over the years, for various reasons. I made friends in Philly and then in more rural PA and more recently in DC, and I felt like I belonged. At times, I wanted nothing to do with where I came from; at other times I missed what I had identified with or had been attached to during my younger years.

Now I feel a shifting … back to beginnings … wanting to reconnect with family and know more about where we came from. Feeling proud of my immigrant ancestors for realizing their ambition of a better life in America, in spite of hardships during their long journeys, negative stereotyping in the U.S., or poor working conditions in factories in Pennsylvania. No longer embarrassed to say that I’m part Polish, which was a grade school concern, and no longer hesitant to say I have German blood too, since Germany had a rich culture that was there long before the word Nazi was ever uttered (although I am still learning about German intellectual and cultural history).

And as far as my hometown, Reading, PA, my interest has been rekindled. The place where I was born, where my parents wed, where my maternal grandmother lived her entire life, still has meaning to me, even though I was happy to move away in the 1990s. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve decided to get married in my hometown, even though I hadn’t even initially considered it (and of course, due to my love of history, I had to choose a restored Victorian hotel, and my fiancé happily indulged me).

Stirling_Hotel

But there’s more there than my own family history, and that’s what fascinates me and provides the backdrop for this family history project: Reading’s impressive industrial past and its gritty present (with its current mix of decay and development), esp. the stories of the industrialists and the immigrants who were part of that past and built the city where I grew up. Reading may continue to revitalize, or it may not, but the past will always remind us of what the city of Reading was once capable of building and becoming.

Berkshire Knitting Mills

As I mentioned in my very first blog post, my grandmother worked at the Berkshire Knitting Mills (called the Berky) when she was young (probably in her 20s, sometime in the 1930s). According to the Reading Eagle, Vanity Fair Corporation acquired Berkshire in 1969. Years later, in the late 1980s/early 90s, my sister and I (at around the same age) both worked at the VF Outlet as cashiers, on the site that had been the mill. Large pictures of women who worked in the mill were displayed in the large buildings housing the outlet goods (the Red Building and the Blue Building), although, disappointingly, I never saw my grandmother’s face in any of those.

Today, I read that part of the former mill and current outlet are to be demolished:

Earlier this year, the VF Outlet buildings and land were acquired by a new owner. There are currently development plans in the works to turn much of the area into a campus for UGI and home to new restaurants and shops. Most of the “Blue” building and the entire “Red” building are set to be demolished late 2017.

See: http://berksnostalgia.com/berkshire-knitting-mills/

Now that I’ve read this, I need to go see the mill/outlet one last time and take some pics. I’ll be planning a trip to Reading, PA soon!

 

 

Those Infamous Border Changes: A Crash Course in Polish History

A detailed history of Poland and its partitions. Fascinating!

From Shepherds and Shoemakers

Newcomers to Polish genealogy often start with a few misconceptions.  Many Americans have only a dim understanding of the border changes that occurred in Europe over the centuries, and in fairness, keeping up with all of them can be quite a challenge, as evidenced by this timelapse video that illustrates Europe’s geopolitical map changes since 1000 AD.  So it’s no wonder that I often hear statements like, “Grandma’s family was Polish, but they lived someplace near the Russian border.”  Statements like this presuppose that Grandma’s family lived in “Poland” near the border between “Poland” and Russia.  However, what many people don’t realize is that Poland didn’t exist as an independent nation from 1795-1918.

How did this happen and what were the consequences for our Polish ancestors?  At the risk of vastly oversimplifying the story, I’d like to present a few highlights of Polish history that beginning Polish researchers should be…

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Expanding the family tree

I’m continuing to expand my family tree on Ancestry.com. I’m having better luck with my female ancestors and the families they married into than my blood relatives. I’m especially interested in immigration records, so I grab those whenever I see them online.

So, I started with the Menets, my great-grandfather being my focus. I remember my grandmother telling me about her father and that he never learned English. Of course, my grandmother was born in the U.S. and was fluent in both Polish and English. I wish she had taught me some Polish words, but other than the words for certain foods, I never heard her speak Polish. My grandmother displayed her parents’ wedding photo in her home, not her own wedding photo. I was struck by the dark clothes worn by her mother, the bride. However, this is from memory, as I have not been in her house since she died in 2001. I hope to get a copy of that photo someday when I am back in Pennsylvania for a visit.

Continue reading “Expanding the family tree”