Poles of Cleveland from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland written by John J. Grabowski

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POLES. Poles formed one of Cleveland’s largest nationality groups in the 20th century and had an important influence on the city, particularly during its period of heavy industrial growth. Individuals may have visited or temporarily settled in the area before the Civil War, but the first cohesive settlement of Poles occurred in BEREA in the late 1860s, where they were employed in the stone quarries. At about this time, isolated groups of Poles arrived in Cleveland; 77 were counted in the 1870 census. The Cleveland Poles did not form a specific neighborhood at this time but settled within the Czech community around Croton St. Several factors subsequently increased Polish migration to Cleveland, especially German cultural pressures in Prussian Poland and poverty and repression in Russian Poland. Combined with relatively safe and inexpensive ocean transport and the need for workers in Cleveland’s rapidly growing industries, the city’s Polish population grew to 35,024 by 1920, with most growth occurring between 1900-14. Travel brokers in the city’s Polish neighborhoods, such as MICHAEL KNIOLA†, made all necessary arrangements for transporting people from Poland to relatives already in Cleveland. All immigration after World War I was inconsequential, so this great pre-World War I influx determined the neighborhoods and organizations of Cleveland’s Poles.

Distinct Polish neighborhoods began forming by the late 1870s as immigrants worked in specific industries and lived nearby. By the late 1870s, a number of Poles worked in Cleveland Rolling Mills inNEWBURGH. Although initially residing with Czechs, Poles eventually created their own settlement adjacent to Tod (E. 65th) St. and what became Fleet Ave.; influenced as much by its proximity to the mills as by their selection of a site at Tod and Forman Ave. for their church, ST. STANISLAUS CHURCH. With construction of a church building in 1881, the settlement, soon known as Warszawa, began a period of growth that continued into the 1920s and remained viable into the 1990s, when it was known as SLAVIC VILLAGE/BROADWAY. By the late 1880s, another Polish settlement, Poznan, was established around E. 79th St. and Superior Ave. Settled as early as 1878, this neighborhood was close to industries that stretched along the railroad lines on the lakefront to the north. A third major settlement, Kantowo, arose in theTREMONT area in the late 1880s and 1890s as steel-mill activity grew in the Cuyahoga valley immediately eastward. By World War I, several smaller neighborhoods were also settled: Josephatowo in the late 1890s near E. 33rd St. and St. Clair Ave., close to Otis Steel works; Barbarowo after 1900 at Denison Ave., near GRASSELLI CHEMICAL CO.; and along Madison Ave. in the early 1890s, settling with other groups, including SLOVAKS, near NATIONAL CARBON CO.

Though the immigrants began a number of small enterprises to serve their neighborhoods–by 1900 there were 32 Polish grocery stores and 67 saloons in Cleveland–the economic base of each neighborhood was strongly linked to its adjacent industry. Indeed, the first CLEVELAND ROLLING MILL STRIKES in 1882 was responsible for a sizable growth in the area’s Polish population, as immigrants were recruited in New York to break the strike. By 1919 Poles constituted over 50% of the workforce of U.S. STEEL CORP. American Steel & Wire Div. (formerly the Rolling Mills). Other enterprises in the Warszawa area employing many Poles included Kaynee Blouse Co., CLEVELAND WORSTED MILL CO. and Grabler Mfg. Co. Until the coming of age of the 2nd and, primarily, 3rd generations, Cleveland’s Poles were largely linked to heavy industry and labor; the entrepreneurial ventures founded were directed toward fellow Poles, not to the community at large.

The Roman Catholic church proved the cultural center of each neighborhood. St. Stanislaus (est. 1873) was the mother parish for Cleveland Poles. Serving Warszawa, it was the basis for 2 other congregations, Sacred Heart of Jesus (1889) and St. Hyacinth (1907). St. John Cantius (1897) served, and gave its name to, the Kantowo region, and St. Casimir (1893) served Poznan. Other parishes were St. Hedwig (1914) inLAKEWOOD; St. Barbara (1905), after which the Barbarowo neighborhood was named; and St. Josaphat (1908), after which Josephatowo was named. As Poles migrated to the suburbs, nationality parishes were established there. St. Mary of Czestochowa (1914) served Poles in the Corlett area around E. 131st and Harvard; SS. Peter & Paul (1925) served the growing GARFIELD HEIGHTS Polish population; and Corpus Christi (1936) at Biddulph and Pearl Rds. served Poles migrating to that area.

Because of the importance of the church, it was often the center of controversy, as priests assumed great influence and often came into conflict with diocesan authorities. Indeed, the major internal conflict in Cleveland’s Polish community came about when Fr. ANTON F. KOLASZEWSKI† was removed from St. Stanislaus parish by the diocese in 1892. Though the exact charges against Kolaszewski are still unclear, it is apparent that his enormous expenditures to construct a new church created a debt that alienated many of his parishioners, as well as the bishop. Sent to Syracuse, NY, Kolaszewski returned to Cleveland in 1894 at the request of some his former parishioners and established IMMACULATE HEART OF MARY PARISH. Having defied diocesan authority, he and the parish members were excommunicated; they were received back into the church and diocese only after Kolaszewski resigned his pastorate in 1908. The rancor between pro- and anti-Kolaszewski factions in Warszawa was extreme and led to the establishment of separate fraternal organizations and newspapers and influenced the outcome of elections, with its stigma remaining into the 1930s. Continued dissatisfaction with a diocese directed by German and Irish interests eventually led some Cleveland Poles to join the independent POLISH NATIONAL CATHOLIC CHURCH. The first parish, Sacred Heart of Jesus (1914), was established in the Kantowo neighborhood. Eventually 4 additional parishes were established in the city.

Despite the overwhelming influence of the Roman Catholic church, several non-Catholic churches served Cleveland’s Poles, including Trinity Baptist (ca. 1910), eventually located at Broadway and Fullerton. In 1943 its building was sold to the Catholic Diocese and used for Transfiguration Church, the last Polish Roman Catholic parish established in Cleveland. In the 1980s a second Baptist church was begun on E. 59th St., occupying a building that once housed Mizpah Mission Church for Poles and Bohemians, a Congregational body established by Schauffler Missionary Training School in the late 1880s.

Outside of the church, fraternal insurance organizations claimed a large hold on the Polish immigrant neighborhood. The 2 major national fraternals, the Polish Roman Catholic Union and the Polish Natl. Alliance, established their first Cleveland branches by 1880 and 1886, respectively. The former was closely linked to the church, while the latter was more secular and a principal advocate of Polish national independence. While the PRCU often met in church facilities, the PNA constructed meeting halls in each of the 3 major neighborhoods; the one serving Kantowo was the Polish Library Home, housing a notable collection of Polish literature until closing in 1982. Religious factionalism also affected the fraternals. The local UNION OF POLES IN AMERICA began in 1894 as the Polish Roman Catholic Union of the Immaculate Heart of Mary for members of the schismatic Immaculate Heart parish. The ALLIANCE OF POLES OF AMERICA was established in 1895 by Clevelanders unhappy with the Polish Natl. Alliance ‘s decision to admit socialists to membership and its strong ties to Chicago. As many of the early fraternals prohibited membership by women, local Polish women established the ASSOCIATION OF POLISH WOMEN IN THE U.S.A. in the U.S. in 1911; it grew out of the Polish Women’s Alliance.

Poles also established cultural organizations, many of which had ties to the fraternals or to the church. Among the more important were HARMONIA CHOPIN SINGING SOCIETY, a choral group founded in 1902; the Polish Natl. Choir of the Polish Natl. Alliance; and the Halka Singing Society of the Assn. of Polish Women. More than a dozen choral and drama groups were active by the 1920s. The Cleveland Society of Poles, formed in 1923 from a branch of the Polish Natl. Alliance, consisted largely of Polish businessmen. Active into the 1990s, it held annual debutante balls for members’ daughters and donated funds to Polish colleges and organizations dedicated to perpetuating Polish culture. A similar women’s group, the American Polish Women’s Club, was also established in 1923. Of great importance in the community’s history was the SOKOL POLSKI, or Polish Falcons, a national organization fostering Polish nationalism through gymnastics. The local branch, Nest 141, was the base for recruiting Polish volunteers to fight with the Allies in World War I. The nest later became known largely for its athletic program, with Olympic gold medal winner STELLA WALSH† being one of its most prominent members.

The local community peaked in 1930 with a population of 36,668 foreign-born Poles. At that time the city supported 2 Polish-language daily newspapers, WIADOMOSCI CODZIENNE and MONITOR CLEVELANDSKI, the latter a descendant of Polonia w Ameryce, which was the first Polish paper to be published in Cleveland (1892). The community also supported banks and savings and loans, including Warsaw Savings & Loan (1916), Bank of Cleveland (1913), and THIRD FEDERAL SAVINGS AND LOAN ASSN. OF CLEVELAND (1938). Despite the size and apparent prosperity of the community, it was still fragmented and already in decline. Though the St. Stanislaus-Immaculate Heart of Mary rift had largely healed, it was replaced by differences over the political situation in the new Polish state. Poles in Kantowo, largely from Russian Poland, tended to be socialist and supported Marshal Joseph Pilsudski, while residents in Warszawa had supported Ignace Paderewski, the first premier (1919) of independent Poland. Pilsudski became Poland’s minister of war in 1926. The split, reflected in the newspapers, with the Wiadomosci being pro-Pilsudski and the Monitor anti-Pilsudski, stifled attempts to unify Polish organizations or opinion in Cleveland, although a League of Polish Organizations attempted to bridge such differences. Only the German invasion of Poland ended the problem, but a similar problem arose after World War II, with the community divided in its opinion of the Communist Polish state. Such division within the community could be the chief reason for the almost total lack of achievement by Polish politicians beyond the ward level. Although Warszawa has almost always been represented on the city council by someone of Polish background since 1905, no Polish-American has seriously contended for the mayoralty despite the size of the community. Predominantly Democratic in outlook since the Depression, Cleveland’s Polish community has produced only a few notable political figures, most importantly JOSEPH SAWICKI†, elected to the state house in 1906 and to municipal court in the 1920s and 1930s.

By 1930 the community began to wane. With no new immigration, the number of foreign-born Poles declined. Not even the influx of displaced persons after World War II did much to reverse the trend. By 1970 only 6,234 Poles resided in Cleveland. In 1980 the number had risen to 8,323. By the 1990s, Poles were one of the ten largest immigrant groups coming to the U.S., their movement being spurred by economic uncertainty as Poland moved from a command to a free economy. In 1990 the U.S. census estimated that 1,635 Poles resided within Cleveland proper, making them the second largest European immigrant community (following that of the states of the former Yugoslavia) in the city. However, these immigrants were scattered throughout the area. All of the old neighborhoods, except that around Fleet Ave., had severely shrunk or disappeared as 1st-generation immigrants died and their offspring moved away. Indeed, the movement to suburban areas began as early as 1910, when Poles followed the streetcar lines out of Warszawa to the Corlett district. Other streetcar lines and automobiles permitted additional movement into GARFIELD HEIGHTS and areas near PARMA in the 1920s. Halted by the Depression and war, movement began again in the 1950s as the old neighborhoods emptied into Garfield Hts., WARRENSVILLE HEIGHTSMAPLE HEIGHTS, and Parma. Further exacerbating the situation in the old neighborhoods was the decline of the industries around which they had been built. Many the basic industries around Fleet Ave. had closed by the end of the 1960s.

Despite the decline of the pioneer Polish neighborhoods, all of the city’s Polish Catholic churches remained active as of 1995, a testament to the central position of the Roman Catholic church in the culture. However, most of those attending some of the churches came from suburban homes to do so; whether their offspring continue the tradition is very much in doubt, and it is likely that all of the old neighborhoods, except that along Fleet Ave., will have totally disappeared by the next century. The continued life of Warszawa–Slavic Village–cannot, however, depend on the restricted immigration from Poland or upon nearby industrial opportunities; the area’s residents must make their heritage a viable attraction for tourists, middle-income home buyers, and the nostalgic descendants of the area’s founders.

John J. Grabowski

Western Reserve Historical Society

Coulter, Charles W. The Poles of Cleveland (1919).

Grabowski, John J., et al. Polish Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland (1976).

U.S. Works Projects Admin. “The Poles of Cleveland” (unpublished manuscript, 1941, WRHS).


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