Inquiring for Work at the Polish Factory

There is an apocryphal story about my grandfather. He was a man of few words and died when I was young, so most of the stories have an urban legend ring to them. I don’t know which ones, if any, are true.

My father told me that Grandpa Chmaj was a young man, new to America, just off the boat so to speak. He was looking for work and saw the big sign POLISH FACTORY so he went in and asked for a job. Because he was Polish. And they made…shoe polish.

20170607 chmajyoungThe year that my grandparents emigrated is a little fuzzy in my mind. When I worked on the requisite eighth grade Family Tree project forty-some years ago, I seem to recall learning that both grandparents came between 1900 and 1910. There was a wave of Polish immigrants between 1905 and 1910 after the Revolution.  Several more waves came at the beginning of the 20th century, as Prussia, Germany, and Russia argued about which of them owned Poland. If the date of my grandparents’ emigration is prior to 1911, they escaped far more strife in their country of origin than whatever hardships occurred here.

But, like many immigrants, they were “profiled.” Insulting jokes about Polacks were fairly standard when I was growing up. And I didn’t know, until I just looked it up, that it was a Polish-American, Leon Czolgosz, who shot President McKinley in 1901, which caused law enforcement to start rounding up Poles in many cities. In 1903, an Immigration Act was passed to (according to Wikipedia) “stop immigrants with subversive tendencies from entering the country.” Czolgosz, it should be noted, was born and raised in Michigan and was not a Polish immigrant. Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose.

My grandparents were married on June 12, 1915. I know this because I am wearing my grandfather’s wedding ring which is engraved with the date. Thank goodness for engraving! Otherwise, I don’t think I would know. I know from the US Social Security records that the U.S. believed my grandfather was born on July 28, 1894 and my grandmother on July 22, 1899. I never knew that their birthdays were only a week apart; I certainly don’t remember ever celebrating them. This means my grandfather was 20 and my grandmother was 15 when they got married. There’s a helluva story there, but I don’t know it.

Their families settled in Michigan, a bleak, cold, and gray land, which must have reminded them of home. My grandfather – legendarily—was from the Danzig quarter.  The free city of Danzig was short-lived in the 1920s and 1930s, a creation under the League of Nations, before being reconsumed by Germany, then Russia, then today’s Poland. The environs of Detroit where my grandfather settled was dominated by the growing auto companies. Dearborn, Michigan and Flint, Michigan became headquarters for Ford and General Motors. They also became relative ghost towns when the factories and companies shrunk and Flint, of course, is now notorious for crumbling infrastructure and poverty. Just like home…?

When I was growing up in Detroit, the nearby city of Hamtramck celebrated an annual Polish –American festival. In 1970 this city — entirely within Detroit city limits —  was 90% Polish. Hamtramck was home to the Dodge factory. But the city was always a haven for immigrants, and in the past several decades, it has welcomed new huge waves of immigrants – now from the middle East, especially Yemen, as well as the Balkans, India and Bangladesh. In November 2015, Hamtramck became the first city in America to elect a Muslim-American council. Like the Danzig area of my grandfather’s ancestry, Hamtramck’s motto is A League of Nations.

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Grandpa 2nd from right at a Ford company gathering @195?

My grandfather eventually went to work for Henry Ford. According to a newspaper article about his 48 years at the company, my grandfather was working in a Buffalo chair factory and had bought a new bicycle. While cycling by a new factory, a man called out to him to come get a job, and he was hired the next day to work the punch press. (Really? There was a time where people called out to you on the street to come in and get a job? Not in my lifetime!)

Grandpa then went to night school to learn math and drawing and eventually moved out of manufacturing into design and engineering. The year he was hired was 1911, which means he was 17 years old. He worked for Ford until he was 65. He died of a heart attack when he was 68.

Henry Ford was legendary for putting all these new immigrants to work, and for assisting them into American culture. Assisting perhaps is too gentle of a word; Ford was notorious for compelling them to absorb America.

Ford had brilliant ideas about mass production and was as responsible as anyone for pushing America into an automobile-based culture. He was famous as both philanthropist and racist. Within his company, he created the Ford Sociological Department. Wikipedia mentions that department investigators would visit the homes of workers to verify that the houses were clean and well-managed, asking the worker and his family members about their eating, alcohol, and spending habits.

What I remember is my mother telling me that my grandmother said women would come to her house to teach her how to be modern. Allegedly….they taught her how to use the washing machine and the ironing board. They also taught her English, as the company wanted its workers to move away from their native language as quickly as possible.

In Highland Park, i.e. next to Hamtramck, the Ford English School was established in 1914. It taught students not just English, but how to dress, how to be thrifty, punctual, and a good worker. At the end of graduation, there was a literal “Melting Pot” that graduates would go through to metaphorically boil away their heritage in order to become Americans.

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My father never learned to speak Polish, even though my grandmother and grandfather’s accents betrayed a bi-lingual heritage – despite coming to America before they were teenagers. I don’t know any Polish except how my grandfather’s name was originally pronounced (“Chmaj” was pronounced in the old country as “χ-meye” though the Americanization of it was “shmay.”) You can look up how to pronounced “χ” — have fun with that!

I also know Pierogis because, as assimilated as my grandmother became, she was taught by her Polish immigrant parents how to make proper pierogis. A pierogi is a dumpling – a cross-cultural invention that is one of the greatest across all humanity — dough folded over with filling. The genius of the pierogi is that it is boiled as a cooking process (not fried or baked) and then sauteed in butter. Unlike meat-filling that is the hallmarkof other countries, the Poles filled pierogi with cheese, potatoes, sauerkraut, or … wait for it… unpitted plums.

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My grandmother would serve the pierogis in a giant platter and it was a big gamble. Could you get the cheese ones and not the ones with the plums? As a 6-year old, I did not care for the plums or the pits,though I might like them now as an adult. (My cousins from California confirmed my  memory, though; the pits were very disappointing). The cheese ones — boiled dumplings sauteed in butter — were the bomb.

The only artifact that survives my Grandma Chmaj nee Sokolowski is the pierogi recipe and a postcard from her trip to St. Petersburg, Florida in 1947, when my dad was still in high school. (Why did they vacation to Florida? Were there relatives I didn’t capture in my family tree project? Why does grandma suggest that my dad should have gone with them? What family arguments led to that decision?)

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I didn’t ask enough questions when my grandmother was still alive, or my parents for that matter. Much of this Polish culture was boiled out of them, and not captured for posterity. I have a few pictures and I have to play detective, like backing into dates, and looking for clues. The group photo below appears to be an Easter Sunday (my grandparents were devout, no let’s call them fanatic) Catholics. So devout that they did not come to my parents’ wedding because my mother was Lutheran. More stories there.

In this picture, we must be in California because my cousins are in the photo and they had moved to California from Michigan. I am the little girl in front, about five, so this is the mid 1960s. My tall cousin to my right from her tall family; she is already a foot taller than me though she is only six months older. My father is not in the picture, so he must be taking the picture. My mother is standing on the right, in the black dress that contrasts to everyone else who is in white. There must have been a story in that. And the hats!

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So much history has been boiled away; engravings are fading. The pot has been boiled and polished so much that much of the history is rubbed off. We lose our history and our memories of what we once were. We repeat the same mistakes in racial profiling and in trying to stamp out bi-lingual studies.  What are the foods that most Americans eat? Pizza, hamburgers, tacos, hot dogs. These were all immigrant foods and thank god for them. Thank goodness for engraving. Thank goodness for the Family Tree projects. Thank goodness for these old grainy photographs. For records catalogued by Ellis Island and the Social Security Administration.

At least I still have pierogi.



Today’s Post was entirely inspired by the word of the day: Polish

10 Replies to “Inquiring for Work at the Polish Factory”

  1. Chmaj, you got so lucky with the word of the day. Saw the title and knew the Polish polish factory would be mentioned.

    FYI, meaningless trivia, polish/Polish was the gist of a Big Bang Theory Pictionary joke. While Penny draws a fingertip and nail, Sheldon busily draws Marie Curie.

  2. Maria ~ This is simply stupendous research and commentary on a family I have come to adore! Even JS hadn’t seen some of the photos… Eager to see you and Karin on the 24th!

    Love, Barb – now in residence on SE 10th Place!


    1. John, i know, will have stories I don’t know and I will have to get them from him. Part of what I realized writing this was how much I never asked.

      1. Well, I could write a whole blog in response, but for your audience I will just say that I did manage to talk to grandma about grandpa being hired at Ford’s. In a strange quirk of fate, when you, me, and mom moved to Sacramento from Detroit, it turned out that our aunt Dorothy and her whole family lived there, too! Soon grandma Chmaj moved out there as well – and not only to Sacramento, but just down the street from our house! So one day I, a 15-year-old boy, rode my bike down there to see grandma – she was so excited to see me and we talked about everything from the pope to Detroit ( we may have even played a bit of canasta). Grandma brought up the subject of how grandpa was hired by Henry Ford himself in Buffalo.

        According to her, grandpa wrote his bike around the brand-new Ford factory (yet to be moved to Detroit) every day until he caught Ford’s attention by the third floor window. Ford called down “why do you keep hanging around here?” And grandpa says “I want a job”! Ford asked “what can you do?” Grandpa said “anything you need”. So Ford hired him, according to grandma, to sweep the floors, then clean the machines, then service the machines, then run the machines – and 40 years later he was the head of the drafting department at Ford’s!

        The one personal note I will add to the story is that I had always thought that I had gotten away from my father and grandfather’s training in engineering when I went to music school. Then I got involved in the software industry, then I learned how to do technology development, and one day I looked at my business card, and it said “application engineer”! The more things change… I am so personally grateful for you sharing these details about our family, we obviously have a long phone chat ahead…!

        P.S. The family picture was indeed taken in their backyard in Dearborn Michigan, I believe it was grandma and grandpa’s 50th wedding anniversary, for which Elsie and Dorothy and families came east. I found their gold plated silverware in my garage just yesterday as we move things around… I can’t bear to give it away, and I will admit the gold plated corkscrew gets daily use, pretty much…

  3. Nice ‘Niece’ Maria—Hi! Unca Mike Nader here. Your blog is valiant and perfect. I loved it. Your dad and I, taking the same courses together at Wayne University, would meet at one another’s house to study. John and I used our dining room and my mother would often intrude with something to eat or drink. And always a pot of coffee. I had been used to putting cream and sugar in my coffee. Your dad said, “Uh uh, Mike. Stop using anything in your coffee. Drink it black. You will never have to ask for anything to put in it.” I did, and still do drink it black. I’d love to correspond with you. My email: Your brother, Neph John Stef, visited here for awhile. We had a very nice time. Hadn’t seen you or him since John’s funeral in 1999.
    Your dad was my very best friend. I miss him still. No one I’ve met since has his verve, his jazz
    sense (unerring and true), his skill at sports and his gusto. I miss his laugh. My daughter Andrea mentioned the other day how she remembers your dad’s laugh. She misses it, too. Cheers!!!Mike

  4. While looking at your pics from your fall 2017 trip through Flagstaff to the balloon festival, I noticed a black and white photo with a very striking and familiar woman…hey, that’s my mom! What’s she doing here? Hey, tha’s my mom’s family, I’ve never seen this photo before, WOW… So I preceded to read the blog, VERY interesting. We need to talk and compare family facts and apocryphal info. I agree with JS that the group photo is most likely from our grandparents 50th anniversary in Dearborn…could that be Cherry Street? I have a few other photos as well. Sounds like we need a cousins reunion or more conversations to put some more pieces of this puzzle together! I love puzzles!
    It was great to see you and Karin and thanks again for the dinner and time spent together!
    Hugs, Susan

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