Polish immigrants the focus of new museum exhibit

By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Mon., Feb. 21, 2011
A number of traditional Polish garments are featured in the new exhibit at the Windham Textile and History Museum. Photos by Melanie Savage.
A number of traditional Polish garments are featured in the new exhibit at the Windham Textile and History Museum. Photos by Melanie Savage.

There was a full house at the Windham Textile and History Museum the evening of Friday, Feb. 18, for the opening celebration for the new “Polish Past in Willimantic and Windham” exhibit. The exhibit is a collaboration between the museum, Eastern Connecticut State University and the Pulaski Citizens' Club of Willimantic.

“One of the wonderful things about the exhibit is how much of the community got involved,” said Bev York, education director for the museum.

Nita’s, a restaurant on North Street, was responsible for the wonderful aroma pervading the event. Serving breakfast and lunch with a Polish flare, Nita’s is well-known in the area. The restaurant provided a variety of items at a buffet line, including pierogies, kielbasa and other Polish specialties. Members of the community provided dessert items. “We have poppy seed cake, which is a traditional dessert item,” said York. Known as Makowiec, the cake - or tea bread - is commonly served around the holidays, but is a favorite year-round.

The main attraction of the evening was the exhibit itself, organized primarily by Dr. Anna Jaroszynska-Kirchmann, from the History Department at ECSU, with the assistance of Janice Knudsen. Eastern Professor Dr. Emile Pocock also worked to plot Polish neighborhoods.

Both the opening and the exhibit itself were truly community endeavors. “This is one of the few times where we have a club, the community and the university all working together,” said Neil Mesick, president of the Pulaski Club. “The club wanted to do something for the town to show our heritage.”

“There were a number of different ethnicities that immigrated to Willimantic and the surrounding region,” said York. “Many of them would have gotten their first jobs at the thread factory and the railroad.” The Polish population was “one of the largest in the area in the 20th century,” said York. In the 1920s and 1930s, a large influx of Polish immigrants began to supplant the large Irish/French Canadian population dominant during the 1800s. “Willimantic’s thread factories were so large, they had many different waves of ethnicities come in,” said York. A similar Polish and Eastern European influx occurred in nearby areas such as Rockville and New Britain.

The exhibit is an effort to capture the stories of these immigrants, who played such a large part in the history of the area. “Always, a museum wishes to do research while the people are still here,” said York. Many members of the opening crowd were either born in Polandor first-generation Americans.

Alvin Stygar is a Windham resident who is one of the last remaining members of the White Eagle Club, a Polish-American Club that Stygar joined in 1941, at the age of 16. “I joined before I was drafted into the Navy,” said Stygar, remembering a time when the club held regular dances for local youth. Stygar’s parents, Albert Stygar and Helen Rygielska, immigrated to the area as teens and were married in November of 1914 at St. Joseph’s. Their wedding photo is part of an exhibit featuring Polish immigrant weddings from the era. The exhibit also includes photographs and memorabilia recognizing Polish neighborhoods and social clubs, as well as garments representing traditional Polish attire.

The museum hopes to make this the first in a long line of exhibits examining the various ethnic groups that had an impact on Willimantic’s history. “We’re going to try to do full-room exhibitions on the major groups,” said York. “This is a vehicle for descendants who are still here to learn about their culture.” Future exhibits are planned for Irish, French-Canadian and Puerto Rican ethnicities “and more,” said York.

The Windham Textile and History Museum is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The exhibit is scheduled to run through early June. There is a children’s activity planned for Saturday, March 12, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. “Polish for a Day” will feature music, food and crafts. On Sunday, April 3, from 4 to 5 p.m., there is a “Tea and Talk” scheduled in conjunction with the exhibit. For more information, go to www.millmuseum.org.

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