POLISH HERITAGE HIGHWAY
Related articles: Polish Heritage Trail, Poland to Portage County
An Historic Link
Hwy 66 winds its way for about 19 miles through northeastern Portage County from the Interstate 39 overpass, just outside Stevens Point, to its juncture with Hwy 49 at the Waupaca County line to the east of Rosholt. Originally known as McGreer Road, named after Hugh McGreer who opened a sawmill on the Plover River in 1839, and then Jordan Road--it was designated a state highway in 1916. Along this route are located Jordan Park which is nestled along the lake and the Plover River, and the communities of Ellis, Polonia, and Rosholt.
Jordan, originally known as McGreer’s Mills, was the site of one of the earliest sawmills in the area. It had been established by Hugh McGreer, an Irish immigrant who had come to the area in 1839, via Canada. His sale of the mill in the mid-1850’s resulted in a name change to Jordan. Platted in 1857, Jordan was four blocks in size with a population of 165. Businesses included a grocery store, blacksmith shop, sawmill, lath mill, and gristmill. The village existed about 30 years, declining with the end of the lumbering era. By 1904, the Stevens Point Lighting Company was utilizing the water power plant to provide auxiliary electric power to the area. This continued until 1965, when the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation closed the plant and gifted the land to the Portage County Park Commission, creating a recreation area of great natural beauty with its pines, lake, and river.
Jordan Road was extended as the cut over land to the east of Jordan was purchased by the Yankee settlers and soon by the German, Irish, Norwegian, and Polish immigrants. At first a narrow lane through the trees-- it became necessary to construct a corduroy road through the Jordan swamp. Even then, it is reported that this road disappeared for awhile leaving the northeastern area of Portage County quite isolated.
It is in the communities of Ellis and of Polonia, located about midway in the Hwy 66 route, where the history of Wisconsin’s first Polish rural settlement began. Central Wisconsin, and particularly Portage County, has a long and proud Polish heritage. These early Polish families lived in a rugged frontier environment on isolated farmsteads very different from their farming villages back home. They were not welcomed by their German and Irish neighbors even though they shared their faith. They experienced their first opportunity to speak out against authority. Ultimately, wisdom prevailed and their community prospered and grew. Most ethnic parishes in Wisconsin have a history of dissension as the immigrants struggled with the newness of their lives in a much more democratic society.
1857 marked the arrival of the first Polish family, Michael and Frances (Zielewska) Koziczkowski, to the area now known as the town of Sharon. Wisconsin had become a popular destination for immigrants. Even though still a frontier area, its recently attained statehood promised an organized and stable government with little or no threat of conflict. Roads to the north were being constructed along with the promise of railroad service. Inexpensive cut over land was becoming available as the lumbering companies completed their work. Even though the best farm land in Portage County had been claimed by the Yankee, German, Irish and Norwegian settlers who had arrived earlier, Koziczkowski selected this area as the location of his farm. In his estimation, the county offered a promise of progress and growth along with the affordable land prices. The hilly terrain, covered with large stumps as well as with an abundance of large rocks, was undaunting. The landscape was very like that of his homeland. He and his family would tame the land--the land was theirs.
Koziczkowski’s native land had been under foreign rule since the late 1700’s. His area, West Prussia, was located in the Prussian partition. The Kaszuby region, in which he lived, was an agricultural area made up of large estates, small farms, villages, and hamlets. It was very depressed economically. Overpopulation, poor harvests, most estates in Prussian ownership, and farms too small to support a family with no promise of available land had resulted in a large “landless” or migrant work force. Not a bright future for a family with growing sons. It appears as though his family was among the first of this region to leave for America and for the promise of land for a farm.
The next year, 1858, brought the Klesmit, Platta, and Zynda families to the Sharon area. They were followed in 1859, by the Daczyk, Dzwonkowski, Jazdzewski, Konopacki, Kruzycki, Lukaszewicz, Rzepinski, Werachowski, and Wojak families. The Kuklinski, Narloch, Sikorski, and Szulfer families joined them in 1860. 1861, saw the arrival of the Cisewski, Fierkus, Gosz, Kiedrowski, Kleman, Klopotek, Lipski, Palubicki, Prominski, and Szelbraczykowski families along with additional Lukaszewicz and Rzepinski families. Almost all had their origin in the Kaszuby region and most were farmers. In each situation, the entire family--husband, wife, and their children and at times, their parents traveled together to begin a new life in a new land. They did not plan to return. Instead more of their friends, neighbors and relatives were to join them in central Wisconsin. A chain migration of some magnitude resulting in one of the largest settlements of immigrants from the Kaszuby region.
The newcomers were greeted and aided by those who had arrived earlier. Shelter and food was provided until the new family was settled. Log cabins became their new homes. Most of the men sought work, usually in the sawmills and lumber camps, in order to earn the money needed to purchase some land. When purchased, most of the land required clearing from tree stumps and often from huge rocks. Though not a rich soil, the heavy loam was suitable for farming. The families worked together to create productive fields. The crops they grew, mainly potatoes and rye, were similar to those they had grown back home. They had left family and friends in order to find land to farm and they were determined to succeed.
The people of the Kaszuby region were devout Catholics. Their German and Irish neighbors had organized St. Martin’s Catholic Church which had opened in 1857. A small, 20x30 foot wooden frame church was built by the parishioners just to the west of the crossroads on Jordan Road (Hwy 66 & Cty J). Humble, but a place of worship and prayer, it was served by the pastor of St. Stephen’s Church in Stevens Point. Though not welcomed by their neighbors, St. Martin’s also served the Polish community until 1863, when the nearly 40 Polish families gathered to petition for a Catholic Church of their own. Permission was granted and land donated by the Gosz family to the east of the crossroads on Jordan Road was selected as the site. The church, dedicated to St. Joseph, was constructed of hand-hewn logs by the parishioners who donated materials, time, and labor. Priests of Polish ancestry served the parish--the first rural Polish Catholic Church in Wisconsin and one of the earliest in the U.S.
The Civil War interrupted the flow of immigration to all of the U.S. Three young men from Portage County’s Polish community, John Fierkus, Jacob Gosz, and John Platta served their new country. After its conclusion in 1865, the flow to the U.S., soon resumed. The immigration of Poles to Portage County also resumed--drawn no doubt is time to the existing Polish community with a Polish Catholic Church. This time not only with immigrants from Europe, but with a significant number of families coming from other areas in the U.S. such as Dunkirk, NY, and from other areas in Wisconsin such as Milwaukee and Berlin to relocate in this area. Some of these newcomers were Poles from other areas of Poland, mostly from within the Prussian partition. As a result of this growth, the Polish community expanded to the northwestern area of Portage County and into southern Marathon County. Most made the trip to St. Joseph’s to participate in Mass on Sundays and holy days with other Poles. Jordan Road was the main route from Stevens Point and Hull to the church.
The Jordan Road crossroad, dubbed Poland Corners by the Yankee residents, had become a bustling frontier business area serving the farmers of the area as well as the teamsters, and lumberjacks who traveled to and from Stevens Point or the Jordan mills to farms, sawmills or lumber camps in the towns of Sharon and New Hope. A store, hotel, saloons, a blacksmith shop, and a few homes and some hops sheds made up the small community. A post office was established in 1867, and the community was officially named Ellis; apparently in honor of Albert G. Ellis, the current mayor of Stevens Point. Ellis was an early pioneer of the Wisconsin territory and of the city.
In 1868, August Kluczykowski, Adam Gorecki, and John Koziczkowski were elected to town of Sharon offices and in 1870, Mathias Gosz was elected town chairman. Gustav Baranowski was selected to represent the town on a county committee. One report states that Michael Koziczkowski served on the local school board and the County Board for several years.
About 1870, in the tradition of their homeland, Polish farmers began to use the public square in Stevens Point to bring their produce and animals to market. Their wives also participated in the sales by bringing eggs and garden produce. The Thursday and Saturday market days were not only for business but also for socializing with friends and relatives. Jordan Road was the main route to and from Stevens Point for the residents of the northeastern townships.
The early 1870’s also brought a historic climax and resolution of a problem which had confronted the St. Joseph’s congregation for some time. Noise created by the rowdy and brawling customers of the four neighboring saloons was a distraction during Sunday Mass. Several priests had attempted to negotiate the problem, but to no avail. In 1871, a young Polish immigrant priest, Rev. Jozef Dabrowski, accepted an appointment to serve the parish--his first. After failing to convince the saloonkeepers to cooperate, he made the decision to move the church 1 1/2 miles to the east. The land had been purchased from Hannah McGreer, wife of Hugh McGreer. The announcement was made at Sunday Mass and the next day, work was begun to dismantle the building and to move it by wagon to the new hillside site which was named Polonia. This move was not without controversy. The saloonkeepers complained about loss of business and some unhappy parishioners resented what they considered the high-handed decision of the young priest. In protest, they constructed a schismatic Polish church at Ellis--St Maria’s, the first in the U.S. Unexplained fires hit the relocated Polonia church and also the convent of the newly arrived nuns of the Order of St. Felix. This was the first mission for the Polish order of nuns in the U.S. In 1876, a new church, rededicated to the Sacred Heart, and a new convent-school were built. Within a short time, the dissident parishioners began to return and the Polonia parish prospered under the direction of Rev. Dabrowski and the Felician nuns.
Meanwhile, a business community had begun to develop down the hill from the Polonia church. A post office had been established under the leadership of Rev. Dabrowski and Hugh MeGreer. For the next 13 years, Andrew Sikorski served as postmaster. Joseph Bischoff operated a general store which soon drew customers from throughout northeastern Portage County. He had immigrated from Margonin located in the Poznanl Posen province of Prussia and no doubt was familiar with both the Polish and the German language.
In 1882, the Felician nuns decided to move their motherhouse to Detroit. Their order had grown in number and now served several areas. It was decided that a more central location along with improved transportation would enhance their development. Rev. Dabrowski was invited to serve them as chaplain. They had worked together to start a very successful Polish parochial school--one of the earliest in Wisconsin. With his printing press, Rev. Dabrowski had printed books to be used in the school. The Indian residents in the area were encouraged to attend. Mary McGreer, daughter of Hugh and Hannah MeGreer, taught English at the school.
The nuns continued to staff the school at Polonia and soon opened St. Clare Orphanage which remained in operation until the 1930’s. Rev. Dabrowski’s efforts as an educator continued in Detroit with the establishment of Orchard Lake Seminary for the preparation of Polish-American candidates for the priesthood.
The village of Rosholt is the most recent development along Hwy 66. The area was very wooded and the location of several logging camps and sawmills. The first permanent settler of what is now the village was Jens Rasmussen, a Dane, who bought the property in 1867. Not interested in farming, he built a gristmill run by waterpower. In 1881, John Gilbert Rosholt, a Waupaca County resident, began to buy up timber lots in the area and by 1902, owned significant holdings. In the mid-1880’s, Adolph Torgeson opened the first store. A post office called Rosholt began operation in 1893. The village boomed in 1903, at the news that tracks were being laid for a railroad to come into town. Hotels, hardware stores, grocery stores, warehouses and houses quickly sprang up. The village of 382 inhabitants was incorporated in 1907, and the first officers elected the next year.
Polish farmers had moved into the rural area as early as 1863. Joseph Liebe had acquired three forties under the Homestead Act of 1862, in what is now the town of Alban. Town of New Hope records show that John Domaszek and John Giodowski were tax-payers in 1868. Because of their affiliation with the church, Polonia continued to be their commercial and social center. By 1890, it is estimated that nearly 60 Polish families lived in the Rosholt area. In response to a call by the bishop to provide a parochial school education for the children, a school society was organized to build and staff a school. The school, located just west of Rosholt, opened in 1895. In 1898, a parish under the patronage of St. Adalbert opened its doors--the parish centennial will be celebrated this year.
It is possible to trace the growth of the Polish community in central Wisconsin by the development of additional Polish parishes in the area. A mission chapel, dedicated to St. Casimir, was built in Hull in 1871, and staffed with a resident priest by 1875. The fourth ward of Stevens Point had a large population of Polish immigrants and was chosen as the location for the city’s Polish Catholic Church which was dedicated to St. Peter. 53 families were involved in the planning for the church which opened its doors in 1876.
In the rural areas, St. Michael’s of Junction City opened in 1882, with St. Bartholomew’s in Mill Creek opening as its mission church in 1883. Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Fancher opened in 1884. 1896, saw the opening of St. John the Baptist in Heffron and St. Bronislava’s in Plover. St. Mary’s in Torun opened in 1897.
The Polish community had become a presence throughout most of the county and the need had arisen for another Polish parish in Stevens Point. In 1916, St. Stanislaus opened its doors. The leg of Hwy 66 which comes into the city was named Stanley Street in recognition of the nearby church.
Soon most of the available farm land in northeastern Portage County was claimed and as a result, the Polish farm community spilled over into Marathon County. The Polish Catholic parishes of St. Ladislaus’ in Bevent, St. Joseph’s in Galloway, and St. Florian’s in Hatley were founded in the late 1890’s, by a few of the Polonia pioneers, but mostly by their sons and daughters.
On August 23 and 24, in 1976, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, Poland, paid a visit to Portage County. The cardinal was in the U.S. to attend the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. Although on a tight schedule, he accepted the invitation of Waclaw Soroka and Annual Lectures on Poland to come to the area. Included among his many activities was time spent with the Felician nuns in Polonia and a visit to the Rosholt area farm of Maynard and Mary Jane Zdroik. The future Pope John Paul II had expressed delight at the opportunity to travel into the rural area and to meet with the people.
Today, Hwy 66 winds through an area which is still primarily devoted to agriculture. Agribusiness is very important to Portage County’s economy. The log homes and farm buildings were replaced long ago by frame buildings. Many of the farmsteads are now graced with the stately Victorian red brick houses built at the turn of the century. ‘Automobiles travel easily along a hard-surfaced road. New homes have sprung up in the countryside as people seek to enjoy life in a rural setting.
Hwy 66, officially the Polish Heritage Highway, is dedicated to all of the Polish immigrants who came to central Wisconsin in search of a better life and in appreciation for their success. Their work ethic and their value of family, church, and community is their legacy and still apparent today.
The Polish Contribution to Portage County
Beginning in 1857 the first Polish family settled in this area, Central Wisconsin had the first Polish rural settlement in the state and the second in the United States. Coming along with these emigrants were their love of the land, religion, family and a work ethic of hard work. They came with few resources other than brains, brawn and ambition. Most were Polish farmers who came with the intention of staying, quickly as possible buying land, and becoming citizens. Others were encouraged to follow. By the 1900’s at least 10,000 people, more than one-third of the population of Portage County, were of Polish descent. With a heavy influx through the early part of the century, that percentage increased so that now 60% of the population can claim Polish ancestry.
The land on which those immigrants would settle presented a varied set of challenges. One challenge was the rocks and boulders left behind by the glaciers. Although the soil was fertile, it was littered with “Polonia Pearls” in all shapes and sizes. Poles seeking inexpensive land settled on it and turned it into productive farmland. The boulder fences lining these farms are a testimony to the backbreaking labor this involved.
Another challenge was fertile land. Poles settled on some of the poorest soil in Wisconsin. Among the early settlers of Portage County, the Poles were probably the most experienced farmers, coming from the “bread basket” of Mediaeval Europe, and certainly the most experienced at working sandy soil. They turned the sandy soil of Plover into “Golden Sands” -- one of the most productive potato growing areas in the United States, then and now. Today, many families of Polish descent own state-of-the-art potato and vegetable farms. These family enterprises often have several thousand acres of bountiful cropland.
Along with farming, the early Polish settlers were a major work force in what was then an American frontier. The seasonal work schedule of the lumber industry meshed well with farming. As lumberjacks, log-drivers, raftsmen and sawyers, the men of the Polish settlers found work locally in the “Gateway to the Pineries” and in the hundreds of logging camps and sawmills in the northwoods. As cities and villages grew, Poles helped build and populate them. They worked in and established many businesses. Some of these local businesses became known nationally and still exist today.
Polish Americans continue the legacy given by their ancestors. A strong concept of family and community is evident. These Polish communities built churches. By 1914 eleven new Catholic churches, whose parishioners were predominately Polish, had been established, in rural Portage County, the Polish parishes were by far the most significant expression of the Polish presence here. The Polish architectural feature of a domed cupola, is a familiar landmark on churches and other buildings, it has also been used as a logo for the Stevens Point Mall and UWSP. Another Polish architectural feature that they brought was the construction of roadside shrines. Portage County has one of the largest concentrations of such shrines in the United States, and are among the features of the Polish Heritage Trail tour.
The Catholic faith was not the only part of their culture that Poles brought to Portage County. Traditional food, dance and music also found its way across the Atlantic. Polish foods and drinks; rye bread, kielbasa, poncki, vodka and beer are still well-known and well-liked in the region, as well as Polish dances -- Polkas, waltzes and obereks.
Even now, the Polish influence is still present in the architect, religion, language, food and customs of the area. Portage County was, and still is, the Wisconsin home of the Poles. And, there are dedicated people working to uphold these fine traditions. The Polish Heritage Awareness Society (PHAS), Annual Lectures on Poland, Gulcz Sister City, and others work to preserve this heritage. They sponsor events for the public which feature Polish traditional foods, song and dance, folk art, and history and genealogy. Everyone is encouraged to get involved.
Now people from these organizations, along with many others, have formed the Polish American Cultural Exchange (PACE) for the main purpose of saving the old St. Bronislava Church building in Plover, WI. This old, beautiful red-brick edifice was built by early Polish settlers. PACE feels it is highly appropriate to preserve and maintain this architectural landmark as a meeting place for Polish heritage groups and to use the facility for cultural events such as recitals, lectures, historical displays and other worthy causes. And its location on Hwy 54, right in the heart of the “Golden Sands,” is most fitting as a testimony and a tribute to the Poles who gave so much to Wisconsin. The lovely architecture attests to this, but the functions within will broaden this appreciation.
The dedication of Hwy 66 as the Polish Heritage Highway is a great honor befitting the work of PACE, PHAS, Annual lectures on Poland, Polish Heritage Trails, Gultz Sister City Committee and all the Polish people who helped make Portage County what it is today, while working diligently to honor and uphold the proud heritage of the Polish heart.
Editor's Note: PACE lost its battle to save the old St. Bronislava Catholic Church. It was demolished in 1999.