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Moonlight Shadows

Moon rise, Jan. 27, 2021

It was a full moon in a clear sky on Thursday. White snow showed the shadows of everything on its surface. We looked on in wonder as the moon rose.

When my maternal ancestors emigrated from Poland to Minnesota, Poland did not exist. It had been partitioned three times beginning in the late 18th Century and completely dissolved for more than a century before 1918. Serfdom had been abolished on May 3, 1791, yet the partition mostly nullified abolition. Serfdom’s vestiges persisted into the mid-Nineteenth Century. My ancestors came from the cohort of former Polish serfs. Our stock was peasant subsistence farmers for whom life in Europe, especially after the end of serfdom, made them want something better.

Maciej Nadolski emigrated from Poland through Philadelphia and took wage work as a coal miner in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. He was recruited from there to be part of a new colony near Wilno, Minnesota. Beginning in February 1882, 40 Polish settlers bought land from the railroad in Royal Township, Lincoln County, Minnesota. Great, great grandfather bought his parcel on Sept. 22, 1883.

Most of the Polish settlers in the new Wilno colony didn’t know each other before moving there. The organizing principle of the colony was for the Winona and St. Peter Railroad Company to deed land in Wilno for a Roman Catholic Church and cemetery to support a new, Polish-speaking community to whom they hoped to sell land. St. John Cantius Roman Catholic Church was built in 1883 and served to bring the community together. In this these Polish immigrants began a new, American life.

Lincoln County was one step out of the frontier in 1883. The first white child was born there in 1869. The first newspaper was published in 1879. In 1874 there was a grasshopper infestation that continued for a couple of years. The presence and perceived threat of Indians was real. If the Poles were coming to Royal Township to become subsistence farmers, the county had not previously seen a lot of success in it.

As I study this period and culture, a couple of things have been on my mind.

The historical accounts make scant mention of women. While writing about Nadolski land ownership and the Wilno colony for my book, I had an epiphany that Maciej was married to Franciszka Nadolski and her name appears on some of the deeds. It would be a mistake to leave women out of the story. After considering what artifacts survive from that time, the historical narrative makes more sense: there was a rich cultural life in addition to the hard work of subsisting on the Minnesota prairie.

Until this year, I did not understand that there was a Wilno colony and what it was. When I visited Wilno in 1991, the place did not seem like much. That’s partly because automobile culture had been dominant for a long time since settlement. Early settlers just made do with what they had. The rise of mass marketing and consolidation of business and wealth was yet to come.

The colony developed indigenous solutions to common problems of commerce and agricultural cooperation. While the railroad said they might run the line through Wilno when the original plots were sold, they ended up platting a new town of Ivanhoe (a.k.a. New Wilno) to the south because there would be more land sales to benefit the railroad. As an inland community it is remarkable the hamlet of Wilno survived at all.

The Polish immigrants’ connection to the Catholic Church was a main part of the settlement. If the railroad had not given land to the church, there would have been no colony. While there were established settlers in the county in 1882, they were not Polish. As the Poles arrived, their common language and culture created an insularity as they farmed, congregated, and socialized among themselves. Over time that changed, yet it was a cultural trait that persisted through my grandmother who was born there, and in some form was passed down to me.

In the shade of the spruce tree on Thursday I was thinking about how few cultural connections we have today. Anyway, we don’t have them the way the original Polish settlers of the Wilno colony did. We have many friends and some family. During the coronavirus pandemic we email, text, telephone, and video conference with them a lot. It’s not the same. Broader community connections especially like the church, although other cooperative ventures as well, have been broken by mass communication, consolidation of business, and concentration of wealth. While my ancestors may have escaped post-serfdom life as wage earners in partitioned Poland, in the United States today, with wages stagnant, unemployment high, and jobs that create a sense of community scarce, we may be returning to our serfdom roots.

It seems a long way for them to have come for life in society to end up this way.

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