Trip to Minnesota

Saint John Cantius Catholic Church (rebuilt), Wilno, Minnesota, July 1991.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a memoir in progress during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2021.

The river between two hills, where a house would have been on either side, looked just as Grandmother described it. It was more stream than a river, though, and the land forms were rises in the prairie rather than hills. Nonetheless I recognized the place.  

On an overcast rainy day in July 1991, I made my first and only trip to the Nadolski family home place in Royal Township, Lincoln County, Minnesota.  

Maria Nadolski, Grandmother’s aunt, lived on the far side of the stream that separated the two houses. Maria owned a piano. Grandmother, Mae as we called her, wanted to learn to play that piano. Maria said no. Mae carried that story of rejection with her until the end of her life. Maria’s house and the piano are long gone.  

On another rainy day in Davenport, not far from where I was born, Mae told a story about the stream flooding after a heavy rain, cutting the houses in Royal Township off from each other. She repeated the story from time to time, as she did the story about her aunt and the piano. I believe the remaining house I saw in 1991 is where Mae was born Salomea Nadolski on June 24 or 25, 1898.

After she died on Feb. 7, 1991, I made the trip to her birthplace. The trip was a form of summer vacation when we lived in Lake County, Indiana. After we had lunch in Davenport, we drove to Ames. We spent the rest of the day visiting our daughter’s maternal grandparents.  

I provisioned up in Ames. Early the next day I drove to Pipestone National Monument where I toured the site and bought souvenirs, including a small turtle carved of pipestone. They were intended as gifts from near where the Nadolski branch of the family settled. I’m not sure if there was an actual connection between my family and the quarry.  

“I drove into Ivanhoe about 1:30 p.m., to the county recorder’s office first,” I wrote. I discovered my great, great grandparents Maciej and Franciszka Nadolski had been landowners, and had two acreages in Royal Township. 

Upon reviewing my trip notes for this book, I found I got a lot done those two days. 

“From past trips I realize if I do not write down what happened soon, years from now I will not remember what happened,” I wrote. It was prescient. I would have forgotten much of the trip without the notes taken. 

In Ivanhoe, the Lincoln County seat, I located the Roman Catholic priest who served the Wilno Church where Mae had been baptized. Father Paul Schumacher was at his church in Ivanhoe and we had a conversation outside the rectory. He was preparing to go somewhere. I wrote of our meeting: 

The priest took a $20 stipend to say Mass for the members of the Nadolski family – living and deceased, and to defray postage costs, if any are needed, if he found any record of the wedding (of Frank and Katie Nadolski) or my grandmother’s baptism. He said he was very busy, and these things take time, but there may be nothing. I guess priests have much to do with the living, and the genealogist’s concern must seem a frivolous inconvenience. We’ll see if anything comes from him. Bread upon the waters.  

The next day, July 11, 1991, Father Schumacher mailed Mae’s Certificate of Baptism by the Reverend J.F. Andrzejewski dated July 10, 1898 at Saint John Cantius Catholic Church in Wilno. The original church was built in 1883. 

The certificate showed Mae’s birth date as June 25, 1898 and her parents as Frank Nadolski and Kat Sowinska. Godparents were Ladislaus Kuzminski and Maria Nadolski. Consistent spelling of names and event dates were not the strong suit of Nineteenth Century rural Minnesota. Great grandmother’s name has multiple spellings in different documents. Mae’s birth date and name have multiple variations as well. There was no mistaking who they were, despite the discrepancies.  

Maciej and Franciszka Nadolski first settled this land. When I arrived, the current owner showed me the barn he had recently built and let me use his boots to walk around in the muddy fields. He clearly had plans for the property, and while he didn’t say it, I believed he was preparing to raze the old house. I walked in the field as far as the creek and took photos. Somewhere along the way I lost the lens cap to my camera. I picked up some smooth stones — brought there by a glacier.  

The farmer let me go inside the house, which was one large room in the original structure and two bedrooms upstairs. At some point a kitchen had been built on. By any standard it was small for a family that produced many daughters and a son in a three-generation home.  

More than anything I marveled at the small size of the home and wondered what kind of life they led. I don’t know, but assume their lives included family, church, farming, and relationships with people living near the unincorporated hamlet of Wilno. History shows they were part of a colony of Polish immigrants in 1883. 

The name of Mae’s grandfather, Maciej Nadolski appears on a copy of an undated plat map I made during the visit. The road to nearby Wilno is evident on the map. A family story is Maciej traveled to Wilno for church, and was known to drink adult beverages and socialize in town. On occasion, when inebriated, he would fall into the wagon afterward and the horse would take him home. 

Historian John Radzilowski wrote about the Polish community in Wilno in the Spring 2002 issue of Minnesota History

Polish immigrants transformed their environs into places they and their children could call home. In addition, they created an inner cultural and spiritual realm filled with drama and emotion that helped them make sense of their new world. Far from home, amid Poles they hardly knew and strangers from other ethnic groups, they formed communities and a hybrid culture that blended American and Polish customs into a coherent whole. 

During my trip I stopped at the Lincoln County courthouse and photocopied five different warranty deeds in his name concerning two parcels in Section 19 of Royal Township and four warranty deeds for two lots in the City of Ivanhoe. It is said Maciej Nadolski moved from the farm to Ivanhoe soon after buying the two properties. 

Beginning in February 1882, 40 Polish settlers bought land from the railroad in Royal Township. Great, great grandfather bought his parcel on Sept. 22, 1883. Radzilowski puts these land purchases in context: 

The Wilno colony in southwestern Minnesota’s Lincoln County was typical of Polish settlements in Minnesota. It was formed by brothers Franciszek and Grzegorz Klupp with the support of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and the Chicago and North Western Railroad. The archdiocese provided approval for the colony’s Polish parish and Polish-speaking priest, and the railroad sold land to prospective settlers and provided plots for a church and cemetery. 

Colonists were recruited through newspaper ads and by agents who received commissions for the settlers they signed up. Franciszek Klupp canvassed the streets of Chicago and LaSalle, Illinois, and Pennsylvania’s coal-mining towns for Wilno recruits. Unlike settlements formed gradually by chain migration from the Old Country, planned colonies like Wilno were created almost overnight from immigrants living in American urban enclaves. 

Maciej Nadolski was born in Poland. He emigrated through Philadelphia and took wage work as a coal miner in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. He was recruited from there to be part of the new colony near Wilno. In 1887, Marcin Mazany described the area in Winona’s Wiarus newspaper: 

The Polish colony of Wilno, Minnesota, consists of 200 Polish families who work as farmers. The soil here is extraordinarily fertile, the water healthful and clear as crystal and the people are free; the land provides easy sustenance to those who are willing to work on a farm and who wish for clear air and a life that is more agreeable than in the great, overcrowded cities. 

By 1888, the Wilno area was described in Wiarus as “a happy Polish settlement.” 

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 the century before 1918. Serfdom had been abolished on May 3, 1791, yet the partitions 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. 

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. There were wolves to contend with. 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 studied this period and culture, a couple of things were on my mind. 

The historical accounts make scant mention of women. While writing about Nadolski land ownership and the Wilno colony for this 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 survived from that time, the historical narrative makes more sense: there was a rich cultural life embedded into the hard work of subsisting on the Minnesota prairie. 

Until writing this book, I did not understand 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 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. 

As I wrote these paragraphs, I began 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.