In the long-ago Polish-American culture of my father, to call someone a “Kashube” was to imply that they were gauche, not very bright, and not of the same class as more refined Poles who hailed from places like Warsaw, Kraków and Poznan.
In Winona, though, “Kashube” has long been a badge of honor. For it is immigrants from Kashubia who settled in Winona, and who by 1900 made the city Minnesota’s largest Polish community.
We tend to think of Minnesota as a state settled primarily by Norwegian, Swedish and German immigrants. You know, “Uff da,” Lena and Ole, and all that.
But in a corner of frontier-era southeastern Minnesota, the language of the street and home was the little-known Kashubian dialect, which is somewhat related to Polish. Today, Winona still honors that Kashubian culture with the excellent Polish Cultural Institute and Museum.
Kashubia? Never heard of it, you say?
Not surprising, given that Kashubia is a small region of northwestern Poland that for a long time was governed and dominated by Prussia. The distinctive language and culture of the region were suppressed, and residents were forced to learn German. Understandably, as soon as they had the wherewithal, Kashubes joined the Polish diaspora in America.
Kashubes and their Polish cousins began settling in the Winona area and on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River in the 1850s. It was the state’s first Polish community, according to John Radzilowski’s study, “Poles in Minnesota.” The initial families bore names such as Felchowski, Kiedrowski, Kukowski, Pelowski and Reszka.
Soon, others followed, first to farm in the surrounding valleys, then to work in the sawmills, packing plants and warehouses of Winona. It was backbreaking work, but there was money to be made — more money than most immigrants could ever imagine.
By 1900, 5,000 Poles, mostly Kashubes, lived in Winona. The Winona neighborhood where many of these newcomers settled was known as “Warsaw,” and Winona was proclaimed the “Kashubian Capital of America.”
The proud Kashubes didn’t necessarily identify as Poles, and many clung to their dialect and customs. Soon, though, the two groups joined together to found two Catholic churches in Winona.
Then, as Winona’s Polish community grew and prospered, the Kashubes and Poles dug deep into their savings and came up with the funds to build the amazing Basilica of St. Stanislaus Kostka, which could seat 1,800 parishioners, and had a 170-foot-high white dome that could be seen from the tops of the surrounding river bluffs. The new church was dedicated on Thanksgiving Day 1895. It is still there today, a landmark of Winona.
For decades into the mid-20th century, Polish culture dominated life for a good portion of Winona’s citizens. There were Polish fraternal organizations, Polish sports teams, and a Polish-language newspaper.
Along the way, though, the Kashubian language was nearly lost, as Polish and English took precedence. When a language is lost, a culture goes with it.
That philosophy was in part the impetus for the Rev. Paul Breza to form the Polish museum in Winona, where the history of the city’s Kashubian-Polish community is preserved. The museum, fittingly enough, is located in what was once the office building of a lumber yard where so many of these immigrants worked.
The museum is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, but when it reopens, Kashubian pride will once again be on full display.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.