Skip to Content
ublogo print

University at Buffalo Libraries

Pan-American Exposition of 1901

Buffalo "Polonia" at the Turn of the Century

Buffalo "Polonia" was the term used to refer to the colony of Polish immigrants who settled primarily on Buffalo's East Side during the last few decades of the 19th Century. While this was not the neighborhood where all Poles settled—there were pockets of Polish families throughout the city, including Black Rock, parts of the West Side and in North Buffalo—it was the area with the heaviest concentration of Polish settlers, most of whom were arriving from the rural and agricultural sections of what was then a divided Poland. While many were trying to escape a homeland ruled by three foreign powers—Prussia, Austria and Russia—it is more likely they were looking for opportunity that they lacked in the stagnant socially stratified peasant life in the "old world".1


St. Stanislaus and Father Pitass

The first St. Stanislaus Church

The First St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Ksiega Pamiatkowa, Zlotego Jubileuszu Osady Polskiej i Parafji Sw. Stanislawa, B. i M. w Buffalo, New York, 1873-1923. [Buffalo, N.Y.] Nakladem Komitetu Wydawniczego [1923], p. 37. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.

The pivotal point in Buffalo Polonia was St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic Church, built by Father Jan Pitass in 1873. The building was a small wooden structure housing a church and school, but it was the cultural and spiritual center of the Polish community, which radiated out in all directions.2

While St. Stanislaus was the pivotal point in the Polish community, Fr. Pitass was the pivotal leader. A native of Silesia, a rural area of Poland inhabited primarily by the peasantry (and under Prussian control) Fr. Pitass was brought to Buffalo by Bishop Ryan to create a Polish presence in the Buffalo Diocese. He did just that, building Buffalo Polonia into a proud, unified community where Polish traditions and culture thrived.

Fr. Pitass worked with former city treasurer and east side landowner Joseph Bork to encourage Polish immigrants to purchase lots and build homes rather than rent. Bork had deeded the land upon which St. Stanislaus was built and he , his brother George and Henry V. Vogt offered hundreds of one- and two- story homes in the vicinity of the church, to the Poles for very low downpayments. This was a wise business decision for Bork, as the population of Buffalo's polish community grew to comprise nearly 20% of the city's population by 1904.3

However, while he profited from his land speculation, Bork proved a friend to Polonia, doing more for the Polish people than for any other ethnic group.4


Father Jan Pitass

Father Jan Pitass. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album Pamiatkowe i Przewodnik Handlowy : Osady Polskiej w Miescie Buffalo, z Dolaczeniem Okolicznych Miejscowosci ze Stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane Staraniem i Nakladem Polskiej Spolki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909, p. 46. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.

Father Pitass was a central figure and leader to Buffalo's Polish immigrants. Conservative and pro-Polish, he built Buffalo Polonia into a proud, unified community where Polish traditions and culture thrived. In doing so however, he also kept the Poles relatively secluded from the rest of the city's residents.

"His opposition to the intermingling of the Polish group with all others, delayed the economic and social progress of the Poles. Because of his constant insistence on Polish isolation from all phases of American organizational life, the Poles became acutely self-conscious of the prejudice of other national groups."5

In a 1951 interview, Dr. Francis Fronczak stated, "The descendants of those who had been active in the partition of Poland were the most antagonistic to Polish settlers. Despite this, the Polish immigrant was popular with employers because he was hard-working, peaceful and industrious."6

Francis Burzynski

Francizek (Francis) Burzynski. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album Pamiatkowe i Przewodnik Handlowy : Osady Polskiej w Miescie Buffalo, z Dolaczeniem Okolicznych Miejscowosci ze Stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane Staraniem i Nakladem Polskiej Spolki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909, p. 87. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.

Bernard Pitass

Bernard J. Pitass. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album Pamiatkowe i Przewodnik Handlowy : Osady Polskiej w Miescie Buffalo, z Dolaczeniem Okolicznych Miejscowosci ze Stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane Staraniem i Nakladem Polskiej Spolki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909, p. 85. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.

Francis Fronczak

Franciszek (Francis) E. Fronczak. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album pamiatkowe i przewodnik handlowy : osady polskiej w miescie Buffalo, z do aczeniem okolicznych miejscowósci ze stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane staraniem i nak . Polskiej Spó ki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.


Indeed while the late 19th century may have been a period of employment as day labor for most Polish immigrants, by 1920, the number of working-age Poles holding semi-skilled or skilled jobs had increased measurably.7 Most were industrial or factory work—the Lackawanna Steel Company began operation in the early 1900's—but more and more residents of Polonia opened their own businesses or went into professions like law or medicine. Dr. Francis Fronczak attended Canisius College and was the first Buffalo Pole to graduate from the University of Buffalo Medical School. Francis Burzynski became the first Polish lawyer admitted to the New York State Bar and Bernard Pitass, nephew of Fr. Jan Pitass graduated from Canisius College8 and opened one of the largest dry goods establishments in the city.


A Gallery of Businesses in Buffalo Polonia

A number of businesses made their debut in Buffalo Polonia between 1880 and 1900.

Joseph Jankowski's Tobacco Store

Joseph Jankowski's Tobacco Store. Home of the "Sobieski Cigar". Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album Pamiatkowe i Przewodnik Handlowy : Osady Polskiej w Miescie Buffalo, z Dolaczeniem Okolicznych Miejscowosci ze Stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane Staraniem i Nakladem Polskiej Spolki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909, p. 139. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.

Stanislaw Slisz,

Stanislaw Slisz. Polak Amerykanski Press. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Ksiega Pamiatkowa, Zlotego Jubileuszu Osady Polskiej i Parafji Sw. Stanislawa, B. i M. w Buffalo, New York, 1873-1923. [Buffalo, N.Y.] Nakladem Komitetu Wydawniczego [1923], p. 97. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.

Stanley Lipowicz

Stanislaw (Stanley) K. Lipowicz. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album Pamiatkowe i Przewodnik Handlowy : Osady Polskiej w Miescie Buffalo, z Dolaczeniem Okolicznych Miejscowosci ze Stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane Staraniem i Nakladem Polskiej Spolki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909. p. 141. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.


Lipowicz Wholesale Grociery - est. 1895

Lipowicz Wholesale Grocery - est. 1895. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album Pamiatkowe i Przewodnik Handlowy : Osady Polskiej w Miescie Buffalo, z Dolaczeniem Okolicznych Miejscowosci ze Stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane Staraniem i Nakladem Polskiej Spolki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909. p. 143. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.


The Nowak Elevator Company

Nowak Elevator Company. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album Pamiatkowe i Przewodnik Handlowy : Osady Polskiej w Miescie Buffalo, z Dolaczeniem Okolicznych. Miejscowosci ze Stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane Staraniem i Nakladem Polskiej Spolki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909. p. 279. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.


Other businesses that began operation included:

Francis Jelinski—dairy and creamery
Anthony Antoszewski—furniture
Fronczak & Smyczynski—tailoring
Henry Shunck—watch repair
Przewozniczek Bros.*—professional photography

The Broadway Market—Est. 1894
Polish Savings and Loan— Est. 1900

Workers in the Schreiber Brewery

Workers in the Schreiber Brewery. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album Pamiatkowe i Przewodnik Handlowy : Osady Polskiej w Miescie Buffalo, z Dolaczeniem Okolicznych Miejscowosci ze Stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane Staraniem i Nakladem Polskiej Spolki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909. p. 294. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.

The early Broadway Market - Est. 1894

The early Broadway Market - Est. 1894. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album Pamiatkowe i Przewodnik Handlowy : Osady Polskiej w Miescie Buffalo, z Dolaczeniem Okolicznych Miejscowosci ze Stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane Staraniem i Nakladem Polskiej Spolki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909. p. 295. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.



Polonia and Politics

"The early Polish immigrant to Buffalo had little opportunity to participate actively in local politics. They were handicapped by their lack of knowledge of the English language and especially by their lack of American education. ...most of all, they were strangers to the American system of government and did knot know or understand American politics."9

The Polish Democratic Club (Klub Polsko-Demokratyczny) was formed by local Polish leaders John Gosielewski, James M. Rozan, Jacob Johnson (Jasiak) and K. Binkowski in an attempt to unite Poles in support of Democratic candidates.10 Their efforts were successful, for in 1892 Rozan was elected supervisor of the 5th Ward, the first Pole to hold elective office in Buffalo.

Besides the Polish Democrat Club, there formed the Old Settlers' Club, a republican organization influential in the election of Frank A. Gorski, to the city's Board of Councilmen. These political clubs, as well as the numerous Polish organizations, helped immigrants to become acclimated to American systems while still allowing for social and cultural ties to Poland. Fr. Pitass supported these efforts calling for Poles to vote and to seek higher education. 11

James M Rozan

Jakob (James) M. Rozan. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Ksiega Pamiatkowa, Zlotego Jubileuszu Osady Polskiej i Parafji Sw. Stanislawa, B. i M. w Buffalo, New York, 1873-1923. [Buffalo, N.Y.] Nakladem Komitetu Wydawniczego [1923], p. 120. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.

Jacob Johnson (Jasiak)

Jacob Johnson (Jasiak). Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album Pamiatkowe i Przewodnik Handlowy : Osady Polskiej w Miescie Buffalo, z Dolaczeniem Okolicznych Miejscowosci ze Stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane Staraniem i Nakladem Polskiej Spolki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909, p. 73. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.

Franciszek (Frank) A. Gorski. Photo credit: Unidentified. Source: Album Pamiatkowe i Przewodnik Handlowy : Osady Polskiej w Miescie Buffalo, z Dolaczeniem Okolicznych Miejscowosci ze Stanu New York. Buffalo, N.Y. : Wydane Staraniem i Nakladem Polskiej Spolki Wydawniczej, 1906-1909, p. 75. Courtesy of the University at Buffalo - University Libraries Polish Collection.


By the early 1900's Buffalo's Polish-Americans were no longer dormant in politics, although the community was still socially isolated. They would face many obstacles both prejudicial and economic. However, Polonia's settlers and their descendants would come to be one of the largest and most influential communities in Buffalo during the 20th century.


References:

  1. Ann T. Skulicz. Rise of the Buffalo "Polonia", 1887-1900. Unpublished thesis-University of Buffalo, 1951.
  2. Ibid, p. 42.
  3. Eugene Edward Obidinski. Ethnic to status group : a study of Polish Americans in Buffalo. Unpublished dissertation--State University of New York at Buffalo, 1968, cited in Stanislawa Tillson, Transformation of the Polish Sub-Community in Western New York : the Case of Buffalo. Unpublished dissertation -- Uniwersytet Warszawski, 1976, p. 10.
  4. Stephen Gredel. People of Our City and County. Buffalo. N.Y.: Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, 1971, pp. 9-12, cited inTillson, p. 12.
  5. Niles Carpenter, Nationality, Color and Economic Opportunity in the City of Buffalo. Published under the direction of the Committee on publications, on the Roswell Park publication fund of the University of Buffalo, in cooperation with the Inquiry. New York : [1927], p. 125, in Skulicz, p. 37.
  6. Skulicz, p. 40.
  7. Carpenter, p. 133.
  8. Canisius College had been founded by Swiss and German Jesuit priests. Since many of the classes were taught in German, students like Fronzcak and Pitass had to know 3 languages—English and German in addition to their native Polish.
  9. Tillson, p. 20.
  10. Rosemary Switala. The Political Growth and Development of the Polish Community in Buffalo. Unpublished A.M. thesis, State University of New York at Buffalo, 1963, p. 18, cited in Tillson, p. 21.
  11. Tillson, pp. 22-23.

* Sincerest thanks to Ms. Pauline Nowak for updated unformation on the Przewozniczek Bros. In many contemporary sources, the name is incorrectly spelled "Przewoznik."