By Maggie Snyder, for Vicksburg Historical Society
Immigration has been a major source of population growth and cultural change throughout much of this country’s history. Nowhere was it more evident than in Vicksburg during the early 1900s.
Lee Paper Company was founded here in 1903 to produce high-quality rag-content paper at a time when other paper mills then operating in the Kalamazoo Valley were all producing lesser- quality, cellulose-based paper.
Once the mill was nearing completion in 1904, Mill Manager Charles Seitz began looking for the workers needed to make the mill operational. We don’t know why Polish immigrants were targeted, but history suggests possible reasons.
The early 1900s saw a tidal wave of Polish heading to America due to years of religious and cultural persecution. Many Polish immigrants ended up in Chicago and soon proved themselves to be a hard-working, resilient, family-oriented people.
As Mr. Seitz had contacts in other mills employing the Polish, he was aware of their reputation. So he reached out to their community, hoping to encourage 50 to 100 girls and women to work in the new Vicksburg mill’s rag room. Five young ladies took him up on his offer.
By December of 1905, all departments of the mill were filled with workers. Most of them by that time were Polish – encouraged by those original five girls. Mill management encouraged workers to let their relatives in Poland know about the good jobs available here; they felt this was the best way to develop a reliable, stable work force.
For a while, night classes were held at the mill to teach the newcomers to read, write and speak English. To help ease the sudden housing shortage in the community, the mill built some low-rent housing close to the mill.
As there was no Catholic Church in Vicksburg and most of the Polish were Catholic, Mass was held in a room in the mill, officiated by the priest from Mendon. Because the company realized having a real church was important to their workers, the mill donated land and helped raise funds for the construction of Vicksburg’s first Catholic Church, St. Martin’s, on West Prairie Street. It was dedicated on Sunday, February 25, 1906.
In a 1983 interview with Bonnie Holmes, Mike Semenczuk, mill employee and Polish immigrant, remembered, “Gradually the townspeople came to know the immigrants and appreciate them…. It was a long time, though, before the Poles became completely assimilated. This was partly from choice. They were proud of their heritage and tried to instill that in their children.”
In many ways, the Polish community was like an enlarged family. Since almost all the younger men and women worked in the mill, it fell to the elderly to look after pre-school children. “If you didn’t have an older person living in your home,” Semenczuk explained, “the children went over to someone else’s house. A grandparent was a grandparent to everyone.”
Of course, over time, the Polish melted into the community – though it was not always easy. Stories of fights between teenage boys and unflattering nicknames abounded, as usually happens when something “different” is introduced into a community.
But for many years, the Polish managed to keep many of their unique traditions alive.
However, in the same 1983 interview, Mrs. Holmes asked Mary Grubka Makowski if her family still followed any of the old Polish traditions. Mrs. Makowski replied, “No…when the younger generation started growing up, they just went by the wayside. I don’t know, they kinda frowned –n it. They considered themselves Americans.”
The descendants of these Americans of Polish descent – Stafinski, Gembis, Wesoloski, Sikorski, Skrzypek, Ramza, Rapacz, and many more – are still contributing to our culture today, and so are the mill buildings where their ancestors first learned to be Americans.