The Kashubes’ Polka Picnic
The annual picnic celebrates the 73 years (until 1943) that these Polish ancestors lived on Jones Island.
They come from miles around, some from as far as Utah, to celebrate a lost fishing village on Jones Island that existed roughly between 1870 until 1943. Kaszube’s Park is the smallest official park in the city, a patch of grass with a willow tree and a giant ship anchor, deep within the railyards and salt mountains that make up the landscape of what is now a peninsula under the city’s control and best known for the MMSD water reclamation facility at the northern end almost underneath Hoan Bridge.
The annual picnic celebrates heritage. Family members with nametags that often say Konkel, Tessler, Lenz, Jenka, Lierman, Bialk, Blach and Kolp gather around in lawn chairs and roast chicken on long spits while the Brewhouse Polka Kings perform. They are armed with folders full of photos, family trees and map plats displaying the exact locations of known families that settled on the island as fishermen.
The Kashubes are a West Slavic ethnic group from Pomerelia in north-central Poland near present-day Gdansk. More precisely, many of the attendees like to trace their roots back to a long, thin peninsula that hangs out onto the Baltic Sea.
When Jacob Muza decided that the heavily-wooded island off Milwaukee’s Harbor felt very much like home and found it rich with giant whitefish and other Lake Michigan hauls, families emigrated and then sponsored other families to live there. Soon the island contained a community of up to 1,800 residents. While often these people were considered “low” Poles by those on the mainland, soon they were lured by the incredible smell of fish fries and boisterous taverns on Jones Island. In the winter, long processions of Kaszubes walked or skated across the ice to attend mass at St. Stanislaus.
Unfortunately, no one bothered to buy deeds to the land and soon the city government decided they needed the island as another harbor port and water/waste treatment facility. By the 1930s, many families left the island and often became part of the Bay View neighborhoods or became farmers in places like Greenfield. The last holdout was Capt. Felix Struck, who was finally removed from his tavern in 1943. One of the attendees at this year’s picnic, Henry Kolp, said that Struck lived near them on the mainland for almost three weeks—just a few days shy of how long the Captain said he would last off-island before he died.
Kaszube’s Park marks the site where Struck’s Tavern was located, and is a space no bigger than most people’s backyard. With the help of the internet and social media, you can see along the chain-link fence photos from previous reunions as the numbers grow. As you can see from the gallery below (click on each photo for detail), these are the faces of John Konkel’s children and great-grandchildren. They are the descendants to Milwaukee’s first Post-mistress, famous fish net makers and all have great stories of their progenitors living it up and fighting for survival.
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