Brian Jacobson
Deep-Fried Romantic

Amongst Kaszubes

By - Aug 11th, 2010 06:57 am

This is not an article about low culture people.

Instead, it’s an article about how a misbegotten people came to Milwaukee from the Baltic Sea region of Poland and Germany, lived peacefully as simple fishermen (while often being considered low class by mainlanders), until 50 years later the 1,800 residents were systematically kicked off Jones Island and dispersed into the south side communities.

The final Kaszubian citizen to vacate in 1943 was named Capt. Felix Struck. The 74-year-old tavern owner (fish fries and taverns were a popular tourist attraction to Jones Island in the 1900s) was the first child born on the island, and six months after his eviction he was dead.

In what’s likely the same spot where that tavern was razed, there is a 5000 sq. ft. piece of land with an anchor and a new willow tree that replaces the last ancient tree growing on this maze of cargo freight, salt and coal mountains, water sewage treatment center, and idle train cars.

This is Kaszubes Park, the smallest park in the City (and County) of Milwaukee system.

At this very moment, on a Saturday afternoon in early August 2010, it is filled with descendants of the Kaszubes (or, depending on what you research: Cashoub, Kaszebes, Kaszuby, Kaschubien, Kaszubia), who meet each year in a kind of family reunion. They all have different last names and occasionally nationalities, but they all have relatives who once lived on the island.

Seniors are the celebrities at the 11th Annual Kaszube Picnic, gathered round by younger generations to look at old pictures and listen to stories. One woman named Hope is particularly surrounded — she is the last child to have been born on the island.

I have crashed this party for the purpose of meeting these older folks and hearing their histories.

They are dotted with fascinating tales from Milwaukee life that has largely gone unnoticed. One woman tells stories of how her grandfather dodged swearing allegiance to the Kaiser in Germany and returned once again to Milwaukee to be a butcher. From humble and community-oriented beginnings, the Jekas would have seven grocery stores and a meat-packing plant.

Another man tells tales of his great-uncle, a tugboat captain, which leads to an eccentric man and his dog (who’s been adopted as Kaszube over the years since he’s the only one who still gets to live on the island) taking a string of picnickers over to see a trio of tugboats he operates on the harbor port.

Polka music plays gently underneath a large tent. On a nearby spit, dozens of chickens rotate and roast. Kids climb on the anchor. People search posters containing genealogies and past picnics for relatives passed. It’s really an All-American picnic.

This is a kind of call-to-arms to publishing companies like Arcadia, who in recent years produced a long string of light books telling the history and showing photos from niche neighborhoods like Brady Street and Bronzeville. The Kaszubes at this party are not well-connected on the Internet, and the detailed yet entertaining stories of life in exile off the island may soon go away if not captured.

You don’t have to risk the tire damage and federal authorities by venturing onto Jones Island to visit and appreciate the park. This year, a plaque was put up where Greenfield Avenue ends and the Kinnickinnic River begins (outside the UWM Water Institute).

When I visited it after the party, I interrupted a middle-aged couple making out.

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