Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
Polishville — New Leaders and a New Era
Courtesy of Konrad Sadkowski
Mar. 30, 2023 12:15 am, Updated: Apr. 2, 2023 5:11 pm
[Editor’s note: The following is a history of Polishville in Jefferson County submitted by Konrad Sadkowski, who teaches in the History Department at the University of Northern Iowa, and is from Poland.]
In 1882-1883, one hundred and forty years ago, carpenters and other craftsmen were busy completing the construction of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, about five miles south of Brighton in southeastern Iowa. This was a distinctly Polish-language church in what had, or would soon, become known as Polishville. A parish rectory was added around 1890 to accommodate the now resident Polish pastors. Over the previous generation the number of Poles in the area grew significantly and by 1878 they received permission from the Bishop of Dubuque to break away from their German neighbors’ mission church in Germanville (hence, Polishville, though this rural settlement never acquired a formal name, as Germanville did).
According to the 1856 Iowa Census, three Polish families lived clustered near each other in Walnut Township of Jefferson County — the “Lissy,” “Casky” (Caska/Kaska), and “Lamansky” (Lamanski) families. They were not in the 1854 Iowa Census. Albert Koscisko (Kasowski) arrived in 1856, apparently after the census was taken, and joined them. Though the three families in the 1856 Iowa Census were listed as being “Prushian” (i.e., from Prussia), in the 1860 U.S. Census these families, along with Albert’s and now also his brother Paul’s, were listed as being from “Poland.” Clearly, these early settlers thought of themselves as Poles. It is important to note here that the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was divided up by Prussia, Russia, and Austria in the late eighteenth century and a new Poland was created only in 1918, making these settlers’ declaration that they were from Poland that much more poignant.
Just why these three Polish families left partitioned Poland and eventually came to southeastern Iowa, likely together, is unclear (at least two of the families first briefly lived in Pennsylvania where Cathrine [sic] Lissy and John Lamansky were born). Maybe they knew each other or were from the same locale in Prussia, had political motives, could purchase land, or a combination of these or still other factors. Whatever the reasons, other Poles followed these families and in the 1860s-1870s the Polish population steadily grew. In 1881 a visiting Polish priest noted that there were sixty local Polish families.
With the construction of St. Mary’s, Polishville as a distinct ethnic Polish rural settlement thrived, the only one of its kind in Iowa it appears, the Polish church now being its heart. It is unclear if the Poles ever established any shops or stores in their midst; it is likely that the businesses in Brighton, Fairfield, Pleasant Plain, East Pleasant Plain, and Germanville sufficed. Eventually, however, by the early twentieth century the replenishment of assimilating Poles by immigrant Poles slowed and ended and Polishville, with fewer and fewer speakers of the Polish language, moved in the direction of a Polish heritage rural settlement. St. Mary’s itself ceased to be the focal point of Polishville — the period of resident Polish pastors finally ended in 1930 and the doors of St. Mary’s church closed for good in 1945.
The following years were not kind to St. Mary’s. Photographs in a 1967 article in the Des Moines Register showed the dilapidated interior of the church, including scattered empty beer cans left by vandals. And then came an all-consuming fire on July 15, 1971, whose 50th anniversary recently passed.
Polishville could simply have slipped into history at this point, but the cemetery at St. Mary’s still remained, and a number of descendants of the early Polish settlers were determined to maintain it and keep their heritage and memory of their ancestors alive. In 1978 the Polishville Cemetery Association was founded, with officers Frank Drish, President; Bill Peck, Vice President; Darlene Baldosier, Secretary; and Esther Peck, Treasurer. In 1982 a grotto devoted to the Virgin Mary was built at the entrance of the burned down St. Mary’s to commemorate the church’s 100th anniversary. And in 1988 the Polishville Community Center was built — and soon after greatly expanded — with the Esther Johanna Peck Museum attached to the community center in 1995.
Bill Peck emerged as a tireless leader in maintaining Polishville, with the assistance of many others, far too many to acknowledge by name here, though Theresa Mottet as longtime assistant to Bill Peck and newspaper chronicler of Polishville is important to note. Individuals with no Polish heritage were among the many contributors and volunteers over the years. And as faith was the cornerstone on which St. Mary’s was built and early Polishville thrived, so it was a central component in the continuation of Polishville — occasional Catholic masses returned, at first outdoors and then in the community center, with individuals of any denomination and ethnic background welcome to attend them and all other events at Polishville.
This new and vibrant era of Polishville that commenced in 1978 was funded through donations, annual bazaars, bingo luncheons, raffles, and many polka dances at the community center. At their height, the summer annual bazaars drew 350-400 people, and the dances 150 or more, with people coming from as far away as Des Moines, the Quad Cities, and Missouri and Illinois.
But a gradual decline began to set in as the new millennium arrived. Already in November 1998 Bill Peck wrote in one of his newsletters to “Descendants, Relatives, and Friends” of Polishville that those who ran it and volunteered there were getting older. As the age of attendees at Polishville’s main events — the polka dances and bazaars — also rose, so their attendance at these events declined. The August 2018 bazaar was canceled due to a lack of volunteers, and one was not planned for 2019. That April Bill Peck wrote that “Our regular crowd [at the polka dances] continues to drop due to age, sickness, and death!”
Then, less than a year later, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon Polishville a deep “pause” and a lingering question: Will Polishville’s polka dances, and possibly annual bazaars, resume? That is still an open question. What is certain is that today there are only a few members of the oldest generation of Polishville descendants, now in their 80s and 90s, and they are far too old to organize the events they helped pioneer. Bill Peck himself turned 94 last August.
If the first era of Polishville began with three Polish families settling in Jefferson County in the mid-1850s and culminated with the construction of St. Mary’s church in 1882-1883; the second saw a distinctly Polish language community increasingly Americanize and drift away from St. Mary’s by 1945; and the third era ended with the fiery destruction of the church in 1971; the fourth now seems to have concluded due to the toll of aging, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit the elderly the hardest.
It has taken a few years, but several members of a younger generation have stepped forward with the goal of reviving Polishville and propelling it into a new era of activities and public outreach. The new officers of the Polishville Association Board of Directors are: Bob Mosinski, President; Dave Shemanski, Vice President; Dennis Drish, Treasurer; and Susan Hervey, Secretary. John De Taeye, a descendant of the Benda family, Czechs who lived amongst the early Poles, is also a very active member of the board, as is Deb Drish Swartzendruber.
These new leaders want to preserve the unique heritage of Polishville and the memory of its ancestors. They are determining what type of events Polishville will host, with an important goal being to include youth in different ways. As well, they recognize that Polishville will have to move into the digital age to most effectively communicate with and attract as broad an audience as possible. A website is coming. Two events that are already planned are, first, an open house on Sunday, June 25, 1-3 p.m., for people to acquaint — or reacquaint — themselves with Polishville; and second, a celebration at Polishville on Oct. 21-22, 2023, to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the formal dedication of St. Mary’s church in 1883. Further information on these events is forthcoming.
However, for Polishville to thrive in the future, more than a handful of activists will be needed; volunteers for its different future events will be essential. Please contact Polishville’s new leaders at the contact information below to add your name to a list of possible future volunteers for Polishville events. Also, whether you can volunteer or not, contact Susan Hervey, or any of the new leaders, to be placed on a distribution and email list to receive Polishville updates and newsletters.
Two more thoughts on the future of Polishville. One of its treasures is the Esther Johanna Peck Museum, a repository that documents the heyday of Polishville and St. Mary’s, and reveals the determination of the descendants of the early settlers to keep the memory of Polishville alive. Should you have any artifacts or memorabilia related to the origins or development of Polishville — letters, photographs, items brought from Poland, etc. — please preserve them. The museum and community center are undergoing some renovation and once this is complete, a call will go out for artifact donations to the museum.
Second, because the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all fundraising activities that Polishville relied on to survive, especially the polka dances, Polishville funds are very low. Please consider making a financial contribution to Polishville. Give as generously as you can to fund the maintenance of its various components — the community center, museum, grotto, cemetery, and grounds. Contact your bank on how to forward electronic donations and send them to: Polishville Association Inc., c/o Federation Bank, 300 S. Iowa Avenue, Washington, IA 52353; and please send your checks to: Polishville Association, Inc., c/o Dennis Drish, 2450 Sockum Ridge Rd., Washigton, IA, 52353. The Polishville Association is a nonprofit organization, so your donations will be tax-deductible. Please pass along this fundraising appeal to the younger generations of Polishville descendants you may be in contact with, wherever they may live.
Polishville as a Polish rural settlement in Iowa is special and unique, its origins dating to the mid-1850s. For context, the oldest recognized permanent Polish settlement in the United States is Panna Maria ("Virgin Mary”), Texas, that dates to December 1854. Polishville cannot compare to the 150 or so Polish immigrants that settled in Texas at that time, but Polishville’s origins, dating to the mid-1850s, are undeniable. That Polishville has never been a formally-named entity, but has long made its presence visible as a Polish and Polish-American community, makes it that much more remarkable. It is important to understanding the settlement of Iowa and its early history as a state, the history of Poles in America, as well as the power of tradition and memory.
Please contact the new Polishville leadership at:
John De Taeye:
Deb Drish Swartzendruber