With dreams of a better life for themselves and their families, Polish immigrants began arriving in Port Washington in the 1870’s, most of them coming through Ellis Island. Sailing into New York Harbor, they got their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty, and envisioned what it signified: a new life in a new land, the opportunity to better their lives, and those of their children. The United States would offer these weary travelers an outstretched hand to fulfill their dreams of living in a land of freedom and democracy.
Men were lured by the availability of work in the sand mines along the shores of Hempstead Harbor and Manhasset Bay. Polish immigrants had an enormous impact on the growth and development of Port Washington in the beginning of the 20th Century. For almost 80 years, Polish laborers shoveled the 21,000-year-old glacial sand, mostly by hand. The fine, white sand-a perfect mix of coarse and fine grains-made the cement that built New York City’s skyscrapers, subways, and sidewalks. Sand had to be dug by hand, with picks and shovels. The men worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, for minimal pay. Living conditions were extremely primitive, and immigrants usually found themselves in company housing or boarding houses. Each worker endured these hardships in order to fulfill his dream to bring his family, or his intended, to America. Since there was very little heavy-duty earth-moving equipment, mining was difficult and dangerous. Safeguards were almost nonexistent; cave-ins and accidents were frequent and unfortunately almost always fatal. There were unions or workers’ organizations, where workers could register grievances, even when it came to personal safety.
By 1889, the railroad had come to Port Washington, and the Great Estates on Cow Neck were being built, providing Polish immigrants with jobs as gardeners, landscapers, laborers, and overseers. While household help usually lived on estate property, many of the workers lived in Port Washington. They lived near an estate called Hicksville, named for the gentlemen who, at one time, owned this property. This area encompassed Avenues A, B, and C, and adjacent streets. Most workers commuted by railroad to jobs on the Whitney and Payson estates in Manhasset; others would take the trolley to jobs in Glen Cove, and estates on Long Island’s Gold Coast.
Like any other ethnic group in a new land, Polish people sought comfort and reassurance with their own community. Thus, they established church and cultural/fraternal social organizations. This kept them in touch with their cultural roots, and gave them the opportunity to teach their children-especially those born in the United States-the rich Polish cultural heritage of their fathers and grandparents.
The Polish American Citizens Association Inc., of Port Washington, New York, was founded on December 1, 1933, and granted a Charter of Incorporation by the State of New York on April 13, 1934. Originally called the Polish Immigrants Society, the members held their first meeting at 11 Orchard Place, Port Washington, in what was then a bakery. The purpose of this association, as stated in the Constitution and bylaws, “is to bring together the poles residing in Port Washington and the vicinity, regardless of political party affiliation, to form one body, to support each other in obtaining equality with other nationalities, to become acquainted with one another, to promote social and cultural interests and to afford opportunities for healthful, beneficial, and harmless recreation and amusement.” The organization provided assistance to Poles who needed assistance in citizenship and immigration matters. Translators were available where needed.
The first President of the newly formed organization was Benjamin Rogozenski, who served from 1933 through 1939 and again in 1949. He along with John Borkowski, Alex Budney, John Wilczek, and Vincent M. Gostowski were selected as members of the Board of Directors until the first Annual Meeting was to take place.
The first women’s organization “St. Teresa’s Society” was formed in 1933. It was the unofficial job of this organization to cook and serve meals to the men donating their time and effort who were working at the club. The first official function held at the newly organized club was to welcome in the New Year in 1935. The ladies of this society were instrumental in the success of this affair. Monthly membership meetings were held. Sons and daughters of members waited anxiously for their 18th birthday, so they could officially join. Not only was St. Teresa’s Society membership growing, but the club expanded its activities as well. A Polish Supplementary school for children, a school for those wishing to learn English, and classes preparing for examinations for American citizenship were established.
By 1937, a new location had to be found to house the increasing membership, and activities. In the same year, two acres of land was purchased and a new headquarters for the organization came to be. The new location at 5 Pulaski Place, Port Washington, NY was more than just a building; it was a labor of love on the part of all members. This new home served as the prime location for social activities within the membership and the surrounding community.
In 1947, the female members of the organization wanted a more distinctive voice in the operation of the organization. Thus, the Women’s Auxiliary was formed. The organization being relatively new needed many material additions. Thanks to the Auxiliary, a new dinner service, cutlery, glassware, and kitchen utensils were purchased. It was through their efforts that children of school age, dressed in Polish ethnic costumes, participated in community activities. Assisting those in need is part of the fiber of all members of this proud organization.
In 1953, again with volunteer help, the existing club at 5 Pulaski Place was renovated to twice the size of the original building. There is a dance area in the middle of the floor, the ceiling was painted blue and adorned with silver stars, hence the name the “Starlight Ballroom.” In 1960, applications for membership were extended to Poles who did not live in Port Washington area. Currently, there are over 175 members of the organization. In some cases, membership in one family has stretched over three generations!
For many years, the organization has assisted other Polish-American groups in achieving their missions. This was the case with, and the first home of, the Polish American Museum, now located at 16 Belleview Avenue, Port Washington, NY. The Americanetts and the General Pulaski Foundation also called 5 Pulaski Place its home.
In 1994, the Women’s Auxiliary joined the men’s organization making the transition one solid unit. A new slate of officers was selected as the Board of Directors with both men and women. The club established an annual fund-raiser for Scholarships to be presented to worthy Polish American high school students who are college bound. The Polish American Museum, The General Pulaski Foundation along with AMPOLA also presents their scholarships at our club.
In 2002, the organization had a name change from The Polish American Citizens Association to PACA, Inc. (dba) Polish American Cultural Association.
One of the organizations’ most successful social events is our annual Miss Polonia Pageant, where young ladies of Polish decent come together for a very special evening. One young woman is selected to represent Port Washington at an annual banquet at the Marriott hotel in Manhattan and the annual Pulaski Day Parade, which is held on the first Sunday of every October. The Pulaski Day Parade pays homage to Count Casmier Pulaski who, during the American Revolution, joined colonial forces and organized his own Calvary command to fight valiantly until the British attack on Savannah, GA., where he was mortally wounded in October of 1779.
The members of the organization proudly march up 5th Avenue, carrying the Stars and Stripes and the White and Red flag for the Pulaski Day Parade. The young lady chosen at our Miss Polonia Pageant and our Marshall also parade with the group each October. After the parade, buses bring the marchers home to Port Washington, where dinner is served, which is prepared by the ladies of the club. It never fails, at least one member “just happens to have” his accordion in the trunk of his car, and songs bring an end to a glorious day!
Today, the descendants of those early Polish immigrants still live in Port Washington, and this town is a better place thanks to those brave Polish souls who dreamed, had great faith in God, came to a new land, endured, worked, and became part of the mosaic that was, and still is, Port Washington, New York.