Wheeling’s Polonia puts West Virginia’s Polish Community in Focus

Thinking of early 20th century Polonia in America conjures images of bustling neighborhoods teeming with new immigrants, crowded tenement houses, church steeples and factory smokestacks. Such Polish enclaves could be found in numerous U.S. cities at the turn of the century, usually clustered around booming industrial plants which they powered with their labor. Although places like Chicago and New York became epicenters of Polish immigration, large cities were by no means representative of the entire Polonia experience at that time.

In Wheeling’s Polonia: Reconstructing Polish Community in a West Virginia Steel Town, William Hal Gorby seeks to reframe smaller urban communities as equally important to understanding the Polish emigre experience. “Given that most Americans did not live in cities over several hundred thousand people,” he argues, “turning our attention to smaller urban locals dramatically alters our understanding of the lived experiences of working-class immigrants.” With this guiding aim, Hal Gorby takes readers on a fascinating journey through nearly 50 years of rich Polonia history in Wheeling, West Virginia.

To the casual observer, West Virginia is hardly a place associated with Polonia. A rugged Appalachian region, it was an agricultural state at the turn of the century, with a predominantly rural, protestant population living in small communities sprinkled throughout its numerous valleys. However, the industrial northern panhandle, situated along the Ohio River, was different. In close proximity to manufacturing centers like Pittsburgh, and with the river as a means of transportation, the hamlets here quickly developed into centers of industry, powered by the coal from surrounding mines.

Through in-depth research carried out over the course of a decade, Hal Gorby presents a comprehensive picture of a Polish community in Wheeling as it established itself, overcame numerous obstacles, and prospered. While the individual members of Polonia were attracted to the area by its plentiful jobs in local furnaces, factories and coal mines, it was the Church of St. Ladislaus which they built that grouped the Polish immigrants together and formed the nucleus of their community. Under the steady leadership of Father Musial, who was pastor of the parish from its inception in 1902 until 1961, St. Ladislaus served as the spiritual and social center of the Polonia, and helped to shape its identity. From processions and picnics to weddings and funerals, the parish was a convener and conduit to expressions of “Polishness” in the community. Hal Gorby expertly conveys to readers the multifaceted role that the parish played in the life of Wheeling’s Polonia.

Over the course of nine chapters readers learn about how Polonia in Wheeling dealt with grief and hardship, wartime mobilization, labor strikes, economic downturns, poverty, nativism, prohibition, and assimilation over the years. And while the people and places described in Wheeling’s Polonia are unique to the upper Ohio River Valley, the forces the book explores affected Polish communities large and small across the United States. This makes Hal Gorby’s work a fascinating read even for those who have never stepped foot in the Mountain State.

There are surely many other small and mid-sized Polonia’s that have been overshadowed by larger neighbors and still await a comprehensive accounting, places like my native Bayonne, NJ. While Wheeling has some unique characteristics, being that it was a mostly urban, industrial, Catholic community in a state that was otherwise not; its Polish history, as Hal Gorby has shown, is absorbing, relatable, and no less worthy of documenting than that of larger metropolises. Wheeling’s Polonia established fraternal lodges and joined labor unions, set up small businesses, bought liberty bonds and sent their sons to war, including 56 men who joined the Polish Haller Army during World War I. While St. Ladislaus closed 25 years ago and the factories that surrounded it have long been shuttered, Wheeling’s Polonia is fortunate to have this work to tell its history, a history as Hal Gorby puts it, “of ordinary people.”

This article was published in the December 2020 edition of the Polish American Journal