FIRST POLISH SETTLERS IN DETROIT Part 2 of 2
By Dr. Ludwik Gozdawa
John Lemke (nicknamed the "Patriarch") was even better known than Stanislaus Melin, and more deeply respected by the growing Polish colony in Detroit. He came from Kaszuby, near Danzing, where he was born in 1826. He was a master-tailor.
He arrived in Detroit in 1859, and appeared to have taken out his first citizenship papers on October 4th, 1850.
Accompanying him was his wife, Dorothy, who died in 1870, as well as his sister-in-law, Augusta Rohr with two cousins and three children. Alexander, the youngest child, - later a judge – was three at the time of his journey to the United States.
From their fellow travelers Lemke heard of the Leszczynskis, Melins and Mindaks, Kaminskis and Jasnowskis, earlier arrivals in this town. Mindak was Melin's cousin, a former soldier of the Polish Uprising, who settled in Detroit about 1850 and died in 1876, in a fire which broke out in his house. Jasnowski, a soldier of the Polish Legion in the Napoleonic Army, came to Detroit in 1849 according to the historian, George B. Catlin.
Let us return to the moment of his arrival, of which some rather charming reports have reached us. When the Lemke family found Clinton Street, not knowing what to do next they approached a passer-by and in German inquired about some Poles. As luck would have it the man was Mindak, Melin's brother-in-law. At once he took the newcomers to the lodgings of the three unmarried Poles who were all tailors.
The Detroit paper "Swoboda" (Freedom), founded in 1896 by Dr. Ilowicki, first, as a weekly, then transformed into a daily, thus described this surprise visit:
"It is hard to describe the joy of these three young men, not so much at the arrival of the Lemke family, as the sight of a young girl of marriageable age. This was e first unmarried Polish girl they saw in America. They shouted to Lemke in unison:
"Give her to me!"
"No, give her to me!"
"I'll take her"...
"Stanislaus Melin was the lucky young man who conquered the lovely Miss Augusta Rohr's hand."
Father Kruszka, the eminent writer and philosopher of the Polish colony, makes the following remarks, full of deep, sociological importance:
"This Polish wedding laid the foundation stone for future Parish Council. Since marriage is the oldest of all human ties, it is the oldest of all parish units. With out Polish marriages no Polish parish council would exist. Mixed marriages killed the Polish character of the Polish political emigration. Polish marriages saved the national character of the Polish peasant emigration since they were the nucleus of the Polish parishes, Polish schools, Polish associations, and of the Polish press - of all these four pillars of the Polish emigration. . ." (See: Fr. W. Kruszka, "History of the Poles in America," Vol. 1, enlarged and corrected edition. Milwaukee, 1937.)
There must have been an increasing number of weddings such as that of Stanislaus Melin and Augusta Rohr. Many Polish immigrants were arriving in Detroit at that time. The newcomers were generally accustomed to meet on Sundays at the German Roman Catholic Church of St. Joseph's on Gratiot, where all the Poles congregated for services, knowing some German, or perhaps because this church was the closest to their homes.
There were, in Detroit, besides the Jasnowskis, Leszczynskjs, Kaminskis, Melins, Lemkes, and Mindaks, Albert Lorkowski and his brother-in-law, Stanislaus Swiatek; Charles and Francis Rohr; John and Martin Kulwicki; Stanislaus Zientarski; Maximilian Zietek; Leon Wolanski; John Gora; the Szpigiel family; John Laza; four Strzyzewski brothers; two Szafrans, and three Ostrowskis.
Following them, before 1870, the following Poles arrived here:
Hildebrands - one of whom married John Lemke's daughter - the Szymanski's, Jablonskis, Bialkas, Rojewskis, Jerewski, Trepas, Goras, Kopydlowskis, Elwarts, etc.
About 1870 as many as 300 Polish families were in Detroit, and possibly even more. Thus the number was sufficiently large to justify their intention of founding their own parish.
John Lemke lived on St. Antoine Street near Macomb. He chose this particular spot because it was close to St. Mary's Church and he could listen to the church bells ringing every day.
Soon after he settled, he established a tailor shop with Conrad Hoetzger, a Detroit German, as partner at Gratiot and St. Antoine.
Two years later he was elected chairman of the first Polish Society, The Brotherhood of St. Stanislaus Kostka. When the Brotherhood decided to build a church of their own Lemke purchased a lot at St. Aubin and Willis, near the site intended for the construction of the church. Here he built a house and established an excellent store which became the first Polish grocery in Detroit, and the first Polish shop in town. It has, subsequently been transformed into a hardware store which still exists, as a property of the Lemke family.